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There’s No Business Like F1

I have said quite often recently that F1 is show business and has little to do with the real world as a result. Like most sports, it tootled along happily in its early days, just being a bit of fun for a few crazy drivers and some equally crazy teams, watched by a dedicated few but largely ignored by the outside world. Many participants had to fund their efforts from their own pockets and some had other jobs as a sideline – Jim Clark was a sheep farmer, for instance.

Sutil

Adrian Sutil

Just a few of the most successful drivers entered the public consciousness; Jim was one and Stirling became a figure of folklore in the speed cop’s inevitable question: “Who do you think you are, Stirling Moss?” But very few ever saw these heroes race – race crowds were small, although enthusiastic, and television did little more than show an occasional two-minute clip of grainy, black and white footage.

Then the seventies arrived and, with them, two events that propelled F1 into the traveling circus it is today. Advertising came with big bucks and put pressure on the sport to increase the number of bums on seats and so repay its investment; and television became interested, for the first time showing entire races (in color!). In a very short time, F1 was heading for stardom, soon to become the number two televised sport after football.

In common with other sports, F1 has adopted the ways of show business as a result. Suddenly the competition becomes subsidiary to how much money can be made, just as movies are judged by their takings and not by the quality of the film. And drivers become stars, sharing in the wealth that is poured into the sport by the fans, advertisers and vested interests.

A few years ago in the States, the professional baseball players went on strike for higher wages. They were already paid obscene amounts of money compared to the average fan’s take-home pay and so they received little sympathy in their quest. The fans deserted in droves and baseball still struggles to recover from the disaster. Which illustrates an aspect of show business that may well be affecting F1 – the unreality of it all.

No doubt you and I have dreamed of making a million, working out just how we would invest it sensibly and so ensure that it provides us with an income for the rest of our lives (it can still be done – just). When we read of the multi-millions paid to the likes of the Schumacher brothers, Kimi Raikkonen and others, it does not really sink in; these figures are almost unimagineable, way beyond our wildest dreams. It is rumored that Ron Dennis managed to pick up Fernando Alonso’s services for this year for the paltry sum of 16 million dollars – a real coup in the fairy tale world of F1 pay rates.

So how long can the sport sustain these incredible salaries? Will we see a time when reality intrudes to the extent that drivers’ pay actually begins to decrease? It seems likely, especially when one remembers the rumor that Frank Williams took on Alex Wurz rather than continue to pay the contracted amount to Mark Webber.

Very often we hear that F1 is a dangerous sport and the drivers deserve their money because they risk so much. Yet the risks have decreased enormously, particularly since the death of Ayrton Senna, and still the pay scales have shot up in the meantime. The reality is that drivers these days are paid according to their star quality – the better their names are known outside F1, the more they can be expected to earn. It even helps if you have the same surname as the most famous of them all, as demonstrated by Ralf Schumacher. The public knows the name but has never heard of Jarno Trulli – guess who gets the fatter paycheck from Toyota.

I am not really complaining about the situation; if the drivers can get such salaries, good luck to them, say I. But I do wonder how long it can continue and how they manage to spend it all. They say that Kimi recently bought a yacht for $3.4 million, but that is little more than pocket change from a salary rumored to be in the region of $50 million a year.

And there is also the matter of differentials here: we have some idea of how much the stars are paid but how about the guys at the other end of the grid? I doubt that Adrian Sutil and Christijan Albers get anything like the amounts paid to others and some of Spyker’s test drivers bring advertising money to the pot, leaving us in doubt that they receive any monetary reward at all for their efforts.

It’s a strange world and often an unfair one…

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Spyker Bucks the Trend

Spyker is a funny little team. In some ways they seem so professional and in others a bit chaotic. Every week they seem to gain a new sponsor yet we hear continually of how they haven’t the funding to test as often as they should. They paint the cars orange and then decide it’s not orange enough and re-design with a new color. The website is very slick and the team produces a glossy online magazine that is well worth subscribing to – in fact, some of the larger teams could learn about presentation from them.

Spyker

Christijan Albers in the Spyker F8-VII

This jumble of conflicting impressions makes it quite hard to assess the team. Are they more fanfare than substance, destined to remain at the back of the grid until the money runs out? Or is the gloss a sign that they are going places and will become competitive in time? I would like to think that the second is true, that they will demonstrate that it is still possible to enter F1, design your own car and have a chance of winning. It does look as though F1 is changing in ways that will prevent this, however.

The row over customer cars shows that Spyker know full well how difficult their life will become if they have to compete against teams that just buy in a chassis. And one has to cheer for them in their decision to build their own. Variety is a part of the spectacle of F1 and the more chassis constructors, the better. But it will be hard for Spyker to find the funds necessary to remain independent in the future.

Hopefully, Mike Gascoyne will be able to design some good cars for the team and they will progress up the grid through quality rather than sheer financial muscle. Of their drivers this year, Christijan Albers is known to be fast enough and Adrian Sutil shows much promise. If Gascoyne can develop the car to its potential, they could move up the grid a little. Scoring points is unlikely, however.

Spyker remain hard to assess, therefore. I like their “Dutchness” and the fact that they are different, but cannot see them having much success for a few years at least.

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Spyker Takes Sutil

Colin Kolles has announced the signing of young German driver, Adrian Sutil, to be Spyker teammate to Christijan Albers in 2007. This is slightly surprising, since most had expected that Tiago Monteiro would continue as Spyker’s second driver.

Spyker

Tiago Monteiro in the Spyker

But it does tie in with the sudden fashion for giving rookie drivers a chance. With Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, Robert Kubica at BMW, Heikki Kovalainen at Renault, Anthony Davidson at Super Aguri, and now Sutil at Spyker, F1 is filled with fresh new faces. I cannot recall a previous season in which so many first-time F1 racers entered the sport.

There are two reasons for this, I think. Clearly, the instant success of Robert Kubica at BMW made team managers realize that there were discoveries to be made within the ranks of hopefuls graduating from F3 and GP2. As the GP2 Champion of 2006, Hamilton was an obvious pick but there were others who seemed just as talented. Two who made it into test driver seats are Sebastian Vettel and Gary Paffett, both of whom look to be just as quick as any of the new drivers.

And then there came the retirement of Michael Schumacher. Somehow his disappearance has created a lot of space in F1 and allowed teams to be more adventurous in their choice of drivers. It may well be that memories of Michael’s debut at Spa in 1991 were stirred and the hunt for the next Schumacher has started. The weight of expectation falls heavily on the shoulders of Hamilton and Kubica but the others too will be watched closely for signs of greatness.

Every year we hope for a really good season to come but the changes and shake-ups of 2006 point to a fascinating 2007. So many imponderables have been thrown into the mix that there are bound to be surprises in the forthcoming races. Out with the old, in with the new!

So how good is Adrian Sutil? He finished second to Hamilton in Formula 3 Euroseries in 2005 but otherwise his reputation rests on the potential he showed in his few tests for MF1/Spyker this year. Colin Kolles has made it clear that he was impressed by Sutil’s performance and that is why he was given the nod over Monteiro.

Personally, I applaud Spyker’s decision. Monteiro is a known quantity and the team have nothing to lose and everything to gain by letting Sutil have a go. Albers is competent enough to ensure that the Spyker car will at least achieve its potential and Sutil offers the possibility that it might do even more.

It all adds up to a great season to come. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait.

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