MAURICE HAMILTON: IS ROAD RELEVANCE IMPORTANT?

Formula 1 news story about MAURICE HAMILTON: IS ROAD RELEVANCE IMPORTANT?

F1 at a major crossroads. Does F1 continue straight ahead, cruising gently into hybrid territory presided over by approving politicians and automotive boardrooms? Or does it hook a left, opposite locking, tyres smoking, engine screaming and blast towards Happy Valley where fans eagerly wait to be entertained?

An oversimplification, maybe. But you get the gist of the problem facing those dictating F1’s future. 

The road ahead has become crowded with manufacturers flocking to Formula E, a form of motor sport that is road relevant and massively accelerates development. Not only is it important to be seen to be going down this route, Formula E costs 10 per cent of the swingeing F1 development budget. The structure of the Formula E race weekend embraces the necessary corporate culture. For motor companies, this is a no-brainer. It is, in their view, the future.

But is it racing? Yes, it is – albeit with limitations that are being addressed and improved. Formula E is not a challenge to F1; merely a new and necessary division embraced by the FIA for which, lest we forget, sport is but a small part in the concept of global motoring. 

Which brings us back to the crossroads. If F1 is considered the pinnacle of motor sport, decisions need to be made not only about which road to take but also about who is driving the bus? Should the manufacturers be given a loud voice to match their financial clout? Does F1 need to continue down the turbo route because it suits the marketing and technical aims of the industry giants?

Surely the time has come for F1 to dumb down road relevance and get away from a power unit being the performance differentiator without attracting the easy and predictable criticism of being retrograde? 

F1 cars do not have active suspension, traction control or anti-lock brakes. And rightly so. They should be beasts to drive. More than that, they should shake the ground and vibrate your breastbone.

I was never a fan of the white noise emanating from a field of high-revving V8s in the previous F1 era. But I do believe in a gutsy roar of power and performance that at least sounds difficult to command.

Of many great motor sport memories over the decades, one was an unexpected standout. When the Grand Prix went to Long Beach, we would take a trip to Ascot Park, a speedway sadly no longer in existence but, at the time, home of midgets and sprinters racing on a half-mile oval. It was a grubby place of fumes, drifting dust and flying dirt. It may not have been corporate America but Andretti, Foyt and the Unsers were part of the winning heritage. You had to go there one evening and pay your respects.

As we pulled into the car park, practice was under way. The echo of a V8 from within the stadium ripped apart the warm evening air. It was a truly extraordinary sound. As the driver jabbed the throttle of this snorting monster, it invoked visions of some wild animal going berserk. 

Almost involuntary, you found yourself running through the gate and up to the fence.  And that was just one car powering sideways under the floodlights. The sight of 20 and more going racing, side-by-side on opposite lock, would beggar belief. But the abiding memory is of that throaty bellow attacking the senses.

It made a return to F1 on the streets momentarily seem tame. But we actually did not realise how lucky we were. The grids at the turn of the 1980s contained Ferrari, Matra and Alfa Romeo V12s, Ford V8s and Renault V6s; all of them vibrant and different. Long Beach was a sell-out each year.

Let Formula E advance and hum its stuff. Time for F1 to turn left and make some memorable noise.