Grand Prix Glory – Putin Style

Posted by Ivan Rendall on Saturday, 4 September 2014 in Blogging

Russia, and these days that seems to mean Vladimir Putin, has been looking for ways to take part in the flashier jamborees developed in western society for some time: the Sochi Winter Olympics, the 2018 Football World Cup – and the 2014 Formula One World Championship. On October 12th, Bernie Ecclestone’s high-tech circus is scheduled to go to Sochi for the first Russian Grand Prix since 1914. Russia will be on the calendar, on a par with China, Korea, Singapore, India and Bahrain.

It probably won’t trouble the agenda at the NATO summit, but there have been stirrings in Brussels about boycotting the 2018 World Cup because of Putin’s war in Ukraine. There have even been a few little squeaks about cancelling the Sochi Grand Prix, a natural target for economic sanctions, hitting Putin and his cronies in their collective pockets, and quite a propaganda coup for western governments.

But Vlad is nothing if not determined, as is Bernie. However, be warned Mr. Putin, that motor racing is a complicated and mysterious business: raw capitalism on the fringes of sport. If there is a defining theme it is that at its best, involvement in Formula 1 is a succession of ups and downs as even the late opportunist Enzo Ferrari discovered.

And yet, Ferrari and Mercedes have survived, the former since the 1920s, the latter since 1908, and they have prospered as part of their respective national and international psyche and developed as part of international popular culture. Formula 1 is the third greatest sport on TV because the people in it have made it what it is, not their governments.

So, Mr. Vlad, you might like to consider the mixed fortunes of national governments who have meddled in motor racing politics as a way of seeking to profit from the huge popularity of the mercurial, even enigmatic business with its fluctuating fortunes, high demand for cash and finely balanced reputation.

There are no points for second best and Adolf Hitler, for all his great strategic mistakes understood its true value. A month after he was elected to power in 1933 he announced a Nazi government fund of 500,000 Reich marks (about £5.8m today) to build racing cars. His plan was to use motor racing to promote Germany to Germans and to the outside world, to convince them all that the National Socialist economy was superior in fostering a high technology industry.

It was also a cultural investment: a way of entertaining people on the lines of bread and circuses, of stirring up patriotism. But he knew too that most Germans were technically literate and appreciated cars. At the same time as backing racing cars, Hitler invested in the Volkswagen.  

The racing money was divided between Mercedes and Auto Union. Each company built a stunning series of innovative cars: Mercedes pioneered independent suspension while AU put the engine behind the driver. Both companies’ cars were painted silver, Germany’s racing colour since 1902, and collectively they were known as the Silver Arrows.

The rest is motor racing history. Hitler’s plan worked as precisely as he intended, exceeding expectations as a propaganda tool. In motor racing at least, Nazi Germany looked, and was, invincible: German cars with German (and a few Italian) drivers, dominated Grand Prix racing until the Second World War broke out in 1939.

Following the Allied victory in 1945, Britain’s secret service, MI6, rifled through the Nazi archives. Among the military secrets, it found the complete Mercedes and Auto Union archive, the design secrets and the public relations policy. Our spooks, in between spying on the Russians, studied the papers. They became the basis of an idea: to project British national prestige by emulating the success of the Silver Arrows.

The idea took shape among establishment figures and industrial boardrooms. It became a project as British Racing Motors (BRM), a very expensive undertaking for the government when British families still lived using ration books and British industry had other priorities. It was started as a very British institution: a Trust Fund through which industry pledged cash and investment in kind.

However, turning the German model on its head, instead of government cash backing private industry, BRM was based on private industry backing a single individual. BRM was entrusted to a minor, but well-connected, amateur, British racing driver, Raymond Mays.

In fairness, Mays had produced a series of exquisite “voiturettes” (sub-Grand Prix cars) before the war. His ERAs (English Racing Automobiles) were built for  wealthy private customers to buy and race as amateurs. Mays designed them on an almost bespoke basis and built them in the stables behind his home: “The Maltings”, in Lincolnshire.

By dint of his establishment connections, BRM became his tenant at the stables where British industrialists finished up financing a rural, very artisanal factory, from which Mays would challenge the world.

It was a very British operation: Rolls-Royce, which had produced a string of superb aero engines in both world wars, including the superb Merlin of Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster fame, but had no motor racing experience, designed a complex, highly innovative V-16 supercharged racing engine, with a centrifugal compressor, which had never been tried before. It produced a heart stopping, almost musical sound.

Government cash found its way into the mix: the Royal Air Force, no less, built BRM a engine and car test facility at nearby RAF Folkingham airfield.

Everybody wanted a slice of BRM and the money poured in.

