Money, Egos & Speed – In need for a revival

Motor Racing – Formula One World Championship – British Grand Prix – Race Day – Silverstone, England

If there’s one annual motorsport event that I would be really upset to miss, it’s the Goodwood Revival. This year we were blessed with amazing weather, some superb flying displays which included the last two Lancaster bombers still capable of taking to the skies and, of course, some memorable race cars. Then there were the people! They really make the event a unique occasion – the retro-dressed spectators, the hosts, the famous, infamous and just plain friendly competitors or the Goodwood officials who proved that you can still do your job properly with a smile on your face.

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Much as I could continue waxing lyrical about this amazing motorsport extravaganza, this month’s Money, Egos and Speed is not about the Goodwood Festival. There is a link, however. It’s about the topic of conversation that was rife within the media centre at Goodwood, where I was based. It concerned the decision by Red Bull to sign 16-year-old Max Verstappen as one of the two Torro Rosso F1 drivers for 2015.

Nearly everyone that I met at the Revival pitched in with their opinions on whether Verstappen Junior should be allowed to race in F1. Not surprisingly the media has also had a heyday, including the specialist motorsport publications and websites, as well as the national dailies and TV news channels. We‘ve heard from other race drivers, from his peers and from his father. The controversy mainly centres on the question as to whether a 17-year should be in F1, with only twelve month’s race car experience, and whether he’ll be able to cope. From my own point of view, I think that this isn’t the real issue that’s at stake. I think that these people are missing the most critical and worrying point.

I personally have little doubt that by the time Max Verstappen takes his place on the grid in Australia at the start of the 2015 F1 season, he will be technically capable, albeit at the age of 17, of driving an F1 car at competitive speeds and be reasonably aware of how to conduct himself on the track. That’s not my major concern. I’m very aware that many of the more experienced F1 drivers have their own doubts regarding his lack of experience, which they feel could prove dangerous and I can sympathise with their views on this. It’s my opinion, however, that there is a far more relevant and important question that needs answering and it has nothing to do with Verstappen’s talent or his experience.

When I heard about the ground-breaking decision to run with this young Dutch driver, my over-riding concern was that in the process, a really poor message is being sent out to the business world, which of course means potential sponsors, as well as to the public at large, including the millions of F1 fans around the world. It effectively tells people that if a young driver, barely 17 years of age, is able to compete in F1 after just one season in race cars, albeit that he has raced karts for many years, the level of skill or experience needed to drive an F1 car is nowhere as high as we are being led to believe. One could argue that it makes a mockery of the multi-million fees being paid to the top F1 drivers like Alonso and Vettel. Does the bizarre question then beg itself as to whether we need these highly paid stars when we could easily ship in a couple of dozen Formula Ford racers to fill the F1 grid? As Eddie Jordan stated on BBC F1, maybe we have to accept that the current F1 cars aren’t difficult enough to drive.

Having spent 40 years of my life in this business, I find it sad to watch something that was so special going the way that it seems destined to.

We’re constantly being told that F1 is the pinnacle of world motorsport. It’s all about the best race drivers in the world competing on the supposedly toughest tracks, to become World Champion and in the process, the best race driver on the planet! If that’s the case, then surely F1 shouldn’t be the place where inexperienced young drivers are encouraged to learn their skills and make their mistakes.

Like it or not, this is the message that’s now being sent out; by-pass the various junior formulae that have been designed to help drivers learn their craft and instead put them straight into F1. Surely, the message that F1 should rather be putting out is that by the time a driver progresses to the peak of the sport, he (or she) should have earned their stripes in the junior categories along the way. In other words, if F1 is to maintain its credibility, it really should comprise the best drivers in the world. By the time they hit F1, they should be close to their peak of performance, not in the early stages of their learning curve.

An interesting comment at Goodwood came from one highly experienced motorsport journalist, who suggested that if he were due for a heart by-pass operation and discovered that the surgeon was 16 years old, albeit a technically talented surgeon, he’d run for the hills at a very fast pace. It’s not just about technical ability, he said, it’s about the experience, maturity and responsibility that has to go with it.

For me, there’s another issue that comes to the fore with the latest Verstappen situation. You have a Red Bull Young Driver leading the GP3 Championship this year, Alex Lynn. You have Carlos Sainz Junior, yet another Red Bull Young Driver leading the Renault 3.5 World Series. Both appear to have been overlooked in their efforts to secure an F1 drive. The message that this send-outs to other competitors, particularly drivers paying around £750K a season in GP3 and £1.5 million in GP2, is that they’re actually wasting their money, because these categories have in one fair swoop been made irrelevant, or at best, side-lined.

Maybe the answer is to cut out the junior formulae and just increase the number of teams and cars allowed in F1. Instead of spending £3-£4 million on the junior categories, why not just buy an F1 seat?

Think for a moment about how the sponsors of young drivers are going to feel. Imagine forking out a few million pounds to take a driver through the junior categories, as everyone tells you is essential to reach F1. Then you have to watch a 16 year- old rookie sidestep that entire process. I’m sure that there will be several companies watching this extraordinary scenario being played out, that will be less than enthusiastic about considering a role in motorsport.

Formula 1 should be about the twenty-two best drivers in the world competing and showcasing their talents.

That’s my big worry. I had a meeting last week with the Executive Chairman of a major motorsport sponsor. His company is currently looking at the possibility of a GP2 involvement, but in his opinion, the Verstappen scenario has lowered the value of F1 and made GP2 almost irrelevant. I can guarantee he won’t be the only businessman with that attitude.

I mentioned that F1 should be about the twenty-two best drivers in the world competing and showcasing their talents. Fewer and fewer people really believe that this happens any more. Maybe we should be looking at other sports and learning from them.

I recently took a number of guests from Oxford Brookes University to watch the British Speedway Grand Prix at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Without exception, they were all blown away by the whole event, including the standard of racing. This is a World Championship that gets it right in so many ways.

The World Championship points scoring system is designed in such a way that at the end of the 12 Grands Prix season, only the top 8 out of the 16 Grand Prix riders are guaranteed their place in next season’s Championship. The remaining 8 places are filled through a series of tough international qualifying events. What this so effectively ensures is that whether you watch a Grand Prix in Britain, Italy, Poland or any other of the venues, you’ll know that you’re watching the very best riders in the sport at that the time. The option of Wild Card selections deals with injury issues, but every rider in the Championship is there on merit.

Yes, I know that wouldn’t work in motor racing for a number of reasons. That doesn’t change my opinion that there needs to be a major change in the way that F1 is heading. The concept of it is about the world’s best drivers needs to be at the forefront of the changes. I can’t believe that if there is a determination to bring that about, we can’t find the people to come up with a workable solution. Maybe it’s time to look outside of motorsport for a start!

My fear, however, is that there are too many vested interests in the decision-making processes within our sport. This latest fiasco over the new junior single-seater championship is a case in question. Just as a much-needed structure is about to be brought in to entry-level racing by the FIA, so the waters are muddied yet again. It happens every time!

If I sound like a grumpy old man, I probably am. However, having spent 40 years of my life in this business, I find it sad to watch something that was so special going the way that it seems destined to.

I have one final thought on the subject. It concerns the spectacular success of the Revival.

If Lord March can get it so right at Goodwood, why is so much else in motorsport going wrong? Perhaps this is the man who we should be tasked with the role of planning the future of motorsport!

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