Columns - The Youth of Today
Back to the Future in Belgium
BY NICK GARTON
I'm actually quite partial to Belgium and its occupants, but winding up the opposition is an intrinsic part of watching football. Of course great play and shoddy refereeing provoke reactions from the crowd, but the real singing comes from telling the world that your team, and therefore your home, is the best in the world.
Day after day in league, cup and tournament competitions this phenomenon gets anything up to 100,000 people per game on their feet to cheer and sing. That's the kind of energy which has been missing for far too long from Grands Prix, which is a tad strange. Surely if 22 men running around after a soccer ball can raise the hearts and voices of the world then the sight of 22 men chucking cars into a corner at 16,000 revs can raise more than just a few eyebrows. Especially in Belgium, where Spa-Francorchamps sits majestically as the definitive racers circuit. Even the deadpan Martin Brundle - a former Grand Prix driver who now works as a TV commentator - talks his viewers through every corner with the phrase "what a feeling" and yet to the uninitiated the feeling is notably absent.
This is not something which has escaped the attentions of SMC, the investment firm from Essex looking to beat Bernie at his own game with something called Premier 1 Grand Prix. This projected series offers the dubious pleasures of a single chassis and engines formula but - and here's the rub - each car will be kitted out in the colors of one of Europe's leading football teams.
Of course this is all merely the pipe dream of some men in white socks - when they wheeled out bungling former Football Association supremo Graham Kelly any credibility headed south - but it's got the right idea. Passion. Pride. The gloriously un-PC sound of people watching a sporting event that actually matters to them.
National pride is what got motor racing off the ground in the first place. From Day One countries wanted to build faster, more efficient cars than their neighbors and this, in an age before TV coverage and corporate sponsorship, held the rapt attention of millions. Over 400,000 would habitually turn up at Grands Prix and it was easy to get behind "their" cars because they all carried national colors.
If you think Monza and Hockenheim can be a little partisan, picture this: just weeks before the First World War broke out the 1914 French Grand Prix was held. The Gallic flair of Peugeot was pitted against the Wilhelmine might of Mercedes, and at every corner partisan fans jostled for the best spot to boo the white cars and cheer the blue. There were many corners at which to jostle - such as the appealing Death Trap Hairpin - along its 23 mile route. And every single one of them was heaving. In the end Mercedes took a 1-2-3 with the first ever display of team orders, but the French reciprocated by "losing" the music to the German national anthem during the prizegiving.
These colors have begun to resurface in recent years and I think their use should be made mandatory. Ferrari may have gone from red to orange but we have blue Prosts, the white BMW-Williamses, the green Jaguars, the silver McLaren-Mercedes cars and the white BAR-Hondas (complete with handy round, red, circular branding). Admittedly that's not even half the field, but for good measure I'll add Benetton-Renault (albeit in a shade of blue favored by hairdressers in chintzy soft tops).
As for the others, well Arrows will have to move to Amsterdam and Tom Walkinshaw will have to change his name to Ruud Haartuulenbroek. Elsewhere Telefonica's going to have to paint Minardis red and yellow instead of Kermit-on-drugs, Saubers never looked better than when they were black and Jordan... Well, whatever the color you paint them you've always got EJ.
If people actually got more involved with the teams, if they actively cared about them, then maybe the standard of racing would jump too. There's a correlation there you know: in Formula 1 the great races and great performances are habitually played out in an atmosphere that positively sizzles. Ditto football, where Chelsea can get humiliated in drizzly Derby one week only to stride like kings through a local derby the next. Irritating but true.
Monza and Interlagos aside, the atmosphere at most circuits these days is that of a brusque corporate jolly. More and more sports fans are spending their money at football matches while at Grands Prix the public areas are being taken over by hospitality marquees. For the future of the sport the bonkers Premier 1 plan should not be completely written off.
I mean let's be honest: the likes of Trulli, Coulthard, Heidfeld or Panis are thoroughly decent fellows but they're never going to hold entire nations in their thrall. Not since Nigel Mansell has F1 been a personality sport - yet conversely I wouldn't pay for the England captain as an after-dinner speaker. The difference is that Grands Prix are not screened to fill pubs with cheering cognescenti anywhere in the world outside of Modena.
And there's a lesson to us all.