Politics is F1′s way to dusty death.
I must admit, as a Formula One fan I hung my head in shame as the farcical mess of the Bahrain Grand Prix unfolded. To see the glitzy, glamourous F1 paddock sweeping into a country wracked by religious and social divides was the height of crassness, the low of dignity and the absence of solidarity. When sport and money become too closely intertwined, the results are never edifying. When those two cosy up to politics, then outright disgust is never far away.
I have been a F1 fan since I was old enough to point at a TV and express delight at the flashing images of cars bedecked with tobacco company logos flashing past. Incidentally I’m also a life-long anti-smoking advocate, so that just goes to show that I’ve always had a tangled relationship with the sport I love.
For years, Formula One was a slightly shonky affair. In the 1950s, it was dominated by the grandee factory teams of Mercedes, Maserati, Vanwall and, of course, Ferrari. But when the rear-engined revolution came along in the 1960s, it was the small British teams of Cooper, BRM, McLaren and most especially Lotus that held sway.
Grand Prix events were always glamorous (especially those at Monza or Monaco) but the sport was still effectively an amateur one. Drivers could not afford an off-season break or even a rest between F1 events. Weekends without Grand Prix were spent racing in Sportscars, CanAm, F2 and even Touring Car events. Not (just) for the thrill, but to earn start, finish and prize money. And then along came Bernie.
Bernard Charles Ecclestone was a former second hand car dealer and a manager to drivers Stewart Lewis Evans and Jochen Rindt. Bernie eventually became a major F1 player by buying the Brabham F1 team from its eponymous owner, 1959 and 1960 World Champion Jack Brabham. Attracting blue-chip sponsors like Parmalat and Martini and drivers like John Watson and Niki Lauda, Bernie took Brabham from the midfield all the way to double world championship wins with BWM engines and Brazilian Nelson Piquet driving in 1981 and 1983.
All the while, Bernie was becoming F1’s joint shop steward and organiser. It was he who pulled the independent, mostly British teams together to take a stand against the well-financed factory squads of Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo. The ensuing war threatened to tear F1 asunder, but Bernie’s canny back-channel dealing brought (relative) peace and better organisation. F1 was making its giant leap into professionalism and Bernie held the key to opening the money trap-door; TV rights.
Until the early 1980s, F1 was only shown fitfully on television. But once the coverage began to ramp up, Bernie was smart enough to start buying up the rights. The teams began to get rich, and Bernie began to get richer.
But thanks to a convoluted series of deals in the 1990s, he sold the rights to (eventually) a company called CVC Capital Holdings. He, effectively, now works for CVC to ensure the best possible return on their multi-billion purchase and that is how we ended up having a race in the midst of civil unrest, in a location that most of the teams didn’t want to go to, on a track ill-suited to dramatic racing. Why? Money.
I spoke to F1 journalist Tony Dodgins, hoping to find some chink in the money armour, some better more noble reason for holding a race in Bahrain at a time when its citizens are so disillusioned with their ruling princes that they are in open revolt.
“It is the money! The Bahrainis are believed to pay around $40 million for the race, one of the higher sanctioning fees [the fee that Bernie charges each event just so that it can be held]. On top of that, McLaren is 50 per cent-owned by the Mumtalakat Holding Company, an investment company owned by the Kingdom of Bahrain, and Aabar (an Abu Dhabi investment company) owns 40 per cent of Mercedes GP, so races in the region are viewed as important.”
According to Finian Cunningham, Middle East and Africa Correspondent for the Global Research think-tank in Canada “there is the web of personal relationships between the Formula One fraternity and the Al Khalifa royal family.
“The current president of the FIA, Jean Todt, was elected in 2009 with the help of Bahraini royal Shaikh Abdullah Bin Isa Al Khalifa (brother of the king) who is the head of the Automobile Federation of Bahrain,” he says.
“Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is the chief executive of the Bahrain International Circuit, is a shareholder in the ART Grand Prix team owned by Nicolas Todt, the son of Jean Todt. Crown Prince Salman is also a close friend of Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One supremo.
“Indeed, when Ecclestone was quoted recently in the media about the race going to Bahrain he said somewhat absurdly: “All the teams are happy to be there. There’s nothing happening. I know people who live there and it’s all very quiet and peaceful.” And he went on to mention that one of his sources for information on what is happening in Bahrain is Crown Prince Salman.
Bernie Ecclestone’s a hard-nosed business man who has pulled himself up from being a back-street second hand car dealer to one of the richest men in the world.
Along the way he has taken the sport I love most from being mostly ignored by the media and the public at large to being a 20-race-a-year circus with wall-to-wall TV and internet coverage.
Not only that, but he is significantly responsible for the changes made to safety in the late seventies and through the eighties that saw driver deaths in F1 drop from literally one a month in 1970 to fewer than one in a decade. And he’s human too, dropping out of motor racing altogether for a time when his friend, Stewart Lewis-Evans died succumbing to terrible burns after crashing at the 1958 Morocco Grand Prix.
But the course Ecclestone has set F1 on now is leading it to disaster. More and more of the classic F1 events, the ones that take place at the great and memorable circuits, where real wheel-to-wheel racing is still possible are being lost because Middle Eastern and Asian countries are willing to stump up massive payments, and build purpose-made bland autodromes, for the prestige of having a Grand Prix.
The German Grand Prix is a shadow of its former self, the Portuguese Grand Prix is gone altogether, the US Grand Prix, once shared between the equally fabulous Long Beach street circuit in California and the beautiful Watkins Glen in upstate New York, is still vacillating between unsuitable tracks and locations, unable to find a home.
If F1 continues its relentless move eastward, it will die a slow agonising death. Whatever about chasing the money for hosting fees, F1’s heartland is in Europe, Japan and the east and west coasts of the US. PR (and moral) disasters like Bahrain will drive sponsors away while dreary race tracks like Abu Dhabi and South Korea will cause viewers to change channels, putting more sponsors off.
And the ridiculous attitude displayed by both drivers and teams at Bahrain will alienate even dedicated fans like me. When team bosses and drivers attempted to bat away the ‘should we be here’ questions by saying that they wanted to concentrate on racing, not politics, they were insulting our intelligence. Because in the Bernie era, racing has passed through finance to become politics. The sooner it changes back, the better for everyone.
(By the way, kudos to those who spotted that the reference in the headline is not to the original quote from Macbeth but from the Alastair MacLean book title. Corny old stuff but a cracking read all the same.)