As Formula 1's 1000th race approaches, the allure of watching drivers go around in circles at breakneck speeds still endures

In the summer of 2000, much like every summer before that that I can remember and many after, my cousin from Delhi had come over to spend his vacation with us in Guwahati. All I knew about him then was that he hated the smell of jackfruit (which meant nobody could eat it around him) and loved playing with the TV remote — it was the latter that both fascinated and perplexed me. He would hold the two ends of the plastic-wrapped remote when some motor-racing event was showing live on TV, pretend it was the steering wheel of one of the hideous-looking cars on screen and make sounds to indicate gear shifts that the drivers on TV were supposedly making. As I realised many years later, that was my introduction to Formula One.

This was also when my six-year-old self learnt that not all steering wheels are round, all four wheels of a car don’t need to be of equal size, and that Monaco was a country. It was a whole new world for me and I was excited. And like with Manchester United in school or CPM in college, cool people around me always supported the team in red — and my cousin was no different from Ferrari.

 As Formula 1s 1000th race approaches, the allure of watching drivers go around in circles at breakneck speeds still endures

Alfa Romeo's Kimi Raikkonen during a press conference during the Chinese GP. REUTERS

That year, a German two-time world champion called Michael Schumacher had won the first three races and dominated the first part of the season as Ferrari battled it out with McLaren. But in the summer afternoon I describe here, Schumacher retired early in the Monaco Grand Prix due to a suspension issue, letting David Coulthard (the British-accented voice in the commentary box when you switch on one of the 48 Star Sports channels on a race weekend these days) win and take the full 10 points. I have rarely seen the sorrow of the kind I saw in my cousin’s eyes that day.

For years after that, I would watch the odd rerun of an old Formula 1 race or read agency reports in the newspaper on Monday mornings about what went down that weekend, but didn’t follow the sport closely (except for the 2-3 races in the year that coincided with my cousin’s annual visits). This changed when I was in mid-school and Schumacher had just risen to his legendary status thanks to a record 7th world championship title, and I realised that I was the only one among my English-Premier-League-watching classmates who knew anything about Formula 1, let alone Schumacher.

This new-found (but misinformed) feeling of being better than the crowd, combined with my father restoring our cable connection after an unexplained gap of a few years, meant now I had a sport to watch and follow every other weekend. And that is what I did.

But that was a long time ago, and Formula One is almost a different sport today as it reaches its 1,000th ever race this Sunday.

(For perspective on how long it’s been, there was another driver who retired in that 2000 Monaco Grand Prix I mentioned earlier. He was called Jos Verstappen. Today, Jos’ son Max, who has been a full-time Formula 1 driver since 2015, is one of the title contenders this season. The junior Verstappen even joked about his opinions on having children, at a press conference in Abu Dhabi last year, just in case you weren’t feeling very old.)

A lot has changed in the way the sport is contested, regulated, managed, presented and publicised. The loud V10 engines have been replaced by turbocharged V6 engines with 1600cc capacity, the race winner now gets 25 points instead of 10 (so more cars now get points, thereby changing the mathematics), an arguably unattractive halo now sits on top of the driver for protection, there is no refuelling drama in the pit lanes anymore, and an American mass media company called Liberty Media now has executive control over the management and broadcast of the sport. Oh, also, India doesn’t host F1 races anymore (after a brief three-year stint from 2011 to 2013) due to disagreements over taxation rules.

But more things change, the more they remain the same. Apart from the sheer joy of watching the fastest machines designed by man compete at over 300 kmph on lightning-quick tracks around the world, one other thing has remained the same since I watched my first Formula One race: somehow, a Finnish chap called Kimi “Iceman” Räikkönen still drives an F1 car.

However, as much as I hate to admit it, Formula One thrived and was widely (and wildly) followed globally much before I began watching the races live, so it will be unfair to not mention the F1 pre-2000 and the events that made it as iconic a sport as it is today.

For the uninitiated, if you do not have a Netflix subscription to watch Senna or Formula 1: Drive to Survive, or hate the face of faux Greek god Chris Hemsworth enough to not watch Rush, here are five races from history you may wish to watch or read about to understand why people pay such ridiculous sums of money to watch 20 drivers go around in circles at breakneck speeds every other Sunday.

1957 German Grand Prix

Based on all the tales I’ve read (and there are plenty) about this historic race on 4 August 1957, it must’ve been five-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio’s most special racing victory. In spite of pit stop disaster and having a sub-par car that weekend, the Argentine great said after the race, “I have never driven that quickly before in my life and I don't think I will ever be able to do it again.”

