Apart from recent excursions to see the brilliant Senna documentary and the Ron Howard-directed movie Rush – about the 1976 season rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt – my interest in Formula One over the past fifty years has been fitful at best.
These days, whilst happy to acknowledge the excellence of the UK television coverage by both Sky Sports and the BBC, I’m afraid it largely consists of being prepared to witness live only fifteen to twenty minutes’ worth of build-up, the warm-up lap, and then the first three or four laps of the race itself – just to see if, by any chance, the first corner, or alternatively the early jostling of the drivers for position, produces a spectacular multiple accident.
For me, Formula One is an example of one sport where those of us beyond fifty years of age, whose tendency to bemoan the fact that ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ is mostly just hot air, have actually got something to shout about.
Don’t get me wrong, Formula One was always a business, but in the days of Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Niki Lauda – even Nigel Mansell and the rest – at least one felt that people were actually putting their lives on the lines and that no specific period of domination by manufacturer or driver excellence would last more than a couple of years.
Two things affect my general predisposition.
Firstly, I am no petrol head.
Secondly, although all elite professional sports are inextricably linked with business and sponsors’ interests (which often assume priority over that of the fans), Formula One stands head and shoulders ahead of the rest for the nakedness with which it pursues and operates them.
In effect, the Formula One season is little more than phenomenally-successful marketing tool for the motor industry. Everything is run via dictatorial control. Teams only get to take part if they comply with all sorts of rules and financial commitments. Circuits only get added to the fixture list – and/or retained on it – if they pay big bucks and meet the stringent requirements of Bernie Ecclestone and his administrative cohorts.
Of course, the powers-that-be are canny enough to keep their eyes firmly on the thing that really matters – i.e. retaining the interest of fans.
The first problem is this quest is the fact that the gap in the funds available to the top four teams – and then their second, and third, tier equivalents – is so large that the Formula One ‘manufacturing team’ results are 90% pre-ordained before each season begins. I guess some might argue that this situation is hardly unique – citing, for example, the UK’s soccer Premier League – but I’d ‘push back’ with the line that in no other major sport does this apply to the extent in Formula One.
The second problem is that winning the drivers’ championship is almost entirely a product of which team you can persuade to hire you. Having said that, to be fair, there is an extent to which the cream does indeed rise to the top – in that the most powerful teams will always tend to hire the best drivers.
Since Formula One is just a marketing exercise, Ecclestone and his colleagues have to keep an eagle eye upon developments within individual teams and, most importantly, the results.
Next to find and drafting in enough home-town spectators at each different venue to give the impression to the world-wide television audience that Formula One is thriving around the world, a period of outright domination by a single driver/team is the one issue that disrupts sleep at ‘HQ’.
Never mind that some who are Formula One fans and/or are actually involved in it – and I personally know someone who works for Red Bull – maintain that a key factor in the sport is the constant drive to extend the boundaries of motoring technology. It is the same argument as mounted by NASA regarding space exploration, whenever the extent of its funding was challenged, i.e. that often developments in technology and materials can later result in beneficial applications elsewhere in everyday life.
The Formula One authorities didn’t get to where they are today by being fools. Ecclestone is only too aware of the importance of maintaining the illusion the sport is a fair competition, not simply a procession with its results determined solely by who has the deepest pockets.
And those pockets are indeed deep. I finally ‘bailed out’ of regarding Formula One as a proper sport in 2007, the year that Mercedes McLaren was found guilty of intellectual property theft from Ferrari and, having been fined the extraordinary amount of USA $100 million as a result, simply wrote out a cheque … and carried on as if nothing had happened, because it could.
But the administrators’ tinkering in the cause of maintaining its illusions do not end there. A while back, Ecclestone proposed deliberately drenching parts of the track in water, simply to add some random chance to proceedings. Fortunately, someone had a word, sense prevailed, and the proposal was quietly dropped.
But in recent times, we’ve had enforced pit-stops through new rules limiting the amounts of fuel a car can start with in each race.
The tyre manufacturers have also been commissioned to produce tyres which will deliberately degrade enough to make extra pit-stops necessary. This ruse almost backfired when the ‘degrading’ of the new tyres then appeared to cause one or two accidents, resulting in a threat from the drivers to go on strike.
Now, in a transparent attempt to upset the Vettel reign, we hear of a proposal that ‘double points’ will be awarded for the final race of the Formula One season.
How crackers is that?
Meanwhile, Bernie Ecclestone himself, now 83, who has to all intents and purposes run Formula One singled-handedly for decades, is facing a new US $400 million lawsuit from German bank BayernLB. This comes on top of being indicted in Germany on charges of bribery and Emily Thornberry, the UK’s shadow Attorney General, calling once again for the Serious Fraud Office to look into his financial affairs.
Ah well, just another day at the office for the main man of Formula One …