Is F1 gambling with its integrity?

OK, in response to that headline, many of you will be shouting “what integrity”, but for now please bear with us.

Twice in the last week, the social media ‘twitchforks’ have been raised in anger at the sport’s powers-that-be.

The first time was in reaction to the update to the official live timing app that has actually taken it back to the dark ages, while the second was in reaction to the news that the sport has agreed a rumoured $100m deal to allow in-race betting.

In the same way that the majority of the online reaction to the app update was negative, so too the reaction to the gambling deal.

In a nutshell, fans are baffled that a company that proudly declared from its high horse that grid girls would no longer be allowed, and such practices would be banished back to the stone age where they belong, can then accept gambling money, and that having finally been weaned off tobacco F1 is now giving in to another addictive scourge on society.

Back in 2000, our editor, who was then employed in a similar role at another F1 site, attended a meeting with marketing representatives of a company with a long history in the sport. We will not identify the company, other than to say it is not a team nor an engine manufacturer but a supplier and sponsor to F1 throughout the sport’s history.

When the company was presented with plans for the site in terms of potential partners and sponsors, the chief marketing man leaned back in his chair.

“Through circumstance, our company is one of the largest retailers of cigarettes in some parts of Europe,” he began. “If a customer chooses to buy cigarettes and subsequently develops cancer, there is little we can do, we are merely the retailer of a product they wish to buy.

“However,” he continued, surveying the site’s proposals for partnerships with various companies including betting companies, “should a customer lose their business or home due to the fact we encouraged them to gamble, that would result in negative publicity. We cannot be seen to be associated with gambling.” The meeting ended, along with hopes of a partnership.

Though this isn’t a verbatim account of what he said, it gets the general message across.

In a bid to pay our bills, Pitpass has accepted ads from betting companies, and only last year two long-term advertisers ended their partnership with us as a result.

Fact is, like it used to be with tobacco, betting and gambling companies are throwing their cash around in a bid to be seen by prospective punters. Altruism plays no part of their ambition, rather the desire to part the gullible from their hard-earned.

The fact that the first significant deal that the sport has signed under its new ownership is in gambling comes as no surprise as betting companies have a reputation for almost forcing their money on outlets which can promote them.

As we have seen with other sports, where gambling money goes, allegations of corruption soon follow, to the point that some sports have been dealt irreparable damage.

In the same way that the alcohol industry in the UK seeks to absolve itself of the misery its product can cause for some by simply adding the words “drink sensibly” to advertisements, so too the gambling industry has the equally pathetic “when the fun stops, stop” moral disclaimer.

But – and at Pitpass we have seen the evidence first-hand – some can’t stop, for some, gambling, like tobacco and alcohol, is an addiction that ruins lives.

The sport has survived perfectly well – and how – thus far without jumping into bed with the gambling industry, so why now, at a time of increasing fears about the damage betting is doing, has F1 welcomed gambling with open arms.

Ignoring the prospect of odds being flashed on to TV screens and apps, in-play betting will leave the sport and participants open to all manner of conspiracies… the strategic mix-up, the fluffed pit-stop no longer merely the source of red faces on the pit-wall and in the garage, but speculation over whether it was for the benefit of a far-east betting syndicate.

In securing the deal, F1 probably thought it had hit the jackpot, for many however, it is just another worrying sign that in its quest for new fans and profit, the powers-that-be have lost sight of what the sport is really about.