Nigel Roebuck

REFLECTIONS
- How F1 has gone from one extreme to the other
- JYS on being global news and a fair deal for fans
- News Corp, CVC and further troubles in F1

Though not absolute, as ule of thumb it seems increasingly to me t at one's attitude to the new rules in Formula 1 — KERS, DRS, short-lived tyres et al — may have something to do with the generation of motor racing in which one grew up, and with which one first fell in love. With age, in other words. A friend — long retired from racing — calls it 'F1 Lite', for example, and another 'Virtual F1', but as with any rule of thumb there are exceptions.

For years I used to think that, of all the F1 team principals, only Flavio Briatore ever gave a thought to the interests of the spectators. During the era in which Michael Schumacher and Ferrari dominated Grand Prix racing to a degree never seen before or since, the abiding problem with Sunday afternoons in the press room — particularly on a hot day at somewhere like Silverstone, where the air conditioning failed to compete — was keeping awake.

You think I speak in jest? Trust me, I have photographic evidence of colleagues slumped in their seats, eyes closed, mouths open, dead to the world. One particular friend would wake up at the end of a race as people started to move around again, rub his eyes and say, "Not that I care, but... who was second?"

It wasn't easy, at that time, to muster the enthusiasm to brave the horrors of Heathrow every other Thursday morning, for one knew, waiting to check in, waiting to go through security, waiting for everything under the sun, that the race weekend would be a re-run of the previous one — and the one before that: Michael on pole, Michael leading at the first stops, the second stops, the flag... on and on 'til he got to 91.

He was the best driver in the best car, on bespoke Bridgestones, testing constantly, and with a team-mate not allowed to beat him. All bases covered, you might say, and as a solo masterclass it was mighty impressive; you could hardly blame Schumacher and his team for doing a consummately better job than the rest, but for anyone interested in racing, it was like watching a metronome, and when they threw in one-by-one qualifying the picture was complete. "God, it's got boring," I said to Eddie Jordan one day. "I know," he murmured, "but don't tell anyone..."

And that was very much the attitude of the time. The only man apparently aware that F1 was selling its fans short was Briatore, who never — unlike some — pretended to be any great lover of motor racing. "I sold clothes for Benetton, and then I came to the team, to sell F1. Different product, same game."

In the course of his years as a team principal, Flay gained a reputation for being unusually good at delegating. "It's simple," he shrugged. "I know what I know — and what I don't know," so that was novel in itself. "For example, I know nothing about technology — for me a wind tunnel is just a tube with air going through it — so I hire people who understand it, and leave them to get on with it. Maybe they don't know anything about running a business — it's a matter of everyone in the right job."

Briatore always referred to racing fans as 'our customers', which made sense, for he indeed thought of Formula 1 as just another product, and saw as utter futility the spending of tens of millions on technologies which made the cars faster and more efficient but contributed zilch to the enjoyment of 'customers' watching them.

"In fact, it's the opposite," he would say. "The better they are, the more they are on rails — and who wants to see that? Rails are for trains..."

Self-admittedly as far from a racing purist as it's possible to be, Briatore was nevertheless shrewd enough to recognise what the fans were looking for — and, as far as he was concerned, they were being sold short in a number of ways. "For one thing, it's too expensive. When you start talking about €400 for a ticket... I mean, you don't come to the race by yourself, you bring the family, and suddenly it's two or three thousand Euros — for that money you go on vacation in Marbella for 10 days and watch the race on TV, right?

"Then there's our product. In F1, when we talk about 'racing', these days we're really talking about 'strategy'. In football people don't want to see 0-0, even if it's a fantastic game; they want to see 4-3 — and in racing overtaking is like a goal. I don't know anything about technology, but I know races in the rain are interesting — and why? Because there's no grip! It's all you ever hear in F1 — grip, grip, grip — and they talk all the time about technology, never about the show. They need to remember we are in the entertainment business."

I haven't seen Briatore for a while, so I haven't heard his views on the revamped, 2011-style F1, but I'd hazard a guess he is very much in favour, because undoubtedly 'The Show' is more entertaining than it was, and for someone like him that is the overwhelming priority, however it is achieved. Even Flay, though, appreciated that you can have too much of a good thing: "If you buy one toy a year, the kid is very happy; if you buy 20 a month, soon he doesn't bother opening the boxes any more...

"We need more overtaking, sure, but not all the not easy, not like in America on the big ovals — if it was like that, it would mean nothing. But we need to change the cars, so that overtaking is not impossible, and the circuits, too — I mean, Jesus, there are some circuits where you couldn't overtake on bicycles!"

Over time there's no doubt that the other F1 team principals increasingly — if in some time, cases reluctantly — came round to Briatore's way of thinking in the sense that they, too, began to consider their 'customers', to understand that those in the grandstands, while appreciative of the technological 'cleverness' of the cars, wished profoundly to see them race.

