In Good Conscience

The real race is Liberty Media's intention to attract millennials

The cars are wider and faster, and intended to look meaner. The drivers also look bulkier. Lewis Hamilton is into Thai boxing; Valtteri Bottas has been submerging his body in freezing Finnish ice pools.

And all because F1 is ratcheting up the physical pressure on the drivers through greater G-forces that will be brutal on the neck and the back of the heads.

After three years of Mercedes-dominated racing that drove down global TV audiences, the new season is on a rescue mission. Starting in Melbourne this weekend, and swinging through Marina Bay on Sept 17, the aim of F1 is to pull back the missing millions of viewers by pushing machine and man to unprecedented limits.

We will very quickly know if Ferrari really have found something in the factory to push back Mercedes' omnipotence. There is a feeling that the aggressive driving of Sebastian Vettel will be better suited to the relentless, almost reckless high-speed cornering.

Or is that merely a myth? Are Hamilton and his new team-mate Bottas still getting more out of their power units after the recent testing in Spain and will it be enough to stay ahead of the charging scarlet Ferraris or the Red Bulls?

You'll notice what I did there, deliberately bolting the human side of it onto the fusion of telemetry and mechanics. Call me old-fashioned, but I dread the day when humans at the wheel become ever more subordinated to pit-lane manipulation.

FIA president Jean Todt with his actress wife Michelle Yeoh at the Global Road Safety Film Festival last month. Todt believes F1 is lagging behind in providing entertainment for the common public.
FIA president Jean Todt with his actress wife Michelle Yeoh at the Global Road Safety Film Festival last month. Todt believes F1 is lagging behind in providing entertainment for the common public. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The company (Liberty Media) will soon enough push motor sport towards American razzmatazz, driving it towards the new income streams of Internet technology that the new owners believe is untapped gold in motor racing.

 None of what is happening right now has anything to do with the takeover of F1 by Liberty Media. The company will soon enough push motor sports towards American razzmatazz, driving it towards the new income streams of Internet technology that the new owners believe is untapped gold in motor racing.

Personally, I thought that whatever else Bernie Ecclestone might have lacked, his nous for turning a buck (or a million bucks) was far from lacking.

Liberty thinks otherwise. The new owners believe that old-fashioned Ecclestone has been overtaken by the world of social communicating and that Petrol Head is old hat; it is the age now of instant, inclusive sharing.

The new wealth is youth with an iPhone in one hand and an open wallet in the other.

Even Jean Todt, the rather conservative Frenchman who heads the International Automobile Federation (FIA) that has set the rules for motor sports almost since the invention of the automobile, acknowledges that F1 has slipped several laps behind the communications revolution.

 "Entertainment," he said last week, "has always been a priority. What has changed is the way to entertain.

 "My wife," he added, speaking of actress Michelle Yeoh, "is in movies, and movies now go to Netflix. A movie doesn't go to the cinema any more, it goes to Netflix and immediately 180 countries have access to it."

 F1, he concluded, was slow to adapt to the communications technology revolution, but the new owner, Liberty Media, has the expertise in that field which motor racing failed to exploit.

Yet there is one form of motor sport where new technology moves at lightning pace. It isn't in F1, but in Formula E.

Electric-powered car racing, also under the auspices of the FAI, started in the east, in Beijing three years ago. It has 10 teams, each with two drivers, and they compete in electric-powered cars around purpose-built, temporary street circuits in nine cities across the globe.

The third Formula E season begins in Hong Kong in October, shortly after the Singapore GP.

These are not the big beasts that F1 runs. A Formula One team costs upwards of S$600 million to run for a year, compared to less than S$20 million for the electric cars which share the same generators and run on identical amounts of battery power.

Nelson Piquet Jr was Formula E's first world champion, in 2015.

Remember him? Surely you must. Piquet was the driver who confessed to crashing his Renault during the inaugural 2008 Singapore GP, on the orders of team management.

Fast-forward to Formula E and back in a Renault, run by NextEV Team China Racing, Piquet pipped the Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi to win the title by a single point.

The Brazilian was helped onto the podium by real fan power. Formula E "gets" the social media revolution in a way not (yet) brought in to F1.

Fans vote online for their favourite drivers, starting two weeks before the race and continuing through the opening six minutes of the championship final itself. Three drivers get a "FanBoost" addition of 100kJ of energy to use in a power window.

The driver who starts on pole also receives three points, and the driver claiming the fastest lap collects another bonus point.

Buemi, incidentally, had his day when he finally won the championship last year, by a couple of points, in a challenge that went down to the fastest lap on the final race.

The suspense of the season, and the sense of real-time involvement of the fans, obviously has its appeal to a younger generation who, unlike their fathers, are not bound to the history and the nostalgia that fuelled the Ecclestone era of F1.

It nudges motor sports towards the eSports phenomenon that is sweeping the world of the young and connected. And, yes, Formula E has experimented with driverless car racing.

A "Roborace" for autonomously driven, electrically powered vehicles was tried in the first season but discontinued.

Maybe even youth is not yet ready for the experiment of sending motors around and around with no human in the cockpit? A bit too much like your father's Scalextric up in the loft, perhaps.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2017, with the headline 'The real race is Liberty Media's intention to attract millennials'. Print Edition | Subscribe