Shock & Awe
“Yes, sure, let me open the turnstile for you.”
Shock and awe! A Formula 1 Paddock Club security guard is being helpful, co-operative and constructive. Is that a sudden shift in the Earth’s axis I just felt?!
It’s Thursday lunchtime of the Spanish Grand Prix weekend and already one can sense a different feeling in the air. A positive mental attitude being displayed by even the sternest of F1 folk.
Up until only a few months ago a five-minute chat in the Paddock Club, F1’s megabucks-to-attend-corporate-VIP-entertaining-champagne-flowing fun factory, involved a series of requests and negotiations even the most hardened diplomat would find challenging, but not, it seems, any more.
Trust. At last there seems to be some.
‘I have a job to do, I’d like to get that job done and then leave as quickly as possible’, has always been, during my 28+ year F1 photographic career, a mantra I’ve adhered to. I’m not alone in having this workflow mindset, 95% of the sport’s professionals, in whatever profession, do exactly the same. Trouble is, there was always a suspicion from those that controlled it that we had other, less honest agendas. Collecting a ‘NO’ was the norm.
All over the Formula 1 paddock at the Barcelona event there appeared to be smiling faces, and a keenness to embrace the brave new Formula One Group/Liberty Media era world. Our new American friends have certainly been busy.
While the on-track racing continues to improve, a very real focus has been centered on the people who pay to come and see their heroes race. Sunday morning at 08.05 in the F1 Fan Village has not previously been the time to see and hear a scene reminiscent of an in-full-swing music festival. Race day last weekend, behind the Circuit de Catalunya’s towering main grandstand, it was!
Post-qualifying on-track interviews with the top three drivers and local hero racers, larger numbers on the cars – so we can all know who’s in them! – driver names painted along the pit road surface to aid viewing pleasure, gorgeous grid girls air-cannon-firing T-shirts into the crowd, a walkway - decorated with colourful cartoon driver caricatures - to the paddock where spectators can get autographs and selfies with the stars, social media recognition and engagement on a scale previously only dreamt about, support races given more prominence, competitions to win two seater F1 car track rides, etc, etc, are all just a few of the fan-friendly initiatives that have very recently appeared and are set to be enjoyed at the majority of grands prix.
Anyone watching the Spanish race afternoon television coverage could not have failed to be touched by the young Ferrari fan crying when his idol Kimi Raikkonen crashed out less than 15 seconds into the race. One hour later the young lad’s streaming tears of sadness were replaced with beaming smiles of happiness as F1’s newest star sat in the Ferrari paddock hospitality unit chatting with the Iceman himself.
That would never have happened six months ago.
Don’t get me wrong. None of what I write should be taken as a negative critique of the decades-spanning genius Bernie Eccslestone displayed in making his sport what it is today. Rather, simply an acknowledgement that the world has changed and those that now own the sport are aware of that.
Some F1 old-skoolers are suspicious of the positive mien suddenly so prevalent, harbouring suspicions that the Americans have a way too razzmatazz New World agenda that will run out of steam as quickly as it got up to speed. Let’s hope they embrace the shock of the new soon, allowing themselves to be swallowed up by its infectious vibe.
If Liberty Media were faced with a list of 100 things to sort then maybe they’ve started with the first five and just maybe they’re doing, so far, a pretty good job.
Of course there still needs to be a very real sense of ‘specialness’ about the sport and gaining access to its inner sanctum. Bernie always believed it’s better to have ‘them’ looking over the fences dreaming of being where they can’t. ‘Keep ‘em keen by keep being mean’ has a place but was perhaps over-played in the end.
There’s just one area where the Formula One Group (FOG) need to exercise some restraint. Their stated aim of 25 grands prix a season will be at least four or five steps too far for many. It’s not just the mechanics, caterers, circuit signage crews, every race-attending photographer and journalist, et al, who will seek to start missing some events - no, fans will increasingly suffer from F1 fatigue too. During the 21-race 2016 campaign I had family and friends who chose not to sit on their TV-facing Sunday afternoon sofas, instead choosing outdoor activities confident in the knowledge that another grand prix would be along in a few days' time…
Too much of a good thing is not always a good thing!
FOG's pre-season statement of intent that they’d like 25 ‘Super Bowl-like’ F1 races a year was in many ways an admirable wish - with just one rather unfortunate and obvious caveat: the Super Bowl is special for many reasons but one in the main. There is only one! Have at least two every month and you’re going to see engagement slide.
It’s happened in the US-based NASCAR series. Almost 40 events a year is undoubtedly one of the contributing reasons that track attendances and TV viewing figures have dropped by almost 50% in the past decade.
Less can mean more..
OK, that’s enough of that, I’m off to have a cold beer in the new Heineken F1 Paddock bar. Non-alcoholic of course!
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