Sorry, Seb: It’s not your fault, but F1 was better in the old days


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Sebastian Vettel in 2013 (left) and Jim Clark in 1967 (right)

Jenson Button gave up a few minutes of his time to give the TV crew from Sky Sports F1 a guided tour of the Suzuka circuit ahead of the race at the weekend.

Several things struck Motorhead about the largely dull and turgid few minutes of broadcasting that followed.

Firstly, that one of Button's sponsors was so desperate to make the most of this airtime that they ordered him to wear a baseball hat with their logo jammed so hard on to his head that I genuinely feared that the circulation in his ears might have been cut off. All that beautifully shampooed hair, totally hidden. What a shame.

Secondly, Motorhead actually felt slightly sick at the way Martin Brundle - a veteran of 158 Grands Prix as a driver, and with over a decade of commentary under his belt - had clearly been forced by his producer to nod appreciatively and raise his eyebrows in pretend awe at Button's analysis of the track. It was as if Button were showing round one of the dolly birds from Sky Sports News rather than one of the most respected and experienced voices in the sport.

Thirdly, and most importantly for the purposes of this blog, Button admitted that he thought the circuit was more fun when misjudging one particularly tough corner meant running straight into the wall, rather than coasting around a tarmacked run-off area.

"Obviously it's good that the safety is better now, that's just modern racing" said Button, backtracking furiously in case the Daily Mail used his words to justify an article headlined "DANGER MAN! BUTTON WANTS MORE PERIL IN F1".

Now, Motorhead is not one of those people who holds any truck with the idea that things were better in the good old days.

They weren't.

Sure, there's a recession on, and nobody without rich parents can afford to buy a house unless they live on bread and water for 10 years, and there's about to be a new, unwinnable war in the Middle East, and England are about to be sent into a play-off to make the World Cup, and it's going to be the worst winter for decades and all the rest of it.

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But at the same time, I can phone my sister in Australia for a penny a minute, watch live sport on a smartphone while sitting on the bus, and millions of people around the world recover on a daily basis from illnesses that would have been fatal to their great-grandparents.

But when it comes to F1, the good old days really were better.

In the past few months, there have been only two moments when footage of Formula One cars racing has made the non-petrolheads in the Eurosport office sit up and take notice.

Those two things were both trailers, whose videos came our way: one for the recent release of F1 film Rush; and the other for the official Formula One video game, which allows you to drive 1960s and 1970s-style cars while pretending you're Jim Clark or Niki Lauda.

That's right: it used to be that watching the latest F1 racing was enough for most fans, while for those wanting to pretend to have a go themselves, then simulating the latest and greatest cars was just dandy.

Now, it's all changed. Most casual fans will be thrilled and excited by Rush (or the recent Senna film) than they would have been all season, and Motorhead is yet to meet anyone who's more excited by the idea of driving 2013 cars than 1963 cars on their Xbox or Playstation.

It's as if people started turning off Casualty and Holby City in their droves because they'd rather watch a medical drama when every patient dies soon after the first sign of infection.

Or a police drama set in early Victorian England when endless investigations come to nothing because all that's found at the crime scene is a couple of pints of the killer's blood and loads of smudged fingerprints that nobody knows what to do with.

The Japanese Grand Prix this weekend showed exactly why F1 has got so dull, and it has nothing to do with the genius of Sebastian Vettel or his car designers at Red Bull.

It's because they've discovered that the way to win isn't by trying to drive faster than the other guys, like it used to be in the good old days when duels could last half a race. It's about managing tyres.

All of the first three drivers spent the first half of the race not trying to catch each other, simply because they knew that preserving their tyres would ultimately prove faster over the 200-mile race than pushing hard to overtake a rival.

Genuinely, the most interesting thing about the race - and perhaps the only noteworthy thing - is that Vettel won the race by choosing to change one less set of tyres. His average speed around the circuit while in motion was several seconds slower than that of team-mate Mark Webber, but he won because he needed only two pits stops instead of three.

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That's it. That's your two-hours of entertainment in a nutshell. And that's why re-living the fictionalised exploits of James Hunt and Niki Lauda is more fun than anything that's happened on the track this season - despite an initially-promising four different winners in the first six races.

F1 hasn't become boring because Sebastian Vettel is too good at it. It's become boring because it's been distilled into a sport where the science of race strategy has become more important than the blood and thunder which made it a global hit in the first place.

There may well be a way back, a rule change or two to try and encourage risk-taking, not with drivers' lives, but with the cars' speed. A 5% speed boost at the cost of 25% reliability, if it could be engineered that way somehow, would revolutionise and reinvigorate the sport.

Until then, we'll have to all admit that it really was better in the old days.

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