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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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The FIA Gods Challenged

There is no doubt about it, the FIA do not like to have their decisions questioned. Way back in October last year, David Coulthard was smacked down for daring to put forward the GPDA’s view on safety matters and there are many other examples of the governing body reacting angrily to criticism.

David

David Coulthard

Now I see that even mighty Autosport magazine has had to print a retraction of earlier FIA-related statements made in a column of theirs. The fuss revolved around just how many teams were unhappy with the FIA’s sudden reduction of the engine formula from 3 liter V10s to 2.4 liter V8s, although I find it hard to see what was wrong with Autosport‘s columnist pointing out that not all the manufacturers were in favor of the change. Perhaps the problem really lay in his earlier assertion that the FIA had yo-yoed a lot – to hint that the FIA might be a tad indecisive would definitely be heresy.

The whole episode illustrates the FIA’s increasing tendency to see itself as infallible and above criticism. Which is a silly attitude to strike in a sport as contentious and full of differing interests and opinions as F1. The governing body would do wonders for its image if it were to accept criticism gracefully and listen a bit more. No-one has ever said that their job is easy and it is only to be expected that some will disagree with whatever they do; you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

The FIA would like us to see it as a forward-looking body that prepares for the future – hence their sudden fascination with green issues and the interests of car manufacturers. But they seem to be missing something very important about the brave new world of tomorrow: that in the information age, everything becomes known and is examined ad infinitum. They may be able to prevent the traditional media from voicing any uncomfortable opinions but the internet is a different matter entirely. Even governments have failed in their efforts to keep a lid on that beastie.

So the FIA would do far better if it were to act with more consideration of the views of those involved in the sport (and that includes the fans) and to be a lot more transparent in their actions. Except, of course, it can’t. So many of its decisions are driven by financial considerations and shady deals that it dare not explain some of them.

You may think that is a rather wild assumption; but it seems that Michelin agree with me – they are taking the FIA to court over the way in which Pirelli was selected as the sole supplier of tires to the World Rally Championship. Which brings to mind the odd way in which Microsoft MES were chosen as the suppliers of ECUs and Magneti Marelli’s doubts over the process.

The love of money is the root of all evil…

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Jacques Villeneuve on Leaving BMW Sauber

In an interview with Autosport Magazine, Jacques Villeneuve has denied that there was acrimony in the split between himself and BMW Sauber. Apparently, the team wanted to assess Robert Kubica in a race situation and asked Jacques to step down for a while; he was not prepared to do so.

Jacques Villeneuve

Jacques Villeneuve

“After having been in F1 for 10 years and having won the championship and so on, even though it’s quite a few years ago, I wasn’t ready to stay home some weekends just to see how the other guy would go and to then be compared to him,” said Villeneuve.

Jacques has a point. As mentioned in my article, Driver Contracts, F1 team managers sometimes regard the driver as just another component that can be swapped in and out of the car at will. If we are now going to have a situation where the teams can “test drive” anyone in a race while the contracted driver waits on the sidelines, the balance of power shifts far too much towards the employer.

It is hard enough for a driver to stay in F1 already, never mind the long struggle it takes to get there. To expect the contracted employee (that’s what he is, after all) not to object when another driver is used in a race, purely so that the team’s choice of driver is made easier, is making a mockery of the whole business of contracts and team loyalty.

Is it too much to expect that a team makes its choice of drivers before the season starts and then sticks by it? All potential and existing F1 drivers have served a hard apprenticeship in other formulae, so it’s not as if the choice has to be made in the dark. Just occasionally, a driver will prove to be unsuited to F1 for one reason or another; but that’s life – nothing is guaranteed. And a contract is a contract, a document designed to protect the rights of both parties.

Jacques seems to have accepted the situation in a very mature fashion, even so.

“This time there wasn’t really bitterness, it was just matter of fact. This has happened, OK, it doesn’t make me happy, I don’t want to work my butt off for the rest of the season if it’s like that, and then to wait until November and maybe there would be a decision for the year after.”

That is what I always liked about Jacques – he was straight and honest, sometimes quite controversial, but never afraid to speak his mind. F1 could do with more like him.

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