Monday, May 21, 2007

Bernie Ecclestone, Silverstone and Third World Follies

Some of you may be aware that Joe Saward and Dave Tremayne have, together with photographer Paul-Henri Cahier, launched a new online Grand Prix magazine, Grand Prix Plus. The first two issues are free, and I've always enjoyed Saward's writing on motorsport, first as Autosport's F1 qualifying writer in the late 80s and early 1990s, and later on his own site, Grand Prix so this is good news, in my book.

Nonetheless, I must take issue with his very first editorial. Under the headline, Spain Gets it Right, Britain gets it Wrong, Saward congratulates the Municipal Government in Valencia for putting up the funding for a second Spanish Grand Prix around the city streets, and criticises the British Government for refusing to contribute towards the reputed £100m cost of 'revamping' Silverstone.

I have to say that Saward's argument, that £100m represents better value for money than the £10bn cost of the London Olympics, is a particularly weak one (albeit other bloggers have taken a different view). Now I have to confess that the Olympics interest me little, save their value to what Jane Austen described as "connoisseurs of human folly". In years to come, I suspect that "better value than the Olympics" will come to be a Treasury equivalent of the phrases "shorter than War and Peace" and "funnier than Psycho". To justify spending £100m on a sporting venue which, lets be honest with ourselves here, attracts only a tiny fraction of the interest generated by major events at Wembley Stadium, is going to be rather tricky. Saying that it beats spending £10bn on a Festival of Minor Sports is a start, but hardly constitutes a sufficient argument in itself. And that's before we get into the small matter of the 'Cash for Ash' scandal and, perhaps more pertinently, the fact that F1 has still been unable to entirely rid itself of cigarette sponsorship (thanks, Ferrari) after all the promises previously made. Suffice to say, the current Labour administration are unlikely to do anything that their opponents could portray as a favour to Bernie Ecclestone.

There are a couple more very pertinent questions which the Government would have to ask before putting up any share of the £100m supposedly needed to regenerate Silverstone. The first question is, quite simply, what do they actually need the money for?. There is no suggestion that the circuit itself isn't up to scratch. No, apparently, the "pit complex" is what needs work. This strikes me as rather odd, because, in all honesty, beyond garage space, mains electricity, running water and somewhere to put the press corps (all of which Silverstone had last time I managed to get into the paddock for a look around, back before paranoia and swipe cards took over in the early 1990s) I'm not quite sure what it is that is needed. What I think Bernie Ecclestone means, when he says that the pit complex and paddock needs £100m work, is that this would be what is needed to match the facilities in some other parts of the world But all the facilities in the world won't change the sporting spectacle, nor will they add to the experience for the vast majority of fans, who aren't allowed anywhere near the paddock, lest they lower the tone.

The second question the Government would surely ask is why the owners of Silverstone can't pay for the work themselves. After all, the British Grand Prix is an event which draws crowds in excess of 100,000, and as anyone who has been to the race knows, the tickets are not exactly cheap. The problem is that, the vast majority of the gate receipts go straight to Bernie Ecclestone's FOM organisation in the form of fees for getting to host the race. On top of that, the race promoters are unable to make any money from corporate hospitality, trackside advertising or TV rights, as all these belong to FOM. The simple truth is that the race fees are set at a level that just about allows the organisers to turn a profit, but in no way would enable the financing of the kind of major capital project now being demanded. Not without government money, anyway.

So why is Silverstone in this indivious position in the first place? The short answer is that around the world, Valencia's regional government are not alone. There are plenty of Governments willing to put up large amounts of money to host a Grand Prix. Shanghai is a very impressive 'facility', but the circuit is rather less inspiring, and several of those responsible for its construction are now facing criminal investigations for misuse of public funds. Bahrain has very striking pit garages but is also one of the most mickey-mouse tracks F1 has ever had the misfortune to visit.

Herman Tilke's efforts at Turkey and Malaysia are rather more impressive but still, the question remains - why are these circuits being built in places with no history of, or interest in, motor racing? Formula 1 fans are mostly to be found in Western Europe (and Japan and Latin America, it must be said), and attempts to expand into other areas of the world have largely failed. This is tacitly admitted, with talk that the forthcoming Singapore Grand Prix will take place at night, to allow for live prime-time broadcast in the sport's core market.

