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​After Ringing the Changes, Will Formula 1 Be Worth Watching Again in 2017?

If there is an institution with more lapsed followers than the Catholic Church, it's Formula 1. Will a raft of changes to the cars bring back the glory days, or is it doomed to another year in the doldrums?

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Mar 22 2017, 3:19pm

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If there is an institution with more lapsed followers than the Catholic Church, it's Formula 1. The sport has not been a bastion of fan engagement in recent years, and as such many have ceased their Sunday visits to pay tithes at the Church of Ecclestone. Attendances at the track are down and, thanks to most F1 races only being available live from behind a paywall, the sport is being watched less on TV, too.

Not that the action has exactly made it must-see. The last seven seasons have seen the sport dominated by single teams, first by Red Bull and then-driver Sebastian Vettel (2010-2013) and, more recently, by Mercedes and their feuding pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

This is where 2017 is hoping to win fans back, as the powers-that-be introduce the first wave of a raft of changes to the sport aimed at making the racing faster and closer.

The new cars are beefier, with 30% more downforce and wider, sturdier tyres. The hope is that this will transform the races from being all about preserving the car, to pushing it to the limit. So far the changes looks like they're working: the quickest testing time at Circuit de Catalunya, set by Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, was 3.4 seconds quicker than Lewis Hamilton's pole lap at the same track last year.

F1 elder statesman Raikkonen puts his new Ferrari through its paces // Alejandro Garcia/EPA

The cars are tougher to handle, too. Almost every driver had at least one off during testing, while Lance Stroll – Williams' new 18-year-old prospect and the only true rookie in the field – cost his team nearly two days of running as they repaired damage from his multiple offs.

All very promising indeed. And, with new owners Liberty Media looking to be more progressive than the ousted stalwart Bernie Ecclestone, it should keep heading in that direction.

So what do the experts think about the new F1, and the journey it still has in front of it? VICE Sports sat down with Sky's decorated F1 team – commentator Martin Brundle, analysts Johnny Herbert and 1996 world champion Damon Hill, and tech-guru newcomer Pat Symonds – to talk about where F1 can rehabilitate itself. The corporation will be hoping for some juicer action for their star-studded line up to analyse as they look to recoup their investment in grand prix racing. Their dedicated channel, Sky Sports F1, will show all 20 races live this season, starting in Australia on 26 March.

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Talk immediately moves to 2017, and the nerves are apparent that it'll be another one-horse race. It might have been tight at the top during testing, but it's rare for anyone to show their true pace until the opening qualifying session in Melbourne. The massive rules shakeup is meant to level the field, but there is always the danger that one team will wind up streets ahead of the others.

"It's the perennial problem with the sport," says Hill. "You give people a design challenge and they go away and work on it for six months... and when it comes out one of them can be considerably better than the others, and the others have to catch up."

"What people like is the cleverness of the designs," he adds, "but there needs to be a way, once they've demonstrated their dominance, of somehow letting other people catch up so that it doesn't destroy the racing."

Hill and Herbert in the paddock // Image via Sky Sports

"If you've got one driver dominating, like we had in the Schumacher era," Hill warns, "and a teammate who's not able to contend, then it does damage the sport."

For the ever-cheerful Herbert, it comes down to a question that is more pressing than ever for F1: what is the sport all about, anyway?

"It's like having two busses," he says. "You get one bus, 'tech', that says: 'let's do this as a tech formula', which it's always been known for and always been very good at. Or do you want the 'entertainment' bus? Now, in the world we live in, what do [fans] actually want? I think they want to go on the entertainment bus, because they want to have a show."

But getting this show to the fans has been F1's biggest problem. What they crave is close racing, but it has been hard to come by. It used to be down to aerodynamics making it impossible for cars to run close enough together to race in anger, but now the biggest barrier seems to be over-regulation.

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"We've got rules for how you overtake," fumes Herbert, "and that's not a rule, it's a skill. There are certain ways of doing it – there are bad ways of doing it – but to actually say, 'Well, under braking you can't move because it's dangerous', I personally don't get that."

Herbert is referring to the technique employed by Max Verstappen, Red Bull's young Dutch superstar. His defensive technique is to plant his car in the middle of the track, wait to see which way his rival is going to try to go around him, and to then brake diagonally across their path. It's highly effective and, due to the likelihood of the attacking car going over the back of Verstappen's, highly controversial. It led to a spate of rules that further clamp down on what drivers can do in combat.

