F1’s rising popularity shows Abu Dhabi controversy did no damage – Domenicali

2022 F1 season

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The controversial conclusion to last year’s world championship did not damage Formula 1’s reputation or popularity, says the series’ CEO Stefano Domenicali.

An average of 107 million people watched last year’s season finale in Abu Dhabi live, according to F1. However the title-deciding race ended in acrimony when the destiny of the championship was changed by a controversial restart, which the series’ governing body later admitted was arranged in violation of its rules.

Four days passed before Mercedes dropped their bid to appeal against the result which cost Lewis Hamilton his eighth world title, which confirmed Max Verstappen as championship. But the fallout from the race continued for months.

“All the grands prix are sold out” – Domenicali
The FIA enacted wide-ranging changes to how grands prix are run, the most significant of which was the ousting of F1 race director Michael Masi. It published a report detailing the errors made by Masi, who subsequently left the sport’s governing body. He and Nicholas Latifi – whose crash triggered the Safety Car period which preceded the restart – both received abusive social media messages including death threats.

Despite the controversial end to last year’s season, Domenicali believes F1 has emerged with its reputation intact.

“In terms of image, it’s like when there is a football World Cup [final] and there is a referee that’s making a mistake and there is a penalty given that is not there, but it’s there. So I don’t think that is a damage of the reputation, of the solidity of the championship, because that’s something that can happen.

“What I see, to be honest, is that the FIA has taken seriously that fact and they want to change it and to improve the system. But at the end of the day, the performance of all the people involved in F1 has something related to his personal capability or personal skills or personal good decision or personal mistakes. And this is something that will be always in every sport.”

Domenicali made it clear that, as the FIA’s report found, there was no evidence of foul play in Masi’s decision.

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“What I can, because otherwise I wouldn’t be in this position, I never, ever think that someone is doing something on purpose to be against someone. This is something that I cannot accept because if I would have a little doubt about it, I wouldn’t be here.

“You can have mistakes, yes, 100%. You can say mistakes, teams or drivers, everyone can do it. But I don’t want to judge something that could have been because of a personal vision of something that has happened as a damaged reputation for F1.”

F1’s rising popularity demonstrates the series weathered the storm it faced at the end of 2021, Domenicali believes.

“If you look [at] what is the follow-up on what we are having this year, it’s immense,” he said. “So if that would be so negative, I wouldn’t see the numbers of people that are coming to the races or following everywhere around the world.”

Race promoters have promoted huge sales for the upcoming events, he added. “From Belgian up to the end, all the grands prix are sold out,” said Domenicali. “So a lot of people have already booked the tickets to come.

“So Belgium every day will be more than 120,000 people; Zandvoort, you can imagine, the same; Monza more than 250,000 tickets sold; Singapore sold out and that’s really something that is already a reserve. So I really hope that we’re going to have a great race and a great second part of the season.”

As Verstappen leads closest rival Charles Leclerc by 80 points with nine races remaining, the prospects of this year’s championship fight being decided at the final race appear slim, Domenicali admitted.

“From the commercial perspective, I would love to see another season where you going to arrive at the last lap of the last race – maybe with less this confrontational point – because that would be terrific, it would be fantastic.

“[Yes] 80 points, they are a lot. But in F1, also from my previous experience, you have to say ‘never say never’.”

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Prior to becoming F1 CEO, Domenicali spent decades at Ferrari, eventually rising to the role of team principal. He was at the team when Kimi Raikkonen achieved one of the greatest upsets in F1 history to win the championship.

“Remember 2007, two races to go, we were behind by 17 points and Kimi was able to win the championship in Brazil and no one was expecting that. I know it’s a big number, but I don’t see why Ferrari should [not get] back again in the fight with Red Bull.

“Red Bull is a very strong team, Mercedes will grow. But really the only thing that I can say – because I cannot comment on what because of my position, as you can understand – is that they shouldn’t give up at all up to the last moment. Because we’re going to have a lot of a surprises, I’m sure, in the second half of the season, in all dimensions. So mistakes, reliability, weather conditions, who knows?”

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...
Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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23 comments on “F1’s rising popularity shows Abu Dhabi controversy did no damage – Domenicali”

  1. That’s such an odd thing to say… a bit like “no matter what happens, this bunch of… will still tune in to watch”.

    The parallelism with football isn’t right either, IMO. A referee making a bad call in a football match (most of the times) is a matter of interpretation. Sometimes it’s clear cut, sometimes it isn’t. But what happened in Abu Dhabi wasn’t something like that. It was like the referee telling one team they can play with 12 players for the last 5 minutes, something that’s not in the rulebook being applied on the fly.

