I doubt if many of Motor Sport‘s discerning readership are aware of a populist quiz show on British TV called Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Contestants have to select one of four possible answers to a general knowledge question, and if they answer 15 correctly they win £1 million. I was recently ambushed into watching this morsel of popular culture, and one of the questions was: Bernie Ecclestone is connected with which sport? Is it (a) Tennis, (b) Athletics, (c) Formula One or (d) Cricket?
The question spoke volumes for the broadcaster’s, and the public’s, view of things. Tennis, athletics and cricket are proper names for proper sports. Option (c) should of course have been Motor Racing. But Ecclestone has hijacked it so completely that the man on the living room sofa thinks motorsport means F1, and there is nothing else. He may be vaguely aware of other levels of racing, just as there is Division Three football or village cricket But they are obviously too trivial to matter.
You and I know better. We understand the hierarchy that is meant to develop future F1 talent, and the other classes of racing that give serious amateurs and potential stars some great sport. But in Europe at least, all the real money goes to prime Fl ‘s fortnightly pump. There is Le Mans, of course, which happily still attracts the high-spirited support of tens of thousands of British enthusiasts: but it is no longer part of a noble championship series of great classics like the Targa Florio or the TT. The 1000km races at real road circuits such as the full Nürburgring and the old Spa, and even the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch, are all gone. I accept that the Masta Kink, Schwalbenschwanz and the dusty Madonie country lanes are, sadly, inappropriate for modem-day racing. My regret is that there isn’t a season-long equivalent, on modern tracks, of those memorable long-distance battles between the Ferrari 512 and the Porsche 917, or D-types and DBR1 s and Testa Rossas.
I have always regarded F1 as part of a bigger motor racing fabric: the most prestigious part, and in its best years probably the most exciting part. But it is the peak, not the whole mountain. After four decades of writing and talking about motorsport there are wondrous grands prix that will live in my memory for ever. But I have also watched unforgettably heroic battles at Le Mans, Formula Three slipsteamers at Reims, the roistering NASCAR circus, Indy 500s fraught with drama, and great races at Brno and Vallelunga and Mount Fuji and Road America and Snetterton and Anderstorp and Jarama and Cadwell Park. When F1’s fortnightly rigmarole is unpredictable and closefought, it can give the general public all the fine motorsport they need. But when it’s going through a dull patch they assume that all motor racing is dull, because they don’t realise there’s anything else.
Well, F1 had an excellent day at Monaco, with a maiden GP winner in Jarno Trulli and some intriguing battles. It had a less good day the next weekend at the Nürburgring, with Ferraris 1-2 again, both McLarens blowing up in front of Daimler-Chrysler’s corporate guests, and one Williams driving into the other at the first corner.
The best thing about the ‘Ring was Takuma Sato, who outqualified teammate Jenson Button to become the first Japanese driver to start a GP from the front row. Then he challenged Rubens Banichello for second place in a brave move that was probably never going to come off, but showed that Takuma is a big-hearted charger. I asked BAR boss David Richards if Takuma had earned a telling-off: “Certainly not! We employ drivers to go racing, and Taku is a racer.”
After Monaco came the elevation at Williams of Sam Michael to the role of technical director. Williams has always been driven from the front by Sir Frank and Patrick Head, and despite Frank’s dreadful accident nearly 20 years ago, the two of them have always run the team their way. But now Patrick, at the age of 57, has handed the reins at races to Sam, who is the personification of the modern F1 heavy-hitter: cool, calm, single-minded, a clever strategic thinker, a leader of men and a brilliant engineer. He came from Australia to join Lotus as a young mechanic and, after a stint at Jordan, moved to Williams in 2001. The difference, of course, is that Frank and Patrick own Williams between them, 70/30: Sam is merely an extremely well-paid employee.
Down the years many of the great F1 teams have been primarily the achievement of one man. And usually an imperfect man, for the brains, ambition and drive needed to win have often been allied to arrogance, selfishness and ruthlessness. Of these autocrats, Enzo Ferrari leaps to mind: the team that he ruled with a rod of personal iron for so long is now almost a democracy, with Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Paolo Martinelli and Rory Byrne reporting to the Ferrari board.
Mercedes-Benz in the 1950s had its mountainous team boss Alfred Neubauer who, although a hired hand of Stuttgart, ran the team in an autocratic, disciplined and very effective way. Tony Vandervell paid for the Vanwall team out of his own pocket, and brooked no argument He knew what he wanted — “to beat those bloody red cars” — and he did it.
Colin Chapman was the archetypal old-school F1 boss, a brilliant and inventive engineer who built a top team from backstreet beginnings. His restless ambition effectively destroyed his health and his business, and after his premature death Team Lotus could not struggle on without him for long. Ken Tyrrell, so different from Colin and yet with the same single-minded determination, improbably created a title-winning team from a Home Counties timber yard.
Today it’s different. There are the teams that are part of major manufacturers, such as Toyota and Jaguar. Both have had management reshuffles, rather too many in the case of Jaguar, and both demonstrate how hard it is to find success in F1 if you are part of a big organisation. There are the teams that remain tightly knit, but have a close relationship with a major partner, like Williams with BMW, McLaren with Mercedes, BAR with Honda. And there are the independents like Paul Stoddart’s Minardi and Peter Sauber’s eponymous team, which inevitably find life tough.
It’s Flavio Briatore and Eddie Jordan who behave most like old-fashioned team bosses. Briatore is a Renault employee these days, but they pretty much let him be his own master, and he gets results — partly because he has an unromanticised view of racing, which never interested him before the Benetton family got him involved. Jordan had the chance to sell out to Honda a few years back for a huge pile of money, but eventually backed away from the deal, allegedly for a splendidly egotistical reason: because his name would no longer be on the cars. As it is, Jordan more than any other team runs the old way, exuding the larger-than-life character of the proprietor in all it does. That may be precisely why times for Eddie’s team have never been so tough.
When great drivers pass their peak and retire, the junior formulae feed in new talent to replace them. With team bosses, they can delegate to new talent while retaining overall control, as is happening at Williams. Or they can allow a takeover by an industry partner, as happened with Benetton, and may soon happen with McLaren. Or they can sell, so that the old team effectively becomes a Trojan horse for a new one, as Tyrrell did for BAR.
But none of these brings totally new blood into F1. Now there are only 10 teams on the grid, at least two of which are hanging on by their wheel nuts. That’s why FIA President Max Mosley wants to open the door to new outfits and let them make use of existing engines and equipment. One of the current F3000 protagonists, like Arden and Super Nova, could be a McLaren of the future.
And that’s exactly what the unsung lower rungs of the racing ladder should be doing: feeding the future, not just with drivers, but with every sort of engineering and management talent. The average age of team bosses down the pitlane 15 years ago was almost 15 years less than it is now, because many of the faces are the same. It’s a sobering thought. If F1 really were the only motor racing that mattered, it would eventually starve itself of talent, grow old and die. Thank goodness it’s not Il