Lately, I’ve been involved in an ongoing debate regarding the nature of Formula One. My friend put forth the opinion that Formula One was a sport that attracted fans purely based on its glamour. 24 of the world’s highest paid sportsmen, racing multi-million pound automobiles through Monaco’s streets of gold, a battle of wallets. Naturally, I opposed this, insisting that it was 24 of the world’s greatest athlete’s racing the most finely tuned engineering contraptions risking life and limb to beat each other around Monaco’s tight and twisty streets. My friend’s only concession was that “the pit stops are quite exciting”.
|Nicole first, Lewis second at the Monaco Grand Prix|
Glamour is undoubtedly a large part of the attraction for many people. I’m sure there are few people who would not trade in their lifestyle for Jenson Button’s Monaco pad, Japanese underwear model girlfriend and enviable job of driving the fastest cars in the world around gorgeous tracks at the weekend. Thus, taking Jenson as a reasonably typical F1 driver, let’s examine him closer.
Jenson Button was born to a working class family in Frome, Somerset in 1981. He was raised in a three bedroom semi-detached house, as the fourth child of Simone Lyons and John Button. He attended local state schools. He was bought his first go-kart at the age of 9, and thanks to demonstrations of extraordinary racing aptitude (at the age of 10, he won 34 out of 34 races in the 1991 British Cadet Kart Championship). By gaining lucrative sponsorship, he worked his way through the ranks to a Williams F1 seat. He’s now a world champion, but even that required a degree of self sacrifice. In 2008 Honda announced they were pulling out, and the only way Jenson could retain his seat was to take a significant pay cut. At this stage, he had no idea what a rocket his team had built him (Honda’s successors Brawn GP took both that season’s titles at a canter). This is not an uncommon story. Rumours abound about Lewis Hamilton’s father working three jobs to support his sons’ early career.
|The Hamilton's on the night of their greatest victory|
Very few drivers on today’s grid were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Working back through a few of the previous world champions, Sebastian Vettel had a carpenter for a father, Alonso a mechanic in an explosives factory, Schumacher’s was a bricklayer. Clearly, these are not glamorous jobs.
Undoubtedly a lot of hard work has gone into making the careers of these drivers, but rarely are they born into a life of glamour. Most drivers probably don’t do it for the glamour either. While it’s true that a lot of drivers live in Monaco, most probably live there primarily for tax reasons rather than a desire to be constantly surrounded by glamour. With some European governments claiming more than 50% income tax, it’s easy to see why they do it. So with the drivers not doing it for the glamour, what about the fans?
I was recently watching an old race (Turkey 2007) and during the pre-race build up, I caught a fantastic interview with someone called Bo Derek. After initially searching for Beau Derrick, I was soon corrected. Wikipedia tells me she is an American film actress and model who started modelling to fund a new surfboard, an admirable show of entrepreneurship. I must confess to never having seen any of the films listed in her Filmography but hearing that she’s well known as a sex symbol, has won three “Golden Raspberry Worst Actress Awards” and was nominated for “Worst Actress Of The Century”, I assume her fame is related largely to her blonde locks, generous cleavage and girl next door smile. The interview went thusly;
|A knowing smile|
Bo Derek: I just feel like the luckiest girl in the world right now, no place I’d rather be. This is fabulous.
TK: Have you been to many of these events before? I saw you on the big boat last night
BD: Yes, and I just love F1. It’s the ultimate. (crowd cheers at something else). Listen, it’s fantastic.
TK: It’s a good crowd. So who are your favourite drivers?
BD: Fast cars and fast horses
TK: Which drivers do you like the look of?
BD: Oh, I like them all. I love the sport, honestly.
TK: (chuckles) Ok. Well good to see you.
Steve Rider then wryly comments “Bo Derek not going into too much detail of her knowledge of Formula One.
At a time when the world championship was in the middle of a closely fought four way battle between Räikkönen, Alonso, Hamilton and Massa, one of the most exciting seasons for a while, with some of the most entertaining personalities showing their colours, Bo was unable (or unwilling) to share her favourite driver.
|Bo Derek's favourite driver. All of them.|
It’s hard to know what to make of an interview like this. Is Bo Derek a highly secretive person? Sometimes, I don’t like sharing my opinions with the world, for whatever reason. But from a former Playboy model this seems unlikely. A stronger interpretation would be that Bo Derek was merely hanging around at the Turkish GP simply for the glamour, and the atmosphere of it all. And to many racing fans, a person like this is the anathema of the racing world. Hanging around the paddock without a clue what's going on, or any real enthusiasm to find out.
|Bleak, barren and beautiful. Turn 8 at Istanbul is a sight to behold|
A disinterested soft porn star having unrivalled access to the crème de la crème of the racing world, watching the drivers tackle Turn 8 with unparalleled courage. At first, one can only scream; “where is the justice in this world?”
But then, maybe we have cause to thank fans like Bo. Formula One at the moment is going through a period of unparalleled health. Ignore people who have claimed the sport is becoming boring, with no on track action or overtaking occurring. These are the same people who claim that today, music is staid and unoriginal, food is tasteless and humanity is irreversibly lost in a sea of corruption. Beyond entertaining thoughts of Kim Jong-Il’s spinning of North Korea’s thrashing, no-one particularly enjoyed North Korea’s 7 – 0 thrashing in the world cup. And just like football is about more than just scoring goals, Formula One is about more than just overtakes.
|Button leads the field in Australia '09|
Think back to Australia ’09, where Jenson Button in the Brawn shocked all but the most owl-eyed observer of winter testing by taking an unprecedented victory. Belgium ’09 saw Giancarlo Fisichella driving the back of the grid Force India take a shock pole position and second place. Turkey ’10 where Vettel attempted to overtake Webber and took himself out of the race and relegated Webber to 3rd. Abu Dhabi ‘10, where Ferrari broke a thousand Tifosi hearts by failing to see the forest for the trees, covering Webber only to see Vettel take a shock WDC. In 2010 Australia, China, Turkey, Canada, Silverstone, Spa, Korea and Brazil were all vintage races. I had the pleasure of being present at Silverstone during the Grand Prix, and the atmosphere throughout was electric.
|Vettel regrets his agression at the start - as things go from bad to worse|
These are all elements which it’s likely not all the viewers appreciate, and yet thanks to the allure and glamour lent to the sport by people like Bo, millions tune in every race. It’s a complicated matter, but essentially, most of the wealth in Formula One world has been bought about thanks to the television licensing deals struck by Bernie in the 80’s. More viewers leads to more income from sponsorship, more income leads to more money for all involved, and inevitably, some of this is put back into improving the show. And while most people seem to believe that most of this money has been paid into Bernie’s pockets, it seems evident that some of this money has been pumped back into the sport. Team budgets have increased to unbelievable levels (although they’re currently being reined in) and we’re now granted unparalleled access to the show. HD, live timing, driver tracker, every minute of the car on track broadcast. The fans of today are spoilt rotten. And it’s all thanks to people tuning in to watch it, no doubt attracted as much by the glamour as the action.
And as I sit there on the 26th at five in the morning, with my live timing screen tracking the drivers every move, as we see which team has brought together the quickest combination of driver and car and place it on pole position, I’ll thank Bo and her ilk.