How do you treat a sport that is suffering from an unprecedented bout of low self-esteem? Formula One—usually so emphatic, ostentatious and progressive—has lost confidence. Its financial backers have yanked on the handbrake, and as petrolheads know, when you do that, your vehicle goes into a tyre-smoking, disorientating spin, known as a doughnut. The cars are lining up to start the 2009 season in Melbourne, but how many? Honda had displayed the most faith in F1 by paying top dollar for Ross Brawn, the mastermind of Michael Schumacher’s successes, but then dramatically withdrew its Brawn-led big-budget programme in December. That leaves F1 with anxiety issues.
The new cars, designed in accordance with sweeping new regulations, look ugly. The drivers are cagey about expectations. The two paddock father-figures, Bernie Ecclestone, 78, and Sir Jackie Stewart, 69, are trading insults about each other’s senility. Stefano Domenicali of Ferrari suggests cutting drivers’ salaries (Kimi Raikkonen, the highest-paid, is said to be on £34m). The teams hurriedly agreed to measures to slash annual budgets by 30% for 2010—which would reduce Toyota’s alone by £90m. The F1 world is not as we knew it.
If 2008 was the year of emerging talent, with Lewis Hamilton crowned world champion and Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica and Sebastien Vettel also shining, 2009 had been shaping up to be the year of the technical director, as each team’s boffins vied to build the fastest car from the new green-tinged specifications. It is now the year of the finance director. The sport where every fan wears a liveried cap is now fashioning salary caps, budget caps, performance caps...
But the clever thing about the F1 brand is that it thrives on media exposure, good or bad, fuelled by politics, rumour, controversies and speculation. There’ll be no shortage of that brand of entertainment. The smoking tyres could be like dry ice at the theatre, just adding to the drama.
F1 2009 season starts March 27th in Melbourne.
Picture credit: StuSeeger (via Flickr)