Thursday, September 17, 2009


It’s odd how one single action can make you realise just how starkly something has changed from how it used to be to how it is now.

Formula 1 Motor Racing - is it a Sport or a Business?


Well, after yesterday’s explosive meeting in which three high ups in the French Renault F1 team (Nelson Piquet Jnr, the driver, Flavio Briatore, Renault Team Principal and Pat Symonds the Renault Engineering Director) were found guilty of deliberately causing a crash so that team driver Fernando Alonso could win a Grand Prix in 2007 tells you (or at least me) absolutely that the days of it being a sport have gone for ever. I’d suspected that Business had triumphed over Sport in F1 circles for many years, but this removes all shadow of doubt.

The power of Money, the pursuit of Power, and the pursuit of the Ego have won and once again the corrosive destruction of something you thought may still have had a whiff of residual purity in it, leaves a pretty nasty taste in my mouth at least.

I suspect that all sports push at least some of its participants to test where the start point of the Unfair Advantage lies. Sometimes an injection of money buys it. Better training facilities, more aerodynamic swimsuits, more powerful engines, the time to spend more hours at the sport, and less earning the money to pay for the improvement, lighter bikes, more coaching and support skills – the list is pretty endless. The drugs issue is another side of this, where personal improvement is bought at who knows what cost to the body or the mind of the participant. Yes, these people get the immediate accolade, although it must feel to them, on the inside, like cheating at Patience or Solitaire.
Yet they still do it.

Motor Racing has always had the issue of Cheating/Unfair Advantage sitting under the surface fighting against the genuinely Great Driver or the Genius Car Designer, and it has often been very difficult to work out who sits where. As far back as 1952, the French firm Gordini neatly solved the power deficit problem they had by putting a 2.5 litre engine in their car at Reims in France in the Grand Prix Race wher the maximum engine size was 2 litres, and promptly won.

Racing teams used to regularly swap the numbers on their cars to ensure both team drivers qualified for the race using the best car available. Teams have been known to poke out a pit board from their pit to break the timing beam in front of their car during Practice to move them up the grid a few places.

It all seemed a bit of a joke then. But, nowadays, there is so much money involved in the sport, the “fun” bit is long gone, and to my eyes, so has much of the sport. It’s all deadly serious and, very definitely, not played for laughs anymore.

But although there are a few occasions where people put their hands up and do the “Fair Cop, Guv” bit, I am left with the suspicion that the cheating and “advantage taking” remains not far under the skin. I am nowhere near the sport, but even I am aware of a few examples over the last 15 years or so where my eyebrows were raised (to varying levels) at what individuals and organisations seemed to be prepared to do in the name of winning a race.

Such situations, fairly or unfairly, seemed to follow Michael Schumacher about, one reason why, great driver though he undoubtedly was, he does not qualify in my eyes as a great human being. In 1994, his Benetton team broke the rules in the electronic systems on his car. A few lines of deftly hidden code in the software controlling his traction control system seemed to bestow an amazing power to get his car off the start line better than all the others. Benneton also apparently had an amazing way to get fuel into the cars more quickly in pit stops, by using an illegal tubing system which gave them a few seconds advantage. His Team Manager in those days – Flavio Briatore.

When under pressure to win World Championships, Schumacher was not above running his rivals off the road. He did it in 1994 by driving Damon Hill off the road, and did it again in 1997 with Jacques Villeneuve, both of whom would have won the World Championship had he not done so. He did something similar in 2006 at Monaco, where, on a narrow circuit, Pole position is critical, by the simple expedient of stopping his car in the middle of the track to prevent Alonso from having the chance of matching his own time.

Honda, in 2005, (now Brawn – and leading the World Championship as this is written) were caught with a secret fuel tank built into their car, allowing them a weight advantage to be used during the races. None of the other teams made much of a fuss about this, and the suspicion is that several of them were doing the same thing, and a bit of frantic redesign was the immediate order of the day in several Grand Prix Design Offices.

In the last couple of years, spying to get hold of data about opponent’s cars has raised its head on a few occasions. Trusted individuals, high up in Team A, have been found extorting crucial data about next year’s cars from members of Team B. McLaren were fined $100 million (not a misprint) in 2007 for allegedly extracting technical secrets from Ferrari via a design dossier passed over on a couple of CDs. There are strong rumours that Toyota, a Japanese team who has spent fabulous sums of money in Formula 1 with singular lack of success to date, was involved in something very similar, although that seems to have died a death.

None of this is nice, but none of it puts lives at risk. It is a statement of the blindingly obvious that Motor Racing is dangerous. No-one would watch it if it was totally safe. When cars crash, physics and maths take over, and the human element in it all gives away total control of the outcome to fate, sometimes with fatal results.

People try to make it as safe as possible, but “as safe as possible” is not “Safe”. Even this year, the son of John Surtees who won the World Championship in 1964, was killed racing when a tyre came off another car and hit him on the head. In Formula 1 this year, Felippe Massa had his skull broken and hasn’t raced since, by a spring which broke off another car he was following. Accidents happen, and happen unpredictably.

Here, with Nelson Piquet Jnr, we have a driver, apparently offering to crash his car at the most opportune point in a race to allow his teammate, Alonso, to modify his race strategy, and win the Grand Prix. On the basis that Renault are formally not contesting the issue, and the fact that the Team Boss and its Engineering Director have parted company with the French firm, as of today, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that they all colluded to arrange a crash in the race, presumably for financial and “glory” benefits. The fact that Piquet’s actions could have resulted in a major accident involving himself, the other drivers and the spectators at the venue seems not to have worried them. Terrifying.

He seems to have done it to try to curry favour with Renault. He is the son of a previous World Champion, also named Nelson, who was a seriously good driver in his time, and you can imagine the parental pressure to live a father’s life again through his son here. Nelson Jnr had definitely not been a success, and was fighting for his racing life with Renault when the alleged incident took place. Unfortunately, Nelson Jnr was not a great driver – he wasn’t even a good one as Grand Prix drivers go, so presumably panic took over.

He has now totally destroyed any driver credibility he may have had, and two of the Great and the Good in the sport, Briatore and Symonds have also been destroyed. No-one, I imagine will feel much sorrow about Briatore, but I am genuinely surprised and amazed that someone like Pat Symonds would have got involved in such a thing. He came across on TV as an honest and upstanding individual with a considerable degree of integrity about him. Perhaps it was the pressure from the Corporate bosses to succeed, or perhaps he wasn’t quite as straight as his TV persona suggested. I simply don’t know.

But it’s yet another example of the erosion of the simple belief in sport that what you are seeing is people striving to their utmost within a given set of rules to be the best there is. It’s very corrosive, to me at least, and the next time I see something magical happen on the Sports TV screen, I will find it difficult to avoid the nasty little cynical thought niggling in the back of my mind that someone has pulled a fast one here.

And I really don’t want that.

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