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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ The F1 disease, or is it cultivating a brand?

by Gordon Kirby
We're seeing the worst of it these days. Formula 1 at its most self-interested, self-absorbed and self-centered. The FIA's draconian decision against McLaren last week headlines an odious affair that leaves everyone looking like anything but sportsmen.

Ron Dennis and his team have been made to look like cheaters and prevaricators. The FIA appears imperious and detached from reality (hardly the first time!) while Fernando Alonso has been revealed as an ill-tempered, spoiled brat who's become petulant and vengeful. His squeeze job on teammate Lewis Hamilton exiting the first turn at Spa last weekend clearly demonstrated his ill-will toward Hamilton as well as a lack of any on-track ethics.

Then of course, there's Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan. It's deeply ironic that Stepney in effect brought Ferrari this year's F1 constructor's title by unleashing his greedy game, and of course, nobody can imagine what Coughlan was thinking when he dispatched his wife to a local copy shop to reproduce all the Ferrari drawings.

In the past week I've heard from many longtime friends in the sport, people who have built, engineered and/or crewed F1 and Indy cars. To a man these fellows are pragmatic, worldwise people, but this latest episode in F1's soap opera has left them deeply disillusioned.

"This is what happens when you show little men big money and have dorky engineers thinking they can ask for half a million a year," one of my friends remarked. "Stepney is the obvious villain, but Coughlan is the complete idiot. Of course, you can always take what's in your head, but Stepney's not an engineer and maybe he thought a reference volume would be useful. It would never be mentioned, of course, and all the ideas would be presented as if it came from their own knowledge. But Coughlan couldn't resist parading his little treasure trove."

Of course, most people shake their heads over the fact that so much has been made of something that has always gone on in racing. There have been many renowned public instances of copycat cars in F1 and most other racing categories. It's happened through the years all through the sport as small car builder after builder made copies of the previous year's dominant car. In Formula Ford more than thirty years ago everyone used to chuckle over the well-known fact that the American-built Caldwell D9 was a rip-off copy of the UK's Merlyn mk 11A while Canada's Magnum was a copy of the Caldwell! And for many years in all forms of racing photographers have been commissioned by teams to shoot ontrack views of their rivals' cars in action compared to their own.

"This stuff occurs all the time," commented one of my friends. "It's just that this time someone was dumb enough to get caught. As Bernie Ecclestone said, 'If this was a matter between Spyker and Super-Aguri it wouldn't get one second of media coverage.'."

Another of my friends was disgusted with the FIA's holier-than-thou attitude to the Stepneygate saga. "For the love of god, tell F1, Max and Bernie to get over themselves!" he implored. "Getting or stealing information from other teams was part of racing back in the good old days. Getting mechanics drunk and getting info out of them was par for the course."

He then launched into a story about a Bobby Unser-inspired photographing of a rival team's car designed to poke fun at--to destabilize, as Ron Dennis would say--their rivals' theories. "We cut the padlocks off a competitor's truck one night, went inside with a camera and took photos of their new car," my friend related. "We overnighted the photos to the team owner the next morning with a note from Uncle Bobby complete with script on the photos telling them where they had gone wrong, all before their car had turned a wheel!"

Meanwhile, McLaren faces an expensive 2008 season. Stripped of any championship points this year, the team will have to pay all its own travel expenses and will be relegated to the nether reaches of the pitlane. McLaren will be compelled to work out of the most strategically least desirable pits and will be confined to three garage bays instead of six. And of course, the team's latest, giant motorhome complex will be relegated to the edge of the paddock and may not even be allowed at some tracks.

The FIA's rulings against McLaren could also create intellectual property rights problems for F1 teams hiring key personnel from other teams. "The longterm ramifications for the teams could be far greater," one of my friends pointed out. "Any pending moves by senior people between teams--and you can be sure at this time of year some of these moves are in very advanced planning--will be damped down as the teams become paranoid about sanctions for transfers of information that lawyers will be extremely alert to."

Another factor in the Stepneygate saga is the utter loss of innocence and hard-nosed transformations that have overtaken Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton this year. As the sport's youngest world champion and the man who knocked Michael Schumacher off his pedestal, Alonso won many, many fans. But he appears to have been consumed by the same disease that afflicts so many big-time sporting stars these days and F1 in particular. Too much money, too much adulation, and too many people treating you like you're a god can do serious damage to impressionable young people and it's sad to see Alonso join that crowd.

Then, of course, there's Hamilton who's become the British press's favorite son, pushing Jenson Who? off the country's sports pages. Lewis-mania has ripped through Fleet Street this year while young Hamilton has been drawn into a nasty rivalry with Alonso which has been seriously exacerbated by the Stepneygate affair.

"Sadly, Hamilton is being polluted by F1 already," observed one of my UK friends. "He started the year with a 'pleased to be here attitude' and is now slagging off his teammate with the inner knowledge that he will probably be number one at McLaren in 2008 with Alonso leaving, and complaining about the media intrusion so that he will have to move out of the country. In less than six months, he's gone from being a pleasant young man to an ill-tempered superstar."

So the F1 disease has infected Hamilton even more quickly than it did Alonso, but then that's exactly what Ecclestone and Mosley want. Formula 1 today is all about being ostentatiously exclusionary. Ecclestone has artfully and wilfully pushed the concept along and that's precisely what the F1 brand has come to mean with the modern marketing image of Ferrari at its helm. An almost painful example of this are Peter Windsor's incredibly fawning grid walks on Speed TV's F1 shows accompanied by deeply deferential interviews. It's about hammering home the exclusionary image of F1 and Windsor does a marvellous job of embracing exactly the right tone for Ecclestone and Mosley's brilliant marketing campaign.

At Spa last weekend Ecclestone was grinning, almost rubbing his hands in pleasure when he was interviewed by Windsor about the Stepneygate episode.

Windsor asked both Mosley and Ecclestone if the affair had damaged F1. Mosley gave a cool speech about the case demonstrating the FIA's strength while Ecclestone said it had only made F1 bigger. "We got plenty of ink, didn't we," Bernie grinned in answer to Windsor's question.

As one of my engineer friends remarked: "Never discount the old Hollywood pr man's mantra. 'There's no such thing as bad publicity.' The fans love to argue about something, and particularly intriguing and arcane things like the Stepneygate saga. When people hear about a $100 million fine it only makes them marvel about how big and strong F1 must be to be able to levy and collect that kind of fine."

Of course, part of Max and Bernie's thinking has to be that they know there is no other category Dennis and McLaren could desert to. In the old days when teams were fighting with the FIA they could threaten to go Indy car racing, as Ferrari did a couple of times, but today's bifurcated, commercially weak IRL and Champ Car series also cater to spec cars, so neither series would have any appeal to Dennis.

His only option would appear to be Le Mans where McLaren-Mercedes could engage in some high-tech engineering and seek to dominate one of the few world-renowned races outside F1. But Le Mans is only one race and it's hard to imagine even the most impressive performance by McLaren at la Sarthe would have much if any effect on F1's dominant role in world motor sport.

Can F1 continue to thrive in spite of itself? Your guess is as good as mine, but with Ecclestone and Mosley in firm control and plenty of countries like China, Malaysia and India anxious to pay big bucks to buy into the F1 brand, it probably will.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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