Bernie the Press Room, PRs and verbal monuments

Rubens Barrichello, Belgian GP 2001

Rubens Barrichello, Belgian GP 2001 

 © The Cahier Archive

I met a press room the other day called Bernie Ecclestone and I wondered if perhaps I could make a fortune writing books for kids about Bernie's adventures. They have done it with a Tank Engine called Thomas and other inanimate objects. But it did not take me long to realize that the adventure of a press room (particularly one in Belgium) are pretty limited as the average building does not get up and go off to do something interesting. They don't even jump about (except in earthquake zones) and so the scope for action-packed stories is minimal. Bernie the Press Room, a post-Ikea do-it-yourself church building, just sits there. People come and go. It has none of the potential for a good story that a talking bear or a pajama-clad banana might have.

But at least Bernie the Press Room is there to keep us out of the rain and to provide us with decent loos, telephones and a place to have a sandwich and a cup of coffee. You need somewhere like that when the average racing driver is as accessible as Howard Hughes and rather less interesting if you do manage to dodge the wire fences, minefields and PR people who have all the skill and grace of those hunky great "blockers" who play American football.

I was very amused the other day when I discovered that a well-known motor racing public relations person was once a demolition expert.

"Extremely tasty with explosives," my source revealed with a gleeful look.

There was a lovely irony in there somewhere. A few years ago I used to have a monthly column in a Japanese magazine which delved into the history of the PR people in Formula 1. The Japanese loved it because very few of the PRs were dull; the PRs liked it because it made them famous and I liked it because it was fun to write. The secret was that there is no established route to becoming a Formula 1 spokesperson. A talent with explosives was just as good as a degree in archeology or a job as one of those radio reporters who flies over a city and talks about the traffic jams. The other great thing is that F1 PRs did not generally last very long so the series could have gone on forever. It lasted for about three years and when I scan down the list now about half of them have disappeared.

But what great stories there were: there were a couple of political activists, a rock and roll groupie, a stewardess, an international yachtsman, an English national handball player, an architect from the Politecnico di Milano, a cartoonist with the Kuwait Times and the nephew of a Nobel Prize winner. I am told that one of them was once a test pilot at a broom factory but I never believed that.

They are a bunch of characters. The trouble they have is that these days corporations insist on everything being sanitized to such an extent that no F1 press release ever has much character. Columns by drivers are emasculated. And so journalists end up writing about Bernie the Press Room rather than about the drivers. Having people like Jacques Villeneuve and Eddie Irvine who say what they think is a good idea in principle but they do not always talk sense. Still none of us is perfect and it is the imperfections that make us lovable.

As the years go by I become more and more convinced that corporations should not be involved in motor racing. They make dumb mistakes, give their money to charlatans who have been exposed many times over. And being big and having cash gives the corporate people an arrogance that they know how to do Formula 1 and all the people involved are just small fry with straw in their hair and oil under their fingernails.

But after a few years they learn that they are wrong and that people like Bernie Ecclestone, Frank Williams and Ron Dennis are at the top of the sport because they know what they are doing. They have learned from their mistakes and built their empires. The others are always chuntering on about learning from their mistakes but most of them do not seem to understand that you can also learn from the mistakes of others and do not have to make the mistakes which were made by those who went before you.

To give credit where credit is due even the FIA has taken this on board, particularly in its safety campaigns. Nowadays when there is a shunt all the forces are measured and compared to other crashes and everything is analyzed to see what can be done to make the sport safer for everyone. In this respect the federation is wiser than some race teams which fail to understand that timing is everything. Dumping a driver or booting a team manager into touch is all well good but to do it in the midseason is dumb. Double dumb. Somewhere in a Good Book there is a phrase which explains it all: "A wise man builds his house upon a rock. A foolish man builds his house upon the sand".

As anyone involved in F1 will tell you the sands are always shifting dangerously.

Shortly before his departure from F1 a few of us were chatting to Bobby Rahal about life. He was complaining that he was a little more portly than he desired to be because he never seemed to have the time to get down to the gym. The team gym had been taken over for some other vital function because space is always a premium in such places.

The conclusion I reached was that the best thing to do was to put a piranha tank in his office and have a swim every morning.

"Hey," he said with a smile. "Piranhas might be voracious but at least they have ethics..."

If Press Rooms can be called Bernie, I guess there is no reason that F1 should not have verbal monuments.

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