News and views on motorsports

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Why I Think Its Not The Same

Many fear that any breakaway series will see the death of grand prix racing. Many point to the CART/IRL situation in America and say that Formula 1 is doomed to head in that direction where neither series had any clear advantage and in fact, both series suffered in the long run with lower aggregate viewership.

When the IRL was formed up until year 2000 or os, I believe CART was still the dominant player in single seaters in America. I know I was following it very closely up until then, although I did miss watching the Indianapolis 500 once the IRL largely closed its doors to the CART teams from 1996 onwards. Nevertheless, the loss of that signature event to me was minor. It was just a lot of branding to me. CART had all the great teams, the engine manufacturers and the better set of drivers. There was Penske, Ganassi, Newman-Hass, Green riding on Penske, Reynard and Lola chassis powered by multiple different engines from Honda, Toyota and Ford. To me it was absolutely brilliant and I even kept wondering why Formula 1 cold not be more like this. The variety of different chassis-engine combinations was a big pulling factor in CART.

After year 2000 when Ganassi started competing in the Indianapolis 500, things started to change. During this time, CART had demonstrated some incredible mismanagement that started sending teams over to the IRL. And the biggest mistake of all was then that both series went spec. A single specification series absolutely killed it for me. It was absolute nonsense. To me, any attempt by Formula 1 to head down the spec route would be the thing that kills it. Look at GP2. A very interesting curiosity in its first year and kept alive only by the fact that it runs during grand prix. But because of the lack of variety I simply got tired looking at it. I'd rather be watching a good F3 race like Macau.

Adding to the single seater woes in America was the inevitable march of NASCAR, something is exceedingly good at letting us know about. Two things about this though. First, to my mind, NASCAR is only popular in the States. I simply do not find any evidence of its popularity anywhere outside it in any large number (Yes, yes, I could be wrong). Speaking for myself, I hate it and simply do not see the point of it. Its just too American. And that is a sentiment I repeatedly hear from people the world over. Second, there are no equivalent series in the rest of the world to compete against grand prix racing. Sportscars and Touring cars are simply too weak and unpopular at this time, although I wish that wasn't the case.

As far as the racing is concerned, I believe FOTA holds the advantage over the FIA. It simply has better teams and the variety needed to hold the interest of fans worldwide. Do you really want to watch the entire grid powered by a 2006 Cosworth engine? Please. The best teams and drivers are what racing's pinnacle should be about. And here, FOTA holds all the cards. In addition, FOTA are now free to choose the best tracks in the world something Bernie has been ignoring being consumed by his (or CVC's) greed.

What it does lack at this moment is the organisational infrastructure and for the lack of a better word, distribution. And by that I mean airtime and television. The former can easily be solved rapidly. Especially if they align themselves with someone like Dorna, MotoGPs organisers. The latter is the potential killer not only for FOTA but grand prix racing itself. The FIA through FOM have television broadcasters in their pocket. It will be very hard for FOTA to negotiate with those same broadcasters (although alternative ones are available). The broadcasters could be tied to FOM due to contractual obligations and thus shutting out FOTA.

If this is the case, we could have a situation where the FIA's championship is shown on the telly but nobody wants to watch it. And then there's the FOTA championship where everyone wants to watch but they simply can't do so. A lose-lose situation and not good for grand prix racing.

If FOTA could get their breakaway championship on the air and more importantly on the terrestrial channels, then I would definitely say that it will be successful. This is the key to it. What will help is if FOTA organises more races in its most important markets that is Europe and North America. As Bernie pushes more races to the East, FOTA stands ready to recapture all those European audiences at the tracks. As far as North America is concerned, FOTA are in a position to lock out the FIA and FOM from the long suffering North America grand prix fan if they act fast enough. Since Bernie left both the US and Canada in the cold without any contracts, Tony George at Indianapolis and the folks at Montreal are free to choose. And you can bet, they'd rather choose the FOTA series with all the great teams and drivers.

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