Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

CVC. The initials stand for Citicorp Venture Capital, and CVC Capital Partners – founded in 1981 – was originally its European arm. Through the last 10 years, I have in idle moments considered alternative interpretations of CVC, and if my preferred option cannot be reproduced here, I can say at least that the ‘V’ stands for ‘Verily’…

Over the Monza weekend the paddock was abuzz with conversation about the imminent takeover of Formula 1 by Liberty Media, and while I will always baulk at the idea – once unthinkable – of a sport being ‘owned’ by anyone, there appears to be good reason for at least cautious optimism at this development. It will of course take time for the company to get its feet under the table, for its aims to become clear, but so far I like what I hear. Whatever else, Liberty Media comes into our sport with one surpassing thing going for it: it is not CVC Capital Partners.

It was a decade ago, in March 2006, that CVC announced its acquisition of a majority shareholding in Formula 1, and there was every reason to shudder at the news. In its blurb, the company describes itself as ‘One of the world’s leading private equity and investment advisory firms’ – and the advice they tacitly give, of course, is ‘Invest in us, and we’ll make you stinking rich.’ At this they are undoubtedly adept.

I have, I know, written many times about CVC, about my fears that one day a company such as this would be attracted by the gravy train that Formula 1 increasingly became over time. At one point, though, it would have been impossible for them to become directly involved, because the sport’s commercial rights were the property of the FIA, and not – apparently – up for grabs.

That all changed in 2001 when FIA president Max Mosley negotiated a deal whereby the governing body would sell the F1 commercial rights to his friend Bernie Ecclestone for what seemed like a very reasonable £206m – particularly as the agreement was for an unheard of 100 years.

At that time Ken Tyrrell was nearing the end of his life, and one day that summer I called him, essentially, I suppose, to say good-bye. When first he came on the ’phone Ken sounded frail, but mention of the deal between Ecclestone and the FIA soon had him firing on all cylinders, and typically he made no attempt to conceal his outrage.

“You wait,” he said, “Bernie’ll move the rights on to a bunch of bloody asset-strippers…”

How, in today’s world of political correctness – where a difficult problem is ‘a challenging issue’ – one misses the straightforward bluntness of a man like Tyrrell. And he was right, of course: moving the rights on – for rather more than he had paid for them – to a bunch of bloody asset-strippers was precisely what Bernie eventually did.

On the surface, though, nothing really changed, for the gentlemen of CVC didn’t come up on the down train, and were smart enough to appreciate they knew damn all about Formula 1. It made absolute sense to continue with Ecclestone in his role as deal-maker sans pareil: in the F1 section of CVC’s portfolio, Bernie has always been listed as CEO.

Beneath the surface, though, all was not quite as it had been, in the sense that – perhaps for the first time in his life – Ecclestone now was an employee, working for someone else, and he quietly allowed that on occasion this did not sit well with him. While many in the paddock regretted – from their own point of view – that he no longer had quite the control of times past, they found it difficult to have much sympathy for him per se: bringing CVC into the equation had, after all, been his doing, and had made him even more immeasurably rich.

What was to many of us bizarre about CVC’s ownership of F1 was its almost complete anonymity in the paddock. When you thought about it, though, you concluded that perhaps it was no more than inevitable. These people, after all, hardly bought into F1 to make it better: year after year they focused on what they were good at – siphoning money – and that was the extent of their interest.

If the shadowy outfit had a front man, it was co-chairman Donald Mackenzie, who made very occasional visits to Grands Prix, and maintained the lowest of profiles: if ever you have read an interview with this man, you have the advantage of me. Once in a while he would be seen strolling round the paddock, causing some team principals – particularly from the smaller, poorer, teams – to snarl under their breath, but usually he was sensible enough to do it in company with Mr E.

In all that time I encountered him only twice – and then, it must be said, briefly. Soon after CVC became involved, I was talking to Bernie in a paddock somewhere when this person materialised, ignoring me completely – well, who was I? – as he made clear his immediate need to speak of more important matters. “This is Donald,” Bernie muttered, and there was a brief handshake before they went off to his motorhome.

The second occasion was not dissimilar, save that this time I was in Austin, chatting to Jackie Stewart and Dario Franchitti. The topic of conversation happened to be Jim Clark, JYS’s friend and Dario’s hero – and perhaps Mackenzie’s antennae had twitched, for he arrived in our presence like a man jumping on a moving bus, already talking about Clark, and keen to celebrate his recent acquisition of one of Jimmy’s Lotuses – which, I would guess, is worth rather more now than it was then. Given that Mackenzie never so much as glanced in my direction,
I judged my presence to be superfluous, and left Jackie and Dario to it.

