How Formula One embodies everything that’s wrong with the world, and why it’s still the greatest spectacle on earth.
The sport, business, and industry of Formula One racing has roots in 1950’s millionaire playboy culture, and has come to represent the rampant wealth inequality, corruption and prejudice around the globe.
In terms of equality among teams, the National Football League is a standout. Salary caps and a draft system that favors struggling teams help balance the league and keep the sport exciting for the fans. Formula One on the other hand has none of these safeguards; instead the struggling teams lose sponsors and fall further behind in developing their car for the season. Furthermore, the struggling teams also lose out on prize money that wealthier teams use to make the next season’s car even faster, making the races even more uncompetitive. Unlike the NFL, Formula One lacks a spending cap; in a technological arms race on the track, poorer teams cannot keep up with the $350-$400 million annual budgets of the top teams. The effects of this cycle are by no means minute. In the final race of the 2016 season, backmarker Manor Racing closed its doors, marking the third team to go bankrupt in a span of five years. Another one of the 3 teams, Caterham Racing, relied on crowdfunding to finish its last race in 2014.
In a sport where one must win to survive, teams will go to extreme measures to improve their results on the track, leading to corruption. One famous example, known as “Spygate”(not the New England Patriots) was in 2007 when Mclaren F1 Team possessed design secrets from Scuderia Ferrari; Mclaren was stripped of all their points in 2007. Ironically, gaining an advantage can also mean crashing your own car. This was the case in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix when a Renault driver crashed his car deliberately to deploy a safety car, giving his teammate the victory. The desire to attain funding has also left low-budget teams trying to cut costs in driver salaries. Williams Martini Racing, an independent team struggling to hold their place in the midfield, made history last year with their new driver, Lance Stroll. His salary: $-80 million. No, the minus sign is not a typing error. His billionaire father reportedly paid eighty million dollars to the team to give his son a seat. Pay drivers have been around since the 1950’s, but with fewer teams on the grid, many deserving drivers sit in lower racing categories who will never race in Formula One because they lack funding. While the concept of pay drivers may seem hilarious, they are unethical and reduce the talent level in the pinnacle of motorsport.
The reluctance to break 1950’s tradition is also seen in the rampant prejudism throughout the paddock. Never in the history of Formula One has there been a female driver, and until this upcoming season, scantily-clad “grid girls” were displayed at every race on the calendar. Non-European ethnic groups were also nonexistent in the sport until Lewis Hamilton, a Black-British four time world champion, debuted in 2007. Fortunately, under new ownership, Formula One is trying to change their image to be more inclusive. This is seen in the banning of grid girls for the 2018 season and the rise of female engineers.
Hopefully, the vivid descriptions of Formula One’s flaws have not turned you away. The same aspects of Formula One that cause the corruption and wealth inequality also make it unique. With unlimited spending on research and development, teams innovate to make their cars more powerful and aerodynamically efficient with complex aerodynamic parts and hybrid engines that achieve 7 miles to the gallon at 200 miles per hour. Even the pit stops are down to a science; Williams Martini Racing holds the world record tire change at 1.92 seconds. Ultimately, all this spending on the fastest cars in the world grasp the attention of the world’s high-profile celebrities and sponsors, who gather to watch the sport in the most exotic venues in the world. Consequently, modern Formula One is a multi-faceted culture that lures adrenaline junkies, glamour enthusiasts, and tech geeks to the greatest spectacle on earth.
Watch the 2018 season unfold, starting with the 2018 Rolex Australian Grand Prix on March 25th at 1AM Eastern (please record on DVR) on ESPN-2.