Overpopulation, election promises and the value of oil

Flying across Brazil on a bright crisp morning, with blue skies and a few cotton wool clouds, one can look down on luscious green countryside and rich red earth. There is a patchwork of farms and a few rolling hills. Gradually the villages become towns and the towns then merge with one another until suddenly you are flying above a vast smog-capped metropolis from which skyscrapers pop upwards in a seemingly haphazard fashion. This is not a city which can blame its faults on urban planners.

The Sao Paulo metropolitan area covers 3070 square miles and they say that by the year 2000 there will be more than 20m living there. They don't know. There is no way of keeping track of the numbers. All they can say with any certainty is that Mexico City is bigger and it is a close run thing for second place between Sao Paulo and Shanghai.

But, as any girl will tell you, size isn't everything and Sao Paulo is not a popular venue with the F1 circus. There are one or two folk who say they like Sao Paulo but when you interrogate them as to why, the answer seems to be related to big girls with buxom bits who will do anything - horizontal or vertical - to get involved in the sport. One or two of the resident dipsomaniacs have a penchance for the local sugar cane alcohol mixed with lime juice and sugar to produce a beast of a drink called a caipirinha, while meat fiends come back from the local churrascarias with their eyes shining brightly and blood dribbling down their chins.

I am not a great fan of the city. It's lively, bustling and all that, but I always get the feeling that I am watching the industrial revolution happening around me. It is a shame that F1 cannot visit somewhere in Brazil which is nice, but I guess that Sao Paulo is where the money is...

This is one of the problems of modern F1. We only go where there is money and not where we should be going.

Those with very long memories will remember that during the election campaign for the presidency of the FISA (the governing body of the sport at the time), Max Mosley promised to make Grand Prix racing a much more global sport. During the months leading up to his election it was amazing how many rumors there were about new events being planned in Venezuela, Tunisia, China, Singapore, Switzerland and so on. All the little countries around the world concluded that Mosley was a good chap and they would vote for him because he would open up motorsport to countries other than Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

At the time there were 10 European races and six elsewhere. This year there are 11 races in Europe and only five outside. We laugh at the Americans for calling CART a "world" series but if you look at the figures, you could argue that CART is as international as Formula 1. The American series visits Australia, Canada (twice), Brazil and Japan. It has the same number of "foreign" races as the Formula 1 circus.

You can say that the sport is concentrating on its strong markets - a sure sign that money is the deciding factor - but I think there is a very good argument that we should be more adventurous. And in this respect I think that F1 has a lot to learn from the oil industry.

There are a million great stories about the oil business. Most of them seem to involve adventurous Englishmen with very silly names. My favorite is Weetman Dickinson Pearson. He was an civil engineer from Yorkshire who, in the 1880s, set off to the New World - Mexico - to make his fortune by building railways, bridges, harbours, dams and so on for the Mexican government, which was busy trying to make the country into an industrial superpower.

Pearson discovered that while he could build endless miles of railroad, what Mexico really needed was something to power the locomotives and eventually concluded that oil was probably the next best option. And so he decided to drill for some...

A few years earlier a couple of American wildcatters had drilled successfully - although not massively - in the Tampico area, on Mexico's Gulf coast. Pearson figured that if the Damned Yankees could do it, so could an Englishman.

Pearson's drilling site known as Portrero del Llano No 4 "came in" in the biggest possible way. A plume of crude oil spurted 300 feet into the air and within a couple of years Mexico was one of the world's biggest oil producer. Pearson ended up in Britain's House of Lords...

Why are we discussing oil and bizarre aristocrats? Well, because the drilling business is a great illustration for Grand Prix racing. You can make money by drilling in the same place over and over again but if you take a risk and go exploring where no-one has been before you, there is often a killing to be made.

Compare the adventures of another Englishman with a silly name: William Knox d'Arcy with those of the Zapata Petroleum in Texas. Zapata drilled 120 successful oil wells in Texas in the 1950s and made George Bush and his partners very wealthy men.

