|The Ecclestone Era|
|Roger Horton, Singapore|
It was a letter to Atlas written by Paul Kaizar that started me thinking about the Ecclestone era in Control of Formula One Motor Racing.
Now I must clearly state that I am in total agreement with the sentiments expressed by Paul in his letter, rarely in the thirty odd years I have followed the happenings in Formula One have I been more disgusted and disappointed by all the maneuvering and side deals that have occurred in the past month. Not even the best "Spin Doctor" in the world can put a positive gloss on the sorry events that surrounded the Jerez race and its aftermath.
Now of course there is an enormous temptation to put all this behind us and move on. Testing for the new season will soon start and the battle for the 1998 titles has already begun. However, it is my feeling that some of the issues raised in Jerez will affect our sport for a long while and are worthy of another look, especially regarding the roles played by Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley. Should we as F1 fans wish thier era to end?
Perhaps we should first look at some of Eccelstone's achievements.
Bernie Ecclestone gained effective control F1 in the early eighties, so if you have started to follow F1 since then you have, in effect, never known anything else other than the Ecclestone era. It is a simple fact that millions of F1 fans around the world tune in at the normal GP starting time and (hey!) presto, the race happens. The fact that this is possible is almost entirely down to Ecclestone's foresight and business acumen.
In short, Ecclestone has organized and packaged F1 in a highly impressive way and sold it to the world. We now have a procedure for almost every contingency. Gone are the days when different race organizers ran their races to suit themselves and in some cases made up the rules as they went along.
Sometimes, they would get a local dignitary to start the race. Now you might think that just dropping the national flag is a pretty easy thing to do, but for years we had eccentrics like Toto Roche who made "hesitation" at the crucial moment an art form. There was no procedure for a car that failed to start on the grid (the parade lap is a fairly recent innovation) or worse one that stalled at the start. The hapless driver was forced to sit on the grid, arms frantically waving as the field streamed past.
Race starting times were flexible, many was the time when the start would be delayed because a "star" driver's car was having some last minute trouble. Starting the race without him would have been unthinkable. Now, of course, this is just as unthinkable. The discipline of world wide TV schedules ensures that the product is delivered on time.
In the pre Ecclestone era it was commonplace that once the Championship had been decided, any remaining races were poorly supported by the Constructors. Sometimes a team might also miss the opening rounds as well. All the negotiations were between the individual teams and each race organizer. Endless games were played out over starting money issues and many teams' second or third car was in reality a "starting money special". Not all was rosy in "the good old days" and the fans were even then often ignored.
So Ecclestone brought the teams together under the FOCA banner and presented a united front to the race organizers. Crucially, he sold F1 to the TV companies and created the world wide marketing platform that we have today. It is this platform that has brought F1 the worlds major Motor Manufacture's without which F1 would never have reached its current unrivalled standing. This would have been impossible under the old structure. It was not just one part of Ecclestone's plan that was so vital, but the whole structure working together.
Safety is another crucial area that has benefitted from the Ecclestone organization. Now, as a cynic I could make the point that pictures of dying racing drivers on prime time TV is bad for business. However, I still believe that many F1 fans are unaware of just how close we came after Imola '94 to losing some F1 races due to national bans. Modern F1 has had to come to terms with the fact that, in the nineties, dangerous sports are always going to struggle to justify themselves to "officialdom" when something goes wrong.
During the Fifties and Sixties, public attitudes were still affected by the collective memories of World War Two. The notion that a percentage of participants were going to get hurt or killed was easy to relate to. After all, whole bombing campaigns had been worked out on the basis of life expectancies in combat. Racing drivers were the fighter pilots of the forties. Even in the fifties, Officialdom drew the line at spectators getting killed and some races that were banned after the Le Mans tragedy have never been reinstated.
So, although I would not credit Ecclestone with being the prime mover as far as safety innovations are concerned, the advances made in all areas would have been all but impossible without the platform he created. If Gerhard Berger's 1989 Imola accident had been dealt with the same appalling inaptitude as Lorenzo Bandini's in Monaco (1967), one shudders to think of what the Italian legal system would have made of it.
Indeed, we now have the situation where just about everything that happens during an F1 weekend is a product of the Ecclestone era -- from the pre arranged schedule of practice and qualifying to the mandatory news conferences and podium presentations. The old fashioned laurel wreath that graced the necks of so many past champions having long since been disposed of. The advertising space they covered is far too precious.
So, if Ecclestone has brought us so much, what then is the problem?
In one word i guess it revolves around money. Lots of it.
In a previous Atlas article entitled "The Business Of Grand Prix Racing", I wrote about the enormous amounts of money that is now to be made out of all things concerning F1. This has brought into conflict the two arms that regulate and promote the sport. The FIA controls or sanctions all motor sport worldwide. Max Mosley is it's President. F1 is without doubt the "Jewel in the Crown" with the highest profile, but the job of the FIA and the World Council is to be the final arbiter of disputes and to be watchdog to ensure that the rules and laws are upheld.
Bernie Ecclestone is a Vice President, Promotional Affairs for the FIA. As his title suggest he controls the business side and is responsible for its promotion.
