Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

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Too many F1 races, overtaking as an art form, Lewis Hamilton’s world

The midsummer break is always a quiet time in Formula 1, at least in terms of motor racing. The tabloids tell us that Lewis Hamilton, newly braided hair and all, has spent some time in Barbados, partying with Rihanna, but most paddock habitués opted for something a little more tranquil. Most of all, the mechanics – particularly those with families – will have appreciated the opportunity of a little normal life.

That being so, they have been dismayed to learn that 2015 may be it, as far as worthwhile midsummer breaks are concerned: the projected calendar for next season schedules the Hungaroring on August 7, then Spa on the 28th, so a clear fortnight’s holiday is off the agenda. This year, with the cancellation of the German Grand Prix, we have 19 races in the world championship; in 2016 there will be 21, and some think that a few too many.

In my first year of working in Formula 1, 1971, there were only 11, and all but Kyalami, Mosport and Watkins Glen were run at European circuits: Montjuich, Monaco, Zandvoort, Paul Ricard, Silverstone, the Nürburgring (Nordschleife, of course), the Österreichring and Monza.

My, my, what a romantic sounding list, is it not? Only three – Monaco, Silverstone, Monza – survive in the F1 lexicon today, but fear not, traditionalists: on the near horizon we have Baku.

If, 45 years ago, there were but 11 point-scoring Grandes Épreuves on the calendar, there were also eight non-championship races, and while three of the venues were Buenos Aires, Ontario and Hockenheim, the other five were in this country, with Brands Hatch and Oulton Park getting a pair apiece. Throw in the Grand Prix, and British fans of my generation had half a dozen opportunities to see Formula 1 cars in action – and, what’s more, without the need to resort to a building society.

Just as in 2015, therefore, the F1 brigade raced 19 times in 1971, but the times were way simpler. For one thing, it didn’t take a fortnight to change a Cosworth DFV; for another, the bulk of the races were close to home, so that long-haul flights were a rarity. In 2016 only eight of the 21 Grands Prix will be run in Europe.

Those happy with this situation have always taken the line that, “It’s called the world championship, and must be seen to be so…” This reasoning, in itself, is not without value: of course it was important for Formula 1 to extend its reach – particularly to countries like Australia, Canada and Mexico, which have a passion for it – but the old argument that companies need to shout their names in new markets has less validity than it did, because the days of multi-national sponsors in F1 are essentially over. This is why the teams – particularly the smaller ones – are now so much at the mercy of Bernie’s ‘end-of-season payout’.

If way too much of the world championship is chequebook-shaped, that was always going to be the case once the commercial rights to F1 had fallen into the hands of a private equity company – which was itself no more than inevitable once, through the good offices of Max Mosley’s FIA, they had become Ecclestone’s to sell.

Thus, nine years ago, ‘Formula One’ was entered into the portfolio of CVC Capital Partners Ltd: you’ll find it on the company’s website, alphabetically sandwiched between Evonik Industries, a German chemicals company, and Fraikin, a French truck rental outfit.

“In March 2006,” the blurb begins, “CVC Funds acquired majority control of Formula One (‘F1’).” It concludes thus: “Recent additions to the FIA calendar such as China, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and India (2011) continue to enhance the worldwide appeal of the brand and the economics of the business.”

Needs a little updating, I’d have thought, to include the enchanting Mr Putin, to say nothing of Azerbaijan, but the message is implicit: you may have thought of it as a sport, but ‘Formula One (‘F1’)’ is now a commodity, like trucks or chemicals. At the foot of the page is a quote from the CEO, one BC Ecclestone: “CVC has been a helpful partner for the management team over the last number of years, in pursuit of the strategic opportunities for the business.”

