The Ben Evans Column – A crucial year

Mark Webber, Kimi Raikkonen, testing, Valencia, 20072007 could be F1’s most important season for decades.

With a revitalised driver market and no prospect of Michael Schumacher dominating, F1 has the opportunity to win over new fans, and bring back those that switched off in the years of Ferrari dominance.

At the same time there is a sense that the sport is abandoning its loyal hardcore following who provide the bums on seats at races, and backsides on settees for advertisers.

In short if F1 gets 2007 wrong it will have lost the chance to appeal to a new following, while irredeemably severing its relationship with the long-time fans.

Firstly, the on-track action. Let’s be honest: the past 10 years of Grand Prix racing have been rather dull, with a few exceptions – the banning of tyre changes in 2005 produced some great races and was stupidly dropped.

Once the teams mastered refuelling strategy, the races in the main have been processional sprints decided in the pits. I find them boring – and I love the sport. I can’t imagine what it has done for the casual viewer.

Contrast this with the late 1980s when I first got into F1 and you can see just how far downhill the sport has gone.

We all want 2007 to bring closer races, on-track dicing and overtaking moves throughout the race. At the very least, fans want to see cars running in close company, not separated by 1.5s as is often the case under the current aero regulations.

For a long time dull races have been blamed on Ferrari & Schumacher dominance. In 2007 there is no excuse – the show has simply got to be better.

Second – the calendar.

From a short-term business perspective, I can see the merits in taking Grands Prix to Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Malaysia etc, the fact is that this is happening at the expense of the sport’s core European market.

That the circuit in Bahrain can only hold 40,000 spectators and still doesn’t sell out strongly suggests the local market is limited. Of course it doesn’t help that local hotel owners have fleeced the few international fans that show up – something the track owners are belatedly turning their attention towards.

European rounds have struggled for race day attendances too, but this is perhaps more symptomatic of extortionate ticket prices and poor race-day packages.

In a country like Italy that sold out its Grands Prix non-stop for 50 years, low attendance is less a sign of a declining market and more a symptom of how much modern F1 has alienated its core fan base.

Fernando Alonso, Renault, Spa-Francorchamps, 2005But what many European circuits have in abundance is character. Take away Monaco, Spa and Monza – and perhaps even Silverstone (and non-European Suzuka) – and F1 loses an intrinsic part of its character.

Without them you have a series of high speed processions at exquisite, empty and anonymous autodromes which lack any notable features.

I appreciate that there must be a balance between the two, but by continually threatening to drop the likes of Silverstone from the calendar F1 is at risk of losing its most loyal followers – and its industrial base.

The continually falling attendances in Malaysia for example, suggest that the law of diminishing returns will hit the new markets, something that if it happens elsewhere (e.g. Turkey and Bahrain) could see F1 playing to empty houses, and the TV market tuning into Moto GP instead.

Honda, RA107, livery launch, 2007, 7Finally – the environment.

If, like me, you are extremely cynical about the way the environment has come to the political fore (road pricing = funding Iraq?), then F1’s knee jerk reaction to the environmental lobby could prove to be extremely ill-judged.

Honda’s ‘green’ cars, will not impress those who only have time for environmentalists when they have the chance to run them over, nor the greenie-meanies who would like to see all cars banned, or at least running on reconstituted tofu.

I imagine that F1 will move away from the ‘green’ fad fairly quickly as the interests of the oil companies are so closely linked with the sport.

So 2007 – a make or break year for F1. On one hand the on-track show must improve on regular basis, on the other the sport has to negotiate a political minefield, all the time keeping sight of why it became successful in the first place.

Could be an interesting season.

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