Cape Town - Growing up, I used to watch Formula One races with great excitement on Sundays.
Not just the thrilling starts, mind you. Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna was my driver of choice, and his duels with Frenchman Alain Prost – especially when they were both at McLaren – were almost always eyecatching.
As the years went by and Senna and Prost were no longer around, Michael Schumacher quickly established his dominance. Schumi’s time at Benetton was memorable, and he was still a cult star at Ferrari.
But with greater technology entering the sport and perhaps taking away from the driver skill, the races became more and more of a procession around the track, with little action such as overtaking manoeuvres to enthral the crowds.
The excitement levels for me dropped to such an extent that I began just watching the start of a Grand Prix to see if anyone could get past the pole-sitter – or whether there was a bust-up between the cars somewhere in the field!
Eventually I even stopped watching F1 altogether: it had just become too boring. Until this past Sunday ...
Lewis Hamilton is a hero to many for all the right reasons, on and off the track. For serious petrolheads, his seven titles is what it’s all about, and he so nearly went past Schumacher for an eighth crown at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the weekend.
For South Africans, his engagements with Nelson Mandela in the past won him serious streetcred in Mzansi, and he also interacted with captain Siya Kolisi and other Springboks at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Berlin in 2020.
So, many local F1 fans would have been screaming for the British star to clinch victory in the United Arab Emirates, and his battle with Dutch youngster Max Verstappen for the title couldn’t have been scripted better – level on points, and a winner-takes-all scenario in Abu Dhabi.
There is that word scripted … Was it all planned, the build-up and Sunday’s drama? Well, it’s hard to ensure that both drivers were on 369.5 points heading into the weekend, and there would have had to been some serious rehearsals to plan the late crash by Canada’s Williams driver Nicholas Latifi in the closing stages, which led to the safety car coming out and the ensuing drama.
At that point, Hamilton was leading by 11 seconds with six laps to go, although he had worn tyres compared to the fresh set of Verstappen, who had pitted earlier.
Race director Michael Masi’s decision to make it an effective onelap shoot-out for the title favoured Verstappen as a result, and he was able to get past Hamilton and clinch his first title.
The merits and demerits of Masi’s order will be debated for years to come, even though Mercedes’ appeals have been dismissed by the stewards.
But for sheer drama, it was breathtaking to watch, and it even saw stars from other sports – such as England striker Harry Kane – getting involved, while social media was filled by opinions from users who don’t even watch sport in general, let alone Formula One.
That is the type of reaction that other big sports such as soccer, rugby and cricket battle to achieve. Formula One has taken off the shackles of its previous owners and organisers and become more popular, with its famous Netflix series Drive to Survive giving fans behind-the-scenes access to the pitlane since 2019.
The Bok World Cup documentary Chasing The Sun was a glimpse into how Kolisi and his team triumphed in Japan, but that was a once-off event. Perhaps more access to teams and players for the fans, through the media and TV programmes, is the way to go for rugby and cricket to become truly global sports …