Quite what Bernie means by ‘helpful partner’ is not immediately apparent. Certainly one can see how CVC has been ‘helpful’ to him personally, and also to the company’s investors, who take succour from the billions it bleeds from Formula 1, but I’m not sure such as Bob Fernley or Monica Kaltenborn could find a convincing argument for its being ‘helpful’. “You know how these people operate,” one team principal muttered to me: “Move in, ream, move out…”

As far as Formula 1 is concerned, certainly CVC moved in and reamed – and now, if speculation be true, devoutly it is wishing to move out. Job done, as they say. Sadly, though, the expectation must be that ultimately another ‘private equity company’ will replace it. Remember the old joke about God hating money? How so? “Well, look who he gives it to…”

Forgive me, I’m starting to sound like Jeremy Corbyn, but this aspect of the sport I’ve loved all my life makes me angry. The other day I remembered something Frank Williams said to me a while ago: “Formula 1 has been hi-jacked, so get used to the idea. These people will run it exactly as they wish to run it – and there’s nothing we can do about it…”

Apparently there isn’t. I’m rather far from alone in believing that most of Formula 1’s current ills stem from the day Mosley agreed to sell the FIA’s family silver to Ecclestone, not only at a ‘fire sale’ rate, but also – absurdly – for 100 years.

If Max’s ‘Don King Clause’, allowing the FIA the right of veto over Ecclestone’s ‘selling on’ to an unsuitable party, were not invoked in the case of a private equity company, one wonders why he came up with it in the first place. The commercial rights to F1 should never have been allowed to leave the Place de la Concorde.

Still, too late now. In the nine years of CVC’s ‘ownership’ of Formula 1, I have yet to be apprised of any beneficial contribution it has made to the sport, but much has been deleterious to it. We lost the German Grand Prix this year, because neither the Nürburgring nor Hockenheim could make financial sense of it, and the same is true of other European circuits – notably Monza – where government largesse is unavailable, and a Grand Prix has to stand or fall on its gate money.

When these situations arise, Ecclestone and his sycophants invariably suggest that the problem lies with the circuit organisers, who should lower the cost of admission in order to attract a bigger audience. This blithely sidesteps the fact that ticket prices are what they are because the tariff for a Grand Prix is eye-watering, and the organiser has no other means of income to attempt to meet it. The circuits should charge less, and the teams should cut their costs: what never enters the debate is a possible trimming of CVC’s avarice.

As I said, the company’s website suggests that, “Recent additions to the FIA calendar have enhanced the economics of the business…” If there’s no doubt that this has changed the nature of the world championship, neither is there any that it has contributed to the downturn in public interest. New and bland circuits, attended by small crowds in countries not interested in F1, do not have much appeal. Just as the drivers’ faces light up when they get to Spa or Suzuka, so it is with those who watch them.

Personally, I rather liked it when we had fewer Grandes Épreuves, always feeling that less was more, that the sense of occasion was heightened, just as by The Majors in golf. And time was when even Bernie saw some merit in restricting the number of races, not least from the competitors’ point of view. “The teams,” I said to him 20 years ago, “are adamant that we can’t have more than 16 races.”

His reply? “They’re right. We can’t. No way. I would never, ever, ever put more than 16 races on the calendar…”

Fast forward a decade, to 2005, and the picture had changed somewhat: we were up 19, and I reminded him of what he had said.

“Well, I’m a liar!” he replied. “No, it’s not that I’ve changed my mind, as much as a set of circumstances that have made it happen. For one thing, there’s been this big push to keep races in which we can run with tobacco branding. We can still do that in Italy and Germany, for example, which is why we’ve got two races in each of those countries.

“As far as the future goes, we’re trying to do something in Russia, and there’s interest from South Africa, Mexico, and so on. If they come in, some places are going to have to go. In 2006 we’ll have 19 races again, but after that I think we’ll probably finish up with 18.”

The teams, I said, still insist that they’d prefer to keep it to 16. “Yeah, well, I understand that – it’s a bit of a strain on them to run all these races – especially the back-to-backs that we have to put together…”

This was, of course, the year before CVC acquired the commercial rights. Ecclestone, then as now, did the actual deal-making with the circuits and TV companies, but at that stage was still his own boss. Yes, he had become unfathomably rich over time, but so, too, had many others in F1, and dogs don’t howl when beaten with a bone. Few begrudged Bernie his wealth, for he had brought so much to the business: they don’t feel the same about CVC and its one-way fiscal street.

