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Racing ahead in a rich man's world

Lifestyle : formula one

Mark Dye is a freelance journalist based in the UK.

Fast, furious and with more than just a hint of glamour, Formula one (F1) represents the sharp end of technology for the motor industry on a global basis. Over 17 races the world's best push themselves and their cars to the edge in a sport that tests the limits of endurance for both driver and car.

Backed by major manufacturers such as Ford, BMW, Renault and Ferrari – many of which are family-owned – F1 has become the largest, as well as one of the most prestigious, sporting events in the world. Granted, football might be more popular, but with the FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympics only taking place every four years, the motor racing season captures the hearts and minds of the public between March and October each year like no other sport.

A media frenzy follows F1 wherever it goes, something which only adds to the obvious appeal of a sport that at its highest level is classless and yet remains socially
acceptable.

The Ecclestone effect
Although F1 was already popular when the live satellite television explosion happened in the 1970s, latterly, much of its success has been down to one man, Bernie Ecclestone. Under his stewardship, the F1 landscape is unrecognisable from the playing field of yesteryear with hard cash and mega-bucks becoming synonymous with the sport as he bulldozed deals with major TV companies, corporations and even countries.

"He's done an excellent job of selling to the different territories," says James Allen, lead commentator for F1 at ITV.

Indeed, so successful has Ecclestone been in his approach, that as we move into the new season, it's worth remembering that F1 doesn't require any investment from him.

Part of the reason why it's so popular, says Allen, is that it's extremely well promoted and that TV coverage is readily available around the world, with the calendar managed in such a way that events are simple to understand and easily watchable.

"It's just got a very long tradition. It's difficult, it's dangerous, it's glamorous and you know the cars are very difficult to drive and that the drivers driving them are the best in the world," says Allen.

Grand Prix legend Sir Jackie Stewart agrees. "I think the sport today is bigger today than it ever was when I was driving or the days before I was driving, in the days of Sterling Moss and Fangio and people like that."

"The drivers obviously make it as well, because they lead exciting lives, travelling around the world," he adds. "Very few people enjoy that kind of lifestyle."

In many sports, money has been accused of ruining the game, pushing businesses away from family-run models and proper grassroots growth. F1 is no different. More media and more money has meant that the sport has become increasingly attractive, but this in turn brings its added pressures. However, Stewart doesn't believe these things have had a negative effect.

"I don't think money has detracted from it at all," he says. "I mean, Tiger Woods makes a lot of money playing golf, but [seven-time F1 champion] Michael Schumacher made more money than him. There is a human interest even in that."

"I think the thing about motor racing is that you've always had to have money to do it," adds Allen. "Even back in the 1920s and 1930s gentleman racers used to take part in Grand Prix races. They weren't chimney sweeps, they were wealthy people. And you've always had to have money to climb the greasy pole to get to the top. It's just that the sums involved have changed things a bit."

However, the way in which the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, the sport's governing body) have changed it has made it very difficult for anybody who runs a racing team and builds it up through junior ranks. These days, it's virtually impossible for that person to enter F1.

Historically, this is where there the likes of Eddie Jordan, Frank Williams and Ron Dennis came from, but these days it's really only manufacturers that are able to do this.

"Having said that, the governing body [the FIA], has addressed this and reduced the cost so that in 2008 you've got a guy called Dave Richards, who was very successful in running a rallying team, who is setting up his own team because he is going to be able to get a share in an engine from another team," says Allen.

Putting this to one side, most agree that Ecclestone has done a great job of bringing F1 firmly into the 21st century. However, with such vast sums of money involved, questions of succession planning come to the fore when your CEO is in his 70's. This is something Ecclestone has had to move to address even if he is still very much hands-on in terms of selling F1 to new regions and countries such as Bahrain, Malaysia, China and Abu Dhabi in the UAE.

Last year, with one eye firmly on the future and perhaps with a sense of duty to those around him following recent rumblings, Ecclestone allowed private equity firm CVC Capital Partners to buy his shares in the Formula One Group, assuring the long-term success of the business.

As a result, Stewart believes that the future of F1 remains robust and that there is now little in the way of risk in terms of quality of management going forward.

"I don't know whether there is any succession plan or not for Bernie Ecclestone as CEO, but I have a strong belief in life that no one is irreplaceable," he adds. "The sport has a very strong foundation and CVC would certainly intend it to have long-term success, so I don't think there's any problem."

Schumacher successors
This season will also be the first post-Schumacher, but there is a general consensus that he won't be missed, especially with the influx of new talent in the sport.

"I have a strong feeling that in life, 'the king is dead, god save the king'," says Stewart. "There's always someone new. The last person to have that kind of domination was Ayrton Senna and sadly he died. But the moment he died, the first race after his death Michael Schumacher was in pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix and was suddenly the focus of attention. I think that now Michael has chosen to retire, which I applaud, I think he's done the right thing."

Indeed, the upcoming season promises to be one of the most exciting ever. Fernando Alonso will be looking to win his third world championship, but he will be pushed by Felipe Massa of Ferrari, possibly Kimi Raikonnen, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. British fans will also have something else to cheer as they keep their eye on an exciting newcomer, Lewis Hamilton of McLaren.

As Stewart puts it, "I think we've got a very strong driver talent base at the present time, so 2007 will be a good year for F1."

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