Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It's my ball

So Formual 1 is having an existential crisis. Every sport does this at some point which is not surprising really given that they serve no real function in the world outside their own self-serving set of rules and regulations. Basically they are all Frankenstein's monsters constructed from boys' playground games (the gender is relevant due to the competitive alpha hetero-male gene (which exists even if it hasn't been officially discovered yet) which means that it is necessary for hetero-males to rank everything and everyone on every measurable criteria; this can clearly be seen from the inequality between interest in male and female versions of the same sport and the lack of gay male participants) Wherever a group of boys gather together with time on their hands two things will happen: sides will form and rules will appear and evolve. This statement does not do justice to the process of negotiation involving every form of argument, coercion, appeasement, escalation, posturing, attack, defence, bribery, threat etc. which are more important than the process of actually playing the game. I can remember entire breaktimes spent stood around arguing over who was on which side and how big the goals should be, one person stood with their foot on the ball to ensure everybody concentrated on the issues in hand and didn't get distracted by doing keepy uppies.

Eventually these games become sports and grow to the point where they have supporters and independent judges, but the internal dynamics stay much the same. The current crisis in F1 is just a global multi-billion pound version of some snotty kid saying "It's my ball so we're going to play by my rules or not at all." There are a lot of ways that it can go: the kid with the ball can get their way, another kid with a lot of clout can get his way by force or everyone gets bored and goes and does something else.

The deciding factor in the case of modern sports is the audience (primarily the TV audience). It's us on our armchairs. We are to blame for hyper-inflationary transfer fees and player salaries in football because when offered a choice of two matches we don't choose the most exciting or the one with most goals, we choose the one with the celebrities in it. This solved English football's existential crisis in the 80's when it changed from Hacker Harrison or Slogger Jones in the 70's to Diego Primadonna or Christiano Dramaqueen in the 90's. The number of star teams or star players in any sport who reach the level of celebrity is very small and excusive and once a fan is fixated nothing will shake them off (even a preening conceited popinjay who's cheating got a national hero sent off wouldn't stop fans from wearing the colours of their chosen team).

In the case of F1 this staunch loyalty would mean that there are Ferrari fans the world over who would stay glued to a series staged by a breakaway of one (let alone eight) and the TV companies know that and that is why what we will be watching next year will involve those top teams whatever the sport is called. The hopelessness of the task of the self-appointed rule-makers face was clearly shown at the British Grand Prix where, as the commentator pointed out: the changes imposed on aerodynamics have allowed the cars to get closer to each other but they still can't overtake. They are on a hiding to nothing: if people wanted to watch cars overtaking each other there are lots of different types of racing where this happens; we watch F1 because of the glamour of Monaco and Ferrari, because of the history of places like Silverstone and because of the celebrity status of Alonso and Hamilton (who like top football players, have tantrums and pop-star girlfriends).

So next year we will be watching Ferrari and McLaren, Hamilton and Alonso at Monaco and Silverstone in cars that cost more than most people earn in a lifetime, are completely impractical for anything apart from going very fast round a dozen racetracks and still don't overtake each other very often. And that's the way it will always be.