If tobacco advertising were a factor in shaping the calendar 10 years ago, it is no longer a matter of debate, yet still the schedule continues to grow, and the 21 races projected for 2016 represent a new high mark. As Ecclestone acknowledged, back-to-back race weekends are particularly onerous for the teams, but next year no fewer than seven are scheduled.

Across the pond it is even more daunting, for the IndyCar powers-that-be accepted – from a consulting group apparently devoid of racing experience or knowledge – the barmy advice that the season should conclude by the end of August, so as to avoid competition with football for TV time.

Compressing the season into five months has produced a variety of dire consequences, readily predicted by the racing community, but ignored by the people who direct their lives. IndyCar folk dream of double-headers: taking into account testing, qualifying and racing, the Toronto race – run on June 14 – marked their ninth consecutive weekend on duty, leaving many at the outer edge of exhaustion. In a sport obsessed with safety, that seems short-sighted as well as inhumane.

The IndyCar finale comes at Sonoma on August 30, after which Juan Montoya, Scott Dixon & co won’t race again for seven months. Not ideal for keeping the series to the fore in the public mind – nor for the mechanics laid off by their financially stretched teams for the winter: for half the year you work like a dog, for the other half you don’t get paid. No surprise that many have taken their leave of IndyCar.

NASCAR, of course, is a whole other world – 38 races in 41 weekends between February and November – but so extreme is this schedule that teams double up on mechanics, so that some weekends you work, some you don’t.

In Formula 1 time was – with budgets off the clock, and a tyre war in play – when testing was a constant activity. This was manna, of course, for young drivers looking for as much seat time as possible, but it drained resources and necessitated the hiring of separate test teams. To the regret of many, testing is now essentially banned, but the advent of the 21-race calendar has got people murmuring about the possible need for – and cost of – two teams of mechanics, à la NASCAR, where all the races are on one continent.

Problem is, of course, that new countries coming into the world championship tend not to be close at hand. Last year Austria returned after years away because Dietrich Mateschitz wanted a race at his revamped Red Bull Ring, and could readily afford the going rate. Most in Europe are not in that happy position – and that of course makes them unattractive to an outfit like CVC. Don King would understand.

Time was when ‘fan surveys’ were unknown in Formula 1, largely because no one ever gave them a thought. In healthy numbers aficionados went to the races, or watched them on TV, just as they always had, and presumably always would. Even through the Schumacher-Ferrari years that held true: one man may have been winning all the time, but a Grand Prix was still something not to be missed.

Through the last decade, though, that situation discernibly changed. More and more new countries came into the world championship, and if they had governments willing to underwrite the cost of putting on a Grand Prix, they did not, for the most part, have a populace that gave a damn about it. Thus we became accustomed to the sight of sparse crowds at many races, and even in some ‘traditional’ countries we began to note sizeable gaps in the grandstands where previously there had been none.

There were other changes, too. In 2006 CVC acquired majority control of Formula 1, and many were dismayed to see their beloved sport fall into the ‘ownership’ of an entity wishing only to milk it. Then, a couple of years later, the machinations of those darling bankers resulted in the worldwide financial meltdown, and while this – of course – didn’t hurt the perpetrators too much, it left many of their victims conspicuously worse off, with the cost of attending a Grand Prix suddenly far down their list or priorities.

During this period, too, Formula 1 cars became appreciably slower, Max Mosley’s FIA choosing to replace the 3-litre V10 with the 2.4-litre V8, which met the decibel requirement of an F1 engine but otherwise left both drivers and spectators underwhelmed. As time went by, you noted that, years after he quit Formula 1, Juan Pablo Montoya’s lap records, set in 2004 at such as Monza and Interlagos, remained intact.

The Formula One Teams Association, formed in 2008, for a time raised our hopes that some sort of balance might be restored to the sport: all the teams were signatories to it, and unanimity would surely add weight to their fight for more power in the face of Ecclestone/CVC. This did not escape Bernie, who lost little time in buying off first Red Bull, and then Ferrari – whose chairman, Luca di Montezemolo, had been the original president of FOTA.

