The Ben Evans Column: A bad day at Spa

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps, start, 2007 | GEPA / Mattias KniepeissF1 has dominated the front and back pages over the past two weeks for all the wrong reasons – spying, bribery, cheating, what the FIA will do with the fine? (how about donating it to charity?).

Lost in the maelstrom of McLaren discontent have been the Italian and Belgian Grands Prix – the latter of which, despite its stunning location, would rank highly for excitement.

Marvel as Alonso and Hamilton go side by side into Eau Rouge and settle back for two hours of channel flicking between the F1 and Rugby World Cup (the what? – ed.).

Unlike Hungary and Turkey, the Italian and Belgian races were run on two of F1’s ‘treasure’ circuits.

Monza is such a power circuit that whilst it does produce the odd anomalous result, it rarely produces an exceptional race. Barring Hamilton’s pass on Raikkonen, and Massa breaking down, nothing much of any note happened at the front.

On to Spa where aside from the first corner shenanigans between the McLarens (and don’t think for one second that Hamilton would have treated Alonso any different had the roles been reversed) there was little in the way of excitement to speak of. However at least at Spa you can quite contently watch cars going round the circuit in single file such is its drama – just as well in the circumstances.

F1 as a brand must surely have a lowering value with both its fan base, who are getting bored by repetitive and dull races, and, more crucially, from a business perspective. Its blue chip sponsors will be thinking long and hard about associating themsevles with a sport where battles are won in the courtroom rather than on the track.

Political intrigue and boring races are nothing new in Grand Prix racing (just try watching some of the early ’80s Silverstone GPs) but today the stakes, budgets and investments are so high that the damage is exponential.

Furthermore F1 is currently living a little on the edge, with a growing track record in regrettable incidents – 2002’s team orders fiascos in Austria and America, then the 2005 US Grand Prix fiasco, all of which were damaging for the sport.

While the spying saga brings the sport into disrepute, it also brings it onto the front pages, something that the racing hasn’t done for a number of years. It is highly likely Sunday’s TV audiences were well up following Thursday’s ruling.

From a purely personal point of view, I feel that off track intrigue can only bolster the excitement of a season, unless it results in the Championship being decided by a group of old men in Paris rather than on the circuits.

Heikki Kovalainen, Renault, Spa-Francorchamps, 2007 | Steven Tee / LAT PhotographicAs such the real damage F1 suffered in the past week was that it put on a breathtakingly dull race at its greatest circuit. The first lap aside there was no show, the outcome of the race between the top four never in doubt.

Again this is nothing new in F1 – every season had one or two races like this. The difference is that this has been the pattern for all but a couple of meetings during the 2007 season.

Overtaking has long been cited as problem, but the issue is more that the cars will struggle to run within a couple of seconds of each other. Likewise the performance differentials between each car are so marked that it is relatively easy to predict who will finish where on a week by week basis.

All this has meant that a number of ‘casual’ F1 fans that I know have now become totally apathetic to the sport. Whereas five or six years ago they would have sat down in front of the TV for two hours on a Sunday afternoon, now they may watch the first corner or scour YouTube post-race for an incidents and accidents (until FOM inevitably orders the deletion of the clips, thereby severing a precious line directly to the crucial younger audience).

Even for a dedicated fan such as myself, qualifying has become an optional extra rather than an integral part of my weekend. On Saturday I turned off after Q2 because I couldn’t be bothered to watch the fuel-burning phase of Q3.

I know a lot of my recent columns have been moans about boring races, but I feel the point needs to be reiterated. F1 2007 has been really, really dull where it matters the most – on the track.

Of course I will be watching the races in the run in to the title but it will be more out of the hope that something exciting will happen, rather than the expectation that it will.

Photo: GEPA / Mattias Kniepeiss | Steven Tee / LAT Photographic

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