Motor racing’s biggest events – from F1 to IndyCar and NASCAR – have all taken a financial beating from the coronavirus crisis. Tens of millions of pounds have been lost just by keeping fans out of the stands. But there is a bigger problem on the horizon, a problem that could prove even more detrimental. What is it? The attempt to walk that fine line between entertainment and safety.
Ask any F1 team and they will swear that safety is the number one priority. Even the F1 organization regularly claims that the safety of fans and drivers is most important. But then you see them playing games with the safety car in order to make racing more exciting. Some would argue that improving racing’s entertainment value can only be done at the expense of safety. Therein lies the rub.
Turning the Lights off Later
Formula One officials have recently come under fire for the way safety cars controlled the traffic at some of the 2020 races. The biggest issue of contention is the point at which the car’s safety lights go off, signifying when drivers can hit the accelerator. Critics contend that safety lights are being turned off later and later with each caution.
Why is this a problem? Because drivers at the front of the pack are waiting for the safety lights to go off so they can create a gap between themselves and the cars behind. The wider the gap, the safer restarts tend to be. Turning safety lights off later prevents drivers from creating larger gaps. This means a more tightly packed group of cars at the restart which, someone argue, makes the restart more dangerous.
There were a number of significant crashes during the 2020 season that could be blamed on unsafe restarts. So, is it reasonable to turn safety lights off later and expect drivers to adapt? Is it reasonable to pursue less exciting restarts in order to maintain safety? The debate rages on.
Another complaint suggests that F1 is following in the footsteps of NASCAR by throwing more caution flags purposely to produce more restarts. These days, NASCAR seems to throw the caution every time there’s a piece of paper on the track. And for some reason, cautions seem to increase the closer you get to the finish of a race. How many NASCAR races finish on schedule these days? Many more are going into overtime, that’s for sure.
It is believed that cautions and restarts make for a more exciting race by preventing cars from forming long lines that circle endlessly around the track with little interruption. But if this is the case and restarts are more dangerous than long stretches of uninterrupted racing, it would seem the critics have a valid point.
Why It’s a Problem
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, you might be wondering why any of this is a problem. It boils down to public perception. In other words, the way fans feel about safety plays a role in how they feel about the sport of racing. Any perception that motor racing is jeopardizing driver safety just to enhance the entertainment value of the sport could turn fans off in big numbers.
Here in Europe, we are much more safety-minded than most other places in the world. We are obsessive about things like health and safety signage in the workplace. We have a mountain of regulations in place designed to protect employees in the workplace. We regulate everything from how people can use ladders to the types of materials that can be used in building construction.
None of this is bad, by the way. We believe safety is a priority. Most of us also understand that the racetrack is a workplace for drivers, crew members, track officials, etc. They deserve a safe workplace just as much as the rest of us. If their safety is jeopardized for the sake of entertainment, how is that any different than a factory jeopardizing workplace safety to increase production? It’s not.
If Formula One needs a model to look at, they need look no further than the National Football League (NFL) in the States. More than a decade ago, a group of NFL players began raising concerns about helmet safety in relation to concussions. That was on top of previous complaints that team owners were asking players to risk injury in order to improve the product on the field.
After several years of discussion, it became apparent to the NFL that fans were not very happy with the league’s safety protocols. It was at that point league officials developed a new concussion protocol along with asking equipment manufacturers to come up with a better helmet. They also began modifying the rules of the game to prevent collisions that could lead to concussions.
Safety is equally important to racing fans. If fans determine that racing is jeopardizing safety just to increase the excitement on the track, they might end up losing more fans than they otherwise would to boredom. In the long run, that’s a bigger problem than coronavirus.