The Japanese Grand Prix and its attendant dramas are long gone now: consigned already, it seems, to the history books. Our new World Champion churns bravely through his publicity tours for the sponsors and his dinners with the Finnish prime minister: he’s even done a lap of the streets of Woking in an MP4/13. But the Melbourne sunshine and the first round of the new season might as well be in another time dimension except to the teams who work feverishly on their 1999 cars, night and day, to impossible deadlines.
Still, for the rest of us, there is no escape from F1. There are few stories on the sports pages at this time of year, but the business sections are giving it plenty of ink. Even The Times‘ City Editor, who clearly does not pretend to be a motor racing enthusiast, has written a rather snide leader which began: “If Mr Ecclestone came knocking on your door and asked to borrow £1.2 billion, you would be wary…”
Without doubt, Formula One struts a far bigger role on the world stage these days than a mere matter of 17 races over eight months. Its sheer success as a television spectacle dictates that. With its immense worldwide audience come big sums of money: with big sums of money come people in suits, and not just because they like watching racing cars rush round a track.While actual flotation plans have receded, Formula One is keeping the City’s attention by launching a $2 billion Eurobond issue – just at the time when European Competition Commissioner Karel van Miert wants to challenge whether the hugely lucrative TV rights to F1 are actually F1’s to sell. BBC TV’s Panorama probed the relationship between Formula One Administration and the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, and FIA president Max Mosley, who was questioned on the programme, has since called it “grossly inaccurate.” It’s all good stuff for the financial journalists: F1 is after all somewhat more glamorous than a resigning bank boss or a boardroom row at Marks & Spencer.
Some of the teams themselves are in the news, too. Eddie Jordan, having made it into F1’s Top Four, has found himself a partner by selling 40 per cent of Jordan Grand Prix to venture capitalists Warburg, Pincus for £36 million – which would value Eddie’s 60 per cent at £54 million. Meanwhile Tom Walkinshaw, presumably viewing the Far Eastern financial troubles of Arrows’ major sponsor Danka with dismay, has announced a “marketing and technical partnership” with Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim of Nigeria who has oil, telecommunications and food interests in Africa, and says “it is intended to leverage all aspects of this strategic alliance”. It’s all a long way from the beginnings of the British racing car industry: talented enthusiasts working in a railway arch with chalk lines on the floor and fire-pump engines…
Second only to television, and because of it, the role of major motor manufacturers in Formula One is becoming ever more crucial. Until Walter Hayes of Ford decided to risk a mere £100,000 in 1966 so Cosworth could build an F1 engine, there was very little overt connection between Grand Prix racing and mass production car manufacturers.
In fact, Ford were really pioneers in the marketing art of using motor racing to change the image of a car brand. Memories of Ford Populars with side-valve engines, three-speed gearboxes and no pretensions to speed or road-holding were expunged by Jim Clark three-wheeling a Lotus Cortina. In 1966 Ford finally beat Ferrari at Le Mans. And between 1967 and 1983 the Cosworth DFV, with the Ford oval on its cam covers, won 155 Grands Prix. By then a Ford was a car a chap didn’t mind being seen in. Renault were even braver. In 1977 they fielded the full monty: F1 car as well as adventurous turbo engine. To start with they were nowhere, but within two years they had won their first race. After eight seasons and 15 wins they decided to concentrate on the engines and leave the rest to the likes of Williams, Benetton and Lotus – with prodigious success – but the image of turbos in general and Renault in particular had been transformed. They’re resting now, but Renault still believe their huge 20-year investment is money well spent.
BMW, Honda, Peugeot, Porsche, Yamaha and Mercedes followed Renault, either by making their own engines or badging and financially supporting specialist engine builders. And, presumably, the marketing men continued to demonstrate that it was all commercially worth it.
Now we’re into an era where Formula One has become so expensive, and technologically so highly geared, that without a major car manufacturer as a partner it’s going to be very difficult to win any more. The top three teams, McLaren, Ferrari and Williams, have long understood this. McLaren’s engines may be made in Northants, but the link between Ilmor and Mercedes is now made of much more than mere deutschmarks. Ferrari has belonged to Fiat for years. Williams, having won four World Championships during their nine-year affair with Renault, are now embarking on a new alliance with BMW. Already it’s hard to imagine Prost without Peugeot. Honda have announced they will be back in F1 as a team in 2000. And Toyota are planning to be in by 2001: their name has been linked, along with former German F1 outfit Zakspeed, to a rumoured reorganisation of Arrows. (Former Benetton boss Flavio Briatore has mysteriously popped up as a Zakspeed “consultant”.)
The odd one out among the major F1 teams is Benetton. David Richards moved in last year as its new boss, and abruptly moved out again in October because of differences of opinion with the Benetton family about how the team should be run. Richards was convinced that only an alliance with a major car manufacturer would restore Benetton’s flagging fortunes. Ford, who have worked successfully with Richards in other branches of motor sport, tried to buy the team outright, but apparently the Benetton family prefer their independence. Now Ford have extended their contract with Jackie Stewart’s team by a further year to 2001, even though they are known to be disappointed by the results so far. Significantly, Ford’s worldwide head of research and development, Neil Ressler, has quietly been put on the Stewart board.
One thing is clear: there’s a new blast of cold air blowing through Ford’s motor sport activities. They really mean business. And if the battle in the showrooms is to be mirrored by a battle on the Grand Prix grids, fought out between Fiat, BMW (plus Rover), Peugeot, Mercedes (plus Chrysler), Honda and Toyota, they simply can’t afford not to win. They want to fight from the front, like they do in the car market and, for the gigantic investment that will take, they’ve got to be able to gamer real marketing benefit.
Which leads us to the stories not yet unequivocally denied at the top of Ford that their future marque in F1 would be not the blue oval, but the leaping Jaguar. Look at their brand identities and you see that their game plan could be to conquer F1 with sexy, macho Jaguars, beat the world in rallying with tough, dependable Fords, and lead the way in sportscar racing with elegant Aston Martins.
Several of the big boys have other brands to play with. BMW now owns Bentley. VW owns not only Audi and Seat but also Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini, even if VW boss Ferdinand Piech says he doesn’t want to play the Grand Prix game at the moment. So, if F1 sells image and image sells cars, Bernie’s biggest problem may be keeping the number of teams down to his ideal of a dozen despite anti-tobacco legislation sucking more and more money out.
To us traditionalists who like to remember the distant days when the only writing on a racing car was the maker’s name on the badge, when our cars were green and theirs were red, silver and blue, is all this brand enhancement a frightening vision of Orwellian gloom?
I don’t think so. I reckon it’s extremely good news for you and me who love motor racing that, at the top end, the big car manufacturers are getting involved. I’d sooner them than tobacco, clothing, photo-copiers or vodka and, if you’ve driven the latest Ferrari road car with its paddleswitch gearchange, you might almost start to believe, not in fairies or Santa Claus, but in the old saw about racing improves the breed.
And, while the moguls of high finance bicker and argue about the true commercial worth of Formula One, a lot of powerful people are keen to ensure that the bit you and I enjoy the racing goes on being good. I’m just counting the days to when the season starts again, and F1 comes off the business pages and back into the sports section. The sports editors still think it’s a sport, you see…