Looking back, what angered me in part about the sale of the commercial rights by the FIA to Ecclestone was that Mosley, in telling us of the agreement, insisted that the bargain basement price was actually ‘a very good deal’ for the FIA. Something Max never did understand is that people – even journalists – do not care to be patronised, to have their intelligence insulted.

If his remark caused a good deal of rueful mirth among us, even worse was that – anticipating questions about Bernie selling the rights on – he said he’d thought of that, and to that end had inserted in the agreement what he called ‘the Don King clause’, a reference to the notorious boxing promoter who kept a steel grip on the sport. This, he said, gave the FIA the right to veto the sale of the commercial rights to any party that might not have the best interests of F1 at heart. 

More mirth – which came back to mind when Ecclestone flogged the rights to CVC. If ‘the Don King clause’ were not to be invoked at the sale to a private equity company, just what would it take to bring it into play? From the outset, it was clear that these people emphatically did not ‘have the best interests of F1 at heart’. I’ve grown sick and tired of being earnestly told by some that I’ve got it all wrong, that Donald Mackenzie has really, really, really, come to love F1. If such be the case, why has he allowed his company to bleed it dry?

Back in 2012, Force India team principal Bob Fernley – whom I suspect would have got along famously with Ken Tyrrell – spelled out the situation rather more courageously than any of his colleagues. “CVC,” he said, “are the worst thing that ever happened to F1. They’ve done nothing for it, and now they’re packaging it up to try and unload it to some unsuspecting investors.”

I felt like applauding when Fernley spoke out, and told him so: a massive amount of money that should have been in motor racing had instead slipped into the pockets of CVC investors, and if that doesn’t make you feel sick, it should.

As ever, CVC stayed under the radar, declining any official comment, but Mackenzie soothingly suggested that the Force India man had got it all wrong. “I appreciate,” he said, “that Bob and the middle-sized and smaller teams have a tough job, as they always have. But the fact is that the teams need to solve the problem themselves. It’s not about how much money we give them – it’s about how much they spend. As far as we are concerned, the most important message is that we do not take money out of the sport. We are not the bad guys. We care about the sport. The teams get 65 per cent of the profits, and we get 35 per cent...”

Perhaps – like one or two others – I am missing something here. The 11 teams, who 21 times a year put on a show that commands astronomical fees from race promoters the world over, receive two-thirds of the profits, while the sport’s owners get half of that for contributing…zilch – have I got that right? How dare Mackenzie say that, “It’s not about how much we give them – it’s about how much they spend…” Was he for example suggesting that, when shelling out – as most of them must do – for the inordinately expensive hybrid engines of today, they had a choice in the matter? 

It’s the same twisted logic as is applied to the exorbitant fees charged to circuit owners. Apart from Monaco – which absurdly pays nothing at all – Monza has long been the cheapest race on the calendar, paying just $7m a year. After endless months of negotiation, during which time we looked set to lose the most fabled venue in the world championship, a new three-year deal was announced at this year’s race: $22m for 2017 and ’18, $24m for ’19.

Like other European circuits, Monza can make no claim on government money, so freely available in many of the more despotic lands visited by Formula 1, so it has been a matter of pulling in cash here and there from a number of different sources. As long as it comes from somewhere, CVC has never given a toss about where grands prix are run.

Whenever circuits – from Magny-Cours to Monza to Hockenheim – have spoken of their need to make ends meet, to point out that F1 crowds are not what they were, that ‘gate money’ is all they have in this day and age, the response has been that it’s their problem, that they must be charging too much for tickets, or whatever. Pay up – or sayonara. This policy has held very strong appeal for CVC.

Silverstone had a capacity crowd this year, and for the first time in a long time apparently made a small profit from the British Grand Prix – which is presumably why dark clouds are again beginning to circle over the race’s future. Well, it’s Silverstone’s turn, isn’t it? Happens every few years, as we know – and somewhere in the world there’s always an untapped dictator with an open wallet, looking for a bit of international respectability.

I have no sort of financial brain – the newspaper business pages might as well be in Esperanto – but I am capable of understanding that CVC, having purchased its stake in F1 in a leveraged buyout funded by two loans (the larger of which came from RBS) totalling a little more than $2bn, has now sold a controlling interest to Liberty Media for $4.4bn, so once you’ve added in the profits taken from each of the last 10 seasons, that tots up to a nifty little return on its outlay. For now the company unfortunately remains a shareholder in the business, but at least it will no longer have any voting rights.

