Sunday, October 31, 2010

Looking Back - Part 2

A fortnight back, I wrote an article which looked at the changes that have taken place in the F1 world over the last 25 years. That piece focused on the changes which have taken place in the design of the cars themselves - the move from relatively aerodynamically simple, manual transmission 1.5l turbo cars with upwards of 1200BHP in qualifying trim to normally aspirated 2.4 litre cars with not much more than half the power, but which are still perhaps 8-10 seconds a lap faster.

There have however, been equally seismic changes to the sport itself - the way it is run, the shape of the Grand Prix weekend, and most obviously, where the races are held. In 1985, there was a race in every continent except Asia (it would be another couple of years before the Japanese Grand Prix emerged as a permanent fixture) but 11 of the 16 races took place in Europe. This year, there has been a race in every continent except Africa (post-apartheid South Africa might seem a much more acceptable place for international sport than was the case back in the mid 1980s, but it would seem there is not anyone wanting to pay CVC/FOM's fees) but far and away the biggest change has been that the championship is much less Euro-centric.

We've lost the Portuguese, San Marino, Dutch and Austrian Grands Prix, taking the total down from 11 to 9. A more significant change when one remembers that the calendar itself has expanded from 16 to 19 races. Asia, however, now has no less than 8 races, which perhaps reflects changes in the overall balance of economic power in the world over the last 25 years. This change, though, has not yet let to an influx of Asian drivers into the sport. There have been a smattering of Japanese drivers over the last 25 years, though none has won a race and - while some of them were quite competent - none particularly looked like they would. More recently, there have been a couple of Indian drivers - Karun Chandhok and Narain Karthikeyan, though I can't help but feel that they have been there because Bernie Ecclestone thought their presence might be helpful in bringing about an Indian Grand Prix rather than because either looked like they would achieve anything behind the wheel.

Perhaps the location of the tracks has not been the most significant change though, really. Look at the old Zeltweg or Zandvoort circuits - with their winding up hill and down dale layouts and basic facilities, and compare with the expensive architecture and wide open expanses of somewhere like the Shanghai International Circuit or Sepang. The former looked almost like they were natural features of the countryside, like tarmac rivers. The latter look very obviously designed.

There are a number of reasons for the change in the shape and design of F1 circuits over the last quarter century. For one thing, it's much harder than it used to be to get planning permission to build a racing circuit in the kind of pristine countryside in which Spa Francorchamps or the old Nordschliefe were built. Brownfield industrial sites and run down docks, on the other hand, a ten a penny. Perhaps more importantly, safety requirements have become much more stringent – run-off areas are now vastly greater than they were back in the mid 1980s. Look how close the barriers were to the circuit at some of the quicker corners at the old Zeltweg, for instance. As a result, it is much harder to build an F1-standard circuit that fits naturally into the countryside. Look, for instance, at the chicanes that were inserted into Imola following the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in 1994. The reason for them? Extending the run-off area would have meant felling ancient trees and diverting a river. It is for similar reasons that I was never much inclined to take seriously the mid-2000s rumours that F1 would be heading back to Brands Hatch.

If you're going to build an F1-standard circuit, far and away the easiest way to do it is to buy some waste ground which gives you the freedom to do whatever you want with it. Vast tarmac run-off areas, the ability to have the track go which ever way the designer wants, without having to take account of natural features like rivers or hills. At its best, the result can be quite appealing – I still rather like the Sepang circuit with its mix of long straights, slow hairpins providing overtaking opportunities, and fast sweeping variable-radius corners that test both car and driver's balance and feel. On the other hand, Bahrain, Shanghai and Abu Dhabi do little for me, and certainly don't make up for the loss of Zeltweg, Zandvoort, or even the old Paul Ricard circuit in France. And the Dutch, in particular, were (and still are) passionate about the sport in a way that the Bahrainis and Chinese do not appear to be.

If the cars have got faster, the circuits more expansive and less dangerous, then what of the men behind the wheel? Perhaps the most significant change from the driver's point of view can be gleaned by looking at the list of drivers entered for the opening race in Rio that year. By the season's end, two were no longer with us – Germans Manfred Winkelhock and Stefan Bellof both losing their lives in sportscar races that year. A year later, Elio De Angelis would perish in a testing accident in the low-line Brabham BT55 at Paul Ricard. They would be followed, in 1994 by Ayrton Senna and, six years later, by Michele Alboreto, who died testing an Audi sportscar at the Lausitzring. I hope it is not unduly optimistic to speculate that a similar mortality rate is unlikely to befall the grid of 2010. While motorsport may never be truly safe, in the workaday sense of the word, and while by 1985, it was already much, much less dangerous than it had been in earlier times, there can be little doubting that drivers of that era were forced to contemplate their mortality in a way that their counterparts today are not.

