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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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Yesterday’s Hero – John Surtees

The other day I was taking a rare break from the computer and happened to catch the MotoGP race in Shanghai. My son is an avid motorbike racing fan and I’ve picked up a bit of knowledge from him, so the names were not completely unknown to me. Rossi is the man, of course, and the Ducatis are incredibly fast this year – that much I knew.

It was a good, exciting race but what struck me most were the interviews at the end. The riders are so young! Fresh-faced innocents playing truant from school, it seemed. Okay, maybe it’s the old fogy syndrome kicking in (everyone looks young to me these days) but it does bring home the fact that you have to be a bit insane to race bikes. And the insanity of the young is the belief that they cannot die.

John

John Surtees in the Ferrari 158, 1964

It might have been that I was young at the time too, but John Surtees never looked young to me. His long list of bike racing championships prove that he had the necessary streak of madness, however. Which makes his success in converting to four wheels in 1960 all the more remarkable – few bikers live up to expectations when attempting that and Rossi probably made the right decision in sticking with MotoGP rather than taking a Ferrari drive.

John is famous mainly through being the only man to be a world champion on both two wheels and four but he actually has some claim to being as quick as Jim Clark. While Jim stuck with the design skills of Colin Chapman and so always had a competitive car, John raced for a series of constructors, some good and some not so good. Yet John was always in the hunt, often extracting more from his car than it wanted to give.

In fact, Surtees was a man ahead of his time; as well as being a fast driver, he was also interested in tinkering with the car to improve it. He was, indeed, the prototype of the modern driver, being able to sense what parts of the car needed tweaking and working with the engineers to perfect it. It was entirely natural that he should progress to building his own cars in the seventies, but not before he had supplied Honda with their first ever F1 win (Mexico, 1968).

The sixties is a decade that has gone down in history as belonging to Jim Clark; quite rightly so, since he had more success than any other driver of his era. But there was one that he raced against who should stand shoulder to shoulder with him in our memories. And that man is John Surtees.

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The Fastest Of Them All

Whenever F1 fans get together, you can bet that the conversation will eventually turn to the subject of which driver was greatest of all. Years ago I read a short story that deals with this rather well and I am always reminded of it whenever such a discussion begins. I do not remember who wrote the story so I cannot give credit where it is due – but it was a long time ago so perhaps it will be sufficient that I put on record that the story isn’t mine. Anyway, here’s the basic outline of the tale:

It seems that there was a group of friends who were great fans of Grand Prix racing. They met often and enjoyed many long discussions on all aspects of the sport but things often became heated when the matter of the quickest driver arose – as it did often.

Nuvolari

The usual names were bandied about, Nuvolari, Fangio, Moss, Clark, Stewart, Senna, Schumacher, but no final decision could ever be reached as each fan produced persuasive reasons as to why his choice must be the right one. Over the years, positions became entrenched and everyone knew the opinions and arguments of everyone else since they had heard them so often before. But nobody would concede defeat and the subject remained the one issue that was entirely deadlocked; yet they never gave up debating it, so determined were they that the matter be settled once and for all.

They were old men by the time they gathered together for the bus ride to Spa to see the Belgian Grand Prix. And, in a way, it was fitting that they should all be killed when the bus fell off a hillside in the Ardennes before they reached the circuit. Inseparable friends they had been in life and now, in death, the bond continued unbroken.

And so it was that they found themselves together again in heaven. St Peter had allowed them entry as a group and no-one was left behind. And, inevitably, the old subject came up again, undecided as it still was. Who was the fastest of all?

Even then, they were unable to reach agreement and things might have stayed that way for eternity if one of their number had not suggested settling the matter by asking the Boss, the Big G, who was reputed to know all things. Elated that they would finally know the truth and the controversy be settled forever, they proceeded to the Big House to ask their question.

The Boss was in residence and expressed Himself happy to answer anything they should ask. They explained the problem (not omitting mention of each one’s preference to ensure that he not be forgotten) and finished with the question that had dominated their lives – who was the fastest driver of all time?

The Boss smiled and answered immediately. “Heinz Hopflinger,” He announced with certainty.

The friends stared at Him and each other in complete perplexity. “Heinz Hopflinger?” ventured the bravest of them. “But I’ve never heard of him. How could that be?”

The Boss smiled again. “Oh, it was Heinz all right. I ought to know – I made him. He was a shepherd in Lichtenstein all his life and never actually saw a motor vehicle, let alone a racing car. But, if they had put him in one, he would have beaten all those you mentioned by a mile…”

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Formula 1 Bad Boys

Kimi Raikkonen is rumored to have been in trouble with police in Hungary over a matter of alcohol and sitting behind the wheel of a car. This follows other stories of the flying Finn’s night club and partying exploits.

Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen and friend

It has echoes of an F1 tradition that we all thought had died out with the advent of the super-professional driver epitomized by Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher: the “bad boy” syndrome. In the 1950s, many drivers were renowned for their wild behavior at parties, Mike Hawthorn especially gaining a reputation for being heavily into wine, women and song. It was as though the working class lads, who suddenly found the heights of motor sport available to them, intended to make the most of their brief moments of fame. They worked hard and they played hard.

This continued into the sixties, although there were already signs of a growing professionalism that had no time for drunken high jinks. Drivers like Jim Clark and John Surtees were serious about racing and saw it as a profession rather than a bit of fun. Some, such as Graham Hill, still knew how to relax and party between races, however.

By the 1970s, advertising had upped the stakes so high that it was clear that F1 was now more of a business than a sport; the sober attitude of most drivers reflected this too. So James Hunt stands out as the last of the playboy drivers, an isolated throwback to F1′s wilder days. With his retirement, we all thought that era was gone forever.

Through the eighties and nineties we became used to the dour professionals, Prost, Senna, Schumacher, pursuing their career objectives with unwavering intensity. Flashes of humor from such as Johnny Herbert gave relief but the overall atmosphere was that this was far too serious a business to have fun in (hmmm, I think I just identified the reason for Minardi’s huge popularity).

And now Kimi Raikkonen arrives to upset all our preconceived notions. It would have to be someone like him, of course – a driver so talented that all his off track adventures can be ignored by the team manager. Oh, there might be the occasional “talking-to” in the motorhome but, when you’re paying the guy millions to drive for you, it’s not easy to lay down the law about his private life.

What Kimi does for us all is demonstrate that it’s possible to be damn good at your job and still have a good time on your days off. For too long we have believed that only the dedicated monomaniac can get to the very top of any profession. Kimi shows that, with youth, talent and energy, that doesn’t have to be true. After all, what is the point in being paid so much if you can’t live a little as a result?

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