The BriSCA F1 World Championship is short-oval racing’s most prestigious title, but NEIL RANDON explains why he believes the sport’s showpiece series needs a change of format.
Having previously discussed the relationship BriSCA F1 has with the media, and how it must encourage more coverage, the sport has to then live up to the expectations of its most important group – the fans.
Without fans, there is no sport.
On a basic level, BriSCA F1 ticks a lot of boxes. It is an action-packed, noisy, colourful and spectacular motorsport. But that is only when it is firing on all cylinders.
For mad-keen, ardent fans who are obsessed with the sport, it’s all good – no matter what the weather, the car turnout, the crowd size, how close the racing is, the show. They just love it and go every week and tell everyone how great it is on social media.
But not everyone is like that. If you have been watching stock car racing for as long as I have, you tend to pick and choose the meetings to go to – and while you know there are no guarantees, you hope the effort will be worthwhile
Basically, there are four levels of how good a meeting is, in much the same way any sporting event is rated, whether it’s F1 Grand Prix, football, tennis, rugby, whatever.
Level 1: The meeting everyone talks about for months, even years to come.
Level 2: A good day out, plenty of good racing.
Level 3: Uneventful, but OK.
Level 4: Dragged on, left before the Grand National, which I later found out was cancelled because the meeting overran.
Level 1 happens maybe once or twice a season (say 10 per cent of the time), level 2 occurs at 30 per cent of meetings, level 3 at 50 percent of the season and Level 4 perhaps 10 per cent.
So the good meetings probably make up less than half of a season. The rest of the time you go with the expectation that they will produce the goods. It is as it is in life. Totally normal.
And as each season goes by the ardent fan becomes older, more cynical, and maybe more critical. They understand how the sport works and what the requirements are to have an enjoyable day. The buzz is harder to replicate. They become frustrated with the sport’s politics – and suddenly their favourite driver announces they are retiring.
There then comes a time when family comes first. Children arrive, elderly parents become more dependant, The kids have their own interests, the cost of living becomes higher and budgets become tighter. Travelling costs and the price of tickets makes it less appealing to spend hours on the motorway, or stuck behind a tractor on a B road to go to an ordinary meeting with 30 cars and nothing to race for.
Suddenly, it is apparent that the ardent fan is spending more time at home at weekends.
This is the scenario a promoter has to work with. Somehow, they have to convince stock car fans to go to their event, even though, if it is a ‘domestic’ meeting, there’s nothing on the line.
In 2021, after a pandemic and money is tight, it’s a tougher sell.
And it becomes a habit not to go racing. It’s easier and more comfortable to stay at home and enjoy a well-earned Sunday roast, have a few beers and watch the Grand Prix on the telly.
The only events fans tend to become excited about are those where something is at stake, a championship. For the most part the racing is better and more cars are in the pits. Drivers are more revved up for a title.
So, it seems logical to rev up the publicity surrounding the sports biggest events.
In a sport I work closely in, horse racing, the National Hunt jump season revolves around one thing – the four-day Cheltenham Festival in March. It is a huge event, the biggest on the racing calendar.
Leading up to March, every big horse racing meeting is linked to how it relates to Cheltenham. For the Daily Mirror and the Daily Star, in particular, and also for the Daily Express, circulation figures rocket during those four days. It is seriously big business for the papers, with more media coverage, more ad sales and bigger print runs leading up to and during that week than any other time of the year, whether it is news- or sporting-related – and that includes Premier League football.
To a much lesser degree, in BriSCA F1 stock car racing, the World Final is the event its entire season is built around.
The World Championship is the sport’s most important series and rightly so. But in its current format and the way it is run and features in the fixture list it is losing its lustre.
The format of qualifying for the World Final has pretty much stayed the same, apart from the addition of the consolation semi-final, since I was a child, which was a long time ago.
It worked then, but now is outdated and predictable. It’s a tired format.
And it isn’t hard to see why.
Jeopardy is the life blood of stock car racing. Stock car racing works when it is unpredictable. But there is currently a distinct lack of unpredictability prior to the World Final itself.
Without even going to one World Qualifying round, it doesn’t take too much guessing for anyone to work out who will be lining up at the front of the World semi-final grids, who will make the mid-pack and who will be on the final few rows. There are unlikely to be many surprises – maybe the odd one or two, but they are rare.
And so, as a result, it doesn’t matter if a fan misses a qualifying round because every leading driver is almost guaranteed to make it into a semi-final and line up on the front four or five rows of the grid. They always do.
The top drivers don’t even have to turn up for all the qualifiers either. They can do less than half the rounds and guarantee a decent semi-final slot. As a spectacle, unless there is some intense rivalry brewing between a couple of drivers, the qualifying rounds become a bit ordinary – and the semi-finals can be processions.
