Matters of Moment, July 2013

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The long shadow of Michael Schumacher still looms heavily over 2013. Not the slightly faded and frayed Mercedes-spec version of the past few years — I’m talking about the crisp original who, a decade ago, was busily and mercilessly ripping through the record books like some Formula 1 Terminator.

A Ferrari superteam built around him, endless test miles and bespoke Bridgestone rubber all contributed to a run of five consecutive titles. It wasn’t always dull, thanks largely to intermittent challenges from McLaren and Williams. But all too often it wasn’t just the stats that were taking a hammering. F1 became a turn-off.

Today, motor sport’s authorities are clearly petrified that such dominance might ever be repeated. Now, a different type of machine stamps its indelible mark — but in methods far more subtle than Schumacher’s, and all controlled well away from the race track itself. Grand Prix racing has become a property, with owners to appease — owners who demand a healthy return on their considerable investment.

Private equity firm CVC Capital Partners is in it for the money, taking out a great deal more than it’ll ever put in. If its product becomes ‘boring’ and the massive global TV audience tunes out, what it owns suddenly becomes worth a lot less. There’s so much at stake — and that’s why a genuine meritocracy can never be allowed to exist. That might be dull — so the show must be carefully cultivated, nurtured, managed and manipulated.

Of course, the irony is that in this Pirelli era of ‘anti-performance’, Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel have won every championship on merit. In 2011, Pirelli’s first as F1’s sole tyre supplier, they dominated in a style that had all the hallmarks of Schuey and Ferrari. Since then, artificial means have shaken things up, to keep it interesting.

We’ve consistently made it clear that Motor Sport believes no blame should be placed at Pirelli’s door for the unappetising breed of ‘percentage’ racing that has since fermented. If anything, the Italian company deserves credit for following its brief so acutely. The problem is the brief itself, and the agenda behind it.

About an hour after the Spanish Grand Prix, Martin Whitmarsh reflected on the race that had just unfolded. He described how his drivers had been forced to “tippy-toe for the first three or four laps” of each stint. He wasn’t the only team principal to use such effete imagery. “For any racing drivers, particularly young chargers,” he added, “to go out there and almost cruise around Turn 3 at this circuit, which is meant to be one of the most exciting corners.., it isn’t much fun, is it?”

No, not really. Not for anyone.

In defence of F1, Pirelli’s motor sport chief Paul Hembery tells Ed Foster in this issue that “maybe everyone’s forgotten how boring F1 had become”. On the contrary, memories of the Schumacher era are all too real. Especially for those with the most to lose.

*

Speaking of which, CVC’s most eminent employee should be feeling the heat right now. It appears Bernie Ecclestone could indeed be facing bribery charges from the German courts, in the wake of the Gerhard Gribkowsky scandal that played out in 2012. The former banker was jailed for eight and a half years for accepting £28 million from Ecclestone, in what he claimed were bribes during the sale of F1 shares from Bayern LB to CVC in 2006. Ecclestone has always denied the bribery claims, saying the payments were made under coercion.

This is a serious business. Unlike the UK system, the German courts won’t hang around if these charges are confirmed and Ecclestone could be called for trial before the year is out. Such a scenario would make his position as the chief executive of F1 untenable in the eyes of many — including, perhaps, CVC itself. Especially if it has genuine ambitions to float its F1 business publicly any time soon.

In another world, Sir Alex Ferguson proved that life at Manchester United must go on without him. He stepped down in the right manner, on his own terms and with a clear succession plan in place. Will Ecclestone show such class? We might find out quite soon.

*

Some months ago, I asked a senior F1 engineer why Grand Prix racing had chosen yet another confined set of regulations for its new fuel efficiency rulebook in 2014. In contrast to the strictly defined 1.6-litre turbos and hybrid-assisted powertrains, sports car racing has chosen a refreshingly open approach: the only limitation is a set allocation of fuel, for which any size, shape or type of engine can be permitted. As usual diversity is encouraged, in stark comparison to the uniformity adopted by every modern single-seater category.

I was disappointed by the F1 engineers’ dismissive response to my question. “Too political,” he shot back. By that, he meant an open rulebook allowed too much scope for rules lobbying by those with power and influence. In such a scenario, a fair ‘Balance of Performance’ — the ethos that allows cars of different shapes, sizes and weights to be equalised — would always be in doubt. With such variables, there’s no room for a genuine, oldfashioned meritocracy here, either.

His response came back to me when I read Gary Watkins’ thorough assessment of the Audi vs Toyota duel as we look forward to the Le Mans 24 Hours. As Gary reports on page 120, Toyota is challenging the ‘BoP’ between its petrol V8 hybrid and Audi’s turbodiesel V6. In the wake of the Spa 6 Hours performances, technical director Pascal Vasselon has been direct in his assertions about the state of play. He also admits the FIA and ACO rulemakers have a tough task to ensure the parity both teams will demand.

Further on, Simon Taylor lunches with Toyota’s British ace Anthony Davidson, who eloquently explains why he thinks racing an LMP1 sports car is so much more satisfying than Fl today. These guys really race, with no quarter given for hour after hour, on tyres that do not fall to pieces after a handful of miles.

As our special 90-year celebration highlights, the Le Mans 24 Hours remains the greatest race in the world, and throughout every class this year we look forward to memorable battles. It would be a pity, therefore, if controversy between the two biggest players were to cloud the occasion in such a special year.

As for the need or otherwise for a late tweak to the `BoP’, all eyes will be trained on the traditional pre-race test day on June 9.

*

British motor sport was shocked to its core by the tragic death of Mini racer Christian Devereux at the Donington Historic Festival — largely because such occurrences are thankfully rare nowadays. That is of little consolation to Christian’s family and many friends, of course, to whom we send our deepest condolences.

Investigations will be thorough, lessons will be learned and the sport will respectfully go on. Up until the time of the accident, Donington’s third such festival had been deemed a great success. We hope the meeting has the bright future it deserves. If nothing else, it would serve as a fitting tribute to a true racer and genuine enthusiast.