"If it's just, 'I can't move now...' what's the point?" Herbert adds.

The opinion-splitting Verstappen // Image via Red Bull Content Pool

We remind Hill of his famous clash with Schumacher at the 1995 British Grand Prix, where Hill made an ambitious lunge up the inside (and, coincidently, cleared the way for Herbert to win). Publicly, although certainly not privately, the crash was written off as a racing incident and no punishments were doled out.

"I would probably [have gotten] a grid penalty of 10 places," says Hill, guessing on what today's stewards would have made of things. "[Plus] a $20,000 fine, or something like that. And Michael would have pissed himself laughing!"

Reigning in the drivers like this, stopping them from showing their true colours on the track, is preventing the sport from reaching more people. With the possible exception of Ferrari, F1 is increasingly becoming a driver-orientated sport.

"My experience is that 95% of the level of importance is the drivers," says Brundle, the ex-racer turned voice of the sport. "The teams hate it because the constructors' title gets very little coverage, really – it's all about the drivers. You can throw as many widgets on your sidepods, and most people glaze over. But take them to Max Verstappen's home and show him cuddling his mum, they'll love it."

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Herbert, always one to talk to fans, agrees.

"Everybody I meet who goes to Silverstone to sit on the bank, sit in the grandstand to watch... yeah, they might have a Ferrari or Mercedes cap, a Red Bull cap on, but they always say they're there to see Lewis, Hulkenberg, Kimi. It's [about] the drivers, but everything is geared to the team."

At other major motorsport events, from NASCAR to Le Mans, there are ways to get close to the drivers. This isn't the case with F1, where interaction with the stars is generally reserved for sponsors or premium ticket holders.

"You've got to get the fans closer to the action," says Herbert. "Not just the action on the track – the action that's going on in the garage is the drivers, because most fans see a driver from afar, they don't have any contact at all."

Hill, Herbert and Brundle get their game faces on // Image via Sky Sports

Leading the way with fan engagement is Hamilton. A big social media user, Lewis spent the tail end of last season calling for press conferences to be replaced with fan events. To say he wears his heart on his sleeve would be an understatement, but at the same time Hill worries what that pressure would do to him.

"You can't let everybody in," says a man who knows what it's like to be under extreme scrutiny, both from his own world title battles and as the son of another F1 legend, his late father Graham. "One person can't cope with that amount of interest in their life." It would help F1 to have more superstars on the grid to share the burden.

Shifting back to the racing, what's in store? "I think what we are going to see is some great midfield racing," says Symonds, recently retired from working in the sport and now adapting to life as an analyst.

"The trouble is," interrupts his more experienced colleague Brundle, "it's all about who finishes on the podium. That's the juicy story."

Formula 1 still undoubtedly has its issues, and correcting them is a battle for another day. Ross Brawn, perhaps the most mutually respected person in the paddock, is now in charge of putting into place a long-term plan to ensure the action can live up to the hype. But, as Hill eloquently puts it, F1 has finally looked itself honestly in the mirror and admitted that it has not been good enough.

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"We need to never lose sight of the fact that people turn up to see a motor race because they want to see something exciting happen," the former champion explains. "Either they want to be able to smell the cars, hear the cars, see the cars – and they're impressive enough when you see them in the flesh, or in the carbon fibre, whatever it is – but they also want a good race. It's very upsetting if you go to a race meeting, all these people turn up, and you just watch cars follow each other for 70 laps. That can be very soul destroying, for everyone."

Already the improvements have come. With cars that are faster, and able to be pushed for much, much longer, just watching them should be intrinsically more exciting. Despite the nerves of one-team dominance, it looks like it will be as tight at the top as it has been in years. And social media rules have been radically loosened, meaning teams can post far more footage of the cars in action.

F1 may still have its demons but, with some good work already done under the old regime and the new one promising further changes, it is beginning the process of exorcising them. The 2017 season might only be the start of F1's redemption journey, but it promises to be a journey worth tuning in for.

The experts were speaking at an event for Sky Sports F1, which will show all 20 races this season, live in UHD for the first time with Sky Q.

@BenHalls