I always thought MotorSport fans were a tiny minority of people.
“Clearly they’ve been exposed to petrol fumes too much,” I thought. “They’re just bogans who wear V8 Supercar jackets to weddings or who buy incredibly crass Ferrari-branded phones.”
But I was wrong. It turns out there are thousands of sane and civilised people who enjoy watching MotorSport. These people live and die by the performances of Craig, Casey, Mark, Marcos and other drivers who apparently have graduated to the “so beloved we only need one name” echelon formerly reserved for Cathy, Gazey, Thorpey and Harry.
But my main question to those people: Is MotorSport even a real sport?
Most definitions of the word sport are vague and too inclusive for my liking. Going by the dictionary definition you could argue that things like fishing and cheerleading are sports. They’re not.
I would argue that true sport must involve actively engaging one or more opponents on a level playing field. The winner is determined directly by the ability and performance of the participants against the clock or scoreboard.
So does MotorSport tick those boxes, and are MotorSport fans right to claim it as a sport? I do not believe so.
Reason why MotorSport is not a sport #1: The engine often wins the race… not the driver.
In 2007, Valentino Rossi, supposedly the greatest motorcycle rider of all time, threw a very public hissy fit and threatened to leave Yamaha after his bike began to fall behind technologically compared to Honda and Ducati. Apparently his greatness did not matter in the face of a better bike. F1 pundits spent Michael Schumacher’s entire career unsure whether or not his statistical dominance was ‘real dominance’ since it came with the asterisk of ‘driving a clearly superior machine.’ They still haven’t made up their minds!
No, it is the engine under the bonnet that does most of the work. Horse-racing (which I do not believe is a true sport either) has it right in this regard: They praise the horse more than the jockey… Phar Lap is a legend whereas his jockey’s name is a trivia question.
The horse matters more than the jockey. The car matters more than the driver. Same thing.
Reason why MotorSport is not a sport #2: Just because elite drivers are in top shape, it doesn’t make driving a sport.
Elite drivers have top-notch reaction times, low body fat, good strength and can maintain life-or-death concentration for hours on end. They’re very impressive in that regard. But despite what MotorSport fans constantly claim, none of those things makes them sportspeople. Brain surgeons exhibit similar levels of concentration, and people who stack cups have top level reactions too, but that doesn’t make brain surgery or cup stacking a sport… no matter how awesome they are.
Reason why MotorSport is not a sport #3: There is no level playing field in most MotorSport.
To give someone a ‘sporting chance’ you need to be fair and making sure everyone has a chance to win. This simply doesn’t happen in most MotorSport. Could a low-budget team with inferior technology win a world title? No, it’s not possible. The last time even a single F1 race was won by a small team was in 2008. What hope do they hold for the Championship?
Conversely, you can look at someone like Lionel Messi, indisputably the world’s best soccer player. The man stands slightly taller than a fire hydrant. He has a growth hormone deficiency, yet he dominates larger, faster, stronger men with his skills and ability. He has overcome his physical limitations and he can now stand taller than any athlete on the planet (metaphorically, anyway). Would such a story be possible in F1? No.
And yes, there is monopolisation in other sports, too… but the difference is that any team can potentially beat Manchester United on any given day… their chances of victory depend on their own ability, and they don’t have to overcome that fact that Manchester United are wearing magical boots that help them run 8% faster.
So to summarise:
MotorSport ticks two of the four boxes I outlined above. It involved direct engagement between opponents, and the results are determined by a clock or scoreboard.
But it’s not a level playing field, and the winner is not purely determined by ability or “performance on the day” – it is also largely determined by the engine you’re using.
As such, it does not meet the criteria. It is a skill, definitely, and I am happy for fans to call it MotorSport since that (accurately) specifies that the competition is largely between motors, not people. But it is not a true sport.