I wrote the following story as a preview for the Monaco Grand Prix of May 2002. It appeared on Page 1 of the International Herald Tribune, and in a shorter, much-edited version in The New York Times. It remains one of my favorite stories of my Formula One reporting career, as I tried to lift the racing series out of simply a sporting event for aficionados and into something bigger – the world of theater and human emotion and drama:MONACO: It is no coincidence that the Monaco Grand Prix traditionally runs at the same time as the Cannes film festival just down the Mediterranean coast. It allows film stars to flock into the paddock. But as Formula One has grown in popularity, it has become increasingly difficult to separate the sport from other forms of entertainment.
Indeed, those close to Formula One explain its rise in terms of theater or cinema or soap opera. That is why the 60th Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday, rather than the Indianapolis 500, will command the most attention around the world this weekend.
“I love Formula One racing,” the actor Michael Douglas told Gerald Donaldson in a book about the McLaren team. “It’s great theater — a terrific plot, great characters, the whole world is the stage — only it’s for real.” The faith fans place in that reality helps explain the atmosphere of anticipation surrounding the race Sunday, following directly from events in the previous episode. Michael Schumacher — playing the roles of both hero and villain — was booed off the track at the Austrian Grand Prix after winning the race in a rare scripted ending when his Ferrari team ordered its other driver, who had been leading the race, to pull aside in the final straight.
On Sunday, as Schumacher tries to win his sixth Monaco Grand Prix, equaling the record set by Ayrton Senna in the early 1990s, he will be driving on the circuit that best symbolizes the appeal of Formula One. The race, through the ancient principality’s hilly, winding streets, although an anachronism for the technology and speed of the modern cars, is, like the sport itself, popular because it is about money, glamour, danger, big stakes and exclusivity. It is, above all, grand theater. “The success of Formula One is that it follows the rules of classical theater,” said Gilles Pernet, producer of Formula One for France’s TF1 television network. “It has unity of place, unity of action, unity of time. It’s a race that lasts one and a half to two hours; it’s always the same distance; it’s always at the same places. And it always has the same actors.”
The Austria Ferrari Team Orders Scandal
That is why the scandal in Austria two weeks ago will not dull interest but do quite the opposite. The world reacted strongly after Ferrari told Rubens Barrichello, who had led the whole race, to let Schumacher win.
Racing fans were outraged. Longtime Ferrari supporters around the world said they would give up on the team. Members of a British-based Formula One fan organization threatened to boycott the British Grand Prix in July. And other racing series around the world vaunted their own style of racing, while criticizing Formula One.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the president of Brazil, proclaimed Barrichello the winner of the race and complained about his treatment by the Italian team. Italy, shamed, responded by awarding Barrichello Italian citizenship. Gambling organizations in Australia, Sweden, England and Italy threatened to suspend betting on Formula One or to sue or were forced to pay out to both Schumacher and Barrichello bettors.
But the depth and breadth of the reaction only served to illustrate that Formula One is justified when it calls itself a global sport like the soccer World Cup and the Olympics. Formula One boasts of a television audience of 300 million for each race — every two weeks for eight months of the year — and a total of 55 billion television “views” per season. That is the chief difference between it and any other form of motor racing.
The Formula One Soap Opera
In a series of interviews within Formula One and in a variety of other sports and businesses, the International Herald Tribune investigated why the sport went from just a racing series to a phenomenon of popular culture. If Pernet calls it theater, Jane Nottage, a romance novelist and former F1 Magazine gossip columnist who also writes books about racing personalities, compared the sport to weekly television soap operas, where the audience “desperately” wants to know what the next episode will bring. She described the characters in soap opera terms, starting with Schumacher, as “the German baddie who’s brilliant, but who comes over sometimes as being rather hard and tough and arrogant — but who’s actually a very nice guy.”
“And then you’ve got the hot-headed Latin in Juan Pablo Montoya,” she said. “They have huge clashes between themselves, so you’ve got that soap opera being played out on the track. Then you’ve got the brother, Ralf Schumacher, who happens to be the teammate of the hot-headed Latin, who hates this other brother who’s with Ferrari.” Such a saga works best in Formula One’s pyramidal system, where the best teams and drivers dominate the series over a number of years. In most other auto racing series, such as CART and Nascar, a raft of drivers have a chance to win every race, and such human subplots do not build up as easily. In “The Piranha Club,” a recent book about the business of Formula One by Timothy Collings, a British journalist, Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s commercial promoter, said that notoriety and danger had contributed to its popularity.
