Matters of moment, March 2017

“You have picked a fine time to join Motor Sport,’ quipped contributor Paul Fearnley, ‘a new era in every sense.’ It was hard not to chuckle. Within a couple of weeks of joining the world’s most prestigious motor racing title, Formula 1’s architect/overlord/dictator (delete where applicable), was in his own words ‘dismissed’. 

Typically, Bernie’s comments came in just as Motor Sport was closing for press (‘he never liked us,’ joked Deputy Editor Joe Dunn). As I write this, we’re holding some pages back in the hope that Ecclestone will speak to us before the printer screams down the phone, but as with everything Bernie there’s unpredictability to the situation that forces us to have an alternative plan. Enigmatic and frustrating in equal measure, can you imagine doing business with him? 

New owners Liberty Media will have been ruminating over how to do business without Bernie, at least in the short term, which perhaps explains why they offered him the role of F1 Chairman Emeritus. But perhaps Bernie, finally, will switch off completely from Formula One. After all, the date his state pension came into force was 28 October… 1995. 

But this is Bernie remember. Nearly 22 years after the majority men of his age had retired, Bernie is less likely to reach for his pipe and slippers and more likely to indulge in something else equally, mind-bogglingly challenging. Of the suggestions made on the Motor Sport website, some have commented that he should set up a rival motor racing series – and others that he should buy the Manor Formula One team. 

Either way, if the few quotes that have emerged since (via Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport) are anything to go by Ecclestone is not coveting a soft exit from the sport. Two key phrases (“forced out” and the aforementioned “dismissed”) suggest that the 86-year old is in combative mood.

We have scrambled the team to deliver an initial assessment on page 15, and of course you can join the lively debate on, but a fuller analysis will appear next month with an eye on Bernie Ecclestone’s next move.

For the story I keep imagining a scenario whereby he purchases Manor and uses some of the £300million gained from selling his five per cent shareholding in F1 to do a ‘Brabham.’ As many of you will be aware, Ecclestone bought the struggling Brabham team in 1971 for $120,000 – and sold it for $5 million in 1987 shortly after two F1 World Championship victories. Likewise I like to daydream a scenario whereby Bernie – as boss of Manor – is railing against the inequality of wealth distribution among the teams…

OK, so I’m stretching the point a little – but Bernie Ecclestone is nothing if not contrary and for a man who has struck seemingly impossible deals, you wouldn’t bet against him reappearing – if the appetite remains. And age? You sense that Bernie has met with age, discussed terms, then shown it the door…

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Back to the real world, and the glistening ice, chattering turbos and frankly diabolical liveries of the new World Rally Cars (Peter Stevens, if you’re reading, can you please do a ‘Parmalat’ on these cars). It was a thrill to experience the Rally Monte Carlo in mid-January – a must-see event that I can’t recommend highly enough. Fly to Marseille, rent a beaten-up hire car (ticking the full insurance option…) then a drive up to Gap to spend three days watching arguably the best drivers in the world wrestle the latest World Rally Cars on surfaces so slippery that even standing still is a hazard. 

This year was of particular importance as the World Rally Championship, like F1, debuts new, faster and more dramatic cars. The similarities can’t be underestimated, with event and TV audiences in decline, both series have looked at the machines themselves to bring additional drama to both disenfranchised and prospective fans. 

On paper, much like F1, it promises hitherto unseen levels of excitement and drama. But one of the routes to this is signposted ‘greater aerodynamic freedom’ – and this fills me with dread. Along with bigger turbos, and thus more power, the 2017 WRC cars deliver on the promise of extra performance via wildly cartoonish aerodynamic addenda. Look closely at the Yaris for instance and you will find that even the wing mirrors have been optimised for aero. At the rear, two boxes that look a lot like toasters hide a rack of upturned wings. 

Four-time World Rally Champion, and now boss of Toyota’s WRC team Tommi Mäkinen, told me that the Yaris’s aero-effect occurs almost immediately – or in other words from the lowest speeds. Why does this concern me? Because the skill of the driver is never more evident than when the tyres have exceeded the limit of grip. Increasing grip levels, and therefore speed, forces this moment – this display of skill – into an increasingly transient zone. Or in other words, blink and you’ll miss it. 

Of course, it’s a huge assumption that speed is directly proportional to drama – and for those like me who would rather see the cars dance over the road rather than sucked into it I waited with baited breath to witness these cars on the stages of the Monte.

The conclusion? Well, inconclusive. On slippery surfaces the cars neither looked faster nor ‘danced’ more than the previous iterations. However, on dry roads the speed did indeed take your breath away – if not the angles of attack. DMACK World Rally Team driver Elfyn Evans – who starred on many stages at the Monte – said it best when he was heard to gush on camera ‘when you get this car on tarmac, boy oh boy…’

Speaking of which, I recommend that you seek out the TV coverage – it was exceptional. You can tell that directors have looked closely at how to amplify the perception of speed using low shots, new in-car angles, and great footage from DJI drones. Improved TV coverage is crucial to WRC redux’s success; and on this evidence the producers have nailed it.

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It gives me great pleasure to welcome three new faces to Motor Sport this month – well four if you include mine. Richard Williams, one of the finest sports writers of his generation, and Dario Franchitti, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, discuss the woes at Ferrari’s and the intensity of Indy respectively. Elsewhere, Darren Cox – former Head of Nissan Motorsport and architect of the gamer-to-racer GT Academy – reports from Las Vegas and a $1million dollar virtual race supported by the most powerful man in motor racing. 

The world of motor sport is changing, and whether you embrace it or dismiss it, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.