THE YOUTH OF TODAY

Thrills and spills and Formula 1

There was something of an irony in the fact that members of the British and German media were all huddled together in the McLaren hospitality area to watch the Germany vs. England soccer World Cup qualifier. You see back home in Blighty, and indeed to most of Germany, there may as well have not been a Grand Prix at Spa this year. Schumi has done his thing and scampered off with the silverware for a fourth time, and if we insist on waking up in sub-zero guest houses somewhere in foggy old Belgium that's our silly look out.

The last four races of this year are effectively non-championship, the race to be first loser enthralling nobody except Rubens Barrichello - but he needn't expect anyone else to take any notice.

Once upon a time individual Grands Prix were all-consuming contests to teams and public alike, but now they are merely viewed as steps to the great white hype itself, the world championship… a title that, history tells us, as many great drivers have lost as have won.

As a result interest in the remaining Grands Prix is plummeting now that the 2001 championship is over and on Saturday night in Belgium, under McLaren's nose, the very media that tells the world of the battles of Coulthard and Hakkinen against Ferrari settled down to enjoy the game.

It was a scene that was to have been found in bars across the world, where talk of Formula 1 would be non-existent as the many qualifying games were played out pitted nation against nation in order to try and get through to the final tournament next summer.

All that mattered were those 90 minutes, and nowhere more so than in England and Germany, when the old adversaries squared up for possibly the most celebrated game of soccer since the two sides met on Christmas Day 1914. Meanwhile far from the convivial and distinctly Anglo-German McLaren hospitality area editors busily set about whittling 500-word qualifying reports down to ‘Montoya takes pole' and squeezing them in somewhere beneath a big picture of a soccer star. Under such circumstances the Belgian qualifying session had offered rich returns, the last minute lottery and drama actually made for something that might entice a little more coverage. The last-ditch laps, the gambling on full dry or compromise settings made heroes of the Williams team, Alain Prost and Heinz-Harald Frentzen and promised an entertaining Grand Prix with which the soccer-mad world could recover from its communal hangover and perhaps even share a water cooler moment on Monday morning.

Being the super-slick operators that we know and love you'd have thought that McLaren would have been able to see that, especially as all it had to do was look inside its own marquee to see how the odds were stacked against getting any kind of coverage for its activities and all-important sponsors against the World Cup.

But no no and thrice no. As the game kicked off McLaren was busy with a protest that threatened to turn the higgledy-piggledy grid on its head - in defense of Appendix H, Article 4.1.2 (b) of the FIA 2001 International Sporting Code.

Was McLaren's demotion to the fourth and fifth rows of the grid due to inspired teamwork elsewhere or because, contrary to said sporting rule, some naughty drivers didn't lift off the throttle when passing the yellow flags held out for Nick Heidfeld's stranded Sauber?

The fact that the media center was almost empty throughout the course of the protest while the noise from the McLaren unit echoed through the Ardennes just goes to show what the majority thought about that little question, and their disinterest was that of their audiences.

A few hardy scribes sat through it all like ducks in thunder waiting for the verdict, sharing the desperate hope of not having to explain the finer points of the rulebook to what remains of Formula 1's casual audience. They got their wish, and one day Ron Dennis might have good cause to be thankful too.

Only the day before Ron had derided American motor sport for being a ‘show' while Formula 1 is, in his words, ‘pure motor racing' - and doubtless he could get equally pithy about soccer if prompted.

Yet for all that I and most others in the paddock agree with him on the need to preserve the sanctity of Formula 1, the wider world clearly no longer cares little for ‘pure motor racing'… as indeed America is preparing to demonstrate.

Europe may have acquiesced to the studied indifference F1 shows towards its public, but America is refusing - and it is voting with its feet. Ticket sales are down on last year's event, and with Bobby Rahal gone from Jaguar many more tickets have been returned with none of the all-important American input.

Americans like wham, bam, thank you ma'am sporting action, preferably ending with a tearful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Yet bereft of the title battle, Formula 1 is struggling to keep its home crowd watching, let alone appeal to a nation whose thrills are sated elsewhere, thank you very much.

I'm glad that the soap opera championships of recent years are now apparently behind us, that credulity is no longer stretched to breaking point, even if we have to endure as many dull races as we have this year - but then I'm one of those few who just love racing.

But with the championship already lost and interest on the wane the World Cup is a warning that America is not the only place where Formula 1 has to worry about its popularity, and so when something interesting happens as it did at Spa in qualifying why try to pull out the rule book to shoot a gift horse in the mouth?

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