Bernie Ecclestone

Submitted by on Oct 25, 2015

Fed up with Bernie Ecclestone’s F1 circus? Then take a look at Le Mans

F1 is in big trouble as the long dictatorship of Bernie Ecclestone winds towards its inevitable close. Photograph: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

F or a minute back there, when it looked as though he was going to be denied a new contract by the McLaren team dickering between his depth of experience and the youthful promise of Kevin Magnussen, it seemed that Jenson Button’s long involvement in Formula One was over. That would have been a shame in some respects, as well as being clearly against the driver’s wishes. Some of us, however, were looking forward to the possibility of the 2009 world champion making a natural transition to racing at Le Mans .

On the face of it, this would have been a career downshift, a signal that a driver was no longer wanted at the highest level of the sport. But for some years now the pendulum has been swinging away from F1 and back towards the sports car series that reaches its annual climax in the 24-hour race run, with only a wartime break, since 1923.

F1 is in big trouble. As the long dictatorship of Bernie Ecclestone winds towards its inevitable close, the world of grand prix racing faces declining live and television audiences in many parts of the world and appears unable to agree on any meaningful solution to its problems, financial and technical. The inmates are not yet in full charge of the asylum, but they enjoy just enough power to be able to indulge in public squabbles every bit as damaging as the flaws in the status quo.

By putting a toe into the waters of new hybrid engine technologies last year, F1 made a belated but very necessary step into the future – the real future of the real world, that is, and not only the future of a few overprivileged people to be found drinking champagne in the paddock at this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix. Ecclestone disliked the change because the new technology cost money to develop, which meant that the teams would inevitably start demanding a larger slice of the pie.

Ecclestone’s control over F1’s finances is a long-running scandal and perhaps the only way for it to end is for the whole thing to come crashing down. Whereas in past eras new teams could arrive and, depending on their scale, ambition, creativity and backing, either fade away or establish themselves, the way Ecclestone restructured the sport means that the collapse of overstretched teams imperils the entire edifice.

Through a new working group, the teams are making a desperate effort to broaden F1’s box-office appeal. As self-interested rivals, however, they are the last people to have any real perspective on the problems and are unlikely to agree on anything other than the most minor modifications to the way the sport markets itself. This is an empire whose decline, as irreversible as those of all empires, is well under way, even though its circus might continue to provide entertainment before the end comes.

Mark Webber, the former F1 driver, competing in a Porsche 919 Hybrid at the 2014 6 Hours of Bahrain. Photograph: Francois Nel/Getty Images

Over at Le Mans, meanwhile, the picture and the prospects are very different. Here is a competition, the World Endurance Championship. in which big manufacturers – Toyota, Audi, Porsche, Nissan – honour the history of motor sport by putting technological development first. While F1 went its narcissistic way, these engineers were encouraged by their rule-makers to leap wholeheartedly into hybrid technology, unconstrained by the sort of imbecilic one-size-must-fit-all regulations that strangle creativity.

Where the F1 designers have been forced to pursue ridiculous contrivances based on arcane interpretations of aerodynamic theory, Le Mans cars actually help to develop technology that is transferable to those you and I might soon be driving in a saner low-emissions world. This reminds us of the race’s earliest days, when the day-and-night format gave manufacturers an opportunity to demonstrate the efficiency of their headlights and weather equipment, or the pioneering use of disc brakes by Jaguar’s winning cars in the 1950s.

Wolfgang Ullrich, Audi’s sporting director, is in no doubt about the purpose behind the effort that has given his team 13 wins in the past 15 editions of the race. “For our company, the point of our participation in motor racing is the development of technology that can be passed on to our road cars,” he told L’Equipe this week.

Although, given that the designers of Le Mans cars also use computers, there is an inevitable similarity about their creations, the cars are far from identical. Nissan’s new contender, for instance, takes the radical step of opting for front-wheel drive from a hybrid engine mounted in front of the driver, harvesting energy from the front axle and redeploying it at the rear. This presents a different approach to aerodynamics, not least because of the use of smaller rear tyres. A straight reversal of the conventional racing layout, it is consistent with the Japanese company’s policy of using Le Mans to explore new possibilities.

The unveiling of the Nissan last month was a reminder of the days when the public debut of an unorthodox F1 car could still provoke gasps of amazement: the dramatic Mercedes streamliner of 1954, the bizarre Connaught “toothpaste tube” of 1957, the 1971 March with its tea-tray front aerofoil, the exotic six-wheeler Tyrrell of 1976, or the speedily outlawed Brabham of 1978, with its giant downforce-generating fan under the rear wing. Each took a novel approach, adding to the richness and variety of the spectacle.

In the world endurance championship, which begins with next month’s Silverstone Six Hours and includes the race at Le Mans, the drivers are not treated like gods and do not behave like spoilt brats as a result. Whether former grand prix pilots such as Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld or specialists such as the three-times Le Mans winner André Lotterer and Tom Kristensen, who retired last year at the age of 47 after just missing a record 10th victory, they take a proportionate place in the drama.

Le Mans racing retains both the human approachability and the technological value long since lost from F1. There may very well be a first-class race in Melbourne on Sunday between such drivers as Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas, but it is not hard to believe that the lustre has gone for good, tarnished by so many years of scandal and misdirection.

Once taken as an example to follow by others – such as the Premier League – wanting to maximise their short-term financial gains, Ecclestone’s sport is in danger of becoming just another victim of hubris. Luckily, for those unable to wean themselves off the sight and sound of cars on a race track, there is an alternative.

Bernie EcclestoneBernie Ecclestone
Bernie EcclestoneBernie Ecclestone
Bernie EcclestoneBernie Ecclestone

Leave a Comment