Formula One must find its identity after Abu Dhabi GP

Is it a sport or simply a chance for geeks to show-off what they can do with someone else’s millions?

Gregory Wilcox

Published: Updated:

The sun literally set on another Formula One season in Abu Dhabi on Sunday and after the race we were once again left asking questions that brings into question the sustainability of a sport for which entertainment seems to be optional.

Nico Rosberg came second to his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton in the UAE capital to secure his first F1 title. It should have been the cue to celebrate the German’s consistency which, more than anything (other than having the best car, more of that later…), gifted him the trophy he so craved. We were, however, left to debate the tactics of Hamilton, who, in deliberately backing up the field behind him, apparently brought F1 into disrepute.

The Briton knew he’d only win the title if he won and Rosberg came lower than third so rather than let the German’s far quicker Mercedes drive away from his rivals, Hamilton did what he had to do to make the race tighter and more competitive, in doing so increasing the possibility that the German wouldn’t coast to a championship-winning finish.

All in all, it seems a rather sensible thing to do on two levels. Sport is about two things which, when combined, explain the seduction that for many is the unique ingredient that differentiates football, rugby, tennis etc, from merely being a hobby: entertainment and competition. In deliberately driving slowly in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton was doing what he had to do in order to try and win the title and in doing so creating a spectacle and making the race interesting and competitive and not yet another Mercedes procession around the Yas Marina Circuit.

Seemingly that’s not the done thing in F1, and once again points to the identity crisis at the heart of the sport. Is it truly a spectacle of speed or rather an engineering competition on steroids? Is it a sport (both competitive and entertaining) or simply a chance for geeks to show-off what they can do with someone else’s millions (the subsequent necessary veneer of ‘cool’ added by movie stars coming to prowl the pitlane, the presence of hordes of multi-zillionaires with their ill-fitting Prada sunglasses and naff D&G loafers, and scantily clad blondes and brunettes)?

Both the reaction to Hamilton’s antics in Abu Dhabi and the many seasons preceding that race would suggest the former. This year Mercedes won 19 of 21 races. The German outfit has also won 51 of the past 59 races, and it’s the third year in a row the Silver Arrows has seen its drivers finish one-two in the championship.

Forgive me as I let out one huge YAWN.

That’s neither competitive nor entertaining and can explain why bar a few petrol heads (in the main socially awkward people for whom interaction with the rest of mankind seems optional) interest in F1 is waning. Part of the problem, unfortunately is tracks like the one where the end-of-season furor took place, Abu Dhabi.

The Yas Marina Circuit looks spectacular; from the skies it tricks you into thinking it’s a middle eastern Monaco, super yacht moored next to super yacht, a spectacular hotel that oozes money, it generally smacks of the sort of place that would entice tourists by the Etihad-plane load to visit the UAE capital, which, as luck would have it, is exactly why the Abu Dhabi hosts a Grand Prix. Unfortunately, at ground level the superlatives and golden shine aren’t as easy to find. It’s known as one of many tracks that, to put it bluntly, are plain boring, one which doesn’t encourage enough overtaking and simply adds to the dull display that F1 is fast becoming known for.

Yas Marina is one of eight on the circuit created by Hermann Tilke, the designer’s other tracks have also come in for criticism for not doing enough to create the excitement that any sport needs and thrives on. That’s a huge shame as Abu Dhabi’s track was created from scratch, with the ability to create whatever design, no matter how bonkers or radical, came into Tilke and the authorities’ minds.

Say what you want about the new gleaming, sparkling, jewel-encrusted skylines of the Gulf (and many do) but they are nothing if not different. They may not be everyone’s ideal picture-perfect vista, but they demand attention and reaction, they’re statements of what the region has become. Why wasn’t the same statement made, over and above the stunning surroundings, with the Yas Marina Circuit? It could have created a track where overtaking is the rule rather than the exception, Abu Dhabi could have been different in that it could have been known as the one place in the new F1 era (where races only go to places prepared to pay top-dollar for the rights to host a Grand Prix) where entertainment is guaranteed.

That it didn’t create a track that would have seen petrol heads around the world shake with excitement says far more about F1 than it does Abu Dhabi. It is symptomatic of a mindset in the sport that seemingly doesn’t want to do exactly what it takes to make it a true spectacle of speed again. A few years ago F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone suggested there might be races with fake rain to increase excitement. Many laughed at the idea, but, such was the levels of boredom his sport induced, others thought it wasn’t such a stupid suggestion.

Anytime you agree with bonkers Bernie you know something is wrong, but the fact the best race this year was the rain-soaked Brazilian Grand Prix says a lot for how sensible an idea it was and that being the case, just how boring and predictable F1 has become.

In so many ways events in Abu Dhabi last Sunday illustrated the sport needs to get over its identity crisis and soon. Be it with cars that aren’t so radically different from each other, new tracks that make overtaking more than a once-in-a-lifetime event or, as Bernie suggested, fake rain. Just anything to lift it from the at best humdrum event that rivals chess in the deadly dull stakes.