Formula for success?

Grand Prix and grand error!

Brooklands Brooklands
Bernie Ecclestone; where to start? The recent remarks by Ecclestone, his fondness for Hitler, will have for many people confirmed their loathing of Formula One, a sport not as popular in the wider world as imagined by either itself or its fans. Is Ecclestone a true representative of F1, or is he just crazy? You may say the whole world of F1 is crazy and the most expensive dull 'sport' known to man. Was it ever thus?

In one respect modern motor sport has a direct connection back to its earliest days, it is very expensive. Most other comparisons on a then and now basis will show that there have been huge changes; however, even F1's most ardent fans will admit that it's not always been for the good.

The Shelsley Walsh Speed Hillclimb claims to be the oldest motorsport venue in continuous use in the world as it first ran an event in 1905 - see HERE.

The circuit at Brooklands (above right) opened in 1907 can claim to be the first purpose built motorsport venue. It was built on land owned by Hugh Locke-King and paid for by him, he was a very wealthy man. Archive photos of both Shelsley Walsh and Brooklands show some very interesting vehicles and it's clear that these were thoughtfully modified for the events. However, Ecclestone had no engineering skills, so if he viewed these photos perhaps he was impressed by “the seriously wealthy” and it was this that set his pulse racing. The seriously wealthy folk have always been admired by Peter Mandelson, who comes into this story later.
Auto Union Auto Union
Before World War 2, under the orders of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party sponsored German motor racing to great effect. In European racing the French, Italian and British cars shared the honours, until the arrival of Mercedes and Auto Union (see right) who dominated the racing. So, Hitler was an F1 team boss, weird but true!

After World War 2 Brooklands did not re-open for motorsport, yet another victim of the war. There was a pent-up frustration among the motorsport enthusiasts who wished to put the war years behind them and go back to racing. Interestingly while the war had closed Brooklands it had also built many airfields for the RAF which were no longer required. Silverstone was just one of these and in 1948 held racing for the first time, Ecclestone would have been 18 years old and already in business, dealing in motorcycle spares.

Post WW2 motor racing struggled as did the whole of the UK, to get back into its stride, but some people did better than others. By 1957, still only 27 years old, Ecclestone bought his way into top level racing by buying the Connaught racing car company. This had been the plaything of one of the McAlpine family. The company, Sir Robert McAlpine, was well known in building and civil engineering as a very successful contractor. It is likely that the McAlpine family member, who also dabbled in importing exotic cars into the UK, sold Connaught not because it was too costly for him but out of a sense of frustration and realism. Connaught was, put simply, not winning many races. At the time of his purchase Ecclestone was involved in a wide range of business, including debt re-financing.
Connaught Connaught
After a while Connaught (see right) faded away and Ecclestone took to managing racing drivers, including Jochen Rindt born in Germany in 1942. Rindt was raised in Austria by his grandparents, as his parents had been killed in Germany in a bombing raid during the war. Rindt was the first, and so far only, driver to be awarded the Formula One World Drivers' Championship posthumously, in 1970, having been killed following an accident during practice for the Italian Grand Prix. Had he lived Rindt might have had his own comments to add to those of Ecclestone on the benefits of life under a man like Adolf Hitler.

In 1971 Ecclestone went into a partnership deal with the Brabham racing car company (below right), this had been created by Jack Brabham and had been very successful while using Ford engines. Buy now it must have been obvious to all that Ecclestone had no skills as either driver or engineer, he was a deal maker. Ecclestone singed a deal to use Alfa Romeo engines; at a stroke, and due to these engines, the Brabham car became unreliable, overweight and uncompetitive. A situation only resolved by reverting to Ford engines.

Brabham Brabham
Originally the Royal Automobile Club had been a significant force in UK motorsport, it had signed a lease for the use of the Silverstone land that turned it into a proper racing circuit. Over time, largely due to the increasing role of television, this influence waned. This represented another opportunity for Ecclestone who, as the period with Brabham drew to a close, had become the leading figure in FOCA, the Formula One Constructors' Association. The exact nature of the route to the position of head of FOCA, was there an election for example, is hazy. Perhaps, and we are talking about a man with scant regard for democracy, the phrase “Cometh the hour; cometh the man" sums it all up. In other words might is right. Ecclestone then formed a company called Formula One Promotions and Administration; this was a deal that worked out right.

If you think F1 racing is dull then perhaps the business background of F1 might excite you. It is labyrinthine and questionable; in 1995 yet another move to 'improve' the administration of F1 took place. Here the trading rights of FOCA were being transferred to a company that was in effect owned by Ecclestone. There were many complaints from other FI parties. The TV deals have made Ecclestone and others rich but for many F1 watchers marked the beginning of a downward slide in F1; this could be serious as TV is a fickle partner, not to mention the viewer.

Throughout the history of formula racing, changes have been made for a variety of reasons. These originally tended to be wholly technical in nature, later concerns about safety emerged. But recently the higher echelons of F1 have made changes that seek to introduce more excitement, in other words after years of pretending not to notice they have wised up to the fact that F1 can be very boring. Have these changes been successful? Well perhaps not as newspapers, as opposed to specialist publications, still give race results low priority. In contrast the recent scandals in F1 about cheating and industrial espionage went straight onto the front page.
Cooper F3Cooper F3
Way back we were told that “racing improves the breed”,a phrase used to justify the huge financial outlay of racing. True in that some technical improvements are first seen by the public on racing cars, but only as a means of improving them. Disc brakes are typical, having first seen the light of day on a car designed in the 1890s. As so many car manufactures have found that racing has little or no relationship to sales they have dropped out of racing, and in fact all forms of competition. The money from tobacco advertising has gone too, smoking, what did that ever improve? Recently F1 has had sponsorship from: banking, IT companies and many non-motor industry sources. But the hard fact is, F1 is not essential and will be squeezed by the present financial downturn.

The very fact the world-wide motor industry needs to adapt to survive means it will, or parts of it will. The same logic applies to motor sport. At the club driver level the sport is thriving. As always costs are high but clubs, pushed by their membership, are always trying to reduce costs. One of the ways this was done post WW2 was to have three formulas for racing. The F3 class (above right) was, interestingly, the one selected by Ecclestone for his début. The cars from this period are now considered 'historic' and still race. Will the current F1 circus last as long?

The original Times article on Ecclestone is HERE.

Also a comment about Ecclestone and Peter Mandelson. Lord Peter has always loved the very rich and is quite candid about this. He would have also been in regular contact with Tony Blair when the 1997 Ecclestone donation to Nulabour backfired. This was all tied with the ending of tobacco sponsorship in F1, make what you will of this most recent contact see HERE.