As CVC sets off in search of fresh plunder, Liberty Media arrives in its stead, and the very fact that it is a media company lends hope to those of us who have worried about the sport these 10 years past. The company’s Chase Carey, who made his first appearance in Singapore, will be the chairman of F1, and if it is a world completely new to him he has spoken with enthusiasm of the task before him, of Liberty Media’s goals.

If there has been one aspect of the modern world consistently ignored by F1 it is marketing. At one time you could argue that it had no real need of it: as it was, the business was booming, with major sponsors, huge crowds, impressive TV figures, and so on, but in recent years all three have declined, and an occasional spot of marketing could have worked to advantage. For all my personal disinterest in social media, I can readily understand its potential for addressing a problem that has long assailed motor sport the world over: attracting new, young, fans.

The impression given by Liberty Media is that, unlike CVC, it intends to take a strategic approach to its new acquisition, to look upon its stewardship of F1 in the long term. Of course, like any major company, it has its shareholders to consider, but beyond that its focus looks set to be very much on the fans: rather than look upon F1 simply as a cash cow, as CVC has done, Liberty suggests it is in this for the long haul, intent on realising its full potential.

Encouragingly Carey has spoken both of the sport’s need to maintain its European core, and to reduce the cost of admission to the races. Ticket prices have risen steeply in recent years because, as I said earlier, ‘the gate’ is now the sole income available to circuit owners, and the only way to bring prices down is to be rather less rapacious when negotiating race fees in the future. Liberty Media clearly envisages alternative ‘income streams’ for the sport.

Being an American company, Liberty also wishes to see F1 grow in its last untapped territory, and that much pleases me. Anyone with memories of Long Beach in the spring and Watkins Glen in the autumn will recall their huge crowds, but once those races were foolishly lost F1 receded in the American consciousness, and for too many years there was no US Grand Prix on the calendar. In Liberty’s quest to relaunch it that side of the water, the continent should surely have at least two races each season, and the presence of at least one American driver – the name of Josef Newgarden springs immediately to mind – will be vital.

Liberty Media has also indicated its willingness to allow the teams to become stakeholders in the business, and this has been welcomed by such as Mercedes, Red Bull and Renault. Recalling the eventual demise of CART, and the main reasons for it – self-interest and greed – I’ll confess to feeling equivocal about such a scheme, but for the moment let’s leave that to one side and simply celebrate that Liberty has arrived on the scene, that CVC no longer owns our sport.

***

Being a Mancunian, my local circuit in childhood was Oulton Park, which I thought – and still think – emphatically the best in the land. I was fortunate in having parents who adored racing, who took me also to Aintree, Silverstone and Goodwood, but it was always Oulton I anticipated with the greatest pleasure.

Last month I devoted the column to Chris Amon, who died at the beginning of August and has lately been much in my thoughts. The image of his Ferrari, elegantly sideways through Old Hall during the 1968 Gold Cup, has rightly become iconic, and how lucky I was that
I happened to watch the race from there, so saw his artistry for myself. Those around me, I remember, readied themselves for Amon’s arrival, lap by lap, and whooped with delight every time.

Seven years later I found myself at Oulton on a Wednesday morning in June. The day was fine and bright, and as we arrived the paddock was deserted, save for one small transporter. In the distance, though, was the cultured scream of a 12-cylinder engine, which is why we were here.

In January of that year, 1975, I had gone as usual to the Racing Car Show, and spent much of my day drooling over the most exquisite sports racing car ever built, Ferrari’s 330P4. This particular example was then in the hands of an English owner, to whom I got talking. The P4, I said, was one of Amon’s favourite cars (having taken him and Lorenzo Bandini to victory at both Daytona and Monza in 1967), and I was sure he would relish an opportunity to drive it again.

At this the car’s owner became highly animated, thrilled at the thought of seeing Amon in his car: if I could get Chris to agree, he would set up a private day at a circuit somewhere – Silverstone perhaps, or maybe Brands? No, I said, it should be Oulton, among his favourite circuits in the world.

Predictably Amon loved the idea, and so it was that I drove up to Cheshire with him and my friend Maurice Hamilton. The P4, as I said, happened to be out on the circuit when we got there, its owner at the wheel, and although he was not pushing too hard, still the sound made you shiver.

Chris climbed aboard. “Jeez,” he said, “it looks better even than it did at the time – no oil anywhere…” The mechanic fired it up, and away he went, in no time revving it as it was meant to be revved, and bringing back memories of Le Mans and Brands Hatch in ’67, where I saw the P4 race.

Later Maurice, Peter Windsor and I were privileged to accompany Amon for a few laps each, and it won’t surprise you that it stands way high on my list of memorable experiences. On the way up we had talked of the famous ‘Old Hall photo’, and so every time around – just because he could – Chris drifted the Ferrari into the corner, steering it on the throttle, then glancing across enquiringly at the exit: ‘Was that all right?’

