The heart of the matter in the heart of France

The people who work for the Nevers tourist board believe that their little town is the crossroads of Europe.

They are wrong. It is in the heart of nowhere. Ninety miles to the east across the hills is Beaune which has a far better claim to being the center of the known universe (for Frenchmen) but that will not stop the Nivernais from believing that the world NEEDS to pass them by. The fact is that the only things passing through Nevers are the Loire River and tourists who have got lost trying to find somewhere else.

The town itself is nice enough - like many other small French provincial towns - and most of the people in Nievre departement (like a county) live there. Outside the town humans are few and far between, with the straw-sucking peasants seriously outnumbered by the thousands of white Charolais cattle who wander around the fields.

It's a wonderful place if you like the quiet country life - a good place to retire perhaps - but the lush green fields and slow-running rivers do not usually impress the fast folk of Formula 1, who like to rev a little higher in life. In the Nievre it takes time to get things done. There are not a lot of good hotels, and the Nevers bypass - which was due to open in 1995 - has only just had its ribbon cut... The track itself is an impressive place but the local infrastructure cannot support a Grand Prix, although everyone charges the same prices (or more) than some of the more glitzy and better-positioned events.

Still, there are some advantages of having the occasional race in the middle of nowhere. It means that a lot of the more tinselly members of the F1 fraternity do not bother to make the trip. Magny-Cours is not as chic as Monaco. One does not have to work around camera-hanging VIPs.

This does not however mean that traffic flows freely. Far from it. The presence of gendarmes and idiotic parking attendants (if that is not a tautologous statement) means that inevitably there are always long traffic jams to get in to the Circuit Nevers Magny-Cours. They are not up to the standard of Silverstone's great jams but they are annoying nonetheless.

In the old days the Magny-Cours track was called the Circuit Jean Behra, named after the best French racer of the 1950s. When I came reporting in 1984 it was a pretty ramshackle old place, but it had a certain rural charm. It was not a great track but thanks to the presence of the Winfield Racing School - which trained many of the stars of the future - it had developed to become the heart of French motor racing. It was a working track - the home of the famous Automobiles Martini and a whole bunch of lesser racing teams and organizations.

Isn't it funny how racing circuits always want to be "the heart" or the home of a country's motorsport? No-one ever wants their track to be known as "the liver" or "the spleen" of British motorsport".

Actually I know the liver of British motor racing - and he never looks very healthy.

There is no doubt in anyone's mind that the heart of Formula 1 racing is a little bloke called Bernard Ecclestone, who recently featured in the Forbes Magazine list of the world's billionaires. Without him the sport would have cardiac arrest and while it might not actually die. It would emerge from the trauma in a very different state than it is today.

And that is a little frightening...

For years we have all assumed - without ever really believing it - that Bernie would live forever. His recent heart operation - added to the sudden death of Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite - has thrown a bucket of cold realization over the F1 paddock. No-one knew that Mr. E was having trouble with his ticker. It was a very well-kept secret. Once the operation was over, so they say, Bernie climbed off the operating table and, ignoring the surgeons, went back to the office. He soon realized that it was not going to be that easy...

I am sure that he will soon find all his old energies again but one has to wonder what effect the whole thing will have had on him. F1 needs Bernie right now. It is not ready to be run without his iron grip. There are no shortage of sun-tanned, overly-coiffured twerps in the paddock who think that they can take over and run the sport when Bernie "goes" - but they are dreaming. No-one - with the possible exception of McLaren's Ron Dennis - has got what it takes to pick up Bernie's torch and run with it.

I also wonder whether it is a good idea that someone should even try to take over. I think the time has come for Formula 1 to grow up and put on long trousers. We have had a lot of good games over the years but we are now trading with the men on the mean streets of big business and we should accept that the time has come for a new structure and new ways. The sport needs to be tidied up and run differently.

The danger, of course, is that the teams and the FIA will end up ripping the sport apart as they scrap for control of the money. It happened back in 1981-82 and did untold damage before a new structure emerged.

The clever thing now would be to get that structure without having to have the battles. No-one wants Formula 1 to end up like the World Boxing Championship or is it the Boxing World Championship. Such silly division destroy the credibility of a sport. The only way I can see F1 avoiding such a mess is for a new organization to be put in place and the flotation to go ahead. Selling a large chunk of shares to financial institutions will create stability and a reorganization will create the way of running the business properly. This may not be what the team bosses want but it is the only sensible way forward. The team bosses of today - even the young ones - are buccaneers. They have taken risks and cut corners to get rich and be successful and the only thing they respect and fear is Mr. E. The older generation is beginning to fade away now as big banks, investment houses and motor manufacturers move in. The people who are replacing them have no foundation in the sport. They are in it to make money. They say that you can be successful in a business without knowing it and loving it, but I do not believe that works. You have to know what you are fighting for and why. When Bernie first announced plans to float Formula One Holdings he came up with an impressive list of directors including Ferrari's Marco Piccinini, ex-Mercedes-Benz chairman Helmut Werner and Walter Thoma , formerly of Philip Morris. These are names which will give financial institutions the confidence needed to invest in Formula 1 as a commercial enterprise - and that is the future. The board will need to find a chief executive to run the corporation and the whole business will need to be broken down into divisions which will control the various different areas of the sport. There is still a massive amount of room for expansion in F1. So far Bernie has not done it because he is always too busy juggling balls with both hands.

Now that Ecclestone has had his surgery, it is time for the sport to go under the knife in order for it to emerge and flourish. It will not be an easy thing to achieve but it is essential for the health of the sport.

It may not be exactly what Bernie wants to do. A few years ago Ecclestone said that his one ambition is to make sure that the sport he has built is not torn down by the people who follow him as they fight for the control of the sport. To avoid that he has to get his house in order - just in case one day the doctors have to come back and look at his heart again...

The good news is that in all probability the heart operation will give Mr. E a new energy (which is a bit frightening as well) and that he will set off to build up other areas of the F1 empire. Even at 68, Bernie shows no real desire to slow down. We thought he was getting weary of it all when he missed a few races, but now that the news of his heart problems have emerged we have an explanation for that...

Bernie was not at Magny-Cours but there was a man there whose presence would - for once - have been welcome to Mr. E. Jean-Marie Balestre, former FIA President and longtime enemy of Ecclestone, was prancing around the paddock still wearing the same black jacket he used to love when he was the boss of the ballgame. The jacket was looking a little older but "Monsieur Le President" was as sprightly as ever. He's now 78 - and he underwent a heart bypass operation 13 years ago.

Who knows, Mr. E could still be roaring round the paddocks, biting the heads off team bosses, in 13 years from now...

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