Macho muscle not the future of F1 success

Macho muscle not the future of F1 success

YOU probably didn’t notice, but I have been away for a couple of weeks. I was ostensibly in Melbourne for the Formula 1 Grand Prix, but that only really lasts for a few days, even including setting up and packing away afterwards. 

Also, it is a ghastly, over-commercialised farrago of an event and there are far too many hangers-on, rich guys and so-called celebrities living out their fantasies of being elite racing drivers, as if fame and/or money were a substitute for sublime innate talent and unwavering application.

While the F1 drivers inevitably attract the limelight and the groupies, they are far from the main attraction, for me, at least. They are on almost constant public display and it’s far too difficult to be discrete. Also, have you ever stood up close to one? Small men (with a couple of notable exceptions), even if immensely wealthy, insanely fit and immeasurably brave, just don’t do it for me any more. There was a time when they did, but I have learned the hard way over the decades that - without wanting to be too brutal about it - you never know if they’ll be here next year. Setting aside the worst of all possible reasons for that (heaven forbid), there are others. They might simply lose their edge, and the next big thing wins their seat. Or some rich kid backed by daddy’s megabucks makes a team an offer it can’t refuse. Teams fold. Drivers fall from favour. They retire young. It’s just all too tenuous.

But the brains behind the Formula 1 show? Now you’re talking. Physical attraction is fleeting but a meeting of the minds is forever. That’s actually why I love the race around Albert Park now - and in Adelaide before that, and at circuits across Europe even before that, when I was younger and traveled more readily. It’s not the actual race and it’s not the drivers, it’s the chance to catch up again with old friends and former lovers, and renew acquaintances whose lives have never been the same since they ran away and joined the circus. This year was as good as any.

And so the old crew gathers, sometimes in lesser numbers than years before, in restaurants and bars across the city. I’m not going to name the venues; that’s part of the deal. They are not revealed ahead of time and we’re sworn to secrecy afterwards. And the conversations … do you remember Silverstone in 1971, when Jackie brought his Tyrrell home more than half a minute ahead of Ronnie? Ken was beside himself and the party afterwards is one that we still talk about today, obviously. It went on so long that by the time it was over the circuit was empty and the roads were clear. It was also a celebration of Pedro, Ricardo’s beloved older brother, who was lost in Germany barely a week earlier.

‘The F1 is a ghastly farrago of an event with far too many hangers-on, rich guys and so-called celebrities living out their fantasies of being elite racing drivers.’

F1 has a glossy veneer, and increasingly is being corporatised, sanitised for public consumption. But it’s still built on the people, the personalities of the men and women who sweat and toil behind the scenes, to design and build the cars that do battle in public, and who provide the foundations and the infrastructure that catapults to stardom the drivers, today’s gladiators. 

You’re less likely to see the mechanics with grease on their hands (it’s quicker to change an engine or a gearbox as a single component than to strip it down and rebuild it) but the spirit of what drives them is unchanged from 30, 40 or 50 years ago.

‘While men might have laid it’s foundations, the success of the sport must be built on talent identified, nurtured and rewarded irrespective of gender.’

There’s a thread that has been woven into the fabric that is the sport. There are embellishments, of course, patterns embroidered by the character of drivers and team owners and some of the more high-profile participants - some rogues, some gentlemen … but almost exclusively men. But that is changing and that’s why it’s so good to see Claire taking such good care of the Williams team since her dad, Frank, stepped down, and why I was so happy to see Maria at Sauber, until she left last year. And it’s why we should have been shouting about Susie Wolff’s Dare To Be Different initiative from the rooftops.

If you dig beneath the surface of the modern teams, you’ll find women throughout the organisations: strategists calling the shots on pit stops and tyre selection; engineers in aerodynamics and composites development; test and development drivers. There are not nearly enough, but it’s a foothold, and it’s no longer only the “traditional” positions that they hold - catering, marketing, sponsor schmoozing. These are hardcore racers, and incredibly smart to boot. But getting the girls off the starting grids and into the engineering, strategy and materials departments happened at least 20 years too late.

I’m happy to let the glitz and the glamour attract and distract the masses; it provides a convenient cover for the real reason to be there, to enjoy again the links to the past, to a time that seemed simpler, more natural, less polished and less staged for the benefit of the corporations who own the teams or who sponsor them as means to build a global brand. There are people in the sport who measure their service to the sport in decades and they’re the people I was in Melbourne to see, to witness the fruits of their labour, hear their stories, and tell them mine. 

But it’s also a time to be reminded that the world changes, and that while men might have laid its foundations, the continued success and appeal of the sport must be built on a philosophy that talent must be identified, nurtured and rewarded irrespective of gender.

There’s nothing to fear from letting go of the past and embracing the future, only opportunity. Apart from anything else, the stories and the laughter in the watering holes around the Melbourne CBD will be far richer for it.