Damon Hill: A sport at a crossroads, Formula One needs to return focus to the thrill of racing

Damon Hill: A sport at a crossroads, Formula One needs to return focus to the thrill of racing
Damon Hill: A sport at a crossroads, Formula One needs to return focus to the thrill of racing

The weeks and months of talking, the phony war, is over: at last we are back to racing. This season there seems to have been more talking in the winter than there is normally, what with the kerfuffle raised over getting rid of grid girls, as well as the regular driver and technology related stories associated with the off-season.

But we are here at last. And I am looking forward to the season – if hoping that it is a little more closely fought than last year. In testing, Mercedes were dominant but there is always an element of mystery to the pre-season runout. Lewis Hamilton fans will be delighted if his Mercedes does indeed turn out to be half a second quicker than everybody else’s but they and every other team are very good at concealing what they are really up to, when everyone is in the middle of testing.

Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari is looking good too – as are the Renaults. But two teams who are looking vulnerable are McLaren and Williams. In the case of McLaren, their problems during testing were plain to see and if they continue into the season proper we will soon see that rattle come flying out of Fernando Alonso’s pram.

Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Formula One. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

They and Williams are fantastic teams with a storied history behind them, but they are both on a downward spiral. They have got to change tack somehow – there is no way they can continue to be midfield teams, something has to give.

A sport staring down the prospect of change

In some ways, the entire sport is at a bit of a crossroads. There are new owners Liberty Media, who are still learning how to run it – the PR fallout from the grid-girl announcement is a case in point. And I am a little concerned as to whether they love the sport for what it is.

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They have very little experience in running motorsport and they are finding out that there are things unique to F1 which perhaps they did not expect.

Then there is the massive selection of new tyres that Pirelli are supplying, which may flummox casual fans with all the terms like hypersoft, supersoft, etc. We will do our best on Sky to explain the differences to fans but what everyone involved in F1 should remember is that the best sports are simple: the basics of golf, football, or skiing, for instance, are all easy to understand. Fans have a love of technology in F1, but it is important to have a balance.

An endless race for horsepower

Another way in which the sport has some decisions to make is over how to power the vehicles. I am not about to start preaching that they should be electric, because that is not what the sport is about. It should not mirror concerns of society – because then where would we finish? Would we end up having speed limits? I am not advocating a return to the old days where we were sponsored by tobacco and drivers lived fast and died young. But it is not necessary to conform to the restrictions and concerns of wider society. Put it this way: a fireworks display is wasteful, noisy and messy. But it is a celebration.

Lewis Hamilton takes a selfie as he gets ready for the second Formula One practice session in Melbourne.
Lewis Hamilton takes a selfie as he gets ready for the second Formula One practice session in Melbourne. (GLENN NICHOLLS/AFP/Getty Images)

But the sport has to make a decision soon about how to power the cars, as the next formula is due to be announced in 2021 and the manufacturers need to know well in advance. The hybrid system, as is currently used, may soon be obsolete – we may all be driving in electric cars on the road as they are looking far more viable than they did a few years ago.

What I would like to see is the cars slimmed down and less reliant on technology. Robert Kubica recently said the current cars are like driving a bus. I applaud him for saying that, but what he said is concerning. These are racing cars – lets design them so they can drive as such. We can keep the safety features in, but a slimmed down car would make a better sport or everyone: drivers and spectators.

Sky Sports F1 is the only place to see all 21 grand prix weekends in 2018 live.

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