Lewis Hamilton can’t win. Not on the racetrack, where archrival Nico Rosberg is on a roll with six consecutive race wins in a row. Not off the racetrack, where Hamilton’s wannabe rapper lifestyle is endlessly criticised, and his ragged start to the new F1 motor racing season has seen him practically written off less than a quarter of the way through the racing calendar. Hamilton’s travails, though, are presently the only source of entertainment in yet another F1 season Mercedes are threatening to dominate. Had Lewis started his races from the front of the grid in the same imperious manner as most of last season the World Drivers’ Championship might already be over. The fans may as well have tuned out after the opening lap and tuned back in for the chequered flag and champagne wasting podium celebrations.
Still, unless you are a fan of either of the two Mercedes drivers, an internecine rivalry will hold little attraction in the absence of a realistic challenge from rival teams such as Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull and Williams. With the sport struggling to conjure up any kind of competitive drama, it is not surprising F1 has been haemorrhaging fans and receiving deserved criticism for becoming diluted from its thrilling (albeit extremely dangerous) heyday of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, sport needs rivalries to generate excitement and thrive. Unfortunately for F1, its power brokers have not so far discovered an adequate solution to its waning appeal – despite numerous fruitless attempts – and unless something is done soon to make the teams more competitive and challenge each other for both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships, then the most kamikaze mishaps of Lewis may not be enough to save the sport.
That would be a shame as motor racing is one of the few sports that Britain excels at and dominates the production of, with many of the major teams – including Mercedes – being based in Britain and making a vital contribution to the British economy. Britain needs F1 to be successful, and it doesn’t help that the sport is run by an egotistical despotic dinosaur in Bernie Ecclestone, who seems more interested in cynically extracting ever more money from obscure oil rich freedom poor autocratic regimes – Azerbaijan anyone? – and devising ever more contrived crackpot gimmicks to liven up race days. Poor leadership equals poor stewardship equals poor decision-making equals weak product. Add to that equation the short sighted decision to accept Sky’s money and take half the races off terrestrial TV, meaning those without deep pockets can’t follow the whole season, which makes it easier to lose interest, especially if the race outcome is a procession.
In a sport where money will always make the difference and single team domination is near inevitable, perhaps the only solution to achieving parity between teams is to introduce some kind of handicap system. One option that has been suggested is to reverse grid positions from one race to the next, but such a system would disincentivise drivers from winning if they had to start the following race in last place, so would probably only work if each race was split into two rounds with one normal and one reverse grid. An alternative might be to assign a time handicap to the top 10 finishing drivers in decreasing order, which they would take into the next qualifying round. The winner would carry the biggest time handicap, which would be added to his qualifying time and reduce his chances of starting first on the grid for the next race. Rival cars would thus get a precious opportunity to start the following race from the front, enabling them to get a vital head start over the faster car, which would be forced to start further down the grid. This would engender not only greater equitability, but also provide some much needed spectacle as it would necessitate plenty of overtaking from the quicker cars lower down the order. Indeed, any kind of handicap system would help prevent the single team domination that has been the blight of F1 (and many other sports), and threatens its position as an exhilarating spectator sport.
However, until (and unless) such a scheme is implemented, currently, interest in F1 depends on the reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton giving us his own version of a handicap system by allowing his teammate to get a massive head start in the Driver’s Championship (and in the process, hopefully, bringing other drivers into contention), and then slowly clawing back the deficit by pitting his boy racer instincts against his more cerebral, but also possibly more brittle, opponent and winning in a dramatic head-to-head charge at the death. Apparently no driver who has won the first 3 races of the season has failed to go on and win the Drivers’ Championship. Nico Rosberg has won the first 3 races of this season. It seems only fair that it should require the surmounting of a monumental challenge from the champion to stop F1 fans switching off completely and sending the sport into the pits.