Knox d'Arcy was not shooting fish in a barrel. In 1901 he negotiated a deal with the Grand Vizier of Persia for large oil concessions. For the next seven years he scratched around in the desert while the world giggled at him. And then one of his wells came in. He became the first man to strike oil in the Middle East and the Persian (Iranian) field was followed by others in Iraq and Kuwait. Eventually Knox d'Arcy sold out to the British Government and the massive British Petroleum was born.

Formula 1 is a little like George Bush - although perhaps a rather more charismatic. The sport has been digging away in the same place for years and has made a very nice profit as a result, but it has not done much in the way of prospecting in new areas. It is so much easier to work in known environments and not go through the pain of visiting countries where there are not many home comforts.

I am not saying I don't like pottering about in Europe but I do think that the FIA should make the World Championship more global - as Mosley promised to do eight years ago. Sure, it is going to be more difficult for everyone involved to operate in countries without the same level of infrastructure but a little bit of action would be better than a lot of talk. The world is shrinking fast.

When challenged about the plans Mosley always blames someone else (Bernie Ecclestone) and says: "See what happens next year". Well, at the moment, the plan is for F1 to be in China and the United States in 2000 and in South Africa in 2001. I hope that within five years we will be the Middle East, India and Russia as well. The big European automobile clubs will complain and traditionalists (the blokes in tweed caps) will argue that one cannot possibly get rid of a great European race like the French and British Grands Prix.

But why not?

For the last 10 years France has been a pain in the neck for Formula 1. They have banned tobacco and alcohol sponsorship; they have refused to comply with the TV rules which everyone else in the world accepts. They have insisted on sending the F1 circus to places where the hoteliers should wear masks when they demand a credit card from their customers.

In Monaco they have robbery down to a fine art. You cannot get a hotel room unless you pay for seven nights and everything is more expensive when the circus rolls into town. Formula 1 needs Monaco as much as Monaco needs the sport and so it is probably worth the pain to continue but Magny-Cours? Do me a favor. It is very pretty and rural, but I think I'd rather go racing in Iceland...

Ask a non-British journalist what they think of the British Grand Prix and after a rant and rave about warm beer and "le sausage" they will say that going to Silverstone is like visiting a vast car lot and sitting in it for hours on end, watching helicopters flying overhead.

Perhaps Britain is a special case - because it is an island - but I see no reason why France, Germany and Italy should each have two events. If you get rid of one in each country the fans will simply get into their camper vans and drive across a border to watch a race in Belgium, Austria or Hungary. Michael Schumacher's camper van army has proved that time and time again. That lot would drive to Kosovo to watch their hero in action.

The fact is that every town that F1 visits in a year is desperate to hold on to the event they have. A Grand Prix pumps millions of dollars into a local economy and the only people in the whole world who don't agree with that are a couple of twerps with yellow ribbons in Melbourne.

So why, you ask, has the F1 circus not expanded? The fact is that F1 is a big player in the world's oldest profession. The races always go where the money is and, to date, the big European clubs have always been able to whip the biggest cheques out of their top hats.

Bernie Ecclestone would like to have more races but the teams will not agree. And so, in the last two years, Bernie has concluded that if he cannot expand his existing product, the obvious solution is to create another to meet the demand. It is very clear that Formula 3000 is being developed to become a Junior Formula 1. Once that is established in its own right, with the necessary TV coverage, Formula 1 can alternate with Junior F1. There will be 32 Grands Prix a year. If everything goes to plan there will be a promotion and relegation arrangement so that at the end of each season, the best one or two teams in Junior F1 go up to the big league and the also rans in F1 will drop down to the second division.

It sounds great, doesn't it? But once again it is probably worth asking an oil man if it is a good idea. Right now there is too much oil about - and the price has hit rock bottom.

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