F1’s predictable races risk turning off new American fanbase

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It’s OK to feel duped by Formula One and the splashy Netflix show that sucked you into the globetrotting racing series at the height of the pandemic.

The behind-the-scenes “Drive to Survive” docudrama packaged F1 as sexy and sophisticated, a highbrow alternative to beer-soaked NASCAR and its crash-cheering fans. The epic 2021 championship fight between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton made for must-watch racing, with Americans setting their alarms for ungodly hours to watch one of the fiercest battles in series history.

F1 had finally captured the elusive American audience and Liberty Media, the rights holder, added stops in Miami and Las Vegas to the schedule to give the United States three races this year. With Canada and Mexico City, that’s five stops total in North America on a 22-race calendar.

But here’s F1’s dirty little secret: the racing has never been great and 2021 was an anomaly of a season.

Since Verstappen controversially beat Hamilton in the Abu Dhabi season finale, only five drivers have won races in the 31 races since.

It’s been nothing but a Verstappen rout since he snagged his first title and the two-time reigning world champion has won 21 races since Abu Dhabi. He’s won six of eight races in this snoozer of a season – teammate Sergio Perez won the other two to make Red Bull a perfect 8 for 8 on the year – and Verstappen is on a four-race winning streak.

His win Sunday at the Canadian Grand Prix tied Verstappen with the late Ayrton Senna with 41 career victories, fifth on the all-time list. A high achievement, no doubt, but one that was never in doubt.

When asked ahead of the race about Verstappen’s win pace, Hamilton conceded the 25-year-old will likely eventually pass Hamilton’s all-time mark of 103 victories.

“He’s got a very long career ahead of him, so absolutely. Ultimately, records are there to be broken. And he’s got an amazing team,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got to work harder to try and continue to extend (Hamilton’s win record). I hope we get to have some, at least within the last period of time in my career, I hope we get to have some more close racing.”

The one saving grace from the Verstappen parade in Montreal is that it was a close race: his margin of victory over resurgent Fernando Alonso was 9.5 seconds.

That’s close, you ask? Well, yes, considering Verstappen has been winning races by double-digit margins all season and Canada marked the closest finish of the season to date.

“It’s probably not been our best race, but still, to win by nine seconds, I think shows that we have a great car,” Verstappen said of his Montreal dominance.

And that’s a problem in the United States, where NASCAR is king and its crowds tune in for action-packed racing, the chance to see unique winners and spectacular crashes. F1 has just two winners this season in Verstappen and Perez, while NASCAR has counted 10 winners through 16 races.

IndyCar, which has become both a landing spot for drivers who can’t get an F1 seat and, as points leader Alex Palou hopes, a launching pad to get him onto the F1 grid, has celebrated five different winners through its eight races.

Americans are a fickle fanbase and this new love affair with F1 will be a short one if the on-track action doesn’t improve. F1 excels at drama, cutthroat politics and backstabbing, but when it doesn’t translate into an exciting product, the attention span will be tested.

Take the race at Circuit of the Americas in Texas, for example. For nine years the race in Austin was the only U.S. stop on the F1 schedule and it initially drew large crowds and considerable interest. But attention waned until the “Drive to Survive” resurgence, when race organizers boasted attendance of roughly 400,000 over the three-day 2021 race weekend.

COTA this year will run a month before the debut race on the Las Vegas Strip, which is expected to be the most expensive race for spectators on the 2023 schedule. The Wynn is offering a six-person VIP package for $1 million, and that’s on par with the Las Vegas experiences that have clearly been catered not to race fans, but to celebrities and the ultra-wealthy who simply want to be part of the scene.

Miami didn’t have the same demand in May as it did during last year’s debut and race organizers are now considering moving the event to nighttime to combat both the Florida heat and differentiate the race from others on the calendar.

But if Verstappen and Red Bull continue to dominate the way they are, it won’t matter. Few want to shell out the cash required to see a race decided in the first turn of the first lap. Verstappen has led every lap in his past three consecutive wins.

Hamilton said he’s accepted that Red Bull is just that much better than the rest of the field right now.

“It’s not a frustration anymore, if it ever was. You know how it is, and you know what you’re faced with, and there’s nothing I can do about their amazing performance,” Hamilton said. “It’s likely that they will win every race, moving forwards, this year, unless (Aston Martin and Mercedes) put a lot more performance on the cars, or their car doesn’t finish.”

The F1 paddock understands the ebbs and flows of the series, and recognizes that some of the fiercest racing is mid-pack. Americans may not be so understanding if this continues.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.

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