Abu Dhabi was recently the venue for the final Formula One race of the season: an event which filled me with all the excitement of a small child being dragged to the supermarket for the weekly shop. Needless to say, I did not attend, but my conversations with a number of people who did strengthened my belief that the entire F1 frenzy is the product of a strange collective delusion that the sport is particularly exciting.
I’m normally open-minded when it comes to these things. Even with those sports that I don’t particularly enjoy watching, I can usually understand why other people would find them engrossing. F1 baffles me though. The intrinsic appeal of the sport seems totally out of proportion to the money and attention lavished upon it. Even after his divorce, Bernie Ecclestone is still worth over £ 1 billion; between them the teams spend billions of dollars each year; and approximately 600 million people watch each race on TV.
It was telling that the Abu Dhabi organisers felt compelled to liven up proceedings by arranging an incredibly expensive array of additional entertainment: concerts by Beyoncé, Jamiroquai, Kings of Leon and Aerosmith. These seemed to capture far more interest and attention than the group of mobile billboards moving round a track as quickly as possible. This contrasts with football for example, where normally everyone can’t wait to get the interminable opening/closing ceremonial entertainment out of the way and just get on with the game.
Perhaps I’m missing something crucial (please tell me if I am), but I think the key is that F1 has completed the transformation from a sport to a circus. The actual racing is secondary to the corporate hospitality, the pulchritudinous pit girls, the team politics and the manufactured sense of occasion. The genius of Ecclestone is that he has packaged F1 as an event and turned what would otherwise be a niche-interest sport into a global phenomenon.