Well, that they certainly do now (be it 'virtual' or not), and, as one who has long lamented the absence of overtaking, I should perhaps be relishing it more than I am. If my enthusiasm for the 'new' Fl is guarded, it's because I cannot persuade myself it is altogether real, and my biggest problem — as I said last month — lies with DRS (Drag Reduction System), the moveable rear wing. How l wish the initials stood for 'Downforce Reduction System', in use at all times.

A couple of days after the Turkish Grand Prix, as I paid for petrol at my local garage, the man on the till — a longtime Fl fan — asked me what I thought of the race. Well... pretty frantic, I said, and he agreed. "Tell me something, though," he said. "Why have they made it so complicated? I've always kept up pretty well with what's happening, but the other day something like 'DRS enabled' came up on the screen after a few laps, and my daughter asked what it meant. I mean, where do you start?"

By common consent Istanbul Park is a very good race track, to my mind the best of all the Tilke circuits. It's a pity they built it in a country where F1 is of no interest, but hey, it's government money and TV audiences that count, and at least the drivers enjoy it, and invariably it produces a decent race. This time around, though, one felt occasionally befuddled by everything that was going on, and the thought occurred that, for the spectators — particularly those out on the circuit, out of sight of the pits, and perhaps the 'DRS Zone' — it must be nigh impossible to keep track of events.

There were at Istanbul more pitstops than at any Grand Prix since the one-off race at Donington in 1993, which was run in endlessly changeable weather and caused Alain Prost alone to make half a dozen stops, seeking the right tyres for the conditions of the moment. In Turkey, though, it was bone dry, and four stops were the norm because that was what the limited-life Pirellis demanded.

I have an inherent distaste for anything contrived in Grand Prix racing, and for me 'push to pass' systems (KERS and DRS) and artificially short-lived tyres all come into this bracket. As I said last month, I can just about cope with the tyre scenario (although it continues to amaze me that Pirelli can), but I think they alone are quite enough to change the landscape of the sport, to create the order changes everyone craved, and I wouldn't shed a tear at the loss of either KERS or, particularly, DRS.

Superficially, I grant you, the moveable rear wing creates a good deal of overtaking which would not previously have been possible. We all remember the storm of condemnation unleashed against Ferrari at Hockenheim, when Stefano Domenicali decided that Felipe Massa should allow Fernando Alonso to pass him. There was a good reason for it — we were past halfseason, and Alonso was the only Ferrari driver in with a shout of the World Championship — but there were howls of outrage at this breach of the absurd 'no team orders' rule (now thankfully rescinded after eight years on the books).

Domenicali quietly ignored the screaming, confining himself to the observation that at Ferrari, as always, it was the team which came first, and if that meant paying a fine, well, so be it. Anyone familiar with F1 before 2003 was well aware that team orders — freely acknowledged or not — had always been intrinsic to the sport.

More to the point in all the Hockenheim hysteria, perhaps, was the fact that it had been necessary to order Massa to give way. Lest we forget one Sebastian Vettel, in the Red Bull which had started from pole position, lurked nearby in third place, and Alonso, although faster than his team-mate, was utterly unable to pass him unaided.

Now, of course, with DRS he would have sailed by, but the F1 cars of recent years frequently had problems in getting past much slower cars, let alone one of equal performance. That was an absurdity, but it seems to me that now the pendulum has swung too far the other way, and in Turkey that was apparent even more than in the previous races in 2011. Thus Alonso, for example, went by Mark Webber with ridiculous ease, and a few laps later — after both had pitted for the harder Pirellis — it — was Fernando's turn to be the tethered goat.

People remind me that DRS is a new concept, that it is no more than inevitable that a degree of finetuning will be required, and I accept that. Still, though, I struggle with the very notion of artificially hobbling a driver simply because he happens to be less than a second ahead of another at a particular point on a circuit.

I confess, too, that I find the concept of 'moveable rear wings' remarkable in an age preoccupied with 'elf and safety. One anomaly in the rules, it seems to me, is that in practice and qualifying DRS may be employed as and when the driver deems fit, at any point on the circuit, and more than once we've seen the instant loss of control that results when the wing is snapped open a little too early, before the corner has been cleared.

All right, they're big boys, and they know what they're about, but during the race in China Alonso's DRS went into business for itself and opened when it felt like it, which fortunately wasn't in the middle of a top-gear corner.

For a time it was suggested that — on safety grounds — DRS should be suspended at the Monaco Grand Prix, which looms as I write. Some teams, mindful of the cost of building special non-DRS rear wings for only one event, objected, however, and the FIA, lacking unanimous support for the temporary ban, decided to forget about it.

