Authenticity and Entertainment
As a teenager growing up in the early 1990s, I was a heavily into the 'grunge' music scene of the time. Within that scene, great store was put by the supposed 'authenticity' of the music, in sharp contrast with the heavy rock music of the late 1980s. There was a strong sense that the music should be as pure, as unadulterated as possible. That excessive production, and compromises in the direction of radio-friendliness were to be looked down upon. It was a scene that was disdainful of bands that were thought to be careerists, of those who made compromises, of those who weren't, in the idiom of the time, for real.
Yet, looking back, it all seems rather strange. Bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains were looked down upon while acts like Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr were inexplicably feted. Almost every young grunge fan, though, could agree that Nirvana were the real thing. Which is a little odd, looking back upon it, because listening to their breakthrough album, Nevermind, now, what strikes me most about it is how produced, how polished, it sounds.
It would be tempting, but to my mind, wrong, to conclude that music is always compromised in the name of commercial imperatives. There's still plenty people prepared to plough their own furrow, they just don't sell many records (actually, that's not entirely true - Joanna Newsom's Ys, Arcade Fire's Funeral and, going back a way, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing have all been remarkably successful while sticking firmly to their creator's original vision.) OK, you might be wondering, if you are still with me, what does this have to do with motorsport? (And no, I'm not just trying to outdo Mark Hughes, who got the fall of the Berlin Wall, Reagonomics, banking regulation, capital flows and the homogenising effects of globalisation into an article about customer cars this week).
Well, just as there are tensions between art and commerce in the music industry, so the same is true of sport. In fact, I think its particularly true of motorsport because, on television at least, it is so dependent on there being a close contest for its appeal. A one-sided football match can still make good viewing (look at Man Utd's game against Roma the other week). Michael Schumacher, or whoever, disappearing a minute ahead up the road tends to have casual fans reaching for the remote.
In motorsport terms, I'm with the purists. I was horrified when, a few years ago at the height of Michael Schumacher's dominance, people who should have known better were seriously talking about introducing weight penalties, reverse grids and other such wheezes to peg back the then-dominant Ferraris. To my mind, penalising success in this way is anathema to what top level sport should be about. It is like deciding to make Carl Lewis run 105 metres, or widening Brazil or Italy's goal posts in the World Cup, or making Roger Federer play with a wooden racket. If someone does such a good job, or is so superlatively talented that they are able not merely to win, but to dominate and humiliate their rivals, then this is what they should be allowed to do. A processional race may be dull, but an artificially close one is meaningless. You may as well go and watch wrestling.
I have to confess that, for a long time, I was ambivalent about safety cars (which could nullify a big lead) and single lap qualifying (too much of a lottery). I've sort of been won round to the concept of the safety car in F1 (it hasn't been used in the way it so often is in US open wheel racing, as a cynical means of enlivening a processional race) and single lap qualifying was at least the same for everyone. The two race engine rule, with its 10-place grid penalty for anyone forced to change power unit in the middle of a race weekend could theoretically spoil a championship fight, but the introduction of the 19000rpm rev limit has made this far less of an issue than it used to be.
On the whole, Formula 1 has avoided the worst efforts of those who seek to compromise the sport as a pure contest in the name of television numbers. The much trickier question is whether there is a place for such measures elsewhere in the sport. Two touring car series races last weekend gave me pause for thought on this matter. The British Touring Car Championship has been in the doldrums for a long time now, but this year has seen perhaps the best grid, and certainly the largest entry for a very long time. WIth a series which mixes manufacturer teams and professional works drivers, on the one hand, with clubman drivers in driver-prepared cars at the other extreme, it is inevitable that there will be some bending of the rules to make it easier for all to compete. Hence, local semi-manufacturer efforts from Vauxhall and Team Dynamics (Honda) are able to run BTCC homologated super2000 cars, while privateers have been allowed to continue to run the obsolete local BTCC-spec cars which should, in theory be faster than the S2000 tourers.
