Grand Prix Racing:
benchmark of economic success?
24 February 2001
In The Sunday Times a few weeks ago there was a profile of Bernie, may his pump be forever primed, and an article explaining why the Middle East is being targeted by Bernie, may breezes cool his brow. So what? Any sport could point to similar stories, any Sunday. What was interesting on this occasion is that both stories were in the Business supplement, which also had an interesting story about the rocky marriage between Chrysler and Daimler-Benz.
If you are serious about Formula One, you read the Business section before you turn to the Sports section. In fact, if you are really serious about Formula One, nine times out of ten you can give the Sports section a miss altogether. It's fanzine time, not for the likes of you and me.
The Business edition of 11th February led on the buying into Formula One by a consortium of five leading companies - didn't get that in the Sports section. Elsewhere in the Business section of 11th February were stories about Ford, BMW and Daewoo and they were stories to chew on.
From a Formula One perspective, I was very interested in these pieces. The untold story about Daewoo is that Tom Walkinshaw, owner of Arrows, a man previously connected to Ligier and Benetton (not to mention a Nigerian 'prince' - how can you be a prince in a republic?) is reported to be interested in taking over Daewoo's design centre.
You might have thought that Daewoo, being a Korean company, had its automotive design facility in Korea. Wrong! It is in Worthing, Sussex, England, and it used to be called IAD. IAD was the company which delivered to the world such gems as the Mazda MX-5. You surely didn't think that the MX-5 was designed anywhere but England? Where else do sports cars come from?
Motor racing, economics and governmental politics go hand in hand. You do not get motor racing in Uganda, or Chad, in fact you hardly get food in Chad. Motor racing does not occur in poor countries, but even in the wealthy nations you can tell when recession is looming because sales of Formula Ford cars dip and sponsorship becomes harder to find. Within eight to twelve months of that happening, government ministers will admit there is an economic crisis.
The reverse is also true. As soon as grass roots racing begins get perky, you can bet that good times are just around the corner. It's party time.
The political aspect can be illustrated by Angola and Zimbabwe. You used to get racing in Angola, when the Portuguese ruled, and in Zimbabwe, when it was Rhodesia. In the 1960s there was a healthy Formula One Championship in Southern Africa. In 1966, for example, this championship had 12 rounds, including one in Mozambique, while the World Championship had only nine rounds.
When, in 1986, Hungary staged a Grand Prix, the government there might as well have said, 'Communism is finished'. It was a radical move because Formula One is a product of Western capitalism, indeed it is an icon of Western capitalism since it involves conspicuous consumption and the cult of the personality. The fact that China now has a racing circuit, and is considering staging a Grand Prix, tells us more about the direction in which the country is headed than any number of Sinologists could.
Lebanon is being targeted because the Middle East is a burgeoning market for cars and there is a consortium of five manufacturers who are buying into Formula One.
Patrick Faure of Renault Sport has been candid why Renault is to return to Formula One with its own team and not just as a supplier of engines, either directly or through Supertec. Renault believes that Formula One can help it, and its partner, Nissan, to double production by 2010 and to hit four million units a year. Chew on that all you manufacturers who are closing down factories, and making workers redundant because, currently, there are too many cars chasing too few customers.
We have Renault believing that Formula One can help it buck the global trend. We have Ford promoting its Jaguar marque through Formula One and though the racing team had a miserable season, Jaguar sales broke all records. We also have a proposal to hold a Grand Prix in the Middle East. In Beiruit. Not so long ago every TV picture of Beiruit showed a building wrecked by a bomb and, in the foreground, was a smoking Mercedes-Benz taxi which was going nowhere apart from the nearest breaker's yard which was head to toe in bombed Mercedes-Benz taxis.
Not long ago, there was a proposal for a Grand Prix in Dubai but, at the time, the 'tiger' economies of the Pacific looked more attractive. Then the 'tiger' economies suffered a set-back and of the many proposals, only Malaysia came to fruition.
The odd thing is that so many Grands Prix have been proposed by countries with no grass roots motor racing or, even, an established circuit. Such is the attraction of Formula One. It is seen as a showcase for a nation, in much the same way as the Olympic Games. Give us a date on the F1 calendar and we'll build a circuit and who cares about the guy scraping enough together to race a Mini? The irony is that Silverstone, which promotes basic motor racing the year round, has been a circuit under threat.
How does Sepang or Indianapolis support the grass roots racer?
(Incidentally, there has been a motor race in the Middle East. It was in Cairo in 1947. A car from Egypt was entered in an international sports car race in 1956. Know anything about either? I'll tell all in a postscript.)
Formula One is going from strength to strength. Everybody knows that. It is an article of faith. It is why Toyota was prepared to pay yonks of yen to grab the twelfth, last, place on the grid. Being one of the Twelve has a value beyond rubies. Or has it?
