On the Wednesday before the British Grand Prix, eight Formula One cars took to the streets of central London in the early evening. Juan Pablo Montoya turned up in a Williams, Jenson Button appeared in a BAR, Christiano da Matta pedaled a Toyota and even Nigel Mansell was tempted out of retirement to drive a Jordan.
It was a public relations triumph and prompted widespread mutterings about whether there should be a Grand Prix of London in 2007, when Silverstone's contract runs out. All the drivers and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone declared their support and the idea was even supported by London's loony-left Mayor, Ken Livingstone. Great fun was had planning a route that would take cars down the Mall and up past Trafalgar Square.
It's all complete nonsense, of course. A parade is one thing, a fully fledged race quite another. Even assuming that London's crumbling infrastructure could support such an event, it is incredible to think that a London street circuit would ever be safe enough to satisfy F1's stringent regulations. One can only imagine the reaction of Her Majesty if part of a McLaren landed in the Buckingham Palace gardens
But while you're more likely to see a Baghdad Grand Prix than a race in London, the whole PR shebang was hugely revealing. No fewer than half a million people turned out to watch on a Wednesday evening and the event had to be curtailed because of crowd congestion. The numbers were wildly more than even the most optimistic estimate and served to confirm, once again, the extraordinary popularity of motorsport's premier category.
At the best estimate, more than 300 million people watch each race on television and these figures show little sign of diminishing. As one of Renault's senior marketing boffins told me recently, "You just can't achieve that sort of exposure through advertising. Formula One takes us into markets that haven't even heard of Renault. People start dreaming of a Megane before they even know what one is."
His logic was undisputable-Bernie's empire remains one of the world's great superpowers-but the question is, "Why?" As a racing spectacle, Formula One stopped being entertaining about a decade ago. The dominance of aerodynamic over mechanical grip, coupled with electronic aids such as traction control, has murdered the spirit of sporting endeavor.
Towards the end of the recent British Grand Prix, McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen found himself behind the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher. The over-excited TV commentator declared that this would be a titanic battle to the finish, but regular viewers new that this was tosh. Unless Michael made a horrendous mistake-about as likely as meeting Elvis-then there was no way that the personality-free Finn was going to get past. And so it proved-Schuey won his 10th race of the season by 2 sec.
In the press conference, the over-achieving German suggested that it had been a "nice little fight," and maybe, from the vantage point of an F2004 cockpit, it might have been. But for the millions of us watching on the box, it was limb-chewingly tedious. Not only was there no jousting, but we couldn't even see the artistry.
Back in the old days, you could at least see the car's dancing on the limit of adhesion. Watch footage of Gilles Villeneuve in the '70s, or even Ayrton Senna in the '80s and you'll see the genius. Back then, oversteer was a tool in the driver's armory, not an evil to be slaughtered by an electronic aid. Schumacher is unquestionably in the Villeneuve/Senna class but his brilliance is hidden from view. Even the in-car footage is sober.
The lack of actual racing is undoubtedly a factor in the sports' failure to permeate the U.S. market to any great degree. While European purists mock NASCAR as being horribly unsophisticated, there can be no denying that it serves up exciting action and characterful drivers. Even Champ Cars and the IRL deliver more actual racing than F1.
F1's top brass is not blind to these concerns. Significant and ostensibly sensible changes to the regulations have been proposed by FIA President Max Mosley, but while they seek to reduce costs, it's questionable as to whether they will actually improve the racing. They may also yet be compromised by the political shenanigans that accompany any F1 decision
Some people will look at the viewing figures and the success of the PR stunts and conclude that my sentiments border on the paranoid. But I'm not so sure. The F1 bubble cannot last forever and action needs to be taken before the whole sport disappears up its own bottom.