The Cavern Club, the Bund, Toy Town and reality TV



The last few weeks have been spectacularly busy for the Formula 1 community with two trips to Asia and back - and three races in four weekends. This is useful if you are trying to qualify for an airline's frequent flyer gold card - which is a useful thing to have - or if you need to catch up on the new movies of the last 12 months, but not much good for the old body clock. This goes beyond jet-lag to a curious twilight zone where one sleeps when one needs to, struggles through when one has to and finds things to do in the dark hours when normal people do their sleeping. There are times when you crash from a great height into deep sleep with no warning at all so it is best not to sit down if you have put something in the oven and essential to set alarm clocks.

But the upside is that we have been having a lot of fun. After Mount Fuji, which is beautiful on a good day and a bitch on a bad day, one takes the train into Tokyo. It is not unusual to bump into F1 folk wherever you are, even if there are not planned meetings at dubious karaoke bars or the Cavern Club, where one goes to drink bad wine and watch Japanese people pretending to be The Beatles and ITV commentators letting it all hang out up on stage. It always seems to rain when I am in town and my time is spent visiting the Meiji Shrine and traipsing around shoe shops as I hang out by people who are besotted by being able to buy pink and peppermint-coloured trainers.

A wander around Tokyo is always a laugh because of the local unwillingness to ask questions of those who speak English. I suspect that if they asked they might be dissuaded from calling their shops "Nudy Boy" or "The Love Girls Market" ("Can I have two love girls and a packet of crisps please."). They might also avoid weird names like "Coffee Love is Art".

But the nice thing is that the Japanese do their own thing and they don't much care what the world thinks. They have the most bizarre Toy Town-style cars these days and one can only assume that the car designers were serious fans of Postman Pat.

And then it is off to China where the atmosphere is very different and F1 people seem to feel the strain a little more. The politeness of the Japanese is replaced by the competitive instincts of the in-your-face Chinese. If you are a foreigner, it is assumed that you want to buy something, be it a chocolate bar or the seller's sister. It is rather disagreeable, but find your way to one of the roof terrace restaurants on The Bund, overlooking the Yangtse, with the Shanghai skyline all around, good company and a little wine and life seems eminently acceptable.

Shanghai does not understand Formula 1. It never has and I doubt it ever will. Formula 1 is a circus but they have better things to spend their money on. And if they like watching cars racing and crashing they do not need to go to the middle of a marsh out in the burbs to watch it. It is happening every day on every street. Driving standards in Shanghai are right up there with sub-Saharan Africa. On the day when the FIA put out its ridiculous statement about standardised engines in F1 one could not help but wonder whether it would be better if Max Mosley and his disciples would not be of more use saving the Chinese from road accidents if they are looking for a raison d'etre, rather than messing around with a sport which will always regulate itself for the simple reason that it is run by businessmen who understand when too much is too much.

No team is desperate for cash these days. They want to spend less, but all of them are paying their bills at the moment.

There are no Prosts nor Arrows. Nor March come to that.

This has been one of the best F1 seasons for years in terms of interest. There are four or five top drivers, all of them flawed one way or another. There are races all over the world. The idea of forcing F1 into ever-tightening technical regulations in order to cut costs is a blind alley and if the sport goes down that route it will soon lose its attraction. Engines do not need to be standardised. The engines are already frozen. The whiners and chancers at the back of the grid may want lower costs and customer chassis, but who cares? They should put up or shut up. If the little teams want to become big teams, they have to earn it. It is a case of survival of the fittest and always has been. That is why F1 is celebrated for its excellence. There are ways of cutting costs but the teams are sensible enough to sort that out without the need for a pushy federation.

FOTA is so logical that it is astonishing that it has taken this long to achieve. F1 is now a corporate business and it needs to be properly organised. It needs to avoid looking sleazy or unfair. It needs to avoid serpentine machinations, propaganda wars and all the other rubbish that we see every day. Some say the controversy adds to the soap opera style of the show, but this is self-justifying piffle. People care about drivers and to a lesser extent about the teams. They do not care about governing bodies unless these are intruding in the show. In China a large banner appeared in the main grandstand with the words "Ferrari International Assistance" written on it. The people holding the banner were Chinese, which seemed to suggest that the concept that all is not well has travelled not only to China, but has also managed to get over the language barriers which make F1's annual visit to Shanghai such a strain for those that bother to make the trip.

Sebastien Bourdais's penalty in Japan and the lack of any action against Felipe Massa's overtaking manouevre on Mark Webber, which involved the driver not only putting all four wheels over a white line, but also driving straight across a red and white hatched box, which was at the exit of the pitlane, are a case in point. These inconsistencies are deeply worrying and they serve only to add to the perception that the governing body helps Ferrari. The FIA is forever saying that there is no favouritism, but that does not make a difference. The federation is perceived as being biased. The FIA likes to says that the suggestion of pro-Ferrari bias in the FIA stewarding process are the invention of journalists who need to get out more, but this is only because we are the ones who speak out about it.

Everyone in F1 believes it but they are scared to say anything out loud.

"You learn that you exist only to win races," said one team boss in Shanghai. "So if you have a bad relationship with the FIA you are creating a problem for yourself. The best thing to do is to let them believe that you support them."

"Who cares if it is fair or not," said another. "You just forget about it, move on and try to do better at the next race. That is your job. Worrying about what happened in the past is of no value."

The very fact that people will report stories suggesting that an FIA man tried to dissuade a BBC executive from hiring Martin Brundle - whether it is true or not - shows just how badly wrong the FIA has got things at the moment. If all was well that story would never have been written. The messages are ignored and one wonders if the only way forward is to get one of those reality TV makeover shows and send them in to FIA headquarters, although one wonders what "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy" would make of Max Mosley and his consulting team.

Anyway, there is no point in getting stressed about it. Formula 1 has seen their like before (to a lesser or great extent). They come and they go and the sport survives them all. Formula 1 is the greatest show on earth, and we who follow it are the kids who ran off to join the circus, rather than stayed at home to lead more sensible lives. Our lives are never dull and while one can earn a great deal more being an accountant or a bank manager, there is rarely a day when one is not full of enthusiasm and energy about the life we lead. I think it keeps you young at heart. When you start out in F1 it is all magical. Looking back now I remember the first years as just a blur. But as time goes by you understand that we are actually a glorified retail business. This sport sells dreams to millions of ordinary folk, providing them with way to escape from the humdrum existence and the responsibilities of daily life. It is a way of getting away from the fact that you have all your paperwork in order. And it works not just with normal folk but also with chief executives of big companies. They helicopter to races and get excited about being shown around the pits. They tell their friends about how they met this driver or that driver.

Formula 1 needs to be an unrealistic world of fascinating characters and unrealistic plot lines. But it also needs to remain a sport and there is a purity about the sport that is part of that dream. No-one likes watching a race that they think is fixed. F1 is about the pursuit of excellence without compromise. It is about excess. At the same time it is a wonderful marketing tool and any company with enough money quickly understands this global power - even in times of recession. I truly believe that despite all the marketing executives lurking around F1 still does a pretty poor job selling itself to the companies that need the kind of profile that F1 offers. There are plenty of them out there that have budgets to afford it and need the kind of profile it offers.

F1 can navigate through the difficult waters. It needs just to scrape away the odd bits of rust.

October 24 2008

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