Matters of moment, October 2014

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“It makes you feel sick, actually, the whole FIFA thing, the corruption at the top is nauseating. Sepp Blatter likewise has run it like a dictatorship for so long and he comes up with so much nonsense.”

Good on Gary Lineker. England’s second-most prolific goalscorer was deservedly considered a ‘golden boy’ of British sport during his playing career, and he’s carried that momentum into his life as a broadcaster. The linchpin of the BBC’s excellent football coverage doesn’t need to rock the boat, but he chooses to do so presumably because he understands the weight his words will carry, and because he clearly cares.

The quote above, taken from his much-publicised interview with GQ, is an expression of genuine exasperation at how his sport is run. It struck a chord, and not just with football fans. Substitute FOM for FIFA and Bernie Ecclestone for Sepp Blatter and those words would resonate around the Grand Prix racing world just as they have in football.

Except that in Formula 1 no one of any standing comparable to Lineker dares say a word against our own beloved dictator. The recent trial farce in Bavaria is a case in point.

To recap in brief, the legal system of Europe’s most powerful nation gave its blessing for F1’s chief executive to pay off prosecutors to the tune of £60m, settling a case that involved an openly admitted £44m bribe to a German banker paid by the billionaire to avoid a potentially sticky situation with Britain’s tax authorities.

Can you smell something?

Around the world, there was predictable incredulity, outrage and more than a titter of laughter at the barefaced audacity.

Within F1? There was… silence. Not a dicky bird. Well, it’s August – everyone’s on holiday. How convenient. Thank goodness this bribe to pay off a bribe didn’t break before a race, where pesky journalists might have asked thorny questions to squirming team bosses in official press conferences. We know that’s not cricket, don’t we?

By the time you read this the Belgian GP will have been and gone. Perhaps someone, at some point, will have muttered a line or two of some significance on the matter – but I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s business as usual in F1, ‘loveable’ Uncle Bernie is still telling us to ‘think before we drive’ (whatever that means), there’s a championship to be won – oh, and the whole circus is off to Russia to visit nice Mr Putin. All’s right with the world.

Actually, from a sporting point of view, we’d argue that F1 is in pretty good shape. It’s a perspective that continues to be challenged by many of you, but while we respect and acknowledge the high levels of disenchantment expressed this year, our reporters can only speak as they find. Both Nigel Roebuck and Mark Hughes believe the new era is an improvement on what we had before, that F1 drivers are challenged in a way they haven’t been for years and that the level of artifice imbedded in the sport’s regulations, while still unsatisfactory, is less imposing than we’ve recently been used to – at least until we get to the final race and the potentially silly banana skin of double points.

That aside, the core problem is more fundamental: F1 is rotten on the inside. Standing restarts and sparky underfloors? Whatever. What should be openly debated right now is the flawed governance, ownership and financial structure – as discussed so often in these pages. While Grand Prix racing continues to be controlled by asset strippers and a chief executive who believes Hitler was all right because he was “able to get things done”, it’ll never be considered ‘legit’ by the wider world – especially now.

F1 is spectacularly successful, and much of that is down to Ecclestone and what he has achieved over the past 40 years. But his oligarch tactics of business are out of step with the world today. Grand Prix racing could connect with its public so much better and return so much more to other areas of the sport – while still earning its shareholders vast sums. But the boss has just bought himself more time at the top. While he remains in charge, we’ll have to wait for the ‘revolution’ we believe the sport needs so desperately.

You might have noticed in the past couple of issues we’ve been marking significant anniversaries, ending in a four, surrounding the original Grand Prix. In the August edition we celebrated 100 years since the 1914 French GP, when Mercedes defeated Peugeot just weeks before the outbreak of WWI; last month we returned to Lyon 10 years later for the 1924 race; and in this one we round up our trio of stories by recalling 1954 at Reims, seared into history as the shock-and-awe return of Mercedes-Benz to Grand Prix racing, just nine short years after the end of WWII.

The French race was always a key date in the calendar, whatever the year. Its historical significance echoed through the decades, beyond Reims and on to fearsome Clermont-Ferrand, Rouen, the single year at Le Mans in ’67, Dijon and Paul Ricard. As a circuit, Magny-Cours failed to inspire much affection from 1991, but was still a pleasant fixture that the F1 fraternity enjoyed each July. Then it all came to a shuddering halt after 2008 and we haven’t been back since.

Each time a new Grand Prix is announced I always think of France, and did so again following the confirmation that Azerbaijan will host a race in 2016, as will Mexico next year. The latter has its own proud F1 tradition, of course, and is a welcome fixture. And, judging by the reaction to GT races held in Baku, the oil-rich state in the far reaches of Eastern Europe could also add flavour. F1 should embrace new countries and circuits.

But when a jam-packed calendar can’t include a race in the country where Grand Prix racing was born, I can’t help but feel something vital is missing.

Was it better in the past? Consider 1984, 30 years ago and the subject of this month’s cover story. Just six of the season’s 16 races took place outside Europe, and all were bracketed in the first half of the year. After the Dallas GP ‘experiment’ in early July, F1 didn’t leave its European heartland again. Amazing to consider now.

For a true world championship, the spread of continents and countries is today more representative. But look more closely at that final run of races in ’84: Brands Hatch, Hockenheim, the Österreichring, Zandvoort, Monza, the Nürburgring and Estoril. Gate receipts weren’t exactly a problem at any of them, although when you can’t even guarantee a full house at Hockenheim you know times have changed.

Fewer races also meant each counted for more – even though only nine championship points were on offer to the winner, down to one for sixth place. Seventh to 10th? That meant nothing.

For me, less was always more in this regard, but let’s get real: it was not true in the case of the dollars that could be made. Forget sentiment and tradition, F1 had to expand its reach and girth to make more of what really counts.

In a court of law, (nearly) 84-year-old Bernie Ecclestone proved himself rarely consistent. On money, he’s never anything else.

Contributors

In 1984 the F1 world championship paid its final visit to Zolder, close to what is now Adam Cooper’s adopted home. This month, the pony-tailed wordsmith looks at that season in a wider context, focusing on the sport’s closest-ever title duel. Formerly an editor of Melody Maker and The Guardian’s chief sports writer, Richard Williams rewinds the clock 30 more years to assess Mercedes-Benz’s triumphant GP return at Reims. Mitch Pashavair appreciates the finer things in life (and old Fiats), so we asked him to photograph Patrick Head in his father’s Cooper-Jaguar. And finishing where we started, in the ’80s, Howard Simmons went to Silverstone to capture LMP2 racer Nicolas Minassian testing Group C2 bygones.