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Formula One: Who's in charge of the runaway train?

Jean Marie Balestre, then FIA president, speaks to Bernie Ecclestone in 1981 Sutton Images

The state of Formula One today? I sometimes wish Max Mosley were back in charge. I'd even go so far as to occasionally suggest we would be better off with Jean-Marie Balestre holding the presidential reins in Paris. That's how bad things have become.

Mosley may have been excessively confrontational at times -- a point he would dispute with typical elegance -- and Balestre was frequently considered to be barking mad during his period in office between 1978 and 1991. But the point is that the contrast in style between the blustering Frenchman and the urbane Englishman had the net effect of creating vigorous debate and getting things done. You may not have liked the method or agreed with the outcome, but the decision had been made -- and it was final.

The critical difference between then and now is that the teams did as they were told, regardless of the size of their budget or historical significance. True, Enzo Ferrari may have played a crafty political game, agreeing with whatever side aligned with his closely-guarded ambition -- even switching support at the eleventh hour if that suited his purpose -- but the Old Man's manoeuvring was always played out knowing the last word would not be his.

Ferrari may have threatened to either withdraw or retire with the same silly frequency of recent decisions over F1 qualifying, but he was acutely aware that grand prix racing would carry on without him. The truth was that the aching absence of red cars on the grid would be felt just as strongly in Maranello as it would in Monaco or wherever the next race might be.

My very first grand prix outside the UK was Monaco in 1968. Ferrari simply did not turn up. There was no warning. I was distraught initially but the pain was quickly ameliorated by the sight of Johnny Servoz-Gavin boldly power-sliding his Tyrrell-Matra on a damp track early on the Friday morning; the shattering sound of Jean-Pierre Beltoise's Matra V12; and Richard Attwood's kerb-thumping drive in the BRM as he set fastest lap and chased the imperious Graham Hill's Lotus to a timely and emotional win just over a month after the death of Jimmy Clark. On Sunday night at the Tip-Top bar, Ferrari was never mentioned.

Two weeks later, Chris Amon was on pole at Spa-Francorchamps. The fact that the eternally unlucky Kiwi fought for the lead until a small stone punctured his Ferrari's radiator oil radiator is another story. But the point is, Mr. Ferrari had jumped back on board a train whose footplate crew and guard, leaders of the union headquartered in Paris, were ready to leave without him. The problem today is that no one is at the controls of a runaway train heading for the edge of a cliff.

An interesting piece by Kevin Eason in The Times this weekend draws Mosley from the calm of the spectator gallery and into the turbulent debating chamber below. It is the former president's view that litigation is the best course open to his successor; the only means of banging together the heads of the teams and Mosley's old pal, Bernie Ecclestone.

"[Jean] Todt is terrified of being sued, but the only thing you can do is go to litigation and arbitration," said Mosley, who admittedly would be comfortable to the point of relishing the legal alternative thanks to his qualification as a barrister. "Todt is all for peace and compromise but you have to be prepared to risk litigation, or you can't do anything. You have to be prepared to go full steam ahead."

Eason also quotes Jenson Button, one of several drivers to have been frustrated by the lack regard for their views. "Ninety percent of the fans agree with us and this sport needs its fans," Button said. "I really do think the people who are making decisions need help from someone who is emotionally in love with this sport and not just here for business."

I'm not sure about the wisdom of a decision-maker being 'emotionally in love' with the sport. But at least he or she would have a better vision of a bigger picture that clearly eludes the majority of F1's stakeholders staring intently at the bottom line. That was never a criticism that could be leveled at Enzo Ferrari or, indeed, Jean-Marie Balestre. Irascible they may have been, but their hearts were in the right place. Most of the time.