Features - Interview
DECEMBER 1, 1997
BY JOE SAWARD
Are you satisfied with the improvements which have been made to F1 since you became FIA President five years ago?
MM: "I think we are headed in the right direction. The first priority was to stop the enormous increase in performance that was taking place each year. I think we have now found an efficient way of doing that. There are still certain obvious difficulties: we still not there with the safety; and we would like it to be rather easier to overtake - not MUCH easier but a little easier."
What changes do you have in mind?
"The engine formula in Grand Prix racing is in place now until the end of the year 2006. As far as we can say at the moment that is likely to remain the same after that, because we think we can limit F1 performance by means other than limiting horsepower. But when you start trying to look that far ahead it is difficult because there may be some completely new technologies which come along. It will be easier to answer the question in about five years time.
"I think that as a show F1 is very interesting as it now is and it is difficult to imagine a way of improving it. A lot of people say there should be more overtaking, but if you go to motorcycle racing, for example, where there is an enormous amount more overtaking it is still not as popular as F1. I think that is because people like the tension which builds up when one car catches up with another and it is not easy to overtake.
"I think the idea that cars should not overtake in the pits is really rather old-fashioned because it has now become a visible contest between two teams rather than two individuals.
"F1 is getting better all the time and is starting to look really quite good but it is a mistake to say that things cannot be improved. I am sure things will happen, but there are no new ideas on the table at the moment."
Will we see more races than there are currently?
"It is possible although things may not change much because of the tobacco problems we have been having in Europe. Had those not happened there might have been political pressure to maintain the number of European races. That would have led to pressure to increase the total number of races because there are a number of new countries that want races - and where we want to race.
"With the tobacco legislation it may be that we will see a reduction in Europe and an increase elsewhere - with the total number of races being about the same as it is now.
"We are going to obey whatever laws are in place but if there is something which we can do lawfully in one part of the world and not in another part of the world - such a tobacco advertising - it makes sense to go and do it in the part of the world where we are allowed to do it. You cannot, for example, hold a Grand Prix in Switzerland. Motor racing is banned there and has been since 1955. So we do not have a race there. We are observing the law. If they bring in a law allowing motor racing we may look at Switzerland. If they bring in a law in Europe about tobacco we will observe it - but it will not stop F1 from happening.
"It is quite clear that it is not important these days where a Grand Prix actually comes from. Once upon a time we used to get a bigger TV audience depending on where the Grand Prix was being held. More people would watch the Monaco GP for example, but that is no longer the case. You see huge TV audiences for races in places no-one has ever heard of and it helps that place to become wellknown around the world. I had a meeting the other day with the Hungarian Minister of Trade. He was saying that when he visited South America he found that most people did not know Budapest from Bucharest. Now - thanks to the Grand Prix in Hungary - they say: "Budapest - that's where the F1 cars race".
"Moving out of Europe would upset all of us who have come up through the sport in a certain tradition. I would find it a matter of great regret if the traditional European races disappeared."
So do you expect Formula 1 to grow in the next 15 years or do you think that the growth rate will level off in the years ahead?
"I would expect a levelling-off of growth of interest in the sport because it is simply not possible to continue to grow at the rate we have seen in the last five years. I think what will happen is that as more and more big companies become aware of the publicity potential of F1 and realise just how big it is on the world scale, I think you will see more money coming in - and not always tobacco money. Big companies tend to be rather old-fashioned about promotion and a lot of them don't yet realise just how big F1 has become.
"I think the growth will go on in some respects. The strangest thing about the enormous interest in F1 in Asian countries is that there is neither a circuit, nor a driver, nor a car from that part of the world. I think that as soon as one of those elements is present in one of the bigger Asian countries then the popularity of F1 will expand. If you think about China for example, if you had a Chinese circuit and a Chinese driver, I think expansion would be enormous. That could easily happen. Once you start karting in a country you get young people in and then it is only a matter of time before someone with talent emerges. At the moment it is still very much a European sport. We still we have nine or 10 races in the EU but we only have 12% of the TV audience now and the future lies to some extent outside the EU."
What about the way the sport is structured financially? Are you in favour of the company running Grand Prix racing being owned by shareholders, rather than being under the sole control of Bernie Ecclestone?
"I think it will be better that the commercial side of the business he run by a public company rather than an individual simply because F1 is so big and there are such big companies now involved."
Will the FIA have shares?
"One of the things that Bernie needs if he is going to float Formula One Holdings is a longer term agreement with us than he currently has. His business consists, essentially, of exploiting a concession granted to him by the FIA. In consideration of us giving him that longer period he is going to give us shares in the floated company. He wants another 10 years and we are willing to give it to him - but we want substantial benefits from that.
"The ideal situation would be to have shares but also to have a lump sum of cash at the beginning of the deal so that the FIA is all right whatever happens to Formula 1."
Doesn't the FIA have a problem spending all the money which it gets from Formula 1?
"It is not as much as people think. F1 does bring in a lot of money, but it also costs us a lot. We have to fly an awful lot of people and equipment around the world. We could go back to the old days when we used to send one chap to look at scrutineering and let the locals send someone along to wave a flag and a few chaps to use stopwatches - but it is not like that any more. In the end, however, all we have to do to keep the French authorities happy about our tax status is to spend what comes into the federation - and that is probably the easiest single job we have got..."
What about the issue of safety. Formula 1 seems to have to be politically-correct about death and injury while other sports - such as mountaineering are allowed to kill hundreds of people every year.
"If people showed mountaineering live on television and showed climbers slowly expiring in the snow with a broken leg, 20,000ft up in the Himalayas there is no doubt there would be restrictions on that sport. But there isn't the coverage and so there are no restrictions. We conduct the whole sport in the full glare of publicity and, obviously, that has an effect. It is a fact of life and there is nothing you can do. The public quite rightly in my view do not like people getting hurt or killed."
Are you happy that the FIA is now professional enough to look after F1 in the long-term future in the right way?
"Well, it is an awful lot better than it was, but there is still a great deal of room for improvement. When you are in an organization all you see are the problems but when you are on the outside I hope it looks better. On the whole we have made a lot of progress - but we are by no means there."
Is it fair to say that you do not spend as much time on the sport as people think. The FIA is a much bigger organization than a lot of people in the sport realise?
"It is true I really have very little time for Formula 1. The sport ought to be running itself. It has had one or two problems lately in a couple of areas but fundamentally it ought to run itself. Having said that it is so high profile an activity that it attracts a lot of publicity and that obviously has an effect on the image of the FIA. Nowadays I spend about 60% of my time dealing with matters relating the automobile in general and 40% on motorsport problems. I am quite happy with that. The only problem is that whenever there is some sort of a crisis in motorsport I need to spend more time on it and so the 40% increases. The 60% does not decrease so it becomes more difficult because it all takes up more than 100% of my time!"