News and views on motorsports

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Leave Him Alone

Note: This article was edited several times. Hopefully this is the final version.

Bernie Ecclestone claims that Fernando Alonso in his capacity as world champion doesn't do much for the sport. This may well be true but Bernie, I think you haven't done much either have you? Indeed most of the promotion is done either by the local circuits or the television companies. In no small measure promotion of Formula 1 is done by the manufacturers who participate in the sport.

But more than Bernie's dumb comments, the bigger question is why should we need drivers to do anything at all except mesmerise us with their skill and bravery on Sundays? I don't know but I think this is originally an American phenomenon. The idea that the drivers should be out there putting on a fake smile, meeting people, signing autographs and thanking sponsors. Its disgusting. I mean come on. I'm not there to see charming personalities and PR filtered speeches. I'm there to watch sporting rivalries and battle.

Yes, I realise that ultimately its the sponsors who pay for the cars but they get something in return, that is the advertising reach and eyeballs. And yes, fans can claim that since those advertisers pay to reach us, we're the ones who ultimately pay for the cars. But that doesn't mean we own the drivers. And it doesn't mean they owe us anything. Hey, turn off the telly or don't turn up for the race if you don't like it. Personally, I turn up to watch their driving. And I prefer to watch the interactions amongst the drivers especially when there's a huge rivalry. I really don't care how they interact with me.

A lucky bastard friend of mine once had the privilege of being in the Ferrari guest box at Sepang in 2000 (or was it 2001?) and he told me this little anecdote. You see, one of things these lucky sods get to do is meet the drivers who turn up at the guest box to say a quick hello to everyone. Naturally, everyone is really excited when its time for Big Mike and Rubens to show up. Some PR guy comes into the box and tells everyone to give a big cheer when the both of them appear and when time comes they give an enormous roar. The drivers reaction of course is nothing less than disappointing. Long faces and the appearance that this was very much thrust upon them against their will. Next door in the Williams guest box, a big cheer went out to Ralf Schumacher and Button who apparently greeted and entertained their guests with big smiles and seemingly genuine warmth. My friend being a huge Ferrari fan was nonplussed by the attitude of his heros. They were, in his words, unfriendly arrogant and pompous prima donnas.

Well, I explained to my friend that these drivers are human beings as well. Sundays are a stressful time. In modern Formula 1, there can be no mistakes. And the level of detail in the preparation means that any of them including Michael Schumacher, would prefer to be spending time with their engineers than be forced to meet sods like him. In the midst of all that pressure, the last thing on their minds are to go out and be forced yet again to go meet a bunch of strangers you don't know and really couldn't give a toss about. That's a fact and if you were one of these blokes, you would feel exactly the same way. But then again, you might argue that the Williams guys were doing just fine and you'd be right. But then again, maybe brother Ralf is simply a more personable fellow. But what the hell do I care? I'd rather see him work his genius on the track.

Some others argue that these guys are lucky to be in Formula 1 and earning their million dollar paychecks and they owe a debt of gratitude somehow for the privilege of being there. This ignores one big point. And that is, they're not there because they're lucky (well, at least most of them aren't), they're there because they're just plain unbelievably good drivers and f***in geniuses behind the wheel of a car. If they weren't we all wouldn't be watching the sport in the first place. Their talent means they are simply the best in the world. Think about it, in a world of 6 billion people there is only one world champion and a few handful of other blokes who can challenge him. They have an uncommon talent and they deserve to get paid for that talent. If we all were that bloody good then those drivers wouldn't get paid so highly. Simple economics of supply and demand. And don't forget with the money they earn, those drivers are under enormous pressure to perform. One slip and they have everyone on their backs. You and I would simply crumble to a heap if we were the ones subjected to such strain.

I simply cannot abide the attitude that simply because these guys earn their fat paychecks they deserve to be treated as less than human and be stripped of all that makes a human being and be forced as puppets to do their teams and fans bidding. Perhaps it because the great drivers make it look so easy, it makes some people think that the drivers are simply overpaid and that somehow its just pure luck that the drivers are up there whilst they are lower than whale shit at the bottom of the ocean. So in their warped minds they think the drivers owe them something. Yes, luck has something to do with it but their talents had plenty to do with it as well.

Okay now I'm going to go off track but I really must touch on this issue. And that is, why does Formula 1 need more promotion? So that greedy Bernie can make more money? Bugger off. Formula 1 represents (or should represent) the pinnacle of motorsport. I keep repeating this point again and again but I feel I must. First and foremost, it should be about sport. But increasingly people think it should be about entertainment. Horrid artificial NASCAR style entertainment. To those people, I say go watch a movie or NASCAR if you want entertainment.

Increasingly also, the sport has deteriorated because of money. More money for Bernie. More money for the teams. More money for the damned media. The route to that seems to be getting in more fans in and hence there is this big talk about some supposedly urgent need to do more to promote the sport. When sport deteriorates into a business, you find all sorts of measures designed, not to preserve the purity and essence of all that made the sport great in the first place but are designed to expand the business. No I'm not saying that things increased overtaking is not needed, they most certainly are. But the measures put in place should preserve the soul of the sport. Expansion and measures to broaden the appeal of the sport dilutes it.

Listen, if you are a true blue racing fan, Formula 1 would automatically appear on your scopes. You simply cannot miss it. You follow racing all the way up the ladder and eventually you'll get there. If there weren't a Formula 1, somebody would invent it. Because its needed. Just as football has a world cup to determine the world's best, motorsport needs Formula 1 to decide just who is the best driver. Its inevitable. And just as a Premier League fan would find his way to the world cup or the European Champions league the racing fan would find his way to Formula 1.

But whats happening right now is this need to cultivate the casual viewer. That seems to be the key in everyone's mind to capture more advertising and sponsorship and hence more money. Well let me give a better alternative to that. Whats really needed is more racing fans. Most casual viewers that I know in actual fact don't give a flying f*** about racing. They really don't. Ask them about GP2, World Touring Cars, Formula 3, Formula Renault or Sportscars and they simply just haven't got a clue. And really they don't care either. So how about, instead of promoting Formula 1, the FIA, the broadcasters and the media promote these other forms of racing?

Think about it. These are the series that desperately need a greater profile and larger followings. Do you know how hard it is for those poor blokes down below to get sponsors? Its bloody unbelievably competitive down there, whether its about fighting for the cash or for position on the race track. Michael Schumacher may be living in a castle and takes spins in a Ferrari Enzo but just ask him about his early days driving an old Ford Escort and living in poverty because everything he had, had to go into the bloody race car. I bet he could have used a few more logos on his car and overalls. Promote junior formulae and other forms of racing. Let sponsors get to know them and draw more crowds there. Get more people to know more about grassroots cut and thrust racing. You'll automatically get more Formula 1 fans. More importantly, you get the right sort of fan. The proper racing fan not a bunch of clueless morons who know nothing and demand the silliest of things.

Back to the main issue. So lay off Fernando. I mean, he bloody well deserves to be where he is now. And if, as Bernie claims, he, like many other drivers, take a lot out of Formula 1, then he bloody well deserve to. He's worked his ass off, paid his dues and now he deserves every good thing he gets. And if you're lucky enough to meet him and find that he's a little reserved (which he is) and doesn't put on that big smile you think you deserve from him (which he won't) and really isn't interested in finding out who you are (which he isn't), just remember he owes you bugger all and you're there to watch him drive and compete. The only person he really owes is God, the universe or whatever you may choose to call providence for him giving him sublime talent.

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