What F1 can learn from tennis
I’m sick and tired of politics, hence the lack of posts lately (well, and I’ve been away). So I’m going to talk about something different for a change – something radical.
F1, for as long as most can remember, has been a motor racing championship with a series of 17-19 events all counting. But it hasn’t always been like this. It’s important to differentiate between Formula 1 and the Formula 1 World Championship. F1 is just a formula, a set of rules which a car of this type should be designed to. The F1WC is a championship run to these regulations. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, even as late as 1983, there were events run to F1 regulations that weren’t part of the championship, such as the Oulton Park Gold Cup, the BRDC International Trophy and the (original) Race of Champions. For instance, in 1950, the first year of the F1WC, there were 6 championship rounds (plus the Indy 500), but there were 16 non-championship events at tracks as far-ranging as the Pedralbes street circuit in Barcelona and the Jersey Road Race in St Helier! And yes, the big teams and drivers entered them. There have been other championships run to F1 regulations, including the British F1 Championship in the late 70s and early 80s, and the South African F1 Championship held until 1975. The Tasman Cup Series in Australia and New Zealand used F1 chassis but with pre-1961 engine rules. There was even a Soviet F1 championship!
Now you may be wondering what this has to do with tennis. Well, in the world’s most popular racquet and ball sport, every tournament is essentially a stand-alone tournament. It’s the same for a lot of other popular sports too – golf has a similar format, as does snooker. Winning each tournament one by one is the main goal, not an overall championship. And they do have what is essentially a championship as well – in tennis, it’s the ATP’s ranking system. It’s just not that important in the grand scheme of things. You ask Roger Federer what was more important to him – winning Wimbledon or becoming world number 1? He achieved both, but you could easily tell he was more chuffed by winning the tournament.
This is how F1 was back in the early years. The championship didn’t matter a great deal, hence why you still had drivers like Jim Clark and Stirling Moss going off to compete in other championships and non-championship races – Clark’s exploits in the British Saloon Car Championship, rallying, NASCAR and the Indy 500 are well-documented, let alone the non-champ races and Tasman Series. But the gradual move of F1 from this to the stale corporate championship of today, where only the F1WC matters bar a couple of big races (maybe even now just Monaco) and drivers aren’t allowed to do anything outside in case they break a nail, eliminated non-championship events after 1983. The last non-championship race saw Keke Rosberg beat Danny Sullivan (then of course driving for Tyrrell in F1) in the 1983 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch.
This year, we came close to a situation where the points system would be effectively eliminated and replaced by a system that meant that the driver that won the most races would automatically be champion. It was a controversial idea but it did receive support from some quarters, as it’s quite a purist idea. I didn’t like it at first but I grew to support it, because although the classic excuse of “easing up for the championship” is, half the time, nonsense (because in a lot of cases, even if they tried they wouldn’t have caught the leader/car in front – it’s called not being fast enough), there is a definite case to be made to put a heck of a lot more emphasis championship-wise on winning races. It’s just not proportionate – a winning driver gets 2 more points than the guy in 2nd, which isn’t that much at all, and yet you look at the news coverage and the headlines will be “Driver X wins the Country Y Grand Prix”. Winning is more important – “if you ain’t first, you’re last”, as they say. However, in F1 and other modern manufacturer-orientated motor racing series, that is ignored – the most extreme example I can think of is the conclusion of the 2003 WRC, when title contender Sebastien Loeb was told to ease up because the manufacturers championship was more important to Citroen than the drivers championship!
But I’m going to go one step further than that and propose the abolition of the championship as we know it altogether, and make it more like the format of tennis. Since its reorganisation for this year, the ATP World Tour is set out as follows – there are 4 Grand Slams, 9 Masters, 11 ATP 500s, 40 ATP 250s, 115 ATP Challenger Series and 420 Futures tournaments, plus the World Tour Finals (formerly the Masters Cup) and other events. You get a different number of points and different amounts of prize money for winning a tournament of each category – winning a Grand Slam is worth 2000 points, a Masters is worth 1000, a 500 is worth 500 (really imaginative name there), a 250 is worth 250 as you’d expect, a Challenger is worth 75-125, and a Futures is worth 17-33. So a Grand Slam is 117.65 times more important than a Futures – I’d say that was about right.
