Matters of moment, November 2016

Author

Joe Dunn

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I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am close to Chase Carey, the luxuriously moustachioed new boss of Formula 1, but I did share an elevator with him once. 

His appearance at the offices of News International – where I was a motoring editor on one of its broadsheets – came at the height of the phone hacking scandal that was engulfing the company. The chief executive had resigned, previously unflappable senior managers seemed panicked and Scotland Yard was poised to descend on the building. 

Into this crisis marched Carey, then Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man who had been dispatched from New York to sort out the troublesome Brits. He sauntered through the press pack camped outside the office and headed to the lifts where I was standing clutching my Pret coffee. 

“Good morning,” I said. 

“Good morning.” 

“Going up?” 

“Yup.” 

I appreciate that this was not the most illuminating of exchanges but what I can report (and readers will have to take my word for it) is that Carey’s very presence appeared to cast a calming effect over the jittery building. He was
a man who exuded power, competence and control.

Formula 1 in 2016 is clearly not in the same crisis as News International was in 2011, but only a fool or major shareholder in CVC would suggest that it didn’t have its share of problems. Should the sale go through – and already there are rumblings of potential legal roadblocks, which although unlikely cannot be written off given the complex and opaque nature of F1’s ownership structure – Carey will have a full inbox when he eventually starts work next year. 

Chief among them will be reversing the decline in the number of people watching Grands Prix. According to Formula One Management television audiences fell to 400 million last year, meaning that F1 has lost one-third of its worldwide audience since 2008 – about 200 million viewers. Granted, the numbers may reflect the move away from free-to-air coverage in favour of pay-per-view, and a corresponding move by tech-savvy consumers to watching via non-measurable – read pirate – channels, but there is no denying that popularity is waning. 

Carey, a genuine sports fan who masterminded Fox TV’s pivot towards sports coverage in the early 1990s and understands the importance of social media, is well equipped to drive up
Formula 1 audiences. The question is whether the spectacle itself – too often criticised as lacking excitement – can rise to the challenge. 

As important, in this magazine’s view, is the new owner’s attitude to hosting races in countries with unacceptable human rights records or where local interest is negligible, which has both tarnished the sport’s image and alienated its fans. The ruthless search for money, and the pimping of GPs to the highest bidder that has driven F1 to places like Baku, must end. Who knows, perhaps the sport can be loved again rather than merely admired. 

***

So, farewell then Jenson Button. The boy from Frome who did so good has announced his intention to take a sabbatical from racing in F1. Whether he will return or not in 2018 remains to be seen, but his plum job as a McLaren ‘ambassador’ is no less than he deserves. 

As Mark Hughes brilliantly explains this month, Button’s mercurial talent has been much misunderstood ever since he first appeared on the grid in 2000. At his best, like all the greatest drivers, he seemed to be operating on a different plane from everyone else. The fact that he often did so in a car that was second best only serves to highlight his undoubted gift. 

As Mark writes: “His ability is so nuanced, a total outlier from the approximate grading one could make of the others, that it’s led to the misconception that he was simply a right place/right time world champion. But that’s to ignore the extraordinarily high level of his best drives – performances that rank with the best of the greats.”

Even so, it may well be that Jenson is remembered more for his partnership with Ross Brawn and for being part of the Brawn GP team than for any individual achievement. The 2009 championship-winning season with a team cobbled together is a racing fairytale the like of which we may never see again. 

Button’s departure also raises an interesting question over the number of British drivers who will be competing in 2017. With Jolyon Palmer far from a shoo-in to retain his seat at Renault, British fans may have only Lewis Hamilton to cheer. The last time that there was a single regular British driver competing was way back in 1980 when John Watson, in his struggling McLaren M29C, failed to make the podium, eventually finishing 11th.  Coincidentally, 1980 was the same year that the departing Button was born.

***

My summer was book-ended with two events: the British round of the World Rallycross Championship at Lydden Hill in May and the Goodwood Revival Meeting in September. 

Lydden Hill is one the most picturesque circuits – as well as being the shortest – in the land, nestled in a natural bowl formed by the gently rolling downs of east Kent. On the day I visited, this ancient amphitheatre was bathed in spring sunshine. The national flags of the competing teams fluttered in the wind like the colourful standards at a medieval joust and the paddock was a hive of activity as mechanics prepped and fettled their cars. Drivers in race suits strolled among the crowds, chatting and signing autographs.

I spoke to Sébastien Loeb, the great but normally taciturn Frenchman, who waxed lyrical about the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of this recently revived and not quite mainstream sport, comparing it favourably to the high- profile, big-money world of the WRC, where fans are kept at a distance from teams and drivers. It was a family atmosphere, he said, that only comes with grass-roots sports.

The Revival can hardly be called grass roots anymore; it has long since gone mainstream but it is a credit to the organisers that it (unlike its louder, brasher sister event) has managed to keep the sense of a motor sport fraternity. 

Coming as it does in September the event always carries an elegiac note: the leaves are beginning to fall and another summer of motor sport is drawing to a close. It is a chance for the racing community to bid farewell to one another for another year, and there is nothing else quite like it on the calendar.     

***

And finally, to Galloway and the final round of the national ARR Craib Scottish Rally Championship, where Robbie Beattie won the Peugeot 1600 class in his 205, but only after season-long rival Donald Peacock loaned him the parts to finish the rally after Beattie arrived at the service park with a bent axle. Peacock finished second but still won the class title. It wasn’t quite as high-profile an act of sportsmanship as Mansell giving Senna a lift back to the pits at Silverstone in 1991, but it gave a glimpse of the values of racing that other richer series need to rediscover. Chase Carey take note.