🇺🇸 F1'23: R18 - Formula Generation

I was told this sport was dead...

Let me tell you a story, but it’s probably one you’ve heard before.

Formula 1 in the United States was meant to be dead. You probably heard about it. The final blow was allegedly dealt in a city that had a claim to be the capital of motor racing in the country, way back in 2005. 

That year’s Indianapolis Grand Prix saw 14 of the 20 drivers peel into the pits at the end of the formation lap, with their Michelin tyres not being safe enough to take on the banking at turn 13 of the famous circuit. The results will show a Ferrari 1-2, Michael Schumacher beating Barrichello, but most of the 130,000 strong crowd had disappeared long before the drivers got to celebrate.

The powers that be refused to change the circuit mid-weekend, with a drastic idea of a chicane suggested by some. In 2023, with track limits still an issue, a mid-weekend white line thickening was done in some parts of the circuit. That’s right, in a sport determined by technology and data, a coat of speciality Dulux (or whatever the American equivalent is) is just the thing to bring things up to scratch.

In short, 2005 was a farce, and even when the sport tried to make amends, they were denied by circumstances, also hit with controversy in 2006 after an opening-lap incident took out seven of the drivers in the field.

We can fast forward to a generation later in Texas, where Max Verstappen won. Again. That isn’t the story - it’s far more newsworthy in 2023 when the World Champion doesn’t win. The story is that 430,000 people attended over the weekend to watch him do it. While this is a small drop, it’s by no means as much as what the doom merchants would have you believe.

We also still have one more race in the US to come this season, with a visit to Vegas, and the travelling circus already pitched up at Miami, for star-studded Grands Prix in three different US timezones in front of what might end up as a million fans over the course of the three races (and we can also add Montreal for another North American race).

Not bad for a dead sport in the US, even if everything is bigger in Texas (sidenote, how do they make US and Texan flags THAT big?)

The other prevailing narrative is that the sport has somehow suffered in the wake of Verstappen’s dominance. Red Bull being at the top of the standings by around 4 million points has allegedly stopped people talking about the sport and the sport is less relevant than it was at the height of the Netflix-driven passion and fandom in 2021.

Somehow, people desperate to involve themselves into a conversation into a “dying” sport are desperate to tell you how much this sport is dying. These are bizarre conclusions to draw when people are more invested than ever, especially because social platforms are not the same public squares they were a couple of years ago.

I am an anecdotal sample size of one, but I can go entire race weekends without posting publicly, but I’d be much more likely to share my thoughts in a group chat.

Besides, It would be impossible to keep the same levels of interest and conversation up about the sport and its intensity from the Lewis Hamilton-Max Verstappen battle a couple of years ago. There were certainly parallels in Austin this weekend with 2021. Back then, Verstappen hadn’t won a title, and was the younger upstart fighting Mercedes in an intense title fight.

It was Verstappen’s first win in three races after a pair of second places, holding off Hamilton, who ran him close, but ran out of laps towards the end.

The same could be said in 2023. It felt almost inevitable that Verstappen would take the win. Despite qualifying sixth, and the McLarens, Ferraris and Mercedes looking like they might be able to compete, the Red Bull is still the best-in-class, and despite nursing a brake issue, Verstappen and the team behind him are still dominant. 

Max beat Russell off the line, caught and passed Leclerc, with the polesitter attempting a one-stopper in the Texan sun, and caught Norris, eventually winning after holding off Hamilton, who ran him close, but ran out of laps towards the end.

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While the title fight two years ago was something of a novelty for fans who had seen Mercedes dominate in Austin, save for a spot of Ferrari red. Verstappen has won the last three races in a row here - every single Texas edition since the pandemic-induced hiatus in 2020. Three consecutive years of winning has meant in true Netflix style, fans might want a new format, or the introduction of a new character emerging from the extras pile. The former happened with the Sprint, but the latter is looking unlikely.

I am still split on the shorter format race. Running the same track for a shorter distance isn’t encouraging greater risk taking, and it really wasn’t a Sprint to remember. I still think there is mileage in scrapping the Shootout and replacing it with a sprint, but with the starting grid determined by reversing championship order. That would encourage drivers to go for it, and give fans a thrilling last-to-first challenge. Sport is increasingly influenced by video games, so why wouldn’t you bring the best way of racing pixels to life?

Another sidenote, imagine if back in 2005, we had sprint racing. What would have happened then with the tyres?

We move onto leg two of the triple-header, and this time, we won’t have a sprint, with Checo Perez’s home race in Mexico the venue. Beyond that story, the real drama comes lower down in the Teams’ championship, where McLaren have overtaken Aston Martin, and quietly - the gap between Mercedes and Ferrari for second place is only 31 points. Both drivers are superbly consistent and all four are in machinery that is continually being developed. 

The season and sport is in decline? While there are stories to get invested in, it’s not even close to its peak.

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