How a ‘raft of improvements’ are reviving F1’s soul

How much time needs to pass before something becomes classified as retro?

Mid-80’s, 90’s…? In Max Verstappen’s case somewhere around 2008…

Retro is something Formula 1, for all of its modern, state of the art advancements, has been doing rather well recently in the way it is looking to the past to give the future a familiar twist.

From the more aesthetically pleasing cars to the wider tyres to the post-qualifying on-the-grid interviews to the loosening of those strict filming regulations, F1 is evoking a time where image was king and access was more available… all we need now is a Lewis Hamilton draping a fag out of his mouth on TV and Sebastian Vettel telling us what he had for, erm, breakfast that morning.

OK, so F1 isn’t going backwards per se, but it is welcome to see it using a selective memory to revive some of the soul that has been lost – for reasons both necessary and a shame – by the years of corporate repositioning.

This is no better represented than in Canada when organisers announced it would be reviving the once-annual mechanics’ raft race across the Olympic rowing lake that frames the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit, creating a buzz not only amongst fans who can remember back to the 1990s when it was last held but also the teams and media, some of which would have participated or watched back then too.


F1 goes wet and wild with the return of the Canadian GP raft race

Indeed, with F1’s new owners Liberty Media making a point of maximising the potential of every racing event to attract new fans, they’re not forgetting the old punters who may have fallen out of love with the sport when it became too corporate.

Reviving a long-standing tradition like the raft race – which was first put forward by Red Bull – is an easy gesture of showing the intentions of the sport going forward. As managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches said on the grid in Canada, “we’re looking to put the fun back into Formula 1”.

At the very least it was an opportunity for the mechanics themselves to enjoy some of the spotlight as the brains and brawn that make F1 tick.

Despite Mercedes, Force India and Scuderia ‘F1 is not a circus’ Ferrari being party poopers, the race itself was as fantastic as it was silly as it was fun.

The rules were slightly modified to those of 19 years ago, where mechanics were permitted to engineer their own designs for the race. In 2017, all teams participating were given identical kits which consisted of 10 jet floats, pallets, rope, paddles, a megaphone and life vests. Given these are mechanics and engineers, paid big bucks to find loopholes in regulations to gain a competitive advantage, the following fine print applied:

“No rafts may be on a canoe or boat hull, or have a single, ‘smooth line’ design; please build with the spirit of the event in mind. Utilisation of that secret America’s Cup project file you have tucked away on your laptop will be frowned upon… Rubbering might be racing, however please note that physical altercation will not be tolerated (much).”


Some teams were more successful than others… to say the least

Teams had 45 minutes to build their raft, which needed to be big enough to field a team of seven with six paddlers and one cox. Ideally there would be a team principal on the raft also, but commitments forced many to miss the event. Among the rowers was team principal Christian Horner, managing director of motorsports Ross Brawn and Sean Bratches.

There was even a fan-helmed raft, although we won’t go into how well they fared, just to say the raft now lives at the bottom of the lake.

While the rumour was Red Bull had invested quite a bit of time into researching the best way to construct its raft due to the Austrian team funding the event, it was McLaren who powered through the field to take a dominant victory.

Cynics will say that McLaren having performance engineer – and former Olympic rowing silver medallist – Tom Stallard was an unfair advantage, but the rules didn’t stipulate professional athletes couldn’t take part. Toro Rosso finished the race in second, while Sauber rounded out a podium you are probably never likely to see in F1.

It remains to be seen whether McLaren’s win counts towards convincing Fernando Alonso to stay next year, but it didn’t escape notice Honda wasn’t involved.

“Saturday’s raft race was a special way to celebrate this landmark moment [50 years of F1 in Canada] and to show how much tradition can support our commitment to offer teams, fans and the whole Formula 1 family an engaging and fun way to experience our sport during a race weekend,” Bratches said.

There was a slight sting to proceedings in Canada though when chairman Chase Carey said Liberty Media was reluctant to renegotiate current contracts with F1 circuits. This is a particularly worrying message for venues like Silverstone, who receive no public funding and have recorded a loss of £6 million in the past two years.

The intention of making every event more spectacular to lure new fans is almost wasted on the British Grand Prix, as Silverstone welcomed 140,000, 139,000 punters on race day in 2015 and 2016 respectively. These were the highest numbers recorded on race day during these two seasons as Britain narrowly edged Mexico City.


Another bumper crowd is expected for the British GP, but for how much longer?

The circuit’s owners, the BRDC [British Racing Drivers’ Club], has warned F1’s new owners that it could trigger a release clause in the current contract for 2019, as the race fees increase year by year.

The contract, due to end in 2026, has an escalator clause which sees the hosting fee rise by 5% each year, meaning by the time it comes to negotiate for 2027, the hosting fee will be over £26 million.

This begs the question as why isn’t Liberty Media willing to renegotiate with circuit promoters? One of Liberty Media’s short-term goals is to reduce the cost of tickets, as they continue to reiterate their slogan of making F1 more fan-friendly and accessible.

Surely if a compromise can be reached regarding the hosting fees it should be with fans’ best interest taken into account, after all, they’re the ones investing money into the sport’s future. Whether it be throwing out the escalator clause or finding a sensible solution that would see fan favourite circuits safe from being axed off the calendar, it’s an issue that can’t be swept under the rug or delayed further.

If promoter fees were cut on the premise ticket prices had to drop, there would be more bums on seats as many races struggle selling pricey tickets.


F1 is saying goodbye to Malaysia after 19 years

This year’s Malaysian Grand Prix can serve as a good indication of this theory. As it’s the final time Formula 1 will visit Kuala Lumpur after 19 years, the race promoters are slashing ticket prices up to 80%, giving fans a final chance to see F1 cars live, with grandstand tickets costing only 100 euros for a three-day pass.

Williams’ recent 40th anniversary celebrations at Silverstone – where 40,000 people turned up to an event the team initially only set aside 4,000 tickets for – served to indicate there is a huge appetite for F1 if the circumstances allow, in this case free entry.

Naturally, you won’t be seeing any free-to-attend races any time soon, but it can be represented by events offering stronger value for money, assistance Liberty Media seems keener to provide in the absence of contractual tweaking.

For now, fans attending the British Grand Prix will still have to cough up a minimum of £135 for a general admission race day ticket, in hopes an agreement can be reached between the BRDC and Liberty Media for the future of F1 in the UK… but if they do at least they’ll be in for more of a treat than in recent years.

Article originally published on 

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