The right to race

1y ago

29.5K

The last few laps of the Abu Dhabi GP were inevitable, if not entirely satisfactory for the Mercedes F1 Team management. Tension was always in the air. Given Lewis Hamilton's massive 12 point deficit going into the final round, something extraordinary had to happen if he was going to win the 2016 F1 World Championship. But what? A long overdue mechanical failure on Nico's car? Or a driver induced DNF? It would have been tricky for Lewis to do the dirty in the sad tradition of F1 finales and more likely to come out in favour of Rosberg anyway, given Nico's points advantage - not that either driver would ever consider such a thing, heaven forfend - but it's not unknown in our business.

So what to do if you were Lewis? In these tyre strategical days he had an option to be, shall we say, awkward? Would he (I asked Niki Lauda before the race) try to back Nico into his opponents in the hope that they would leap-frog Nico and deprive him of the crucial podium finish he needed? Lewis would still need to win and the danger would be that the leap-frogmen might have also leapt 'oer him too. 'No' Niki said in his typically clipped 'no shit' tone, 'We told them any antics like that and we will pit the other guy first'. Perfect. They had thought it all through. They had a plan. They had the upper hand. Or so they thought.

Lewis would have known what Toto and the Merc team would do if he pushed his luck before the last stop. So he waited and just kept Nico stewing in his own sweat until he could go all the way to the end of the race, and beyond, if he so desired. By then Vettel in the Ferrari was on a charge. Perfect! So now all he had to do was wait for Seb to get stuck in, which he dutifully did ..... until he latched onto his fellow German's gear-box. I suspect he may have thought to himself, a little like Max (who had had a warning phone call from Toto only a few weeks before about not getting involved in the outcome of the World Championship, 'pretty please') that he really didn't need the aggravation of being lynched by millions of fellow Germans for depriving them of only their third ever Formula One World Champion. Actually he could have passed Nico and no harm done, unless the next guy in the queue, 'Crazy Max', decided to slip though too, which is a common occurrence once the door has been forced open. Let's face it, Nico could ill afford a non finish. But if all was lost anyway? Thankfully for him, it never came to it.

But the situation had the Merc bosses on the edge of their minds. They must have felt they had to do something to protect their precious investment, or at least be seen to be doing something. Otherwise, what were they doing there at all? So the decision was taken; 'Paddy. Tell him to go faster' 'Me?' 'Yes, you' 'Why me, Toto?' 'Because I'm scared of Lewis' Twitter army. They come to me in my dreams. I can't sleep any more. Tell him!' 'Lewis? Paddy here' 'What is it Paddy? I'm a bit busy right now.' 'Toto says to go faster' 'Wha? You're telling the fastest driver in the world to go faster in the middle of a goddamn race? Gedoutta here!' 'He said, no. What do you want me to do now?' 'Let me think.....' Perhaps it is desert fever that brings on driver revolts in Abu Dhabi, because it was at the very same venue that Kimi Raikkonen famously retorted, 'Leave me alone! I know what I'm doing!' We hear you Kimi!

But in that moment Lewis was establishing a point of principle; as a racing driver, he has a primary obligation to himself. Now this is not seen within our sport as a very sound principle. Racing drivers are considered flighty, unserious, reckless fellows with no organisational skills and a personality defect that renders them suitable for only for two things, one of them being racing. And that is not too far from the truth of the matter, it is probably fair to say. Therefore (the logic goes) they must be controlled by more responsible individuals who are capable of seeing the bigger picture and providing security for thousands of loyal hardworking employees. Drivers are therefore seen by these people as hired guns, working for the company. The company pays, so the company says what goes. In Merc's eyes Lewis was in breach of contract. His loyalty should be to the company, in the eyes of the boss. Only this is all wrong. In fact it is the sport that pays and the sport is really owned by the fans, who sit down (or stand) for many hours and days and years in the hope of seeing a real, no holes barred, full on, right to the limits of acceptability, race. They pay the drivers AND the teams, at the end of the day.

But we did have reason to be concerned here. We have 'previous' in our sport. Lewis' hero, Ayrton Senna, when dealing with what he perceived to be a biased authority, took matters into his own hands. In the manner of Charles Bronson in Death Wish, he became the law and terminated Alain Prost's challenge in the first corner of the last race of 1990. But that was an entirely different kettle of bile. One; they were in rival teams, and two; Ayrton was still furious from the previous season. Abu Dhabi was child's play by comparison. It is worth pointing out that the result that year still stood, however, despite the dubious excuses. Nonetheless, a World title was on the table and Lewis wanted it badly. If he hadn't wanted to try everything possible, he wouldn't be Lewis Hamilton. In my view he played with Nico and the race masterfully. The result bears this out. Nothing was lost for Mercedes. But for Lewis? He'll have to try again next year. It's quite a thing to let an F1 title go. He tried everything he could and he did it within the book, if you discount disobeying team orders. He even won the questionable accolade of scoring the most race victories in a single season without taking the title, one more than his Championship winning opponent. He took a little while to put out the hand of congratulations but considering he was in the poo with his bosses I suspect he may have had other things on his mind, disappointment being one of them. His relentless pressurising of Nico gave us palpitations during the last few laps. Mostly, the fans loved it. My hands were still sweating after the flag dropped on 2016. I think we have to thank him for a memorable challenge.

