Thursday, 19 May 2011

Review: The Changing Worlds of Formula One

BBC World Service, Documentary, Podcast
First broadcast  11th March 2011

From Italy to India, David Goldblatt examines the ever changing face of Formula One.

This two-part documentary (also available as a two-episode podcast) was broadcast in March to coincide with the new F1 season. I caught up this week as an F1 follower to see what international, not-so-sporty World Service made of the direction in which F1 is heading. No surprises, then, that money rather than gasoline fuels the F1 circus...

At the Monza Circuit in Northern Italy, Goldblatt discovers the triumphs, tragedies and the nostalgic old-style glamour of a past motor racing era, in a town that has been hosting the Italian Grand Prix since long before the arrival of Formula One.

Italy is the spiritual home of F1, passionate about the emergence of the automobile, then in 1945 post war, one Enzo Ferrari came to Maranello to begin building the first of the iconic red cars. Goldblatt sat in for a lap of the Monza Grand Prix circuit with clerk of the course. Safety is much improved since 1961, when 20 spectators and a driver were killed as a car left the track and hit the grandstands. Indeed, we were given a catalog of dead drivers, passionate, committed, heroic. Schumacher may be the most successful, but he is not loved. Seen as emotionless, calculating, without passion. Perhaps being German and still alive count unfairly against him.

In the ever evolving world of motor sport Goldblatt questions whether Europe will be able to  support the sport financially in the future and whether it matters that a country such as India, with a negligible history of motor sports, has been chosen to host Formula One?

So why does Formula One want to come to India and why does India want Formula One?

The geography of F1 is changing; it's going where the money is. China, Abu Dhabi, India, Russia. New markets, where there are new customers for the sponsors. Traditional F1 fans may not like it. The new circuits don't have enough spectators, not the right kind of spectators, to boot - certainly not the Italian tifosi.

However, the leveraged buyout of F1 rights company brought on a huge burden of debt. The TV money was already fixed for years ahead, so race hosting fees is now one of the major sources of new income. That means F1 going East to new markets. We have the giant of China chasing prestige and newly wealthy Korea both established in the calendar. Joing them, Abu Dhabi with its oil money and the new Russia of the oligarchs.

And India? It is a vast country, slowly shaking off the legacy of post-colonial, socialist India; an austere, sombre, egalitarian nation moving at the speed of the slowest citizen. This was Nehru's India, where import taxes of up to 350% were levied on cars. There are still speed bumps on major highways. Rural India is powered by ox-cart, bicycle or, for the affluent, scooter and motor-rickshaw. Speed is not in their blood.

This is beginning to change. The burgeoning middle and richer classes are enjoying speed and technology. The few Indian fans there are see F1 as the escapist dream, for them, the thrill of speed is never far away.

Goldblatt visits the embryonic circuit on the outskirts of Delhi, which in October 2011  will become Formula One's latest hi-tech venue. Not in Chenai, where the racing elite go, but Delhi. Where the money is. Where the ruthless go-getter Schumacher, is the driver of choice for the Indian F1 fans. RC

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