The Speedway and the need for Psychiatry in F1

The Speedway, United States GP 2001

The Speedway, United States GP 2001 

 © The Cahier Archive

"Welcome race fans to Indianapolis," crooned the silver-tongued disc jockey on the radio. "Enjoy our city. Spend your money. And then get the Hell out of town!"

It was meant as a joke (I think) but there were not many people in the Formula 1 fraternity who were very worried about that. Most people seemed to be keen to get the Indianapolis weekend over and done with so that they could pack their bags and go to Japan. This was not because of any enthusiasm they had for going to Suzuka but rather because it brought the end of the season a step closer. It has been a very long year for F1. We left our homes at the end of February and we've been on the road virtually nonstop ever since

Indianapolis is nice enough as American cities go and it has a special place in the heart of any race fan because it is the home of The Speedway. If you are in conversation with anyone in racing and you use those two words, nobody ever asks what you mean. The Speedway is The Speedway. But outside the bounds of this marvellous place the city holds little wild excitement for F1 people - even for those who have time for such things.

At the same time Indianapolis is always a place where you see old friends because when F1 people retire they don't go to that great paddock in the sky, they go to CART and IRL and most of the racing teams in America are based in Indianapolis and so one can catch up on all the old faces. They say that living in Indianapolis is "OK" or "Better than it seems". Wherever you go in the city it seems that there is always a racing team headquarters on the route. Racing and Indianapolis are in bed with each other.

And this is where it is a bit odd because Formula 1 is playing the role of "the other woman". F1 and the United States of America have never been very comfortable bedfellows. At least not in the modern era. The current F1 bosses arrive in the US thinking that the Americans do not appreciate just what a wonderful thing they are being treated too. It is a world class show. But the local gripe that F1 cars do not overtake enough and that college basketball or men on ice skates punching each other is much more fun. F1's reaction is to flick back its hair with a tut-tut and sneer at America.

The more sensible folk in the paddock - which is quite an exclusive club - recognize that in order to become popular in the US, Formula 1 needs to find someone or something for the Americans to relate to. A team would be good. Or a driver.

There was a wonderful opportunity this year with Bobby Rahal running Jaguar but the sport let itself play selfish political games and the result was that Bobby was high-pressure hosed out of the job and Niki Lauda took over. Jaguar may end up selling more cars in Austria as a result but on Main Street USA Niki Lauda is a name which generates the reaction: "Who?"

Putting Mickey Mouse in charge would have been a much better idea in terms of marketing.

And so the sport is back where it has always been in America: trying to soak up money but refusing to give anything in return. And it doesn't work.

The other day a pal of mine in New York sent me an e-mail discussing some recent articles I had written about F1 and the reaction to the terrorist attacks in the United States of America.

"The obvious flaw," he wrote, "was that the article reflected the grand illusion that Grand Prix races are actually important".

To the Americans they are not. Leaving the track on Friday afternoon I found myself wandering to the car park 50m behind David Coulthard and it was odd to watch DC walking unrecognized through the public areas. No-one recognized him out of uniform. And if DC isn't recognized there is not much chance that Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso are going to be mobbed. Even the rampant self-publicists of the F1 paddock can wander around unrecognized (poor dears). Nobody cares.

The potential, of course, is amazing. The official government figures say that there are now 280m Americans and allowing for illegals that figure is probably over 300m. If a tenth of one percent of these people become enthusiastic F1 fans you have a pool of 300,000 all willing to spend hundreds of dollars on the sport they love. And it doesn't take a computer to do the sums of what that could mean.

But this year at Indianapolis there was not much optimism. Since September 11 the world economy has been reeling as the waves of effect roll outwards. The money supply is not as once it was and for F1 the fat years may be over as the world slips unhappily towards a recession. People are trying to talk it away but out there on the streets of the United States there is not much confidence. It is inevitable that this will impact on the F1 world.

At the end of Monty Python's Life of Brian Eric Idle leads a chorus of crucified men singing "Always look on the bright side of life" and this lunatic kind of optimism seems to be the reaction of the F1 fraternity over the weekend.

The other day, among the readers' letters that I receive from various places around the globe, I received a communication from a doctor in Switzerland who was under the impression that F1 could use the services of a full-time psychiatric-psychotherapeutic support and treatment team for the paddock. He thought the FIA should pay for it.

It was one of those wonderful moments when the column was writing itself. Those attending the team managers meeting on Saturday afternoon would have kept the average psychiatrist in business for several years and the paddock as a whole would be the work of a lifetime.

And so I passed on the idea to the FIA President...

Print Feature