Back in the 1970s the sport’s greatest driver, Stuart Smith, failed to make the World Final grid on three occasions, and at one of those, White City in 1976, another of the great drivers, who was at the peak of his form, Doug Cronshaw, also failed to qualify. Back then, there was no last-chance saloon.
But despite missing two of the sport’s biggest names, the event itself was not diminished because there was a surge of interest in the rise of Johnny ‘Gimpy’ Goodhall – the Gimpy For Gold campaign – who lined up on the front row alongside perpetual unlucky loser Willie Harrison, with the eager anticipation that there might be a fairytale winner.
A story – and a good one at that – had developed.
So lets propel forward to the start of the next World Championship series for the 2022 World Final. Currently the series started at Buxton four meetings after Bradford. This following weekend, at Skegness, the first World qualifier merges with a round of the National Points Shootout.
Of the first seven rounds of the World Championship, five merge with the Shootout rounds, including the Shootout finale at the end of the season.
All this does is dilute the value of the World qualifier, because everyone, quite rightly, is focused more on the outcome to the Shootout. The theory is more drivers are likely to book in for the qualifier and less likely to want to race on solely a Shootout round. But it doesn’t always seem to work that way.
In my view, the World qualifying format should change. For one thing the rounds should only take place in the first half of the season.
The sport could take a leaf out of the Chilli Bowl Nationals book in the States, where from the very first race on the Monday, a driver’s route to the Big Show on the Saturday night is mapped out. It’s either going to be a seamless route to the A-Main feature on Saturday night, or a long week of make or break rounds to get there. And what makes the Chilli Bowl so gripping is that no one, whether they are Kyle Larson or Tom Harris, is guaranteed a slot in that A-main feature.
Out of the 350-plus entries, only the top three during five qualifying nights go through to the main event – the A-Main feature on Saturday night – the rest, depending on where they finished during their night of qualifying races compete in tiered races (designated by a letter of the alphabet) on the Saturday night in a bid to progress further up the order.
With each tier, starting with the lowly O-Main feature the racing becomes more competitive and it gets tougher to progress further up the alphabet. By the time the grid lines up for the B-Main feature, one down from the A-Main event, just six will join the 18 cars already qualified for the Big Show of 24 cars.
It makes for compelling viewing watching drivers climbing up the alphabet of races (known as Alphabet Soup) from the back of the grid to make it to the next level.
And while not using the exact same format, that’s how the BriSCA F1 World Final should develop. Every race should matter. Currently, they don’t.
There’s plenty of ways to do this I’m sure, but what follows is just one idea. Some will suggest it is an attempt to reinvent the wheel, but an open discussion about the future of the sport is important.
NEW WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP FORMAT
Having spent an age trying to work out a way to make the season more interesting, one that involved quarter-finals as well as semi-finals, the following format is far simpler and better value for fans on the big night.
I recently spoke with Tim Mann, who has been closely involved in the sport for decades, particularly on the engine side of things, and he expressed a similar view to me, in that the format needs changing.
In his view – and many would agree – the World Final should be the culmination of the night, rather than simply the third race on a six-race card. The British Championship, for example, works in many ways because the main event is the last race.
Fans spend a lot of money to watch the big stars fighting it out to become world champion, but the race itself only lasts ten minutes. It is all over in the blink of an eye.
“I think the World Final should be something that builds up to a finish, rather than as it is now where everyone is waiting for it all to happen and when it has, that is pretty much the end of it,” said Mann. “Once the World Final has been run, the rest of the meeting is a bit of an anti-climax.
“It is the most expensive event for fans to go and watch, and really they want to see more than one car set off at the front and disappear – which has happened time and time again over the years. In my view fans should be guaranteed proper racing on the biggest night of the year.”
Anything that creates tension within the format is fine by me.
Tim is a close friend and advisor of Lee Fairhurst, who finished runner-up behind Tom Harris in this year’s World Final, admittedly one of the better World Final races of recent seasons, but Lee also believes the format of the race could do with a change, even if it makes his job much harder to try and win it for a second time.
Fairhurst takes the view that the Final could follow the New Zealand 240 World Championship route, a championship he has raced in, in which the finalists compete in three races to decide who is the champion.
“Our World Final becomes one big moment where that one big moment can be really good or really average, or someone absolutely runs away with it,” said Fairhurst. “You get a good World Final probably once every five years.
“I was talking to Tim about it, and we need to take ideas from American and New Zealand, and if it’s a good format, why not try it over here? We should definitely try different ideas for at least one of our championships.
