A Time For Vision

08/01/2017
FEATURE BY MIKE LAWRENCE

The BRDC has said that it cannot guarantee being able to hold the British GP beyond 2019, the earliest it can trigger an escape clause from its contract. This is ironical given that most F1 teams are within easy reach of Silverstone and that the British GP has one of the highest attendances of any F1 race.

Ironical, yes, but no more ironical than the fact that Germany, which also attracts huge crowds, cannot afford a race on ticket receipts alone.

Singapore has indicated that it will terminate its contract. Its agenda was to use the race to boost tourism and now that has been achieved the country no longer needs the expense of a Grand Prix. In this Singapore is copying manufacturers who have entered and left F1 as it has suited overall company strategies.

A fundamental problem is that having a Grand Prix allows a country the prestige of hosting a major sports event. You could organise a tennis tournament and if you offered a big enough prize fund, you would attract star players, but your tournament would be seen as a bit of bling and it would not be one of the four that matter. Host a Grand Prix and you are part of a World Championship and Formula One does have high television viewing figures.

I think that this is PR bullshit and what it does do in some cases is to give the few who control the money an ego massage. They are vanity events, without substance. There must be few indeed who have had a sudden desire to visit, say, Abu Dhabi, Azerbaijan or Bahrain just because they hold a race, These countries have no tradition of motor sport. They have no grass roots and often they even have to import marshals.

There is a body of opinion that says that the British government should subsidise the Grand Prix not least because the motor racing industry employs around 40,000 people and has an annual turnover of more than a billion pounds. Money from the National Lottery has been distributed to many sports resulting in Team GB's impressive performance in the last two Olympics.

Then there is the money the government gives to the Arts Council for distribution, but that does not embrace, say, a West End musical which is purely a commercial enterprise.

With these precedents in mind, I can see a case for the government or the National Lottery giving a grant to Silverstone, or any other circuit, for improvements as an amenity which serves a thriving industry. To make a grant to a single race would be like supporting a revival of 'Phantom of the Opera'.

A Grand Prix is a commercial enterprise and the right to grant permission to hold one has recently been bought by Liberty Media. Before the rights to Formula One were sold by the FIA, the organising club benefited from any profit and bore any loss. From 1987, Silverstone has held the British GP - how that came about is another story - and the BRDC has been the organising club.

Since the BRDC is a not for profit organisation Silverstone was able to subsidise grass roots club racing, usually on a Saturday with only a handful of spectators. These days the BRDC is in financial crisis and much, not all, of the reason has been that the cost of hosting the Grand Prix increases year on year at a rate considerably higher than inflation.

The first F1 Grand Prix at Silverstone was in 1948 and the circuit hosted the first race of the inaugural World Championship two years later. It has come a long way from the days when the circuit was marked out by straw bales and race control was a second-hand double decker bus.

There have been mistakes, like spending more than 14 million pounds on the 'Wing', when it was not asked for by Bernie. There have also been allegations of mismanagement by full-time employees, some of whom were escorted from the site. More than anything, however, has been the cost of the Grand Prix.

Germany can no longer afford to run one. There have been question marks over Montreal, Monza and Spa while France, which invented Grand Prix racing, is to host its first since Felipe Massa won at Magny Cours in 2008. Singapore has indicated it is not to renew its contract and Malaysia is likely to follow.

Shanghai keeps going because of the oriental notion of losing face, though after the first couple of races, schoolkids were bussed in to fill grandstands. India, South Korea and Turkey built special circuits to host races.

Liberty Media has made all sorts of positive noises, but has yet to make a single hard proposal. A spokesman has said that every race should be like the Superbowl but, being American, he seems not to know that the Superbowl is a local event of little interest elsewhere unless something goes wrong during the interval entertainment.

Liberty Media claims that it wants more Grands Prix in the USA and few could find fault with that. America has several thriving motor racing traditions and it is also the show biz capital of the world, it would be a positive move. A problem may lie with the contracts that the vanity races have signed. It is not only the legal issue, but the fact that they are also cash cows and Liberty needs to show a profit.

CVC, the previous owner of the rights had no interest in motor racing and returned not a penny to it. They were not concerned with history or tradition, though every other sport is. As long as someone was prepared to pay for a vanity race, they could have one and the FIA was compliant.

It will take time, but Liberty Media needs to shed the vanity races and make it possible for Formula One to take place in countries with an interest in motor racing, like Argentina and the Netherlands. Oh, and Germany.

From every leak from Liberty Media, one forms a picture of a company which believes it can make a commercial success of its acquisition, but which also wishes to nurture it. America may be short on ancient history - not a henge to be had - but it is long on sporting history and celebration. From 'Gentlemen, start your engines' at Indianapolis to the various Halls of Fame, Yankee and Johnny Reb alike appreciate tradition.

Some countries have a tradition of motor racing, others have vanity events. It is thriving tradition which breeds marshals without whom no event can take place.

Liberty Media has suggested a cap on expenditure which has been vigorously disputed by Ferrari. Ferrari already receives a bigger chunk of revenue than any other team because, so the myth goes, Formula One would be unthinkable without them. This is PR bullshit, no team is bigger than the sport, not even Arsenal.

Performance in F1 is partly determined by cash so paying Ferrari more is like giving a team in any other sport a bonus of a few points with which to start a season. It is unfair and downright wrong.

Enzo Ferrari used to get his own way by threatening to withdraw and, on one occasion in the 1950s, threatening to enter a monastery. Ferrari has needed motor racing to sell its road cars which have often been poorly engineered. Time was when Ferrari was, indisputably, the most desirable marque to own, but that time has passed. GT racing is on the rise and Ferrari hardly figures.

Meanwhile costs continue to rise. At the time of writing, Manor is in administration. Until the Brazilian GP Manor, having won a point, was looking at a small share of the revenue, a share much less than Ferrari's annual bonus.

No team is bigger than its sport, a rule which applies everywhere except Formula One.

Wholesale changes need to be made and I do not envy the task which Liberty Media has taken on. Formula One is governed by many secret agreements and contracts, and such as the exclusive Strategy Group, so many that there has ceased to be an overall vision.

There is no point in consulting the teams because each has its own agenda of self-interest. Herding cats would be an easier proposition.

What is needed is an overall vision for the sport and I hope that Liberty Media can provide that, and deliver it.

Mike Lawrence.

Learn more about Mike and check out his previous features, here

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Published: 08/01/2017
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