In Formula One it's TV ratings that reign on the parade

Australia's qualifying debacle shows why Bernie Ecclestone must focus on racing not ratings as he looks to build sport globally, explains Gary Meenaghan.

Despite the marshals' best efforts to clear water from the track Saturday's qualifying session for the Australian Grand Prix was pushed back to Sunday.
Powered by automated translation

The decision to suspend Saturday's qualifying session for the Australian Grand Prix was undoubtedly the right call. The conditions were perilous and drivers' safety should never be compromised.

Yet it was a decision that should not have needed to be made.

The hour-long session was due to start at 5pm local time, as it has every year for the past four seasons.

In 2008, the race had begun at 2pm, but Bernie Ecclestone, the sport's dictatorial chief, decided television viewing figures would improve if the Australia event started later.

Resultantly, a 5pm slot was confirmed the following year and F1's traditional European television audience has since been provided a more palatable 7am start, opposed to 4am.

In 2009, drivers complained about the late start and low light, but it had little effect. Ecclestone has not visited Australia on race weekend for five years and the schedule remains unchanged.

This weekend, with heavy rain turning the temporary street circuit into a tarmac tributary, the qualifying session was delayed; first for 30 minutes and then, after 20 minutes of shunts and spins, for a further hour.

At 6.50pm and with the sun edging closer towards the horizon, the race stewards had little option but to postpone the second and third elimination runs until the following morning at 11am.

Such is the city's famously capricious weather - a few hours can make a world of difference.

Had the session started closer to its original time, it would have gone ahead as planned and been witnessed by the 80,600 spectators who had paid for tickets for the Saturday.

We know this because the third practice session started at 2pm and ran problem-free. Instead, by starting qualifying later and kowtowing to a European TV audience, the sport disregarded its local fan base.

Race organisers face constant criticism from Melbourne residents due to high hosting fees and the use of the city's Albert Park.

Leaving the sport's most enthusiastic supporters standing in the rain all afternoon before sending them home having seen only a third of what they turned up for is bad business in everybody's book - especially when part of the reason the drenched mass has to wait is because their British cousins would prefer an extra few hours shut-eye.

Rain cannot always be accurately predicted in Australia, but darkness can.

By scheduling sessions for 5pm, race organisers are putting themselves in a position whereby the moment a delay is required, the clock starts ticking twice as fast.

If the rain doesn't subside quickly, postponement is almost certain.

This weekend is proof Ecclestone and race officials must consider prioritising racing over ratings. After all, the rescheduled qualifying session took place at 1am in Europe - hardly prime time.

It is a similar story in Malaysia, where the travelling circus heads next.

Sunday's grand prix at Sepang is scheduled to start at 4pm local time. Jenson Button claims to set his watch by the weather while there and it is easy to see why: every day at 4pm, the heavens open.

In 2009, the race was stopped on Lap 33 because of a monsoon; the following year qualifying was delayed due to an electrical storm; last year's race was suspended for 51 minutes because of torrential rains.

Rain makes for thrilling racing, but too much rain makes for no racing at all, and a downpour is as inevitable in Malaysia as humidity and sunshine is in Abu Dhabi. It is not whether it will rain, but how much it will rain that proves the crucial question this weekend.

The result is that a repeat of Saturday's shambles - while unlikely - cannot be confidently ruled out.

Such a scenario would prove a further headache for teams desperately trying to develop their cars and get to grips with new tyres.

Yet, again, it likely could be avoided by bringing the schedule forward slightly.

It is unlikely to happen though.

Ecclestone, who has no issue replacing historic European races with new circuits in Asia, knows the importance of his European viewing figures, at least, which means the sport will always cater to its ratings first and its spectators second.

Formula One often likes to talk about how it is as much a show business as it is a sport.

Well, in show business the rule is "the show must go on".

It seems in F1 though, when a lucrative television audience in Europe is considered, the show can be suspended and resumed the following day. With the sodden spectators who fill the stands reduced to an afterthought.

Follow us

and Gary Meenaghan