James Lawton: Sexist yes, but the formula is no longer sexy

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The Independent Online

Without a sliver of shame, Formula One owns up to being sexist. The girls, the sport agrees, are the flora of the racers' lives, the adornment and the convenience and then the falling petals. But there is another question the macho men are a little slower to address as they swagger towards the start grid of tomorrow's British Grand Prix.

Without a sliver of shame, Formula One owns up to being sexist. The girls, the sport agrees, are the flora of the racers' lives, the adornment and the convenience and then the falling petals. But there is another question the macho men are a little slower to address as they swagger towards the start grid of tomorrow's British Grand Prix.

If it is true, as everyone admits, the sport remains a bastion of sexism, if it clings to the values of a more rollicking age, can it also still claim to be sexy? And if so, who is getting the charge of excitement? The drivers, commuting from Monte Carlo, festooned with the trappings of their glory, shielded from the sun or the rain by the mini-skirted track assistants? No doubt. The team potentates, flying in over the traffic jams in their helicopters? Sure. The legion of corporate hangers-on? Plainly.

But what about the rest of us? The "turn-on" is dwindling, gentlemen - and at a dismaying rate if you don't feel your blood pulsing at the sight of the red machines of Ferrari pulling away into the middle distance. So where is the arousal? A quickie pit change, maybe? A slyly seductive ruse in race strategy? Perhaps. But then perhaps not. Formula One became an intriguing sport not because of what it could do for the car industry and the latest refinement of the family saloon. It grabbed our attention because it had brave men racing.

The record has been damning through the years of Michael Schumacher's processional glory. A great driver, maybe the best who ever sat behind the wheel, Schumacher unquestionably has it too easy now. Last week at the French Grand Prix Ferrari were boasting that they had found a new way to win, a novel finessing of the pit-stop tactics that determine races more relentlessly than ever did the overtaking skill and nerve of Juan Fangio or Sterling Moss.

The world drivers' championship race is a one-sided joke. Schumacher: 10 races, 9 wins. The rest: a gift from the technological gods, a single victory for Renault's Italian ace Jarno Trulli at Monaco. Is Schumacher that much better than Juan Pablo Montoya or young Fernando Alonso - or Jacques Villeneuve before he made his wrong career turn? How will we ever know?

Local hero Jenson Button is given a native son's outside shot at Silverstone after massive financial injections into the engineering of his BAR-Honda, but even here there will have to be questions about the basis of his success. Button is a fine driver, but even non-petrolheads know the crucial difference between him and thousands of kids haring around the backstreets of every major city from Sao Paulo to Sydney. His daddy is rich.

Sooner or later, as Formula One moves ever further away from the old buccaneering spirit of entrepreneurial nerve and cut-price technical innovation - can it really be so recently that Nigel Mansell mortgaged his house to pursue his dream of winning the world title? - the "sport" has to ask itself a few key questions. The most important is how long it can carry on presenting a match between the unbridled wealth of Ferrari and the descending order of their opposition as anything resembling genuine competition.

In the past the Formula One dictator Bernie Ecclestone has been candid enough about the dynamics of his sport. He once referred to the natural "culling" of drivers around the time Ayrton Senna became the last great victim of imperfect safety standards. But now he runs from the big issue as he sells his "product" around the world - and even on the choked streets of London - while all the time turning the screws on the spiritual home of Grand Prix racing at Silverstone.

The late James Hunt went to the heart of today's crisis. "Formula One," he said, "will soon have to ask itself where it is going and how long it can consider itself a genuinely competitive sport from the drivers' point of view. Not so long ago driver skill was a decisive factor. Now I wouldn't put it at more than a 10 per cent. Obviously, the way things are going that percentage is bound to drop."

Hunt didn't say that at the end of his days as he reflected on changing times from the safety of a broadcasting booth. He said it nearly 30 years ago when he was fresh from his world title triumph over the wounded Niki Lauda beneath the rain clouds of Mount Fuji, when he once admitted that if he could have in anything in life it would be the talent to be professional golfer. "Then," he said, "I could go to bed at night without fear in the pit of my stomach."

But that was "Hunt the Shunt", a motor-racing relic who once vomited in the cockpit on the last lap of a victorious run in the French Grand Prix. "Was it out of tension, James?" "No," he said, "probably too much foie gras and champagne last night."

Much more recently I resurrected Hunt's point in the company of David Coulthard and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, and asked for their assessment of the difference made by current drivers.

Coulthard was a little bemused by the question, talked of the input a driver made to all the technical calculations, which wasn't really the point. Where did driver skill and courage and sheer gut instinct figure in contemporary racing? Frentzen sneered that it was a question from another age. He wasn't old enough to consider it. So there we had it. Ageism, sexism and - maybe - unrealism about the lateness of Formula One's hour as a front-rank, compelling spectacle for a wider audience.

The question was put on a day when Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn, had dismissed suggestions that Formula One was obliged to work towards a more level playing field. What though, Brawn was asked, would be Ferrari's reaction to restrictions on the amount of track testing permitted the various teams in an effort to curtail the vast advantage enjoyed by the main contenders, notably his own? He said that Ferrari would probably hire an extra 100 workers and build another wind tunnel. They already had two. Meanwhile, Eddie Jordan, one of the last of the vaguely competitive independents, was fighting for his professional life.

Sir Frank Williams' passion for Formula One does not hide the dangers from him. He once said that we had reached a point where hiring a driver was akin to pinning on the tail of a stage donkey. But, of course, you needed someone to "turn the wheel".

Williams, while accepting the dangers that have come with the imbalance of wealth and technical resources, and disappointed that his own star, Montoya, is 65 points adrift of the leader, is generous enough on the talent of Schumacher. He says: "He is maybe the greatest driver of all time, his car control and willingness to work is utterly exceptional. Sometimes it is said that watching someone announce their brilliance and going so far ahead of their rivals is boring. Total bollocks. Michael Johnson dominated the Olympics for so long, but I switched on the television to be sure that I would see the world's best at the job. It was the same with Carl Lewis. He was a perfectly formed athlete who came down from the heavens and to watch him was just magical."

There is one huge difference. Johnson and Lewis shaped their own advantages; they determined their own destiny. Whatever else Schumacher can do on a racetrack, he cannot do that, not if his car isn't right and one time out of 10 so far this season is a failure rate that scarcely touches the sense of formality when he crosses the finish line.

In 1978, I took a ferry ride one bright morning after the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard track in the south of France. It was a small boat which permitted just three other travellers. They were Ronnie Peterson, Patrick Depailler and Carlos Pace - drivers in the prime of their careers. A few months later, I was the only survivor of that brief journey. Peterson and Depailler died on the track, Pace in an aircrash. Those were crazy days and the "culling" of which Ecclestone spoke so lightly was quite unacceptable.

No one would want to go back, but if you could, what would you take? Not the recklessness that brought such tragedy, not the failing safety standards, not the certainty that among the anoraks there was more than the odd ghoul. No, you would just take that natural edge of competition. You would take that, which is the whole point of sport. The chances are you would not feel the need for Viagra.

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