Fernando Alonso recently made headlines suggesting the dominant years of McLaren, mostly thanks to Ayrton Senna, were “boring”.
The Spaniard wasn’t referring to the Brazilian legend or McLaren specifically, but instead how most races would play out from a viewers perspective.
“If you see a race now from ’85, ’88 or ’92, you will sleep through the race,” he told Motorsport.com.
“It was two McLaren’s, the fourth guy was lapped and there was 25 seconds between each car. There were 10 cars not finishing because the reliability was so-so.”
“Television figures, spectators are going down [now], like it was in these boring years in the ’80s where Senna, Prost and these people were saving fuel, saving tyres and things like that.”
While he did refer to the drop in viewing figures in recent years, it is very hard to look at those other comments and not notice the similarities between his complaints of then and those made about today’s Formula One.
While the gaps are a little less, Mercedes have had two cars out in front by themselves for the past three years, tyre conservation has been a major part since Pirelli returned in 2011 and fuel saving has been more important since the ban on refuelling introduced in 2010.
Those complaints are shared by the vast majority of today’s F1 fans, not just Alonso, yet what made the Spaniard’s comments more controversial, is, for those who remember it, the Senna/ McLaren era to which he applies the same criticism is often regarded as one of the best in history.
So what’s different about the sport today that means it isn’t regarded as highly as previous times in history? Well, the answer to that is actually what validates Alonso’s comments, it is how today’s fans would react to watching races in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s if they were to happen today.
The fans who do remember F1 25-30 years ago, look at it favourably because the sport was very different then.
YouTube: F1 Classic Onboard: Senna On The Charge At The 1990 Monaco Grand Prix
It was about the men who went out onto a racetrack in an effort to not only go around them the fastest but do so while trying to tame the wild beast that they were controlling with their right foot.
It was man and machine in perfect harmony or it was man vs. machine with the former trying not to get killed.
That was what made F1 such a thrill to watch, it wasn’t the need for DRS to boost overtaking, for that was just another incredible art in the act of driving 1,100 horsepower of fury around a circuit as fast as possible.
Every side-by-side drag up the Kemmel Straight at Spa-Francorchamps felt special because it didn’t happen every lap and you never knew exactly how it would end. Every overtake was an event in itself and you were privileged to have seen it.
I’m saying this yet I wasn’t even born for this era nor have ever seen a race, but I feel this is the way it was because I had those same feelings growing up watching Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen heck even Alonso doing the same thing in their own V10 monsters.
I didn’t care for overtaking or degrading tyres because it ‘spiced up the show’. It was watching the German in his Ferrari and the Finn in his McLaren go head-to-head at Suzuka because they were the best guys in their ultimate racing machines.
That final sentence I think is important, few fans understand the technical marvels that are driven today, it is why they care more about the ‘show’.
But in F1’s quest to make the ‘show’ what they think today’s fans want, they have taken away the nuances that made F1 more exciting in the Senna era and the years that followed.
I mentioned how a side-by-side drag from Eau Rouge to Les Combes at Spa was an event by itself, today you know what will happen when two cars are close exiting La Source.
Today’s short-life tyres are so artificial they can’t be made to last, losing the skill of knowing when to push and when to hold back in the process.
The biggest thing that has changed in F1, however, is every fan knows when they tune in, it’s no longer about the fastest drivers in the fastest cars.
The thought that these miraculous men behind the wheel are driving as fast as physics and technology allowed has gone every time the sport has reduced the engine size and limited aerodynamics.
Instead, what we have today is most of the fastest drivers in the world (and some guys with a lot of cash) in some pretty quick but not super-fast machines.
Just to top it off, some of the fastest drivers in pretty quick but not super-fast machines can’t even go as fast as they can, at least not in the races. That has because fuel is limited and tyres won’t go 50km without plenty of TLC.
If F1 really wants to attract fans and improve the spectacle for them, it has to stop over-complicating what used to be a very simple recipe.
2017 could be the first step on the path to righting the wrongs of the past 10 years, the cars will be the far more advanced aerodynamically and be a helluva lot quicker as a result.
The simple task of watching Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel trying to manhandle these new 1,000 horsepower beasts, with the ability to tear their heads off in the corners, should take those of us who have watched for years back to a time when it was man vs machine and, at the same time, introduce today’s audience to what Formula 1 should really always be about.
If that was to be successful then maybe we can risk showing today’s fans and Fernando the 1988 Detroit Grand Prix, a race Senna won by almost 40 seconds from Alain Prost in second and a lap ahead of Thierry Boutsen in third.