Its unanimous voice gone, FOTA was essentially a spent bullet, although it kept going for a while, with Martin Whitmarsh replacing di Montezemolo. In 2010, very much at his behest, FOTA commissioned a fan survey.

Traditionally Whitmarsh had been no-nonsense about Formula 1, seeing it very much as an engineering exercise. I had many a debate with him about technical aspects – notably traction control (in the periods when it was legal) – that I thought undesirable in what was supposedly a test of driving skill. Martin would allow that he could see my point of view, but then argue that – desirable or not – traction control inescapably made a car quicker: “Why else,” he said, “did… some teams cheat, and use it when it was banned?”

It was a fair point, albeit not one that placated me, so when in 2008 standard ECUs came to F1, consigning traction control to the bin, I rejoiced. Rather to my surprise, so also did Whitmarsh, who by now had come to look upon racing in a different way.

“I must admit that I’ve changed my position over the years,” he said. “When it came to the purity of Formula 1, and all that stuff, I was the most sore-arse person in technical working groups, whereas now I’m the one who bullies them into doing things either for reasons of cost reduction or entertainment. For example, probably no one put more weight behind DRS than I did, but at one time I’d have fought that like hell – the artificiality of it would have been so offensive to me…

“The thing is,” Martin went on, “I was very personally involved in FOTA’s fan survey thing. More than 85,000 people took part in it, and the overwhelming thing they wanted – whether I liked it as a purist or not – was more overtaking.

“Everything we’d previously tried to do – reducing dependence on the front wing, whatever – didn’t really help with that: the fact is that aero dominates in today’s F1, so that you can’t follow another car closely enough through a quick corner to have a decent shot at overtaking on the next straight. As well as that, we have modern-day circuits that might have been designed to make overtaking difficult, so it was out of all this that the idea of DRS came about…”

Undeniably the Drag Reduction System – contemptuously described by Tony Southgate in a recent Motor Sport podcast as ‘that opening wing thing’ – did increase the amount of overtaking in F1. How could it not? And if it could have been manicured to make overtaking a little less difficult, it might have got a better reception from the purists: as it is, too often it looks like a walk in the park, and in Grand Prix racing overtaking should never be easy.

Mark Webber, who left F1 at the end of 2013, has always been a purist, and the principle of DRS was offensive to him. “It can’t be right to have cars of different specification – which of course they are when some have the wing open and some don’t – in the same race at the same time. And another thing is that of course DRS has discouraged attempts at conventional overtaking: to pass into Turn One at Interlagos, for example, used to be a nice signature move – but now why would you do that when you’ve got DRS on the next straight?

“These days you hear people saying, ‘Wow, that pass was amazing!’ – but it was using bloody DRS! And you say, ‘What are you talking about, mate? The guy didn’t even close the door – there’s no point when the fellow behind is suddenly 18kph quicker than you’.”

Whatever, DRS was conceived, and introduced, directly because, as Whitmarsh said, the fans participating in the FOTA survey trenchantly indicated their wish to see more overtaking, and in the absence of any enlightened thinking about downforce – such as generating the bulk of it, as in the ground-effect days, from the car’s underbody, rather than wings – there seemed no other means of creating it.

Perhaps Jacques Villeneuve, like Webber always a man to speak plainly, had a point when he suggested that it was dangerous to ask the fans what they wanted to see in the sport. Why? “Because a lot of modern F1 is what they said they wanted…”

Part of the problem here is that it’s impossible to lump together ‘the fans’ into one group. How many are hardcore, how many casual, young or old, long-time enthusiasts or new to it?

Given the state of uncertainty that has assailed Formula 1 in recent years, though, the opinions of those who follow it – from whatever vantage point – must surely have a value, even if only to paint an overall picture of what they perceive to be good and bad. I may hate DRS, for example, but perhaps I’m in the minority.