So what can be done about our built in flaw in F1, the two, sometimes, conflicting championships in one event? Well the first thing to understand is the history of F1. Originally it was just a drivers' championship. The driver was awarded the points, and as we all know, points make prize money, so he would have got paid out of the total prize fund plus whatever other deals he had negotiated. All very wild west but simple. Then in 1958 they decided to give a point for fastest lap to the constructor which was effectively the birth of the constructors championship. Now, as I said, drivers being usually otherwise engaged, young and inexperienced, or unlikely to think long term due to their endangered species status, they just let all this constructors thing happen until inevitably there was a clash. This came when a tiny man with gigantic ambitions and vision took control of the teams' trading block called The Formula One Constructors Association and challenged not only the F1 Sporting authority, the FIA, but also the drivers' en mass. For the drivers he produced a thing called a 'Super Licence'. You needed one to be allowed to race in F1. From that point onwards, if you were a driver and you wanted a career in F1, you depended on the team to provide you with one. The team had you by the very large balls needed for F1 in those days. This contract contained some unreasonable terms according to the drivers. So a youngish Austrian driver with the biggest balls of the lot took charge of the drivers and called a strike at the first race in South Africa 1982. He was called, Niki Lauda. He is still the only man to have challenged Bernie Ecclestone head on and prevailed. But that was almost the last time drivers collectively bargained for fairer terms of employment.

Throughout F1's history there have been variations on this theme. Back in 1928 The British Racing Drivers' Club organised themselves to invite members for the purposes of celebrating the sport. Basically it was a drinking club for toffs. But there was an intriguing line in the articles of association that went, 'to further the interests of British drivers competing abroad', which sounded a bit like a union. But as these things always go, those ambitions became confused and forgotten as some bright spark decided that it would be a good idea to become a race organising club. From that point onwards the BRDC was scuppered as a driver only club. To this very day it argues over it's objectives.

The other body with laudable aims is the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, but as the name suggests it is an association for Grand Prix drivers exclusively, not all professional racing drivers. It's stated goals are to campaign for improved safety standards and Sir Jackie Stewart and my father were some of the drivers who were not afraid to speak out in the quest to save the lives of their fellow drivers. F1 is probably one of the safest of all speed motor sports thanks largely to them and the impressive application of F1 technology organised through the FIA and pushed very hard by Max Mosley after the tragic weekend at Imola in 1994. Inaugurated in 1961, the GPDA sought a wider brief than just safety and actually wanted representation on the sporting body of the FIA, the Commission Sportive Internationale. It never achieved this ambition. Instead there is a thing now called the 'FIA Drivers' Commission' which meets to discuss stuff. Its not clear what effect or power this group has but when the FIA wanted recognition from the International Olympic Committee they needed to show to the IOC that they represented the 'athlete'. It was, in my view, nothing more than a box ticking exercise, but it worked and in 2013 the FIA won their precious IOC recognition. But the Drivers' Commission appears to be near powerless and in any case it is beholden to the FIA which has conflicting interests. It does not properly represent 'the athlete' in my book.

So, Lewis Hamilton's actions have created a bit of a stir, with some fuming and gnashing of teeth in some quarters and jubilation in others. Those who believe F1 drivers should do what they are told at all times seem to be at odds with those who think an F1 driver is a free man, not a number. I believe that when F1 reigns in its drivers it is shooting itself in the foot. The show is, to the majority of fans, about the drivers racing each other. Team bosses even say this themselves, when trying to regain popularity. The problem they have is that they have told their paymasters that they will deliver victory for the team and the most points in the Constructors Championship. This way the investors don't lose their shirts because all the prize money is connected to the Constructors championship. This needs changing. But how? Turkeys rarely vote for Christmas. And who will argue the case for the drivers' right to race? We need a lever to move the giant rock that is on the foot of F1.

To cut to the bottom line, there is no organisation in our sport that represents the 'athlete' solely and unambiguously with the stated aim of influencing the rules of the game to the benefit of the professional driver. In virtually every other sport, there is such a thing; the PGA, ATP, PFA, RPA, etc. etc. In actual fact, the GPDA was disbanded in 1982 at the drivers' strike and re-named the Professional Racing Drivers' Association and then disappeared without trace only to re-emerge as the GPDA at Monaco after Imola in 1994. So a PRDA has already existed, but like a Higgs Boson, it disappeared the moment it came into being. What our sport needs is such a thing that grows over time to ensure the drivers can enjoy the sport that they want. I think this sport will be the same sport that the public want too. I might be wrong, but I think we have to try and make this thing happen. The idea would be to use the power of the Professional Driver, the guy or girl who has decided to take a chance and make a go of it as a Pro racer, to apply pressure in the right places at the right time to effect changes that improve not only the conditions for drivers to use their talent to earn a living, but for them to have some say in their sport, because currently they have no status other than that afforded by their results. Lewis Hamilton is in very powerful position. He can cock a snook at the boss. But the others can't. Our sport needs a Professional Racing Drivers' Association. That is why I am setting one up. Watch this space....

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Comments (20)
  • Totally agree that the drivers should have more input because they have the biggest influence on what makes motorsport exciting and entertaining. The machinery is of course very important but meaningless without letting the drivers showcase their talent and driving styles/personalities. Drivers are also less inclined to get mired in the politics and would focus on the racing, which is what we are all here for. Motorpsort (and F1 in particular) has three aspects: Business, Entertainment and Sport (in that order in my opinion). More driver input would help shift the focus towards the Sport and Entertainment aspects, which fuels popularity and naturally feeds back into the business side. All sorted ;-)

    1 year ago
  • Multi-21 Seb

    1 year ago

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