“In the World 240s in New Zealand we automatically qualified as part of the top 28 for the the Saturday night, but the rest of the New Zealand drivers on the Friday night have to qualify though three tiers of 16 cars, and the drivers are trying to finish in the top four in each tier to make it through to Saturday night and the final.
“So you end up with the best drivers from those three races making it to the final, rather than just a one-off race and a chance of making it through to the final.
“Then on the Friday night they do the grid draws, where you draw a ribbon and written on the back is a back-grid draw, a middle-grid draw and a front-grid draw. So for example, in race one you could start 16th, in the second you could be starting 28th – and dead last – and in the last race you could be starting on pole.
“If you get a flat tyre in the first race, at least you still have a chance of making the top 10 by the end of the event.”
Adapting this idea, in this new BriSCA F1 World Championship, there would be no need for semi-finals. In the first half of the season, there would be 12 qualifying rounds, with the top 18 point scorers qualifying for the main event, which would take place over two rounds to decide the grid order for the World Final itself.
The next top 62 point scorers can compete in three tiered World consolation rounds on World Final night with the top six point scorers making it into the main event, along with 12 qualifiers from the rest of the world.
It would mean the top drivers would need to compete at most qualifying rounds to guarantee a World Final slot – and even then the fastest driver may still need to get through traffic to get to the front to win gold.
The World Final meeting format would be as follows:
World consolation Tier 1 – Qualifiers 60-80 – 20 cars – top five through to consolation round 2.
World consolation Tier 2 – Qualifiers 40-59 – 24 cars – top five through to consolation round 3.
World consolation Tier 3 – Qualifiers 19-39 – 25 cars – top six through to World Final rounds to join the top 18 point scorers and 12 foreign entrants.
Draw made for World Final round 1 for grid order. Top qualifying round points scorer draws first number, down to 36th qualifier to draw the last.
World Final – round 1 – 36 cars.
Non-qualifiers repecharge (first 36 cars out on track) – top finishers can replace cars unable to continue into World Final round 2 due to damage.
World Final – round 2 – 36 cars – in reverse grid order from round 1 (additional cars – if required – to start at the back of the grid from non-qualifiers repercharge heat)
Total points scored in World Final rounds 1 and 2 to create points order line-up for finale.
Driver introductions – followed by two parade laps accompanied by firework display.
World Final finale – 36 cars. Winner takes gold and World Championship title.
A simple idea and one that gives the paying public value for money and an entertaining night where the winner isn’t known until the very last chequered flag is waved. The concept is to draw bigger crowds to the biggest event of the season.
In this format, fans would get to see the top drivers, damage permitting, competing in at least three races and these top stars may not necessarily start at the front for the main event. The race would become more open and hopefully, more memorable.
A workable idea, in my view, although I’m sure plenty will find fault in it – and don’t expect it to happen anytime soon!
That still leaves one crucial element lacking in BriSCA F1 as a package. And this takes me to part three of my blog contribution – the show.
One of the factors in modern-day entertainment and modern-day spectator-led sports, is that the show is integral to their success. And this is because young people – the future of any industry – need to be encouraged to return for their fun day or night out.
Sport needs someone at the top of their game, seemingly unbeatable, and up-and-coming rivals out to try and beat them. If you don’t care who wins or loses, you won’t spend money to go and watch whoever wins or loses.
In F1 Grand Prix, the current rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen this year is producing the best Grand Prix season – in my opinion – of all-time. Every Grand Prix counts. They have, for the most part, been epic races. Fantastic entertainment. And there’s still more to come.
Each race has been compelling to watch since the very first fantastic race in Bahrain – all have been nail-biting drama. I was at Silverstone this year – what an incredible day that was. It created one of the major talking points in sport around the world. And you didn’t have to be there to be captivated.
The media coverage on the F1 battle between the two has been phenomenal. The discussion about what happened at Silverstone, at Monza and at Sochi percolated into other media spheres – because more people, globally, were glued to it. And businesses, as a result, have made a huge amount of money out of it.
That’s why Lewis Hamilton, in particular, whether you love him or hate him, is a multi-billion pound business asset for so many major companies around the globe. He is a huge player for F1 right now. The biggest of all-time probably. It benefits him, but it also, mightily, benefits F1.
The organisers probably can’t believe they’re luck, after a number of less exciting years, because it ripples into 2022 and beyond.
In our little world, we need rivalry and drama like that. And we should promote it to the hilt as part of the show. That’s why Tom Harris, again whether you love him or hate him, is our biggest asset. As was Stuart Smith. We should celebrate them.
In 2021 watching cars going round a track, hitting each other, with a gap in between races staring at an empty track while some queue up for a beer at the bar is not enough…
…but then again.