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The Way It Is/ Formula 1's ultimate elitist image trumps all in the global market

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
As we all know, Formula 1 is a fantastic success story for a favored few, including Bernie Ecclestone, Max Mosley, the FIA, the F1 team owners and drivers, agents, managers and engineers. During the lengthy and continuing Ecclestone era, Formula 1 has become a superb but incredibly expensive promotional and marketing exercise for many sponsors and the competing motor manufacturers, and Ecclestone has spun a worldwide web of television coverage that has made many people rich. Some people say that like never before the F1 brand stands for greed and arrogance, an image that Ecclestone has assiduously nurtured for maximum profit, and it's hard to argue otherwise.

Indeed, it is the intrigue, politics and business of F1 that dominates the headlines and fills most of the vast number of column inches and broadcast time devoted to F1. It's been this way for many years in fact, as has the story line about the racing itself which is all about an elite few teams and drivers. Often, it's just one or two teams dominating over a motley collection of midfielders and dispiriting claque of tailenders.

For many years F1, like CART, enjoyed twenty-six and twenty-eight car fields, but for some time a grid of eighteen cars has been accepted as the norm. That fact perfectly suits F1's image but the modern F1 field looks increasingly anemic in an age where forty rollicking NASCAR cars race damn near every weekend, boasting a savory surfeit of noise, spectacle and sponsors.

Equally thin are the number of superstars produced by F1 over the past dozen years. In fact, Michael Schumacher has established himself as F1's only real superstar, light years ahead of guys like Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen. World champions both, Villeneuve and Hakkinen have not enjoyed enduringly successful careers although the recent emergence of Fernando Alonso and to a lesser degree, Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya, has been a breath of fresh air. But in this day and age it doesn't take much to become an extremely highly-paid and reverently feted member of F1's inner circle, witness England's notorious non-winner Jenson Button.

It's stunning to reflect in fact, about how many great drivers filled the F1 grid in the sixties in sharp contrast to today. Off the top of my head I can list more than a dozen--Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Phil Hill, Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart, Denny Hulme, Jo Siffert, Jochen Rindt and Pedro Rodriguez--all of them champions of one sort or another as well as winners in many types of racing cars. Today, we have Schumacher, Alonso, and maybe Raikkonen and Montoya who might qualify to fit in the company of the great drivers from forty years ago, although none of today's men enjoy the same breadth of experience and accomplishment as the greats from the sixties.

Indeed, it's a Lilliputian world in modern F1, just as it is here in the United States where Jeff Gordon is the only truly great, multiple champion racing today. Compare that to the sixties and seventies when we had names like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, and Cale Yarborough in NASCAR, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Bobby & Al Unser in USAC, and Mark Donohue and George Follmer in SCCA sports car racing. And too, most of these guys were widely-experienced drivers, regularly racing different types of machinery.

Motor racing's rich diversity was a key component in inspiring my own and many others' passion for the sport but this element has been snuffed out by commercialism and politics. Back in the sixties sports car racing was as big, or even bigger, than F1. Ferrari, for example, ran a multi-car factory team in all the major sports car races--Le Mans, the Targa Florio, the Nurburgring 1000Ks, the Sebring 12 hours, and the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood--all of which drew massive crowds.

It's interesting that in 1961 there were nineteen non-championship F1 races in Europe, plus two more in South Africa. Eight world championship F1 races took place in '61, seven in Europe and one in the USA at Watkins Glen, so there were a grand total of twenty-nine F1 races around the world, the vast majority in Europe. Many non-championship races drew huge crowds, most notably Solitude in Germany where 300,000 people gathered in 1962 to watch Dan Gurney score his second F1 win for Porsche in as many weeks (Dan scored Porsche's only world championship F1 victory in the previous week's French GP at Rouen). The Modena GP in Italy in 1961 took place on the same day as Monaco yet 50,000 people showed up to watch Giancarlo Baghetti win in a factory Ferrari while Stirling Moss was scoring a legendary win over Ferrari's regular drivers at Monaco. My point here is that if you added up the crowds in Europe in 1961 for the many F1 races and handful of championship sports car races, I guarantee you it would be ten times the number that pay to go to races in Europe this summer.

What does all this mean? That's a question I cannot answer. All I know is that for many years F1 has been about the worldwide TV audience, not the trackside crowds. All of us understand that TV is the key, but the incipient decline in attendance at some modern F1 races should be cause for concern, should it not?

It can and has been argued that fourteen years ago Max Mosley willfuly killed Group C sports car racing in order to force all the manufacturers and sponsors to focus on F1. That strategy has been eminently successful to the point that the manufacturers are now Ecclestone and Mosley's biggest opponents for control of the business.

Another element in F1's and worldwide open-wheel racing overall health today is that, like many sanctioning bodies here in the USA, the FIA has sold-out to the manufacturers and allowed a free-for-all to take shape in Europe's ladder system. Once there was a clearly defined ladder from FF1600 through F3 and F2 to F1. Through the sixties and seventies and into the eighties this system worked wonderfully, but the FIA and other national sanctioning bodies have allowed a plethora of manufacturer-driven, spec-engine or spec-car formulae to proliferate, thoroughly obliterating the sharply defined ladder to the top of old.

Of course, the spec-car syndrome is everywhere in racing today, as I have grumbled before in this column and elsewhere. Even F1 has been infected by this disease with most of the layout of chassis, aerodynamics and engine strictly defined by the rules. I believe a big, technical shake-up is needed, but don't think it ever will happen. It's the same as in Champ Car and IRL. Everyone is too timid to seriously attack re-writing the rules to produce more interesting, more technically challenging cars that might even be able to advance the cause of new fuel or engine technologies. I think it's a very sad situation for a sport that once caught the attention of the man-in-the-street with adventurous cars that were the product of bold, forward thinking.

One of the big questions for American F1 fans is, what will happen to the United States GP' Will it move from Indianapolis to Las Vegas as Ecclestone has suggested' That's certainly Bernie's goal. He's been working quietly for many years with Steve Wynn to make it happen. Regardless, Tony George's days as an F1 promoter appear to be numbered.

The big question for F1 as a whole is, what happens post-Bernie' That's one I cannot begin to answer, but as we all know, the ongoing F1 power struggle is unlikely to yield anyone who might be able to fill the little man's giant shoes.

Whatever happens, it would be nice to see the FIA encourage some of the wealth from F1 to trickle down through the ranks to the grass roots like we've seen in NASCAR. As I've pointed out many times, NASCAR built not only a superb major league, but also a complete system comprising no fewer than thirteen championships from top the bottom. It's on this foundation that NASCAR's success has been built through a longterm nurturing of drivers, teams, racetracks and fans. This is the biggest, most important lesson the FIA could learn from NASCAR, but I very much doubt that's likely to happen.

Meanwhile, the start of the European season at Imola showed that Schumacher, Ferrari and Bridgestone have rebounded strongly with Felipe Massa's fourth place confirming the team's strength. But at the same time Alonso, Renault and Michelin are every bit their match and may be superior at many tracks. More than that, Alonso's fast start to the year means he will be very difficult to stop from taking a second successive world title. Nor are McLaren out of the picture with both Raikkonen and Montoya and over the next three or four races it could well develop into a ferocious championship battle.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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