Chances are, if you’ve ever tuned into a Formula 1 race broadcast, read a Formula 1 article, or popped onto Twitter during a Formula 1 race, you’ve heard someone out there lamenting that the series is not what it used to be. It was better back in the day. The 1980s and 1990s—that was the pinnacle of the sport, and it’s been a downhill spiral since then. Any recommendations on how to fix the sport lie in recreating the past. That’s how we’ll make Formula 1 a good series.
But can anyone actually say with authority that Formula 1 has ever been good in the first place?
I asked this on Twitter last Sunday, partly just to be provocative, but the responses I got to it had me wondering. What actually makes a racing series good, and has F1 ever met any of those standards?
Everyone had different answers, which I kind of expected. But that made me want to dive into quality control, to see if I could parse out why F1 is subject to so much criticism and if there’s any way to make it a “good” series.
Good is an incredibly relative term. I think black metal is good music, but I imagine most people wouldn’t even consider a couple of Norwegian men screaming bloody murder in extremely low quality to be music at all. Your “good” and my “good” are probably both incredibly different when it comes to Formula 1—and that’s cool. There’s something really neat about how people relate to this single sport in so many different ways. But that only makes the “good” harder to pin down.
I think it mostly comes down to nostalgia. There’s tons of research on the psychology of nostalgia, and it ticks so many boxes regarding motorsports. Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding is a study by Alan R. Hirsch that nostalgia is “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past” where you cobble together a bunch of sense-impressions and filter out all the negative stuff. It sets up this idea that the past was an ideal that you’ll never be able to return to, which makes you crave it all the more. It’s one of the reasons why people who were abused as children can end up with abusive spouses; their childhood wasn’t happy, but their brain has sanitized it. All those memories of how things tasted, felt, smelled, sounded—our brains hype it up and want us to go back to a time that never actually existed.
Which kind of helps make sense of why you constantly hear about how F1 isn’t as good as it used to be. No, it’s not going to be as exciting as it was when you were a kid because your brain remembers that time before you had responsibilities and a family and a job and says, “that was the best time ever and everything about it was good, including the races I watched on Sunday mornings.”
It’s why so many of the older F1 commentators and journalists keep pushing for louder engines and no halos and fewer regulations. It wasn’t ‘like that’ when they first joined the F1 party, but only because they’re remembering how stoked they were about being at the circuit in the first place. Hell yeah, I’d want to go back to 1984 if that was my first season driving an F1 car; my brain would build it up to remember everything being freaking awesome.
There’s definitely something to say about the race quality in the past few years. A lot of people mark 2012 as the last time they were really happy with the on-track product, and I can see where they’re coming from. But I think it’s also disingenuous to say that the way forward is to start going back.
We’re at this point in time for a reason. It might not be every single race fan’s dream of a perfect series, but F1 is a sport designed to push for technical evolution. I grew up fascinated by 1970s F1, but I am sure as hell aware of how many drivers died in their pursuit for glory. The 1980s were exciting, but so many races were determined by the same kind of technical failure that causes us to speculate on what would have happened if a driver hadn’t DNF’d that one time at that one race and then won a championship.
Safety and reliability are progress. Wildly advanced cars and the air of glamour and prestige that follows F1—progress. As much as we can keep pining for the good ol’ days, it would be next to impossible to get back there. I’m sorry to say, but F1 can’t be what it was when James Hunt was a superstar. We should be evolving, not devolving.
Part of why our memories are so fond is because no one was actively telling us how bad every single race was. The 21st century is one of pessimistic nihilism thanks to the prevalence of ideas we get exposed to. Every decision made by the powers that be in F1 hit social media in seconds–and a few seconds later comes the backlash. We don’t wait to see how a change will turn out because it’s change and so it’s already bad. It’s cool that we can have discourse, but at what point does it become harmful?
F1 isn’t going to make progress if any attempt at progress is cast aside because it “used to be better”. It’s been interesting to look at the different approaches to F1 when compared to a series like, say, Formula E or IndyCar. The latter two are building themselves up: FE generally, while IndyCar is still building itself back up post-split. But both series adopt a hopeful tone: drivers, teams, journalists, and pundits all expound on progress and improvement. There is no precedent for these series (or, if there is, it’s not a precedent anyone wants to follow), so we’re able to craft narratives of hope, of seeing-what-happens, of this-is-gonna-be-good.
In F1, it’s the opposite. Nothing in the series is ever good. The races are bad, the drivers are annoyed, the teams complain, and the journalists have nothing nice to say. It’s hard to maintain positivity or be hopeful for the future when everyone tells you it’s just gonna suck anyway. I go into an IndyCar race expecting to leave fulfilled, even if it’s a bad race or my favorite driver loses miserably, because I know it’s just gonna be a good time overall. I go into a Formula 1 race ready to be bored, disappointed, and annoyed.
And if we look back to last weekend, the races don’t always meet those expectations. IndyCar’s 2018 Phoenix Grand Prix was boring as hell. It was late, nothing was happening, and I was praying it would be over so I could just go to bed. F1's 2018 Bahrain Grand Prix, though? It was exciting! It was fun! I was hooked until the end waiting to see if Sebastian Vettel’s tires would hold out, if we’d see a Toro Rosso on podium, if Honda would actually be good. I had planned to leave halfway through and ended up sticking around to watch the podium.
The post-race coverage, though, was so different. F1 focused on so many negative storylines, ie Hamilton swearing at Verstappen, or Kimi Raikkonen’s insolent attitude. IndyCar made their reports and just started getting everyone stoked because, yeah, it wasn’t a great race, but Long Beach is next!!
I was excited to wake up for the Chinese Grand Prix as soon as Bahrain ended. Now, I’m just looking at watching the race as a chore, because my post-race enjoyment was nullified by how many people weren’t happy with what we got.
So has F1 ever been good? Maybe. Maybe not. Our memories of what F1 used to be are tinged with a nostalgia that makes it seem untouchably great, but I don’t mean to take away from your fond childhood memories by saying that you have to be entirely pessimistic. In fact, I think that’s entirely the problem.
We don’t have to give F1 credit where it’s not due. There are some bad races and some stupid calls, and there’s nothing wrong with pointing it out. Sometimes, the old races are better. But, instead of deciding that we’re not going to enjoy literally anything about Formula 1, maybe it’s time we just start letting ourselves have fun watching instead. We don’t always have to be a critic; sometimes we can just be an observer, too.