Atlas F1

The "Business" Of Grand Prix Racing

by Roger Horton, Singapore
Ever since the news that Formula One was to be floated onto the stock market, with an estimated flotation value of around US$3 Billion, I have experienced a nagging feeling of concern. It is reported that the predicted turnover for the first year is around US$300 Million, with a pre tax profit of approximately US$130 Million. Now as anyone with any business exposure will realize, these figures amount to big money. Few companies in the world can approach these sorts of earnings ratio's. No wonder is reported that Bernie Ecclestone, the man who created and controls Formula One, paid himself over US$80 Million last year.

The situation with Formula One wasn't always so grand. This writer has been a lifelong Formula One fan, and I've been able towatch the development of the sport from almost the "grass track" era, to the multi-million dollar mainstream sport it has become today. Generally, the changes have been for the better, the "sport" element has gradually receded and replaced by the harsh reality of "professionalism" in this commercial age.

Today, it's hard to imagine the way the sport was run in the early sixties. The first F1 race I attended was at Goodwood in 1962. The race was won by Graham Hill driving the fabulous "Smoke Stack" V8 BRM. It was also the race that sadly ended the career of the legendary Stirling Moss. The paddock was grass, surrounded by a 3 feet high wicker fence. Behind the fence you could watch the teams prepare their cars, working in the open weather. If you had 5 Shillings, you could enter the paddock. In those days the season started with 3 or 4 non-championship races at tracks like Goodwood, Aintree and Snetterton.

Each race meeting would feature 5 or 6 races, with often the Saloon car race being the highlight. The Grand Prix greats dueled it out in 3.8 Jaguars, the mini's snapping at their heels.

Often the races would run behind time, with numerous spins and incidents for the marshals to handle. The fans were patient and there were no TV schedules to worry about, so there was little fuss. Actually, there was almost no TV period. Even for the British Grand Prix, the coverage would start just minutes before the flag dropped and it would be left to a breathless Raymond Baxter to rush through the grid. We would see perhaps 10 minutes of coverage, then it would be back to Newmarket for the 3.15 and the endless chatter as the horses paraded round.

So the changes gradually came. Looking back, it's possible to trace a few major landmarks to the present day. One of the first happened on the other side of the world in New Zealand. Colin Chapman, ever the pioneer, painted his car in the colors of "Gold Leaf", a tobacco brand during the 1967/8 Tasman Series. Here was the forsaking the British Racing Green forever in exchange for much needed dollars. No matter that it was initially denied access to the track by over zealous officials, the dye was cast and racing had become "Commercial"

In 1976, the World Championship was to be decided in the last race, to be held at Fuji Japan. Such was the public interest in the battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda that the BBC decided to use the new satellite technology to broadcast the race worldwide. I remember watching this epic race from my house in Australia. Such was its success that the BBC started to telecast all the races live soon after. The great TV GOD had arrived. Schedules became paramount. It was the millions at home that mattered and the ones at the tracks soon noticed the difference.

During the Eighties, Ecclestone gradually cemented his control. As President of FOCA, he united the Formula One teams, improved the "package", raised the standard of administration, and brought Formula One to a new global standard.

All this never worried me. The growing cost of F1, with its leading edge technology, required that it be well funded. It was no coincidence that the best managed F1 teams reached the top and stayed there. The ones with the best budgets, who invested wisely, led the field and the weak disappeared. In many ways F1 had become the purist form of Capitalism.

This I could live with. The men running the teams were all "Racers". Who could begrudge them earning a good living? Becoming wealthy it is the way of the world. I always felt that, even if the money disappeared from the sport, men like Frank Williams and Ron Dennis would still be around in some capacity. For them, Sunday at 2 p.m. was race time... period.

Then, the 3 Billion figure was announced. This a lot of money. The "owners" of Formula One will be the shareholders. The teams are currently negotiating for a portion of the shares. The main concern of shareholders is the profit "their" company makes which gives return on their investment. I don't see the word "sport" anywhere in this.

Recently, I realized what had been bugging me all this time. Surely the next step along this road is for the teams themselves to go public. The men with the slim briefcases would have a field day. Again, the shareholders would be the owners. Perhaps a team having a bad year financially would be forced by angry shareholders to "sell" their promising up and coming driver and profit would be king. Team decisions would be driven by the need to keep the shareholders happy.

Throughout all the changes, I have witnessed during these last 35 years that one thing above all has kept my faith in Formula One. When the teams assemble for a Grand Prix, the winning of it was the main focus of all involved. The start of a Grand Prix race is to me as awesome now as it always was. At this moment, I believe that 100% of the team owners feel the same way and that a race or Championship victory is the focus of their lives. Should it ever become their share price, Formula One will have lost a lifelong follower.

Roger Horton

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