Spectator sport

Has Formula 1 ever been this exciting?

11 December 2021

9:00 AM

11 December 2021

9:00 AM

The good citizens of Stevenage would be well advised to prepare extensively for the likely open-top bus parade of their most famous citizen should Lewis Hamilton clinch his position as the best -Formula 1 driver in the world (ever) this weekend in Abu Dhabi. Because it could take some time. The Hertfordshire new town is a pleasant enough place, but it’s adorned with enough mini-roundabouts and dual carriageways to give even the most assiduous bus parade driver seizures.

Still, if ever the extravagantly tonsured motor-racing ace deserved homage from his home town, it would be if he wins the 2021 driver championship. This has been an F1 season like no other, with movie moguls presumably queuing up to chronicle the epic rivalry between Hamilton and ‘Mad’ Max Verstappen, another of those famous Belgians, incidentally (even if he prefers to think of him-self as Dutch). They are two of the best drivers in history and together they are bringing in a new, much younger audience.

If F1 bosses are seriously trying to calm down the antagonism between the two, I would be surprised: you couldn’t buy this level of publicity. Nonetheless, it might prove a dangerous game. Verstappen has already landed on top of Hamilton during the Italian Grand Prix in September — so who knows what the final instalment of terrifying bumper racing will bring in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

Verstappen races rather too hard for many. Ruthless has become reckless and that means dangerous. Now the title will be decided on a circuit where overtaking has been next to impossible. Hamilton deserves the title simply by dint of doing his job within the rules, and that means within the white lines. Verstappen thinks otherwise: but this is still a duel for the ages.

If you haven’t watched F1 for years, thinking it will just be Hamilton, or before him Vettel or Schumacher, cruising to victory after an incident-free whip round some well-groomed circuit, get ready to be amazed. We have moved on since the days of Murray Walker and James Hunt shouting about Riccardo Patrese or some such journeyman driver.

This is now like a whizzy computer game on speed as extraordinary vehicles hammer round some despot’s narrow concrete boulevards at up to 200 mph. You don’t have to be interested in a racing car’s downforce, or know what it is; let alone understand the intricacies of DRS (the drag reduction system, using adjustable bodywork). And as for car aero-dynamics, forget it. Now we have brilliant access both to drivers’ radios — ‘That guy is crazy, man,’ Hamilton screamed after Verstappen braked hard in front of him during the Saudi Grand Prix — and to the team rooms, where in June we saw the normally equable Mercedes director Toto Wolff rip off his headphones and slam them down in fury.

The pull of the sport really is expanding. Partly this is down to the Netflix series Drive to Survive, going behind the scenes at F1 and bringing in a largely young and female audience. The show features wealthy young men bitching about each other and sharing their life stories, while equally wealthy team bosses snipe at their rivals over obscure rules and engine tweaks.

With all the added soap qualities of bitter feuds, it is — as one American viewer wrote — a bit like Real Housewives if the housewives were driving at 200 mph and occasionally bursting into flames. But you can’t fault Liberty Media, F1’s new owners, for trying to broaden the appeal — unlike previous owner Bernie Ecclestone who seemed happy for F1 fans to remain largely of his own generation. And he’s in his nineties.

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