Some might consider such confused rules to be the kind of thing that purists like myself would frown upon. In this case, though, it strikes me as an eminently sensible way of keeping both the works teams at the front end and the privateers at the back content, and ensuring that there's a decent and varied grid to keep the spectators happy. I would normally be against the success ballast which is used to even out the field and prevent any one car/driver combination dominating proceedings. However, while F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle of motorsport, nobody would pretend that the BTCC is. There are some good drivers in the field (mainly in the works teams, but Matt Jackson has been pretty damned incredible in a second-hand family-run BMW s2000 car) but there are also a lot of wealthy amateurs. This is primarily about providing good wheel-to-wheel motorsport every other Sunday through the summer. About hooking impressionable young kids on the sport. It is, in other words, about entertainment. And it doesn't really pretend otherwise. On the generally short and narrow British tracks, even the slowness of the S2000 touring cars isn't a big problem. The WTCC cars may look lost in the big open spaces of Zandvoort and Curitiba, but round Donington or Knockhill, they've got power aplenty. In fact, if I have a real complaint about the BTCC (unecessary uses of safety cars at Rockingham aside) it is that the clerks of the course are far too lax on frankly unacceptably bone-headed driving. Which, because everyone watches it on television, ends up filtering all the way down to local kart meets. Not that I'm bitter...
Meanwhile, over at Hockenheim, Europe's most successful and, on paper, its most interesting touring car championship was kicking off. The DTM has big, high-tech, powerful cars, with V8 engines generating 500BHP and a host of serious racing drivers at the wheel. Even the worst of them, the useless progeny of Messrs Lauda and Ickx, would probably be quite capable of running reasonably near the front of the BTCC. There's none of this reverse grids nonsense, and no weight penalties for those who have the temerity to win races.
And yet....the race was a real disappointment. OK, the fact that those of us watching in the UK have to tolerate the yabberings of Carlton Kirby doesn't help, and nor did the fact that 4 cars were eliminated in a very nasty first lap crash. But that wasn't all. There was just something a bit too slick, a bit passionless, about the proceedings. Perhaps its the fact that, like the Aussie V8 series, its not so much a genuinely open race series as an advert for the two car companies that provide all the vehicles. With just Audi and Mercedes participating in the series, there is a strong incentive for the series organisers to ensure that neither team establishes an upper hand. Each manufacturer has agreed to run an identical number of 2007, 2006 and 2005 spec cars, and each even appears to have agreed to run one female driver each. Mercedes, mind you, at least had the sense to pick up someone who is quick, rather than merely pretty. Audi would do well to see whether they could tempt Katherine Legge away from Champ Cars.
The fundamental problem, though, was a new and ridiculous rule that each driver must make 2 pit stops during the course of a 1 hour race. It was quite clear from the pace of Paul Di Resta, who held off pitting until very late in his 2 year old Mercedes, that the outright quickest strategy would have been to do the whole race on a single set of tyres. So why force drivers to pit twice? What on earth is the point? There does seem to be a myth abroad among series organisers that pit stops are somehow exciting, but I honestly cannot fathom where it came from. Indeed, Hockenheim gave a classic illustration of why they are not. Matthias Ekstrom went from 4th to win the opening round without passing a single car on the track. It wasn't the first time this has happened either - Gary Paffett used to pull this trick even in the days when there was only one mandatory pit stop. A perfectly reasonable thing for the teams to do - they're in it to win - but it would have been much more interesting to see whether Ekstrom had it within him to pass Spengler and Di Resta on the road.
The DTM, unlike the BTCC, is potentially a world class racing series. It has big, powerful cars, and drivers with major titles to their name (Jamie Green and Di Resta are Euroseries champions, Adam Carroll and Alex Premat were serious runners in GP2 who were perhaps just a whisker from making it into F1 and Mika Hakkinen...well, I don't need to say). It doesn't need silly gimmicks and artifice to spice things up, and it certainly doesn't need to be ruined by endless pitstops. Here, unlike in the BTCC, the purists really ought to win out.
post script - For those who are interested, to my mind the outright best 'grunge' album ever made was the Screaming Trees' Dust. Chances are, you haven't heard of it. Which goes to show that a pretty face counts for more than genuine musicianship.... Superunknown wasn't bad either.