Not surprisingly, the drivers were unhappy with this outcome — not least because they know themselves only too well. As Rubens Barrichello pointed out, it was no more than inevitable that in practice and qualifying (where DRS may be used at the driver's discretion, remember) people would try to get through the long righthander in the tunnel with the wing 'open' — and in the close, dark confines of the tunnel it is not easy to have a single-car accident.

The concept of moveable rear wings is not new, of course, as anyone familiar with Jim Hall's Chaparrals will know. In F1 Ferrari (and Brabham) introduced the fixed wing to F1 at Spa back in 1968, and a small, spindly thing it was, mounted at a very shallow angle. Chris Amon ran his car with and without it in practice, and was unsure exactly how much good it was doing — "We knew so little about it..." — but the fact that he took pole position by four seconds meant that other teams were swiftly obliged to follow suit. At the next race, Zandvoort, pretty well everyone had a wing of some sort — save Jackie Stewart, whose Matra won, so perhaps Amon's remark about the efficacy of those early wings wasn't far wide of the mark.

Ferrari didn't leave it there, however. The 1968 312 may have been the besthandling car of the year, and its 3-litre V12 may have sounded sublime, but on horsepower it was no match for the increasingly ubiquitous Cosworth DFV, and technical director Mauro Forghieri was intent on finding ways of reducing the car's straightline shortcomings.

Ferrari's wing had by now been moved from the rear to the centre of the car, right behind the driver, Forghieri believing that this was the optimum spot for overall downforce. In an effort to sidestep the increased drag from the wing, Mauro hit on the idea of making it adjustable, and it was run for the first time at Monza.

Once on to a straight, the driver pressed — and held — a button on the steering wheel, at which the hydraulically-operated system would snap the wing flat (or 'open', in the parlance of DRS); when he got to a corner he took his finger off the button, and the wing would flick back into `downforce' position. It worked well according to Amon: "Most people ran without wings at Monza, so we were still comparatively slow in a straight line, but around the whole lap the car was working beautifully — running alone, we were quicker than anything else running alone, and we thought we were in great shape for the race..."

So they might have been, but on lap nine, running a close second to John Surtees's Honda, Amon's Ferrari went out of control at the second Lesmo, somersaulting end over end over the guardrail and into the trees beyond. "Out of the ballpark," as he put it.

Team-mate Derek Bell, whose own car had expired, saw it all as he walked back to the pits, and was much shaken: "It had been a terrible year, losing Jimmy Clark, and then all those other guys afterwards — and now I was sure I'd seen Chris Amon getting killed."

As it was, this was one of the more miraculous escapes in motor racing history — only at the previous race had Ferrari fitted seat belts for the first time — and Christopher somehow emerged without a scratch. He was, though, pretty much cured of 'moveable rear wings' after that.

All academic, actually, because for 1969 the FIA — on safety grounds — banned them.

Hubble, bubble... Beneath the surface much is percolating away in Formula 1 at the moment. CVC perhaps selling... Rupert Murdoch (and others) perhaps buying... new Concorde Agreement to be thrashed out... another 'breakaway series' in the air... Bernie Ecclestone arguing with Jean Todt... mixed feelings about F1 rule changes for 2013... and on and on... Business as usual, really.

There is, it seems to me, little point at this stage in discussing the tie-up between Murdoch's News Corp and Italian investment company Exor. It's true that in April a joint statement confirmed that they were 'formulating a long-term plan for the development of Formula 1 in the interests of the participants and fans', but at the moment little more is known than that. I'm told, however, that it is indeed a reality, and that the consortium may include further parties such as Carlos Slim Jr, son of the Mexican magnate who displaced Bill Gates as the world's richest man.

Odd, isn't it, to think in terms of F1 being 'owned'? Having grown up in the assumption that it was a sport, an entity, governed by the FIA but not 'owned' by anyone, I struggle with that. It all changed, of course, when Max Mosley flogged off the commercial rights to Ecclestone for 100 years, after which Bernie moved them on to CVC Capital Partners, which, knowing little of motor racing, retained his services as the man to continue doing the deals.

Since news broke of the News Corp/Exor interest in F1 Ecclestone has said that, as far as he knows, CVC is not interested in selling its major shareholding in F1, but from other quarters I've heard a different tale. For one thing, CVC exists for no reason other than to make money for its investors, which is why it got involved in F1 in the first place — and why, if the right offer came along, it would walk out of it without a backward glance; for another, unless a new Concorde Agreement — the current one expires at the end of 2012 — is successfully negotiated, it will own something nobody wants.

Since the introduction of the Concorde Agreement, in 1981, the negotiation of successive versions has become ever more protracted and acrimonious, for the teams have long felt that their slice of the financial cake should be greatly increased, while Bernie has invariably held a different view.