So why not do something similar for F1? Firstly, replace the World Championship with a rankings system. Then, you can group the events – the “Grand Slams” could be, for argument’s sake, Monaco, France, Britain, Germany and Italy, the events with the greatest prestige. Then you have your “Masters”, including Belgium, Spain, Japan, Brazil etc., and then your “Grade 3” events like Bahrain, Malaysia, Valencia and co. In addition, tennis, you don’t enter every single tournament, and the same in other sports. Surely it would thus be a good idea to reintroduce the option to enter selected events, perhaps adding in pre-qualifying again and increasing grid sizes. This would allow smaller teams to operate within their own means – they can enter as many races as they want, from small national races where they have a decent chance of doing well to having a stab at trying to make the big races like at Monte Carlo, Monza or Silverstone. This happens in NASCAR, where you get massive entries for the Daytona 500 with less elsewhere, but local teams have a go at their own races and road course specialist drivers can enter. Or, again like NASCAR, you could even go the whole hog and have 30-40 races in a year – more races, more places. The teams won’t have to (and probably won’t) compete in all of them because it’ll only be optional. The divisions into groups would essentially mark out reasonable calendars – e.g. the top 3 groupings would have a total of about 15-20 races, maintaining the basic framework of the current calendar, which would be manageable for the top teams and drivers.
There are seemingly a few flaws to this. Firstly, would people go and watch an F1 race at Brands Hatch or Zandvoort if the likes of Ferrari and McLaren, Alonso and Hamilton weren’t taking part? Well, it’s F1 so probably some would simply because it’s F1, but obviously not if you keep charging £100 per ticket. So make it cheaper. The recent success of the Silverstone Renault weekend (World Series, Meganes, FRenault etc), where 85,000 people took advantage of free tickets and turned out, proves it can be done – and I should think it would have made a profit too, otherwise they wouldn’t have continued doing it. Quite incredible considering only one man and his dog turned up for the Turkish Grand Prix last month!
But what teams would turn up? If the big teams don’t turn up, who will? The solution is F1 will become cheaper. If you’re not racing against top quality opposition, you won’t necessarily have to build as good a car – it won’t matter if Minnows Racing have built a car that’s 5 seconds a lap slower than a Brawn because they’re not going to be racing against Brawns. And you could throw in the legalisation of customer cars like in the old national F1 series – allow the teams to buy year old top line machines from the big boys or allow them to purchase stock cars from mass producers such as Mygale and Dallara. One thing you could do to keep costs down is again something they do in tennis. In Grand Slams, each match is a best of 5 sets. In smaller tournaments, they are best of 3. Apply the same to F1 and the conclusion is – shorter races. Leave the 300 km epics for the “Grand Slam” and “Masters” races and limit them to 200 km, and cut a practice session out. It wouldn’t make a great deal of difference at the end of the day. Plus, what you would do is shift prize money from being championship-dependant to being race-dependant – in tennis, and even in NASCAR, you earn prize money through your individual race performances. In NASCAR for instance, Brad Keselowski this year is only doing a few races and will finish down the points standings, but will earn more money than some drivers above him because he won at Talladega.
But where will this sponsorship come from? Well, as long as people are watching on TV or are at the circuit, there will be sponsors about, but naturally the purse would be lower for smaller events. If prize funds were set amounts for each category of event, the rest would be topped up by the FOM, which I’m sure they would do if it meant getting better teams to race and in turn attract more spectators to spend more money on overpriced hot dogs and t-shirts. And would smaller events get coverage? Yes, everything gets TV coverage. The main broadcasters would be compelled to cover every race, even if the BBC show it on BBC3 or something like that.