“This is a terrible thing to say, but, if you think just a little bit about it, this sudden surge has happened since we lost Ayrton Senna,” Ecclestone said, referring to Senna’s death in a racing accident at Imola, Italy, on May 1, 1994. “Suddenly, the world was exposed to Formula One racing.” Senna’s enigmatic personality and passionate driving gave the Brazilian a charisma that other drivers did not have. But without the strong international television coverage that Ecclestone himself organized, Senna’s death would not have been front-page news around the world. In an interview last month Ecclestone said that Formula One “has all of the ingredients of what people want for excitement, like in the old days of the circus.”
“It’s a little bit like somebody walking on the tightrope; nobody wants to see him fall down, but they want to be there if he does,” he said. Yet Niki Lauda, a former triple world champion who survived a near-fatal accident in 1976, said that the huge advances in safety have actually made Formula One more popular. “In my time at least one guy got killed each year,” Lauda said. “We were about 18 guys. So you could work out when it was your turn. You had the real race fans watching this most dangerous sport you could see, which was, unfortunately, winning, losing and killing.” Now thanks to great advances in safety, particularly since Senna’s death, Lauda said the audience includes “families, children, grandmothers, people who would never have had an interest because they would say, ‘I don’t want to see somebody get killed.”‘ When Nascar, the most popular form of auto racing in the United States, lost its biggest star, Dale Earnhardt, in an accident last year, its fan base then increased by 12 million over the previous year, to a total of 75 million, according to Herb Branham, a Nascar spokesman.
But Branham said the death had nothing to do with it. “That was a misguided assumption made by a lot of people that overlooked that it was the first year on our epic TV contract with Fox, TNT and NBC,” he said.
Television also transformed Formula One. In the early days, as the Grand Prix races traveled from country to country, broadcasters would not always show up. There was no way for fans to follow the soap opera from race to race.
Ecclestone organized the system so that each broadcaster was obliged to air all 16 or 17 races of the season, and through a single international feed.
F1 as Organized as a World Power’s Propaganda Machine
Formula One’s organization extends to almost every element of the sport. A Pulitzer-prize-winning foreign correspondent and former White House reporter, on a recent visit to the paddock, said that he had not seen such an efficient operation in a media center outside the White House. And although other racing series and their fans often criticize Formula One for closing out its own fans, with electronic paddock passes available only to the chosen few — sponsors, celebrities and journalists — others say the exclusivity gives it a mystique. “Behind all these closed doors is something going on that people don’t know about and they want to know about,” said Nottage.
Patricia Manterola, 30, a Mexican singing star on a recent visit to the Formula One paddock, said, “I compare it to the glamour that Hollywood had.” Keith Smout, commercial director of the Jaguar team, who worked in marketing in the National Hockey League, said that he had never seen fans elsewhere so rabid for autographs. Like the latest “Star Wars” films, Formula One has also become a showcase for high technology. The sport, said Max Mosley, the president of the International Automobile Federation, has moved away from classic auto racing — wheel-to-wheel battles with a lot of overtaking. Now rules governing race strategy and tactics — like pit stop refueling and single-hour qualifying — have made it like a game of chess. But the technology war becomes a handicap once a team rises to the highest level, as Ferrari has done, and wipes out the competition. “Formula One has generated a lot of interest in recent years through raising the level in technology,” said Carlos Sainz, a two-time world rally driver champion. “But I think at the same time now the races are quite boring, so somebody has to do something to make the rules better for overtaking.” Unlike Nascar and CART, which do almost all their racing in North America, Formula One has a global reach.
“It’s represented on basically all the continents of the world,” said Monte Field, an American who manages the German driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen. “It’s not over-saturated in any particular country. You’re going to all these individual places, and when you’re there it truly is the event of the month or of the moment.”
The one great market that Formula One has not yet cracked to the degree that it would like remains the United States. The U.S. Grand Prix attracts the largest number of spectators of any single race, with 225,000 at the inaugural race in 2000 and about 175,000 last year — compared with about 100,000 at the rest of the races. But considering the population of the country, it has a small number of fans. The race Sunday will test the old Hollywood axiom that no publicity is bad publicity. “Some people say they won’t watch it any more,” said Jean Todt, Ferrari’s director, in an interview recently in L’Equipe, France’s sports daily. “But I think the Monaco Grand Prix will have an exceptional number of spectators this year. The public will want to know what Ferrari is going to do now, they’ll want to know what happens next in the story.”