This is the last time that Modern Times will appear in its current form. As you can read in Editor Feamley’s announcement elsewhere in this issue, from next month Motor Sport will look a bit different. The changes are designed to ensure that the magazine remains true to its uniquely well-defined audience, and to its eclectic subject matter. But they should allow us to cover that subject matter more extensively, and give that audience — you — more of what it wants. The changes should also, one hopes, bring into the fold some new converts to what real motorsport has always been about. And I reckon this is as good a time as any for this column, which concentrates usually but not exclusively on F1, to make its final bow.
I’ve been writing and broadcasting about F1 racing, it astonishes me to realise, for nearly 40 years. It’s been an immense privilege, and I have enjoyed nearly every minute of it. In that time — particularly during the past decade — F1, and the audience to whom it has to appeal, have changed out of all recognition. Its worldwide following is now immense, and it now sits alongside the latest boy band, the sexual peccadilloes of football managers and Big Brother as a subject of vital importance to the general media.
Therefore — as is the way of today’s electronic world — the majority of the coverage is immediate, on TV, radio and the intemet. By the time Monday morning’s papers appear, often barely 12 hours after the chequered flag has fallen, the feeble concentration span of most of today’s audience, voracious for even newer ‘news’, is already consigning the latest grand prix to the recycle bin.
Nevertheless, the real history of Formula One will continue to be one of the ingredients in this magazine. The perspective granted by time can bring new insights and new understanding, and often people who were there when it happened, but for various reasons could not tell the whole story at the time, can fill in new truths.
And history, as we all know, can be as recent as last week. When I was young and impressionable, Fangio, Ascari and of course Stirling Moss were my heroes. Depending on your age, dear reader, your childhood hero may have been Clark, or Stewart, or Lauda, or Hunt, or even Mansell or Damon Hill. Less obviously he may have been Behra, or Gurney, or Reutemarm, or Andretti. Senna is nowadays a hero for almost anyone over the age of 16.
The people who accuse modern F1 of monotony because of the domination of Ferrari and Schumacher should remember that, one day, they will be able to say to their grandchildren, “I saw Michael Schumacher race.” Their grandchildren, if they’ve been properly brought up, will be impressed. There are still a few people alive who can say, “I saw Rosemeyer race in the rain,” or “I saw Nuvolari at Donington in the Auto Union.” Many more can bear witness to Fangio in a 250F, or a Mercedes W196. In 1963, if Lotus reliability had been what Ferrari’s is now, Clark in the Lotus 25 would have been every bit as domineering as Schuey, for he led every championship round except one. In Schumacher we are witnessing the best years of a man who’ll be remembered for as long as racing is talked about, as one of the finest drivers of all time. We’re lucky to be able to see him making history.
Which, unfortunately, always leads to the inevitable, empty arguments: is Schumacher the single greatest driver of all time? I hate these silly efforts — and Motor Sport has been guilty of them too — to put drivers across different eras of the sport in some sort of absolute order. Was Fangio better than Clark? Was Prost better than Moss? Even, was Senna better than Schumacher? Further down the pecking order, still more dottily, should we put Maurice Trintignant ahead of Olivier Panis? (Both won the Monaco GP, but Trintignant did it twice.) You might just as well waste words over whether the Maserati 250F was better than the Williams FW14.
There is no question that Michael Schumacher is the greatest driver of his era. Nor that the team headed by Jean Todt and Ross Brawn is the greatest race-winning machine of its time. But our quick-fix generation is obsessed by statistics, because totting up mathematical scores is an easier task than thinking intelligently about the less easily measured merits and achievements of a driver, car or team. Schumacher must be greater than Fangio, mustn’t he: he has won more than three times as many grands prix. Or, almost as fatuously, Fangio is still greater than Schumacher, because Fangio won 47 per cent of the grands prix he started, whereas Schumacher has so far only won 39 per cent.
The reality is that you can’t make a meaningful comparison across different eras of motorsport. Comparing F1 in 2004 with F1 in 1954 is like comparing round-the-world yachting with the Tour de France. Both are wonderful tests of courage, endurance, talent and stamina, but comparing them has no result, no solution, no point Think about it, and the differences pile up: an F1 driver today does 18 races, all in the same type of car. A properly employed driver half a century ago probably did more F1 races than that, but only eight of them happened to count towards the world title. But he also did sportscar races, often in cars with a higher performance than his F1 mount, that lasted anything from six to 24 hours. He probably raced saloons and smaller sportscars, too, and if he was really keen he’d fit in a works drive in the Monte Carlo Rally over the winter. Drivers then weren’t worse, or better, they were just different Back then they didn’t have to suffer the paparazzi pressures of today’s household heroes; but back then, of course, they were far more likely to get killed.
Despite the disappearance of Modem Times, I intend to continue to write for Motor Sport, if bossman Feamley will have me. I shall certainly continue to spend most of my weekends watching motorsport of one type or another. But I have resolved to attend fewer grands prix, going instead to events where the sport is more important than the business. Historic motorsport in this country, across Europe and around the world, is in a healthy state. At a variety of levels, wonderful cars of different ages and eras are being campaigned for the joy of it, whether in a VSCC trial or a race meeting at Goodwood, the Nürburgring or Laguna Seca. I have decided to exchange the antiseptic paddocks of Magny-Cours and Sepang for friendlier haunts with more variety of cars and people, and each month I propose to bring you my impressions and thoughts about what I see and who I meet.
Finally, a word for those of you who, like me, are traditionalists. Anyone who knows me will confirm that l am of an age and a political persuasion that does not embrace change for change’s sake. I have seen the changes planned for Motor Sport from next month, and without bias I have to admit I like them. They are not really changes in editorial content, more in presentation. They should make the magazine more accessible for people who are not yet part of the Motor Sport family without, the publishers hope, alienating those who have been members of our family for a long time.
So perhaps I should give you due warning: from next month, the front cover of this magazine will no longer be green. To those who express outrage, and say that Motor Sport covers have always been green, I should point out that I started perusing my father’s copies of this magazine in 1949, when I was five years old. The covers were not green then, and never had been: in fact they generally carried an advertisement for Ferodo. The green cover with its curious design of vertical white lines arrived in lair 1952, and the green persisted from then on, although it did get dropped for special issues from time to time. There was a pleasant relationship between the cover colour and Britain’s national racing hue — but we have to remember that British F1 cars haven’t been green for 35 years… Meanwhile the competition for visibility on ever more crowded bookstands, and the need to communicate the content of the magazine as rapidly as possible to the passing eye, means that the marketing experts say the time is right to drag the cover of Motor Sport into the new millennium. Don’t be too horror-struck: inside, the same people will be writing the same words, only more of them. And in my case I propose to go back to writing about real motor sport No doubt you’ll let me know whether you disapprove.