|Drivers, What Men. F1, What Happened?|
|Chris Balfe, England|
I would like to begin by thanking the many people who responded to my previous article, Reminiscing a Nonsensical Future. Alessio Lomuscio correctly pointed out that along with a couple of other mistakes, I had constantly mis-spelled Briatore.. I stand corrected. However, in my own defence, I should like to say that I wrote the piece immediately upon my return from Silverstone and at the time of writing I was feeling extremely angry and emotional, therefore I failed to make the necessary checks. Please accept my apologies for this.
I have tried to respond personally to everyone who has written to me, however in the cases of Gary Davies and Jeff Saltzman my e-mails were returned as there seemed to be a problem with their corresponding servers.
The response to my previous article has come from all four corners of the globe and has been both encouraging and enlightening. I was beginning to feel that maybe I was simply becoming a cynic with the passing years, however it would appear that I'm not alone.
Last week, as I got ready to go to work, I had the TV on for the morning news. I missed the exact details of the story, but it concerned the fact that someone new was taking over at the helm of British Athletics. The reporter mentioned the "golden age" of athletics in the eighties which was due to "widespread terrestrial television coverage and sponsorship." Doesn't this seem a little familiar? Then a couple of days later I noticed a small piece tucked away in Autosport.
Walter Wolf, the oil magnate who ran a team in the seventies, is considering a return to the sport. Walter said, "back then you could only lose money, today you can make money out of it." The piece went on to add that Bernie Ecclestone was urging Wolf to return. Now there's a surprise!
At this point, I want to tell you about a couple of superb events that I've attended in recent months. First there was "The Goodwood Festival of Speed". This was held in June and is an annual event. This year's main theme was to honour Ferrari's 50th Anniversary. Every year, mouth-watering machinery is assembled from all over the globe together with a veritable "who's who" of drivers. The whole thing is built around a hillclimb, but nobody really takes the times too seriously. This is a unique chance to see the heroes from different ages drive legendary cars.
Imagine Scheckter in his 312T4, Moss in his Mille Miglia winning 300 SLR, Phil Hill in the Chaparral 2F, Emerson Fittipaldi in his Penske, Tony Brooks in the Vanwall or how about Hans Stuck in his father's V16 Auto Union. Are you getting the picture? Add a few more names like Amon, Reuteman, Arnoux, Bell, Shelby, Brabham, Surtees, Bondurant, Attwood and so on. Not forgetting current stars such as Johnny Herbert and Eddie Irvine together with team boss Eddie Jordan.
Let me tell you that for a few days I was lost in time and loving every minute of it. This festival was all about "hands on", you could see, touch, hear and smell the history. It was like being in the biggest cake shop in the world - where to go... what to see next.
Unfortunately, the weather for the entire three days was quite dreadful. But, despite being soaked through to the skin my enthusiasm was never dampened. Every time the rain ceased, I would remove my cherished "Piloti, che gente.." from its bag and ask another legend to "kindly sign". And, let me tell you that they were delighted for it wasn't just the public who were enjoying themselves, every single driver present was having the time of his life. Rene Arnoux continuously wore a grin so wide it must surely have hurt, Reuteman thanked people for letting him sign their autograph books, and Scheckter slipped into the T4 as if he had never been away.
Last weekend, I attended the Coys Historic Festival at Silverstone. This is another annual event that attracts the cream of the historic crop. Again, the central theme was Ferrari's 50th Anniversary. Many of the driver's who had participated at Goodwood were scheduled to drive at Coys, however the clash with the German Grand Prix meant that nobody from the 1997 F1 Grid would be able to attend. The sheer number of Ferraris present was stupefying, but in going for quantity, the organisers didn't forsake quality. Three, yes three 246s, a Super Squalo, 750s, 500s, 512Ms, a dozen GTOs, TRs, TDFs, Lussos, Ferraris from every period, and they were racing.. yes, racing!
Again, we saw Phil Hill, Scheckter and Surtees -- now joined by Froilan Gonzalez and Regazzoni. How can I possibly begin to describe to you what a superb week-end this was. Here, I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of examples of the product of my beloved Ferrari and in the presence of motor racing greatness.
My enduring memory is of the Sunday evening. As the owners of the various cars began the laborious job of returning their machines to their transporters and trailers, the spectators slowly made their way out of the circuit, stopping occasionally to purchase that last poster or T-shirt.
