Capital, mud, golden numbers and the dinosaurs of Towcester

Every French town likes to be the capital of something. Paris is the real capital but if you look around you will find towns which claim to be "the oyster capital" or "the biscuit capital" or even "the capital of prunes". One of my local towns loves to be known as The Capital of the Tomato. In order to sell more tomatos (prunes, earth worms or whatever) these cities always have a large annual fete to celebrate (and promote) the product in question. It is not solely a French concept as in California there is a little town called Gilroy which has the nerve to claim to be the world capital of garlic, which many a smelly Frenchman would dispute. Gilroy's Garlic Festival is a big event.

As one of the many promotional activities associated with the French festivals, there is often a cycle race, in much the same was as in the old days there used to be dirt track races at the State Fairs across the United States. My local town has a cycle race called the Grand Prix of the Tomato.

The 2000 British Grand Prix at Silverstone will probably go down in history as The Mud Grand Prix. Silverstone could claim to be the world capital of the Wellington Boot rather than The Home of British Motor Racing. British motor racing is embarrassed (and rather mud-spattered).

Not long after man invented the wheel it was discovered that wheels plus grass plus water equals mud and the human species has moved on to such an extent that by Friday afternoon at Silverstone the organizers had to face up to the fact that the public car parks would have to be closed on Saturday for fear that they would still be pulling cars out of the car parks when the people started to arrive for the race on Sunday morning. They were worried that the Grand Prix would turn into an automotive Passchendaele (which if you are not a student of history was a World War I battle where soldiers drowned in mud).

Well, there you are, everyone said. This is what happens when you hold the British Grand Prix in April. What can one expect? Members of the British Racing Drivers' Club were annoyed that they were getting the blame and quietly muttered about it all being the fault of F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone (although the official line of the BRDC now appears one of appeasing Mr. E). Ecclestone said that it was not his fault because (as yet) he does not control the world's weather.

One day, Bernie, one day...

So everyone was blaming everyone else and the only people getting wet were the fans.

The April date, for those of you that do not know, is the result of a political battle between the BRDC and Bernie Ecclestone over the long term future of the British GP.

Some of the more educated members of the press corps argued that the Christian church was to blame because the Monaco Grand Prix is linked to the Ascension Day holiday, which always occurs six weeks after Easter (and is therefore not a Grand Prix at all but rather a religious experience).

The problem is that every year Easter Day moves to the first full moon (known as the paschal moon) which occurs after the vernal equinox (March 21). The paschal full moon is rather a complicated thing because it does not always coincide with the astronomical full moon and is calculated from a system of golden numbers and epacts. (Eh?) Therefore, Easter can fall at any time between March 22 and April 25 and the entire ecclesiastical calendar of movable feasts depends upon it.

The effect of this is that some years Easter is very late and this means that the usual midsummer F1 races are squeezed to such an extent that one race has to be bounced out into the Spring. Normally Spain gets bumped but this year Silverstone was being difficult. The BRDC was trying to play poker with Bernie Ecclestone. They thought that Mr. E would never dare do such a thing. The attitude showed how little the old club understands about the ways of modern Formula 1. There would never have been a problem if the club had agreed to the financial demands for the next British GP contract.

The BRDC members will now start to get huffy and will puff that Ecclestone was holding them to ransom and that the race could not be made profitable if the club had to pay such a huge fee. You can say that Bernie doesn't care about the fans and is only interested in revenues from television. To some extent there is a good argument to back this up but the truth is that Bernie wants to spread the word about Grand Prix racing to the whole world rather to 90,000 race fans. Yes, he is getting rich but then so is everyone else in the business of Formula 1. As part of the policy to build up the sport, Ecclestone wants to spread the net wide and as there are a lot of countries fighting for Grands Prix he is able to push up the price of the deals.

Some countries - and Britain is not the only one - seem to think that they have a God-given right to host Grands Prix (as Monaco does). Traditions, they say, must be upheld. One tradition in motor racing is that only the fittest survive. Great names like Lotus, Bugatti and Brabham have disappeared. We no longer race at Brooklands or on the old Nurburgring. If Silverstone wants to play the game it must keep up. The BRDC has invested the odd million here and there in improving the old airfield but it is not enough. Access is still appalling, the facilities are poor. The BRDC does not appear to understand that Silverstone is not a special case. Perhaps they do now. As far as the F1 circus is concerned it is just another suitcase in another hotel.

If members of the BRDC visited the Press Room they would probably be rather shocked. Apart from a small handful of journalistic legends and heroes who have become honorary members of the BRDC everyone else in the (cramped) press room hates the place. Over the weekend at Silverstone I heard Britons and foreigners alike describing the event as The Third World Grand Prix and one normally sane pal of mine in the press room mumbled that the only place worse nowadays is Sao Paulo.

The teams do not like it either. They did when it was a great racing circuit but now it is just a tarted-up old airfield.

More than once during the weekend it was suggested that the entire membership of the BRDC ought to be flown to Kuala Lumpur to see what modern Grand Prix racing is all about.

This is not just gratuitous violence on the part of the author. Britain is the home of modern Grand Prix racing and should have a Grand Prix but it is not Monte Carlo. It's Northampton.

Ah, say the men in the BRDC ties, that is because Malaysia gets government support. It is not really a commercial enterprise. That is certainly true but it is not an argument. The reality of the situation is that big sporting events need government backing and Grand Prix racing is now in that league. Who would consider hosting the Olympic Games without money being kicked in by the local or national government? If you cannot take the heat you should not be in the kitchen. The really bad news for Great Britain is that Malaysia is just the first of a new wave of government-funded racing tracks which are being built around the world in places like India, Russia, Bahrain, Dubai and so on.

Ecclestone has no romantic attachment to Silverstone. He has said as much. He wants changes.

What is being forgotten is that over the years almost all the great circuits in F1 have been bounced out of the World Championship at some point or other. The Nurburgring and Spa were considered to be too dangerous because the organizers could not afford to pay for work. Even Monza was dropped in 1980. Monaco is the only exception and that is because Monaco has a right to be. Silverstone, dating as it does from the late 1940s, is a Johnny-come-lately compared to Monaco, where racing began in 1929.

If the BRDC had any foresight it would be petitioning the government to turn the circuit into a huge sporting facility with stadiums, swimming pools, velodromes and whatever. There is plenty of space and with some decent roads (a spur off the M1 or the M40) there would be no need for all the space which is currently taken up by the six heliports.

Unless someone with some vision gets involved the British Grand Prix will cease to be. And, after the weekend at Silverstone, there will not be many sad souls to be found in the Formula 1 paddock in Dubai or Calcutta. Mud is all very well for normal folk but in the fancy dollar-gorged world of Grand Prix racing mud has only one use - as a beauty treatment.

No-one felt very beautiful when they left Silverstone, without a backward glance, on Sunday, leaving a little trail of mud behind them.

Print Feature