The drivers can’t wrest control from Ecclestone

Beset by commercial doubts and now mired in controversy following the terror attacks, Sunday’s US Grand Prix is set to go ahead regardless.

Even before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks questions were being asked about whether Sunday’s US Grand Prix would be a commercial success.

The rumour in Formula One circles was that corporate race-goers were staying away. Those running the paddock “clubs” – where clients get to socialise with those involved in the teams, including the drivers – were reporting a fall in business compared with last year. The theory was that the recession in the US was already biting and threatening to overshadow the Indianapolis event in only its second year.

The question is now academic. It has been replaced by a more subjective one – should the race be going ahead at all?

The other major sporting event this weekend was to have been the Ryder Cup, pitting the US against Europe in golf’s “world cup”, with the majority of the world’s best players on show in a concentrated three-day period. It was postponed for 12 months after several of the US players, including Tiger Woods, hinted that they would not travel. The players’ concerns were two-fold: one, that golf was inappropriate when more than 6,000 people had been murdered; and two, they were concerned for their own safety.

“There are going to be thousands of funerals,” said world number two David Duval. “They are going to be burying bodies while we are out there golfing. I don’t think that’s right.” The Ryder Cup organisers listened to the players and the match was postponed.

In Formula One it is a different story.

A number of drivers – including the Schumacher brothers – and some team bosses, openly asked whether the US Grand prix should go ahead. Again there were a mixture of concerns over appropriate behaviour and personal safety – especially if the US begins military attacks on Afghanistan later this week as expected.

The organisers, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, have announced increased security measures; but the event, which has a worldwide television audience – craved by those who attacked the World Trade Center – will presumably be a high-profile target in the present circumstances.

At the Italian Grand Prix ten days ago, a number of cars were stripped of all sponsors’ logos – many are US companies – to reflect the prevailing atmosphere of shock and sympathy. But the majority of the cars ran as normal.

Ralf Schumacher said before that race: “I don’t think it’s very safe [the US Grand Prix] and I, for sure, will not take my family and friends. There are only 22 drivers but we also have to think about 220,000 spectators. Bernie [Ecclestone] is recommending that we go and race there. We shouldn’t even be here [Monza].”

Formula One ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone justifies the decision to go ahead with the US race on the basis that it is part of the calendar and therefore should go ahead. He was reported as saying that it was more difficult to cancel one Grand Prix than to postpone the Ryder Cup, because the latter only happens every two years.

In fact an event that is fortnightly for eight months of every year is infinitely more cancellable – especially this year, with the Formula One drivers’ and constructors’ championships already won. But while the Ryder Cup has been mothballed, the drivers will line up at Indianapolis on Friday for the first practice sessions.

Mercifully, Ecclestone did not have the audacity to claim that cancelling an event is tantamount to giving into terrorism. The postponement of the Ryder Cup is not a victory for Osama bin Laden, it is merely an example of a sport where the players’ views are listened to – once the likes of Woods and Duval decided they were not going to travel, there was nothing the organisers could do about it.

It was an extreme example of the much-vaunted “player power” that we hear so much about in sport today.

But in Formula One, despite their financial power, the drivers have less of a voice. At one stage Ecclestone was reported to be threatening to take the world title from Michael Schumacher if he did not race in the US – deducting penalty points until another driver overtook him in the points table.

It would have been absurd, and no doubt fought in the courts. It had more to do with Ecclestone and the sport’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), flexing their muscles to meet the undertakings they have given to the US organisers of Sunday’s race, and more importantly to the broadcasters who bankroll the sport.

The message was simple. Even the most successful driver in history has to toe the line.

It is probably right that the race is going ahead. Whatever the response of sport to the attacks in the US – cancellations, one minute silences, collections for the families of those who have died – it would always have been inadequate because of the scale of the disaster.

The race will not be an example of sport triumphing over the terrorists. It will, more simply, be Bernie Ecclestone reinforcing the point that the teams must meet their commitments even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Formula One sees the US as an important market. Whether this weekend’s race would have been successful in other circumstances we will never know. But Ecclestone has again proved that nothing will stop his show going on.

Tom O’Sullivan is sports page editor of the Financial Times

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