In the recent past, two fan surveys have been conducted, one by the Grand Prix Drivers Association, the other by Autosport. Unsurprisingly, the response to the GPDA’s survey was considerably greater, at 215,000 to 35,000, and culled from 94 countries, whereas the magazine’s might reasonably be assumed to be largely UK-based – as evidenced by the fact that, while the GPDA lists Kimi Räikkönen, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button as the three most popular drivers, Autosport has them 2-3-4 – behind Lewis Hamilton!

In both surveys, the favourite teams came out as Ferrari-McLaren-Williams, and although it was no surprise that the traditional circuits, headed by Spa, were the most popular, I’ll confess to being amazed that the Hungaroring came out ahead of such as Interlagos and Suzuka…

Although the surveys are not directly comparable in terms of the questions asked, it is possible to correlate many of their findings. And most heartening to me is the firm conclusion by fans that, while they may be dissatisfied with many aspects of the contemporary sport, overwhelmingly they do not, as GPDA chairman Alex Wurz said in his statement, “…believe it needs a revolution, nor want it to become an artificial show, with gimmicks introduced simply to make it more entertaining.”

Alleluia! There was I, feeling increasingly isolated in my distaste for silly tyres and double points and reversed grids and handicap ballast and every other Barnum & Bailey idea intended artificially to spice up the show, but perhaps many more folk have similar views than Bernie & co might have suspected. In the GPDA survey, for example, fewer than half those polled thought DRS had improved the quality of the racing.

Significantly, there was in both surveys a consummate – 80 per cent – wish to see more than one tyre company in F1, but while I wholeheartedly concur, we must accept that it’s not going to happen, not least because a bidding war, to be the sole supplier, is so good for the coffers.

There is also a strong desire to see the drivers ‘more open and honest’, and that should surprise no one: for years they have been criticised for behaving like automatons, controlled by overweening PR folk fearful of controversy, of ‘the wrong thing’ being said.

Away from a race track, in fact, most of the drivers are far from colourless, and it’s sad for fans that they never have the opportunity to see – and hear – them in a more relaxed environment. At the circuit, undeniably, what you tend to get is the same safe platitudes, so that anyone of my vintage gets misty-eyed at the memory of someone like Alan Jones in his prime. Picture this…

At the end of 1980, the season in which Jones became world champion, Goodyear withdrew from F1, leaving Michelin as the sole supplier, and although the company’s product was superb, the Cosworth brigade felt it better suited the more powerful turbocharged Renaults and Ferraris: thus, at mid-season, when Goodyear indicated a willingness to return, Williams and Brabham were happy to do a deal.

“It was supposed to be just us and Brabham, right?” said Jones. “That lasted one bloody race – now it’s Lotus and Tyrrell and Alfa on Goodyears, too! That wouldn’t bother me too much if they were sticking to their promises to us, but they’re not – in terms of supplying stuff we specifically requested, they’ve let us down very badly. If it were up to me – which it isn’t – I’d go back to Michelin tomorrow…”

“You’re not going to write this, are you, Nige?” muttered an anxious Frank Williams. His driver had different advice. “Yes, bloody write it!” he roared. “If you do, something might get done about it!”

Toto, Christian et al, you don’t know you’re born.

It would be unthinkable, in the F1 of today, for a driver to speak like that on the record, but if they are more disciplined – not to say cautious – than they were, perhaps there is another contributory reason, as alluded to by Sebastian Vettel.

Ferrari’s team leader has always been relatively open, more willing than most to allow his feelings to break surface. He also – unusually – has an interest in how racing used to be before he became a part of it, and acknowledges that communication with the press is far more guarded than once it was. That said, he suggests that in part this is due to the pressures of time.

“In the past the drivers could be open because they had less to do. I’m not saying they were lazy – they just had fewer responsibilities. Gone are the days when you got out of the car, lit a cigarette, told your mechanics ‘make the car faster’, and then met a couple of nice girls in the hotel.

These days the drivers have almost no time to be more open. We barely have time to relax and reflect…”

If Vettel is downplaying the PR aspect, I don’t doubt his assertion that lack of time also has a part to play. Such as Reutemann and Andretti – even Prost and Senna – were not required to spend hours poring over data in the way of drivers today.

