The Archives - Doug Nye

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Other sports may obsess over the ‘spirit of the game’ but motor sport has always been a more ruthless affair

Maybe it’s an age thing. I’m not sure I have much time any more for professional sportsmen – world-class racing drivers included. Essentially, two great internationally recognised competitiveactivities have shaped my life. They are motor racing, and cricket. As a child of the 1940s and ’50s I grew up entranced by British national advance in the first of those disciplines, while enduring pretty much the bumpy ride of the England team’s inconsistency in the other. In particular, I detested my team getting regularly smashed in the Ashes competition – and on one level ever since I have always regarded Australia as my country’s natural enemy…

When I came to work with Jack Brabham on his autobiography, we laughed a lot about that. ‘Cheerfully adversarial’ describes that part of our relationship, and this extended more widely into the 13 consecutive Classic Adelaide Rallies with which I became involved in South Australia. Mutual needling over all manner of sports, most particularly cricket and rugby union, certainly reached new heights on each annual trip there. As good natured banter – which it really was – it was fun.

Aussies, one has to understand, hold sport in general in almost religious esteem, absolutely not as an enjoyable mere diversion. ‘Black Jack’ himself was just a typical Australian lifelong competitor. He knew no other way. Rather like playing table tennis with Jimmy Clark, it wouldstart out as a bit of fun, but play a decent early shot against him and suddenly the ball would come back like a tracer bullet… and one just had to realise that what had begun as a boys’ club charity ‘bit of fun’ spelled really serious competition for the other fellow, and even mild-mannered, gentlemanly Jimmy was suddenly willing to kill – becausethis was ‘sport’ and the irresistible urge to compete was in his genes.

Jack’s competitiveness, meanwhile, extended to phoning me from his Queensland home one day after our book had just been published. The conversation went like this: “Doug? It’s Jeck” (he always pronounced his name that way). “I just want you to know I’ve been told that our book has just hit the top spot in the Sydney best-sellers’ list. It’s replaced one by some monkey named Waugh…”.

So, we’d outsold Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh’s autobiography, and that to Jack was the really tangible triumph – for him as three-times Formula 1 World Champion Driver – over the high priest of an Australian religion, the national cricket team. Waugh of course was the man who came across as the chippy, embittered advocate of the sledging mania – of inflicting “mental disintegration” upon his opponents, which came to characterise their national cricket team. All of which, of course, presaged the horrible professional-sportsman ethical melt-down which resulted in the ‘sandpapergate’ ball tampering scandal of late March/early-April.

In stark contrast, at an early Classic Adelaide we were sitting in our car queuing for a stage-start when approached by an extremely earnest Aussie TV sports reporter and crew, wanting to interview my driver. The through-the-window interview began “Now Paul Vestey – you have brought this wonderful Ferrari all the way from England. Tell us, how do you prepare for the Classic Adelaide Rally?”.

Maybe he didn’t quite realise we were in a non-competitive demo class, but all around us were local crews feverishly double-checking their pace notes pre-start, and even – as I recall – hand-grooving a fresh set of tyres at the very last moment to secure some kind of hoped-for tiny advantage.

Anyway, my man PV blinked at him, and drawled “Oh well I suppose I take a Nurofen and lie down in a darkened room for half an hour…”.

Nope – Aussies really don’t ‘do’ such a Corinthian approach and the TV reporter just glazed over with a ‘does not compute’ look and retired from our presence, plainly confused.

Now one spin-off effect of ‘sandpapergate’ has been wide public debate over ‘the spirit of the game’, sportsmanship and the ethic of what written rules do and do not truly specify. Another area in which ‘the spirit of the rules’ has been much discussed is in the annual series of UCI World Tour bicycle road races, and the hullaballoo surrounding Team Sky and its two British knights, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Sir Dave Brailsford. They have been vilified in some quarters for stretching the rules to take medical advantage where potentially performance-enhancing allowable medication was concerned.

Brailsford famously revolutionised British Olympic cycling and then built Team Sky with his philosophy of accumulating ‘marginal gains’, stemming from “…the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by one per cent,you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”.

When this breakdown of “everything that goes into riding a bike” extended to an exploration of what the precise wording of the rule book could be interpreted to mean – as distinct from what the regulation writers might really have intended to reflect ‘the spirit’ of the sport – Brailsford and his people really began taking a leaf out of a motor racing approach – perhaps more specifically a forensic Formula 1 approach – to International regulation.

This has since got Brailsford, Team Sky and the now retired ‘Wiggo’ Wiggins into really hot water with sports lawyers, politicians and the world’s mainstream sporting media for transgressing that indefinable boundary espoused by many as ‘the spirit of the regulations. One of the fiercest charges levelled at Australia’s ‘sandpapergate’ test cricketers has been that their unforgivable actions shattered not only the letter of the laws, but also – worse – ‘the spirit of the game’.

Now for as long as I can recall, the motor racing approach to regulations has been diametrically different. In essence hyper-competitive racers – which means drivers, engineers, team chiefs, everybody – have never ever had to consider a motor racing ‘spirit of the game’…

What unspecified, ethereal, ethical, moral ‘spirit of the game’ is there within motor racing to protect, to uphold? After all, serious motor sport was really conceived in the mid-1890s as a threefold competition, firstly for manufacturers to win on Sunday, sell on Monday; secondly for nation states to promote industrial prestige upon a global stage; and thirdly for Jean-Pierre, the Honourable Sir Hilary Jessop-Flywheel and Count Sergio Manovella to strut their stuff as a personal demonstration of posing, prancing machismo, competitiveness and maybe some level of driving talent. 

The regulations were there only as a necessary framework to delineate the new sport. But in motor racing there has never been, so far as I can recall, any perceived ‘spirit of the game’, apart from drivers not intentionally killing one another. Where the rule makers of ball games have developed their regulations always against an assumed background of essentially sportsmanlike decency, motor racing regulations have been far more a reactive process of realising just what the manufacturers and teams and designers were getting up to, and then trying to plug the dam to stop them darned well doing it. No, within the motor racing world, from around 1900 forward it has been an ongoing process of poachers versus gamekeepers, and in essence little had ever changed until teams and engineers had more input.

Sadly, the march of time – and the inevitable expansion of the rule book – has closed off so many potential avenues of diversification that plainly we have now arrived at an engineer-led set of hyper-detailed regulations which are impenetrable to Joe Public, and which have generated a form of Formula 1 racing which has minimised much pretension towards fostering a sporting entertainment… 

The sight of Vettel’s Ferrari towing its invisible aerodynamic road block behind it around Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit, negating all efforts by Hamilton to challenge in his Mercedes, demonstrated what a problem Formula 1’s owners presently have. Engineer-led regulation – fostered by a forensically-questioning attitude to the letter of the written rules, untrammelled by any ‘spirit of the game’, has simply chased ‘our sport’ up a narrowing cul de sac.

Which brings me back to my original bleat about not having much time any more for professional sportsmen. Indeed, I look at the England rugby union team’s disastrous performance in this year’s Six Nations Championship, and at my beloved England cricket team’s 58 runs all-out against New Zealand, and at the Australians’ gruesome self-inflicted injury in South Africa – as the culmination of years of increasingly ugly brutishness on field – and can only conclude that for many amongst this current generation of professional sportsmen the biggest muscle is plainly the one between their ears. We really don’t need Formula 1 to continue uncomprehendingly to follow that lead… but how on earth to reverse its course short of major revolution is really difficult to perceive. It’s surely overdue.

Doug Nye is the UK’s most eminent motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s

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