Bernie was fantastic, but F1 was losing its way: we had to move forward

Interview with Stefano Domenicali: Bernie was great but F1 was losing its way – we had to go on – GETTY IMAGES / Dan Istiten

Stefano Domenicali looks back at the Circuit of the Americas from our vantage point at the top of his famous first corner and smiles. “Look at that,” the CEO of Formula One says with approval. It is quite a scene. The lights shine in the twilight; fans swarm the circuit like ants; to our right we can hear Green Days preparing for their set in COTA’s 14,000-seat amphitheater. The following night it will be Ed Sheeran’s turn to entertain the crowd. “Nice is not it?” Domenicali adds.

Italian refers to more than just sight. He is talking about the state of Formula 1 in general. This is his vision for sport.

The past weekend saw a record 440,000 fans descend on this patch of scrub outside Austin for the United States Grand Prix – the highest attendance of the year – with television viewership numbers also reaching new heights. After struggling for so long to gain a foothold in the United States, F1 is truly living the American dream now.

There will be three races on US soil by the end of 2023, with a night race in Las Vegas joining Miami and Austin in a 24-race calendar. “Not long ago we were thinking ‘Is it really right to continue investing in F1 in the US?” Sunday Notes. “Now look at it. It’s incredible.”

Not everyone would agree. There are many out there who believe that F1 is chasing the dollar too strong; that Netflix is ​​shaping the narrative rather than simply recording it; that F1 these days is about entertainment first and then sport. F1 “traditionalists” would certainly not have been impressed by the presence of Hollywood heavyweights Brad Pitt and Jerry Bruckheimer in the COTA paddock last weekend, discussing the high-budget film they plan to shoot next year.

What interests him is the thought of losing a Spa or a Monaco from the calendar (both took some time to agree on new deals but in the end they stayed) in favor of even more Grands Prix in places like China or Las Vegas. or Azerbaijan.

Interview with Stefano Domenicali: Bernie was great but F1 was losing its way - we had to go on - GETTY IMAGES / Dan Istitene

Interview with Stefano Domenicali: Bernie was great but F1 was losing its way – we had to go on – GETTY IMAGES / Dan Istitene

Domenicali accepts that there will always be doubters; those who want to go back in time. But he is very focused on the future. As we walk the track together – a ritual he performs every race weekend to “clear his mind” – the Italian buzzes enthusiastically about the latest technological advances his team is experimenting with: drones, gyroscopic cameras, helmet cameras. “Different cuts, different angles,” he says. “It is exciting.”

Domenicali says he cannot stop and listen to the opponents. “If I listened, I wouldn’t do anything,” he says. “It’s always easier to say ‘no’ to everything. Comfort zone. Perfect. But [doing that] you will never grow up. You will die.”

Was F1 in danger of dying? “I would say that F1 was in danger [losing its way], “he replied.” From a sporting point of view, from a commercial point of view. Now you see big multinationals that invest heavily in sports. It shows that the platform is very healthy. “

Aware that it may appear that he is criticizing former sporting ruler Bernie Ecclestone, he adds: “I think Bernie has done an incredible job building F1. But like everything in life, there comes a time when you have to move on. It’s as if when you are a child, then you become a teenager, then you are an adult. I think now we are in a phase where the boy – the big boy – becomes an adult and we need to have a different perspective. “

It’s hard not to love Domenicali. One of the friendliest men; friendly to everyone in the paddock. I remind him how he had a reputation, at the time he drove Ferrari, of being “too kind” for F1. Some thought the lack of killer instinct might be a problem when he took over from Chase Carey early last year, after taking a few years away to drive Audi and Lamborghini. He is not surprised that he is asked to disagree.

“To be honest, I hate this stereotype that if you are rude, aggressive, you are the best manager,” he says. “I don’t have to wear a mask. Like it or not, I’m what you see. And I can go to sleep at night knowing I’ve done the best I can.”

Those close to Domenicali suggest that he is strong enough; so that he can be charming, affable and friendly, but he is not afraid to ruffle a few feathers to realize his vision of him. Austin was close enough to the dream; a race that he not only delivers on the track but off.

Interview with Stefano Domenicali: Bernie was great but F1 was losing its way - we had to go on - GETTY IMAGES / Dan Istitene

Interview with Stefano Domenicali: Bernie was great but F1 was losing its way – we had to go on – GETTY IMAGES / Dan Istitene

“Our traditional fans have a voice and we have to listen to them,” he says. “But the world is changing and it is up to us to recognize it and react.

“It’s not just about racing anymore. Today we want people to come here, to have a fun experience. Of course, the focus is still on racing – good races otherwise they won’t come back – but then they have the chance to stay in touch, to do something more. “

While trying to raise standards across the board, Domenicali hasn’t been afraid to play chicken with races like Spa and Monaco, forcing them to improve their game so as not to be left behind.

“As for the people who say ‘Historic Grand Prix, Historic Grand Prix’, once again I don’t want to be disrespectful to anyone … but there have been places that got stuck in the past. Now they get it if they don’t [move with the times], the competition law means that they will lose their race. No exception.”

We are almost back to the pits. Some fans stop him to ask Domenicali for selfies. Of course he is happy to please.

It allows F1 to have a lot it can improve on; whereas last year’s Abu Dhabi finale was a disaster that shook many fans’ confidence in the governance of the sport; that the current line on budget limits paints F1 in a bad light; that fans cannot wait hours for confirmed race results or final grid orders.

But he sees these issues as separate from the health of the sport as a whole which he believes is thriving. He has little time for those who say that next season’s 24 races is too much (“We have to keep perspective. We all have the privilege of doing what we do.”), Or that F1 is too much a slave to Netflix.

“Netflix hasn’t changed racing on the track,” he says. “Social media hasn’t changed racing. Post-race concerts haven’t changed racing.

“Believe me if the system was false, I would not be here. I drove a team. If I had any doubts when I was racing Ferrari, that we have lost some races or championships because there was something against us … I would have walked.

As long as the ride is fair and exciting – and I think it is – I don’t see the problem in trying to maximize everything around it. I think the two are totally separate, right? “

Ultimately, he says, he is satisfied that the sport is on the right track.

“Obviously there are things we can do better,” he says when asked about recent issues like the safety vehicle at Suzuka or the budget cap row. “I think it would be unfair of me to point the finger, but I take your point. Each of us must make sure we are at our best.

“But I want to focus on the bigger picture. I have to say that right now I feel really positive. I think there is a lot of faith in me; from all the teams, and from all the riders, about what we are doing. We’re at a good point”.

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