Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Quantity and Quality

This might seem like an odd thing for a motorsport fan to complain about, but I can't help but think that right now, there are too many racing series out there.

I'm not talking about the many hundreds of national club-level racing championships across the world. These have always existed for the enjoyment of those taking part and while they can provide entertainment for paying spectators (I make the trip to Knockhill for the SMRC's races from time to time and it's well worth the price of admittance) that is not why this championships exist. Rather, my concern is that there are too many serious sub-F1 single seater series in existence at present.

Why, you might ask, should that be a problem? Racing is racing, and the more of it the better from the fan's perspective?

I'm not convinced. For one thing, who has the time to follow the myriad single seater formulae now in existence? GP2, GP2 Asia, the World Series by Renault, Indy Racing League, A1GP, Superleague Formula and now, it would seem, GP3 and Formula 2? Even as avid a fan as myself simply doesn't have either the time or the inclination to keep track of all those. There simply aren't enough hours in the day.

And that matters, because several of the above series really depend on paying spectators and TV audiences to survive and thrive. GP2 and Formula 2 might subsist from the money drivers bring to the teams to pay for rides in the hope of making enough of an impact to break into F1, but the rest really depend on having a fan base to survive in the long term. And in that regard, all of those series are struggling to a greater or lesser degree. IRL is probably the best placed of them, attracting reasonable crowds thanks to the Champ Car merger and the emergence of names like Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick (not to mention, of all things, the success of front runner and alleged Lester Piggot copyist Helio Castroneves in Dancing With the Stars....) All the same, it is a mere shadow of the glory days of the pre-split Indy Car Series and is a distant second in the American public's eyes to NASCAR. A shame, because the IRL, with its mix of street, road and oval circuits, is a much more worthwhile racing series in my book.

Nonetheless, it is I think suffering from the perception, both at home and abroad, that it is not really a top-level racing series, but a dumping ground for those unable to break into F1 and into US stock car racing. It is at least rather stronger than A1GP is right now - to the extent that the organisers are trying to use Andretti and Patrick to attract some attention to the series. There have been problems with the new car which have led to the cancellation of the planned first round at Mugello and a depleted field turn out at Zandvoort, but that isn't the real problem. Fundamentally, the problem the championship has is that it has been entirely unable to attract any real star names to its driver line-up and racing fans have never been like football fans and aren't interested in supporting a team just because they share a nationality.

Talking of football, at least A1GP isn't quite the monumental folly that the recently launched Superleague Formula is. Try as I might, I really can't understand what the thinking behind this racing series really is. For those who aren't familiar with the concept (and it's had pretty well zero-publicity, so you could be forgiven for not having heard of it) this involves racing cars entered by major football teams competing in a one-make single-seater formula. Quite what is in it for the clubs I cannot fathom. Is anyone suggesting that football clubs really need to advertise their existence to the world? And if someone hasn't heard of Liverpool FC, for example, is there really any chance that he will become a Liverpool fan because he sees the club's name on the side of a re-badged Champ Car. And if it's not about advertising the clubs, what is it about? I honestly don't know the answer, but I suspect that it's either a vanity project for football clubs drowning in cash, or else the series organisers have blinded the clubs to common sense with the power of a good marketing presentation. Somehow,

A shame, really, because while I can't imagine the average football fan, or even the typical racing fan, is going to be all that excited by the idea of watching Tuka Rocha and Davide Rigon fighting it out around Zolder or Mugello, I caught a bit of the Nurburgring Race on Youtube and was actually rather impressed with the cars. Big V12 single-seaters which had enough power to be interesting and sounded absolutely fantastic. It would make a far more interesting junior single seater championship than the Renault World Series. While I couldn't care less what happens to Superleague Formula, it would be a shame if the cars and engines went to waste.

The other problem with the sheer profusion of championships has the unfortunate effect of diluting the quality of each of them. How much more interesting might GP2 have been this year if such as Giedo Van Der Garde, Bertrand Baguette and Salvador Duran were in the field, instead of Michael Herck, Carlos Iaconelli and Giacomo Ricci? Come to that, how much more competitive might GP2 as a whole be if teams like BCN Competicion, Fisichella Motorsports and DPR, who have shown little in the way of pace, were replaced by the guys from Tech 1, Interwetten and Carlin? There are only so many really clued up race engineers in the world, and having them spread across multiple formulae is bound to affect the quality of the individual series, just as having the best drivers in different series does.

Of course, cynics might reasonably ask whether the current set up actually quite suits certain young drivers and their managers. The other week, I reviewed Tommy Byrne's autobiography, in which it was suggested Senna deliberately spent a year in FF2000 to avoid having to go up against Byrne in F3. Whether there's any truth in the claim we'll never know - the only man who could tell us is long dead. Either way, there have been other drivers who have taken unusual career paths which, it has been suggested, are best explained by a desire on the part of the driver or, more likely, his manager (for racing drivers as a breed are not given to self-doubt, especially in their early years) to avoid going up against someone who is too good too early. All of which may be good for the driver in question, but it doesn't do much for the sport.

However, in recent weeks, it has been hard to avoid stories of trouble brewing in the world economy, and it is equally hard to imagine that this won't have an impact on the cash-hungry world of motorsport. It is therefore more than likely that some of the above series will go to the wall, which leaves only the question - which ones should we hope are left standing?

It doesn't take a genius to predict that Superleague Formula is unlikely to be long for this world. Race day crowds have been tiny, the drivers are largely unknown, and it is hard to understand what on earth the series is really for. I wouldn't be sorry to see the end of GP2 Asia either really. It is hard to see this as much more than an expensive extended test series for the summer series, and I can't help but think that the fact that one of the leading teams, ART, is selling rides in the series on a piecemeal, race-by-race basis suggests the championship isn't being taken entirely seriously. Its main function seems to be to destabilise A1GP, and in that, it is probably successful. Nonetheless, I'd be keen to see A1GP survive, not least because the new cars look rather fantastic. To do so, though, it really needs to attract a more worthwhile driver line-up than it has done so far. Thus far, there has been little sign of this, and I wouldn't be surprised if the series was consigned to the dustbin of history within the next year or two.

I've never really been able to understand quite where the Renault World Series fits in. It seems to be pitched somewhere between F3 and GP2, which doesn't entirely make sense, as the most promising F3 drivers usually move straight into GP2 anyway - budget allowing. That said, it provided a useful stepping stone for Robert Kubica, but I can't help but think that the cheaper Formula 2 category will probably destroy its reason for existing - that of providing a cheap alternative for drivers with the talent, but not the budget, for GP2.

The IRL, I hope, will survive. Unlike the other series I've mentioned above, it is much more clearly a professional race series in its own right, and not merely a stepping stone for young guys trying to break into F1. Post-reunification, it doesn't initially appear to have made great inroads into NASCAR's popularity in the US, but America has always had a homegrown professional single-seater formula and it would be a shame to see it go. Nonetheless, the brutal truth is that it wouldn't be quite the loss that it once would have been.

Time will tell which of the above series will survive in the years to come. I honestly can't believe they will all still be in place, even by 2010. However, I'm not persuaded this is necessarily a bad thing for the sport. If a little less quantity leads to a little more quality, that would be no bad thing.

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