1976 Italian Grand Prix

Made immortal by Rush, this is one of the greatest comeback stories in sport. Just six weeks before this race in Monza on 12 September 1976, three-time world champion Niki Lauda was involved in a near fatal crash at the German Grand Prix where his Ferrari swerved off the track, hit the track wall, burst into flames and was then driven into by another incoming race car.

Lauda suffered extensive burns to his head and his right ear (scars that are still visible today), and even lost his eyebrows and eyelids due to the fire. But after having missed just two races, Lauda came back to the driver’s seat in Monza wearing blood-soaked bandages and burns still fresh from the crash.

1993 European Grand Prix

Held in Donington Park that year, the European Grand Prix of 1993 saw a display of driving skill unlike the world had seen before — of course I may exaggerating a little here owing to my bias towards the legendary Ayrton Senna, who I believe was the most talented racing driver to walk the planet. But again, I’m biased.

Starting fourth on the grid, Senna slipped down another place at the beginning of the race. But showing complete mastery of the wet conditions at Donington Park with one of his most emphatic performances, Senna won the race with a gap of 1 minute and 24 seconds between him and runner-up Damon Hill.

1996 Spanish Grand Prix

Another year, another masterful drive by another Formula One legend. Starting from third on the grid on a strikingly wet track at the at the Circuit de Catalunya, Michael “Regenmeister” Schumacher tackled the torrential rain with a superlative drive, finishing the race on top, with over 45 seconds to spare until runner up Jean Alesi.

2008 Brazilian Grand Prix

It was Formula One drama that would put the Bollywood flick Ta Ra Rum Pum to shame. At the 18th and final race of the 2008 season, as the chequered flag came down at Interlagos that afternoon, nobody — including the drivers, team principals and commentators — knew for sure what was happening.

One minute local hero Felipe Massa was celebrating what seems like a world championship for Ferrari. And the very next minute, a young Lewis Hamilton overtook the fifth car low down on the grid to snatch the title away from Massa, leaving the home fans and the Ferrari garage stunned, if not in tears. Peak Formula One action, I’d say.

Thanks to the sport’s newly-reinvented PR strategies, scores of other epic moments are on display through this and the previous weeks on its Facebook and YouTube channels, as we approach the 1000th race weekend this Friday.

It is easy to get emotional seeing how the sport has evolved and touched lives over all these decades as it crosses yet another milestone. But I have my concerns about its future — I fear that despite the truly brilliant outreach strategies adopted by Liberty Media to reach thousands of new fans every season, the sport might not have enough to offer to ensure a sustainable fanbase in the current generation.

The thing I find most unimpressive about Formula One today is that the sport is now far too mechanised for actual drivers to make a difference. Take the last 10 years for example. For four consecutive years from 2010 to 2013, Red Bull Racing built cars so superior, only Ferrari was able to actually come close to offer a competition — and that too only in 2012. This helped Sebastian Vettel, a clearly gifted racing driver but not necessarily better than his usual competition in Q3, win four consecutive driver’s titles.

Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing celebrates winning the Abu Dhabi GP and 2010 World Championship title. Reuters

Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing celebrates winning the Abu Dhabi GP and 2010 World Championship title. Reuters

For all these years since 2013, Mercedes has been building the fastest machines, with its drivers staying well clear of on-track competition more often than not — including competition of the same Vettel, who now drives for Ferrari.

On any race Sunday these days, there are usually three separate races on the same track: an (often unexciting) one among the top three teams, a very fierce mid-field battle, and another one among the two-three teams at the bottom of the table that nobody really cares about.

Yes, Formula One is a team sport and the drivers are only a part of the racing team, but it has become (more so now than ever) only about the engineering and design of the car, and not so much about the driver’s skill and speed. With drivers rarely fighting wheel-to-wheel on the track for a win (other than non-conventional tracks such as in Bahrain and Baku), the very appeal and charm of Formula One is quite lost.

Other reasons for Formula One potentially losing charm among the fans include the cost of airing live races, dumbed down circuits, high ticket prices, and quieter engines. Although they only subtly add to the overall quality — or lack thereof — of the sport, these ones are easier to mend through policy changes.

If Liberty Media were to be reading this piece, I would have only one suggestion to make. Whenever in doubt about the way things are going in Formula One, a good question to ask, I believe, is “What would Ayrton Senna change in this situation?” And voila, we will be shown a path, again, something I believe.

But they’re obviously not reading this. So like with most other things in life, on the 1000th ever F1 race weekend this Sunday, I’ll put on my red shirt, visit my cousin in Delhi, find a TV with a cable connection, and tweet “Forza Ferrari” sans context.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Apr 13, 2019 09:40:59 IST

Also See