Formula One is at a crossroads, and has been for the past few years. The line between the authenticity and artificiality of racing is growing more and more murky, as the sport tries at great pains to please both hardcore, dedicated fans and casual observers. The former calls out for the restoration of the good old days when going to a Formula One race meant observing an overwhelming display of skill, endurance and mental tenacity. These days, those very fans cringe when they see races in which veterans of the sport are heard on the radio asking if they should be racing a particular driver. The strategies which must be deployed to be successful in Grand Prix racing are geared, say the hardcore fans, towards creating a spectacle rather than a pure sporting event.
Who is to blame for the direction in which the sport has turned in recent years? Directly, one could blame Pirelli, the tire manufacturer challenged to improve the abhorred “spectacle”. The notion of getting back to Formula One’s roots is central to the push to retain the sport’s classic venues, many of which have come under immense pressure from tracks in Asia, the Middle East and North and South America. Spa, Silverstone, Nurburgring, Monza, and Monaco. These are the five oldest tracks on the calendar. In their various guises, these venues have provided the foundation upon which one of the most popular spectator sports in the world has grown. And indeed it has grown. Too much, perhaps? Many will argue yes, but their antiquated sentiments would have been short lived, as the tracks outside of Europe are integral to the revenue aspect of running the sport and thus, the existence of the historic venues of which many of us hold precious memories.
Many will argue that the measures taken to increase the fanbase of the sport has only promoted the ‘spectacle’ of Formula One. The introduction of artificial overtaking aids which, on paper, look like technological innovations, only serve to underscore the artificiality of the sport. I personally am not thrilled that DRS has had such a major effect on global perception of Formula One, but I do understand that its presence is integral to the very existence of the sport. Without its introduction in 2011, the sport was in serious danger of losing a large portion of its following. Two years on, we all share varying levels of contempt for the device, and we know call upon the sport to do more to appease our mounting desires. We really are a greedy bunch, us Formula One fans. None of us will ever be truly happy with the direction of the sport. Perhaps it is a good thing, though. Our dissatisfaction, while in the moment frustrating, helps underscore the sport’s desire to constantly improve itself.
What does this have to do with Monaco, though?
It is, on the whole, the most anticipated Grand Prix of the season. We laud drivers’ abilities to navigate the tight confines of the concrete barriers nestled in between the egos of billionaires and their plastic girlfriends. We also gawk at the extravagance of the whole event. The Monaco Grand Prix is fixated somewhere that should be at the height of economic woes, it should be working flat out to put its citizens back to work and jumpstarting their economy. These worries could be on another planet, for all the principality cares. The parties, the events, the corporate shoulder-rubbing, they all teeter the line between mere extravagance and utter waste. Yet, year in year out, the money keeps pouring in and the people keep enjoying themselves.
There is no other race like it to match its combination of extravagance, excitement, enthusiasm and utter pointlessness. That is right. The Monaco Grand Prix is pointless. At first glance.
In the build up to any modern-era Monaco Grand Prix, the news outlets are awash with soundbites from all the teams, their drivers, directors, owners and important faculty speaking of the roots to which the sport returns with every visit to the principality. If the sport stems from these ‘roots’, as they were, then does that not mean that the very foundation of Grand Prix racing is centered upon the notion of a spectacle?
The Monaco Grand Prix has been on the calendar ever since the very first Formula One race in 1950. Therefore, spectacles have been a part of the sport since its inception. Why then, do we get all hot and bothered about a spectacle today? Yes, the definition of a spectacle has changed somewhat; the spectacle isn’t about the extravagance as much as it is about making lots of teams competitive and the racing enthralling, but the fact of the matter remains. F1 is, and will always be, a show, a performance. The reason we keep watching the sport it because it is exciting. Would we still be watching Formula One if Ferrari were continuing its dominance of the sport that began in 2000? I wouldn’t be. We love the sport, no matter how little or how much of it we comprehend, because it changes itself. It enacts changes to make it different than it was before, so no one team can truly dominate for too long. Would Red Bull walk away with the championship if the current regulations were lessened? You bet they would. And would you still be watching? A lot of you would have turned the TV off long before you read this.
This is why Monaco is vital to Formula One’s survival, why it is the reason the sport still has fans. We love it dearly, but forget that not only is the location the root of F1, but the spectacle to which the location plays host.
Before you criticize Formula One for being too much of a spectacle and not about true racing, remember that the sport has always been about putting on a show, from the moment the first flag dropped in the tiny principality.