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JULY 29, 2002

Blind Britannia


Fans, British GP 2002
© The Cahier Archive

There was once a time when Britannia ruled the waves. Her Empire covered every continent and every language. Her industry was groundbreaking, her expansion unhindered, her power unquestioned. Britons made the rules and the rest of the world just sort of went along with them. Just over a century ago however, it all started to crumble somewhat. Today there is no great Empire, just a Commonwealth to behold. Her industry ruined, her expansion turned inwards, her power unnoticeable. Britannia has no more waves to rule.

But that apparently doesn't matter so long as she can put on a world-class sporting event. This prize is the one simple thing that Britain has placed above all others to ensure that she is taken seriously as a nation state. Or so I've been led to believe.

This week Her Majesty the Queen officially opened the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Now for those of you who aren't aware, the Commonwealth Games is basically the Olympics without America, Russia and China. In other words it's a chance for all the countries that usually come in 4th or below to fight for some medals.

The British media has gone absolutely crazy about the Games, heralding it as the biggest sporting event to be held in the country since London hosted the Olympics in about 45 BC. The usually soccer mad press failed to notice that England had hosted and won the World Cup in 1966 but we can't expect them to remember every small detail.

The very same day as the Commonwealth Games begun and the media hailed the opening ceremony as "World-class", one newspaper ran the headline "Revealed: How Blair and Byers fast-tracked Grand Prix bypass." No sooner had the diggers moved in on Silverstone than the media were tearing away at the British Prime Minister, his former Transport Minister and, of course, the Grand Prix.

Having gained a degree in Politics I learned long ago that politics is little more than a points scoring exercise. In Britain the political system is bipartite and the major parties are fairly similar in their views. They therefore have little to argue about other than sex and money. When an issue like Formula 1 comes up however, they're like a pack of ravenous dogs. Unfortunately for the short-sighted bloodhounds, the bone they are chewing on is not from a juicy piece of beef. The political bone that is Formula 1 is closer to poultry, and as everyone knows, dogs should never eat a chicken bone for it is likely to shatter and get caught in the doggy's throat.

The current debate revolves around the "unjustified" decision by the Labour Government to spend $12m on ensuring the Silverstone Bypass would be ready in time for this year's race. After the race day traffic fiasco of 2000 and 2001 it seemed perfectly reasonable for a new road to be built to the circuit and indeed one was already half done. It was the fact that the decision to speed up its completion had been made for reasons other than those of "transport policy", that caused the uproar.

The arguments raised are quite simply misguided. The Liberal Democrat (third largest and principally unimportant British political party) Treasury spokesman, Edward Davey, is quoted as saying, "Despite the fiasco with Bernie Ecclestone, this Government has no sense of shame. The Grand Prix would have gone ahead anyway this year without this pay-out."

Well, congratulations Mr. Davey, there really aren't any flies on you!

Of course the race would have gone ahead "this year", but what about next year and the long-term future of the race? Do these people not even consider the fact that there are other countries that want the prestige and honor, not to mention the income attached to hosting a Grand Prix?

The "fiasco" to which Mr. Davey refers is the now infamous donation of $1.5m by Bernie Ecclestone to the Labour Party in 1997. The party's subsequent reversal of its tobacco advertising policy was seen to have been linked to this donation and Bernie ended up being given his money back (although the policy reversal stayed). It is now big news any time Mr. Blair makes contact with Ecclestone.

But of course Blair has to make contact with Ecclestone. The papers talk of "special deals" and "favors" but the reality of the situation is much simpler and far less corrupt. If governments fail to talk to Bernie and fail to show they want a race, the Grand Prix will move to another country. A country such as Britain, with a huge motorsport industry, needs a Grand Prix and if the government did not negotiate terms with the FIA and do everything it could to keep the race, it would be shooting itself in the foot.

The British press cry out for world-class events to be held on their shores. A new national soccer stadium is being planned at the moment, which will cost over $450m. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by the government on a new athletics stadium in Manchester for the Commonwealth Games, not to mention a 2-floor aquatics center and a velodrome. And the media kick up a fuss about $12m spent on ensuring spectators can go to watch an event which brings in $60m over three days!

Britain is one of the privileged few nations to have hosted a round of the Formula 1 World Championship every year since the inception of the sport in 1950. She may not get to host the Olympics and may have to put up with the Commonwealth Games. She may not get to host the World Cup for another 30 years or any other big sporting event for that matter.

The changes being made at Silverstone, however, will ensure its future on the F1 calendar and will guarantee its longevity as a world-class arena. In the Grand Prix, Britain has a world-class event, watched by billions of people all over the world, which it can, and should, be very proud of.

It's about time the politicians and the media started to realize it.