The wrong person, the wrong time, but the right idea

Ferrari President Luca Montezemolo’s recent criticisms of current F1 and his call for round table discussion incited some derision. Does he have a point?
Saturday, June 21, 2014

June 20, 2014 (F1plus/Graham Keilloh).- You’ve probably worked out by now that Ferrari President Luca Montezemolo has been rather agitated just lately. Agitated with the way F1 is. And both he and his organisation have communicated word of their continuing agitation in recent days. Indeed have rather stepped it up a gear.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published a few days ago Montezemolo once again derided the sport’s current landscape. ‘Formula One isn't working’ he asserted among other things, including pouring a bit more scorn on the efficiency focus in the prevailing regulations, on its necessitating saving fuel and tyres, as well as on the restrictions on engine development.

It follows on from his similar ‘taxi cab formula’ claims made back in round three in Bahrain earlier in the year. At around the same point Ferrari also published the results of a rather dubious poll from its website, presumably to the end of sending the same message.

And within a couple of days of Luca’s latest public gripes it all went a stage further, Ferrari confirming in a statement that Montezemolo had written a letter to Bernie Ecclestone (he latter denied it) proposing to ‘sit down around a table and come up with new ideas’ with ‘contributions from all areas are of value; teams, sponsors, promoters and media’ as well as that ‘President Montezemolo would also like to see other high-end players invited, those who are currently not involved or only partially so; new media, social networks and colossi such as Google and Apple’.

All of this would be to seek to ‘turn the sport away from the wrong turn it appears to have taken’.

As an apparent coup de grace Montezemolo fired something of a warning shot that Ferrari might quit the sport. It was not said explicitly; instead it was rather allowed to dangle in the air with his words in the Wall Street Journal interview. Upon being asked about rumours of a Ferrari LMP1 programme he replied ‘Of course, we cannot do sports-car racing and Formula One. It’s not possible.’ One suspects the Ferrari chief is a sufficiently smart cookie to only allow such a concept to be floated if it is intentional.

If you sense that this all has a nagging familiarity about it then you’d be right, even over and above that Montezemolo’s denigration of this season’s F1 has been a consistent theme of his for a few months now. If Ferrari is an F1 perennial then so is Ferrari threatening to turn its back on it. Some 64 years on we still await the Scuderia’s F1 withdrawal. We’re probably correct therefore to not take the latest airing of it too seriously.

It’s something that’s been going on since the year dot; indeed it was a favoured tactic of the marque’s founder and towering figure for decades Commendatore Enzo Ferrari. In one rather extreme example back in the 1980s when the phasing out of the turbo engine was announced, to be replaced by V8 normally aspirated units, Ferrari wasn’t happy as it wanted to create its usual V12s.

At roughly the same moment it set the wheels in motion for an Indycar programme, even going so far as to design and build an Indy machine – the 637. But there were plenty of cynics out there who believed that it all was merely a wheeze, albeit an elaborate one, to pressurise the governing body on the imminent F1 engine regs. And as if by magic when the rule makers relented on the V12 point the Indy programme was quietly shelved…

One even thinks of Peter Ustinov’s wonderful satire The Grand Prix of Gibraltar from all the way back in 1958, wherein the imposing Italian team boss Commendatore Fanfani – whom it didn’t require much imagination to work out which figure from actuality he was based on – in immediate response to some perceived injustice or other blasted forth ‘I’m retiring from racing…I’m disgusted’. Needless to say the withdrawal was overturned equally capriciously not long afterwards.

More broadly Ferrari is a team and Montezemolo is an individual that have rarely required too much encouragement to get involved in the sport’s rounds of politicking, intrigue and irritation. The behaviour also has somehow tended to coincide with periods wherein the team is not performing as it might have liked where it really matters.

It’s impossible to know for certain of course, but it seems near-implausible that such repeated noises of disgust would be heard from Montezemolo’s direction if Ferrari was challenging for race victories right now, just as we’ve heard no complaint at all thank you very much emanating from the dominant Mercedes operation this season.

It all rather leaves Montezemolo and by extension Ferrari open to accusations of being sore losers; of deflecting attention from its poor performance; of seeking to prevail via politics rather than via getting the technical and on-track job done. Plenty have made them in response to Luca’s latest interjections.

