Formula 1 Insight

The Sport of F1

Keith Collantine has begun an interesting debate on whether F1 is a sport, sparked by the Indian Minister of Sport's assertion this week that it is not. Although I agree with Keith that the statement was really an excuse to avoid paying for an Indian GP, the question is fundamental to F1's future. For once, the fans' view of it is not important; of much more significance is how it is seen by the wider public who know little but what they read of its political and financial battles in the newspapers. And the plain fact is that most people think of it as an expensive entertainment created by and for petrolheads.

Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton meets the fans

As mentioned in at least one comment on Keith's article, the attempt to define F1 as a sport is a matter of semantics more than anything else and recourse is made to the dictionary definition: "an activity, pastime, competition, etc that usually involves a degree of physical exertion". By that definition, it is a sport, if only for the drivers.

Things are far more complicated than that, however. We can see that sport is an important factor for the drivers but it is also their livelihoods, just as it has become in other sports. And what of the teams, the designers and managers, mechanics and caterers? Can F1 be defined as a sport from their perspective? I think we have to resort to the word "competition" when it comes to team members since many team functions do not require physical effort (and what of chess, defined sometimes as a sport? Must we include mental effort in our definition of sport?).

Yet there is an undeniable entertainment aspect to F1 as well; television companies would not be forking out huge sums of money for the right to broadcast races were it not entertaining enough to attract millions of viewers. Business comes into it too, with wheelers and dealers like Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore making large sums of money through their involvement in the affair.

It all becomes meaningless to limit our perception of F1 to sport or entertainment or business. It is all those things and probably many more - politics springs to mind, for one. And what value is there in deciding on a single definition of it anyway? Just because an Indian politician has decided that it does not warrant government investment because it goes beyond being a sport (but no more so than cricket, please note), that does not mean we should attempt to prove otherwise.

Matters go awry when we try to define F1 as one thing rather than anything else. Just as our politician junks it as "not a sport", others, such as Briatore, seek to make money from it by defining it as entertainment. And the car manufacturers want it to be a testing ground and marketing tool. None of these narrow views of it are correct and yet it is all these and more too.

It is when we see F1 as entertainment, business or sport only that our vision of its future becomes distorted. Concentrate too much on one aspect and the others will suffer, leaving us with something that is not F1. As far as I can see, the one essential aspect is competition between both individuals and teams - and that, surely, must be defined as sport. On the day the drivers become irrelevant and all that matters is that the viwers be entertained or that more money is made by those involved, on that day will F1 have died.

And I have said what I wanted but am left with an illustration that I was determined to include yet found nowhere to fit in. The intention was to illustrate something about sport but now I am not quite sure that it does. It is an amusing story, however (and might begin frenzied debate on blood sports), and I am compelled to add it as a silly end piece. The connection with F1 is tenuous at best and I can only suggest that, if you want F1 only, read no further.

As a schoolboy in Africa, I became involved occasionally in something we called ant lion fights. The ant lion is a creature a little bigger than an ant (but not by much) and it catches its antish prey by digging a conical pit in sandy ground. It then buries itself at the deepest point of the pit, the apex of the reverse cone, and waits for some unhappy ant to fall into the pit. As the ant scrabbles to climb the crumbling walls, the ant lion pounces from beneath the sand and grabs it with its ferocious jaws.

It was those pincers that made up the ant lion's jaw that fascinated small boys, no doubt. Almost as big as the body of the insect, they promised fierce battles if used upon another similarly armed. And so ant lion fights were organized, the poor creatures scooped from their hiding places and put together, prodded and poked until, in sheer desperation and annoyance, they would reluctantly fight. I do not recall whether any of these battles ever came to a satisfactory conclusion but the game held our attention for brief moments.

And was it a sport? By our definition, I suppose that we could say that it was for the ant lions, unaggressive as they were towards each other. Recourse to the gladiators of Roman times might be necessary to justify our definition, however. And gladiators were participants in something always known as "the games". So maybe there is a difference between a game and a sport, although I am not sure that reluctance to participate is always a constituent of a game.

It becomes complicated, doesn't it? Almost as complicated as that thing we call F1...


