Corporates triumph over privateers and F1 the poorer for it
with Richard Drew
Peter Sauber is a quiet man, at least in public. When I interviewed him earlier this season I didn't realise he had entered the room (although at the time I was chatting to Jacques Villenueve). When we sat down to talk he apologised for his poor English and then conducted an interview that was word perfect.
You suspect that there is an inner core of steel inside this mild-mannered persona. There was a hint of it after Sauber's debacle at Monaco when the two cars took each other out of the points. He summoned his drivers to his Swiss headquarters and blew his top.
In the aftermath of the affair he revealed he kept a unique tally of his drivers' ability 'I have a black book in which I keep a record of plus and minus points. And Jacques got some severe minus points for his manoeuvre in Monaco.'
Sauber have graced the F1 scene for more than 10 years now, a solidly midfield outfit and one of the dwindling band of privateer teams. That is going to change. BMW is buying the team and will be in charge from next year after the German engine maker ran out of patience with Williams.
Peter Sauber will be happy. His employees have a little more security and the team will make strides up the grid. The amiable Sauber will pocket a wad of cash to ease his retirement. But for the fan of F1 it is sad to see another privateer team bite the dust, swallowed up by the corporations.
The truly privateer team is becoming an endangered species. The purest of the species is Minardi. Paul Stoddart is a fiercely independent spirit and as a result a constant nuisance to the FIA in general and Max Mosley in particular. For this F1 fans should be grateful. The price you pay for this independence is a miniscule budget and a guaranteed place at the back of the grid (unless you're racing at Indianapolis of course).
Others have either thrown in the towel, or taken the corporate dollar. Perhaps the most sadly missed is the colourful Irishman Eddie Jordan, whose equally colourful cars have been bought by a not so colourful billionaire.
This is all a far cry from the recent past where your will to win (and have a bit of fun) rather than your bank balance and marketing strategy dictated whether you'd have a go in F1. This rather more swashbuckling era brought us the likes of Ken Tyrell (I was always fond of Tyrell's six wheeler in the 70s), Jack Brabham and the Lotus of Colin Chapman. Even Bernie Ecclestone was once a humble team owner before the poacher turned gamekeeper and almost single-handedly turned the sport into the organised big-money event it is now.
It's not just in F1 this is happening of course; it's a sign of the times in sport in general. Once upon a time my beloved Bristol Rovers beat a Manchester United side comprising most of the Busby Babes. Nowadays, I doubt they will ever be within two divisions of the Red Devils. Indeed I can confidently predict the top five in the Premiership next season, such is their financial superiority which translates into results. These aren't so much clubs, they are brands to be exploited. There may be lush surfaces in the Premiership, but there's no such thing as a level playing field. Heck, even rugby has gone professional.
The advent of the Premiership saw the end of equitable share out of cash that meant any team could make it to the top.
F1 is similar in many ways. Bernie Ecclestone has brought billions into the sport and, as he points out, made many people very rich in the process. But the escalating costs to put on this show have squeezed out the smaller teams. In the process some of the sport's more colourful characters have gone. As in football, the fans are at a greater distance from their idols. And that is a bad thing for F1.