One would have thought that, when Minardi hit financial problems and was up for sale, there would have been a feeding frenzy as companies outbid each other to become one of the Twelve. What happened? Nothing happened. Zippo. Zero. Zilch.
Instead of being surrounded by eager suitors, outbidding each other, Minardi has apparently been taken over by Paul Stoddart for a sum not much more than a team like Ferrari or McLaren spends on testing in a season. The figure is reputed to be $30 million but I have reason to believe that everyone is out of his tree on this one. I did say that Minardi has been taken over by Paul Stoddart 'apparently'. Keep 'apparently' in mind and also ask yourself what goes down in Formula One that does not involve Bernie, may his cat never have a kindle of kittens. Kindle of kittens? I thought you'd like that one, try me on collective nouns.
Had anyone except Stoddart been interested in Formula One (where is Audi?) the price would have been higher. It's the auction effect. The best auction story I know was published a few years ago by Eoin Young. Sorry Eoin, but you did publish the story so it is in the public domain.
Eoin - pronounced 'Ian' - had a framed 1950s colour photograph of a Ferrari in his shop and he wanted something outrageous for it, like £300. Eoin's motto was 'never knowingly oversold'. A Ferrari nut, I mean 'discerning connoisseur', wanted the picture, but sucked his teeth at the asking price. Eoin put it into a Brooks auction at Monaco and the same fan bid it up to £1,750, when he could have bought it for £300!
Eoin's pay-off line was: "I still own the negative. I know a bloke at my pub who can run me up another picture for £15!"
That is the auction effect. Where was it when Minardi was up for sale?
Little birdies tell me that Paul Stoddart has not actually bought Minardi, but has agreed to lease Minardi from the two people who actually put up the dosh. I am not in a position to reveal their names, but one has a sun tan the year round, a tan which makes your average Zulu feel under-exposed to the ultra violet, and one day he may learn that the peak on a baseball cap runs in a line with your nose, not your spine.
The other is not a tall man, but he is perfect in every detail, may elephants kneel at his approach and hippopotami submerge. I say no more.
The busy little birdies tell me that these two people are the main players in the Minardi deal which is why Fernando Alonso, who is contracted to Benetton/Renault (prop. Flavio Briatore) in the future, and Alonso is happy to be driving for Minardi in 2001. Alonso has a foot in Formula One and looks likely to turn out to be quite good.
Two anonymous punters have stepped in because they feel it is important to maintain the value of being one of the Twelve. If Minardi went under then there would be only Eleven and the value of being Twelfth would be nothing at all, it would be a place crying out to be filled and anyone could fill the place provided he met all the rules designed to keep newcomers out.
The less tall of the two parties would not like that, may stars twinkle in his eyes, because it would mean that he had lost control of his creation. Enter Paul Stoddart, who is nobody's fool.
Paul Stoddart is passionate about motor racing. He has a superb workshop, which has been geared to Formula One standards, he has an important collection of F1 cars and he owns a Formula 3000 team. He knows his onions, as we Brits say when in Rural Sage mode. Stoddart was also linked to a buy-out of Tyrrell but his company, European Aviation, is not in the same league as British American Tobacco. BAR bought Tyrrell and then did the most stupid thing in living memory, they edged out Ken Tyrrell and kissed goodbye to more than 30 years of Formula One experience and three World Championships.
Great move, or what?
At least we know what Paul Stoddart's background is, you can check European Aviation on the Net. That is more than you can say for some people who have appeared as Formula One sponsors - he is Mr Stoddart, P., he is not Prince Paul of Perth.
According to those tweeting little birdies, Stoddart has bought time to put together his package and then has an option to purchase Minardi from the real backers, whose names must remain in the shadows, though neither is a man who casts a shadow.
Motor racing and the economy are always linked. Two years ago, a year ago, Minardi would have had suitors, now it has an arranged marriage. Believe me, the economy is dipping, it isn't just a double-bluff by George Dubya. The Sunday Times of 11th February, reported that Ford expects a 10% drop in sales this year, and a further 5% next year on top of that ten-per-cent.
Ford will be lucky if those predictions prove to be correct because when an F1 team needs an arranged marriage, the economy looks like it is headed for the rocks. Ten-per-cent down? It has to be worse than that, though Renault is heading for the jackpot, according to Renault.
Do we believe Renault? Are you gagging to own a Renault? Have you ever met anyone who is gagging to own a Renault? Or a Nissan, apart from the Skyline GTR? I am gagging to own a current Alfa Romeo, but a Renault? Do me a favour. When I win the National Lottery I will have products from Alfa Romeo and Jaguar in my drive, and none other. I've been a regular motoring writer, and have driven most things, and I cannot recall a single moment of pleasure behind the wheel of a Renault.
