It’s a pretty elusive balance that F1 has to strike between evolving and alienating. Seven years ago, when we were deep in the Shumi/Ferrari age of excellence, hundreds of thousands of race fans spent hundreds of thousands of Sunday afternoons baying for rule changes that would reacquaint the sport with overtaking, excitement and unpredictability.
Early this week, when the FIA announced plans for a “winner takes all” way of deciding the title, message boards, forums and blog sites erupted with indignation and vitriol against what was in reality, a tiny change to F1.
In the main, these weren’t objections to the theory behind the rule change, they were much more fundamental revolts against the principal of it.
The general gist being “Why are they tinkering with our sport?” “It ain’t broke so don’t fix it,” and “we don’t want changes made just so numpties can find the sport more accessible.”
I’m sure the following conversation is familiar (often with a new girlfriend or boyfriend who is trying to understand why you’re sitting inside on a sunny Sunday, glued to the TV and cultivating a vitamin E deficiency):
Pastey F1 fan: “If the chap in the red car finishes three places ahead of the chap in the silver car then the chap in the silver car must come at least two places higher than the chap in the red car in the next two races, but not finish lower than fourth next time out otherwise he can’t win the title.”
Bemused other half: “Gosh. It’s a bit complicated isn’t it?”
Pasty (slightly frustrated) F1 fan: “Not really. You just have to know what’s going on.”
Simply saying whoever wins the most races wins the title does make that whole thing that bit more accessible, but as we saw from this week’s reactions, it does so at the cost of alienating F1’s heartland.
F1 die-hards love the intricacies and the subtleties and the plethora of permutations that a season can throw up.
The winner takes all change meanwhile would have appealed to, and attracted more casual, more fickle fans.
The problem with fickle fans is that they have a tendency to bugger off just as quickly as they arrive!
And when the fickle fans move on to sport's next shiny thing, they leave behind a big void, and an alienated hardcore.
Hands off, it's ours
It may be because the politics in F1 are so public that we feel like we have more of a claim to the sport, it may be that hardcore F1 fans have to invest more time than most into understanding the intricacies of it, or it may just be that we’re all a bit obsessive and geeky.
But whatever the reason, the F1 heartland stakes a huge claim to it’s chosen sport and the governing bodies need to respect that at every turn.
It's not that F1 fans don't want new-comers to the sport, it's that they don't want new-comers at the cost of the sport's integrity.
Spectacular moments of competition is what everyone wants from F1, and it’s the attractive power of that which F1 needs to put its faith in. Get that right and you don't need minor changes to attract fickle fans.
Don’t tinker. And never sell out your heartland.