Life in the slow lane?

Aidan Reid
Writer

“Oh my goodness!” “A hundred thousand local hearts sink!” “Lewis Hamilton is the world champion!” “Unbelievable.”

The commentators could not believe what they had just seen. Nor could any of the 9 million UK sports fans who had tuned in. The most dramatic of Formula One finales in 2008, captured the sporting imagination in a way that few would have predicted. Lewis Hamilton, the youngster from Stevenage, was in only his second year of top level racing; he went into the final day knowing that finishing 5th place would secure him the world drivers’ championship. He succeeded, but only with barely half a lap to go of the entire season, seizing the title from the home crowd favourite, Felipe Massa. The fact that it took a rival’s car breaking down did raise snide remarks about the sport being ‘all about the car’. Yet, for the drama it created, and the sheer number of people taken in by the coverage, it was one of the biggest sporting stories of the year.

Fast forward to today, and the same man is now looking likely to win a second championship. The fanfare should, by rights, be reaching a tumult. Viewing figures should be starting to increase, paper coverage likewise. I, as a casual Formula One fan, have no shame in admitting to watching any sporting climax for a chance encounter with drama. I should be preparing to go out of my way to catch the finale.

And yet, unless you paid close attention to the sport, you would not know there was a grand stand finish about to occur. It is hard to spot much in the way of coverage from newspapers. Not one of them leads on the potential for a UK champion, a gilt-edged narrative which was not refused when niche sports like Cycling gave them a similar story. Viewing figures are also down from those more idyllic days in 2008, to an average of 1.3 million viewers. This is not unique to UK sports fans either. Worldwide, viewing figures have been steadily dropping for the past 3 years, with nearly every other sport seemingly on their way to increasing their reach towards the masses.

Why, then, has there been a failure to capitalise? In the UK, much of it comes down who is showing Formula One, rather than the racing itself. Even if there were a sudden burst of interest, the coverage for the penultimate race was not on one of the ‘council tv’, free to air channels. Instead Sky, that wrecking ball of all non-English footballing sports, has exclusive coverage. To subscribe would require paying the equivalent of a Manchester United season ticket price (£550), so the closest many people could get to catching what was by all accounts an exciting instalment in Brazil was via radio coverage and highlights. This seems to be another example of sport executives chasing pots of gold from Sky in the short term, with scant regard for how to attract fans in the longer term when they cannot watch half of the races.

It goes beyond mere broadcasting issues on the global scale. The inability to participate creates an altogether different dynamic to non-motor sports. Anyone can kick a football or just about make it through the waves on a surf board. Not everyone gets to drive at over two hundred miles per hour on tracks with sharp bends and aggressive over-takers.

In part, that is what draws me to the sport: the knowledge that there is no scenario where I could do what they do. This only goes so far, though. There are also few able to afford the thousands of pounds it requires to kart professionally, the single guaranteed way for a youngster to get noticed and have a chance of racing in Formula One.

Formula One only has male drivers competing. It goes without saying that, without any female figureheads, the sport’s popularity will always be constrained. In its defence, the physical demands of Formula One are up there with the most extreme. There can be three kilograms in weight lost during one race for many drivers and with 3.5 g of force blasting against you. Susie Wolff, who participated in the practice sessions of two Grand Prix, could lead the way for more female involvement and demonstrates that it is not implausible for women to race.

Formula One, since that climax 6 years ago, could be accused of losing its way. In the global sports race, it lags far behind football. In the UK, niche sports are overtaking it in terms of big event coverage and interest. Many of the issues cannot be remedied, or at least, not without a significant subsidising of karts for aspiring young drivers. Moments like Susie Wolff’s practice run, though, show that there are small steps being taken to tackle some of the fault lines. Though such moves might see its global appeal grow, the chasing of Sky’s money will continue to harm the sport in the long term. Like Cricket and Club Rugby, interest wanes when excitable kids and adults cannot catch the key moments of a season without regular bar visits or a sky subscription. If Formula One wishes to have 9 million people in the UK on the edge of their seats again, they have to place value on these spectators ahead of the short term boost to the sport’s finances.