Matters of moment, July 2015

Audience surveys have to be a good thing. I know, because we run them from time to time here at Motor Sport. It’s always helpful to know more about the people you are talking to. But how much influence should they have over the strategy of any given business? Should my approach to this job be directly dictated by the results of a poll? I don’t think so. In fact, I’d consider it a personal failing if I was genuinely surprised by the clear trends the answers might throw up. I shouldn’t need a survey to tell me what our readers want – and the same applies to Formula 1 and its fans.

In my experience, surveys tend to confirm what is already known about an audience, and I’d predict the same will be the case when the two entirely separate F1 fan questionnaires – one most commendably launched by the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association – report back with their findings.

Let’s face it, identifying how F1 is failing its fans right now is hardly difficult. Just glance the readers’ comments on our website each day. Or turn to page 150 in this magazine and see what Mark Webber thinks. The problems are blindingly obvious. Solving them – that’s the hard part, although we had a pretty good stab at it more than a year ago when Grand Prix editor Mark Hughes presented our ‘manifesto for a revolution’ (April 2014 issue).

Again, ideas are relatively easy, as the laughably named F1 Strategy Group highlighted so consummately during May. A shame almost everything they came up with smacked of reactionary, knee-jerk panic with little consideration for the consequences (see Mark’s column on p26) – but how else should we expect a bunch of self-interested multi-millionaires with unmatched collective experience of motor racing to run their sport…?

On the day they met, I happened to be at Goodwood House and took the opportunity to ask an impartial but informed observer – and genuine racing fan – for his thoughts on ‘the F1 problem’. Lord March understands what it takes to impart a vision successfully to a mass audience. He made a couple of helpful observations.

“The debate about whether you give the customers what they want or try to steer them in the direction they might want to go in is an interesting one,” he said. “I don’t believe in necessarily doing endless research and thinking ‘they all want it black, so I’ll do it black’. I think you need to do what you believe in, but then also be flexible.”

It would have been unfair of me to expect his definitive vision for the future of F1. But Lord March did offer an interesting parallel that gets to the nub of why Grand Prix racing is in its current plight. “Take horse racing, which I’m in a position to tell you about,” he said. “There are far too many stakeholders and there is no one saying this is how it’s going to be and how we want it. Horse racing in Britain is very pure, well organised and straight. In other countries it is less so. Betting is important globally, so therefore we need to get British horse racing around the world in a way that we haven’t managed to do, and actually in the manner Grand Prix racing has. Everyone is fighting their corner: the Horseman’s Group, the Jockey Club, the British Horseracing Authority, the bookmakers who are very powerful… So it gets completely diluted.”

Sound familiar? Instead of trying to ‘fix’ F1, the Strategy Group would have served motor racing better at Biggin Hill by indulging in a moment of introspection: to consider how they as stakeholders – the top teams, FOM, the FIA, plus the promotional rights holder and the engine manufacturers – have a management structure that can never govern without the conflict of self-interest. Before jumping into the merits of refuelling, more downforce and so on, they might have considered how they should devolve this failed governance and consider why F1 keeps tying itself in knots, year after year.

Before anything else should be considered, including the results of well-intentioned fan surveys, F1 must face up to its real crisis: its lack of true leadership.

Bernie Ecclestone? Once upon a time – 40, 30, even 20 years ago – he was the guiding light behind a brilliantly cohesive vision of how he thought F1 should be. But now he’s an increasingly irrelevant liability. The FIA? Infamously, it absolved itself of responsibility under Max Mosley, and current president Jean Todt shows no appetite to claim it back. So who will? And how? With no clear answer to that question, and more alarmingly no collective recognition that it’s a headache screaming for a remedy, Grand Prix racing will continue to lurch, without a clearly defined strategy, from one daft rules edict to the next.

Luckily, when you think about it, it’s only motor racing.

The appetite for motor sport movies and cinematic documentaries is apparently insatiable. In the wake of intriguing news that Robert De Niro is preparing to play Enzo Ferrari in a biopic, two factual films have broken cover in the past month. One I have seen, the other I’m looking forward to.

Lauda: The Untold Story is a new Austrian documentary, which promises much with such a title. Niki Lauda’s tale was hardly obscure before Ron Howard’s sensational – and deeply flawed – Rush, so can this film deliver on that promise?

In truth, to most readers of this magazine, revelations will hardly come thick and fast. But with Lauda’s full blessing and involvement through new interviews, it can at least claim to be definitive. Inevitably, the story begins and pivots around the Nürburgring accident that would change his life. The archive footage of Guy Edwards, Harald Ertl, Art Merzario, Brett Lunger, John Watson and others tending to Niki at the side of the track can never be anything other than deeply unsettling, but Heinz Prüller’s live TV phone interview with Lauda’s mother, as her son fights for his life in hospital, is even more so.

But there are lighter moments, too.

A pre-shunt career monologue from Lauda, in a suitably alpine setting while stroking a cow and chopping wood, is charming, while his guide to a naked 1977 Ferrari 312T2, while sitting in its snug tub, is the sort of TV feature Sky and BBC producers would kill for today.

An awful Americanised voiceover, a constant ‘muzakal’ backwash and an irrelevant second half, involving promo films featuring Nico Rosberg, remove some of the shine. But it’s worth seeing for the excellent period film, if nothing else. Catch it in cinemas for one night only across the UK on July 2, or on DVD from July 6.

The other documentary due for a cinema release is Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans, which promises the unseen back story to the most celebrated racing movie of them all. The cult of

Le Mans has been a little over-exposed in the past few years, but you only have to revisit the incredible action footage of Ferrari 512s and Porsche 917s to understand why. Now this film, which is the brainchild of former Motor Sport writer Andrew Marriott, offers fresh insight into its troubled birth. Following its debut in Cannes, the documentary is due for release in November. Before then, Andrew has promised to tell us more about the project, so watch this space.

Damon Hill and Derek Bell will be star guests when John Surtees hosts his annual charity karting day at Brooklands on June 30. Hill will demonstrate the Lotus 32B with which Jim Clark won the Tasman Series 50 years ago, while former Team Surtees driver Bell will take a run in the TS7 he drove to sixth place in the 1970 US GP.

The Henry Surtees Foundation, created in honour of his late son, remains the prime driving force in John’s life and the British motor racing community always rallies to support the day. As usual, we’ll be there (getting in the way of proper racing drivers).

Care to join us? If so, email info@henrysurteesfoundation for more details of how to enter a team.