And this, I think, is a part of the explanation for a lot of the changes we have seen in the Grand Prix driver's life over that period. 1985 marked perhaps the crossover point between the earlier, free-wheeling amateur spirit of the 1950s and 60s and the much more sterile, professional attitude of today's racers. Drivers who always knew that it could all end suddenly tomorrow might have been more independent-minded, less inclined to toe the party line for their teams, more willing to speak their minds. It is hard to imagine a James Hunt, or even a Niki Lauda or a Keke Rosberg, lasting long in today's more sanitised sport. And perhaps because of this, or perhaps because the sport was not quite so hyper-competitive as it is now, you would find drivers who would smoke, who would drink heavily, and who took the view that as long as you could get through the race in one piece, there was little reason to compromise your lifestyle with an unduly onerous fitness regime.

A number of developments came along to change this. Niki Lauda, a man who had a very methodical, professional approach to his sport from the outset, employed a fitness guru by the name of Willi Dungl to speed his way back to full health after his fiery accident at the Nurburgring in 1976, and in the years that followed, other drivers began to follow suit, seeing that there was an advantage to be had from being in better physical shape than those around you by the end of a 2 hour Grand Prix. Even without that search for the unfair advantage, the increasing cornering speeds of more modern F1 cars might have forced drivers to spend more time in the gym. When Nico Rosberg tested his father's title winning Williams last year, he remarked on how physically easy it was to drive – because while it might not have had power-steering and he might have had to physically change gear, the downforce and g-loadings through the quick corners were nothing like those which the cars of 2010 are capable of.

But the increasing importance of physical fitness was only one part of the story. Where once, drivers were very much their own bosses, the influx of really serious money, much of it from international corporations mindful of such things as 'brand image' has played an extensive part in turning drivers into salaried mouthpieces of their employers. And so it is that even highly respected journalists now find it difficult to get face-time with drivers without a PR-minder being present, and drivers are expected to be 'on message' and never to be critical of the team or engine supplier who is pouring millions into the sport – a good chunk of which is going directly to the driver's bank account.

However, the single biggest change to the sport has been not in the cars, which are essentially more refined versions of those being run 25 years earlier, nor in the drivers, who are at heart still young men in a hurry who believe themselves the fastest in the world, nor even in the circuits, which might have more run-off (and are certainly in some bloody odd places) but in the sport's place in the world as a whole. It has gone from being an essentially European minority-interest sport to a worldwide and mainstream entertainment. Thirty years ago, I wouldn't have staked my life on the man on the street knowing who Alan Jones, Didier Pironi or Gilles Villeneuve were. But I would be very surprised if that man's son wouldn't know who Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso or Michael Schumacher are now.

And what drove this was television. By 1985, the whole F1 season was being broadcast on the BBC, but this had only been the case for five to ten years, and the sport had yet to become a part of the popular consciousness in the way it is now (come to that, very often all the BBC showed was a 35 minute highlight programme, especially if the timezone in which the race was held got in the way of Eastenders, or whatever it was they were showing on a Sunday evening.) The man who would drive F1's TV revolution, of course, was Bernie Ecclestone. By 1985, he was already a significant figure within the sport, but he was, as the owner of the Brabham team (which scored its last F1 victory with Nelson Piquet at Paul Ricard that year – a circuit Ecclestone would later buy) he was only the head of the Formula One Constructors Association – the team's 'union' which had wrested control of the commercial rights to the sport from the FISA following the FISA/FOCA battle of the early 1980s.

Over the course of the following 25 years, though, Ecclestone would take control of the sport's commercial rights from the teams who were perhaps not really inclined to fight him too hard. After all, the likes of Mclaren, Williams, et al, were fundamentally in business to build racing cars, not to act as sports promoters. And Ecclestone appeared to be doing a good job for them. He might have been taking the lion's share of the vastly inflated television revenues the sport was now bringing in, but a small share of a large fortune beat a large percentage of not very much. And the men running the teams perhaps didn't much begrudge Ecclestone his fortune – thought he deserved it.

But I wonder if the likes of Ron Dennis, Frank Williams et al later came to regret this. When, thanks to a deal with the FIA's Max Mosley, who had always worked hand in glove with Ecclestone, he found himself in a position to sell the commercial rights to a third party, the sport eventually came to be owned by a venture capital fund with little intrinsic interest in the sport. Whose primary motivation was always to obtain the maximum return for its investors. And while CVC Capital Partners clearly wouldn't want to kill the goose which has laid so many golden eggs for them, I do wonder whether the sport would be gravitating towards Asia (where, Japan aside, the locals don't seem much interested) while Latin America, for example, has been ignored, aside from one race in Brazil, in spite of having produced many of the sport's leading drivers over the last half century and in spite of races in Brazil and Mexico typically drawing in crowds that promoters in Turkey or Malaysia would kill for.

I hope that, a quarter of a century on from now, we are talking about how F1 has taken off in Asia, about the great drivers from Malaysia, South Korea, India and the Middle East, rather than about how a once great sport was run into the ground in pursuit of short term profit through the hosting of races in parts of the world where nobody besides those paying the bills were really interested.

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