Renault makes dull cars. Did I say dull? I meant crap. Renault has more chance of doubling its sales than you or I have by flapping our arms and flying. But Renault believes in the myth of Formula One while nobody with a brain above their shoulders would dream of buying a Renault, or a Nissan.
People who buy new Renaults have their brains beneath their shoulders and they open conversation with, "You rang, Master?" People who buy new Nissans, apart from the Skyline GTR, do not start conversations, though they are asked if they are comfortable and if they enjoyed their soup.
Thank the gods in Valhalla that Bernie (may pigeons miss his pate) has tied in so many major players. Renault has come and gone in the past, now Renault looks likely to own part of the action. That will lock Renault in. The idea that Renault can find millions of cretins to buy its crap products is Renault's problem. Get real, guys, try making cars that people want, nobody is gagging for a Renault. On the other hand, Renault is a nationalised company and France is not about to go bust.
As for Paul Stoddart, all I can say is 'welcome'. The guy is passionate about racing, just like the people at Minardi. He has gone with Minardi with his heart, it is not a corporate decision made by marketing men and bean counters. It actually makes no noodles in a corporate sense for Stoddart to be in Formula One, which is why I like it.
G'day, mate, g'donya. May Minardi win points, may the name of Paul Stoddart be in the mouths of praise-singers, may Bernie never now the chill hand of the Grim Reaper. Most of all, may praise-singers know the name of Paul Stoddart. May he be on the scene for many years to come. Give motor racing back to the enthusiasts, Paul, we are waiting.
Postscript. In 1947, with financial backing from Switzerland, Cisitalia formed a 'circus' of 15 Fiat-engined single-seaters. Cisitalia was a sports equipment company which added GT, sports and racing cars to its catalogue on the grounds that you should be able to buy a racing car just as you might buy a racing bicycle or a tennis bat. The thinking behind the 'circus' was that the cars would be transported to a major race meeting and top drivers would each draw a car and engage in a one-make curtain raiser to the main event.
It was a sound idea. Remember the Procar series of twenty years ago when top drivers raced BMW M1 GT cars after final qualifying? It was truly wonderful to see drivers racing on level terms, in equal cars, but that was then, and now is now. Now they are holding press conferences, then they were thrashing around in BMWs for the joy of racing and the prize money and it was prize money that they had to earn.
It is said that Nelson Piquet earned more money from winning the Procar series than he earned as a retainer from Brabham (I believe that Nelson's retainer at Brabham was £16,500 plus £1,000 per World Championship point). Multiply by ten to get today's value. Yup, that's Formula One twenty years ago.
To get the Cisitalia circus under way, a series of races was organised in Egypt, a nation not noted for its motor racing tradition. Unfortunately, the first event, at Cairo, lost so much money that the venture was abandoned. By the way, Piero Taruffi won from Alberto Ascari and it was to be the only time that Taruffi beat the great, the very great, Alberto Ascari.
Promoting motor racing in Egypt at the time was not the brightest of ideas. Not much of a car culture in Egypt at the time and I know whereof I speak because I lived in Egypt, 1948-51 and can affirm that motor racing was not high on anyone's agenda. Kicking out the British occupiers, of whom I was one though I was only six-years-old in 1948, and getting rid of that gross slug, King Farouk, now we are talking.
I received nothing but kindness from Egyptians even though I was part of the invasion. Nobody speaks bad of Egypt in my hearing. I may not be quick these days, but I can threaten to roll on you.
For the record, Egypt's racing colour is pale violet. It has been seen only once on the international scene, during practice for the 1956 Reims 12 Hour race.
The car was the 'Phoenix', entered by the British entrepreneur, and author, Raymond Flowers, who had extensive business interests in Egypt. The Phoenix had a Lister chassis, a Triumph TR2 engine (forget the Lea-Francis/Jack Turner engine of contemporary reports, it had a Triumph engine) and it had a one-off body painted in pale violet.
In mid-1956, feelings were running high because President Nasser of Egypt had threatened to nationalise the Suez Canal, on which Britain and France then had leasehold. Before the end of the year, Britain, France and Israel had invaded Egypt. It is an episode which reflects credit on none involved and it was the beginning of the end for the British Empire, thank the Lord Harry. French Indo-China became Vietnam and the Americans took over. Great result, guys.
Having been out for practice, the Phoenix was nobbled and could not start. The suspicion remains that France's secret service, those wonderful people who attacked a Greenpeace vessel not so long ago, may have prevented the only car to wear the pale violet of Egypt from starting an international race, which was held in France.
Motor racing and politics, eh?
The original article appeared on the Planet-F1 website