Formula One drivers the nearest thing sport has to a boy band

If even drivers think F1 is an engineering bore how tough a sell can it be to the rest of us?

Fernando Alonso: will end his Formula One career at the end of this season. Photograph: Srdjan Suki/EPA

Fernando Alonso: will end his Formula One career at the end of this season. Photograph: Srdjan Suki/EPA

 

The former double world champion Fernando Alonso will jack in Formula 1 at the end of this season. It underlines how disposable F1 drivers are. If arguably the fastest guy on the grid can be surplus to requirements how important is actual driving skill?

It’s a very old question as to how much is car and how much is driver. But it goes to the heart of F1’s future as a spectator sport. One Mercedes wonk recently put driver input at 20 per cent. Others reckon he’s being very generous. There’s no knowing for sure.

Whereas everything engineered is beeped and micro-measured to the millisecond, the human element remains impossible to precisely quantify. The problem is that while what counts is what happens under the bonnet, drivers are the sporting faces of this vast manufacturer industry.  

It makes them the nearest thing to a sporting boy-band. They get the cameras and the girls, mouthing rote banalities about performance and obeying team-ordered choreography. Except it’s largely a swindle in terms of what really counts and it seems Alonso has had enough. He’s going solo.

It means the probable end of one of the most garlanded yet frustrating F1 stories. Portraying a world champion career in terms of a frustration is a push but Alonso’s manages it. And central to it is how so much of F1 is about ugly politics behind the cars rather than the pretty boys driving them.

Because if Alonso’s political judgement was anywhere near his driving ability then no one else on the grid might have got a look in over the last decade.

Alonso has spent much of that time alternatively fighting with team mates and bosses, lucratively switching to various prestige outfits just in time for their disastrous production of shiny slow jalopies for him to drive.  

If there was wrong time to move, or a wrong place to go to, Alonso did it. In the intervening period, Jenson Button has been world champion. So has Nico Rosberg. These guys are nowhere near as quick as the Spaniard. But it’s easy to win on a Derby winner if the other guy’s sitting on a donkey.

Statistically, Lewis Hamilton can claim comparison with the legendary Juan Fangio’s five world championships. He is closing in on Michael Schumacher’s record of seven titles. Hamilton in the best car is some combination.

Yet despite torrents of stats about championship wins, Grand Prix victories, podium finishes and fastest laps, in terms of picking someone to drive anything from A to B quicker than anyone else plenty suspect Alonso is still the go-to guy on the grid.

Complete driver

During the summer, another former double world champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, insisted Alonso is still the most complete driver out there. Of course that’s a subjective view. Maybe other world champions think Alonso is overrated.  

It’s interesting to note though how a University of Sheffield statistical model looked beyond mere wins and losses to try and compare the great drivers of all-time. Fangio came top, Alain Prost second, Jim Clark third and Ayrton Senna fourth. Then Alonso. Hamilton didn’t make the top ten.

The point being one would imagine driving ability would have teams urging Alonso to change his mind. Instead he’s being ushered into the sunset. And it’s hard not to suspect it’s because minute measurements of driving talent don’t cut it when your face simply doesn’t fit anymore.

Even Hamilton appeared to acknowledge that recently when pointing out how Alonso’s ability justifies more decoration. But the Englishman added: “It’s not just about being a great driver. It is how you manoeuvre, how you play the game.”

Alonso’s immediate focus will be on endurance driving for Toyota. Earlier this year he took a working break from McLaren to help win Le Mans. Last year another working holiday saw him come within 20 laps of winning the Indy 500 until his engine blew up.

Since he’s twice won the Monaco Grand Prix, should rumours be correct about his ultimate ambitions lying in Indy racing, he could become only the second driver ever to win motor racing’s unofficial Triple Crown of Monaco, Le Mans and the 500. Graham Hill is the only one to manage it.

So, by any standard, Alonso is an exceptional driving talent. And it doesn’t seem to matter.

As time has passed since his championship pomp in 2005-6, Alonso has worked minor miracles getting wheezy crates to the middle of the F1 grid. Now it seems he’s just bored. He can afford to feel bored, just as he can afford to look at other options elsewhere.

But if drivers think F1 is an engineering bore – and even Hamilton said recently he suspects fans must fall asleep watching it sometimes – how tough a sell can it to be to the rest of us.

Commercial appeal

You can argue it has mostly always been ‘brmm-brmm’ tedium to the uninitiated and survived just fine. You can also argue that waiting on some egalitarian ideal in any sport means waiting forever.

But how sustainable is pitching this global business through a drivers’ championship that increasingly boils down to how some savvy operator with the biggest commercial appeal can squeeze his svelte behind into the fastest cockpit.

F1’s appeal has always involved technology. It has always prided itself on being a more sophisticated product than, say, Nascar. But if there’s never going to be some perfect balance of talent and tech its current set-up looks far too skewed in one direction.

Nascar is crude in comparison but it is in no doubt as to where its ultimate spectator appeal lies. That instinct is in the Formula E championship too, something that makes the rise of electric car competition look sustainable on more than just one level.

The prospect might leave some petrol-heads cold. But at least it puts the sporting emphasis where it ought to be –on the actual talent.

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