I waited outside the BRDC (British Racing Driver's Club) for Stirling Moss in order to ask him to sign my programme. At a wooden table just a few feet from where I stood sat Phil Hill. He drank slowly from a glass of beer and turned to talk to the man sitting to his left who was in a wheel-chair. I had seen this man win Grand Prix and Sports Car events for Ferrari. In 1979 he won the first ever GP for Williams: Clay Regazzoni. John Surtees played with his young son whilst Froilan Gonzalez shrugged in response to a comment from Jack Brabham. In the background, Jody Scheckter chatted to Roy Salvadori and Cliff Allisson.
Can you imagine the stories these men could tell? Can you imagine how it would be to sit in on their conversation and listen to the wonderful anecdotes they could recount? As the evening came to a close and they each made their way home, I got to wondering which drivers from today's F1 circus would have looked comfortable sitting in their company.
An event such as this would have been a golden opportunity for Mr. Mansell to re-aquaint himself with his public. At Goodwood, Eddie Jordan said that participating in such events was not only great fun, it was also a way of saying thanks to the people.
I asked John Surtees (don't you hate name droppers?) on the Sunday morning, "do you enjoy these events as much as we do?" and he replied "you give me the car and I'll drive it". I genuinely feel sorry for Nigel because I don't think he will ever have a place in the hearts of the racing public in the same way as Surtees, Brabham, Moss or so many of the others. And yet he could have, if he would just stop thinking about himself and his wallet for a few minutes.
Yet whilst I mention Mansell and the waning of his popularity, I should like to mention a driver whose popularity has steadily increased to almost ridiculous proportions. Ayrton Senna
In 1992, Senna retired from the British Grand Prix at virtually the same spot where he had retired from the previous two British events. He was greeted with mass jeering, and offensive slogans on banners were waved tauntingly. Yet at the same event in 1994 the circuit was awash with people wearing Senna T-shirts, Senna hats and waving Senna flags. Where did these people suddenly emerge from? Senna was quite simply one of the finest drivers ever to grace the sport. I refuse to say he was the best, because as I wrote in my previous article, I do not believe you can fairly judge performances from different eras. It was only in the last two years of his life that the real Senna started to emerge and this was thanks largely to the influence of Gerhard Berger. Before that, he had been widely viewed as a highly skilled, yet aloof and somewhat distant character.
In the weeks after his death, more and more stories came to light and Senna, the man behind the imperceptible visor, began to emerge. Suddenly, the general public went overboard. A whole industry grew out of his death. Just like the death of Elvis Presley was great news for RCA and John Lennon's murder set the tills ringing at EMI, so Ayrton's death has caused a lot of people to weep all the way to the bank.
We had the books, the T-shirts, more books, the video, more books, the limited edition prints, more books, the hat and yet another book. Have you seen some of the products that carry Ayrton's name? Hardly a week seems to go by without an advertisement appearing somewhere offering a limited edition drawing of Ayrton. Have you seen some of these pictures? I never know whether to laugh or cry. It seems as if anyone who can clutch a pencil is knocking up a Senna print, then having the audacity to ask a small fortune for it.
Many people in this country got into F1 during the Mansell years. The jingoism that is part of the British psyche was fed by the fact that at last we had a sport where we seemed to excel. These people weren't interested in the history of the sport nor it's politics. They weren't interested in the other participants (unless they were British). It was "Our Nige" in a British car. Once a fortnight, they would settle in front of the TV and watch Nige beat the foreigners or have a bloody good try. These were the people who loved the start of the race best of all and talked for days afterwards about some of the spectacular crashes. And what crashes there were. Berger at Imola in 1988, Donnely in Spain, Zanardi at Spa, Patrese in Portugal and then Imola 1994.
One weekend of F1 on TV changed us forever. None of the many driver's who had perished in the name of motor sport had died so publicly, so openly. It had all seemed like a bit of a game. No matter how bad the crash, the driver always seemed to emerge relatively unscathed. Yet, here in the course of twenty four hours, two men had perished -- one of them arguably the greatest driver ever to have lived.
Of course, we had seen it before. I remember watching the news with my mother back in 1970 when, before the commercial break, the announcer calmly said "and in part two, the death of racing driver Bruce McLaren." I was at Brands Hatch when the news came over the PA that Jim Clark had been killed at Hockenheim. Rindt, Peterson, Revson, Courage, Rodriguez, Bonnier, De Angelis... Gilles. So many great men, so tragically taken. Yet, for the new GP fan this was a baptism by fire; this was for real.
The crashes were great on TV, but the deaths weren't in the script. It's not good... it puts people off... it's not sport. The BBC cut to the studio where a grim faced anchorwoman told us that we'd rejoin the race as soon as possible. Not so on Eurosport. The helicopter camera focused unflinchingly on the events unfolding below. Ayrton receiving trackside emergency treatment witnessed by a shell shocked Eric Comas. This wasn't meant to happen... this is sport.