So why (Valencia aside) are Bernie and the powers that be seeking to move the racing out of Europe. To my mind, the biggest clue is to be found in the kind of places that F1 is going to. Countries with weak or non-existent democratic accountability. Countries, in short, which can spend large sums of public money on vainglorious follies, £200m ersatz pits complexes et al, safe in the knowledge that they will never have to account for their decisions to their own populaces. Places like China, Bahrain, Malaysia, all of whom ought to have rather more pressing spending priorities than helping to enrich Bernie Ecclestone.

Recently, I found myself in an online debate as to whether Bernie Ecclestone's influence on the sport had been positive or negative. I chose, in the spirit of contrarianism, to answer that he hadn't made nearly as much difference, one way or the other, as he is usually credited as having done. Sure, he helped to turn Grand Prix racing into a global sport, and he certainly helped to turn it into a television sport. But does anyone really think that, if he hadn't existed, some other entrepreneur wouldn't have done the same thing, sooner or later? What he did was merely what promoters in major professional sports did pretty much everywhere. Got the sport on the telly, then set about ruthlessly milking the TV rights and exerting ever more control over the sport's promotion.

Lately, though, I've begun to wonder whether Bernie's influence has become wholly negative. The drive to go literally wherever the money is runs the risk of alienating the sport's core audience without succeeding in bringing in a new one to replace or augment it. Look at Spa - dropped from the calendar last year, and then look at Malaysia. Ask which of these two events attracted the spectators? Short term greed is in danger of eating away at the foundations of the sport. The danger of leaving things in the hands of the very old is that they don['t necessarily have any interest in thinking long term.

I hope the British Grand Prix survives. Silverstone may not quite be Spa Francorchamps, but it is still one of the finest race circuits on the Grand Prix calendar. Of the 11 teams on the Grand Prix grid, 7 are based in Britain, including the supposedly French Renault, and the supposedly Japanese Honda and Super Aguri. Of the 22 drivers, 4 are British, and 2 of those are Grand Prix winners - and we can I'm sure be confident that it is only a matter of time before Lewis Hamilton joins them. If, though, we lose the British Grand Prix, it will not be the fault of the British Government, nor, on balance, of the BRDC. No, the blame lies firmly with the greed and short-sightedness of Bernie Ecclestone and FOM.

Post script - Though the connection to this week's article is tenuous (he is the President of the BRDC, but that's about it) I really ought to draw your attention to an excellent interview with 1996 World Champion Damon Hill in the Times. Regular readers may know that I never regarded him as a truly first rate driver, but he does strike me as one of the most decent, human guys ever to have become World Champion.

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Blogger Checkpoint10 said...

Couldn't have said this better myself. F1's need for profits is spiraling out of control, at the expense of developing societies with no deep interest in motor racing.

I, too, have noticed that Saward's opinions are often centered around Formula 1's interests. To me, his opinions are usually well-founded and intelligent, but they depend on the premise that Formula 1 should be a money-making enterprise with endless growth and profit. It is this premise that should be examined more often. It worries me that Saward often uses NASCAR as a model of what Formula 1 ought to be.

12:56 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

The Olympics is just going to be one big and very expensive mess, God knows how much they spent on that horrible logo.

The investment they are talking about spending is only going to improve one area of London and although they are saying it is £10 billion now you can rest assured it will be at least double that by 2012.

The problem is that support for the Olympics may well change, especially when the public realises they are going have to cough up for these works that will only effect a very small percentage of the population.

As well as this, lets remember that the Olympics is a one off event! So all that £10 - 20 billion is just for one event and some irregular useage after that. Whereas the British GP happens year on year and produces roughly similar global viewing figures meaning it would be a much more sensible investment in the short and long term.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The truly frustrating thing is that the truth has never been told. I have first hand experience of persons elected by the BRDC, who have over the past 7 years, been offered and given millions by IPG and FOM. These millions were spent on a new club house for the BRDC and a lot of tarmac. The race going fans are not considered. The main grandstand opposite the pits was supposed to be temporary. It has been there for more than 15 years. Not all pits even have the basics. The garage doors are rusty and falling off. The BRDC was offered a fantastic deal in 2004 with Bernie's blessing, you need to ask why this deal was not accepted. The new pits and stands would of been built 2 years ago. All is not what it seems. The BRDC have made a profit from the British GP for years. IPG could not because the BRDC stitched them up. Bernie's comment "a gentlemens club short of a few gentlemen" refers to the goings on behind the scenes at the BRDC. If anyone has 800 acres of land that they don't use let me know, we could build a whole new circuit quicker than the BRDC can get their act together!

2:04 AM  

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