Editor's note: While Formula One is all about formulating a premier league sporting event series, with its associated glamour, glory and ‘glimmermen’, it is also an immensely emotive and emotional discipline from which Iain Robertson has gained innumerable human peaks and troughs.
It is consummately easy to criticise upper echelon motorsports. They do leave themselves open to it. Yet, every speciality needs its headmaster. For Formula One, that task is managed ably by a former motorbike salesman from Acton, North London, England.
Many people, well qualified or not, have asked the questions about how and why the short-of-stature Bernie Ecclestone could escalate himself to his ‘god-like’ persona. Truth is, as with so many organisations, he expended the effort and attained the heights simply because he was capable and he could.
Being liked is not an issue to the man. Being respected is. He presides over a multi-million Dollar enterprise, the central focus of which has always been to entertain. It has its problems, of that there is no doubt. Hark back to the ill-fated 2005 US Grand Prix, which did itself no favours at all, thanks to tyre supply issues from Michelin. A farcical, six-car race of the teams using Bridgestone covers surely dented broader enthusiasm levels.
Criticism was rife. Ticket-holders were furious. They had been ‘robbed’. The stadium emptied. Worldwide fans were livid. Rumours abounded that Bernie’s regime was over. Yet, the subsequent year’s event was held without problems. The previous year’s enthusiasts returned. Formula One survived.
When the Austin Grand Prix takes place this November, it will continue a North American tradition that has been in place almost since the dawn of the motorcar (it will be the 42nd US GP), although it has been a sore omission from the US and world race calendar since 2007. It has long been Mr Ecclestone’s desire and need to operate a US race.
Only by involving the immensity of North America, can F1 be termed a truly global phenomenon. Its sponsors are world players. They demand the playground, even though a North American driver is missing currently from the line-up. Yet, the Indycar Series is predominated by American drivers, even though it also provides a respite to former F1 competitors of different nationalities. It is an international field, as is F1. It possesses international appeal and the important fan-base is worldwide.
Italy’s ‘tifosi’ has always been central to the relative fruitfulness of Formula One. Its judiciously choreographed gatherings have become as much a component of the racing scene, as any amount of aerodynamic splitters and the race-by-race nosecones applied to McLaren’s generously funded single-seaters. You will see the members, if not in the numbers attending Italian, or other European rounds. Resplendent in their Ferrari Red shirts, shorts and facial artwork, flying the flag is their remit and they fly it with pride.
They are surprisingly ordinary Pinot Grigio-swilling people, from a part of the world renowned for its highly-charged expressiveness and excitement. They will show their humour, their love, their fascination and also their disgust and dismay towards the teams that they support, which are not strictly related to Ferrari, although it helps. Yet, win or lose, they return undeterred. Their support is more a way of life, with the banner being passed from father and wife to son and daughter.
Take the seven-times World F1 Champion, Michael Schumacher, as an example. He used to drive for Ferrari, which is enough for the tifosi to continue directing its pleasure towards him, even though he is a Mercedes-Benz driver these days. Already showing a vastly improved performance since returning from his few seasons of retirement, he remains one of the most lauded. most highly prized and rewarded of drivers.
No television or stills cameraman worth his salt would dare to ignore the sideshow presented by the tifosi, although partisan fanaticism does exist for every competitor on the grid. Brand and national flags carry the weight of opinion. Some of it is sponsor-generated, inevitably, relative to each market visited. It is not an issue sub-managed by Ferrari, as it simply does not have to be so, for the tifosi, which provides its overt displays out of sheer passion. The tifosi acts as a single voice, a single image, almost anywhere that F1 stakes its presence.
While exercising the pleasure principle remains focal to the fans, they also experience the peaks and troughs, some of the latter of which can be utterly devastating. While Brazil may be some distance south of the Mason-Dixon Line, when Ayrton Senna da Silva crashed his Williams in much-publicised circumstances, at Imola circuit, Italy, it was a world’s grief that followed the news coverage.
Sadly, the true reason for the incident, which has never been formally clarified, died with the 34 years old, three times World Champion racer, who had admitted to being upset that his protégé and fellow countryman, Rubens Barrichello, had crashed seriously the day prior. A bruised Barrichello would not race, as a result. Yet, that entire May Day 1994 meeting had already been clouded by the death, during the Saturday qualifying session, of Austrian, Roland Ratzenburger. It was a tragic weekend that no fan of Formula One would wish to see repeated.
Introduced to Mr Senna by Soichiro Honda and Jo Ramirez, names synonymous with the glory days of car manufacturing and racing at the highest levels, I had learned that the Brazilian superstar was more complete than most sportsmen could ever hope to be. It was scarcely an ‘exclusive’, even though I would use it journalistically. Senna was a committed Christian but also a humanist. Had that fateful day not occurred, his future in social-politics would have been assured.
Yet, earlier, in 1968, at a time when driver safety, crash barriers and crushable zones were scarcely on the regulatory lists for the racing scene, Scots driver, Jim Clark, a two-times World Champion, lost his life after crashing into trees at the German circuit of Hockenheim. To a young schoolboy, whose home in Fife, Scotland, was not so far from the Clark family home, and to whom Clark represented everything that was respectable about an iconic performer, it created a heart-breaking upset that would last to my present day.
Although not the only casualties of Formula One over the years, the deaths of these pinnacle sportspeople have been as much world events, as the competition hoops through which they had ducked and dived during their careers. With the fame comes the infamy. Of course, as a fan, it is difficult sometimes to equate the modern telephone number salaries that they receive, with the personality traits that they display.
It must be exceedingly daunting for the human performing inhuman tasks to be expected to answer twenty questions meaningfully. These champions all, they have their privacy and they protect it as well as any celebrity dares. They have much the same pressures placed upon them as anyone else, yet they must remain aloof. They must retain their statuses. They must never display chinks in their armoury. Sometimes, it is preferable to them, as well as their management, minders and minions, to appear dull and disinterested. It is difficult to permeate a wall of apparent arrogance.
In truth, for such an emotive show, there is very little emotional personality shown. Some F1 drivers are more explicit than others. Finn, Kimi Raikonnen, enjoys a ‘good time’, so we are told. While, booze and bravado may exist off-site, there is no real place for it within the F1 paddock. When the interviewer’s microphone is stuffed beneath their noses, as they try to psych themselves out, prior to each race, as well as psyching out their twenty-odd rivals simultaneously in a mind game of gargantuan proportions, all that the fans reflect on is their hopes and dreams being fulfilled. The F1 racing driver, only seeks to gain victory by a means dictated by time immemorial. Man and machine in carefully engineered harmony.
Yet, with the dropping of the national flag, the time spent awaiting the re-arrival on the grid, having warmed the tyres, heated the lubricant, spiked the sensors, swilled the fuel and ensured that all systems were ready, it is only when the random start-lamp sequence commences that the breath is held, within the cockpits, on the terraces, in the seated stands that the briefest word ‘GO!’ underscores all the efforts expended. In that explosive split-second, the relevance of Formula One shrieks into view. The melee that ensues soon settles into race pace and it is a case of watching, listening and feeling the ear-achingly, brain penetratingly, sensual might of 18,000 horsepower unleashed in gladiatorial glory.
That is the magic of F1. Shakespearean Tempests. Divinities of the gods. Pitched battles of the ancients. The thrills, the tifosi, the tragedies, the triumphs, all combined within a season-long championship. Monitored by millions, gossiped by the rest. Its peaks. Its troughs. Its spectacle. It is all heading for Austin and scarcely a soul can wait.