Is This The Twilight of Formula 1?

As F1’s controversial 2014 season comes to a close, we’re left wondering if this storied sport is getting lapped by the times.

During Formula One’s race weekend at Austin’s Grand Prix of the Americas, access to the private hospitality suites at The Paddock Club costs upwards of $5000—that is, if you can manage to get a ticket at all. But this year the VIP boxes were at capacity, filled with men and women in jeans and ill-fitting polo shirts, the greatest concentration of wealthy people in working class drag outside of a Double RL ad. Meanwhile, across the opening straightaway of the two-year-old, purpose-built Formula One track (called Circuit of the Americas, or COTA), the bleachers held many empty seats, as did the even more affordable hillside lawn areas.

I haven’t been to an F1 event before, but given the allegedly fervent nature of the fans—especially just south in Mexico, from whence 60% of the 113,000 attendees at last year’s event hailed—we’d hoped for a crowd that was somehow more teeming, like at a British soccer match or a beheading during the French Revolution. Here, the masses ambled slowly into their waiting courtesy shuttles, maintaining cautious following distances so as not to scuff their loafers. The drivers, with their international accents, were as mannered as Monegasque aristocracy.

The 2014 season of F1 is drawing to a close this weekend in charismatic, stylish Abu Dhabi. The Mercedes AMG Petronas team has already won the very lucrative Constructor’s Championship, and one of its two drivers, Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg, will win the Driver’s Championship depending on the outcome. The rest of the sport is so far behind Merc that they might as well be playing baseball. Rather than racing, each team is mired in one bodice-ripping subplot or another: 4-time champ Sebastian Vettel, is leaving Red Bull for Ferrari, Fernando Alonso is leaving Ferrari for who-knows-where, Jenson Button may or may not retire. Two teams—Caterham and Marussia—are probably kaput while the rest are waging a futile public battle for scraps of revenue against the Lord of F1, the tiny man with the baroque silver hair, Bernie Ecclestone.

The lack of parity, the bickering, the new engine with 1.6-liter turbo V6s that are quieter than a lawnmower, the somewhat dull races interrupted only by the tragic accident involving Jules Bianchi, the slipping (though still monstrous) global TV ratings—all these things beg the question: is this sport is all that healthy? Is it worth the price of admission? At a nearby NASCAR track this same weekend, a giant post-finish melee broke out between two of its star drivers. What does F1 offer?

We didn’t even hear anyone shout a word of smack at winner Lewis Hamilton as he doused himself in champagne, and we were standing directly overhead on the deck of the suite belonging to Infiniti Red Bull, the highly decorated upstart team from which Hamilton’s team, Mercedes AMG Petronas, had just grabbed the championship mantle. (A team’s placement in the paddock is based on their ranking in the previous year’s rankings, so Infiniti Red Bull’s was in the prime real estate closest to the finish line; a cruel trick of fate that allowed their guests to be the first to witness Benz creaming them by 25 seconds a lap, a span that is more approach for a chess match than an auto race.)

Perhaps this signified a return to the proper order of things, wherein a team connected to storied marque with a century-long racing history beats back the four-year reign of one beholden to tacky energy drink and a 25-year-old Japanese near-luxury brand that’s never produced a real sports car. Then again, the night before, Italian supercar manufacturer Ferrari hosted a down home barbecue. And earlier that day, Infiniti Red Bull’s head of racing sat us down and, in the wake of the disappearance from the circuit of two smaller teams, Marussia and Caterham, denounced the sport’s exclusivity. “The cost to be competitive is too high,” Christian Horner told us, going on to call for equalization amongst the teams through some standardization of shared componentry.

It seems like the folks at Mercedes and Red Bull have ironed out their differences, which is a step forward. However, that hasn’t prevented Lord Ecclestone from taking two steps back. In a recent interview, he said there’s “no point” in trying to attract teenage fans because they couldn’t afford anything the sport has to offer anyway. Ecclestone, whose daughter Petra recently bought herself one of two most expensive houses in the world, seems interested only in catering to the world’s wealthiest—like the men of Abu Dhabi.

But is resentment regarding income stratification brewing amongst racing’s 1%? Is Formula One having a Thomas Piketty moment? The unbridled flow of lobster salad, truffled pasta, racked lamb, and Mumm champagne would suggest otherwise. “The glamour side of F1 is very important,” Tomasso Volpe, Infiniti’s head of Formula One racing told us. “It should be perceived as a prestige sport.”

This explains why it currently costs upwards of $500 million to support a single F1 team each year. It also explains why, as each team travels the globe for nine months, visiting nineteen countries in every habitable continent, it carts with them—by sea, land, and air, via their official carrier DHL—not just their miraculous vehicles and concomitant tire warmers, intake coolers, computer simulators, suspension arms, air jacks, oil barrels, and engineering equipment, but also hundreds of pieces of luxurious furniture, flatware, and glassware, as well as centerpieces, floral arrangements, gift bags, earplugs, uniforms, sashimi tongs, and flat-screen TV arrays, all updated and overhauled every single year.

Also along for the big ride: the staff. Thousands of peripatetic employees join what is known as “The Traveling Circus” as it circumnavigates the earth. Many of the forward facing members of this community—like hosts and servers and bartenders in the hospitality suites—are solicited by casting agencies and chosen at least in part for their attractiveness. (Mission accomplished.) Even the gentleman who punches your ticket at the entry turnstile is a permanent fixture. Feudal Lords, or the Grateful Dead, lacked this kind of fealty.

Though there are usually about two weeks between races, the sheer quantity of the takedown is so tremendous that well before the final laps, workers were already crawling around on the ground in the paddock area, packing dirty plates, and clean chaises, and everything else—literally everything else—into stackable plastic shipping containers. A natural gas-powered forklift idled nearby, tines primed, as if divining their next move. The exaggerated efficiency of their motions, and their jumpsuits, rivaled those of the pit crews.

Such harried turnaround apparently leaves the staff little time for sightseeing, even at the track. When we wanted to make our way from the Paddock Suite at turn 1 to the Ferrari Hospitality at turn 12, we asked a half-dozen F1 employees for the best route. Not one of them knew. “I only take the tickets,” the turnstile operator told us. He pointed at the turnstile, which resembled a much fancier Global Entry kiosk. “I only know here.

Following the race, self-proclaimed “Midwestern redneck” and total asshole Kid Rock played a free concert in the amphitheater at the track’s center. We aren’t certain of the final attendance numbers, but when we walked by just before the scheduled start, the stadium was empty. And as we listened from the Ferrari hospitality stand, enjoying a last glass of champagne, the only cheering we heard was Kid’s own. All call, no response.

Perhaps everyone was busy running the tarmac during the customary post-race “Fan Invasion,” during which those observers who are dedicated or drunk enough tear about the turns, looking like a mob of White Walkers preparing for winter. Or a throng of tweenage girls pursuing the members of 5 Seconds of Summer. Only, absent any cars or drivers, there was nothing for them to eat or kiss. There’s always next year. Although with the reintroduction of the competing Mexico City Grand Prix, they can’t even really count on that. 

Photos by Hoch Zwei / Corbis