The Inside Line #77: Matters of unimportance

TILI Logo PrintThe scene, given what was going on outside, was altogether surreal. The Mercedes hospitality unit, so regularly in the eye of the media storm this season, was an oasis of calm at Suzuka on Saturday morning of race weekend, as the world’s press staked out the Red Bull and Ferrari areas either side of the Mercedes set-up in the wake of Sebastian Vettel’s announcement that he was leaving the former and (by association) headed to the latter.

With chaos going on either side of us, I sat with Mercedes executive director (business) Toto Wolff, media guru Bradley Lord and a stuffed replica of Lewis Hamilton’s dog Roscoe, which an enthusiastic Hamilton fan had made and dressed up in Mercedes gear before presenting it to a bemused Hamilton the day before. [1]

The topic of the day was Hamilton (not his dog), but Wolff was warming up on other matters. Namely the significance of F1 in the grand scheme of things. Wolff is a man who made his millions well before he ever stepped into an F1 paddock, so he sees things differently to most. He stabbed his finger on the table repeatedly to make his point as the media frenzy continued outside.

“Maybe coming in from a business background gives you a more relaxed perspective on what’s going on here,” he started, sweeping his hand in the general direction of the paddock.

“This sport is the most unimportant important thing in the world. It’s Formula One – it’s sport and it’s entertainment, but there’s much more important things going on out there.”

Two days later, I sat bolt upright in my chair as my flight out of Nagoya surfed surges of wind, the remnants of Typhoon Phanfone that had skirted the coast the night before. You know the turbulence is bad when the flight crew are ordered to their chairs for an hour; they sat still, not speaking to one another, as the flight bounced up and down like a tennis ball. The only sound was from people unable to keep their food down and whining kids [2]. And for whatever reason, Wolff’s words popped into my head. And his words were very, very right.

On an F1 weekend that was as crazy as anyone can remember, a driver lay in an operating theatre in a critical condition after hitting a service vehicle that was inside the barriers of the circuit retrieving another car. In a race that was started in a torrential downpour at the scheduled time despite everyone knowing four days out that the weather was only going to worsen on Sunday afternoon. That the service vehicle was on the track in virtual darkness with the rain intensifying without a safety car controlling the field was insanity. But the show, apparently, must go on. The way the weekend was handled was a complete screw-up from start to finish. Several people in the sport, not least the drivers and Jules Bianchi’s co-workers, conducted themselves with great dignity afterwards; others, as Will Buxton’s excellent blog from the coalface reveals, did the complete opposite. F1 is the most unimportant important thing in the world, after all.

I know Bianchi as well as half the grid I’ve had minimal dealings with; the odd press op here and there, a nod to say hello in a group situation, that sort of thing. But since his accident at Suzuka, few people with any connection to the sport can think about much else. Even if that thinking means putting up vision of Bianchi’s accident while selling ad space for something banal before it plays, which some outlets have disgracefully done [3]. You certainly learn a lot about people, good and bad, in times in crisis.

But yes, the show must go on – and with Russia’s F1 debut ludicrously scheduled a week after the Japanese Grand Prix, the teams and drivers went to Sochi last weekend with heavy hearts for the next stop on the calendar. Whether F1 should be going to Russia at all is a subject for another time, but when there’s wheelbarrows full of money involved, we shouldn’t be surprised [4]. My heart sank when I heard the track described as a mixture of South Korea, Valencia and Abu Dhabi (ugh), and while it looked reasonable, the layout (and perhaps more importantly, the lack of tyre degradation) produced the dullest race of the season. That said, you sense Lewis Hamilton didn’t mind too much …

A Russian Grand Prix review is the focus of Episode 77 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also look at the end of an era at Red Bull Racing with Vettel’s departure, and pause to reflect on Bianchi’s predicament as I wonder if the sport will learn anything from such a terrible incident.

You can watch ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday October 15, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday October 16.


– — —- —-

[1] You thought I was joking.

[2] And from the bloke who decided to sneak a quick cigarette in, sending everyone’s heart rate skyrocketing when a smoke alarm went off.

[3] Just when you think standards couldn’t plummet any lower …

[4] In a related story, the track map for the Azerbaijan circuit set to host the European Grand Prix in 2016 was released this week. As one Twitter wag noticed, it looks a little like a man’s hand clutching a big pile of cash. Coincidence?


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