Families, passions, cabbies and Ecclestone's theory of exclusivity

I have to admit that, like many people in Formula 1, I have a rather strange family. One of my ancestors was a man who helped to capture the famous highwayman Dick Turpin. Another was a well-known forger. More recently there was a tax inspector who wrote humorous books in his spare time, a man who holds the world record for drowning members of the Salvation Army, a Canon of St. Paul's Cathedral in London and a man who wrote a Japanese-English military dictionary: "Excuse me, sir, could you please tell me the way to Singapore"). Others in the paddock can lay claim to Nobel Prize winners and so on.

And yet, despite this bizarre crew, I have always rather envied FIA President Max Mosley for the colorful nature of some of his relatives, not least his remarkable selection of aunts. Their stories are a bit of a jumble in my mind but they were known in the 1930s as the Mitford Sisters and, off the top of my head, I do remember that one ran off to the Spanish Civil War with a Communist and ended up becoming a duchess, another went off to America and became a muck-raking journalist, a third was a close friend of a well known European dictator and shot herself when war was declared between England and Germany.

And then there was Aunt Nancy who wrote wonderful books about the strange world inhabited by the British upper classes in the 1930s, the most famous of which is called Love in a Cold Climate.

Mosley obviously inherited much of the charm and non-conformity of the Mitford Family and I blame Max's Aunt Nancy for a fax I received the other day from Mosley complaining about the lack of literature in Grand Prix racing, presumably as a result of a recent column I wrote about the need for poets in the paddock.

Not content with doing his utmost to annoy European politicians and car manufacturers, Max still somehow has the time to play around with the Formula 1 journalists when he had nothing better to do on a wet Friday afternoon at FIA headquarters in London. The fax read as follows:

"The article below is from the Calcutta Telegraph. Why can't you and the other Formula 1 media people write as well as this?"

I was laughing before I even read the article attached because my mind conjured up a bizarre image of Mosley sitting down for breakfast with a grapefruit, a man with a big fan and a copy of the Calcutta Telegraph. Somehow the image of Mosley in a colonial role did not fit with the President's normal suit and tie world. But I suppose that when you are the FIA boss you need to know what the man on the banks of the Hooghly River is saying about matters relating to the automobile and their views of crash-testing. Automobiles are not really a problem when you are living in abject poverty on the streets of Calcutta.

Quietly giggling, I moved on to the article in question. It was a little bit over the top.

"An air of hushed expectancy prevails in the pits," it read (it actually said "pith" but I am sure that must have been a misprint. "Men in overalls rush around with a reassuring efficiency to ensure the safety of life. Cars rev up, the adrenaline starts pumping. The milling crowd at the circuit keeps swelling, while a gut-wrenching excitement permeates the atmosphere. Welcome to the world of Formula 1. A world of do-or-die trials, life-depending precision-turnings, engine settings, track time-sheets, hairpin bends and zooming machines. A world inhabited by the bold and the beautiful, a world of the chosen few - which Calcutta is poised to join."

Stirring stuff. A literary charge of the Light Brigade.

I was not sure whether or not I was supposed to be impressed but what shone through the clumsiness of the words was a wild enthusiasm for Formula 1. It was leaking from every phrase. Would that all the people in Formula 1 were as keen to go to Calcutta as Calcutta appears to be to welcome Formula 1. It is not exactly the kind of place one expects in the glamorous world of Grand Prix racing. "From Monaco to Calcutta" is not a motto which will be emblazoned on many Formula 1 tee shirts but if all goes to plan Grand Prix racing will be dropping into West Bengal in a couple of years from now. I am all for that. I think the World Championship needs to expand to places where they don't have room service.

This is not a popular view, of course, because the F1 world likes to travel in style and visit places where one knows the good restaurants and one is not faced by too many uncomfortable moral dilemmas. There are still folk in the paddock who find it hard to reconcile taking a glittering money-wasting circus to a place where people live in squalid conditions. Others are simply worried that when they get back from the race track, someone will be living inside their executive jets.

