I was reading the other day about Sir David Brailsford’s decision to stand down as performance director of British Cycling in order to concentrate his efforts on being team principal of Team Sky. The report said that Brailsford “is currently preparing for this year’s Tour de France which starts in Yorkshire on 5 July and the Giro d’Italia, which starts in Belfast next month”.
I did a double-take. The Tour de France starts in Yorkshire? Eeh by gum…
I looked it up and, sure enough, la première étape will be from Leeds to Harrogate. This will be followed by a stage from York to Sheffield and then one from Cambridge to London. After that the cyclists will disappear into the Channel Tunnel (on trains one hopes) and will then get down to more traditional stages beginning with Le Touquet to Lille. There will be a brief call at Ypres in Belgium, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, but otherwise the cycle racers will then stay in France.
It seems that Yorkshire outbid Florence and Edinburgh for this honour and the then British Sports Minister Hugh Robertson announced that the government would provide £10 million in funding to help host this most French of events. Robertson said that the total cost of having the Tour de France visit the UK would be £21 million. Why, I wondered, would a government splash out on cycling when it will not provide any funding for a Formula 1 Grand Prix that happens every year? It is just wrong.
I am sure that there are some screaming cyclists somewhere who would argue that F1 is bad for the environment but, by its own admission, the Tour de France attracts 12 to 15 million spectators each year. Some watch from their homes as the peloton whizzes past, but the majority drive some distance to see the event pumping CO2 out of their beaten-up old Peugeots and Renaults. If the F1 world had any clue about how to promote anything, it would point out that real pollution is caused by the people who watch sporting events, rather than those taking part. If a Formula 1 race is held in a city and people travel to the race meeting by tram or Metro then the pollution involved is minimal and so Grand Prix racing is way cleaner than cycling, if one adds up all the Tours, Giros and other such events.
The Tour is organised by the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), which also happens to host the Dakar Rally in South American. Dakar, in case you missed out on geography lessons at school, is the capital city of Senegal, a republic of 13 million people on the west coast of Africa. So how did a race that was originally between Paris and Dakar end up in Argentina and Chile? The answer is political instability in Africa, which led the ASO to decide to move the event – and the Dakar brand – to a different continent. I put this clever thinking down to the ASO’s director of marketing Laurent Lachaux (although it may have nothing to do with him), simply because I used to know him when he was a humble press officer of the Larrousse F1 team in the early 1990s.
If the brand is not damaged and there is money to be made then a good sports marketer will jump at any chance. I note, by the way, that the Giro d’Italia (of Belfast fame) is owned by the RCS Media Group, which belongs to the Agnelli Family, which owns Ferrari… a company that does all of its marketing through sport.
The question of political instability and sport is one that is likely to rear its ugly head again in Formula 1. Over the weekend it was quietly announced that the Doorna WSBK Organization has decided to cancel the World Super Bike event scheduled to be held at Moscow Raceway on September 21. The organisation said that the current political situation “affects the capabilities of a number of key partner companies essential to run the event” and that the intention is for WSBK to return to Russia in 2015 and “for the remainder of the contract period up to 2021”.
The Russian Grand Prix, scheduled for October 12 in Sochi, is not yet a hot potato, but it is likely to become one, if Russia goes on messing with Ukraine. The Russian GP has clearly been designed to be a Putin propaganda exercise. He has been very much in the forefront of pre-event publicity right from the start, holding a well-trumpeted signing ceremony with Bernie Ecclestone when the deal was first done. But is it now wise for the sport to associate itself with him, in the wake of the Crimean Crisis? Doorna obviously thinks it is a bad idea. One hopes that F1 will think along similar lines. Right now, Russia has few friends in the world. The UN resolution which declared the Crimean referendum invalid was supported by 100 nations, only 11 were against it and those who did not want to upset Russia but did not want to support the country – 58 nations in total – abstained. The same happened in the Council of Europe where Russia’s voting rights were withdrawn by a vote of 145 votes in favour, 21 against and 22 abstaining. The Formula 1 group had traditionally done whatever brings in the most money (in the short-term), which means that going ahead is the most likely course of action. I cannot see the FIA having the gumption to open the door of its bunker and lay down the law about what is good for the sport. It has a daft rule that says that it cannot involve itself in any “political discrimination” which means that it cannot cancel the event, nor can it go ahead as the regulation can be read both ways. The teams cannot agree on anything, of course, and so unless the engine manufacturers step in and say that they are not taking part (which could happen), F1 will end up being used as a political tool by Putin. The danger is that being seen to be in bed with Putin, F1 will drive away sponsors and damage its reputation. It is a risk best avoided. Putin may not be happy, but he will understand and besides, if things are run as normal, the Formula One group will already have had money for 2014 from Russia. It can either send that back, or add another year to the contract when things calm down again.
Events can cross borders, but it is best that nations stay within their own frontiers…