GLOBETROTTER

Panzer generals, the insanity test and bean counters...

I do not generally hang out with the descendants of Panzer Generals. But then there is Dieter, my mate in Australia. You meet some weird and wonderful people in Formula 1 and I have to say that Dieter is right up there with the nuttiest of them. I guess it is genetic. His grandfather Erich was the commander of the elite Grossdeutschland panzer regiment, picking up 19 different decorations, including the much sought after Knight's Cross, on the Russian Front. Alas he was seriously wounded in the Battle of Kursk in July 1943 and died of wounds a few weeks later.

Roll the clocks on 60 years and here is Dieter, vaguely Aryan in appearance but not at all the stiff Prussian officer type. In fact he's pretty much like most Australian blokes - just with a lot more energy. He loves to ride motorcycles very fast and in recent times he has bid for fame and fortune by launching his own idea of what a TV car show should be about. It 's called "The C word".

I watched the first show the other day and I enjoyed it. It was a completely different concept to the tired old formula which so many car shows now have. And it got me thinking.

Afterwards (and I guess I should apologise to Dieter before writing this) I was pondering the definition of the expression "legally insane". I did the obvious thing and ran a Google search to find out. The first response one gets is a link to something called the "Insanity Test", prepared by a recent graduate of Cornell University. I thought it would be a good idea to try this out and so I arrived at a page which featured a blurred picture of Rubens Barrichello in a Formula 1 Ferrari.

I was instructed to look at the picture without laughing for 60 seconds.

I was laughing after about 20 seconds. According to the website this means that I am legally insane.

The reason that one laughs is that along with the picture of Rubinho there is the most ridiculous babblesome sound track. The point I presume that the test is trying to make is that one should not judge an effect by only one cause.

It struck me that Formula 1 could benefit from doing The Insanity Test and discovering that there is more than one way of looking at a problem.

Here we are, a whole fortnight into the 2004 Formula 1 season, and already everyone is saying that the racing is boring and that the format is wrong. On the flight to Kuala Lumpur I was mulling over this and got to thinking about the whole qualifying problem and it struck me that the sport should take a leaf out of Dieter's book and look at the problem in a completely different way.

I am one of those strange people who believe that Formula 1 is not boring at all.

If you asked the folk who streamed out of Albert Park 10 days ago whether they had had a good time watching the Australian Grand Prix, they would not have said that they had been bored. They had a great time. When you are at a race there is always something to keep you interested. The problem is that F1's TV viewers are not necessarily fans. Many millions of them have never been to a race and do not understand the excitement. They are casual viewers. They are couch potatoes who want to be entertained.

They are like people who watch dressage horses and think "Oh, look at the pretty dancing horses". They do not appreciate what it takes to make those horses dance. In this respect, the casual F1 viewer is simply the cannon-fodder in the ratings war between different sports. They are the measure by which sponsors decide how much money to thrust in the direction of a sport. It seems that it is only numbers which matter nowadays. And so the sport is jumping around trying to keep the couch potatoes happy so that the money will keep flowing.

Now I am not saying that there is anything wrong with trying to get rich (I just wish I could do it). We must all salute Bernie Ecclestone's genius for having managed the sport in such a way that he and many others have become inordinately rich as a result.

But now that Bernie has sold out to the banks the tail is wagging the dog.

The sport is by its very nature spectacular - which is what those people who go to the races understand. On television it is a different story. Very often camera angles minimize the spectacle; long sweeping pan shots or slow corners do not do the cars justice. But dull camera positioning is cheap and cost-effective. The problem is not that the sport is dull but rather that the coverage is dull.

Before selling out Bernie tried to spice things up with his pay-per-view services. It was great. But no-one wanted to pay. And he - or his shareholders - did not want to go on wasting money while trying to convince broadcasters to let him and his crew produce all the programming.

And so we have TV coverage which is not doing justice to the sport.

If the coverage was better it would not matter so much that one team is a little better than another at a certain race. That is racing. The F1 teams are closer together than ever before. There is an overtaking problem. Sure, but once the aerodynamic genie is out of the bottle one cannot put it back. There are overtaking moves where such things are possible. It has never been easy and nor should it be. Max Mosley is right when he says that a lot of the attraction of F1 is not what is happening but rather what might be about to happen.

Back in the supposed glory days of the sport there were some memorable battles - which the old folks bang on about - but there were also a lot of processions as well. It did not matter back then because there was no TV and no commercial pressures. It was just about racing.

Fiddling with qualifying to keep the TV companies happy is not the answer. The answer is to televise the sport properly and to do that needs the sport to invest in itself.

I like to think that this is not an insane thought. F1 should look at the programming and, like Dieter, think again.

But I cannot see it happening as long as the bean-counters are out there counting beans...

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