London – Not for the first time, Formula One finds itself heading into a new season with the hope, rather than expectation, that 2017 will be the year that wheel-to-wheel racing finally comes back to motorsport’s premier class.
Wider tyres, changes to the aerodynamic specifications and louder engines aim to increase the spectacle for the fans, both those attending Grand Prix weekends and those watching at home.
But we’ve been here many times before, and what was promised is often far from what is delivered come the first race of the season. That’s why former Williams, McLaren and Red Bull driver David Coulthard is thinking outside the box at what more the sport can do to connect with those who pay a lot of money to watch races.
The recent example of the Brazilian Grand Prix provides the perfect scenario of how F1 still has plenty to learn. As torrential rain forced the penultimate Grand Prix of the season to be red flagged, nobody in the stands had a clue at what was going on. Neither did those watching on television, until word circulated around the paddock that FIA race director Charlie Whiting was holding off restarting the race knowing that a longer window of improved weather was due later in the afternoon.
Coulthard believes that this is where the sport can make obvious improvements, and can use the example set by other sports in order to strengthen the bond with motorsport fans.
“If you look at American football and rugby, the referee, having viewed the video and having talked with the other referees, he explains the decision,” Couthard said. “Because they tend to use video replays in real time, they can stop the play in most sports, which is the exception in Formula One unless it’s a red flag.
"It immediately gives the fans the reason for or a visual representation of why it wasn’t a try for instance. Then very few people argue about it afterwards.”
'Are the fans getting what they deserve?'
At more than one point during the three-hour Grand Prix at Interlagos, it looked as though the race would be cancelled. This led to fans leaving the stands, booing the cars as they went by behind the safety car and some leaving altogether.
This led Coulthard to question whether the fans are getting what they deserve. In his role as a Channel 4 pundit, the 45-year-old Scot understands more than most that Formula One needs to be appealing in order to make it sellable, and at times in 2016 that hasn’t been the case.
“You just have to be straightforward and honest with people, because in the end they’re all professionals and they can fool some of the people some of the time, but it will win through,” he said. “Sport exists because of people’s passion and their desire to dream of what it feels like to be in a Grand Prix car and to admire the road that they’ve chosen and to support them in their quest for success.
"We can’t short change them, and we probably have on more than one occasion."