Honda’s startling new F1 livery underlines how manufacturers need to combine their grand prix commitments with sensitive PR. But does a responsible attitude dilute the sport’s essence?
Final qualifying for the 1983 British Grand Prix, Silverstone: the days of sticky qualifiers and high-boost, sacrificial turbo engines. There were five fast, pole-contending cars and four of them had used up both sets of qualifiers. Patrick Tambay’s Ferrari was provisionally fastest. In the dying moments, who was left still to run their second set? As we stood on the banking at Copse and ran through each of the Renault, Brabham and Ferrari drivers, we arrived at the answer – “Arnoux!” – at the very moment René’s Ferrari trickled down the pitlane, turbo V6 burbling away, fresh stickers on the rubber still visible. He gunned out of the pits and over the horizon. Next time we saw him he was bursting into sight at the start of the pit straight, a growing red bullet chased by a heat haze. Copse was a serious brake from 190mph back then, but he seemed not to know. He teetered through, the car’s body language edgy and menacing, Arnoux’s corrections brutal and reactive. As he hit the gas on the exit, the exhaust smoke was extra black – a sure sign of sky-high turbo boost. You could see it still as he left our sight over the blue horizon on the way to Maggotts/Becketts. We could only imagine how it looked on the remainder of this insane lap, our mental images given extra colour by the commentators’ excited babble as Arnoux pressed on in his ragged magnificence. He crossed the line to snatch pole – his 18th in F1, and the last as it turned out.
Many years later I got to ask Arnoux what those turbo cars were like to qualify, with massively more grip than you’d been used to up to that point, half as much power again and only an out lap in which to get acquainted with it all. “It was crazy,” he said. “Fantastic in a crazy way. I remember there was a button on the steering wheel that gave you even more boost, but you could only use it for maybe a second at a time otherwise the engine would detonate. On the qualifying lap you didn’t have time to think, you were just being thrown around, crashing over kerbs, taking as much speed as you dared into the corners and somewhere in my mind I would be trying to hit this button on the steering as often as possible
in-between all the crazy blur. When it was all over you couldn’t really remember much about it.”
Therein lies much of the sport’s raw majesty. Man fighting the machine, not so much exploiting it as taming it, throw-away engines as sacrifices at the altar of all-out performance, crazily illogical, madly dangerous.
Contrast that to the politically correct, environmentally
on-message launch of Honda’s new F1 car, its earth-in-space livery intended to emphasise the planet’s frailty and to encourage us all to do our part to look after it. It’s a bloody brave thing to plaster on a racing car, an object that glamorises with high-profile profligacy the very thing responsible for a significant chunk of the gases that have led to the environmental crisis.
The reality of how much F1 directly contributes to emissions, even taking into account air travel, is tiny. But it’s a sport just aching to be attacked on environmental grounds. Honda’s apparently anomalous message seems only to invite the green searchlight to be pointed towards the sport.
At the moment the sport can throw back some very strong arguments when the inevitable attacks do arrive. For one, the FIA has quietly been buying forestation credits for the last 10 years. When this is offset against F1, the maths says the sport is actually carbon neutral. For another, the chase for engine efficiency – used in F1 to create more power – brings gains that can be used to improve economy when applied to road cars. For yet another, the technology gains that F1’s intense competitive drive will bring to energy recovery devices when they are introduced in 2009 will, when applied to road cars, result in a much faster reduction of greenhouse gases from each car than would otherwise have been the case. By 2011, the likely introduction of a fuel-flow
formula in place of an engine capacity limit, and the introduction of technology that harnesses exhaust heat for power production, will undoubtedly enable F1 to discover gains that will reduce road-car emissions.
If F1 could also rid itself of wings and downforce generation, then the resultant concentration on drag reduction would also be relevant to the methods used in lowering transport emissions. And the racing might be better, too.
But this is far removed from the stirring endeavours of Arnoux at Copse in 1983, Jackie Stewart at the Nürburgring in 1968, Gilles Villeneuve at Watkins Glen 1979 or even Fernando Alonso at Suzuka in 2005. In moving with the outside world, the sport risks losing its essence.
F1 has to do it, so long as it is populated with car manufacturers – yet another penalty grand prix racing pays for its reliance on them. Their problems have become the sport’s. Climate change and its potentially catastrophic effects are everyone’s concern, of course. But just as horse racing flourished as a sport long after the horse ceased to be a means of transport, so motor racing might in theory outlive the petrol-fired road car.
No matter what liveries are stuck on the cars, the day will come when F1 participation will become a huge PR liability for manufacturers. Then maybe the sport can go back to being a specialist endeavour that has no pretence to road-car relevance. Then its tiny consumption and emissions might be seen in their true perspective – and the essence of the sport might just survive.