Thespians, smokescreens, cinema owners and hooch

In another life before being engulfed in Formula 1 I was involved for a time in theatrical activities. I acted (badly) in a few plays and then went on to direct, working on the principle that those who can do and those who cannot teach. Being a theatre director is a wonderful job but it is a lot more difficult than people think because in order to get actors and actresses to be convincing on stage you have to understand a great deal about human behavior and body language. On top of that you have to massage these delicate theatrical souls into doing what you want them to do without driving them to nervous breakdowns.

One mistake which most inexperienced actors make is that they relax when they are not delivering their lines. When they are not in the spotlight they slip out of character.

Not many racing drivers have been on the stage. There are a few who perhaps should have been because they are comedy acts, but most of them spend their formative years covered in oil, wearing Castrol GTX jackets at freezing racing circuits. The concept of mixing with the brittle flowers of the Thespian world does not greatly appeal to them. As a consequence they do not learn how to act and are rarely very convincing when faced by those who understand the skills needed to be a good liar - which is, essentially, only a rudimentary form of acting.

A few organizations involved in F1 have tried over the years to send drivers away for acting classes and such things but drivers are rarely convincing liars - although there is at least one (trained) top rate liar at the moment.

David Coulthard is not that man, although I thought his performance in Melbourne was worth a motor racing Oscar. He told a wonderful story about deciding, in a very chivalrous moment, to let Mika Hakkinen through to win the race. When the spotlight shifted away from David, however, the guard slipped and his eyes told a very different story. He was angry. He had been told what to do. He was going through the motions. He is a professional but, judging by the eyes, he was not very comfortable in that role.

It is regrettable that such things have to happen in F1 these days, but I understand why they do. There is, quite simply, too much money involved. Sponsors need to be given the right impression.

Formula 1 has become a world where image is everything and I get the feeling that teams are now employing people who analyze how best the team can manipulate the media. I guess if one was allowed to wander around F1 factories you could find doors marked "Department X - Psyops"

Such things are not new in the world. Governments now have very large Psychological Operations departments. Their job is to undermine and mislead the opposition and deflect attention away from secrets.

It is a little known fact, for example, that in The Gulf War around 27 million leaflets were dropped by psyops departments on Iraq using Allied planes and even hot air balloons (they are not easy to detect). Among these were bits of paper called "Safe Conduct Passes" for the Iraqi troops. It is a fact that 85,000 of them surrendered to the Allies without much of a fight.

One of the basic principles of psyops is creating the right image. In motor racing terms, it is far better to lead a race and blow up rather than trolling around in fourth place. If you lead the race the journalists will write that "when they get the reliability right this will be a winning team." If you finish in a lackluster fourth place the reports will be less complimentary.

The purpose of trying to manipulate reports is that these can then be recycled to sponsors to show them that things are moving in the right direction.

Every psyops officer knows that the first impressions are often the most important and if you look at the recent history of F1 you will find that most opinions are based on what happens early in an F1 season. Once an image is established it is hard to change. A very good example of this is the relative images of Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Villeneuve arrived in F1 with a bang and quickly became the greatest thing since sliced bread. Heinz-Harald, on the other hand, had a few tentative races at the start of 1997 and as a consequence was judged harshly, despite the fact that he blew Villeneuve's socks into the weeds at Imola and by the end of the year was showing he was a match for Jacques on most occasions.

I have always been impressed by the way McLaren has handled such matters but it seems that now Ferrari is learning the same tricks. In Brazil the more cynical members of the F1 fraternity quickly concluded that all the kerfuffling over regulations - or a lack of them - was more related to Ferrari's problems than to the fact that McLaren was gaining any great advantage from the braking system of which we have heard so much. Protesting the opposition and making a big fuss about it was, in effect, buying time and deflecting attention on to other things in the hope that the inevitable criticism will hold off until things have improved. It is a bit like being kid and yelling: "Look, a tiger!" and pointing in one direction and then running away in the other direction.

At the Ferrari launch in January the team foolishly made a big song and dance about there being no excuses this year. Now they need them because unless something extraordinary happens with the other teams and the FIA Ferrari is not going to be winning the World Championship. You have only to watch the car is action to see that it is not a stable device and not even Mighty Michael can drive around the problems.

At Interlagos the voluble Italian media was busy hammering out every twist and turn of the silly McLaren braking device saga as it developed and so Ferrari escaped criticism for a few more weeks.

Judging by what happened in Brazil one has to wonder why the FIA does not establish its own Department X, because the governing body is in very serious need of image-massagers, propagandists and such people.

The silly controversies about the various McLaren systems were handled particularly badly and, even if it was not true, most of the people in the F1 press room believed that the final Stewards' Decision was not the work of the three stewards: it read as though it had been written by an English lawyer.

This was remarkable in that previous Stewards Decisions produced by the same men - they were the three stewards in Brazil in 1997 - did not exhibit the same impressive grasp of the English language. It was extraordinary that such a document could have been produced by an Indian, a Czech and a Brazilian.

The Decision handed down included the remarkable sentence: "The Stewards must state that the opinions expressed by the Technical Department are opinions and not decisions on the interpretation of the Regulations which is a function of the Stewards at race meetings".

Cut out the legal language and what it being said is very simple. The FIA Technical Department is an irrelevant and worthless organization because it is not qualified to decide what is legal and what is not legal. One has to ask why it exists at all if it can only express opinions.

One also needs to ask where this decision leaves the team engineers when they want clearance on whether a system they would like to run is legal or not.

One must presume that the only way of getting a decision is to approach the people who will be stewards of meetings at which they wish to run their devices. Nazir Hoosein, the chief steward in Brazil, is a cinema and garage owner from Bombay (or Mumbai as we are now supposed to call it). Is his fax machine now going to be clogged up with requests for technical clarifications from the F1 teams? Is the same going to happen for the members of the F1 stewarding fraternity?

Let us face it, when you look at who the stewards are you do have to ask whether or not Greek gentlemen, Australian chemists, Swiss air-conditioning manufacturers, Jordanian insurance men, Argentine military engineers and aristocratic Belgian pisiculturalists really need this kind of hassle in their lives.

Yes, folks, these are the people who make up the body of international stewards in F1. Many of them enjoyed worthy careers in motor sport in their own countries but none of them was ever in F1 and few of them ever had any legal training (which is quite obviously what stewards now need).

What was proved conclusively in Brazil is that the entire FIA rule-making and adjudicating system is worthless and needs to be completely reorganized if the governing body wants any credibility.

Journalists can rant and rave but the FIA pays little attention and at the end of the day the pressmen know that there is little they can do except to draw attention to the madness of the sport. And so we shrug and go off in search of caipirinhas, the lethal Brazilian drink made from sugar cane hooch, lime juice and sugar. The only problem is that as soon as you leave the rarified world of the paddock you become stuck in the monstrous traffic jam that is Sao Paulo.

Sitting in traffic gives one time to ponder more ethereal things than F1 politics. It is far better to let the mind wander to pleasant thoughts such as whether one can actually drink the alcohol which is used to power a quarter of the cars in Brazil. It is sugar cane alcohol, presumably not unlike the stuff they put in the caipirinhas.

I wondered if there was money to be made setting up lime juice dispensers on garage forecourts so that people could drive in and put a dash of lime in the fuel tank and head off home, sipping from a system of straws between the driver and the fuel tank.

A fine country Brazil...

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