Is Formula 1 even a sport?

Dave Kellaway offers his view on the Formula 1 world championship.


Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Abu Dhabi was a fiasco. The FIA race director Michael Masi’s decision on how the safety car was deployed effectively determined who was going to be the Formula 1 world champion. It calls into question whether this is a genuine sport at all. Lewis Hamilton’s team, Mercedes, has already made two appeals on the result to the FIA and the issue may be in the hands of the lawyers for some time. The final decision may yet rest with the court of arbitration.

In our society, all sports operate within the constraints of a capitalist economy and state which limits how far ordinary people can really benefit from participating in sport or the enjoyment of the spectacle performed by its greatest exponents. Participation can keep you healthy and make you feel good.  Watching great sport can be as beautiful and exhilarating as theatre or listening to wonderful music. However, a sport like Grand Prix racing provides less potential for such experiences and are more integrated into the reproduction of the worst features of corporate capitalism:

  • worship of technology and innovation for its own sake,
  • passive consumerism,
  • wasteful advertising,
  • destruction of the environment,
  • massive investment, research and pointless competition for a product of little social usefulness.
  • a media created, macho celebrity ‘second world’ for vicarious mass consumption

Millions of working people follow motorsport so it is worth taking time to analyse and understand it. The sport is intimately tied up with the centrality of car ownership in the development of capitalism, particularly since the 1950s when cars become a mass consumer product. The carmakers have an interest in continually stoking up the fantasy portrayed in advertising that your identity is somehow transformed or enhanced once you get behind the wheel of the latest model. Cars are a major purchase and the cost of keeping them on the road is substantial. Formula 1 racing cars are literally a million miles away from the family saloon but in the minds of many people that link is still alive – even if it is at a fantasy level.

Formula 1 racing involves cars that are literally a million miles away from the family saloon but in the minds of many people that link is still alive – even if it is at a fantasy level.

Just as in football, broadcasting rights, and particularly subscription platforms, have transformed Formula 1. Bernie Ecclestone was the person who transformed the sport into a global profitable corporate platform. He was a great mate of Tony Blair who took Bernie’s campaign donations at the same time as conveniently allowing the continuation of tobacco adverts on the cars. Ecclestone saw the opportunity of building a coherent franchise of all the Grand Prix races into a global corporate operation. A key was drawing together all the broadcasting rights and then selling to subscription channels. At the same time, the TV coverage was able to use new technologies such as cameras in the cars and following in race radio chat between the teams and the drivers. It meant the spectator could feel they were in the car (this immersive ‘second world’ effect). Ecclestone was supported by Max Mosely the leader of the sports governing body. He was the son of the fascist Oswald Mosely. They created the very profitable FI circus which sweeps like an airborne army through the continents for most of the year. I remember driving down the M1 motorway one year during the British Grand Prix and just seeing the number of helicopters flying in and out was a sight to behold. 

Formula 1 has successfully integrated countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Abu Dhabi keen to ‘sportswash’ their undemocratic regimes and buy more influence on a regional and global capitalist market. The extension to countries outside the advanced Western Capitalist ones to the former Eastern European bureaucratic regimes, the Middle East and Asia has accurately reflected the trajectory of globalisation in the last few decades.

Formula 1 has successfully integrated countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Abu Dhabi keen to ‘sportswash’ their undemocratic regimes and buy more influence in a regional and global capitalist market. 

As a so-called sport Formula 1 must be one of the most non-participatory. Even if you include karting or the lower levels of motor racing, including rallying, we are talking small numbers of participants compared to football, athletics or tennis. To drive at the most competitive level you need to be able to finance a car, a maintenance team and transport to/from venues. So for working-class, black or ethnic minority people, it is difficult to get involved. Lewis Hamilton is the exception that proves the rule. His father was an IT consultant who did several jobs to finance his early Karting success.

Clearly, there is some degree of sporting skill in driving an extremely fast car – a driver can make a difference when two cars are of relatively equal power. You have to be fit, have incredibly good reactions, understand race tactics and the technical side. But the balance between human and machine in determining the winners is massively biased to the cars and the effectiveness of the team. Every year it is usually a two-horse race. All the other cars then just make up the parade behind. You can be a super driver, a world champion like Kimi Raikkanon but if your car is no good then you just are not competitive. In fact, there is an interesting motor car competition in the States where the drivers are allocated cars and do not have a specific team car.

The key enjoyment factor for most sports fans is the unpredictability of the game – the uncertainty of who is going to win the match or the league. Two days into a test cricket match things can still swing one way or another. Formula 1 does not have that level of unpredictability, except occasionally (a crash or the weather being a factor) such as in the current year with two evenly matched cars. Even then individual races tended to go to one way or the other fairly early on in the race without much suspense.

For the ‘petrolheads’ who follow Formula 1 a lot of the fascination lies in the technical details. They are the extreme example of what capitalism needs to survive – an uncritical enthusiasm for technology and innovation, detached from any social, ecological or class context. Capitalism needs us to become obsessed with keeping up with the latest gadgets, this is why people change mobile phones every two years or their cars every 3 or 4. Advertising pummels us with the enhanced experience of the latest models. Since most people own a car there is a lived link with the elite driving the super machines around a track. TV coverage today puts you in Hamilton’s car so you can imagine the whole experience. Most F1 teams are still car manufacturers such as Renault or Mercedes, this helps bridge the gap. In recent years the teams are sponsored by any big company since the worldwide broadcast of the races provides huge advertising opportunities. So Red Bull – a drinks company – sponsors current champion (subject to appeal!), Max Verstappen.

Another element attracting the largely male following of F1 is the possibility of seeing big crashes. Nobody wants to talk of this but it has to be a factor. Drivers are still needlessly injured and die, although at the highest level safety has improved so much that this is less likely now than when champions like Jim Clark, Ayrton Senna or Gilles Villeneuve were killed on the track. You have to ask also how the business model of motorsport racing, with its embrace of speed, to win at all costs, affects young men’s driving behaviour. Thousands of lives are still pointlessly lost on the road every year due to driving too fast.

Given the drive to end fossil fuels consumption from the economy, the FI circus is probably one of the most extreme examples of how not to approach the issue. 

Given the drive to end fossil fuels consumption from the economy, the FI circus is probably one of the most extreme examples of how not to approach the issue. There is talk of switching the cars’ fuel source to electric. This could be done tomorrow but speeds would be reduced. The carbon footprint of the FI circus which transports everything from country to country is also enormous.

Lewis Hamilton has used his position to speak out in favour of LBGT rights in places where he races like Saudi Arabia. He has also embraced Black Lives Matter and organised behind the scene to get a company responsible for the Grenfell disaster removed from his team’s sponsors. It shows that even a sport as tightly integrated with corporate capital and its ideology cannot completely stop the intrusion of progressive ideas. We welcome that. From an ecological point of view, he has given up his private jet, gone vegan and insists on this team using electric vehicles off the track. However, like many F1 drivers, he lives in the tax haven of Monaco.

Ecosocialists need to argue for more radical solutions. Just as with the arms industry we want the tremendous skills and expertise of the British formula one industry (a world leader) to be turned into a sector that is socially useful. For example in designing and making public transport vehicles and systems that are ecologically smart and carbon neutral.  These experts could make support technology for people with impairments.  If people really want to keep some form of motor racing we could have electric racing competition on a much scaled-back basis. Governments should not subsidise FI or motorsports but put all such monies into sports that involve exercise. A Labour government should adopt that approach.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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