Month: July 2010

Jim Clark

While putting together yesterday’s post about Ferrari, I started trawling through some old clips of the great racers of the fifties and sixties. Such an exercise inevitably leads you to, in my opinion, the greatest driver of them all: Jim Clark. Had Clark been racing in the modern era there’s every chance he would have racked up a frightening selection of pole positions, fastest laps, race wins and Championships. Instead, in a time of almost non-existent safety precautions in motor racing, he was tragically killed at the old Hockenheim circuit in 1968.

Here is a clip of him in action in 1963. Note the open-faced helmet and the lack of safety barriers and run-off areas on the circuit. But most of all, note the gloriously smooth car control. I would have loved to have seen him in action.

Ferrari – Motor Sport’s most glorious marque?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” and there are few institutions where the shadow was cast longer than at Ferrari, undoubtedly the most famous name in motor sport. Its founder, Enzo Ferrari was the giant figure who created the marque after a modest driving career, and then presided over the growth of a name which became synonymous with the romance, passion and tragedy of motor racing. In so doing, he created a sporting organisation which regarded itself naturally more highly than any of its competitors, and one which has often given the impression that it feels itself to be above the rules which everyone else must adhere to.

Formula 1 is a different beast now from its 1960s heyday of glamour and danger (as memorably captured in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Grand Prix) but one constant remains: Ferrari. Ferrari have seen the other great names come and go (Cooper, Vanwall, Brabham, Lotus*, Mercedes*, Tyrell) and survived to become the most successful team in Formula 1 history. But little else about the sport is recognisable from those days.

Whereas in the fifties and sixties Grand Prix racing was the preserve of wealthy enthusiasts, whose drivers regularly risked their lives for the thrill of racing, modern Formula 1 is a massive global industry in which very little is left to chance. The team budgets are huge (the larger outfits will spend in excess of $400m a year putting two cars on the circuit) and the ‘product’ is now carefully marketed on behalf of its sponsors for consumption by a global audience.

It has always been said that the presence and competitiveness of the Ferrari team are crucial to this success, and this has often led people to believe that the sporting integrity of motor racing had, at times, been compromised to ensure that F1’s biggest name always remained in contention. Over the years I’ve been watching the sport events on the track have often been accompanied by rumours of rule-bending, illegal traction control systems and blatant disregard for the sport’s regulations, and there has always been the perception that Ferrari have been afforded special treatment over the other teams.

Now Ferrari have once again found themselves in controversial territory after being referred to F1’s Motor Sport Council and fined a laughable $100,000 for the crude application of team orders in yesterday’s German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. As a result of Ferrari’s previous arrogance with staged finishes at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, team orders are against the current rules in F1, and the FIA’s response to yesterday’s events – presided over by Jean Todt, former Ferrari Team Principal – will be keenly awaited by observers.

Team orders are nothing new in Formula 1, of course. Many people forget that it is a team sport, often requiring drivers to ‘adjust their strategies’ to suit the team’s Championship aspirations, and this is perhaps understandable at the sharp end of a season. Yesterday was different because both Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso are still technically in the title hunt with eight races to go. It should also be remembered that, as a result of the shenanigans in Austria in 2002, Rule 39.1 of the FIA’s code states: “Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited”. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of team orders, Ferrari clearly, blatantly broke the rules yesterday and they must surely be properly held to account as a result. Enzo probably wouldn’t see it that way though.

(*Lotus and Mercedes both returned to F1 as manufacturers this year.)

Philip Hollobone – Heroic Prophet or Complete Idiot?

Brace yourself for the outrage (it’s already off to a flier in the ‘comments’ section of the Daily Mail’s online content). Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP for Kettering, has been warned that he may fall foul of the Equality Act as a result of his claim that he will refuse to meet constituents who wear a burqa or a niqab. You can be reasonably sure that the Little Englanders and self-righteous warriors against ‘political correctness’ will have a field day defending this objectionable little toad’s ‘right’ to create division and enforce lazy stereotypes in the name of protecting Britain’s national culture.

This often tends to be the culture of ‘freedom’ and ‘tolerance’ which Hollobone and his ilk like to boast about when they puff their chests out and become all dewy-eyed when the Union Flag is waved around at Tory conference time, but it appears you should only be free and tolerated if you’re white and Christian – anything that differs from the formula must be treated with suspicion and thinly-veiled (no pun intended) hate.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, has already voiced his concerns about breathing the same political air as the ‘toxic’ Tories, and it isn’t difficult to see why when an idiot like Hollobone crawls out of the woodwork. For all the work David Cameron has done trying to portray his party as modern and liberal, there is always the suspicion that you don’t have to look too far to find an army of Hollobones lurking on the Tory benches, foaming at the mouth about family values, tradition and ‘uncontrolled’ immigration.

And of course, immigration is what this issue is all about. Hollobone’s prejudices tap into deeply held suspicions whipped up by the tabloid press that foreigners are coming ‘over here’ and taking all our jobs while selling our British, Christian identity down the river as they ruthlessly construct their Islamic state. This analysis coveniently avoids any discussion of what the British ‘identity’ really is, of course. No mention here of the historical influx of Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Romans, Normans and the like – perhaps the BNP should persuade their friends in the press to have a crack at this ‘menace’ while they’re doing such sterling work on burkas.

Hollobone isn’t the first idiot to emerge from the Tory backbenches and he certainly won’t be the last. While some of the Conservative grassroots understand the concept of appealing to the centre ground of politics, there are just as many who believe the Richard Littlejohns of this world are the straight-talking prophets who warn of Britain’s impending doom at the hands of the foreigners and queers who secretly plot the overthrow of everything they hold dear. Now, in Philip Hollobone, it seems they may have stumbled upon a new hero.

