GLOBETROTTER

Crystal balls

In the United States of America there used to be a tradition at all the major sporting events that when the battles were over and a winner had emerged he or she would go to see the assembled press corps and someone would always ask:

"Say, Charlie, what are you going to do now that you have won the Indy 500?"

This was the accepted prompt for the victor to add to his spoils by saying:

"Me? I'm going to Disneyland!"

And as he left the press room a mysterious man would sidle up to him and slide him a huge brown envelope full of large denomination notes.

It does not happen like when any normal person goes off to Disneyland. In fact it is quite the opposite. You go along and mysterious Disney types take all your money off you and send you home clutching Mickey Mouse balloons and wondering where all the money went. I know this because after the Hungarian Grand Prix I spent a few days at Disneyland in Paris.

This mammoth enterprise use to be called Eurodisney but so much money was spent to build the place that it fell into debt and got a bad reputation in business circles and so has now been renamed Disneyland Paris. It must be making a fortune now. I cannot remember ever seeing so many people in one place. We spent a couple of days standing in queues, eating junk food and buying little plastic trinkets made for Disney by people in China.

It was while standing in the various queues, trying not to become irate as another Italian pushed his way past, that I began pondering the future of the theme park in Formula 1 racing. As you may have read in previous columns I am of the opinion that rather than being in a situation where the expansion bubble is about to burst, as people have been predicting for years, F1 racing stands on the verge of a new boom which will lift the whole sport to an entirely new level. This will be triggered by the flotation of Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Holdings and the arrival of a team of professional marketing men. Bernie has always made no secret of the fact that he feels it is beneath his dignity to be "a T-shirt salesman" and so most of the promotional activities in F1 have been largely ignored. When the business is floated these will become prime targets for expansion. Bernie will go on pulling the strings in the F1 paddock - as he always has done - but men in suits will start having committee meetings and will decide that Grand Prix racing is an under-developed resource in terms of its synergy with merchandising and that there is an enormous window of opportunity to expand the development envelope and maximize the earning potential of the business. This means more than just selling tee shirts but there is no doubt, working on the figures from American sport that a global business like F1 should very soon be bringing in billions of dollars every year from the sale of F1-related merchandise.

There will be F1 shops where one will be able to buy everything from team gear to sponsored ear-plugs. There will be F1 cafes - along the lines of Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe - which will not only retail expensive food but will also be used to sell more T-shirts. The logical step from there is to develop the idea of a series of F1 theme parks.

This makes enormous commercial sense because the average Grand Prix circuit is a pretty poor financial performer. Some have moderately successful businesses with income from testing, conventions, corporate days, driving schools and industrial parks and even a little from selling branded circuit goods - but these do not make REAL money.

The only really big money they earn is the on the one weekend a year when the Formula 1 circus comes to town - and most of this has to be given back to Ecclestone to ensure that the circus keeps on visiting year after year.

It makes sense, therefore, for circuit owners to sell out if Formula 1 Holdings offers them a large sum of money to rid themselves of the circuit. This also gives Formula 1 Holdings some concrete assets, which has to be a long-term aim of the empire.

Only certain circuits are worth having and these the ones which enjoy a curious sort of mythical status with the general public. Whether people like racing or not most have heard of Spa, the Nurburgring, Monza and Silverstone and this is something which is not being exploited at the moment. The next step is to leave the tracks running as they are but to use nearby land for development.

In order to make the tracks more profitable they must offer something which will attract big crowds all year round. The obvious answer is, of course, the theme park and motor racing is perfectly positioned to provide what the public want from a good day out. Disney does not seem to have identified the power of motor racing but there is no doubt that some of the most popular attractions are automobile-related. At Disneyland in California and in Paris some of the biggest queues are for the attraction they call "Autopia", which gives you the chance to drive a car around on a rail and bump the car in front of you. The steering vaguely works and the throttle makes a lot of noise when you press on it but otherwise it is a fairly pointless exercise - but people love it.