It was, and I’ve never forgotten it. Before setting off for home, we all took a last, lingering, look at the P4. “Wonderful,” murmured Amon. “Like being back with an old girlfriend for a few hours…”

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that, although friends implore me to go, I have never since been back to Oulton. I suppose in part it’s because my memories of it are from another time, and maybe I prefer to keep them intact, only too aware of the changes inevitably wrought down the years. 

Whenever I went there as a spectator, we would watch either at Old Hall or Lodge or – my favourite – Knickerbrook. Trust me, it was worth going a long way to see a gaggle of F1 cars thundering over the brow from Hill Top down to the right-hander leading to Clay Hill.

Many years ago, though, time and circumstance led to the insertion on this stretch of not one chicane, but two, as I was bleakly reminded when watching a British Superbike round on TV recently. Since I was last at Oulton, too, the Avenue – between Old Hall and Cascades – has been denuded of the trees that added so much to the character of the place, the impression that – as at Monza – one really was watching motor racing in a park.

On balance, I think I’ll stick with my distant memories of Oulton, but at Monza – for the moment, anyway – they still play host to F1, so of course I’m there every year, and if I were confined to a single race each season, assuredly it would be this one: for ambience Monza was always unsurpassed, and it remains so.

That said, had I not been there since the mid-Seventies, I would be indeed chary of going back now, for if its overwhelming potency abides, still Monza, too, has greatly changed, and my problem – as with Oulton – is that I was spoiled by seeing the place in its glory days. Of my 46 Italian Grands Prix there, the first couple were in 1970 and ’71, immediately before chicane blight started to take hold.

At the first of these, a weekend marred by the death in qualifying of world champion elect Jochen Rindt, Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari pulled away from Jackie Stewart’s March in the late laps, to win by five seconds, but right on JYS’s tail as he went over the line were Beltoise, Hulme and Stommelen, the four of them covered by less than a second.

That was how Monza was back then, a flat-out slipstreamer of a circuit, as close in feel to an Indycar oval race as ever F1 has seen. “You had the Curva Grande and particularly the Lesmos, which were testing corners,” said Stewart, “but for most of the lap you were flat out.”

If Monza were a temple of raw speed, and perhaps not the greatest test of a driver, still it was well worthy of a place in the world championship as a maverick event, like Monte Carlo. In 1971 it laid on the closest grand prix I have ever seen.

Amon’s trimmed-out Matra, running with a rear wing about the size of a tea tray, was on pole, with Ickx’s Ferrari alongside, followed by the BRMs of Siffert and Ganley, Cevert’s Tyrrell and Peterson’s March. Stewart and Regazzoni were back on row four – but this was no impediment to Gianclaudio, who led the pack away by virtue of letting in the clutch rather earlier than anyone else.

These things were then monitored rather less closely than now, and anyway back in the day it would have been unthinkable to penalise a Ferrari at Monza: at the end of the first lap, to the rapture of the tifosi, Regazzoni had a sizeable lead.

There was to be no repeat of 1970, however.

Both Ferraris were out before half-distance, as was Stewart, and as the race went into its latter stages most of the leading was done by Peterson or Cevert – until lap 37, when Amon’s Matra shrieked by in front for the first time in the afternoon.

“I got a pretty poor start,” he said, “and the temperatures started to go up a bit, so I just sat back, and waited until I’d got rid of a bit of fuel. Once I’d done that, I had no trouble in getting up to the front…”

Was this to be the day Chris finally won a Grand Prix? No, sir. After leading comfortably for nine laps, the Matra was suddenly back in sixth, its driver shielding his eyes with one hand, having lost his visor. “Actually it wouldn’t have made a lot of difference, because then I started to get fuel starvation, as well. A bit disappointing, all in all...”

As Amon was removed from contention, others were making their presence felt, notably Mike Hailwood, who had not been near a F1 car for six years, and was making a return with Surtees. On lap 25, indeed, Mike – who qualified 17th – had come by in the lead! “I didn’t know what this slipstreaming lark was all about,” he grinned afterwards. “I’d never done it before…”

Because the outcome of the Italian Grand Prix was in those days frequently settled in the sprint to the line on the last lap – one thinks of Surtees and Brabham in ’67, Stewart, Rindt, Beltoise and McLaren in ’69 – it was all a matter of being in the right place at Parabolica, of getting through it well, then slingshotting by the rest just before the flag. Cevert and Peterson arrived at the last corner together, but both braked too late and got out of shape, whereupon Peter Gethin – fourth at the start of the last lap – took his BRM V12 a thousand revs over its limit before snatching top gear, and got to the line a couple of feet ahead of Peterson, with Cevert, Hailwood and Ganley next up. Howden, fifth for BRM, was but six-tenths behind his team-mate, whose average speed – 150.754mph – would stand as an F1 record for 32 years.