I believe now as I believed then that the influence of television on F1 played an even greater part in Senna's death than we realise. It is not good TV for a race to be re-started. There are world-wide schedules to be kept and a delay of just a few minutes can cause untold problems throughout the various networks. After the Lehto/Lamy startline accident, I believe the race should have been stopped and subsequently restarted. Instead, for the first time in F1 the pace car was used. I am convinced that debris remained on the track from this incident and that this, combined with the laps behind the pace car and the subsequent drop in tyre pressures, led to Senna's fatal accident. I know many of you will dispute this, however I feel that failure to stop the race following the Lehto incident led directly or indirectly to Senna's death.
I remember when Alain Prost quit F1 for the first and, may I add, only time in 1993 (he was fired by Ferrari in 1991). Bernie Ecclestone, the man who has made millions from the sport and following public floatation stands along with his wife to make billions.... in the old day's there used to be a natural culling, said Prost's resignation. Well, Imola 1994 certainly saw it's return.
The new age TV viewer had been blooded and he didn't like it. And, how did the FIA react? With a knee jerk, of course. Almost overnight, ridiculous unworkable safety measures were brought in. Pit lane speeds were reduced to prevent a re-occurrence of the Imola shambles, yet within weeks they were increased again because F1 cars at 50 mph in the pit lane don't look good on TV. The GPDA was hastily re-formed under the auspices of Gerhard Berger and Niki Lauda, yet within a short space of time this too received merely lip service.
In many ways, much of what happened has now been forgotten, or worse, ignored. It's all about how it looks on TV. If it doesn't look good, people don't watch. If people don't watch, the sponsors stay away. If the sponsors stay away, Bernie and Co. don't make money. I find it hard to believe I'm writing this, but do I ever miss J. M. Ballestre. The guy was an autocratic pain in the derriere, but he wasn't in Bernie's pocket. Right from the start, Mosley has played Bernie's tune. The first move was to shorten the Friday morning practice sessions. "They won't notice the difference," said Mosley of the paying public. Then, after a wet Saturday qualifying session at Silverstone two years ago, they did away with Friday qualifying. This was intended to make it look better on TV, but even today there is constant gamesmanship often resulting in the track being empty other than for the Tyrrells and Minardis for the first twenty minutes.
All the changes being made are purely with TV in mind. All the circuits look the same with plenty of sweeping 2nd gear turns so you can read the sponsor's names. And the safety changes, do they consult the men that actually drive or even design the cars? Hell no. What do they know? Instead, they make a whole list of changes for '98 that nobody agrees with. And should they, as in the case of Villeneuve, question these changes, they get summoned to Paris to get their back-side kicked.
How many of you watching the German GP thought it was all going to be decided by pit stops and pit stop strategy? It's ridiculous, isn't it? As much as I love Ferrari and long for the day when they are Numero Uno again, it is they and they alone who want to see re-fuelling kept in. I say ban it along with wings, vanes and so on. Let's see the racing go back to the drivers. I want to see if Schumacher can conserve his fuel and tyres. I want to see these guys fighting with the cars again. I want to see the F1 World Championship decided on the racetrack between men at the very top of their profession, not on the drawing board, not in the pits, and not in the offices of either Ecclestone, Mosely or some multi-national conglomerate.
How dare Ecclestone tell the engine manufacturers that he wants to see them supplying more than one team. Why doesn't he just order Renault to continue racing, put their engine in Newey's McLaren, put Michael Schumacher in the cockpit, give it a nice flashy paint job, a la Jordan, and thereby decide the '98 Championship before it's even begun. It would save me a couple of thousand pounds next year and no more rushing home to watch qualifying or the race as it would be a forgone conclusion.
Doesn't Bernie realise that this is not a fantasy game? The idea of the best driver in the best car with the best engine might sound great to him, but to race fans and his beloved TV audience it would be an instant turn off. Bernie & Co. should be doing more to improve the spectacle, yet it seems he is intent on doing the opposite. This year's Canadian GP saw the Ferrari of Schumi and Coulthard's McLaren both encounter serious tyre wear problems which looked like giving us a grandstand finish, until Panis' accident. At Silverstone, we were robbed of the Hakkinen/Villeneuve tussle thanks to Mika's retirement. At several other events this year, we have seen glimpses of what could be, but on the whole it's been pretty disappointing. It's Schumi versus the Williams, and yet one only has to look across the Big Pond to CART where it looks as though the title will go to the wire. And just look at the racing, look at some of the manoeuvres those guys are carrying out week in, week out. Yet F1, the pinnacle of motor sport, looks positively tame by comparison.
