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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.


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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Like everyone else, I develop preferences for teams as well as drivers. Even though I am hoping that Button wins the championship this year, my support is irresistibly drawn to the BMW team. This began last year when I was supporting Renault (mainly because it was the only team that could beat Ferrari) but increasingly I noticed BMW and was conquered in the end.

It has very little to do with the team itself; shamefacedly I admit that my support generally goes to the car I find most pleasing aesthetically. And BMW has the cleanest, prettiest car on the grid by a long way (it also appears to be the smallest, another point in its favor, although this may be an optical illusion).


BMW Sauber F1.07

They are helped by not having to please a multitude of advertisers, of course; their major sponsor, Petronas, seems happy to go with the BMW corporate colors and the others, Credit Suisse, Intel and Dell, have adjusted to fit the scheme. And the use of white with dark blue and red highlights helps to show off the pure lines of the car.

Compare this to Renault’s problems – having to keep their own yellow and blue but blend in the orange of ING. That was always going to be a thankless task and the designer has made a reasonable fist of it considering the difficulties involved. But the paint job becomes so complex that it obscures the car’s looks; all those extra colors and swooping lines effectively disguise the body underneath.

It is when we get to Toro Rosso that my artistic sense rebels. I would like to support TR as the successors to my old favorite, Minardi, but their paint scheme puts me off immediately. That silly bull plastered over the rear of the car is about on the level of the “flames” painted on the side of street racers, never mind that it makes it impossible to see what the car underneath is really like (I know, I know, it’s like a Red Bull RB3 – go here to see if you can tell the difference).

And, when you consider that Toro Rosso is not exactly overburdened with advertisers all clamoring for their own colors, you have to admit that the cause of this monstrosity is just plain, honest-to-goodness, bad taste. Since the FIA is so keen on introducing new rules to deal with every detail of the cars, surely it is time they set some minimum aesthetic standards to protect our eyesight.

Williams generally have a sensible and quiet enough color scheme but McLaren has ruined its chances with their obsession with a silver that clashes with just about any other color under the sun. And the others hover in the area of acceptability without being objectionable.

So my support remains with BMW; there is one ray of hope on the horizon, however. Word is that the Honda colors, when finally revealed, will be green. And green is the one color that could beat white – think of the gorgeous early Jordans with their 7-Up sponsorship and the short-lived Jaguars in patriotic BRG. But all hinges on the shade chosen; dark enough and the car will look great, too light and it will be vomit-inducing.

For Button’s sake, I hope that Honda have had the sense to be green in as dark a way as possible.

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Helmet Design

Williams quietly unveiled their FW29 today and kept the hype very low key – the car must speak for itself on track, they advised. It is visibly a Williams with colors not much changed in spite of their new sponsor, Lenovo, but it appears to have grown a splendid mustache this year, the upper component of the front wing assembly curving up and away from the lower element. Messing around with the nose of the car is almost becoming a Williams tradition.

Helmets 1

As I was looking through the photographs, I came upon the standard portraits of the drivers and was struck by the complexity of their helmet designs. Much of this is caused by the profusion of advertising, of course, but there does seem to be a trend towards increasingly confusing designs. These days it isn’t easy to identify the drivers as they whoosh past, hunkered down between their high cockpit sides and its shoulder bulges, and these modern helmets don’t help with their profusion of colors and strange shapes.

Even a driver as recently arrived as David Coulthard has a clear and simple design for his helmet, based on Scotland’s flag without embellishment and instantly recognizable as a result. Compare this with Kathikeyan’s, also inspired by his nation’s flag but managing to appear similar in its spiky Indian wheel to Wurz’s red and white zigzags. Considering how much of the helmet is obscured by adverts, it hardly seems worth going into such detail with the design.

Helmets 2

Back in the good old days (said the old fart) things were much simpler. Nelson Piquet’s red and white teardrop and stripes were easily identified and Senna stuck with an even plainer theme of green and blue stripes on a yellow background.

