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Bernie Ecclestone and Formula One
by Dr. Gerry Coulter
2010-10-27 09:18:19
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Bernie Ecclestone, who turns 80 this week, sits atop Formula One racing – one of the few remaining spectacles in the world where drivers with amazing reflexes and an incredible instinct for speed pilot land-based vehicles which run on jet fuel at incredible speeds.

jim_clark._monaco_1964_lotus_climax_400A former motor-bike racer of some skill, failed race car driver, later a manager of drivers, and by the early 1970s a team owner (Brabham Racing), Ecclestone’s company today manages all the logistics and administration which go into the 18 events which comprise the F1 schedule (which stretches from March to November). His near total control over F1 is secured by his command over media rights for the sport. While often the subject of ridicule among drivers, team owners, media, and fans, Ecclestone is the kind of man the bankers behind F1 like and so long as he is able he will remain at the top of the sport.

The history of automobile racing over the past century mirrors the fate of liberty generally. Once upon a time racers took off in narrow, top heavy chain drive vehicles which could travel up to 60 km/h over the mountain roads between places like Nice and Briançon. Today F1 cars travel at speeds exceeding 300 km/h but do so confined to closed circuits. It is even worse in Indy Car Racing where the cars usually travel around an oval track and in the mind numbingly dull stock-car races of NASCAR where speed is intentionally limited to guarantee closer finishes. The F1 car itself has been transformed into a functional work of art while the drivers increasingly display the personality of their cardboard likenesses on display at our local petrol station. The driver today mostly disappears into the corporate entity of the car which is itself buried under logos. It is difficult to imagine a sport that better captures the zeitgeist of a globalizing culture wherein humans and machines push each other to new levels of performance in the name of promotion.

Given such circumstances it probably isn’t surprising to find a dictatorial figure such as Ecclestone at the top of F1. He is also among the West’s great remaining bigots [he thinks women are “domestic appliances not especially well-suited to race car driving], racist [especially towards Jews], and admires Hitler for his motivational skills. When photographs of Bernie and some cronies were discovered with prostitutes and NAZI paraphernalia it all seemed somehow rather unsurprising. Besides, Ecclestone has said that F1 needs more sex scandals anyway! Like so many of the people who today control the things we love Bernie is more than just a little disappointing. That said he is a high-school dropout who has, according to the Sunday Times “Rich List”, more money than the Queen of England! He also doesn’t seem particularly offended when people compare his short stature and grim demeanor to that of a troll.

The last F1driver to die in a race was Ayrton Senna in 1994 as the sport reclaimed one of the truly great figures it had generated. A form of racing which once combined the passions of accidents, speed, and the real possibility of death today has become processional. Now a negative passion for security (without risk) provides us with a blander version of F1. Passing seldom takes place among the lead drivers in the second half of a race unless an engine gives out. What races today in F1 is technology. It is difficult to conceive of Ferrari as the “evil empire” when a team financed off the sales of an energy drink (Red-Bull) leads the constructors championship. It says a good deal about the times in which we live when a completely useless and artificial product stands as tall as objects so not long ago seemed as genuine as did Ferraris and McLarens. Ecclestone’s mandarins  tinker with the scoring system each year hoping to sustain television viewer’s attentions while an F1 Network is being created.

Under Ecclestone’s reign F1 has become an increasingly domesticated species which well suits our increasingly domesticated nanny-culture. F1 has never been more safe and never more popular. The increasing predictability of an F1 race (it is largely decided in qualifying now) may well appeal to a society of multi-taskers who do other things while the race runs on television in the background. There are few things sadder than the sight of an F1 race being televised in a bar with the sound turned off. It is not all Ecclestone’s fault (indeed he stands against the nanny society) but on his watch F1 has become a less passionate spectacle and more of a corporate one devoid of the kind of vibrant characters it once boasted (Jim Clark, Sterling Moss, Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda etc.,). Among the other sports probably only golf has fallen so far and many did not notice until Tiger lost his game (it also speaks to our times that far more people followed Tiger’s recent daily trials and tribulations than have ever watched him win a major event).   

Ecclestone, a failed race car driver, exceeds in steering the monster that F1 has become over the face of the earth. Somehow, despite the nearly endless corporate tents, obscene pricing, domestication, and everything else that is tiresome about F1, the sport tells us a good deal about our culture. One thing it tells us is that despite the sponsors, the limiting of technological innovation, sometimes dim-witted ownership, and dictatorial control at the top, there remains one last sport where a few exceptional beings (currently incarnated under the names Weber, Alonzo, Vettel, Hamilton, and Button), can drive at the speed of our dreams. And they mostly do “drive” as less of it, with each passing year, is actually “racing” anymore. I know of no other sport more dependent upon the quality of its television commentators to complete it than is F1 (in the English speaking world we are blessed with the presence of the BBC’s Jonathan Legard and Martin Brundle).

Ecclestone deeply dislikes democracy but he has been quick to sell off the excitement of earlier times in F1 in exchange hyper safety and mass audiences. Under him F1 stirs as much ambivalence as it does excitement. Luckily for Bernie that is precisely the thing for which most sports fan today will eagerly settle. Bernie Ecclestone is a businessman who is very rich from providing the masses a watered down version of something that was once truly marvelous. As such he is one of the signs of our times. To his credit we probably all sense that something within him remains which hates what has become of F1.

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Jordan2010-10-28 02:50:33
I have known Bernie for 23 years. I do not know you but surely to write soemthing this accurate you must know him too. Well done!


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