Growing pains

The Spanish Grand Prix is always a rather relaxed affair. The sun is shining, the circuit is devoid of spectators (the Spanish never having shown much interest in F1 in recent years) and the goat - the local speciality - is really rather tasty.

The annual firings do not usually start until after the Canadian GP and the silly season has not really started and so traditionally nothing much happens in Spain.

Quiet sunny weekends do not sell newspapers and so the journalists in F1 have to go off and hunt for stories. There was a bit of excitement this year at the new McLaren motorhome, a vast - what can one say? - mobile headquarters and communication business tool in which McLaren management has the potential to exploit windows of opportunity to maximize sponsor-related performance with positive interface situations...

What? It's a gin palace where sponsors have lunch and watch TV and where Ron Dennis makes telephone calls. Rumor has it that the weird-looking device cost over a million pounds and took 18 months to design and build. Lovely - but it does seem like an awful lot of money for a telephone box which serves cordon bleu food.

The paddock was quick to take the mickey (more of him later) of the motorhome to beat all motorhomes. It was called "the trolley bus" and even "a monument to bad taste" although I must say I preferred the more literary "A Streetcar named Naff". The really nasty folk - like me - asked a simple question: "Would it not have been better to spent the million on the windtunnel program so that the sponsors can chow down watching their cars winning races rather than finishing second to Ligiers?"

Once the motorhome question was out of the way the chattering classes of the paddock were left with only two good stories to chase: What will be the 1997 calendar? And where does the Shannon Racing Team get all its money?

The answer to the first question is easier than the second, although in both cases the paddock was full of curious theories. And so it was that conversations kept turning around to the 1997 calendar and where the circus will be going.

There is no doubt that the 16 current races are all keen to continue to be part of the F1 calendar. The Austrians want to join the fun. So does Walt Disney World in Florida... the Chinese are keen... the Indonesians expect a race... Las Vegas is not far from landing a deal... South Africa is desperate to get back on the calendar... Korea and Malaysia are planning... and so it goes on. There is no trouble at all in finding 20 races which could easily happen.

The teams have been asked by F1 bosses Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley is they would like to do more races with shorter race meetings. They have said "No!".

Ecclestone and Mosley want 20 races and - apart from the fact that some people in F1 actually like going home and seeing their wives and children, friends, pets and gardens - there is a great deal of logic in their argument. The racing season spans from the start of March to the middle of October. Bernie and Max have agreed that teams should actually be allowed 16 weeks off in the winter in which to build their new cars but there are still 31 weekends between the Australian GP in March and the Japanese GP in October and only 16 races.

Bernie and Max argue that teams now do so much testing these days that they might as well be racing 20 times because this would earn them more money from their sponsors, more media coverage (and hence more money). There would be more prize money available and the travel funds would still exist.

The fact is that another four races would not make much of a difference to anyone if they were cleverly placed on the calendar. Too often the F1 calendar has been a miserable affair with two trips to Japan or a race one weekend in Portugal and the next in Germany. There are reasons for this - Bernie makes a lot of money - but twinning races is much more logical.

A race in Hungary should be followed by a race in Austria a week later; China and Japan could link up as Brazil and Argentina now do; Canada should be linked to another North American race; Indonesia and Australia are not far apart. Spain and Portugal should be within a week of each other and not at opposite ends of the F1 calendar.

All this is logical and would not greatly add to the costs when offset by the increases in income which would be offered, but the teams say "No".

The interesting thing is that - although smooth as can be on the surface - Bernie and Max are hardly likely to back down on the matter. They are the powerbrokers and they do not want to be ordered around by mere team owners...

Mosley is very happy in his role as the president of an international movement, a major pressure group which he uses to boss around politicians and scare car manufacturers. It must be a lot of fun...

