Around a decade ago, Bernie Ecclestone, the guy who runs Formula One, began to make ominous noises about the prospects for F1 in Europe, suggesting that the sport’s future instead lay in the East. Now Bernie is no mug – you don’t become as rich as he is without being very smart. Not least, he is perceptive at spotting new trends. He recognised the potential of TV broadcasting and its associated rights before virtually anyone else in Europe. And he was right about the growing importance of East Asia (though hardly the first to notice it).
But Bernie always has an agenda, his own, and it is almost invariably about money, his own. When he suggested that F1 should move east, it was because he could see rich pickings. You may remember that when he gave a £1m donation to the Labour Party in 1997, a government decision about a ban on tobacco advertising in sport happened to be imminent – and F1 was later exempted from it. Pure accident of timing, of course.
Soon F1 was moving east. We had grands prix in Malaysia, Shanghai, Turkey and Bahrain, in addition to Japan. In the near future we are likely to have Singapore and New Delhi. To judge by the sparsely populated grandstands at many of these races, the incentive is certainly not the attendance figures. But in return for the privilege of holding a grand prix, these countries have paid exorbitant annual fees to Bernie’s management company, as well as spending a fortune on building state-of-the-art facilities. There is no way that these operations are commercially viable. All the new circuits depend on a huge and continuing state subsidy. Governments have calculated that the global attention a grand prix attracts makes the outlay worthwhile.
Bernie would love to persuade – or bully – European governments to do the same. He has been biting at the heels of Spa, in Belgium, and Imola, the Italian venue for the San Marino Grand Prix, and the latter appears to have disappeared off the calendar. As we head for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone next weekend, Bernie will no doubt remind us yet again of the desperate condition of the facilities and the need for a huge injection of cash. In May, he suggested for the first time that the British government should pay for improvements, mindful that it is difficult to imagine any private investor ever securing a commercial return.
The underlying idea is this: the government should subsidise Bernie’s company. Given his wealth and the riches that abound in F1, this solution should be resisted. If Bernie thinks – rightly – that Britain is the spiritual home of motorsport, alongside Italy, then this is something his company should take into account. Perhaps he should promote it – and also subsidise its future. To his credit, Ken Livingstone, attracted though he was to the idea of staging a British Grand Prix in London, drew back when he realised how much of London’s money would need to be spent on Bernie’s fees and making the capital race-ready.
The Great Eastern Experiment seems to have encountered serious problems. The Singapore Grand Prix is scheduled to be held at night, a possibility being canvassed for the Malaysian and Australian races. One assumes that the reason is that the TV audiences in Europe in the middle of the night or early morning are too small to justify the fees being charged to broadcasters. Bernie may have dreamt that the future lay in the East, but the support-base remains firmly located in the home of the sport, Europe. It may be an exaggeration that the future of F1 will consist of well attended races in Europe, and fans there watching barely attended night races in the East on TV, but there could be more than a germ of truth in it.
Not that it will worry Bernie, as long as the money keeps rolling in. After all, grand prix races are now almost devoid of overtaking and have, as a consequence, become boring, but while they continue to make loadsamoney for Bernie and Co, no one seems to mind.
Is Silverstone’s future safe? I think so. When Michael Schumacher was in his pomp, Germany was given two grands prix. Spain will have two races in future, such is the support for Fernando Alonso there. It is inconceivable that, with Lewis Hamilton now established as a new national hero, Britain will be deprived of its one grand prix a year. After all, it wouldn’t make commercial sense.
I was recently in a radio discussion about Lewis Hamilton when Luther Blissett, the black former Watford and England footballer, touchingly said that the younger man was his role model. Just what is it about Hamilton that appeals to so many? He is obviously a great driver, intelligent, articulate, presentable, enjoys a close and supportive relationship with his father, and is in a sport – Formula One – that has never before had a black driver, let alone a black superstar. In other words, he defies all the stereotypes held by white people about black men. Perhaps that is why so many people find him so intriguing and attractive.