Family photos, nationalism and the power of perception

My hotel room in Austria was not a hotel room at all. It was somebody's bedroom which had been rented out. There are not enough hotels in the area around the A1 Ring and so while the beautiful people helicopter the 55 miles back and forth across the mountains to Graz the rest of the F1 circus stays in every available inn, gasthof and barn. These are very basic and very jolly, full of locals playing cards, drinking beer and eating schnitzels. As everyone is spread out around the countryside people tend to find themselves with more time on their hands than at city races where there is a bar or a night club for distraction. Some find that their rooms have televisions which do not quite work but most find themselves staring at the walls, admiring the family snaps or whatever happens to be there.

Thus it was that I found myself looking at a photograph of Grandpa Hurglburgl standing proudly over a bullet-ridden elk; there were some sweet baby photos and a happy family shot from the early 1940s with all the gentlemen dressed in neat grey uniforms with eagles on their chests. At the time, of course, dressing up in smart uniforms with eagles on their chests was the patriotic thing to do even for the Austrians, who like to think themselves different from their German neighbors. In Germany these days they hide such photos but in Austria there is a certain pride which they do not care to hide.

Nationalism can be a very constructive thing if it does not get taken too far and one should not condemn simple country folk for following the call of the trumpets.

The effect of the World Cup victory on France was extraordinary. There was a blast of national pride which lifted the whole country from the depression and apathy of recent years It really was an amazing thing. On the way to the airport in Paris my taxi went past the Stade de France - site of France's 3-0 victory over Brazil - and, without knowing he was doing it, the taxi driver began whistling: "We are the Champions".

It did not last long. A week later France had dived back into the dumps with the Tour de France - the most French of all sporting events - turning into an unseemly drug scandal. No-one wants to admit it now, but the scandal will do terrible damage to the credibility of the event, which will take years to overcome.

No-one likes people playing outside the rules. It defeats the purpose of the sport for the spectator and - if they have any brains at all - for the players as well. If you have to cheat to win you are not really winning and the knowledge that you did not play fair will always come back to haunt you in the dark hours when the demons come.

A lot of sports have contrived to have rules which allow for a certain amount of, how shall we say, excitement-enhancing. CART and NASCAR in America use the Pace Car to produce exciting races. The racing is modified accordingly to take this into account. The races are being manipulated but no-one complains about it. It is part of the sport.

In the modern commercial age of sport perception has become reality. Only a tiny percentage of spectators buy specialist magazines which explain the intricacies of the sport. For the rest of the TV audience there is not further explanation of what happened.

The Formula 1 paddock does not seem to understand this and, in many ways, it is as parochial as an Austrian village. We all like to think ourselves members of a cosmopolitan jet-set but the truth is that we are blind to what the real world thinks. The other day someone I know explained that he had given up watching Grand Prix racing because he thought it was fixed. A few days later someone told me about an article in an American newspaper which compared F1 to wrestling. These are worrying signs.

I am not suggesting that the FIA is deliberately favoring one team or another but it seems that this is what the people out there are thinking. And when you sit back and analyze it you can see why they are suspicious. Things began badly with McLaren's complete domination in Australia. The team's less than subtle orders to its drivers were hyped into an issue by the publicity-seeking promoter of the event. The FIA foolishly responded and issued a daft edit that team orders would not be allowed. The rule was impossible to enforce and fundamentally wrong. Next came Brazil where there as a big fuss about McLaren brakes and the FIA stewards decided to ban the system despite the fact that the FIA Technical Department had declared it legal. From the outside, it seems, it looked as though the governing body was clumsily trying to cut McLaren's advantage.

In Canada Michael Schumacher was allowed to get away with a manoeuvre which most experienced F1 observers concluded was worthy of a black flag. He won the race. In France the start light failure blew McLaren's chances in the race and the British GP the event descended into farce because of stewards who showed no sign of knowing what they were doing. And then in Austria Ferrari used team orders and no action was taken by the FIA and Max Mosley explained in a gooey piece of fudging that team orders were OK sometimes but not others. Even he described the explanation as "muddly". The only logical conclusion is that the FIA has rules it applies when it wants them and not when it does not. It was fine for Ferrari to have team orders in Austria but not for McLaren in Melbourne.

When you add everything up it is not difficult to see why the sport's credibility is being stretched...

The big problem seems to be that the FIA does not care what the spectators think. There is a lot of arrogance in the governing body. I reckon the FIA would be well-advised to take steps to ensure that the comparison to wrestling is quickly laid to rest. The only way to do that is to completely revamp the system of judging so that there is more logic and more consistency.

It strikes me that the idea of a Permanent Steward is really the only way forward. There are now permanent FIA delegates in all different aspects of the sport: from doctors to media delegates to scrutineers and Safety Car drivers. These guys are all (well, nearly all) professionals in their fields. The stewards are not. They are worthy members of motor clubs who have risen through the ranks. More often than not they are members of the FIA World Council. Being a steward is a perk of the job.

What the sport needs is professional decision-making which is fast, final and unquestionable. Max Mosley is fond of comparing motor racing to football. There is no appeal against the decisions of a football referee and the sport is doing fine as a result. Mistakes are made but that is part of the game. There would be less mistakes made in F1 because any FIA Permanent Steward would have the benefit of video replays.

Having three stewards seems to me to be a waste of time and expensive air fares. Put three motor racing people in a room and you will soon have an argument. If the World Council boys want perks from the job they can come to the races as honorary grand marshals; flag wavers; they can say: "Gentleman start you engines"; they can hand out the trophies; make sandwiches; be door stops; the possibilities are endless...

To ensure independence the Permanent Steward should have a long-term contract with the FIA rather than being one of the gang on the World Council. The Steward should not be allowed to hold any other position within the organization. He (or she) should not be a former employee of the Brabham F1 team. There are too many such people around. They are all good men and trustworthy but it creates a bad impression.

What is really needed is a sharp ex-team manager who knows the ropes and the rules and is respected in the paddock for his knowledge and experience - in the same way that Race Director Charlie Whiting or his deputy Herbie Blash are respected in their roles because they have been there, seen it and done it many times before.

There are people out there who fit the bill - and who are not in lunatic asylums - but the FIA does not seem to want to give away that kind of power. The idea has been discussed in the past and rejected because the independence of the person chosen would inevitably be questioned. It was thus decided to have four permanent stewards on a rotational basis.

This obviously does not work... at least not if you listen to the mood of the spectators.

The Permanent Steward could be controlled in many ways. A set list of punishments to fit crimes would be a good start. If Michael Schumacher passes another car under a yellow flag he should know what he is going to get. There should be no argument. The Permanent Steward would have "a menu" of penalties and no leeway.

While there are always going to be dangers of giving one person too much power, the world has proved on many occasions that democracy is a very ineffective form of government. Dictators make things happen and as long as they do not make simple country folk dress up in smart uniforms and march to Poland things can work very successfully.

Sure, there are dangers with an FIA Permanent Steward but the best example of a modern dictator that I can think of is Bernie Ecclestone - and you don't hear many motor racing people complaining much about him...

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