So I’m back in action after a very pleasant break in glorious Cape Cod. I will leave it to the local tourist board to do the promotion for the place, but suffice to say that I keep going back, despite having travelled the world and found many beautiful places hither and thither. My timing seems to be pretty good this year as no sooner am I settled in at the desk than the action begins again, with the announcement that Max Verstappen has been signed by Scuderia Toro Rosso for 2015. This will make him the youngest ever F1 driver – by about a year – if all goes to plan and he makes his debut in F1 in Australia next year. Max has had one season of single seater racing, albeit a mightily impressive one. He comes from good stock, however, as his father Jos was super-quick in his day and his mother Sophie Kumpen comes from a dynasty of Belgian racing folk and was a great racer herself. And I’m not kidding when I say that. On her day in karting she beat people like Jarno Trulli, which was no mean achievement as Jarno was mighty in a kart. So when it comes to mixing DNA, Max should have all the right chains in place to be a star. And, of course, in addition to the genetic advantages, he has been a racer from birth so he has all the behavioural advantages as well. On top of that he is a bit like Kevin Magnussen in that he will benefit from the lessons learned from his father’s mistakes. Jos was incredibly fast but he jumped into a top F1 team too early and got royally screwed. He spent the rest of his long career trying to fight back from that but never really found a car to give him the chance to win. Hopefully Max will make up for it. I have to say that I feel very sorry for Jean Eric Vergne as he has a lot of qualities that make a top F1 driver but he has been hideously unlucky. He was all but a match for Dan Ricciardo, and when his car has run well he has been beating Daniil Kvyat, but such is the way with Red Bull junior drivers. They take you up the escalator but then throw most of the drivers away when they get to the top. It’s ruthless but I guess it is their money to burn. As a youngster if you had a choice you would take the money but I’d always worry about the fact that you can soon fall out of favour and get thrown from the bus like a long list of good guys who are no longer in F1 because they had no parachutes. Hopefully JEV will find something next year…
As for the rest of the news since I’ve been away, there was only one story: Bernie Ecclestone buying his way out of the mess in Germany. Personally, I think it is a disaster for German justice because it sends out all the wrong signals about the way Germany does business. What value is preaching anti-corruption to the world and signing treaties if you then take money to settle cases? It screams injustice when a man facing charges of bribery pays and is deemed to be free without any decision as to whether he was in the right or in the wrong. Good for Mr E for being smart enough to work out an escape route, but I don’t see it as being a good thing for the image of the sport. It is arguable whether it is good for the business. Yes, Bernie holds the whole business together (and we don’t know if anyone else could because no one has ever tried) but at the same time, he might be seen by some to be holding it back as F1 could develop in new ways with new minds brought to bear on the subject.
It takes a lot to understand why the Germans came up with such a solution, but my feeling is that the prosecution service had lost confidence in their case and felt that they might lose. A defeat would have been worse than a pay-off for the prosecutors because it would have smacked of incompetence on their part. Getting such a huge sum of money from Ecclestone gave them some means to deflect criticism. Most importantly, however, it is the unspoken things that count. Ecclestone got off and may appear to some as the winner in this case. But was it really a win? How many people out there in the world believe he is innocent? No innocent man pays $100 million to a government if he believes he has done nothing wrong. He simply fights the case and believes in justice as a concept. Yes, that risks being found guilty if the case goes wrong but paying to walk away leaves the impression of guilt – and there is no escaping that. The twisted logic of the prosecution was that they would get a large sum of money for the state, avoiding embarrassment, and yet the world – rightly it wrongly – would see Ecclestone as having done wrong. So it was a pragmatic decision.
The key question for F1 is whether this hurts the image of the sport. If Ecclestone had been found guilty he would be gone but by not being found anything he remains. We have to see just how much power is returned to him by CVC Capital Partners. A lot of folk in F1 assume that it will all return to the way it was before but there are no guarantees of that happening. CVC wants out and the business will sell better with the fewest number of visible flaws. I cannot help but wonder if the sport does not suffer because of its image. In order to get all the best clients one needs a business that has the right image. This is why I believe that so many big corporations that should be in F1 are not there. You cannot argue the power of the sport to deliver a message around the world. It is a phenomenal business tool but very view multinationals are using it as they ought to be. Perhaps it is because no one has explained how powerful the sport could be for their business, but it might also be that the sport has a slightly dodgy image, thanks to dealings with places where F1 does not need to be, and people who cut a lot of corners and get caught doing unseemly things.
Some argue that the spirit of F1 is best expressed in the arts of entrepreneurship, fast moving ducking and weaving types who get the job done. There is much to support this argument, but one wonders whether overall the business would be better off with a slower moving management but a better overall corporate image. There is no answer to that question. We have what we have.