Grands Prix

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GP racing was once ruled by manufacturers. Now it’s the FIA and constructors. Matthew Franey asks how long it will last.

If you want to find out how much the world of Grand Prix racing has changed in the 75 years since The Brooklands Gazette first rolled off the presses, then spare a moment to recognise that despite the passing of time, some things remain very much the same. Consider the following scenario:

In a bid to reverse the trend of a morale-sapping season an Italian marque succeeds in a spot of designer-poaching. After much arm-twisting the team’s Mr Fixit secures the services of two highly respected technicians to complement his talented and experienced driving line-up. Within months their creation will become a Grand Prix winner, within two seasons they will be fighting for the coveted World Championship.

Meanwhile, far away across the continent, a once-dominant team has the same ambitions. To revive its flagging fortunes, a brilliant designer is hired and a new Mercedes engine created. Just weeks after joining, the designer turns the previously unsuccessful race car into a winner.

Sound familiar? If you filled in the gaps with the names Ferrari, Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne, Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine, then you wouldn’t be totally wrong. Nor would McLaren-Mercedes and Adrian Newey be far off when trying to name their rivals. The examples above, however, are no potted history from Grand Prix racing’s last few seasons, they are a snapshot of a world very different from that now controlled by one Bernard Charles Ecclestone.

This plot springs straight from the pages of history in 1924, the year this magazine came into being. A year when one Enzo Ferrari, then working for Alfa Romeo, convinced the much admired Vittorio Jano to leave Fiat and build the Milanese firm a winner. His offering, the P2, became an instant Grand Prix classic, winning first time out in France and then clean-sweeping the first four places in dramatic fashion at Monza.

In that same year Mercedes turned to Ferdinand Porsche to redesign its M72/94 and build a new Grand Prix car with which to fight Alfa. Three-quarters of a century on, the names may have changed – though even some of those are still the same – but the theme is a familiar one.

Of course asking a modem day racer to compete along the same lines as the sport’s pioneers would be just as ridiculous as bemoaning that the sport ever evolved in the first place. Whether Michael Schumacher or Eddie Irvine are even aware that, in the first quarter of this century, Grands Prix were held on rock-strewn pave road courses, over lap distances that stretched for up to 80 miles, in events lasting over twice as long as a current championship round is a bit like asking whether Georges Boillot or Dario Resta ever predicted the use of traction control or fly-by-wire throttle systems. Like the cars that run in it, the Grand Prix itself has changed beyond all recognition.

Look at why the format has become what it is today, however, and there are those who would argue that the homogenised two hour, 200-mile, made-for-television event we watch in the comfort of our living rooms is a worrying indicator of things to come. The romance of racing – or spectating – at Monza or Spa-Francorchamps will doubtless never diminish, as Alan Henry so eloquently argues on page 80, but for the thrill to remain it will take strong hearts and minds to ensure that we don’t end up trading the likes of Monaco or Silverstone for Beijing or Kuala Lumpur.

And do not doubt for one minute that it will happen. If the social and economic winds blow the Grand Prix circus out of Europe then racing’s powers-that-be will simply find a new home for teams and drivers. Whereas increased exposure may have once meant a driver had popped his head over the aeroscreen, today it means sponsors, airtime and chasing the elusive dollar. It was the source of some amusement when, several seasons ago, it was calculated that the insufferably poor and excruciatingly yellow Forti Corse Grand Prix team had secured more visibility for its sponsors over the course of the year while being lapped by the leaders than the once-mighty McLaren, then lodged firmly in the mid-field. My point is not that Forti deserved less or McLaren more, but that someone, somewhere was given the task of watching over 30 hours of Grand Prix footage with a stopwatch in each hand to let us know that fact.

On the surface the drivers are still just doing what drivers do best, but scratch through that veneer and the formula that stakes its claim as the pinnacle of motor racing proves to be a complex and difficult conundrum.

Ask yourself this: would you sit through 16 Grands Prix this season if you knew meaningful lead changes might take place on average once a race and then, more than likely, because the leader has made a mistake or got a problem? Of course you would. It may not sound like the most rivetting way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but we do it every fortnight or so without fail, in the hope that we might witness that most rare thing, a freak occurrence: a Senna in the wet at Donington or Schumacher on a charge in Belgium.

I won’t, and can’t, argue that Grand Prix racing in the 1960s or 70s was without its attractions in terms of pure sporting contest, but even those days tend to appear halcyon only with the benefit of spectacles tinted a lighter shade of pink. Study the championship tables from the 1960s and it soon becomes clear that every season about three drivers, on occasion four, stand out from the crowd. How different is that from the sport in the 1990s?

