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Maybe not so grand.

June 5, 2011

I grew up watching motor racing – not live, you understand, but on television. It was the way it was back in the sixties, with two tv channels and only the BBC really interested in sport. The corporation did it well, and laid the groundwork for outside broadcasting across the genre. However, it did mean that Auntie had a pretty rigid control over which sports were most followed. Moto-cross, a Saturday afternoon fixture on Grandstand for years, enjoyed a surge of popularity entirely based on its weekly exposure, as did rugby league – brought to the innocent amateur leges of southern England with the fierce northern tones and ever present trilby of Eddie Waring. The Boat Race, Wimbledon and Show Jumping from Hickstead all exerted their televisual power over the nation, and, thanks to the BBC, so did motor racing.

Actually, that’s a bit harsh on the sport, there were other reasons why it was attractive to young lads growing up in the early sixties. It was a generation whose fathers, by and large, had second world war fighting experience, and whose older relations had experienced the Blitz. This was reflected in the tales of derring do that filled comics such as The Eagle and The Victor. The heroes we were given at school were Douglas Bader and Captain Oates. Pitting yourself against the elements and showing physical bravery was highly prized. Even in the sixties there were contemporary examples – Donald Campbell’s speed record attempts, the solo sailing achievements of Robin Knox Johnson, Alec Rose and Francis Chichester, and later on, the death defying voyages of Gagarin, Shepherd, Glenn and the Apollo missions.

At this distance, the enthusiasm for adventure and bravery may seem a little naive or simplistic, but I’m not sure whether today’s heroes from Big Brother, Britain’s Got Talent, or You Tube clips, present our aspirations in any more admirable light.

And so ultimately, this was the cause of motor racing’s attraction – that combination of accessibility via television and the awful to report, but nevertheless accurate, expectation, that there would be accidents and, certainly in the earlier years of the decade, there would be fatalities.

The, usually privileged, young men who went out racing in their shirts and ties and toy helmets were taking risks that were recognisable to a world inured to danger by war, national service, and a history of empire building. Many of them paid ‘the ultimate price’ for mixing high risk with sporting endeavour. I can still list many of the heroes whom I followed till they made a fatal mistake, encountered an ill prepared track, or failed to cope with disastrous mechanical failure: Bruce McLaren, Francois Cevert, Jochen Rindt, Jim Clark, Jo Bonnier – there were more.

Some, like Jackie Stewart, campaigned long and hard for increased safety. They encountered stiff resistance from sponsors and organisers who well understood the fatal attraction of the sport as it stood. Gradually, however, safety became paramount and grand prix deaths became unusual rather than a morbid record of the caravan’s summer tour of Europe.

So Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Aintree and Oulton Park became familiar – as did Zaandvoort, Nurburgring, Monza, the Indy 500, the Mille Miglia and Monaco – especially Monaco with its glamour and glitz and the impossibility of the street circuit. Engineers improved the engines, drivers showed great skill as well as bravery, and for a brief period it was possible to ignore the self absorption and egotism involved in the whole show, to see its relevance as a sport, and to enjoy the competition.

However, it had always been a money intensive pastime, and increasingly, as the old century came to a close, and mirroring developments elsewhere in sport, the marketing men and the television moguls saw the huge opportunity inherent in two dozen advertising boards exposed internationally on television, every fortnight, for most of the year. Likewise, the motor manufacturers – and their ancillaries, moved from using grand prix as legitimate testing for road models to an egregious and hideously expensive means of advertising their marque.

In less than thirty years, we moved from watching skillful young drivers, beltless and protected only by highly developed driving skills, motoring round basic circuits where only the occasional, discreet, automotively connected, advert was to be seen, to the current mega million dollar industry which is driven, first and last, by marketing opportunities. Drivers are chosen for skill, sometimes, but more often for the demographic they can attract in the sponsors’ markets, their ability to represent the brand, and their contractual willingness to schmooze with the right folk. Oh yes, thankfully, safety has improved and fatalities are limited, but the pressure on all involved to ‘get results’, in every sense, means that more and more corners are cut, more risks are taken on the circuit, and more and more obscene amounts of money are spent in the pursuit of success.

There is a valid argument that the vast expense of motor racing, and indeed many other sports, cannot be justified in a world where waste and indulgence leaves million starving in grinding poverty. There’s no real defence against that accusation, but, for a time, it was easier than now to play it down, on the grounds of sporting endeavour and spectacular entertainment.

That time has long gone. Perhaps professional football, embarking on a similar journey, should pay attention. At one point, motor racing was struggling to attract television coverage. In a world where cars had ceased to become remarkable, where the racing cars were much of a muchness, and where the morbid attraction of possible fatalities was much reduced, it seemed like grand prix might gradually return to a niche interest of motoring enthusiasts. Then, in marketing terms, it got its act together, started to attract millions of pounds worth of sponsorship and coverage, and headed towards its current state. Nowadays, the caravan stops where they are offered most money; farewell Magny Cours, Estoril and the rest – hello to new built circuits, often in desert landscapes, where few come to watch live, but many watch internationally on television. The sport now exists for those who pay for it to exist – sponsors and manufacturers, and is a handy ‘normalisation’ tool for despots who wish to suggest to the world that their country is ‘just like yours’.

We shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, that the kind of people who run a mega million pound industry are short on empathy with the ‘ fans’ and big on satisfying the pipers who call the tune. You’d need to be pretty selfish to be a racing driver and hugely blinkered to be a member of the industry’s ruling body. But Formula 1 retains the ability to surprise and shock – though sadly now, rarely on the track.

Its latest assertion that it will look to hold the Bahrain Grand Prix this year, against the awful background of that country’s troubles, has shocked even the most hardened observers of the ‘sport’. We will have the embarrassment of seeing an international motoring event, no doubt garlanded by the appearance of many suitably glamorous advertising models, being held in a country where women who have the audacity to drive a car are flung into jail. It is a decision which is totally indefensible and could only have been made by an organisation which is so completely desensitised by its addiction to the banalities of fame and fortune, that it has lost the ability to recognise reality, and has long replaced moral responsibility with greed and status seeking.

Had I still been interested in Grand Prix, this would have been, I’m sure, the straw that broke the desert camel’s back – but motor racing lost me years ago. I clung on through the Eddie Jordan years, blinding myself with the Irish connection and the adventure of the little man taking on the multinationals – even though I knew I was being conned by appearances. However, when even EJ had to admit defeat, cute as he was in his dealings with the big boys, I knew it was time for me to slope away.

From what I can see, the sport hasn’t improved much in the past the years, for all the tampering with rules designed to bring excitement to the circular pursuit of 150mph egos.

I have to admit to a continuing interest in the Monaco Grand Prix – for all its tawdry glamour. There’s something about the setting, the streets, the names: Rascasse, Casino Square, Mirabeau, Sainte Devote, Swimming Pool – that stirs the memory of a young lad, open mouthed, as he watched Moss, Brabham, Hill, Clark and Salvadori rattle round the Monagasque circuit, when times were more innocent and sport was for its own sake. It was an illusion at the time of course, but now even the illusion has been stripped away. No longer do drivers race; these days it’s just money chasing money.

Somewhere along the way, the grand has gone out of the prix.

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