GLOBETROTTER

Gypsy bands and the difference between capitalism and communism

The final test to discover whether or not you can make it as an international traveler is to be in a foreign hotel and to eat dinner by yourself - without a book and without feeling uncomfortable or worrying that people will think you are a sad and lonely person.

From time to time I quite like doing it. Too often in Formula 1 we visit nice restaurants and pay no attention to the things we shovel into our mouths because we are too busy discussing the Concorde Agreement or the relative merits of Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz or some other suitably obscure subject.

It is nice to be able to savor the flavors of good goose liver washed down with a Muscat without any prattle to interrupt the thought process.

Of course there are distractions. No Hungarian restaurant is complete without a gypsy band. The modern equivalent of this seems to consist of two men in black suits who look like extras from The Godfather movies. One plays the piano and the other the violin and they produce what can only be described as "Cat and Mouse Music" which is always vaguely threatening. Like the soundtrack from The Godfather.

When the mood takes them, they can launch into a romantic ballad to assist those in the restaurant in their attempts to seduce members of the opposite sex (which is a popular activity in Budapest).

And thus it was that I found myself happily eating alone and listening to the men in black playing "Tonight" from West Side Story and I found myself drifting into a philosophical argument about the question of ownership. Would these men be sending a check to Leonard Bernstein for playing his song, I wondered. He has been dead these last 10 years but I expect somebody somewhere is collecting the money on his behalf.

But then again who owns a tune? If you walk down the road whistling a song, should you be paying someone for it? Or should payments only be made if you are making money out of a tune. And what is the difference between a tune and a sport? Nobody owns a song nor can they own a sport. Such things belong to everybody.

It is a nice idea but reality is not like that. Such Utopian ideas have existed for centuries before the word Utopia was dreamed up by Thomas More in 1516. In modern times some Utopian theories have been tried and have failed. People are people and will always try to make a quick buck if the opportunity presents itself. And so it is not the people who end up owning things, it is The State. The State can, if it chooses to do so, own whatever it likes. It can claim water and air and oil and gas. It can even claim intangible things such as invisible radio frequencies.

The best example of this at the moment is the ongoing auctions around Europe for radio frequencies which mobile telephone companies want to use to make vast sums of money. Governments are raising obscene amounts of money by leasing out radio frequencies. As a means of printing money it is hard to beat, although one has to say that privatization is an amazing scam because with that The State sells companies to the people who already own them.

All this may sound rather airy-fairy and philosophical but there is no question that a lot of the important people in the Formula 1 paddock have been pondering this sort of stuff in recent months. In the case of the sport, The State is the international automobile federation. The FIA cannot claim that it owns motor racing. It merely governs the sport. It makes the rules and sanctions the running of races. Somewhere along the way it has laid claim to the ownership of all the promotional rights to the World Championships and as no-one has successfully challenged this claim it stands.

In the case of Formula 1 the commercial rights have been leased to a private company owned by Bernie Ecclestone. In consideration of this, Mr. Ecclestone pays the FIA annual fees.

The FIA cannot stop someone from writing down a new formula, building a series of racing circuits and starting a championship by convincing teams, drivers and officials to become involved. In effect this would be a bit like a political revolution. But it will not happen because, as any historian will tell you, all revolutions fail because the people who take over become as bad if not worse than the people they replace.

This does not mean that there cannot be change because there are always political and commercial ways to in control of situations. The FIA President Max Mosley was once a rebel but he built a credible political alliance and toppled the old regime. The same could happen again.

At the same time Ecclestone is not immune to commercial issues. He has sold a percentage of his company and so does not fully control the profits of the company. If the shareholdings of his partners pass on to others he must accept what happens because he has taken the money.

The sport has developed so much that it is now just like big business. We wander about in the paddock talking in millions and discussing consortia and takeover bids. At the same time F1 is busy exploiting everything it possibly can. Race tracks are so keen to hold races that they agree to hand over commercial rights of venues and so all manner of licences can be sold, official suppliers are appointed, signage rights are handed over. This has made Ecclestone a wealthy man and has made others jealous. It has resulted in a lot of criticism. The European Competition authorities are even suggesting that some of it is illegal.

Who knows? This is all the stuff for lawyers to quibble over in the years ahead. All that normal folk can say is whether or not it makes them like the sport or dislike the sport. The people will vote with their feet and with their TV remote control boxes. If it all becomes too much, the sport will suffer.

Outside the circuits free enterprise operates. Hotel and restaurant prices are hiked outrageously when the F1 circus comes to town. Hey, that's capitalism. You may not be allowed to sell Michael Schumacher-branded underpants from your front garden without commercial lawyers parachuting in, but you can market hotdogs and lemonade.

Hungary this year marked a new first for Formula 1. The village of Mogyorod, which is next to the Hungaroring, decided that it was going to set up "a temporary red light district" on land close to the track. Between the hours of 8pm and 3am on all five nights of the event (and I thought there were only three nights) F1 fans could visit some rather horrid-looking plywood structures in "Erotic Camping" (I saw the pictures in the paper!) and there be entertained by the Happy Hookers of Hungary. This extraordinary situation came about because the village was fed up with the neighborhood being filled with transit vans in which ladies of the night would entertain "gentlemen callers".

One has to laugh at it all but then one must also ask whether this is the kind of things with which Formula 1 wishes to be associated. It is hardly the jetset image that F1 has tried so hard to promote but there is not much the sport can do to stop it.

The funny thing, of course, is that it has happened first in what was a Communist country.

Years ago I was taught political science by someone or other who explained the difference between capitalism and communism.

"One is the exploitation of man by man," he said. "And the other is the opposite."

If Formula 1 has lived by the sword of capitalism, now we must suffer from it as well.

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