F1 and the Entertainment Problem

The final laps of the 2022 Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix at the world famous race track in Monza raised a great deal of questions. More than anything, it put a spotlight on the differences between race fans of the old world and those of the newer age entertainment set. Long and very tired discussions of the 2021 F1 season’s conclusion reared their ugly heads, and comparisons of everything from NASCAR to professional wrestling were brought to the table. All that tedium aside, some valid points were raised from multiple angles, and it’s a good time during an otherwise predictable F1 points season to have a little chat about it. Does F1 need to readdress how races may end with a late race incident? If not, maybe we can continue the status quo. But if so, we have an even bigger job to tackle. Let’s start with what got us here.

(Sky F1)

While the 2022 F1 season is a shadow of its 2021 iteration from a Championship competition point of view, most races on the calendar thus far have still provided decent moments of entertainment and race craft. Thanks to engine regulations and all manner of strange penalties aimed at keeping costs down, qualifying grids can look vastly different from actual speed on certain weekends. While this is a question of old standards and entertainment for another discussion entirely, the side effect is to see a little more balance of competition and a LOT more passing on lower downforce tracks. That said, after all the pieces were falling into place on Sunday, double digit race winner Max Verstappen had worked his way up to a solid lead and even Ferrari was displaying some decent pit strategy for a change. Monza was finally reaching its climax before some potential late race drama came back into the fold.

Ricciardo stalled on track (Sky F1)

Daniel Ricciardo on Lap 47/53 stalled on the track with a mechanical failure, rightly requiring a full Safety Car caution. While this was certainly an unfortunate end to the struggling driver’s race, a further wrinkle from the failure caused still more misfortune to the end of the Grand Prix. Ordinarily, a stalled car could be pushed off the circuit by the corner marshalls, however Ricciardo’s McLaren was stuck in gear requiring the service of a tow crane, adding time to the requirements of a safe clean up. Hampered still further by the Safety Car picking up the wrong car requiring another whole lap of grid sorting, time was at an absolute premium. As the laps ticked off with no time to wave around the lapped cars…and with the taste in our mouths from Abu Dhabi still sickly and ashen, the race was not resumed and Max Verstappen was confirmed as the Italian Grand Prix winner.

Monza Podium

This didn’t sit right with many fans of varying generations, but for me personally this hit close to home. In the United States in particular, we’ve been conditioned to races ending with at least a solid attempt at a green flag finish. NASCAR, for better or worse, turned the exercise into a spectacle. IndyCar racing had recently made efforts to red flag races late in the going, and most fans across all racing disciplines feel disappointed when the checkered flag is waved in the shadow of a yellow. Back in Europe this sentiment was communicated almost immediately as Karun Chandhok on the Sky broadcast expressed his desire for a red flag to have stopped the race and ensured a racing finish. In F1 terms this could be compared to saying the earth was flat or that New Coke was better than Coke Classic. Pearls were clutched, torches were lit…but Chandhok raises a fair point.

NASCAR’s Battle with Entertainment (Fox Sports)

No one is looking to repeat the circumstances of Abu Dhabi 2021, at least not in the way it was executed. I’ve said from the moment it occurred last December however that it was not a choice of the FIA to manipulate a particular winner over another, but a choice to manipulate entertainment. Comparisons to NASCAR here should be brief, but the American stock car senior circuit has the greatest portfolio of twisting and bending to get a memorable conclusion…and it nearly killed all confidence in the sport in the process. Mysterious debris cautions, method after method after method of “overtime” finishes, it was a mess. I hope F1 and all parties involved take a hard look at what other motorsport series have attempted in this regard, as there’s some lessons available that we may not have to learn the hard way in F1. Let’s try to hammer out how to do this.

In our pretend environment, let us start with the baseline that the intent is to finish a Grand Prix under the green even with Safety Car deployments late in the race. For any non F1 fans reading this, let’s trim the fat and go with what we CAN’T do next. For one, extending the race is not an option without more rule changes. F1 doesn’t allow refueling during the race, and with F1’s ultra climate positive mission statements, adding more fuel just isn’t in the cards here for this problem.

Keeping the race distance also means we have to establish a firm line on when a race can be safely stopped while leaving enough time to have a restart. A standing restart is the most likely situation here to coincide with current red flag procedure, so you truly only need two laps remaining to finish (with the re-formation lap). That said, you need at least one additional lap before that to bring the field in, and maybe two laps if the exact timing and placement of the incident comes into play. With all of that into consideration, we have a nearly 5 lap window (8 laps-3 laps remaining) in which to make this call.

THE most important part of this change, should it occur, would be to remain consistent. If consistency can’t be guaranteed, ending races just like we did at Monza Sunday is the only real option. The “red-flag window” will need to be firm, communicated to everyone involved, and executed without hesitation when an incident occurs. The cynical part of me suggests that consistency and the FIA are never meant to coincide, so this plan..which we will name the Karun Chandhok Proposal, could be dead on arrival. 

While it may be a lofty pie-in-the-sky dream to all but guarantee a full racing finish to an F1 Grand Prix, one thing we can not do is look at Monza’s finish with our noses in the air. The sport has a young and engaging fanbase, and old world commitments to the “right” way of doing things can’t be a concern. We can’t unring the bell. Formula 1 and the FIA rang it loud and proud with the 2021 season finale. Entertainment and drama is what’s on the menu, and billions of people are now dining at the table. What we do have is the chance to execute an exciting change which goes hand in hand with the new image of the sport, and still leaves room to be consistent AND competitive. The self proclaimed pinnacle of motorsport has a responsibility to uphold its history, but it has an even larger responsibility placed on top of that. To keep this goodwill long term F1 must give its drivers the opportunity to compete, and for their fans to go home seeing as much racing as they paid for. Let’s make some history.

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