I was in the pits, by the finish line, when the swarm came past, and way too caught up in the moment to think of taking a photograph. The race, which lasted just 78 minutes, had indeed felt like watching at Indy, and you could understand why American race fans are so besotted with statistics to do with the number of lead changes, and so on.

In contemporary F1 such things are never mentioned, perhaps because lead changes are not something to be taken for granted, but it was not always so. That day at Monza 45 years ago, the lead changed 25 times among eight drivers.

Forty-four years ago, though, it wasn’t like that at all, for by now Monza had been defaced by chicanes, which utterly changed its character, serving to break up the pack, and reduce the lap speed by 20mph. This time Hailwood improved his position, finishing second to Fittipaldi’s Lotus, but he found the afternoon relatively dull: “They’ve ruined the place with these poxy chicanes…”

Even 40-odd years ago Hailwood, a close friend and sometime flat-mate of Amon, was – like Chris – ‘old school’, out of step with convention, but perhaps they were not the only racing people who abhorred chicanes. Of course they reduce speeds, as they were intended to do, but equally certain is that in themselves they have always been the cause of accidents. When I ventured this thought to Bernie Ecclestone at Monza a few years ago, I was not surprised by his response: “The bloody chicanes shouldn’t be there in the first place – if they took them away, we’d have far fewer shunts, but I’m not the FIA…”

The sad consequence for Monza is that, since their insertion, there have been remarkably few diverting Italian Grands Prix. The magic of the place abides, of course, and I trust it always will, not least in my beloved Hotel de la Ville, but Sunday afternoon is invariably a drone, amplified further in these days of muted engines.

In this year’s race – essentially decided in the first five seconds, when Rosberg made a good start, and Hamilton didn’t – they came by in a bunch on the first lap, but quickly that was broken up. There would be a minute or so of virtual silence while they were away tackling the Lesmos, Parabolica and so on, and then a car – Nico’s Mercedes – would quietly waft by on its own, followed, increasingly distantly, by the Ferraris of Vettel and Räikkönen. Nowhere, I thought, is the scream of V10s – let alone ‘12s’ – missed so acutely as at Monza.

***

If there is nothing new about periods of domination in F1 by one team, I think most would agree that this one by Mercedes – as with Ferrari a dozen or so years ago – is going on a bit. As I write, since the beginning of the hybrid engine era in 2014, 53 Grands Prix have been run, and Mercedes has trousered 46 of them, with four going to Red Bull, three to Ferrari.

In 2014 Hamilton beat Rosberg 11-5, and last season it was 10-6; each time Lewis won the world championship, and that was as it should be, for one always likes to see the driver with the most victories take the title. This year, though, Nico is 8-6 up, and with six races to go leads the championship by eight points.

So far you could say it has been something of a pendulum season, with Rosberg taking the first four races, and building a huge points lead, which then withered as Hamilton started winning again, as was no more than inevitable.

I’ll confess, though, that I have been somewhat surprised by much of what has been written and said about that. While I believe that Lewis is the out-and-out fastest driver on the planet, it seems to me that Nico is too rarely given his due, just as was the case with Prost in the era of Senna. No one was as quick as Ayrton, agreed, but many times Alain flat beat him, making far fewer mistakes along the way, which is why Jackie Stewart believes him the greater of the two.

I make no such claim for Rosberg, vis à vis Hamilton, but I do suggest Nico even now is underrated – and underestimated. When Lewis won at Monaco, and then at Montréal, there was much talk of his season being back on track, and when – after an atrocious weekend in Baku – he reeled off four more on the trot, there was an impression of normality being restored, with Nico back in his rightful place, far removed from his team-mate. Come the summer break, many suggested, the championship fight was already over.

Since then we have had Spa, Monza and Singapore, and Rosberg has won the lot, bringing back to mind what Niki Lauda said to me in Canada: “Nico was always quick, of that there was never any doubt, but this year he is very different – much more mature and self-confident. All the weaknesses he had before he has corrected, and psychologically he is much stronger than he was. The thing about Nico is that he never stops improving – he works much harder than most drivers…”

In Singapore qualifying Rosberg produced the lap of the season, and in the race he was flawless. On balance I would probably still bet on Hamilton for the 2016 world championship, but I wouldn’t risk much on it.