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Best Blogs Poll 2010

The BBC, Murdoch and the Tories

Jeremy Hunt’s recent statement on the BBC Licence Fee represents the coalition government’s opening salvo in what threatens to be a highly unedifying assault on the Corporation. In all probability (in spite of all the government’s noises, backed up by their cheerleaders in the right-wing press) this will have very little to do with fairness, funding or the quality of programming. It represents the first time in thirteen years that the favourite sport of ‘Beeb-bashing’ is spiced up with the addition of sharp teeth to Tory prejudice in the form of ministerial office.

Hunt said, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, that:

“there is a moment when elected politicians have an opportunity to influence the BBC and it happens every five years. It is when the licence fee is renewed.

“That will be happening next year. That will be the moment when I use my electoral mandate [sic] to say to the BBC now, going forward for the next five years, these are what we think your priorities need to be and there are huge numbers of things that need to be changed at the BBC. They need to demonstrate the very constrained financial situation we are now in.”

There will, of course, be a strong argument for tackling executive pay (although the Tories don’t seem quite so keen to deal with this issue in too many other sectors) but any cuts forced on the BBC will almost inevitably have the effect of impacting on output. Love or loathe the Licence Fee, the Corporation produces some of the very best programming in the world of television and radio, has one of the best web resources available, and produces arguably the most trusted news output in the world. The BBC is also one of the world’s top brand names and does not make a loss.

Of course, the real driver behind the government’s assault on the BBC is the Tory Party’s perceived dependence on the Murdoch Press. Like Tony Blair before him, David Cameron was keen to court the approval of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper prior to this year’s General Election and it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that the debt is now being called in. James Murdoch (Rupert’s representative on Earth) has been complaining for some time about what he sees as the anti-competitive effect the BBC has on the media marketplace, and particularly on the web. This last aspect is especially of concern to an organisation which has just placed The Times’ online content behind a paywall in an attempt to forge a new income stream to replace the diminishing returns of the ‘Dead Tree’ press.

The Licence Fee is the easy stick with which to beat the BBC, but it is also the mechanism which enables the Corporation to maintain the quality it does while also catering for unfashionable areas (such as culture) which commercial broadcasters won’t touch with a bargepole. Murdoch dreams of a world in which Fox News (Fair and Balanced™) is the model for how news is provided in every country in the western world, but as long as the BBC produce an alternative which is trusted by many more than depend on commercial alternatives, domination of the British media market will have to wait.

All of this chimes with a Tory Party which instinctively wants to fillet a BBC which they see as a hotbed of subversion and anti-establishment intrigue. Once again it falls to the Liberal Democrats within the coalition government to curb the mouth-foaming excesses of its senior partner. Let’s hope they can summon the strength and the will to protect, what I believe, is an organisation Licence Fee payers should be rightly proud of.

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Best Blogs Poll 2010

A difficult week

I haven’t blogged for a good few days now and, to tell the truth, I haven’t really felt like it either. I can’t throw in the excuse that I’ve been busy because (although it has been a hectic week or so) I normally find it easier to write something when I’m stacked out than when I’m not. No, it’s been a difficult week for me personally (I won’t bore you with the details) and it is this which has led to my output being more than slightly thin on the ground.

When you have one of those weeks (or days, months or years) you very quickly change your view of what’s important. I try to keep a sense of perspective at the best of times, remember that the world is a very small place, and that my part within it is inestimably small by comparison. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to view the wonder of everything that goes on around me from a position of relative comfort.

Sorry for the navel-gazing, and sorry if you dropped by expecting to read an irrationally tetchy man bitching about the Tories or some such – normal service will no doubt resume before too long. In the meantime, have a look at this and remember how unimportant we all are:

World Cup 2010 – the post-tournament void beckons…

Well done Spain. In spite of my pre-tournament hopes for Holland, the better team won on the night, with Spain’s skillful passing game finally overcoming the more prosaic, combative Dutch style in the dying minutes of extra time.

I was disappointed for Holland, even though their first half exhibition of the more physical side of the game (ahem) was probably not to everyone’s liking. They made the most of what they had and, for me, helped make the Final a thoroughly absorbing game until John Heitinga was sent off ten minutes from the end. Although the Dutch can have few complaints about Howard Webb’s decision, I still feel a childlike wonder at how Heitinga can find himself sent off for a relatively minor offence when Mark van Bommel managed to stay on the pitch for the entire duration in spite of a selection of, at times, agricultural challenges on the Spanish players.

For a time it looked as though Spain would allow themselves to be rattled by van Bommel and the lucky-to-still-be-on-the-field Nigel de Jong, but their quality came through in the end with Iniesta’s well-worked late goal. They are worthy winners.

South Africa proved their condescending doubters wrong and organised a hitch-free tournament which gave those millions of us watching on television a sense of the country’s flavour and passion for the game of football. I even grew to love the all-conquering buzz of the vuvuzelas. If only some of the football could have lived up to the character and optimism of the tournament’s hosts.

So now it’s the post-World Cup void stretching out ahead. This is always the worst part of a World Cup year (even though South Africa 2010 was unexceptional at best, at least in terms of quality) as the standard, effort-free conversation-opener will no longer be available for use at the pub, chores can no longer be put off, and wife and family can no longer be ignored. Still, never mind – it’s an Ashes winter this year…