...and he has an election coming up in 1997 if he wants to retain this exalted office. I doubt there is anyone mad enough to challenge him at the moment but if I was a challenger - and I never will be - I would set off for a trip around the far-flung corners of the FIA empire and explain that I was interested in creating a really international organization and not one based on a few old automobile clubs in Europe. In fact I would do exactly what Max did to defeat Jean-Marie Balestre in the FISA election in 1991. His manifesto aimed to globalize the FIA and motor sport and break down the dominance of the clubs of Europe. Back in 1991, of course, F1 was not very global. We went to the United States, to Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Japan and Australia. There were six intercontinental races and 10 European events.

This year we are going to Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and Japan and there are 11 European races.

The world seems to be getting smaller...

But Max's little local difficulties are nothing to compare with the forces at work on Bernie. Mr. E likes making money - or if he doesn't he must have a miserable life because that is about all he ever does. He is a man of incredible vision who has built the sport into the mammoth business it is today - at the same time he has fashioned it into an entertaining show. Now he can see the road ahead and, from where he is sitting I suspect what he sees is a yellow brick road to where the rainbow ends - made entirely of gold bars.

Bernie's vision is not difficult to understand. He has a product which can be beamed to any TV set in the world - from Marrakesh to Outer Mongolia. The product is glamorous. It is fast and exciting. It is something which people want to associate with. They want to buy Schumacher hats and Monaco T-shirts; they want Damon Hill posters on their walls; they want to nip down to the local and tell their friends - over a cup of yak's milk - what they thought about a certain overtaking manoeuvre.

At the moment Bernie and Max are improving the product with careful legislation aimed at making the racing more interesting to watch. A little more overtaking and the package will be perfect. As the technology improves so will the TV coverage with the promise of interactivity uppermost in Ecclestone's mind.

And as everything comes together the sharper companies in the world are beginning to realize that F1 has now become the best way to deliver a message to the billions of Chinese, Indians, Russians and so on who are looking for ways to spend their money. There is a vast emerging middle class in Asia are these are the prime target for most of F1's sponsors. Benetton wants to sell its sweaters and rollerblades, Red Bull wants to sell its high-energy drink and Shannon wants to sell whatever it is that Shannon makes. There are billions to be made. Just as an idea China has 300 million smokers - five times the population of Great Britain.

The Walt Disney Co. is smart enough to have realized that by falling into bed with F1 they can not only make millions merchandising, but can also ram the Disney name across the airwaves to every TV set in the world. The Coca-Cola people and McDonalds are beginning to understand that Mongolians don't have to eat Yak Burgers and drink Yak Milk, they might fancy a Big Mac and a Coke.

At the moment the real financial power in F1 belongs to the cigarette companies and the car manufacturers and they, more than anyone, want to get into Asia. The cigarette men are being restricted more and more in the western world. Last week the World Health Authority claimed that motor racing is a "non-stop commercial" for cigarettes and called for a ban on all "broadcasts of tobacco advertising masquerading as sports sponsorship" worldwide.

Such action is pushing the tobacco industry to countries where tobacco bans are either unheard of or ignored. There are, for example, 300 million smokers in China ready to buy western cigarettes.

The pot of gold awaits F1 and all Bernie has to do is convince the team owners that they should follow him to the promised land. He has led most of them from being greasy oiks with oil under their fingernails to being legends in their own lunchtime and yet they balk to follow. They will, of course, because they always do. If I had a dollar for every time a team boss has told me that he is "not going to back down on this one" and then given in when Bernie bared his teeth I would be rich as some of them are.

And that, I suppose, tells the whole story because the bottom line in F1 is always the bottom line. Everyone does what Bernie and Max tell them to - in the end - because going against the dynamic duo is not intelligent.

At the moment, however, the F1 team bosses are being stubborn and parochial - as often they are. They are sitting on an oil well and hitting the ground with knives and forks rather than buying a decent drill...

They say that they cannot do more races because their crews are tired and it costs too much money. Hell, if the Asian market opens up as it should, they will be able to buy entire second and even third crews and they can build endless numbers of silly buses in which to eat their spaghetti Bolognese and make telephone calls.

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