The winds of change in F1

Welcome, race fans, to the "Silly Season", that time of year when you read all kind of daft stories in the newspapers. I am not just talking about F1 either. In many walks of life late July and early August are the time when people take their vacation, so that they can spend time with their children during the school holidays. As people are busy fighting over towel space on the beaches of Europe, there is less news being generated. The only thing which happens without fail at this time of year is that the number of children being murdered increases, presumably as a result of parents getting to know them better.

With only the odd child murder going on and all the politicians, businessmen and arms-dealers fighting for the beaches, journalists are struggling. This is made worse by the fact that the experienced reporters have figured out that the best thing to do is not to fight the system but to join it and go on holiday as well.

This leaves the second-string men and the junior reporters with the problem of digging up the non-existent news which means that one often sees stories about ducks on skateboards and little old ladies who collect bottle tops.

The Formula 1 "Silly Season" was a little different because in the summer the sport is at full tilt with a race meeting every 10 days. Nevertheless, as August beckons, minds in F1 are already looking ahead to next year. Design teams are busy twiddling with their computer mice. Aerodynamicists are getting the wind in their hair again and the production bods will soon be making the first patterns for the 1998 racing cars. It is the time to finalize engine deals and to work out who will be driving where. This is not silly at all. It is very good planning. The silliness comes because of the conflicting stories about which team is talking to which driver and so on. Some contacts are spotted, others are not.

It can a frustrating time of year if you let it get to you because finding the truth among the smokescreens is not easy. This year's Silly Season has been curiously flat, not because there are not going to be major moves but rather because it is not just a question of established stars switching about. We are looking at the replacement of an entire generation of drivers with a band of new - and cheap - youngsters such as Ralf Schumacher, Giancarlo Fisichella, Alexander Wurz and Jarno Trulli. Some of the old names like Gerhard Berger, Jean Alesi, Mika Hakkinen, Eddie Irvine and Damon Hill may be facing a more difficult task to hold on to drives in F1.

Formula 1 is, of course, a consumer society. There is not much in the way of recycling. Young drivers come and go. If they make an impression they perhaps get the chance to stay. F1 squeezes them and then pops then out when it is finished: only the clever, the lucky and the very quick are able to survive.

Constant movement is a general rule in Grand Prix racing. Every year there are guides published with all the names of the people in the different positions within each team. These are out of date within weeks. About the only people who do not move around frantically are the team bosses and the press.

It may be brutal to say it, but the other day I couldn't help thinking that it was a bit of a shame that team bosses do not change around more often.

One can argue that at the moment there is a zephyr of change with Jordan beginning to come on strong as a team and the arrival of Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost but it seems sometimes that no matter what happens we are stuck with the same old faces in most of the teams. We know their foibles and their vices and, despite their earnest efforts to surprise us, they are becoming more and more predictable. They have also become a little bit too alike as the commercial pressures have made them afraid to communicate anything of interest in case a rival tries to steal the deal or screw the pitch.

If they say anything of interest you have to ask yourself why you are being told. A journalist is only ever told things these days if it is in the interest of the source to let the information leak. Some of the team principals do release things in good faith but figuring out which one's to trust and when is a very complicated business.

The need for secrecy and discretion is really very dull and tends to make them all seem rather bland talking heads, mouthing away in marketing speak. What worried me the other day was when I heard that Bernie Ecclestone, Flavio Briatore, Eddie Jordan and Tom Walkinshaw had all decided to go on holiday together in Sardinia. I always assumed that the purpose of a holiday was to have a break from business. It is impossible to imagine that these four high-fliers love one another like faithful old friends. Even taking into account the ability of F1 movers and shakers to forget the fact that someone double-crossed them the previous day, this is extraordinary and the only possible conclusion is that the reason they were there is that they concluded that they would make more money or whatever it is they are searching for.

When I first started reporting about motor racing I was fascinated to find out the motivation of the drivers. There were many different reasons why people raced but gradually they divided into a number of common themes. The motivation of a team bosses is much the same. There are those who chase glory; those who chase recognition and those who chase money.

For many years Flavio Briatore has long been one of my favorite targets for psychoanalysis. His involvement in F1 has never made any sense at all to me, except as a broker of commodities. He buys a driver cheap and sells him expensively; he buys a team when it is in a mess and sells it when things improve. You must, of course, add the fact that Flavio enjoys a high profile life and never lets a camera go by without somehow getting his face in front of it. He's made a lot of money. He has read his name in the papers - so what does he do now?

There has been much speculation in recent weeks about Briatore's future and it seems to me that he could be on his way. His time is passing. As a buccaneering capitalist he had his place in F1 in the late 1980s and he taught the old team owners a few ruthless tricks about wheeling and dealing. Increasingly, however, these are the days of corporate strategy and glossy public relations work. At Hockenheim Flavio was put up in front of the press and asked questions about why he had not announced his engine deal for next year. In the end he became exasperated. He would tell everyone when he was ready to; it was none of our business.

For some time now Flavio has looked an older and wearier man. Take a look at photographs of him when he came to F1 and compare them to today and you see that the stress has take its toll. Ron Dennis and Frank Williams have a different kind of motivation. They are racers. They are driven by the racing itself and that sustains them when the going gets tough. For those with only financial incentives it is less easy to have the drive and resources to fight back. There are easier ways of making money.

We shall have to wait and see if the Briatore Phase in F1 is over and we are entering a new corporate era. After commodity brokers what can we look forward to next? I guess we will soon be seeing driver managers with managers and press officers with press officers.

Thankfully, this is - in a way - one of the joys about being an F1 reporter. People often ask me how we can stay for years writing about the same old things but I can honestly say that it is not like that. I started out reporting on racing. They were happy innocent days and a lot of fun. Since then, as the years have gone by, I have found myself writing about finance, politics, the law and even murders. These days one need to know as much about automotive technology as one does about the workings of European Law and how flotations work.

And I can see that we will need to learn still more in the years ahead. There are aspects of the business which are only beginning to be developed. People in the F1 paddock love to talk about the F1 "bubble" bursting but I just cannot see it happening. I see the growth continuing around the world. I can even see the pace accelerating as the business realizes just how much there is to be gained from merchandising the sport properly.

You have only to wander out into the public areas at Hockenheim - something which team bosses never do - and look at the race fans to realize that here is a vast resource and all over the world are similar armies with their pocketsful of money they wish to spend to buy an association with Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, Minardi or whichever brand they feel suits their personality. I have never understood why anyone would want to wear Michael Schumacher underwear but then I have trouble accepting the concept that it is cool to wear a T-shirt saying you have been to the Hard Rock Cafe in Bangkok.

Still, I am looking forward to learning more about branding. As we were driving into Hockenheim this year I had a quick crash course which involved a couple Volkswagen products: the Golf Bon Jovi and the Pink Floyd estate.

The Bon Jovi had a bumper sticker which left me rather confused.

"It is time to pull over and change the air in your head" said the bumper sticker. The only possible conclusion is that the driver was proud to be an airhead.

The Pink Floyd was rather depressing. Once upon a time Pink Floyd was a rebel rock and roll band. Today that image is being used to sell cars for middle-aged rockers who want to put kids and Labradors in the back...

Print Feature