    I’m not trying to dig in the controversy all over again, it’s been well discussed. Just saying that if I were Domenicali or anyone else involved in F1, I’d keep my mouth shut over the Abu Dhabi incident as much as possible…

    1. Just saying that if I were Domenicali or anyone else involved in F1, I’d keep my mouth shut over the Abu Dhabi incident as much as possible…

      Unless he wants to promote an image of him not actually giving a ****

      Of course, he wants to sell the “mistake” idea:

      “You can have mistakes, yes, 100%. You can say mistakes, teams or drivers, everyone can do it.

      But he really ought to keep quiet as you say, because although what Masi did during the race might have been a mistake, the actions immediately after in response to the complaint by Merc were not. Rules were broken and Masi/stewards denied it.
      Best left in the worst corner of the cat’s litter tray I think.

    2. Nah, the comparison doesn’t hold, the only mistake was letting only certain cars unlap themselves, which, let’s not forget, was also not necessarily what changed the race result, because if they had sent the “lapped cars may now overtake” as expected when they sent the unusual message indicating they couldn’t (not instead of now) they would’ve had time to let all cars unlap themselves and verstappen would still have overtaken hamilton.

      I think it’s closer to a penalty kick in football at the last minute or something like that over an infraction that is very fringy, so again a mistake of the referee.

      1. There’s also the safety car in the next lap after lapped cars through that was ignored. All covered by a very loose regulation about Race Director being able to make changes if necessary.

        There’s no comparison to football unless there was a football law that said the referee has ultimate say over everything, then say gave a penalty for contact in the area. The penalised player wouldn’t have made the contact if that rule was known, but it’s all ultimately ok because the ref is allowed to change things like that.

        It’s a strange point Dominicali is making. We’re living in a world where clicks and instant polarising opinions are all important. Drama and controversy much more entertaining than the actual sport itself etc. So it’s no surprise to me that the popularity in terms of viewing figures wasn’t affected by the end of last season. It was probably the most dramatic conclusion of all!

    3. I am pretty sure for many people Abu Dhabi, as well as the way the FIA dealt with it, and earlier incidents over the 2021 season showed a lot of longer time fans and insiders that the FIA still is a bit of an arbitrary mess as a governing body, where probably well intentioned amateur stewards have a lot if influence and surprisingly little knowledge/willingness to consistently apply rules, apart from having a large stake in keeping status quo and protecting ‘the institution’ (or for a cynical view, their privilege).

      I guess for many that’s not damage just the status quo then, but eh. Also, that statement about how it didn’t stop F1 getting more popular really shows how the mentality isn’t a sport any more, but more an entertainment show where potentially everything goes, as long as the fans, as an aggregate, keep watching (isn’t that what made NASCAR go to ever more effort to make it harder to know until the last lap who was going to win the championship, which in the end coincided with a drop in numbers?).

    4. That’s a bad comparison. It’s like a referee who sents off two players 10 minutes before the end, while according to the rules only one should have been sent off.
      Funny thing is: when this happened to an opponent of an English team, the British public and media did not go up in arms.

  2. Any idea that the conclusion to last year’s world championship was going to cause lasting damage to the sport was always just wishful thinking on the part of the sore losers. Most people, to the extent they remember it at all, will just recall the epic last-lap pass to seal the title. Twitter is not real life, especially when the discussion is being so grossly distorted by the troll factories.

  3. @fer-no65 – Why he needed to say all that (probably asked) I don’t know? Still wanting to forget… these articles don’t help.

  4. This is a common fallacy – since we don’t have the chance to compare how the situation with fans would have played out, there simply is no way to know whether it has or hasn’t negatively impacted fan numbers.

    For all we know, there might be even more fans watching. Or not.

    Not good when the guy running the place lets themselves be lured into this kind of thinking, since it means they don’t put themselves up for scrutiny enough. Although it might be just PR talk by them, who knows

  5. People love the sport, that’s why they watch but it doesn’t mean their perception of it wasn’t damaged, particularly when it comes to anything the FIA does.

    Gotta say I hate this attitude both Brawn and Domenicalli have adopted – Brawn took the same attitude towards F1 fans over the ridiculous sprint race weekends despite fans not enjoying them. Both him and Domenicalli justify it as ‘well you’re still watching so who cares what you think.’ FOM really do treat the fanbase with a contemptible arrogant **** you attitude.

  6. I’d suggest pretty much everything that happened last season has boosted F1’s ratings and sales this year.
    The more unexpected and controversial, the more lure and attraction there is.

