God Bless the USA,” said WH Auden, “so large, so friendly, and so rich.” And the poet, whose face was more heavily lined than Clapham Junction railway station, knew his subject, for he lived and worked in the States.
And this land of plenty, with its overwhelming sense of abundance and optimism, could be just the place to lead Formula One – which is meant to be brash and tumultuous but is currently pensive and introspective – into a new world.
The news that Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins NFL team, is working with investors in Qatar to buy CVC Capital Partners’ majority shareholding in F1 may well come to nothing. Four years ago Rupert Murdoch was going to take over the circus and more recently everybody was talking about a move from John C Malone’s Liberty Global and Discovery Communications television group. So we have been here before.
Perhaps it is because Formula One has recently been caught up in a vortex of criticism, and self-criticism, against a background of diminishing television and live audiences, and with sponsors disappearing faster than Prospero’s banquet, that the current story is being given more credence than it may deserve. But the interest is real. And a combination of Qatari money and American marketing expertise might just do the trick. But speculation that Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s CEO who will be 85 this year, is about to quit may be wide of the mark.
As one team principal said day: “History would suggest that Bernie is going nowhere. He will make a pile of money by selling his 5% shares in Formula One. But he’s already got a pile of money and he hasn’t been prepared to let go of the sport.”
Even so, for one reason or another, Ecclestone’s grip on F1 will loosen in the years ahead. And that will be no bad thing. Ecclestone may well have been the sport’s very own Rumpelstiltskin but he spins gold no more and his aversion to appealing to the social media and a younger audience can only harm the sport he built up.
Formula One will also be considerably better off without CVC, who have made about £5bn profit since buying in 2006. They have marketed the sport very aggressively, creaming off the profits and not investing in their product. For that reason, and with a very few exceptions at the front of the grid, all the teams have struggled to make ends meet.
A couple of years ago Bob Fernley, Force India’s deputy team principal, told the Guardian that CVC had been “a disaster” for the sport.
He said: “I think they have done an absolutely awful job. In my view they are the worst thing that has ever happened to Formula One. They have done nothing whatsoever for the sport.”
America might appear to represent an inadequate answer. After all, before its current home in Austin, F1 races were staged in Watkins Glen, Long Beach, Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix and Indianapolis among other places. And it never took root.
In 1982 there were three races in America – at Long Beach in LA, Detroit and Caesars Palace – but when F1 went to Austin in 2012 it was the first US Grand Prix staged since 2007.
But they do understand money and marketing. It might be “the only country in history which has gone from barbarism to decadence without an intervening period of civilisation,” according to Georges Clemenceau, but they do know how to put on a show.
Bobby Epstein, the co-founder of the Circuit of the Americas (Cota), told the Guardian that F1 needs to “loosen up a bit” and “make the sport about personalities, like Nascar. People connect with people. They don’t connect with metal. They’ve got to get the drivers out front. They should take a look at the [US] PGA golfers and see how close they are to their fans.”
Epstein’s very American thoughts are in sync with those of Jason Dial, the president of Cota, who said in Austin last year: “I’d like to see F1 taken off the track and be more about engagement. I think accessibility and digital social engagement could really move the needle. I want to make it younger. I want to grow the pie.”
Ross is well capable of pie-growing. The young Ross was once fired from a job in Wall Street but then, on the back of a $10,000 loan from his mother, he has done rather well, building a fortune worth $6.5bn (£4.14bn) according to Forbes magazine.
Now 75, he lives and works in the gargantuan Time Warner Center on the south-west corner of Central Park. It represents his grandest achievement. However, saving Formula One could dwarf that.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010