Thursday, June 18, 2009

Formula 1, Don't Go All Indy on Us

Just when I was ready to relax and enjoy summer, the season when it rains every day...wait, what? Hang on... Oh, right. Summer, the season when my sports obsession becomes less intense in the absence of any significant hockey, soccer (sorry, Euro friends), rugby and football; the season when I can actually wake up in the morning without feelings of disappointment or false euphoria and go to bed without feelings of dread; the season when only the occasional live baseball game makes my sports radar blip in any serious way, this happens.

"This," of course, is most of the teams in Formula 1 threatening to leave the sport's governing body and form their own championship. Apparently there's a spat over a budget cap; the BBC link above explains everything for the curious or out-of-the-know. (By the way, in case you were wondering, yes, Max Mosley, the Nazi orgy guy, is prominently involved in this. See? It's really not boring.)

Now, Formula 1 might not be a big deal here in the US, but it's massive all over the rest of the world. Naturally, then, I like Formula 1. (What, exactly, draws me to sports like this? Maybe we'll explore that at some point. But I digress...again...) I watch a lot of Grand Prix races live on the excellent Speed network (just get it to us in HD, please), and when I don't catch a race live, I always check the results in detail.

It's not an "obsession" sport for me, but I do enjoy it. It's a summer sport as well (mostly, anyway), which means that it doesn't get shoved to the back burner in a busy time of year. Quite the contrary, in fact. Given that I only really get into baseball in April and October and/or if I'm actually at a game, Formula 1 has the summer mostly to itself, sharing the dog days for only a few weeks here and there with the likes of the Tour de France and Wimbledon. Le Formule, as the French call it, is just a fast, fun, glamorous summer diversion. It's something the Most Interesting Man in the World from those Dos Equis ads (who, incidentally, would almost assuredly not drink Dos Equis) would watch. For now, at least.

I say "for now" because this split talk is genuinely scary. Remember Indy? The 500 and all that? It used to rule the American racing scene, and it was pretty big worldwide, too. Well, where is Indy now? In Indiana...OK, sure, I get that. But where is Indy racing and the organization that brought us the Indy 500 every Memorial Day weekend during the golden years of the Brickyard? Well, it's nowhere now, pimping out Danica Patrick to try to stay just above professional lacrosse (or rugby) on the relevance scale in this country.

There are a lot of reasons for Indy's demise--the rise and vastly superior marketing of NASCAR among them--but one of them is a schism that split Indy racing's governing body for a few years and created two separate and mostly warring organizations. Indy's popularity was already on the wane at that point, and the split was the empty-netter that sealed Indy's fate. There's a single Indy racing organization again now--the two sides having perhaps bled so much from cutting off their noses to spite their faces that they decided to stitch things up--but Danica aside, Indy racing and the 500 both are pretty close to being dead. Let's put it this way: Indy's TV network is Versus. (And, yes, I know that the NHL is on Versus, too, but you won't find me arguing that the NHL is popular. I just like it.)

Now, Formula 1 isn't suffering a popularity problem at the moment, although the Ferrari-Michael Schumacher axis that dominated the sport for much of this decade did get tedious. But a split just seems like a really bad idea. Granted, pretty much all of the relevant teams have pledged themselves to the rebels and sworn to fight the sport's governing body, so it could be that if a split does happen in 2010, the proposed date, nothing much will actually change.

Or it could be a that a Formula 1 breakaway organization would serve only to confuse and frustrate fans and would end up being poorly organized (something tells me that these breakaway teams don't fully grasp the complexities of running a whole sports league). And while Force India doesn't score many points, the smaller teams do at least make up the numbers and make the drive more interesting and challenging for the brighter lights of the circuit. (Yes, I can understand the contrary argument--that the races would be safer and more exciting without the lesser drivers and cars on the track--but I don't buy it. Having to pass that Force India car again and again is just part of racing, even for Jenson Button.)

Oddly enough, I'm kind of with the big teams on the whole budget-cap issue; I really don't care about parity in Formula 1, and if Ferrari and Renault and Richard Branson's new all-conquering team want to spend insane amounts of money to innovate and improve automotive performance and safety (which is what they do in the long run), I say let them. And, hey, maybe they really could break away from Formula 1 successfully and go their own way. After all, the English Premiership did OK after breaking away from the football league.

But structure--and a fairly rigid one, at that--is usually a good thing in sports leagues (example: the NFL), and I can see the rebel breakaway group dissolving into infighting and sniping in relatively short order. These are, after all, rich people with a lot of money to spend on fun stuff, and somebody generally needs to keep them under control. Besides, all the rebels need to do is look at Indy to realize that overconfidence and an identity crisis can bring down even the most established of sporting entities.

Maybe this is all a bargaining tactic and the rebel teams would never dream of breaking away from Formula 1. But they sound pretty serious at this point, and I've even caught a headline or two here and there suggesting that some of the drivers would stick with their teams (and their money) if the teams did break away and form their own circuit. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. I don't want to look back on the Grand Prix of Monaco with a sense of detached nostalgia and hint of sadness. I want to look forward to it every year--they way I used to look forward to the Indy 500.

So, thanks a lot, Formula 1 rebels, for introducing stress into my soaking-wet but mostly peaceful summer. I suppose a few months off without worrying too much about something sports-related was just too much to ask.

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