At Disneyland Paris motor racing turned up in a curious auditorium - sponsored I noticed by Renault - where all the walls were video screens and you found yourself in a 360-degree cinema. You are then transported on a series of adventures with someone pretending to be Jules Verne. We were run over by a high-speed train (you may like to know that it was not at all painful) but it was rather alarming to be roared at by a large dinosaur. We flew over the Alps and swooped above Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria and then all of a sudden dear old Jules was in a Formula 1 car driving around the old Osterreichring in the wrong direction - with other Grand Prix cars coming at him. It was great fun.

Just imagine what you could do with high-technology motor racing related attractions. The Andrea de Cesaris crash machine would be a load more fun than Space Mountain, as the capsule into which you are strapped tumbles end over end accompanied by all the necessary film and noise going on all around you.

"Gee Mum," the kids will say, "Andrea's Austrian shunt was brilliant. Can we go and do Paul Hawkins at Monaco now?"

The biggest attraction, however, would probably be the Jos Verstappen Hockenheim Experience in which visitors would find themselves inside heat-proof see-through tubes just as Jos comes hurtling into the Benetton pits at Hockenheim in his 1994 car. The flash fire would be quite dramatic.

Ingenious designers would come up with ideas to make the technology involved in F1 more easy for the man on the street to understand. You would probably be able to walk through a laser beam show which will reveal what it would be like if you could walk around inside a CAD-CAM machine. You will be allowed to marvel at the inside of the inner sanctums - the motorhomes - and will be able to buy your lunch under the awning at the McLaren Motorhome restaurant (buffet service). You may even be able to try your hand at being Murray Walker and I expect they will sell you a videotape with your commentary on it.

If they are really clever you will be able to walk through a vast slow-motion F1 engine with pistons screaming up and down, cylinders exploding and valves smacking in and out and tidal waves of oil sloshing around the walkway.

If modern Formula 1 becomes too complicated and stressful you can always take a trip down memory lane and see all the World Champions on a stage together, discussing their great races - you can do wonderful things with robotics these days - and maybe there will be a chance to have an audience with Enzo Ferrari in the Cavallino Restaurant.

Everywhere you go there will be different themed cafes: the Trattoria Ferrari; Schumi's Kuchen and the Williams Cafe. And the park will be laid out in such a way that one will always have to walk past the merchandising units, which will probably be integrated into some form of fake pitlane, on your way to the exit. To make life easier for the visitors it will make perfect sense to have hotels on site (with conference centers of course) and so FOH will have to knock up a few themed hotels, aiming for different segments of the market. Those who pay more will be able to stay in the Monaco-themed hotel which will no doubt have a casino inside so that you can really feel like high-roller. The cheaper hotels will be less elaborate.

The great secret of the theme park concept is that the profit is not really made on the entry tickets but rather on all the peripherals. Everyone has to eat and drink and have a room to stay in. Everyone wants some memento of their trip, something to show the neighbors or the other kids at school. An entry ticket may cost you only $30 but by the time you leave you will find that you have spent $300 or $400 and FOH will have taken it all.

When I was at Disneyland Paris all the hotel rooms were booked solid. I cannot tell you how many rooms they had there but the place I finally managed to get into - a very basic hotel disguised as a wild west town - had 1000 rooms and there were at least four other such places which I saw when I was trolling around the Park. All these places will need proper access roads and plenty of parking which will, of course, make the circuit a much nicer place to be when the F1 circus does come to town.

Now you do not have to be a genius to work out that if you have one park at each of the "classic circuits" you will make 10 times as much money as if you have only one.

The audience will be virtually guaranteed because the level of interest in F1 racing now is such that many thousands of people who cannot now afford a ticket to a Grand Prix will be able to get a feel of what life is like in F1 at a much reduced rate... so Doris and Desmond Deckchair will bring the kids and leave the contents of their wallet behind and they will all go home happy.

We will have to wait and see if the idea will catch on in America but a lot more work needs to be done in the United States if F1 wants to be taken seriously over there.

One night at Spa we were in the restaurant of our hotel and bumped into an American couple.

"Gee," said the lady, "What is going here at the moment. We are having real trouble finding a hotel. We thought it would be real quiet here. We came to see where my father-in-law fought in the last war. He was at Malmedy with the 199th Infantry you know."

Yes, Madame, well you see, there's this thing called Formula 1 racing. It's like Indycars but bigger...

"Oh Gee, really?"

Print Feature