And out. The BRM Type 15 was magnifique, but it was an expensive, and complete, very British, disaster. The V-16 was massively powerful, but the power peaked at high revs, it had no “grunt” so drivers started with high revs and a lot of the power went up in smoke as the narrow tyres tried in vain to transfer 475hp to the track. The publicity machine however, worked superbly, raising huge expectations: BRM was British so it must be superb; a Times leader had pronounced it “a winner.”

The closely guarded truth was otherwise. Five years after its inception, the Type 15 was really still in development, a prototype. It was not entered for the inaugural race of the World Drivers’ Championship in 1950, held in front of the Royal Family at Silverstone because it was “not ready.” But, at the insistence of BRM’s backers, it did manage a “demonstration lap.” The first three places in the first World Championship race went to three pre-war, Italian, Alfa Romeos which went on to dominate the first two World Championships.

When The BRM Type 15 finally made its racing debut in June 1950, spectators jeered rather than cheered, and threw pennies at it to show their disgust at the waste of money.

Backing (it wasn’t called sponsorship in those days, and no advertising was allowed on the cars) dried up. Britain’s Green Arrow was entered in 2 Grands Prix but it never raced. Then the Formula was changed.

Ferrari continued the Italian dominance until 1954. Then Mercedes returned to Grand Prix racing with new breed of Silver Arrows and swept the board for two seasons. It pulled out after a crash at the Le Mans sports car race when one of its cars crashed and killed 80 spectators.

Within ten years, Britain was dominating Grand Prix racing. The cars bore the names of the engineering entrepreneurs who built them: Cooper, Lotus, Brabham, Tyrell, Williams and McLaren, teams founded by “garagistas,” talented men with oily rags in their pockets but in love with cars, professionals without the money to invest in pipe dreams, racing was their livelihood. They prospered by winning and though tobacco sponsorship. When that was banned, all kinds of global, high tech and luxury goods brands stepped in.

Today, 8 out of the 11 Formula One teams’ cars, including Mercedes and their engines, are designed and built in southern England. (The other three are Ferrari and Toro Rosso in Italy, and Sauber in Switzerland.)

Putin’s Russia is a comparatively new entrant and it’s trying to buy its way in. In July 2014, the Swiss team, Sauber, was said to be floundering financially. Suddenly three Russian sponsors appeared with a nineteen-year-old Russian driver, Sergei Sivotkin. All had decidedly government inspired names: The National Institute of Aviation Technologies, whose headman is Sergei Sivotkin’s father, Oleg; The Investment International Fund and The Fund for Development of the Northwest Russian Federation.

Russia already produced Formula 1 cars through a defunct, Moscow-based sports car manufacturer, Marussia. Their factory is in Banbury, Oxfordshire. Russia also has a driver, Danill Kvyat, who drives for Sauber and who has 8 points in the current World Championship, led by Mercedes drivers with 220 and 191 points respectively.

Most Russian oligarchs seem to prefer Premier League Football. They are wise men, in this regard at least. Putin’s courtiers will, no doubt, attend on the macho Vladimir, taking time off from world affairs, proxy wars and food sanctions to wander through the pits at Sochi, with Bernie Ecclestone perhaps, and who knows, Vlad the Lad might even drive a circuit or two, stripped to the waist and cradling an AK-47 I hope, to show his government’s commitment to Russia’s place in Formula One’s sun.

But, Mr. Putin: beware before you join “the Piranha  Club” as McLaren’s Ron Dennis once described Formula 1’s top table with great insight.

Hitler got what he wanted from motor racing. The post-war British government certainly did not. France, which invented the sport, and invested in F1 by owning Renault, which still produces engines, doesn’t even have a Grand Prix any more; it was just too expensive.

Marussia’s money will flow to Britain, not to some state Federation Motor Racing Development Fund in St Petersburg or Moscow. Will the expertise flow back to Russia, and put Sochi alongside Silverstone, Spa, Monza, Hockenheim and even Hungaroring. I doubt it.

The World Championship may look ultra-cool, an extension of the fashion catwalk, a digital wonderland and a playboy’s paradise, but in the real world the financiers just pick up the bill. That part of its soul, which celebrity culture sells every time struts around on the grid prior to a Grand Prix, is its credulity and its credibility.

What can’t be bought easily is the continuity of being part of the history of motor racing. The top teams’ roots are buried deep in a world only a few people really understand. Their instincts are the sum total of millions of small details absorbed by successive generations over a century of building sensual cars, developing high-octane politics, savouring the spectacle of exquisite, expensive personal rivalry, and finding pecumium ad infinitum as Cicero defined mere war.

The KGB would probably have burnt the Mercedes archive in 1945, regarding it as bourgeois and worthless. But we know differently, it was gold dust, and even if a complacent British establishment missed it, the hungry young men who followed did not.

Mr. Putin: are you a Hitler, with limitless money, or a post-war British industrialist who thought he’d got lucky, or a real operator? It’s hard to see you as a success-driven, carnivorous, garagista.

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