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Minnesota Football: The Monday Perspective learns from other sports

Can Gopher fans learn from Formula 1 fandom?

F1 Grand Prix of Italy Photo by Clive Mason - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

It is not a game week and typically TMP is not moved to write outside of football season, but there’s more to say. I’ve written here many times about how important expectations are for fans and the perception of a program’s success or even trajectory is often more based on original expectations than actual results.

This 2022 is a good example of how expectations affected our feelings about this season. You may recall that at the beginning of the season, the expectations were that the Gophers would win right around 7 or 8 games. Vegas originally set their win total at 6.5, which quickly moved to 7.5. The consensus Big Ten predictions had the Gophers finishing 4th in the Big Ten West.

Around 7 wins and finishing in the middle of the West was the general expectation. But then the beginning of the season happened and expectations began to rise. Mine included.

But we lost to Purdue and Illinois in consecutive weeks and the expectations changed...dramatically. In the end, we lost to Iowa (again but we beat Wisconsin again and ended up with 8 regular-season wins.

Was this a disappointing season? Was it a successful season? I think the answer is yes. It all depends on your perspective.

But I’m less interested in discussing how we feel about the 2022 season and more about the perspective of the overall program. And I want to look at Formula 1 as an interesting case study for how we view success in sports.

Yes, the international racing sport that has been wildly popular throughout the world while barely getting any recognition in the US until recent years. The catalyst for the dramatic rise in US popularity is largely due to the Netflix docu-series Drive to Survive which chronicles the sport’s teams and drivers throughout their season. It has led to a massive boost in ESPN ratings of the sport and beginning this year F1 will have 3 races on US soil after years of having only one.

I watched the show, I am hooked. And I have moved from not caring about the sport to waking up at 7AM on Saturdays to watch qualifying and then again on Sundays for the Grand Prix race.

There are quite a few things that I learned in the series that I find fascinating about the sport.

  • Typically your teammate is moreso your biggest rival and often they really do not work well together. This is a topic for another day.
  • Drivers will announce they are leaving for other teams in the middle of the season and then finish out the season with their current teams. This is like getting traded at the trading deadline but finishing out the season on your current team, being questioned about how much effort you’re really putting into this current season. Or maybe it’s more like breaking up with your girlfriend in December, but you stay together (awkwardly) through the winter.

But what I want to talk about today (now that I’m only 500 words into the story) is one area where I think F1 has some stark similarities to college football.

There are only 10 F1 teams who compete in the sport. Each team has 2 drivers, so there are only 20 cars on the grid each weekend. Over the last 20 years (due to different rule changes and other factors) there are really only 3 racing teams that have a chance at winning the team championship (the Constructors title). For 16 consecutive seasons (22 of the last 24) it has been Mercedes, Ferarri or Red Bull who hoist the Constructors Cup.

This is eerily similar to college football where there are really just a few teams who have a realistic chance at winning the ultimate championship. In both F1 this primarily comes down to a history of success and resources.

Each weekend all 10 teams race against each other, all 20 cars on the grid. The way you earn points towards the Constructors Cup is to finish in the top 10. A car that finishes 11th gets the same zero points as the car that finishes 20th.

Now, those top 3 teams, they are all competing to finish in the top 3. Should a Red Bull car finish 9th or 10th, they still get points but that is an incredibly disappointing race. But should either the Haas or Williasms team manage to finish 9th or 10th (earning those precious 1 or 2 points) they are thrilled. There is hugging and congratulations all throughout the paddock.

Take a look at this IG post from Aston Martin. Just look at how happy the entire team is after their performance in the 1st race of the season. Did Fernando Alonzo win the race? No. He was third.

There are very clearly top-tier teams, middle-tier teams and bottom-tier teams. But these teams, and their fans, adjust their expectations to their tier. And this is precisely where American college football fans are dramatically different.

In F1, Williams, a team that was at the top of the grid throughout the 80s and 90s, has finished dead last in 4 of the last 5 F1 seasons. But they are still racing against Mercedes and Red Bull each and every week with very little chance of prevailing.

This is very similar to college football where there are teams who are up against the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, and Michigan who really have very little chance of success due to huge inequities in resources. But the interesting dynamic here is expectations. And it is magnified for teams in the middle tier.

If we can all acknowledge that a history of success at the highest levels and programs have dramatically different resources, then why are we holding everyone to the same standard?

This isn’t a plea to lower expectations and let’s all be happy with mediocrity, but maybe for our own sanity and for the sake of maintaining a semblance of reasonableness, we could learn a thing or two from F1.

I would argue that the current environment of expectations for American football comes mostly from the NFL. Where a Super Bowl or bust mentality is fairly prevalent. And that may have more validity to it in a league where the rules strive for competitive fairness. Resources and acquisition of talent is balanced.

College football does its best to avoid that. It is a “kind of the mountain” league where once you get on top, it is much easier to stay than it was to climb that mountain.

The goal is to win and to win more. The goal can be to win a championship, the crux is to maintain realistic expectations. Winning the West? An attainable goal, given the current state of the Gopher program. Winning the Big Ten? Less likely considering a handful of teams on the other side of the league. Getting into the College Football Playoff (at least in its most recent 4-team iteration), almost no chance.

Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes luck doesn’t fall your way. Until there are dramatic changes to the overall structure of college football, Minnesota is always going to have significant challenges. Have we upgraded facilities? Yes. Do we have a coach that runs a good program that is developing talent? Yes. Have we shown to be competitive with the West and our rivals? Yes (but F you, Iowa).

This long and rambling post is mostly about how interesting I have found expectations in Formula 1. But there is also an interesting comparison to college football and how it affects our own expectations. As Gopher fans, it has been a long time that we’ve had to be patient. The landscape of college football has not been working in our favor for a very long time. The administration has made some poor decisions along the way. And frankly, we’ve had more bad luck than good.

But given the state that we are in and the resources we have, I do feel very good about where we are. After years of being more like Haas (a team that just cannot seem to get out of their own way), maybe we are more closely aligned with Alpine as a team that’s on the cusp of moving up to be more competitive with the bigger dogs.

Expectations for 2023 will be something we have to figure out over the next few months.