Legends of F1 overtaken by Bernie's greed

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 30/06/2013

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OPINION: "It is political. It is money." Those are the words of the late Ayrton Senna. They seem to sum up Formula One racing with shrewd accuracy. What was once a sport between daring young men, who risked their lives every time they got into a car, has become a battle for power and money.

This is probably why directors have started to make films about the good old days. A couple of years ago Senna the film came out. In September of this year the film Rush, directed by Ron Howard, will be released.

It is the story of the 1976 rivalry between the British playboy James Hunt and the Austrian champion Niki Lauda. Call up the trailer - the first international release, not the various cheesy American versions - it is well worth a view. It is also a lyrical summation of what once made Formula One so compelling.

Death.

The trailer begins, "There's a line that all drivers tell themselves - death is something that happens to other people." But of course it didn't, not back then.

The car was a "bomb on wheels".

Lauda says, "What kind of person does a job like this - each year two of us die . . . I accept that every time I get in the car, there is a 20 per cent chance I could die." And what sort of a person watches people do a job like this? Well, billions of us, roadside voyeurs looking for a rush.

"It's a wonderful way to live," says Hunt. "The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel." And maybe that is even true, in a small way, of the second-hand experience. My first memory of motor racing was being told by my father of Jim Clark, a genius who died swerving to avoid a kid chasing her cat across the track. It turns out the story is probably not true. But it was compelling, nonetheless.

There followed a Scalextric set for Christmas, and a black car, Emerson Fittipaldi's car, with the golden logos of John Player cigarettes on the side. The sport sold death in every way imaginable. Speed, cigarettes and fast living. Everyone watched.

Then Bernie, on his slick tyres, began to get a grip. Bernie Ecclestone, second-hand dealer, driver, agent, bagman, spiv. The former fisherman's son took over Brabham, then he took over the sport. Ecclestone had the vision to see the future. It was called television.

Bernie is Arthur Daley on speed, keeping his friends close, and his enemies closer. Adam Parr, a former CEO of Williams, wrote a book of his experiences called The Art of War. Parr says he left the sport because Bernie would not deal with him. He lost, like everyone else.

At the end of the nineties the British Labour Party banned tobacco advertising in sport. This did not go down well with Ecclestone and his very right-hand man Max Mosley. Both were big party donors. They told Tony Blair that F1 put Britain at the high-tech edge and without the tobacco money F1 would go abroad at the loss of 50,000 jobs and a billion in exports. Oh, and we are big-time party donors. Labour lied and caved.

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Power and money.

Ecclestone famously said, "If you have a look at democracy, it hasn't done a lot of good for many countries." It certainly doesn't do much for Bernie. And so he turned F1 into his personal fiefdom. The money keeps rolling in, but F1 has become a crashing bore. I am not even sure it can properly be called a sport, any more. The safety developments are a triumph, and have probably helped save a lot of lives outside F1, but the drivers have become increasingly anonymous.

The teams with the most money win. A couple of enthusiasts, John Booth and Graeme Lowdon, have come into racing with a new team called Marussia, but if you don't finish in the constructors' top 10, you don't get any money. And so the rich just keep getting richer.

It is not hard to imagine a day when the cars are just driven by computer.

Formula One is a global business, because it is broadcast in every country in the world, but over half of the current 22 drivers come from just three countries, Britain, Germany and France. Bernie has never been a man of the people.

He says, "I am not sure what happiness is."

Wow. That's the sort of thing you say when you are a student after reading too much Evelyn Waugh.

But Bernie is 82 and he really means it.

Maybe he should have stuck to driving.

- Sunday Star Times

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