You could also have an invitational race at the end of the year for race winners and the top ranked drivers/teams, say in Abu Dhabi, given that all the big glamourous events are heading to the Middle East these days. Make it a stand alone event and give it an enormous prize fund courtesy of the Arabs. And make it a night race. You could also give it a special format – divide it into heats, for instance, like the World Touring Car Cup from the 90s – and call it the World Championship Grand Prix. Given that the Yas Island circuit is looking like becoming the new benchmark for F1 venues, it would be an incredible spectacle – the best drivers and teams pitted against each other at the grandest circuit under the lights for millions of pounds. Well, it works in NASCAR…
The rankings would also essentially work like tennis. Inevitably, to give the manufacturers and sponsors some kind of measurement of performance, you would have to have a rankings system, with larger points and prize fund scales on offer for events of greater significance. You could do it in a couple of different ways. The ATP used to have 2 systems until this year – the ATP Race, a year long rankings system, and the ATP Entry Rankings, which are based on the last 52 weeks, are updated every week and are continous. The ATP Race is now gone, but there’s nothing stopping having a system like that for F1 as well as a continuous system – these would be for drivers, constructors and teams. The points system would be completely unlike what we have now – this would be a NASCAR-esque massive scale, and ideally I’d like to think there would be points for other things as well, such as leading laps, fastest laps, pole and even being fastest in practice sessions – every aspect would be covered. You would then have a few awards on offer at the end of the year – top of the “Race” rankings, top of the “Entry” rankings, and a prize for winning the most races, as well as other awards too like Rookie of the Year and awards on offer to smaller teams. These of course would be bonus cash prizes rather than just trophies, fame and honour, but not overwhelmingly big – otherwise you just end up in the same scenario as before, with drivers not going for the win because being top of the rankings is more important. The races must always take priority.
This would be great for smaller teams, to allow them to make the step up to F1 on a budget and be relatively competitive, something currently unachievable without FOTA whinging. It gives them the chance to work their way up from the bottom, instead of what would happen now – enter F1 and immediately be thrown in at the deep end, which in most recent cases (e.g. Super Aguri, Forti, Simtek, Pacific etc) has led to bankruptcy. It could also attract some other big teams that participate in other series – IndyCar teams, for instance, would perhaps be attracted to taking part in grands prix in the US and bring their big name drivers along. Penske would have a go, I’m sure, with the familiar white and red liveries and Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe onboard, up against the current F1 names at a circuit like Long Beach. The manufacturers and big teams could find it handy too – e.g. if Toyota are struggling a bit in F1 and still haven’t won yet, they could just enter themselves into the Pacific GP at Fuji, a race no big team has entered, stick 2 testers in the car, and cruise to the race win. Then they can tell the Toyota and Panasonic boards they’ve won a race, and in Japan too!
It’s good for drivers too, who will get some of the winnings themselves for winning races – like in NASCAR, the prize money would be divided fairly between the driver, team and, where applicable, constructor. The teams can pick and choose events, and rotate drivers to give reserve drivers and youngsters on their books a chance every now and again whilst resting the big guns for the big races. More young drivers would get a chance to perform in F1 machinery, which will help the cream rise to the top. More circuits can host races as well. This brings in a local element to F1 by taking the races to the fans, and will allow some of the best circuits to gain/regain F1 races again because the standards of facilities will come down. It would reattach prestige to the classic events that have lost a bit of magic in recent years, and help F1 rediscover its lost character and passion. And, best of all, we get more exciting racing, as the drivers and teams go for race wins every single time instead of accepting middling 5th places to secure points for the championship. Overall, I think it would be a much better show for the public.
Welcome to the F1 Tour – no strawberries and cream, but lots of racing. I can’t see much wrong with it in principle. I’m sure, if it was implemented, it would work, and it opens up a massive range of possibilities. But then F1 fans will always whinge about radical change. But I guess you can’t win them all…