Maybe Gerhard Berger had the answer in something he said to me a few years ago. “You want to improve Formula 1, to take it back to being a sport, a fight between drivers? Simple – ban telemetry! It’ll never happen, of course, but it should…”

A question for the next fans’ survey, perhaps? JV may have his reservations about their value, but one hopes that the powers-that-be have at least taken on board the basic premise of the latest findings: gimmickry has no place in Formula 1.

Speaking of gimmickry, among the ideas discussed recently by the F1 Strategy Group, in its efforts to revamp the business, was one to run a secondary race on Saturday afternoon: perhaps unsurprisingly it elicited very different responses from two of the sport’s major stars.

“I’m traditional on some things,” said Sebastian Vettel, “so I’m not in favour of it. A Grand Prix should be a Grand Prix: I know it’s only a qualifying race, but it will take some of the spectacle from Sunday.”

Lewis Hamilton saw it differently. “I’d be very happy for the weekend to change,” he said. “I’ve been here for nine years, with Thursday/Friday/Saturday/Sunday always exactly the same, so I’d be happy for them to muddle it up to make it more exciting. If the format stays the same for the next seven years, I don’t think I could take that…”

Would Hamilton have reacted that way back in 2007, the year in which he burst into F1? I wonder. Through that season Lewis was starry-eyed about the world in which he found himself: still living in England, earning not much from McLaren, every couple of weeks he got to race a Formula 1 car, and that was enough.

On the surface, at least, the boy ‘living the dream’ all those years ago is barely recognisable in the ‘brand’ Hamilton has become today. Over time, as the money multiplied, Lewis acquired not only the mandatory F1 accoutrements – apartment in Monaco, private jet etc – but also a taste for a high life unconnected with motor racing. If at the race track he remains all business, the nature of Formula 1 these days allows him to lead another life unthinkable not so long ago.

There may have been fewer races in years gone by, but testing was an almost ceaseless activity, and if that were still the case neither Hamilton – nor any other F1 driver – would be free to disappear between Grands Prix. During his later McLaren years Lewis routinely spent his free time in the USA with Nicole Scherzinger, and the effects of their on-off relationship occasionally took a toll of the team’s patience. “Every time they have a falling-out,” grimaced Martin Whitmarsh, “we lose three bloody races…”

From that point of view, Hamilton’s annus horribilis was 2011, but the following year he was invariably brilliant again, and his victory in the inaugural race at Austin – when he chased down and beat Vettel’s Red Bull – was one for the ages.

By now, though, Niki Lauda had persuaded him that a move to Mercedes was the one he should make: 2013 might be difficult, but the year after would usher in the new era of ‘hybrid’ engines, and Mercedes, Niki assured Lewis, was prepared for it like no other team.

Told him no lie, did he? Essentially Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have gone into the last 29 Grands Prix with only one rival apiece, and at times like this Formula 1’s statistical history can quickly change shape: two years ago Hamilton had 22 victories, 10 shy of Alonso; now he has 38, while Fernando remains on 32.

At the end of last year the relationship with Scherzinger finally ended, and many – remembering Lewis’s morose heart-on-sleeve behaviour in times past – wondered if we were in for more of it this season. Not a bit of it: if anything, he has been more impervious to problems – not that there have been many – than ever before: the debacle at Monaco set him back a bit, but a fortnight later he walked Montréal.

Over the winter the other major change in Hamilton’s life was his decision to part with Simon Fuller’s XIX Entertainment, and to sign instead with William Morris Endeavour, a massive agency based in Beverly Hills. This year Lewis has been showing up here, there and everywhere, be it at rap concerts, championship fights in Vegas, fashion shows in Paris and New York, whatever, and Lauda has said the team has no problem with his way of life so long as it doesn’t interfere with his obligations to the team.

Hamilton’s agreement with William Morris does not include racing contracts, and when time came to renew the Mercedes deal, due to expire at the end of this year, he chose – amid all the globe-trotting – to handle negotiations himself: if they dragged on interminably, he came out of them with the deal he required. A busy lad, the world champion, these days living a very different dream.

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