Exploding chickens, mad cows and political minds

There are times when I find myself wondering what on earth is going in the world of Grand Prix racing. The answer, of course, is progress and for better or for worse I am married to the sport. In the old days I was a plain old sports reporter. I wrote about motor races. In those days the drivers were interesting. They said things like: "I hate the bastard. He tried to kill me" and "my car handles like a bucket of fish" and it never even crossed their mind that they might be upsetting some fat sponsor or his fish-loving wife. Today when you try to talk to a driver, there is a slimy assistant who says something like: "At this moment in time, to the best of my knowledge, there is a window of opportunity for a driver-media interface situation in 13 months from the present moment".

The boom in Grand Prix racing is the reason that such ghastly people have crept under the door of the sport and I dare say that in the years ahead it will become ever more corporate and dull. There was a time not very long ago when the initial boom attracted those who were, how shall we say, closer to the boundaries of society and willing to bend the rules a little further than most. They were colorful characters but I must say I did not like most of them. Still, they did provide amusement and no shortage of copy for the journalists.

The contest for the most ridiculous team boss was a closely-fought battle. There was Andrea Sassetti, who always wore black and had pointy shoes. His racing team was a disaster and closed down soon after he was arrested by police in the paddock at the Belgian Grand Prix. There was Jean-Pierre Van Rossem who had white hair and a beard down to his waist and looked a bit like a seedy Father Christmas. He kept his wife in a deep freeze after her death in the hope that medical science would one day revive her. He's in jail too.

But I have to admit that my favorite team boss is probably Gerard Larrousse's one-time partner Rainer Walldorf. You have probably forgotten him. He popped up for a few months in 1992 I think it was. He looked a bit dodgy and wore white socks - which is always a bad sign.

Little did we know at the time that the 50-year-old German was actually called Klaus Walz and was wanted by the police in several countries in connection with four different - and rather nasty - murders. Formula 1 discovered this when news came from France that Mr. Walldorf's house had been raided early one morning by a posse of French police. He had taken his arrest calmly and asked if he might collect something important from the desk in his study. The police shrugged, as they do in France, and he rummaged around until he found the hand grenade he was looking for. He then gave the assembled policemen a choice: they could all blow up together there and then, or he could take the police chief hostage and handcuff everyone else to the available furniture. The policemen had a vote and were manacled to the fixtures and fittings while Walz and the police chief went off in a car into the country. On the way he telephoned an accomplice and they met in the hills, leaving the police chief handcuffed to the steering wheel of his car, and throwing the hand grenade into a nearby chicken coop.

A month later Walz was tracked down to a hotel in Germany where, after being surrounded for nine hours by German police, he shot himself 48 times. Well, that was the official story!

They don't make F1 team bosses like that any more.

Today F1 is back in the land of respectable businessmen, insurance companies and pension funds. Men in suits and brittle looking ladies are to be seen wandering around trying to assess whether the sport is a good long-term investment.

In recent months we have seen a further development in the sport. It has now entered the realms of politics and the sport has caught a nasty plague of politicians, who have begun meddling in the business.

I have nothing against these sort of people in principle except that experience has taught me that politicians are not to be trusted. I am always amazed when people believe anything a politician tells them. They are, of course, a charming lot but I would never buy a used car from anyone who had ever held office...

Still, there is nothing wrong with these talking heads coming along to hand out trophies. They are happy because they are seen on television, standing next to a race winner. Apparently this immediately links them in the eyes of the public with success and good times. And the sport is happy because anyone - even Royal Princesses - are better than a man in a blazer from the local automobile club.

The meddling, however, is too much to take. For 25 years motor racing and the tobacco industry have lived very happily together. Everyone knows that tobacco is bad for you but if it is legal there is no reason why it should not be allowed to advertise. But no, the socially-acceptable thing is to attack the tobacco companies and so to win votes the politicians have insisted that there must be legislation to stop them advertising.

I am not a smoker, but I object to this sort of witch-hunting. If smoking is bad for you then the politicians should ban it. We all know that this will never happen because no government will do such a thing because tobacco brings in so much money. In Europe it is estimated that in a year tobacco provides the governments of the European Union with $50 billion in income. Now President Bill Clinton - a saint of a man without any taint on his character - has announced that he is intending to hike taxes on the tobacco products to help pay for his social policies. He aims to add $1.50 to every pack of cigarettes. This will raise $65 billion a year which can be spent to help the public forget about the affair he never had with that Monica woman.

The British Government is similarly nonsensical. It supports a ban on tobacco advertising but then turns around and bans the sale of British beef on the bone. Apparently, a man with letters after his name has vaguely proved that there might be a connection between eating roast beef and having one's brain melt. And so you are not allowed to buy beef attached to the bone. You can buy the beef and you can buy the bones, but you cannot have them together. The European farmers are laughing all the way to the slaughter houses, as their mad cows dance around in circles while the British beef industry self-destructs.

"I don't understand the law," I heard a British farmer say the other day on TV. "Beef on the bone is banned but you are still allowed to smoke. It is not the cows that are mad. It is the politicians."

If one was being difficult one might point out that eating too much fatty food will also help to kill you but you do not hear politicians trying to ban advertisements for French fries and greasy hamburgers. And what about cars? Road accidents wipe out hundreds of thousands of young lives every year and no-one says: "Hey, maybe we should banned the advertising of cars."

The French, who love to be pioneers, decided that they must lead the world in anti-tobacco legislation. The effect of this was that bars all over France are still horrible smoky places full of men with Gauloises dangling from their lower lips. The government has loads more money to spend on idiotic farmers and missile development programs and the French motor racing industry is all but dead. Today we have a fading Jean Alesi. Do you remember the days when the French drivers dominated the sport? It is arguable whether France deserves to have a Grand Prix after such behavior.

But, of course, these days the biggest meddlers of all are not national governments but rather the people at the European Commission in Brussels. The Competition Commissioner Karel Van Miert is leading the chase, barking like a beagle, and seemingly intent on smashing up the current structure of Formula 1. This is not a good idea because businesses work best with a benign dictatorship, rather than a democratic arrangement. There are, undoubtedly, things that are done which are not very democratic but, love him or hate him, Ecclestone is a benign dictator. Yes, he takes a lot of money out of the sport but if he was not there nor would the money be. Frankly, he is entitled to it and he has worked incredibly hard for 25 years to build up his empire when no-one else had the foresight to do it. If Bernie was allowed to get on with his business and float Formula One Holdings on the stock exchanges of the world, the way the business was being run would change anyway. Bernie is not a corporate type.

The sport does not need Van Miert. He has no interest in motor racing. It is just a vehicle for him to prove whatever it is he is trying to prove. If I was being cynical I would say that his attacks on big business in general and F1 in particular are more about building himself a reputation so that he can make a bid for the Presidency of the European Commission in the year 2000 rather than anything to do with the laws of competition.

And if you think I am being harsh you should perhaps know that prior to taking up his current job Van Miert was responsible for transport policy at the Commission and happily allowed a whole range of anti-competitive activities to take place, allowing European countries to pour money into their failing airlines. He was not a born trust-buster...

Oh please, for the sake of the sport, bring back Klaus Walz!

Print Feature