Battles, Tallulah Bankhead, Red Lobsters and Prime Minister Mosley

Where did the winter go? It seems only a few days since it was November and there was plenty of time to do all those wintry things we F1 people like to do (sleeping, for example). But, somehow or other, the days have rushed by. For me it has been a winter of battles. Nothing nasty, you understand, it is just that I keep turning up on battlefields and wondering what I am doing there.

Over the Christmas break I went to Bastogne in Belgium in the week of the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. It was an interesting experience and the snows were as deep as they had been six decades earlier when the desperate SS Divisions tried to fight their way from the German border to the Belgian coast. It was bitter stuff, not least up around Spa, where the Americans held the line in the early days as the Panzers tried to break through.

No sooner had I returned from this jaunt than I was off to the town of Battle in Sussex, in England, which was nothing more than a convenient meeting place for various relatives for the New Year celebrations. The battle at Battle was of a very different nature to those of The Bulge, and is better known as the Battle of Hastings. As every English schoolboy used to know this took place in 1066 and when King Harold II "bought the farm" on Senlac Hill (a Norman arrow got him in the eye) it was the end of the Saxon rule, the start of a brave new world under the Normans and the beginning of the feudal system in Britain.

After that I headed back to Paris and have spent the time since dealing with each new round of the battles for control of Formula 1 motor racing. These have been raging on various fronts. Years ago when I first started out as a reporter in the sport I had a wonderful editor called Q - although he was not really like the man who makes the gadgets in James Bond movies. Q reported the FISA-FOCA War in the early 1980s when the Formula 1 teams went up against the FIA and explained to me one day that the biggest mistake he had made in his career was to give the conflict too much space in the magazine. You make enemies if you have opinions and you cannot agree with both sides. It was, he argued, best to let them fight it out and see who backed down or let them go to court to sot out the mess. Race fans do not care whether one rich eccentric or another wins the battle, so long as there is still good racing on the TV on Sunday afternoons from March to October.

As a result I have found myself steering an uneasy path through the battles, pointing out weaknesses and strengths but trying to avoid judgements. What is both useful and deeply irritating is to be used by both sides as a means of spreading their propaganda (although even the use of that word will probably upset some of those involved). The leaking of documents has reached such levels that the FIA decided to start publishing letters between those involved in an effort to appear transparent.

The flow of information from governing bodies (be they sporting federations or national governments) has always been a fascinating subject for me and one that I have often encountered in the past while researching the darker recesses of the French Resistance. There are laws in Britain about such things and generally government documents come out after 30 years. However some files remain closed for 50 or even 100 years although sometimes it is hard to know the logic behind it all. Why, for example, did it take 72 years for the government to admit that it had considered throwing movie star Tallulah Bankhead out of Britain for indulging in "indecent and unnatural practices" with schoolboys at Eton.

The sudden flow of information about the inner workings of Formula 1 - although less interesting than Tallulah Bankhead's adventures at the Hotel de Paris in Bray - has been very welcome. It is a lot of work to wade through them all but hidden away in all the legalese (from both sides) is the fact that Max Mosley indicates that he has not got the time to deal with the problems. If the FIA President does not have time to deal with F1 there is something wrong with the system, particularly as Mosley has already handed over the control of the FIA World Rally Championship to Jacques Regis. The logical conclusion is that what the FIA really needs is restructuring.

There is no reason why Formula 1 should be consuming so much time. The people in F1 like to think that the business is a big thing but in reality it is a very inefficient business with a turnover of about $5bn a year. If you think that sounds like a lot of money, think again. Walmart which has annual sales of $256bn. Formula 1 is about on a par with the Red Lobster restaurant chain - and if you haven't heard of that I think the point is made.

The F1 teams are currently making a lot of noise about the need for the commercial side of the business to be restructured but I think that the FIA needs changing as well. One might argue that the president should have more of a prime ministerial role with a group of appointed "ministers" dealing with different areas of the sport (and taking the blame when things screw up) but I am not sure this goes far enough.

There is also a sound argument that the federation might be better served if it did away with presidential-style rule and adopted a more business-like structure with a chief executive being employed by the General Assembly. At the moment the FIA president is unpaid, which means that one has to be extremely wealthy to even consider applying for the position. This drains the pool of available talent to a puddle consisting of sell-made men (many of whom worship their creators) and those who have inherited fortunes and may have been brought up with superior views of their own abilities. Surely it would be better to use some of the FIA millions to pay professional administrators to do all the boring work with nasty F1 team owners and people who should really be using the tradesmens' entrance.

Perhaps it is time to end the feudal system without a king getting an arrows in his eye.

Print Feature