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AUGUST 4, 2002

Ruminations on Formula 1


Michael Schumacher, German GP 2002
© The Cahier Archive

"Formula 1 racing, once European, now worldwide, is less boring to watch that the rival American versions: its circuits do actually have corners to go round, not just an eternal oval," wrote The Economist recently. "But to non-addicts it is still - crashes apart - a non-event, like watching paint dry, and this year's procession of Ferrari victories has made it duller still. Why watch, when you already know the winner? Yet hundreds of millions of televiewers do."

The article was clearly written by someone with little knowledge and even less understanding of the sport and the question which really needed answering - and was not answered - is why do people watch? What is it about Formula 1 that makes it so fascinating, even if the racing seems to be dull and the same man has won three-quarters of the races this year .

Karl Marx once said of religion that it was "the opium of the people" but today things have moved on: television is the drug of the modern era. I have always found it fascinating that day after day people sit at home and watch soap operas. But they do - in their millions. The Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman once likened Coronation Street, the most famous of the British soaps, to Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers and was a leading figure in a bizarre organization called The British League of Hilda Ogden, which canonified the character played for more than 20 years by actress Jean Alexander. Even back in the 1960s - when television was still relatively new - there were over 20m viewers when the character Elsie Tanner married a US Army sergeant. One can laugh at the facts but they are facts nonetheless.

The thing that makes soap operas so attractive is that while purporting to be real life it is in fact a slightly exaggerated version of the real thing. People can watch, and sympathize with, seemingly-normal individuals who have to deal with out of the ordinary things. The characters are living slighter closer to the edge than the people watching at home and yet they are still accessible.

People are fascinated by those who take them out of their normal lives. Normal life is often not very exciting. It is safe and it is comfortable and people do not really want to change but hey like to watch and to read about people who are out there in a more exciting or more dangerous world. The cult of celebrity and the need for a paparazzi to chase characters such as Princess Diana, Posh Spice and David Beckham has grown up because normal people want to dream of a different lifestyle. In most cases they would never want to ever live that life but it is a nice dream to have on a wet day in a drab suburb.

The attraction of Formula 1 is that its combines people who are living dangerously with those who enjoy a life of supposed glamour. Formula 1 people are not normal people. The cars are really nothing to do with it. They are incredibly safe and drivers can walk away from the most amazing accidents but there is always a risk - which is the attraction. People like the idea of those who push to the edge, who are so single-minded and confident that they are right to do it. This is why we are fascinated by gruesome murders, by gangsters who step beyond the bounds and by fictional versions of the same kind of people. This is why most nations have somewhere in their heritage a character like Robin Hood. This is why there are always new books coming out about Adolf Hitler.

Andy Warhol once said that "the day will come when everyone will be famous for 15 minutes" but I do not agree with that. We do not wish to be famous. Warhol liked being famous despite his protestations that he did not.

"I'd prefer to remain a mystery," he said. "I never like to give my background and, anyway, I make it all up different every time I'm asked."

But in doing so he created a mystique and the feeling that he was living out nearer the edge. And he was. His existence was filled with weird drug- and sex-filled parties and, in a rather quaint way, he spent the last years of his life wandering around with a plastic bag full of hundred dollar bills. He lived a life where normal people dream of going but always fear to tread.

Formula 1 is not as exciting (there is not much available time for drugs and sex parties) but Bernie Ecclestone has long understood the need to make Formula 1 exclusive. The old racing fans might have been upset when they could no longer wander around the pits but the creation of a fenced-in paddock, built up the feeling of exclusivity that people craved. To be a visitor to the F1 paddock became something that only a few could ever do.

And therein lies the fascination. Bernie understands this. His TV cameras are no longer simply focussed on the cars going round and round. Today the cameras lurk in the paddock and on the grid before each race. The drivers are given faces which the helmets hide. The team bosses have become celebrities rather than earnest engineers.

If Formula 1 is finding that its viewing figures are slipping there is an easy way to brighten them up - without having any effect on the racing. All that is required is a little more coverage of the people involved, a little more loosening of the restrictions that some teams place upon their drivers. The raw material exists but there are those who seek to control it for what they consider to be logical commercial reasons. But it is a false economy. The value of the sport is in the characters involved. In their strengths and their flaws. Eddie Irvine may not be the most sympathetic character in the paddock (some may even think him a fool) but people are fascinated by him. Michael Schumacher may come across as bland but there is a spectacular question which hangs over him: how can a man who is single-minded and cut-throat to be able to drive into others in order to achieve his goals able to go home and live a perfectly normal life, devoted to his family? And then there is Ralf who never seems to be at ease? Is it because he is the younger brother who needs to prove himself or there are other reasons? Is Juan Pablo Montoya really the relaxed South American he seems to be when he is out of the car?

But, when all things are considered, F1 is not doing badly at all, except inasmuch as there is a need for more money. That in itself creates a new fascination because the quirky characters who are running the teams are now being put under pressure and they not always reacting as one might think.

And so the soap opera rolls on... and people keep watching.