Atlas F1

Reflections On Catalunya

by Roger Horton, England

But will it Stay Afloat.

It is now a matter of record that Mika Hakkinen won the Spanish Grand Prix ahead of his teammate David Coulthard. Despite his best efforts, Michael Schumacher finished in third position and only fleetingly looked like being able to challenge the leaders.

In truth, this race was a tedious affair, little more than a high speed procession of wonderfully hi-tech cars that can do everything they are designed to do except actually race. Or more precisely, race against each other. When they race against the clock in qualifying it can be electrifying, each car and driver performing its own individual ballet of speed, fractions here, fractions there. The clock is their only judge.

Put them together on the track and these same performers are reduced to mere mortals like you and I, condemned by the wonders of "dirty air" to follow in line, nose to tail, round and round. Somehow the meaning of Grand Prix racing seems to have got lost along the way.

With the wonderful timing that sometimes can put separate events into a crystal clear perspective, Bernie Ecclestone announced the successful issuing of his Formula One Bonds to the tune of some US$1.4 billion just as the Formula One circus was pitching its tents at the Circuit De Catalunya, in Spain. Success of course is a relative term. The fact that the issuing bank was reportedly forced into buying some two thirds of the Bonds themselves would seem to suggest that investors are not falling over each other in their rush to purchase some Formula One action.

These Bonds of course are the fore-runner prior to a fully fledged flotation of the company that holds the commercial rights to Formula One. Its main income will come from the huge television revenues currently generated by the world wide audience that tunes in every two weeks during the season to follow the drama and excitement of Grand Prix racing.

Did I say drama and excitement?

Drama comes from passing moves and incidents, excitement is generated by the surprise element, the unexpected winner. The unexpected loser.

Over the weekend of the Spanish Formula One race there were three other races, all held in the USA and all to different rules. The Indianapolis 500, the CART race at the Gateway International Raceway and the NASCAR race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Putting aside the purist arguments of too many yellows and restrictor plates, the fans at these three races got what they paid to see. Racing.

They saw winners from the middle of the grid, they saw two drivers at Lowe's go at it wheel to wheel for 600 Miles. They saw incidents and sure, a few crashes. They saw a driver at Indy gamble all and lose for a few gallons of petrol. They saw lead changes on the track (remember them?) and they saw lead changes in the pits. They saw action.

At Barcelona we saw Schumacher make a pass on Villeneuve in the pits and Damon Hill sneak past Rubens Barrichello's Stewart-Ford at the end of the race, taking advantage of Coulthard lapping the two. Hardly the stuff from which legends are made of.

Spain, of course, was not the first such dreary race, just the latest in a growing line. Prior to the race it was announced that there would be a meeting of team principals together with Max Mosley, President of the FIA, and Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's ultimate power broker. The main topic on the agenda was to be the future direction of Formula One and especially the current rules package that so restricts overtaking.

Prior to the race, Damon Hill, the 1996 World Champion, and Patrick Head, Williams long-serving technical chief, both urged the powers-that-be to review the current blind alley that the regulations have forced the designers to go up. Less and less mechanical grip and more and more downforce. Now we have cars that can be made uncontrollable by a gust of wind. The effect of the turbulence from a car up ahead can be felt for some 200 meters by the following car.

The essence of motor racing is surely that a car/driver combination should get the value in a race for the speed they are able to lap at. If they can lap fast enough for long enough then to them should go the spoils of victory. Half a second of wheelspin at the start shouldn't determine the outcome of a race.

For some reason, the meeting in Spain was cancelled. Perhaps it will turn out for the better. For despite the joy on the rostrum for the victorious McLaren team celebrating their well deserved success, even the usually well insulated Formula One hierarchy cannot have totally missed just how underwhelmed were the vast majority of the spectators at what the race delivered compared to what it promised.

The floating of Formula One just could be the catalyst for change. Hard-nosed investors care little for anything other than a return on their investment. The money-making machine that Formula One has become has depended for too long on the aura of the "event". The casual fan, especially in countries with little or no Formula One tradition, who likes to see these fast and noisy cars that come to his country just once a year is a fickle beast. Just how many opportunities will they give Formula One to deliver before they vote with their feet and stay away, thereby reducing the seemingly endless supply of money that feeds everything connected with Grand Prix racing in the nineties?

There is so much that is good about the Formula One as we complete the last year of this millennium. The organisation and safety have never been better, the crowds still come. Next year Formula One will tackle perhaps its greatest challenge, to establish itself in the toughest market in the world, United States of America. The Formula One road circuit at Indianapolis will be at, but perhaps be still in, the shadow of the famous "500".

The US fans will want to see a show and dare I say it, drama and excitement. Whether Bernie's circus can provide it could go a long way to determining just whether his float sinks or swims.

Roger Horton© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
Send comments to: Terms & Conditions