Blow-out indeed. As fiascos go, this one could not have been more neatly engineered to cause the maximum damage, both to the sport’s prestige and the massive financial backing which Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone has so painstakingly built up over the years.
Put aside the Olympics, and there is no other event (let alone sports event) that offers sponsors true global coverage – just F1. It was not always so. For a long time Formula One was to the IndyCar Series as soccer is to American football. They simply did things differently in the world’s greatest market. It was Ecclestone’s achievement (well, one of several) to find a way of rebridging that gap in the market, and in so doing unlock the incalculable riches to be derived from the accompanying television rights and sponsorship.
That was five years ago, with the debut of the first US Grand Prix in a decade. True, the race was jinxed from the start. There were squabbles over the so-called “yard of bricks” start at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and, later, Michael Schumacher’s less-than-sportsmanlike attempt to engineer a dead-heat with his Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello. But these were containable problems, and there were growing indications that Americans were being won over to the image of F1.
Then this. It would be difficult at first sight to say which element of this year’s US Grand Prix farce showed the sport in its worst light. Was it, perhaps, the French tyre company Michelin’s inability to replace a faulty batch of tyres (which shod the majority of the contenders) over 48 hours because the rules disallowed it? Was it the feeble attempt by the non-Ferrari contingent to slow the course down with a chicane, so avoiding putting those tyres to the test? Or Ferrari’s adamant determination to run the race as it was and snatch all the points, safe in the knowledge that only four other cars – none of them real contenders – out of the original 18 competitors to Ferrari would be taking part? Or, again, the sight of outraged fans on US network TV booing and showering the Ferrari drivers with debris?
Any, and all, of these considerations should make the dozens of sponsors behind F1 blench. So it is no surprise to find the likes of Budweiser, FedEx, Hewlett-Packard and Vodafone having a second look at their colossally expensive marketing strategies.
But while the sport may be primarily at fault, the sponsors cannot absolve themselves of some responsibility for its behaviour. Blame the tyre manufacturer, if you like, for incompetence in surmounting increasingly difficult physical obstacles; blame the rules for inflexibility; blame the Ferrari team for behaving in a petulant and unsportsmanlike way; even blame the technologically over-sophisticated cars for boring, predictable results. But don’t forget the role of commerce and its ceaseless demands in moulding these conditions.
Above all, don’t forget the spectators, who can turn off if F1 loses all trace of sporting appeal.