Luca di Montezemolo, as we know, likes occasionally to roll a grenade into the crowded room of F1, and in a recent interview with CNN he did just that: "I think we have to be very pragmatic about the future. At the end of 2012 all the teams' contracts with CVC will expire — so theoretically CVC will not own anything at that point. We have three alternatives: one, we renew with CVC; two, we create our own company — like the basketball teams did in the US with great success — to run the races, the TV rights, and so on; three, we find a different partner."

Step forward, presumably, the Murdoch/ Exor/Slim/whomever else consortium.

Of the three options offered by di Montezemolo, the second, while perhaps superficially the most attractive, struck me as a case of 'Be careful what you wish for...' The idea of the teams running the business instantly puts one in mind of the CART — Championship Auto Racing Teams — era in the US, which began well, and was for years the best racing series on earth, but foundered on a sea of greed and self-interest.

Can a new Concorde Agreement be negotiated? The last one, let's remember, took five years to hammer out, and was settled only when CVC panicked at the threat of a breakaway series which would have left it holding three-fifths of damn all. At the moment the 12 teams take 50 per cent of F1's annual income (with CVC taking the rest), but the suggestion is that they feel 75 per cent has a nicer ring to it. CVC, having borrowed £2 billion against future earnings from F1, is unlikely to agree — but at the same time dare not risk losing the teams which lay the golden egg.

At the same time FIA president Jean Todt, flexing his muscles quietly as ever, has said that he intends to renegotiate the governing body's deal with regard to the commercial rights: "I will make sure," he said, "that everyone realises times have changed since the agreement was signed. I must make sure that the funding for the FIA is correct."

All a bit of a conundrum, you'd have to say, and one which could make an approach from Murdoch & Co attractive to CVC. What should be borne in mind, however, is the 'Don King' clause, initiated by Mosley at the time of the FIA's selling of the commercial rights to Ecclestone. This gives the FIA the right to veto the selling on of the rights to any party it feels may have other than the best interests of the sport at heart — indeed many were surprised that it was not invoked when Bernie sold them to a private equity company — CVC — necessarily interested only in the return for its investors.

Whomever owns F1 in 18 months' time, however, new rules are set to be introduced in 2013. And they, too, are causing controversy, for the FIA announced a while ago that the 2.4-litre V8 engines are to be replaced by turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder motors.

"I think," said Todt, "it's important that F1, being the pinnacle of motor racing, takes on board the evolution of society. It will definitely be greener, with the introduction of more technologies in the future."

It was this remark, among others, that caused Ecclestone — vice-president of the FIA (marketing) — to make public an antipathy to Todt which has been evident for some little time. "Jean Todt," he said, "is a poor man's Max. He's been travelling round the world doing what Max didn't do much — kissing the babies and shaking the hands. It's probably good for the FIA, but we don't need it in F1."

Actually, it always seemed to me that Max was quite adept at 'travelling round the world' and garnering support both for himself and his schemes. As well as that, if Ecclestone is upset at the decision to take F1 down a green path he should take it up first with his old mate, for it was Mosley who started it all with the introduction of the hideously expensive KERS — while at the same time insisting the teams needed drastically to cut costs.

'Green' technology for F1 was clearly in Max's mind long before that. A few years ago my colleague Mark Hughes and I were asked to a meeting with him in London, and we duly went along. What he wanted to do, he said, was sound us out on a plan for the long-term future of F1, and the question I've never forgotten — uttered quite seriously — was, "Would they miss the noise, d'you think...?"

They would, Max, we replied emphatically — the noise is half of it! He was quite surprised. "Actually, when I'm watching on TV, I always think it rather gets in the way of the commentary..."

He and Ecclestone may have thought as one on most matters, but on this they clearly went their own ways. Bernie, I am pleased to see, is utterly opposed to the introduction of the little four-cylinder turbo, both on grounds of cost to the engine manufacturers and because he fears — rightly — that a muted soundtrack for F1 will turn off the fans.

"This engine they're talking about — it's the sort of thing that should be in saloon car racing," he said. "The rest of it is basically PR — it's nothing to do with F1. We have a very good engine formula — why should we change it to something that's going to cost millions and that nobody wants? There are two things in Fl that are really important: one is Ferrari, and the other is the noise. When people go to an F1 race for the first time and you ask them what they liked, they always say, 'The noise..."

Amen to that, and at Ferrari they feel the same way. Di Montezemolo is already furious about the gimmicks introduced this year, which he feels owe more to showbiz than to Grand Prix racing, and he has no enthusiasm for the forthcoming engine change. "If we have to change, why could we not at least have a V6 turbo? We will not be building any four-cylinder engines for our street cars, and for the top class of racing it sounds a bit pathetic..."

It does, doesn't it?