Features - Straight Talk
SEPTEMBER 11, 2015
BY LUIS VASCONCELOS
The Italian Grand Prix is always a special occasion for anyone working in Formula One. The whole country seems to have motor racing in its system, there's a vibe about the Parco di Monza that you don't find elsewhere, the fans are passionate about their beloved Scuderia and even in these days where aerodynamics make it difficult for the drivers to have a real battle in that magnificent track, all of them seem to adore the place.
Drivers, these days, tend to do everything they can to toe the official line, as when they upset someone they tend to get called into a meeting with Bernie Ecclestone and told to watch their mouth - a few of them had the "treatment" in Monza after being quite vocal about Pirelli¦ so it was interesting to hear all three men standing on the podium at the end of the race making passionate statements about Monza.
Race winner Lewis Hamilton, not one known for minding anything that doesn't concern him personally these days, say, "this circuit is such a special one. I think it's the same for all the drivers. When you stand on top of that podium you feel incredibly proud to be amongst the greats that have stood up there and when you see a sea of fans - a lot of them in red - it's unlike anything I've seen. It's very emotional and you are up there." I bet you wouldn't hear those same words after most of the Grand Prix that are currently in the calendar, would you?
Interestingly, the driver that many believe is the only one close to Ecclestone, Sebastian Vettel, was more outspoken and summed up everyone's feeling when he said, "if we take this race away from the calendar for any shitty money reasons I think you are basically ripping our hearts out.
Obviously the drivers have as much influence as you or I when it will come the time to decide what calendar we'll have next year or in the years to come, but Bernie Ecclestone is not stupid and he knows the value of some of the assets he needs to keep in Formula One. It's all very nice to try and find new markets for Formula One, but Turkey, South Korea and India have already had their state-of-the-art circuits built at an enormous cost only to become semi-abandoned white elephants a few years later. How many fans did Formula One conquer in those countries? Close to zero, of course. And how many diehard fans enjoyed those races, seeing the cars going through corners with such exciting names like Turn One, Turn Five or Turn Nine? None as well, of course.
While not conquering new markets - and let's make China the exception to the rule because over the last three years a new generation of fans has flocked to Shanghai International Circuit and there's clearly a fan base to be developed there - Formula One has moved away from its roots and is losing some of the fans that like to see races in circuits they can instantly recognise, with corners that have captured their imagination, with mythical names like Parabolica, Lesmo and Ascari.
I suppose Ecclestone took the European fans for granted and believes they would still watch all the races on TV regardless of where the Grand Prix would be held, be it in Alaska, the Gobi Desert or Monaco, but that is clearly not the case. Any sport has a tradition and the best way to capture new fans is to give them a sense of history, show them what the sport is all about, the great race tracks, where the legendary drivers raced, won and died. Formula One has a long history of drama, success and failure and it was built in places like Monza, the Nurburgring, Silverstone, Suzuka, Interlagos and so on - not in Sochi, Baku, Shakir, Yeongam or Ulan Bator.
Of course the teams and, apparently more importantly, the investment managers that run Formula One, want to make as much money as possible but for the CVC's of this world, it doesn't mater what happens to Formula One in five or ten years, when its shareholders will be counting their money by the beach; but it should mater for the teams that need Formula One to survive and continue to thrive in ten, twenty or thirty years because Grand Prix racing is their only business.
You don't need to be a genius to figure out that if Formula One keeps on going to empty race tracks where people have no passion for motor racing, going to countries with no tradition of car racing and tracks that don't excite anyone - just watching the races on TV, it's just a mater of time before people switch their TV sets off and go and do something else with their Sunday afternoons.
It's fine for those that are just in it to make as much money as possible before selling the business to the next investment fund to be short sighted; it's criminal for those who are in Formula One for the long haul to fail to see where we are heading towards.
Personally I'm fully convinced Ecclestone will reach a deal with whoever decides what happens in Monza - and I'm sure the Formula One mastermind doesn't like dealing with a dozen people when he prefers to discuss matters with one, shake hands and, eventually, sign a contract - but I've been proven wrong before. What happens to Monza will show us where Formula One is heading, so let's hope common sense, intelligence and a sense of responsibility prevail over stupidity and greed.