Crisis, what crisis …

Nine races into the 2015 season and suddenly there is no crisis ... The British Grand Prix at Silverstone this weekend was, by general consensus, a thrilling and hard fought race. A fitting race for the "home of motorsport" and the 140,000 who turned up to witness it first hand. The end result apparently being a feeling of, crisis averted, all we needed was a good one ... But then again, I wouldn't know, having lost so much interest that I couldn't even remember to set the DVR to record my "home" race at the scene of many of my great racing memories. And this, not the occasional great race, is the real problem: even long term enthusiasts like me have lost interest, and the TV ratings are in free fall. So what are my issues? Where do I begin: 1. Stupid rules, 2. Little innovation where you can see it (see "stupid rules"), 3. Boring races, 4. Prima donna drivers, 5. Zero access to cars and drivers at races, 6. Too many drivers aids, 7. Artificial attempts to spice up the show (see "stupid rules"), 8. CVC Capital Partners, an owner who does not care, 9. Bernie E', too wrapped up in his own wealth and problems to really care, and 10. FIA, FIFA light. The list could go on and on ... Sorry Bernie and the Boys, but I think my indifference is a crisis, you just don't get it ...

Formula 1, the triumph of greed

Bernie kills the golden goose ... There was once, in the early 1970's, a business man in his early forties with little real money but high ambition, a lover of motor racing, a former driver himself and latterly a manager of drivers. A man who seemed to love racing and those around it, not for wealth, for in those days (and, in truth, now) the easiest way in racing to earn a small fortune was to start with a large one, but for the sake of the competition, the thrill of the win, the constant need to go faster, higher, better. 45 years later, at age 84, Bernard Charles Ecclestone is the fourth richest man in Britain, worth US$ 4.5 Billion. The story of how he became so rich is not for here; along the way he owned a team and won championships, built good cars, hired good people and was part of the "garagiste's", the cabal of Anglo's and Anglo commonwealth racers who were such a thorn in the side of El Commendatore Enzo Ferrari. But somewhere along the journey from there to here, money seems to have became more important to Mr. E. than racing, much more important. Mr. E. is about to kill the golden goose, or perhaps it's Mr. E's employers, CVC Capital Partners, who seem to think that owning the commercial rites to Formula 1 means that they get paid exorbitant amounts and those that compete can take what they deign to hand out. Mr. E. has carefully and craftily played the egos of all involved over the years, pitting some against others, dividing and ultimately conquering; until now ... Now there is a crisis, two teams are in receivership, not necessarily unusual, teams have always come and gone, but there are three more seriously struggling with the costs of F1 and the seriously unequal returns. Bernie seems mostly un-fazed, apart from a rare slip admitting culpability, swiftly retracted and followed by a return to the hard line. Is CVC pulling strings, is Bernie a puppet, does someone know where the bodies are buried? All good questions with few public answers ... But all questions that will get asked and which are not necessarily good for a man who has been through a bribery and corruption trial and is rumored to be under investigation for tax avoidance. Bernie/CVC are about to kill the golden goose, the fans are finally tired of all the politics, the ratings are falling, interest is waning. What price the fourth richest man in Britain Bernie; in the words of John Lennon: "how do you sleep"?

The Big Price

As you probably know, 'Grand Prix', is French for 'Big Prize', today it should more correctly be known as the 'Big Price' ... In all of my (now considerable) lifetime, I have been a fan of Grand Prix, or more correctly, Formula 1 racing. Despite both of my parents' total disdain for the sport, and a complete lack of any form of transportation, I managed to attend my first of several British GP's at Silverstone in 1971. I paid for the ticket out of my 17 year old 'pocket money' and also managed to contribute to the 'petrol' cost for the ride down and back in a friend's Mini. My guess is that the complete trip probably cost in the order of 5 GBP or less, with admission probably 3 GBP. For my money we managed to negotiate the traffic jams and arrive (just) in time for the race, and then stand at the inside of Abbey curve while Jackie Stewart and the Tyrrell ran away from the field; finishing an easy winner from Ronnie Peterson's March and Emerson Fittipaldi's Lotus. For me the highlights of the race were a rare appearance of the Lotus 56B, 'wedge', turbine powered car (which only raced 3 times), with it's distinctive whine, and the thrilling, hair raising sound of the two works V12 Matra's passing by at full chat, the clear memory of which still gives me chills to this very day. As a side note, I have now seen the Lotus 56B twice in the last few years. It was displayed at the Goodwood festival of speed in 2012, the year that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Lotus. Then, this past week, I visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum, and there it was again, displayed in a special exhibition of turbine powered cars. It's one of those strange coincidences in life, only made a little more strange that in my working life I have spent the vast majority of the last thirty-five years around the aviation version of the engine that powered that car, the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A turboprop engine. Which, in a roundabout way brings me to the present. If we take that 3 GBP general admission of 1971 and double it a generous 3 times, we end up with 24 GBP, or roughly $40 in today's money and look at what that would buy you today at the upcoming US Grand Prix in Austin TX, just 200 miles down Interstate 35 from here. The answer, unfortunately, is nothing; lowest raceday general admission is more than $150 which, by my math, is 4 times the equivalent 1971 price. So, for my 4X money, is the value better? Well that's a matter of perspective, certainly the track is much safer and the amenities are streets above the porta-potties, dirt spectator banks, endless traffic jams, muddy car parks and marginal food of 1971 Slverstone. But is the racing any better, probably not, it's the history of Formula 1 to be dominated by the best car, with few exceptions, that turn races into processions. Access to the cars and drivers today is nonexistent, even if you could get into the paddock, for the average spectator; whereas in 1971 a paddock pass was a modest incremental price, drivers were open, friendly and willing to chat, you could walk up to and touch the cars. And if you were to look at the cost of decent seats today ... well, as they say, OMG, this is a wealthy person's privilege only ... Today, as much as I find the idea of the hybrid engines technically exciting, they will never, ever replace the visceral thrill, of the screaming sound, of a French V12 passing by in a blue flash at 180 mph. Try it for yourself ... just Google 'Matra V12 sound', and listen to that glorious noise ... So, come Sunday November 2nd, I'll be watching this race, not from the stands at the Circuit of the Americas, but from the comfort of my living room ...