Non-event grands prix threatening the very future of F1
As another Mercedes procession plays out to half-empty stands Formula One needs to wake up
From top to bottom, Formula One is hopelessly in denial. The 80th birthday celebrations for Jackie Stewart yesterday offered a reminder that this can be, at its best, a great and noble enterprise, a platform for some of the bravest feats ever produced in the name of sport. But the feeble non-event of a French Grand Prix that ensued did a disservice to the very concept of motor racing.
Lewis Hamilton's lights-to-flag win Le Castellet served nobody outside Mercedes: not the organisers, not fans in half-empty stands, and not the TV viewers.
Defenders of F1 claim that every sport has its longueurs, that football has its share of drab goalless draws. But the problem is that grimly one-sided grands prix are becoming the norm, not the exception. Just as surely as the sun rose over Provence, Lewis Hamilton rounded the first corner of Circuit Paul Ricard in the lead and tore away for 53 blissfully untroubled laps.
Those recalling a similar degree of dominance by McLaren, who achieved 11 consecutive wins in 1988, or by Michael Schumacher, who was the champion in 2002 by July, miss one crucial piece of context: that Mercedes's supremacy has lasted for the entire turbo-hybrid era. This year, they are all but certain to complete a sixth consecutive double of drivers' and constructors' titles. That is unprecedented.
Ultimately, none of this is Hamilton's fault. His race pace was described by his own engineer as "blistering", cementing his place as Britain's pre-eminent - and arguably least appreciated - active sportsman. Once, Schumacher's record of 91 wins was considered untouchable. At the rate Hamilton is going, bringing up his 79th with not a moment's fuss, he could overhaul it by the end of the year. Granted, this would mean winning every one of the 13 races left. But who, on the latest evidence, would bet against him?
Even Hamilton recognised that this had been a turn-off. "If you say it's boring, I totally understand it," he said. He insisted, though, that he was trying to force change, having attended a session of the World Motorsport Council in Paris last week. "Don't blame the drivers - we don't write the rules. Put the pressure on the people at the top. They have made mistakes for many, many years. Do I have confidence that it will change? I went to Paris to get involved in the meetings. I had nothing to gain by it. There has never been a driver representative in the room before. If that's the decisive point, which helps to get the fans better racing, then I would be proud to be a part of it."
Hamilton would be wise not to hold his breath. If there is one area where F1's suits are highly skilful, it is in the art of kicking the can down the road.
The regulation changes for 2021 were supposed to have been agreed by now, but the top teams' fierce protection of their own interests ensures that any decision has been delayed until October. What this sport needs is a transformation, but what it is likely to receive, thanks to the squabbling between 10 teams with vastly different budgets, is a watered-down compromise.
Still, the denial persists. Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, seemed to believe this so-called race in France had been full of drama. "When you sit where I sit, you hear all the things that need to be managed," he said.
Trouble is, loyal F1 fans do not, and never will, inhabit Wolff's seat, monitoring complex engineering panels. All they ask is enthralling action involving the most fearsome racing machines on the planet. For now, they have neither. The 2019 cars prioritise technical precision over physical demands to such an extent that Lando Norris, a 19-year-old rookie, has handled the step-up to F1 with ease.
As for the action, it was so scarce yesterday that runner-up Valtteri Bottas blamed his 18-second deficit to Hamilton by explaining the need to conserve his front tyres.
It is a comment that reflects the depth of the rut that F1, trapped for too long inside its own bubble, now finds itself.
The revolution cannot come soon enough. (© Daily Telegraph, London)