The people who responded to my previous article from across the Atlantic pointed out that in the US and Canada there is no such thing as a "casual" F1 fan. It's so hard to get decent coverage of the events that only a serious race fan or a wealthy insomniac gets coverage. I have spent some time in the US and know from experience that trying to get access to F1 is damn near impossible. I've been in bars where every conceivable sport known to man was being shown simultaneously, but ask the bartender to get you live coverage from Monaco and he'll respond "live coverage of what?".
How can Bernie, the FIA and the teams allow this situation to go on? OK, Britain is, in many ways, the home of motor sport, but America is the spiritual home of the car. I honestly can't begin to imagine what it's like to live without decent F1 coverage, let alone the opportunity to visit a GP. We had Watkins Glen, then for a while courtesy of Long Beach, we had two American events. These gave way to Dallas, Cesar's Palace, Detroit and Phoenix. What were they thinking of, holding a Grand Prix in a car park? And now there is talk yet again of holding an F1 event in the States but where - on the streets? in a car park? How on earth do they hope to sell F1 to the American public if they can't come up with anything more imaginative than that. There are at least four or five tracks in North America that could easily show what is best in F1, and George Nuse who responded to my last article is part owner of one of them, Road Atlanta.
However, if you thought F1 coverage in the US was bad, spare a thought for our friends in Spain. They don't get any coverage. OK, they get a GP and, this year, two. But, many of the locals can't afford to attend. And how about Portugal? The world's most expensive, exciting and sophisticated sport, and only two weeks ago were they able to make a final decision that the event in 1997 should be cancelled. To all you poor suckers that have already booked your trips to Estoril in November, my heart goes out to you -- we too were close to booking.
The fact that many people will have lost money booking trips to Estoril won't bother the F1 circus. After all, they know that race fans have bottomless pockets. This brings me neatly to my next point, merchandising.
At the recent British Grand Prix you could purchase a T-shirt for £19.99 ($30 for our American friends) a replica pit shirt for £99.99 ($160) or a replica team jacket for £99.99 ($160). All these items (plus a few more at similarly extravagant prices) were available bearing the Arrows logo. Yes, Arrows. A team that after 300 GPs has yet to record its first win. A team that in twenty seasons has amassed the grand total of 148 World Championship points (that's .493 points/GP for the statisticians). Surely, Tom Walkinshaw would have been better served getting to work on his cars rather than seemingly concentrating on the fripperies. In recent years, I remember both Pacific and Simtek having some equally nice articles for sale. It's a pity the T-shirts out-lived the teams. Is this what Walter Wolf meant when he said "today you can make money out of it?" Is this what it's all about? Forgive me for being naive but I thought this was about motor racing, not T-shirts, hats and jackets. I remember only a few years ago not being able to get anything in the way of team merchandising and sending away to the US for an iron-on logo. I thought I looked the dog's bollocks, even if the logo was squint and started to peel after three washes. Today I can buy anything my little heart desires and my credit card can handle -- from Berger's replica helmet to boots made from old race tyres. Don't get me wrong, when it comes to much of the Ferrari gear, I'm first in the queue (though I prefer the Cerruti team wear to the mass produced Nice Man stuff). It's just that it annoys me to see teams seemingly concentrating more of their efforts on the merchandising than on the engineering front. The exception to the rule I'm glad to say is Stewart Grand Prix, let's hope it starts to pay off for them soon.
I hope this article hasn't been all doom and gloom, although I guess it has. I love this sport as I know you do. I want to see what's best for it. I honestly look on motor sport as a friend (a lover almost). I am hurt when someone criticises it and jump to it's defence. I am lost when it's not there and despair at the way some people abuse it for their own ends. But, I believe there is hope. I don't know how we're going to change things, but I'm open to suggestions. I don't want to boycott races until Bernie & Co. see the light, as I know that they will be able to sell my seat many times over. But, at the same time, I don't want to see this great sport (and I don't just mean F1, look at Sports Prototypes, GTs and so on) drained of all that's good, then abandoned.
I don't want to spend the rest of my life attending events like Goodwood and Coys, looking at the old cars and drivers and weeping into my beer, longing for the good old days. In the same way that I believe The Velvet Underground was the best band that ever existed and made a couple of the finest albums of all time, so I know that I have to move on and experience new sounds in order to find other artists that I'll get to appreciate.
I've tried other sports and nothing gets even close. We can't allow them to destroy it.