Max and Bernie go back a long way, many years ago. During the original FISA verses FOCA wars, Max was the legal brains behind Bernie's challenge to the entrenched authorities. Together they fought and won the battle for control of F1 racing. The document that settled the war was called "The Concorde Agreement" and has been the agreement that has effectively run F1 now for many years. Its pending renewal and the need to have all the signatory teams "on board" prior to F1 racing's upcoming float was to have a crucial role in the Jerez aftermath.
Now we all know what happened on the 48th lap of the Spanish race. Michael Schumacher, fearing losing the World Championship to Jacques Villeneuve, simply drove into him in an attempt to force him into retirement. It had worked before, why not again.
Now in all the years between the birth of the modern World Championship in 1950 up to and including 1988, only one "head to head" battle for the title had ended in contact between the participants or their teammates. In 1964, Graham Hill just needed a 3rd place finish to clinch the title and he was taken out by Lorenzo Bandini in a somewhat dubious overtaking manoeuver. Later in the same race, he was to let his teammate John Surtees past to secure his World Championship victory when Jim Clark's Lotus expired with Engine trouble on the last lap. John Surtees was of course totally without blame in this affair.
So I guess once in nearly forty years was not a bad record for the sport.
Since 1989, the title has gone down to a "head to head" contest on 6 occasions. 1989,1990,1991,1994,1996,and 1997.
In 4 times out of 6 the title has been decided or affected by a collision. Now in both 1991 and 1996, neither title aspirant for various reasons were ever actually together on the track or in a position to gain from a collision if they were.
So we are left with the astounding situation, that whenever the two challengers have run wheel to wheel since 1989 they have collided.
This is the crux of the matter.
Surely one would have thought that after Jerez, and especially after Max Mosley's stern warning during the drivers briefing, that the FIA would have said enough was enough and taken action that ended once and for all this nonsense. Personally, I would have banned Schumacher for the whole year and warned him that one more repeat would mean the permanent suspension of his racing license.
The only factor that saved Schumacher was the damage that such action would cause the commercial interest's of the people concerned with F1 racing. It had nothing to do with justice.
In case readers think that I am being overly harsh, consider for a moment how other sporting bodies sanction wrongdoers. The Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson "won" a Gold medal on the track, only to make a mockery of the Olympic ideal when he was exposed as a drug cheat. He was not only stripped of his Medal but was given a lengthy ban.
The Olympic movement did its best to restore its tarnished image.
In nearly all other sports and organized games, suspension of rule breakers is an accepted practice. Suspending them from their chosen activity and depriving their team of their services is the norm.
If it works for all the rest of the sporting world, why not F1?
Should Schumacher be challenging for the 1998 title in the deciding race, then ALL the pre-race talk is going to be about "will he or won't he." This can't be good for F1 and the many people involved who spend so many hours working towards a Championship victory, fairly won on the track, not in front of the world council meeting some weeks later.
So why did Villeneuve let the McLarens past him on the last lap to score a one-two finish?
Clearly this was the result of some arrangement worked out in part prior to the race. It is no coincidence that these two teams are the ones most opposed to renewal of the new Concorde agreement so desperately needed by Ecclestone to allow the smooth flotation of F1 when and if it finally occurs. Ferrari is most definitively in the other camp.
Now, a detailed description of those last laps has already appeared in a previous Atlas article, so a brief recap will suffice.
I first realized that something odd was happening when Villeneuve was being closely followed by the lapped Nakano. OK, his car was perhaps damaged by his collision with Schumacher and he was taking it easy, but a short distance behind was the Jordan of Fisichella, seemingly about to be lapped by the McLarens of Coulthard and Hakkinen. The laps went on and nothing changed. Now a lap of Jerez takes a little under 90 seconds, so for the Mclarens to have almost lapped Fisichella they must have been lapping in the region of 1.5 seconds per lap faster. Why then no attempt to pass?
Clearly they had their own agenda but it has nothing to do with the Formula One that I have been following for nearly forty years.
So after the "deals had been done" and the McLaren finishing order decided, Hakkinen makes a late charge and passes Fisichella as should have happened laps ago. On the last lap, Villeneuve almost comes to a complete stop prior to the chicane. He can clearly be seen looking in his mirror while he "waits" for the pass. I have seldom ever seen anything so contrived.
All this made a total nonsense of the later claim by Max Mosley that there had been no collusion between the teams.
The tapes of the teams radio conversations was a side show from beginning to end and revealed nothing that wasn't obvious to all spectators, and had been already written about by all the specialist press anyway. The point of interest was that it was Ferrari that recorded and released them.
So, we had Williams and Mclaren "in the dock" on charges that they may have fixed the race. How convenient for Ecclestone, and useful ammunition for him in his battle against his two main opponents in his "Concorde renewal" fight. Imagine my surprise when shortly after they were cleared of all charges by the World Council, rumors abounded that a resolution to the long running "Concorde dispute" was in sight.
So what lessons can we learn from all this, and does all this matter much anyway?
There is a clear need to separate the governing arm of F1 away from the promotion side. Not only must justice be done, it needs to be seen to be done. There are just too many "back door" deals for the good of the sport.
F1 faces many challenges, from the environmentalist, the struggle to replace the revenue from the tobacco companies, and from do-gooders of every shade. It needs all the friends it can get.
I have always believed that the sport is bigger than any one man or group of men. If the long delayed float of F1 goes ahead, the discipline and transparency that the money markets will demand will perhaps be the biggest challenge of all.
Perhaps it will be the need for this type of management that will signal the end of the Ecclestone era.