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France proves Formula One needs to be fixed

Raja Sen concedes that during Sunday’s French Grand Prix, he yawned into my espresso, wondering why on earth he’s watching. ‘Here is a sport that needs fixing,’ he writes.

other sports Updated: Jun 24, 2019 20:09 IST
Raja Sen
Raja Sen
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
f1,formula 1,f1 grand prix
Ferrari's Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc competes during the Formula One Grand Prix de France.(AFP)

Over the last 20 years, I’ve missed maybe three Grands Prix.

Formula One is a passion I feverishly make time for, putting the world aside to watch titans and teenagers battle on track.

Skill, speed, strategy, super heroism. It is a mighty, historic sport, yet I concede that during Sunday’s French Grand Prix, I yawned into my espresso, wondering why on earth I’m watching. Here is a sport that needs fixing.

Contrary to popular opinion, one team’s dominance is not a bad thing. Lewis Hamilton’s win marked the 10th consecutive win for the Mercedes team, bringing them one trophy away from McLaren’s record 11-race streak from 1988. That season, however, gave absolutely no quarter to tedium. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost slugged hard, with Prost taking seven wins and Senna winning eight and grabbing the championship by a thread. McLaren may have been the only team in contention, but everyone was watching—and a season is rarely that breathless.

We are in The Hamilton Era, a period where the flashy champion in the silver overalls hardly ever makes a mistake, like his bulletproof team. They deserve applause and titles. Unfortunately, their stretch of dominance coincides with a time when Formula One has become depressingly dull: cars can’t follow each other properly, overtaking has become either impossible or exaggeratedly easy, and tyre differences aren’t pronounced enough to allow for inspired bursts of strategy. It’s a drag.

Then there’s the over-regulation, with Formula One’s too-keen stewards playing spoilsport. At the Canadian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel breasted the line, but was penalised (rather arbitrarily) and the win gifted to Hamilton.

In France, Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo went overboard to thrill, and was duly penalised. (Meanwhile, IndyCar organisers boastfully tweeted about how cars during one of their races went off the track “but no action was taken”. The pinnacle of motorsport is turning into a joke.)

Whenever a driver decimates the competition, the sport appears tilted in their favour: like Michael Schumacher at the start of the century, and Vettel at the start of this decade. The rules don’t actually favour them, but superstars bend conditions to their ability and emerge unbeatable. Vettel’s Red Bull one-sidedness was highlighted by battles against Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and team order struggles with Mark Webber; the Schumacher years showcased exquisite drives and, in collaboration with Ferrari boss Ross Brawn, the most ambitious and audacious fuel strategies.

Tiringly, Mercedes keeps claiming they aren’t that fast, but they are. They’re unbelievably efficient and have found the right side of the regulations. F1 needs something radical—not artificial, like DRS-aided overtaking, but something that would reward brave and ingenious strategy. F1’s always been about smarts as much as speed, until now. Lewis Hamilton is only getting better. Here is a driver laying down his legacy. Here we are, nearly asleep.

(Raja Sen is a film critic and India’s longest-running Formula One columnist)

First Published: Jun 24, 2019 19:44 IST