  7. Well that’s a load of bull, frankly. People may be putting up with it to an extent, but it certainly caused damage.

    1. I agree with you. My additional motivation to watch the races after Abu Dhabi 2021. is Lewis’ payback! I want him to win that 10th title more than anything. He was robbed from the title in 2007 and the same happened in 2021. Imagine if he starts winning this year and wraps up that tenth title after all, that would be marvelous. Not likely to happen but so soothing to think about.

  8. It’s a great thing to see in sport, when misfortune has plagued a competitor for large parts just to see it swing back the other way when needed most. I think that, and the breaking of the Mercedes monotony was what appealed to any new/neutral fans last year.

  9. He’s right, the controversy hasn’t done any damage to F1 as an entertainment product, quite the opposite it’s created soap opera like manufactured drama that has given an insane amount of free exposure in the media

    But to F1’s reputation as a sport? It’s damaged it in my eyes. That’s not to say I’ve abandoned it, no more than I would stop ordering pizza from my favourite pizza place just because they got an order wrong one time. But it’s been added to a growing list of complaints including ‘showbiz tyres’, ‘DRS highways passes’, fastest lap points, sprint qualifying and so on, that are gradually chipping away at the integrity of it being a sporting competition

    I guess what matters though is are the fans of entertainment more valuable than the fans of sport from a business perspective?

    1. @philipgb I agree.

      I think all Abu Dhabi did is confirm to those of us who care about the sport that the show is now more important because the only reason the decisions that were made were made was because the show was put above the sport.

      And i’m not just putting that on Masi. All of the decisions, discussions & agreements that were made as a group by the FIA, Liberty, F1 & teams which contributed to call’s Masi made which culminated in that Abu Dhabi call. They are all responsible for the direction things have gone.

  10. If you look [at] what is the follow-up on what we are having this year, it’s immense,” he said. “So if that would be so negative, I wouldn’t see the numbers of people that are coming to the races or following everywhere around the world.

    Brilliant, Stefano – once again you’ve put your keen and penetrating mind to the task and as usual come to the wrong conclusion.

    First of all, just because F1 is still popular doesn’t mean that significant damage didn’t occur. Imagine what the popularity would be like if there hadn’t been a controversial end? This is correlation, not causation.

    Second, F1 seems to be trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to fans in the stands. Is it because of the pent-up demand after fans were not allowed at most races at the beginning of last season as has been argued by F1 and the media so far, or is it because the season finale didn’t damage the sport?

    Every time Domenicali opens his mouth, I feel like I am going to hear something incredibly stupid come out of it. Usually, I am not proven wrong. Whether it is about the popularity of sprint races, racing in countries with abysmal human rights records, removing historic circuits from the calendar in favor of street races with no character, insisting F1 doesn’t need new teams, or trying to explain how F1’s reputation wasn’t damaged last season just about everything he has said has been far too easy to ridicule as being out of step with reality. Hopefully, his tenure will be over quickly before he damages the sport even more.

  11. What Stefano doesn’t realize, is the fans are so used to the FIA screwing things up, that it’s hard for one incident, even as egregious as Abu Dhabi, to have a meaningful impact.

    I’m still watching– but my contempt for the FIA is far greater than it was 12 months ago.

  12. Truth is most fans were happy with the result. At the end of the day it’s just a show and it was epic.

  13. Keeping up with the Verstappens.

  14. It almost looks as if Stefano has been talking to Berni!
    Echoes of “All publicity is good publicity” never mind the reputation.

    Increased global audience, mostly of younger novice fans who do not understand the rules and do not care when they are broken. A wrong direction for the sport, but probably right for the current commercial right lessee.

  15. This sounds like the sort of thing one would say if believing they’re about to be obliged to fend off an accusation of breaching Article 151c of the International Sporting Regulations for Abu Dhabi, which is strange as up to this point I believed it was entirely the FIA’s idea to break the regulations that way.

    The audience is doing so well that F1 is on course to have 1/3 fewer viewers in 2022 than 2021 if the Nielsen Sports figures are anything to go by (F1 got 1.5 billion viewers in 2021 cumulatively – itself a per-race drop on 2020 – and in 2022 is on course for only 1 billion cumulative despite an extra race projected to occur). The fact that the people still watching are noisier on social media than ever speaks to how that group of people communicates more than it does about F1 being popular (even in the commercial sense). There may be many reasons for this, but it’s hard to escape the suspicion that Abu Dhabi didn’t help.

    Doubtless if Stefano was challenged with those figures, he’d cite the 10 markets (including the USA) where there was an increase in figures, to counter the drop in figures in the rest. It still won’t convince me that he has understood the situation properly.

  16. Ahahahaha, you, Stefan Domenicali, are a very funny guy!

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