Jeremy Clarkson: F1 is better on TV and doesn’t work as a live event

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen leads at the start of the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix. Sakhir, March 2023. Budget cap.

Max Verstappen leads at the start of the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix. Sakhir, March 2023.

Jeremy Clarkson has claimed Formula 1 does not work as a live event and is a better spectacle on television after his recent trip to the Bahrain Grand Prix.

As the former host of the BBC’s Top Gear motoring show, Clarkson is one of the most recognisable names in the British media and recently made the trip to Bahrain to attend the opening race of the 2023 season.

He was present on the grid in the moments before the race and was interviewed by ex-F1 driver Martin Brundle during Sky Sports F1’s coverage of the first race, where Max Verstappen led a dominant one-two finish for the Red Bull team.

Writing in his column for the Sunday Times, however, Clarkson has reflected on the F1’s limitations for the spectators watching from trackside, believing the sport to be better suited to a TV audience.

Recalling one of his first experiences of attending an F1 race, he said: “At the 1973 British Grand Prix I was in the stands at Silverstone’s Woodcote corner, which meant I was right there, in the thick of it, when Jody Scheckter’s Yardley McLaren put a wheel on the dirt at 160mph, spun into the wall and set in motion what was almost certainly the longest crash in Formula 1 history.

“From where I was standing it looked like cars were hurtling into the dust cloud and then coming out on the other side in component form. It was backwards Lego, but incredibly no one died. And only one driver, Andrea de Adamich, was injured.

“It took an hour to cut him out of his Brabham, and afterwards he decided to continue in the sport. As a commentator. Can’t say I blame the poor man.

“And me? Well, as my only sporting experience up to that point was playing badminton with [British politician] William Hague, I was hooked. And I vowed I would go to as many grands prix as I could for the rest of time.

“A vow that lasted until, ooh, about 15 minutes after the restart. It was a good race, packed with incidents and excitement. Jackie Stewart spun off while trying to pass Ronnie Peterson, James Hunt and Niki Lauda had the first of many battles to come. And Peter Revson staged a masterclass, going on to win. But I saw about none of it.

“This is the problem with Formula 1 as a live event.

“You have to be very lucky to see an incident, and even if you do it’s usually over in a flash and there are no slow-motion replays to help you understand what caused it. This, then, is a sport that has only ever really worked on television.

 

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F1 has experienced a popularity boom in recent years largely due to the success of the Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive, with a number of grands prix attracting record attendances.

Clarkson, however, believes Drive to Survive has to some extent brought new problems – including for Brundle, whose famous grid walk segment has hit the headlines in recent years after the long-serving pundit was ignored by a number of big names.

Clarkson explained: “And then along came Netflix and its hugely successful Drive to Survive series. This enabled us to meet not just the drivers but also the team bosses. I know that clever editing created storylines where there were none, and I know that series five is a bit “yee-hah” American, but suddenly we had goodies and baddies.

“And even more suddenly we found we were able to talk about the sport to our teenage daughters.

“My youngest had no interest in motorsport at all until Netflix came along. And now she knows Charles Leclerc’s inside leg measurements. And wants, more than anything in life, to meet Pierre Gasly.

“And, better still, the whole ethos of the sport has changed. Under Bernie Ecclestone and Ron Dennis and Frank Williams it was all about invisible tech. Small things. Tyre warmers and fiddly add-ons that made the car a millionth of a second faster round any given lap but which no one in the real world cared about.

“Now, though, the rules have been rewritten so that cars can dice with one another and an overtaking move can last for four corners or more. It’s a sport for the fans, not the sponsors and the backroom tech geeks.

“I’d like to say this is why I decided to go to the race in Bahrain this year. But there were other factors as well. For example, I’d had an invite from the crown prince to come and stay with him in his palace. And a neighbour offered me a lift over there in his private jet.

“These things can sway a man, which is why you probably saw me on the grid before the race talking to Martin Brundle.

“I feel sorry for the poor chap these days. In the past he’d rush up and down the grid before the action started, trying to grab a few words with the Eurotrash-helmet men that no one at home knew. But we do know them now, so there’s no point.

“And anyway he couldn’t find a driver even if he wanted to because, post-Netflix, the grid is now invariably filled to overflowing with bewildered celebrities who don’t know who he is. And who just want to meet that guy from Haas [team principal Guenther Steiner] who swears a lot.

“I could see the look of relief in Martin’s eye when he found me because at last he could talk to someone who has stuck with F1, albeit from the comfort of my own sofa, since I was 13 years old.

“Someone who would list an obscure French Canadian [Gilles Villeneuve] as his favourite driver of all time and who could talk (very quietly) about why the Benetton that Ayrton Senna was racing against at Imola on that fateful day in 1994 was so unbelievably fast.”