Hemmingway said there were really only three sports: Motor Racing, Mountain Climbing, and Bull Fighting. All the rest were just games. Off course F1 is a sport. But as you so clearly stated, it's also entertainment. So what?
Date Added: 27/08/2009

So what indeed, Don? Doesn't really matter, unless we start changing it because we view it one way or another.
Date Added: 27/08/2009

I thought I had wandered into a Gone blog for a moment there... :)

In physics there is a concept of wave-particle duality which falls under quantum mechanics. This suggests that light is both a particle and a wave at the same time. Therefore it (F1) is both a sport and a game.

I have always been inclinded to think of F1 as a Game or Competition in much the same vein as cricket. Indeed with one or two drivers over the years one could say it is Art. But as you say it is semantics.

If India really want F1 they only need declare it to be Political, they would then embrace it without further ado. Though with the history they have of asassinating leaders of political parties, the head of F1 would be best keeping a low profile.

Ant v ant would be akin to boxing - one on one, albeit a match forced upon the poor unfortunates; therefore it is an Art. Like conkers.

Date Added: 27/08/2009

Nick Goodspeed
To the fans it is a sport
To the bookies it is a game
To the teams it is a competition
To the media it is entertainment
To politicians it is a lever
To Ecclestone it is a gold mine
To Mosley it is toy soldiers
To Ferrari it is religion
To drivers it is life

To the average adult it is madness

Date Added: 28/08/2009


I read this yesterday and was going to post something profound and most likely pretentious, like there having to be a Universal Declaration of the Definition of Sport on the books first, and likening F1 to the commercial and entertainment aspect of the Olympics, trying to explain the " but it's not just about guys sitting in a car going roundy round all day" by comparing it to another "sport" that I find as riveting as watching paint dry but others seem to find a redeeming quality to -baseball (not too fit guys spitting tobacco and scratching their nethers all day), and harkening the real life-on-the-line aspects of some of the X sports (guys who jump out of helicopters hovering above barely snow clad rock formations 10 miles up the Andes, etc) which I believe is where Hemingway was coming from when he listed it.

Instead, I just agree with Nick. Toy soldiers. I love that.

Date Added: 29/08/2009

Nick Goodspeed
I'm starting to wonder exactly how much engine reliability might have on the championship. If this becomes a deciding factor perhaps mechanics and engineers will be deemed as atheletes or sportsmen in the future?
Is there a list somewhere of how many engines each driver has been through?
Date Added: 29/08/2009

Fractal: I thought it was a rather Gone-like post too. Maybe the two blogs are morphing into one... ;)

But I like the idea of ant lion fighting as an art. Makes me feel much better about the cruelties of childhood!
Date Added: 29/08/2009

Nick: And to the fanatics it is an obsession!
Date Added: 29/08/2009

Vera: Agreed entirely - Nick really hit the nail on the head with that one.
Date Added: 29/08/2009

Nick (again): Alianora keeps track of the engines and other things like gearboxes on her La Canta Magnifico blog. Ali to the rescue again!
Date Added: 29/08/2009

Björn Svensson
I certainly think that F1 is a sport, but what about the things surrounding it? What about the rules?

I what other sport would they ever come up with the idea that you can not practice your sport between the main events?

In what other sport would the governing organisation decide that you do not only have to use a specific shoe, it also have to be from a specific manufacturer!! And on top of that you have to change shoes one or two times during the race, and they are not allowed to have the same sole all the way through the race.

What have become of this sport, is surely nothing but a really complicated mess of rules preventing the sportsmen from doing the sport in the best possible way. All they can do is making the best of the situation.

I'm not saying that F1 is no longer a viable excercise, but it has to be much less regulated.

Think about what would happen if the rules mentioned above were to be implemented in hockey, in the athletics or in skating. Or maybe cricket. What an outrage there would be.
Date Added: 30/08/2009

Nick Goodspeed
Bjorn: In the NHL they've been changing the rules every year for a long time. Teams are quitting because of money reasons and all the skated and pads are regulated.
So that's where (professional) hockey (in N.America) went wrong! :-)
Date Added: 30/08/2009

Björn: I agree completely - the simpler the rules, the better for the sport (and far fewer controversies).
Date Added: 31/08/2009

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