Motor racing is dangerous

As I was checking in for my flight to Brazil the man behind the desk at the airport looked at my ticket and smiled.

"Are you going to Brazil for the Grand Prix," he said. I was rather surprised and nodded submissively.

"You know," he said whimsically. "It's the best Grand Prix. The atmosphere is very good. The Brazilians really get excited."

"Oh really?" I muttered, deciding not to bother to explain that I have been to a few Brazilian Grands Prix in the course of the last 10 years. "Can I have a window seat?"

He punched a few buttons and the machines whirred.

"Are you going to buy grandstand seats when you get there, or have you bought them already?" he asked.

I had to give in.

"Neither," I said, "I'm a journalist. I go to all the Grands Prix."

"Oh," he replied, looking a bit surprised. "I used to work as a mechanic for Larrousse."

We looked at each other for a moment but there was no recognition but I knew why an ex-F1 mechanic was issuing boarding passes.

"Motor racing is a dangerous business, isn't it?"

"Particularly if you worked for Larrousse," he said.

To give him his due Gerard Larrousse was the Harry Houdini of F1 escapologists. His team would crash onto the financial rocks and - without so much as a drum roll or the blast of a trumpet - there would be Gerard with a new partner, with all the same old people in new uniforms. There was, although he never liked to talk about it much, a trail of unhappy partners, impoverished suppliers, dead bodies (remember the German gangster?) and legal actions but Gerard pressed on regardless, burning bridges with pyromaniac passion.

In the end Formula 1 did not want to play with Larrousse any more but the team goes on (under another name) preparing Lamborghini sportscars. And if you think I am being unkind it is possibly because on the final list of creditors - at the very bottom - is my name, which taught me not to do ANY writing work for any racing team...

When Larrousse went to the wall, he joined a long and not very illustrious list of bankrupted F1 teams. The demise of the Mastercard Lola team - after just one miserable meeting - was the 19th such closure since 1989. And if you don't believe me, read and remember Andrea Moda Formula, AGS, Brabham, Coloni, EuroBrun, Fondmetal, Forti, Larrousse, Life Racing Engines, Lotus, March, Modena Team, Monteverdi, Pacific, Rial, Scuderia Italia, Simtek and Zakspeed. I should add that several of these teams had several incarnations before they went finally to the wall. Fondmetal was a revamped Osella, March was Leyton House Racing and Monteverdi was a poor version of Onyx.

Several of these organizations crashed owing large sums of money. Only one or two were closed down by their owners before big debts were incurred. They faced up to the financial realities rather than hoping that a white rabbit with "Lucky Strike" badges on its back would be pulled from a black silk hat before the grim reaper accountants arrived.

The Mastercard Lola F1 story is short and sad but one must salute Eric Broadley - who, ironically, lost a lot of money a few years back with Larrousse - for being brave enough to stop after just one abortive race meeting and face the ridicule rather than risking the destruction of the entire Lola Cars empire, which he founded in 1958.

These days money is so important in F1 that a year or two ago I started reading the financial papers rather than the British weekly motor racing magazines. And, as I sat on the plane on the way to Brazil, I found in the Financial Times a story about Tom Walkinshaw doing a deal to develop buses for Volvo. The strange thing, so the financial experts reckoned, was that TWR had no experience in buses. Oh, I thought, the FT boys are obviously not race fans. In Melbourne the Arrows A18 looked to me as if it was handling like a large wobbly bus. No wonder Damon Hill reckoned his qualifying lap in Australia was as good as anything he ever did in a Williams-Renault.

In Brazil the Arrows was impressively quicker - Damon Hill qualifying ninth - evidence that when Tom Walkinshaw wants something to happen, it usually does. Tom on a mission is like a high-speed juggernaut. You do want to get in his way. Too dangerous.

"I think it would be better if we leave the pit," whispered an Arrows team member to me at one point when things were not going very well in Brazil. "Tom's in... what do you call the middle bit of a nuclear explosion? Oh yeah... meltdown mode."

We will see a further improvement when we get to Europe. Not because of new versions of the Yamaha engine - although this will help - but because, for the first time, Bridgestone will be on an equal footing with Goodyear. The first three races this year all take place on tracks where Bridgestone has never been able to test its F1 tires. The engineers have had to make educated guesses about the tires they need and this has led them to be pretty conservative, as one would expect. Given that fact I have been impressed but I have also been impressed by the Goodyear boys who have adopted an aggressive attitude and reckon that they can handle anything the Japanese can throw at them.

The tire war means that lap times are tumbling. In Melbourne Jacques Villeneuve's pole position was three seconds under his mark of 1996. In Brazil - the improvement was two seconds a lap. One has to ask how these improvements will affect the safety work done in recent years by the FIA. I am of the school of thought of Villeneuve and Bernie Ecclestone that motor racing should be faster and a little more dangerous than it currently is, but that this cannot happen until the circuits have enough run-off areas. You can have the most dangerous and exhilarating corner in the world in F1 if there is run-off. This is the best way I can think of to improve the racing because the more difficult and challenging the corner, the fewer drivers can do what is necessary. And that means that overtaking will become easier.

Changing circuits is not easy because owners do not want to invest the kind of money one needs for vast earth-moving programs, because F1 is soaking up so much of their profits already.

There is a solution to this problem and, rather neatly, it would solve another problem F1 is facing at the moment. Those who are against the flotation of Formula 1 on the world's stock markets say that the financial institutions will not invest the kind of money being discussed because F1's assets are minimal. In fact the whole business is based around a few contracts.

One way to keep the financial institutions happy would be for Formula One Holdings Ltd. to use some of its money to buy as many race tracks as it can. It could then control ALL aspects of F1 rather than leaving some of them to local promoters. One could introduce economies of scale and permanent TV wiring, which would mean that Bernie Ecclestone's TV facility - known as "Bakersville" after Eddie Baker, the man who runs it - could be moved from one track to another with greater ease. And that would mean that F1 could have more races.

"That would not work," said an anti-flotation type in the paddock at Interlagos. "You cannot buy Monaco."

"Why not?" I said. "The Grimaldi Family would probably be happy to sell the place for $4bn and buy a nice little island like Elba and spend their days not worrying about photographers hiding in the bushes."

Bernie - who doesn't like paying taxes very much - could move his empire to the Grimaldi Palace, build some nice pits and a proper paddock club, open a Formula 1 Cafe or two, sell souvenirs to millions of tourists - he would probably charge an entrance fee too...

He could control the casino revenues, licence Monaco's private banks and manage to squeeze even more money out of motor racing by raising the taxes for some of Monaco's most famous residents - F1 drivers. He could even call himself His Serene Highness Prince Bernie I and life would probably be much more serene and calm than it now is.

The trouble is that Bernie is just not like that. Being serene is not really something which he shows much of interest in. He likes to be wheeling and dealing. It would not be long before he would start having ideas. I can hear him now.

"Yeah. Northern Italy is nice, isn't it? And you don't want those nasty poor little provinces in the south. Lombardy has a lot of industry owned by my friends the Agnelli Family. Maybe we could get the states to club together - the Federation Of Catholic Authorities - FOCA, that sounds good - and we could demand more rights from the Italian government."

If Bernie has built F1 from being an anorak sport into a multi-billion dollar industry, just imagine what he could do with a small country.

Watch out world, motor racing is dangerous...

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