Montreal is much more in keeping with F1's glossy image but it has one thing in common with the journalist from Calcutta. There is rampant enthusiasm for the sport. I have always found that the best way to judge any city is to talk to the taxi drivers (if you have a language in common). This is not always easy because one needs a grasp of Swahili to talk to most of the cabbies in New York and in these days of Balkan problems, Serbo-Croat is also very useful.

On my ride into Montreal from Dorval Airport the cab driver (who was Greek or Turkish) was chatting merrily about the Grand Prix, telling me about how excited everyone in the city was about the race. The city was full of fans he said. Every hotel room is full. After a quick wander around Downtown I had to agree. It was hopping. All the shops seemed to have motor racing-themed windows. It was just a big party. This is what happens when a city embraces Formula 1 as they are intended to do. It was like that in Adelaide and it is like that in Melbourne. In Montreal the interest seems to get bigger every year. On Friday the grandstands at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve were full. They even closed down traffic to the Ile de Notre Dame because it was sold out.

Trying to analyze why a race gets a crowd is not always easy, but in Montreal it is simple. There is this little fellow who doesn't shave a lot called Jacques Villeneuve and the Canadians get excited about him. It was never like that in the days when Formula 1 was without a Canadian.

The crowds in Montreal provide a valuable lesson for anyone wanting to hold a Grand Prix. A local driver can work wonders on the levels of interest in a race. Even if the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has sold all its 200,000 grandstands tickets and scalpers are ready to pay fortunes for good seats this is still something which the United States Grand Prix is going to need at some point in the future. There is nothing like a local star to get people excited. Formula 1 does not always make this an easy thing to achieve.

I happen to know a very good young American racing driver and with a little skill and underhand behavior we managed to sneak him into the paddock in Montreal to meet a few of the movers and shakers and to give him some advice about what it takes to get into Formula 1. The message was very clear. Go and race in Europe. That is not an easy thing for a young American kid to do when everything is so different from the homogeneous world of home.

After meeting a few people we were wandering through the paddock chatting when one of the human guard dogs who prowl about checking passes challenged the American driver and demanded to see his pass. He did not have one and so he was directed to the gate and shown the door. It struck me that there are times when perhaps Formula 1 needs to take off its blinkers for a moment and work out what is important.

At the same time one can understand the theory of exclusivity which Formula 1 has operated with paddock access. If you keep people out they will want to come in. It is human nature. You have only to wander the streets of Montreal to understand that everyone there wants people to think that they are somehow involved in F1. They are all dressed up in every pieces of merchandise that money can buy in the hope that the others will figure that they are someone important, like the man who always stands next to Mrs. Hakkinen and who seems to be employed for his ability to crate the right facial expression at the right moment.

The easiest way to spot people who are really involved in F1 is to look for people who are NOT wearing team gear when they get back to town. They want to be left alone and get a little peace (or in some cases a little piece).

Ecclestone's theory of exclusivity is that if one has a paddock which is protected from the masses, there are likely to be more real VIPs who will be happy to hang out there because they know that once they are inside the walls of the F1 city they know they will be looked after by fawning flunkies and will not be overly hassled by members of the general public. F1 has long attracted Euro Trash and people who are famous for being famous but in recent years it has started to attract real celebrities and in Montreal at the weekend there were discreet visits from Robert de Niro, Paul Newman, George Harrison (a regular) and the Olympic athlete Ed Moses, a man who really does qualify as a legendary figure in a world where legends has become a devalued word.

What happens then is that the VIPs are photographed inside the paddock and so the perceived glamour and the demand to get in increases still further. It is a very sound theory and while the real race fans may not like it much, it is probably in the best interests of the sport in the longer-term.

The only problem is how in the world is F1 going to get celebrities to go to Calcutta. I'm not sure that powerful prose will do the job...

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