What the Grand Prix competitors of the ’60s do bear some responsibility for, however, is the charge that the sport we know today is like it is because of the actions of those competing in it 30 years ago. Unwittingly for many – and consciously for some – the great change of post-war Grand Prix racing came not with the shift from front to mid-engined cars, nor with the ever-changing rules on engine sizes or even the evolution of aerodynamic aids. The change came with the disappearance of the great marques from the sport and the creation of the Grand Prix constructor firms set up to build racing cars rather than manufacturers that went racing to sell road cars or, uniquely in Ferrari’s case, sold road cars to go racing.

Major car companies that have entered Formula One as constructors since the end of the 1950s can be counted on the finger of one hand. Honda came and went as did Porsche, Alfa Romeo and Renault, while Maserati and Mercedes had dropped by the wayside some years before.

The teams that have made up the front-runners of the last 30 years go by the names of Brabham, Lotus, McLaren, Williams. What matters here is not that these small garagistes (as Ferrari dismissively branded them) were better at the game than the big players – although on nearly every occasion they patently were – but that they were just that: small, flexible teams capable of reacting quickly to the rapidly-changing world in which they had chosen to compete.

As the rewards for success grew, so those small teams grew bigger, and with size came increasing political muscle. The racer-cum-engineer who had founded a small team in the early ’60s would probably have gasped at the thought of taking on the sport’s governors and winning; but in the FISA/FOCA wars of the early 1980s they did just that, and with victory the constructors suddenly held the whip hand. Well, almost…

Bernie Ecclestone’s shrewd decision to split his time between the running of a Grand Prix team and the running of the Grand Prix circus was probably viewed by those involved at the time as acceptable for both sides. Racers like Frank Williams were in Formula One because they simply wanted to win races. If someone like Ecclestone wanted to oversee the logistics and make everyone involved rich men at the same time, then bring him on. And so is written the story of the last two decades: the circus has evolved almost beyond recognition, and some Tristram is forced to sit in front of the TV, stopwatch firmly grasped between his fingers.

Things, however, may be about to change. Like it or lump it, the sport as we have known it for the last 20 years is under attack from many fronts: the anti-smoking lobby is winding up for a long fight, financial institutions have reacted less than favourably to Ecclestone’s plan to float the company, the European Union is peering into Formula One’s various nooks and crannies and major international corporations are trying to set up large works teams.

Well the first three might sound like things you would rather avoid, but the fourth? Why wouldn’t the sport want Honda, Toyota or British American Tobacco to be illustrious members of the club? The answer, say several well-placed sources, is money. Despite the odd creak and groan, the FOCA ship has happily sailed on its merry way, stopping at port 16 times a year to visit the bank. The ship avoids storms because it has a strong captain and a willing crew, all of whom have become rich while on board. Generally, what the captain wants, the crew provides.

But what can Ecclestone offer a company like Honda or British American Tobacco when they decide, as they inevitably will do one day, that they want out of Formula One? The financial rewards that are naturally so attractive to an ambitious team owner and ensure that eventually they toe the line are loose change in the petty cash drawer to a company the size of Toyota.

Preserving future stability, not past successes, is where Bernie Ecclestone and FIA President Max Mosley’s attentions are firmly fixed at this moment in time. The stubbing out of British American Racing’s plans to run this year’s cars in two liveries, says one source, has less to do with “bringing the sport into disrepute” and more to do with reminding bosses of global conglomerates that if they want a slice of the action, they need to remember who runs the show.

There may be, however, a downside to such a tough stance. If I was Bernie or Max, I would be wary of letting major companies like BAT commit hundreds of millions of pounds to the sport and then run the risk of watching them walk out in a huff when what they thought they were going to get fails to be delivered. Put simply, Formula One needs multi-nationals and their money far more than they need F1.

It’s a far cry from those early days of the sport when any money up for grabs went to the man who won the race and the rest went home empty-handed. When Christian Lautensch lager won the 1908 Grand Prix de l’ACF he was awarded the remarkably handsome prize of 25,000 gold francs. Ever a showman, the German did the flamboyant thing: he built himself a house…

Ninety-one years later, the struggles ahead for Fl ‘s bosses make Lautenschlager’s dilemma over how to spend his winnings seem trivial. While President Mosley avoids the flak flying over Brussels and Ecclestone tries to keep both teams and city financiers in step with his proposals, who will keep an eye on that which matters most to you and I: the standard of the sport we watch?

Last year Mosley infuriated the staff of this office when he said the FIA didn’t think people were that bothered about overtaking and enjoyed the tactical machinations of a three-pitstop Grand Prix. All I can say to that is this: he is wrong and if the sport’s authority figures allow themselves to be distracted from the bigger picture, then Formula One and its future will be poorer for it.