Formula One Continues Its Death Spiral In Austria

Warm-Up Lap: McLaren-Honda Readies Return To Formula 1

Formula One held a race in Austria on Sunday but almost nobody seemed to care. The stands were half full. TV ratings for Formula One are plunging. Historic tracks like Monza and Spa are in danger of being pushed off the calendar while new cookie cutter Hermann Tilke designed tracks continue to spring up like dandelions. Tilke and Associates try hard. After all, they are only following the mandate of 84 year old F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone. But in the final analysis, Tilke’s creations are to real race tracks what CGI images are to real movies.

In another race whose conclusion was known weeks before the start, (Lewis or Nico? Nico or Lewis?) the only excitement was provided by a blown Ferrari pit stop and the ham fisted driving of Formula One has-been, Kimi Raikkonen. Kimi lost control of his Ferrari on the opening lap and fishtailed wildly. His erratic driving forced Fernando Alonso to slam into the Armco and rebound onto the top of Raikkonne’s car, nearly slicing the Finn’s head off.

When the checkered flag flew, Nico Rosberg was 5 seconds in front of teammate Lewis Hamilton. Sentimental favorite Felipe Massa dragged his Williams home in third place, holding off Sebastien Vettle’s rapidly closing Ferrari. Massa’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, came fifth. Force India had a good day. Nico Hulkenberg, who won Le Mans just a week ago, finished 6th and his teammate, Segio Perez came 9th, giving Force India a rare double points finish.

Formula One has been on the downslope for nearly 30 years, ever since the biggest names in the sport — Ron Dennis of McLaren, Flavio Briatore of Benneton, Luca Di Montezemolo of Ferrari and Sir Frank Williams agreed to turn over all commercial rights for the sport to Bernie Ecclestone, the diminutive czar who has driven the sport straight into the ground by selling those rights to one consortium of investors or another.

Driven by the need for profits, the sport has gone around the world like a tawdry trollop down on her luck, selling itself to the highest bidder. Along the way, the sport lost its focus. It is no longer about racing; it is about lining the pockets of gimlet eyed financiers.

Recently, the top teams agreed to a new engine and powertrain formula that was supposed to make the sport “relevant” to environmentalists and car makers. The hope was that by switching to powertrains that put a premium on efficiency, companies like Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, Chevrolet and Ford would come knocking on the door, begging to be let into the club.

It hasn’t exactly turned out that way. The new formula severely restricts development of the engine and energy recovery systems. As a result, the McLaren team received a 25 grid spot penalty this weekend in Austria because they were forced to change the engine and most other components.

How can anyone possibly explain that to a rational person? It is so illogical, so extreme and so idiotic, it subjects the entire sport to derision. Sane people would look at the situation and say “This makes no sense. This is making us all look bad. We have to fix this.” But not this lot. They just shrug and say, “Rules are rules,” as they slouch their way toward irrelevancy.

There is a reason why racing drivers like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark and so many others are treated as heroes while today’s drivers are not. Those drivers drove. They conquered unruly beasts on fabled tracks without all the aerodynamic devices and geegaws that festoon modern race cars.

Back then, you could look at a car in the pits and identify what every part was and what it did. Today, the cars are wrapped in invisible cloaks. What goes on underneath all that carefully massaged bodywork is as incomprehensible to the average fan as the workings of the CERN particle accelerator.

One could draw an analogy between F1 today and the Roman Empire. Once, it ruled all other forms of motorsport. Today, Bernie and the team owners fiddle as the sport burns. They broke it. They have no idea how to fix it. And nobody has the will to stop the bleeding.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.