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If motorsport’s future is in its past, then it’s really in trouble!


The most recent series of South Park had the unenviable task of trying to satirise the 2016 US Presidential election – a circus act that was surely ultimately beyond parody.

To lampoon the Make America Great Again (caps made in China) tub thumping, the writers gave us Member Berries: little purple fruits, the consumption of which led people to outbreaks of overwhelming nostalgia.

‘Member when Formula 1 was exciting?’

‘Yeah, I member’

‘Member big fat tyres?’

‘Yeah, I member’

‘Ooh, member Peterson drifting through Copse’

‘Yeah, yeah I member’

Only it wasn’t F1 that had the folks in South Park pining for a bygone time so much better than today, it was JJ Abrams’ Star Wars reboot. Not so much a film, but a shot-by-shot remake of Episode IV: A New Hope. Better than the abhorrent three prequel movies for sure, but ultimately just a lesson that if you just give the masses something familiar, updated with flashier explosions, they’ll eat it up (also see Spectre).

Maybe it’s the pace of technological change, maybe it’s the ability to over-analyse every technical detail, maybe it’s the sheer breadth and depth of coverage that leads people to believe that a time when things were worse by all measurable standards, were not only better, but a blueprint for where we should be going next.

I’ve often felt that some motorsport fans would be comfortable as some sort of updated Amish. That at a given point in the development of (delete as applicable) aerodynamic understanding, computer-aided design, electronic engine and data management, there was a jumping off point where things were as good as they wanted them to be and that they should never evolve a step further.

Read the comments beneath any video that’s ever posted of an Ayrton Senna qualifying lap for example. The basic manual gearbox that requires him to have a hand off the wheel for a considerable amount of the lap is hailed as proof positive that his was the work of a hairy-chested god whereas now F1 is just a runabout for pre-pubescent boys who couldn’t heel-and-toe if their lives depended upon it.

But the invention of the semi-automatic gearbox had obvious and tangible efficiency gains. It meant gearchanges would be far faster than could ever be made in a manual, that a mis-shift was a thing of the past, making broken gearboxes and engines less likely to happen.

And the technology trickled down to the point ‘hot’ versions of even the most mundane family hatchbacks now invariably offer a semi-automatic option. Why should motorsport, F1 in particular run an inferior alternative to what is widely available?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong in holding a deep affection for the past, and I’m very happy to see the strength and popularity of the Historic scene at the moment, but the clue is in the name ‘historic’.

That’s not to say that mistakes haven’t been made in the development of motorsport. They always have and they always will, and it may well be that the answers to some of the current questions can be found in the past. But that doesn’t mean we should aim to recreate the past…

‘Member Formula 5000?’

“Oh yes, I member’

‘Member huge airboxes?’

‘Yeah, they were hideously ugly’

‘Oh! Then the new F5000 probably isn’t for you’

Yep, that’s right. High on ‘member berries, some people in Australia have built a ‘new’ F5000, by taking a previous generation Formula Nippon car and bolting a massive, pointless airbox on top of it. It’s as terrible as it sounds.

Amazingly, they’ve taken some orders and it looks as if this romantically-misguided answer to a question that no-one was asking is going to take place in 2017.

There have been scores of high-powered single-seater series over recent years – A1GP and Superleague Formula both had fast, attractive cars, with big, loud engines and fat slick tyres – but never captured the race fans’ imagination. Formula Renault 3.5, GP2, Super Formula (the Nippon next generation), have fast cars, loud engines, great drivers and teams, but one only has to look at the empty grandstands when GP2 is taking place to see that the key to spiking the interest of the fans requires more than just fast, exciting cars driven by the champions of the future. What they were all missing was a massive airbox nicked straight off a 1975-spec McLaren M23…

It’s not just in motorsport that there’s such a longing for an undefined halcyon era, but the sport does seem more entranced by its passed than many others.

You never hear athletics fans say that Usain Bolt is no Jesse Owens for example, because there’s an acknowledgement that all the research that’s gone into training methods, diet, video analyse of stride patterns, starting procedures, not to mention shoe and clothing design, means that it’s only natural that 100m sprinters are faster and better now than they were in the 1930s. And what would it say about the progress of the human race if they weren’t?

It should be obvious that this ought to be the case across the board. The amount of sport science that’s deployed today means that the amazing Barbarians teams of the 1970s wouldn’t stand a chance against the current All Blacks.

If somehow a 1980-spec Bjorn Borg could be moved to 2016, he couldn’t have lived with Andy Murray’s power and pace. This ought to apply in motorsport too, where the amount of data available to the teams and drivers leaves nowhere to hide and should ensure that the overall level of performance is higher than ever.

But don’t you even dare suggest that there’s a driver active now who can hold a candle to Jim Clark, let alone Senna. It’s statistically unlikely, of course, but we’re into the post-fact age now, so that clearly doesn’t matter.

In a fascinating recent interview, Ross Brawn said that F1 was at a crossroads and that it needed to decide if it wanted to have any technical relevance to the way road cars are developing or if it was to become purely a form of entertainment.

Route one means ever more complex cars, with increasingly efficient, hybrid engines moving towards full electric and then maybe fuels cells. Option two means loud, basic V8 or V10 engines, perhaps even manual gearboxes, and who knows, maybe even pointless airboxes.

It’s a high-stakes gamble that could very well appeal to a coalition of disaffected fans, but could leave it looking dangerously out of touch, which is not traditionally the sort of territory global brands like to occupy. Beware the law of unintended consequences…

Andrew van de Burgt has been a motor racing journalist for over 15 years. He started working for the Jaguar Racing team on its website in 2000, before moving to AUTOSPORT in 2002. From 2005 to 2014 he was the Editor and then Editor-in-chief of the most prestigious motorsport weekly and online publication in the world. He has covered everything from NASCAR in the States to V8 Superscars in Australia and pretty much everything in between.

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