As if to capture this, as well as capture that such shenanigans from the Scuderia are nothing new, James Hunt – who had more reason than most to feel a certain coolness towards the red team – after Ferrari had withdrawn from the Spanish Grand Prix in 1980, the weekend wherein the starting pistol of the infamous FISA-FOCA ‘war’ of the early part of that decade was fired, noted in his BBC TV commentary: ‘Ferrari – who, whenever there’s any aggravation, shout ‘The Sport!’ – withdrew basically because they like aggravation, and they’re not winning anyway’. Replace the term ‘withdrew’ with ‘kicked up a stink’ and you could say Hunt’s sentiments from then are applicable pretty much directly now.

So, we have an implicit threat not to be taken seriously, and complaints about the formula that rather fail the Mandy Rice-Davies ‘he would say that would he?’ test. Nothing to see here therefore? Well, no actually. Not entirely anyway.

As believe it or not cut through the considerations already outlined and at the core of it all Luca Montezemolo most likely has a point. Indeed he has a highly apposite point that at least identifies probably the most critical challenge that F1 as an entity faces currently. Bar none.

Perhaps not so much in his general complaints about F1 2014-style. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the current regs – and they need not detain us here given they’ve been discussed at length elsewhere – surely if nothing else in their broad thrust the sport has now crossed the Rubicon. In other words, they’re here, the fundamentals are unlikely to change soon so it surely would be most beneficial if all concerned sought to make the best of it.


Enzo Ferrari was also outspoken. (LAT Photo)

Equally surely even the greatest opponent of the 2014 spec can appreciate that a positive narrative for the sport can be constructed from them, even if they’d personally rather the spec was something else. It also can hardly be denied that the sport could have done a much better PR job with it all than it has thus far. Major figures within F1 saying at high audibility that the product being offered up is rubbish doesn’t help.

But where Montezemolo did start to form the basis of a point that action is required is that F1’s TV viewing figures are in decline, and apparently have continued to decline this year, and that the sport must do something to address it. But it’s no new thing, and can be traced back broadly to about 2005, which also suggests it’s not entirely driven by whatever the latest load of rules are, rather that there are more fundamental things going on in addition or perhaps even instead of this.

And further firming up Montezemolo’s point is that – something that apparently scratching the surface of the TV figures shows – the main problem alongside the haemorrhaging of viewers in markets wherein the F1 coverage has shifted to pay channels or else become less accessible, is that the sport for a while hasn’t been attracting in a new audience of younger fans.
Indeed there may be yet broader factors behind it all, with evidence out there that young people could be falling out of love with the automobile more generally. In major Western economies the proportions in this age group taking driving tests and purchasing cars have been in a state of downward drift for a few years now.

Which brings us to the nail which Montezemolo is most likely hitting squarely on the head. Probably related to all of this at some level is that the way that young people consume their entertainment, including sport, is changing. Studies show that online, mobile and social media are growing rapidly as means of consuming sport coverage (indeed in many markets online now is second only to TV, having overtaken print), and that such behaviour is concentrated especially among young people.

Perhaps there even is reason to think that it’s all particularly applicable to automobile-based activities of which this sport is one, as some reckon that the young person’s sliding attachment to the car can be explained by such new media now providing their window on the world that the car used to.

Plenty of other sports, including some major ones, have embraced these new media and are reaping considerable reward. F1 meanwhile has an offering of online and mobile coverage that is both sparse and patchy, while as can be ascertained from Bernie Ecclestone’s recent comments on the matter – as well as could be confirmed by anyone who’s sought to post F1 footage on YouTube, Twitter or similar – F1 has an attitude to social media that borders the contemptuous. But if the sport’s facing considerable challenges in attracting younger fans, then it seems most obvious in response to offer coverage and to promote yourself via the media that young people are using.

Montezemolo is therefore absolutely correct to say that such giants of the internet and social media such as Google and Apple (and plenty of others you’d have thought) should be invited to contribute to framing the way ahead. F1 surely has a lot to learn – and to gain – from them.

It’s a pity that given it’s him saying it, in combination with the sometimes histrionic as well as rather boy that cried wolf comments he’s made already, will result in plenty dismissing Montezemolo’s sentiments out of hand. Yet however cynical we might be about his motives, as well as on how he got there, we shouldn’t lose sight that there’s a good chance that in this Montezemolo has actually landed upon the right answer.

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