It’s not racing

The question is not whether culling two geriatrics will restore Formula One’s identity but whether the sport has an identity to restore, writes Paul Hayward.

Back in the days when he could distinguish between a genocidal maniac and an efficient administrator who “got things done”, Bernie Ecclestone induced only awe in the Formula One paddock. Tracksiders would shuffle past his metallic grey motor home with the reverence of children imagining some master of the universe who held the nuclear codes.

Inside his nerve centre, Ecclestone was the ultimate James Bond catstroker, sucking money from television conglomerates, playing God to tracks across the world and bending governments to his will. His masterstroke was to persuade presidents and prime ministers that no state could look itself in the mirror unless motorised billboards travelled round its racetrack at 190mph.

Bernie’s Bus was what a Winnebago would look like if it were given a makeover by Hugo Boss.

Whole continents were played off against each other. New sources of wealth — Asia, the Middle East — were plundered. Formula One’s death-marriage with the tobacco industry was rewritten to fit the new reality. The three-brained Ecclestone was a statesman, deal-maker and fortune builder. Incredibly, the F1 teams seemed not to mind that they were doing all the entertaining while a small bloke in a caravan earned a high proportion of the money. The Ecclestone-era F1 circus was the most brilliant sporting confection in history.

It’s no big leap to see how this pit-lane Midas might have developed a dictator fantasy, especially while his fellow autocrat, Max Mosley, was using FIA, the sport’s governing body, for the kind of power trip his father, Oswald Mosley, craved as leader of the British Union of Fascists.

Ecclestone’s praise for Hitler as a kind of super-powered Rudy Giuliani was either a shocking demonstration of how age (and perhaps divorce) weakens mental faculties, or he has fostered these thoughts all along.

So the whole mad jamboree flouts its wares today in Germany, of all places, where the Nürburgring is uncomfortably close to Nuremburg on the linguistic scale. The collective cringe of the German automobile industry was expressed this week by Mario Theissen, the BMW Sauber team principal, who said: “Apparently he (Ecclestone) shocked himself when he was confronted by what he had said.” When an old guy says something daft, or downright offensive, you wait for the second car crash of the contrition-attempt, and Ecclestone duly supplied it: “During the 1930s Germany was facing an economic crisis but Hitler was able to rebuild the economy, building the autobahns and German industry,” he said, gliding past anti-Semitism and forced labour, as if Hitler were not some moral degenerate who made up the idea of national regeneration as he went along. “This was all I meant when I referred to him getting things done. I’m an admirer of good leadership.”

Let us say quickly, just for the record, that the mission to “get things done” failed even on Hitler’s own terms. The aim: to build a Thousand Year Reich. The outcome: the destruction of Germany and its division into East and West. Hey, let’s not burden Bernie with the details, because he just loves those motorways.

But back to the car racing. While Mosley is accused of backsliding on his promise not to stand for a fifth term as FIA president, and Ecclestone reaps the whirlwind of his attempt to distinguish between the Final Solution and good road construction, there is a risk that the teams and their leaders will escape their share of the blame for F1’s mortification. It has become a crash-test dummy, crunching over and over again into reality’s great wall.

A consensus is that if they just copter-in a snatch squad to remove the two old despots at the top of the pyramid then F1 will suddenly regain integrity and credibility. The trouble is, the same barons of the internal combustion age conspired to make F1 what it is: a sanitised circus of commercial interests, dressed up as a “sport”.

The question is not whether culling two geriatrics will restore F1’s identity but whether F1 has an identity to restore. The Formula One Teams Association, who have kept their apparently credible breakaway plan in a safe place, were not squealing especially loudly when the Max and Bernie show was making the good times roll. Until Mosley pushed his luck too far with budget caps and constant rule changes, which displayed his own megalomania, one of the world’s most powerful industries conspired in the dilution of a sport that was meant to portray the motor car in its most desirable form.

F1 has treated its audience with contempt for so long that one wonders whether it can ever learn how to behave, post-Max and Bernie. “In the end he got lost, so he wasn’t a very good dictator,” Ecclestone said of Hitler. Who does that remind you of?

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009