Speaking of yellow, it does seem to be the in color of the moment – most new drivers use it somewhere on their helmets and Lewis Hamilton favors it almost to excess. I wonder if this is a subconscious hope that Senna’s magic might have come partially from his helmet colors. Don’t laugh – the F1 drivers are a pretty superstitious bunch.

Take green cars, for instance. There is a tradition going back over fifty years that green is an unlucky color in racing. That might have come from the fifties, when all the British cars were green and were routinely thrashed by the Italian red, and it should really have been exorcised by Lotus in the sixties and Benetton in the nineties. But I suspect that the myth lingers on, perhaps given new life by Jaguar’s brief return to F1.

To return to helmets, the fashion for complex designs certainly doesn’t help commentators and could make Murray Walkers of them all. Which is bad news for young drivers trying to make a name for themselves. If I were a driver just entering F1, I’d buck the trend and go for the simplest helmet design imaginable.

Oh, wait a minute – wasn’t Mark Webber wearing an unadorned white helmet in one of the recent test sessions…?

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Motor Sport Without Michael

Former rally champion, Walter Rohrl, reckons that the end of Michael Schumacher’s career as a driver will be good for all forms of motor sport. He points out that, in the last few years, advertisers have lined up to have even a tiny decal on Michael’s car, rather than use the same money to sponsor an entire rally car.


Michael in the office

For those of us primarily interested in F1, it has been easy to overlook Michael’s influence beyond our favorite sport. If Rohrl is relieved to see him go, the ripples of Michael’s success must have reached way beyond our limited horizons. And I can believe that he is right; the Schumacher years changed F1 itself to such an extent that it is only logical that the effects should have spilled over into other areas.

Michael was both good and bad for F1. In becoming a household name, he attracted many more viewers, come to see what all the fuss was about, and this automatically brought the advertisers clamoring for a piece of the pie. But his domination of the sport also raised the most common criticism of the races: that they were predictable and boring as a result. For those of us who became fed up with the same guy winning all the time, the only enjoyment left to us was the hope that someone, somehow, would beat the blighter.

It is a danger that always threatens F1. In the past there have been flashes of domination by a driver or a team that have hinted at the boredom of such a situation. The total domination of Mercedes in the mid-1950s, Jim Clark’s succession of wins in the Lotus 25, Chapman’s Lotus 79 in 1978 and the swapping of dominant years between McLaren and Williams in the 1980s and 1990s were examples of how F1 races can become foregone conclusions.

What saved us in those years was that the boredom never lasted too long. Mercedes got out after a couple of years, Clark was always subject to the fragility of the Lotus, Chapman’s designs after the 79 were not as effective as others’ and neither Williams nor McLaren could achieve total dominance for long. Michael’s reign, however, just seems to have gone on and on.

So F1 breathes a sigh of relief to see Michael go. Suddenly there are new stars in the shape of Alonso and Raikkonen and a hoste of young bloods eager to make their names. This is what makes for great racing years: uncertainty as to who will win, real battles between several drivers and cars, the championship won by a point or two.

Already the advertisers spread out and begin to hedge their bets. McLaren and Renault find new sponsors and even lesser teams such as Spyker manage to attract good money. Perhaps Rohrl is correct in assuming that some of the money will go to rallying – and that has to be good for all motor sport.

Not that Michael is really to blame for all this; the object is to win and, if he proved the most complete racer for ten years, succeeding as a driver, politician, strategist and team builder, he was only doing his job. But F1 loves the real racer, the guy who fights through adversity, doesn’t always win but gives his all in the battle and cares nothing for the politics and strategy – hence the enormous popularity of Gilles Villeneuve and the fans’ preference for the skill and courage of Senna over the clinical approach and carefully planned races of Prost.

F1 might lose a bit of advertising revenue in the coming years – there are no obvious stars that will dominate in Schumacher style and the household will have to deal with several names rather than just one. But the health of the sport will improve immensely. Big names may attract new viewers but it’s competition that keeps them.

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