Pit stops at the F1 Track

A-listers like it fast and furious going by the number of yachts anchored at Monaco and the jets roaring into Singapore. Vignettes from the world's most glamorous sport
S Kannan        Print Edition: September 13, 2015
A shot from the Monaco Grand Prix: The glamour brigade watches the action
A shot from the Monaco Grand Prix: The glamour brigade watches the action

MOTORSPORTS

For the uninitiated, visits to a Formula One event for the first time could be a challenge - the smell of burnt rubber on tarmac, the din, and the rush of adrenaline during a live event can throw you off your seat when you compare it to the more methodical world of on-screen F1 streaming from within the comforts of your home, where speeding cars seem to glide through almost every metre of the beautifully mapped 5.3 km single lap.

An F1 racing enthusiast, on the other hand, is on a high as soon as he gets a glimpse of the speed demons whizzing past at 300 km per hour on the 'flat straight' at an F1 circuit. And, the deafening noise of the beasts, penetrating even through a good pair of ear muffs, is pure music to his ears. The elaborate preparation as he plans his day out at an F1 event is not a damp squib either. The die-hard fan waits for the smell of burning high-octane fuel to fill his lungs, looks forward to the sight of rubber shredding off like paper from the steel belts of the wheels, and cars flitting in and out of the pit lane - the joy is pure and spontaneous, and every minute spent watching a Grand Prix is a lifetime's experience for him.

What goes on behind the scene of the F1 commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone's ultra-rich circus is not as exciting for him as the sighting of the same set of cars and the same celebrated faces at the steering wheels vrooming past each other with precision manoeuvers. Yet, given the complex matrix of running the businesses of top F1 teams, the logistics, dynamics and detailing that goes into organising the big events on the circuit are simply awe-inspiring.

Cars we drive in could do with a few defective parts - a leaky oil seal, a worn-out tyre, or an untuned engine - but with an F1 car, be it the dominant Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari, a glitch or an error in judgement could mean death. Perfection and precision must be in sync as drivers negotiate the twists and turns at breakneck speed from within the very uncomfortable interiors of the cockpit, flipping through the controls to put their best wheels forward. 

However, an F1 car, which comes for a price tag of over $10 million, has around 80,000 components. And, the precision machine-like workings of F1 engineers at the pit lane garage are a marvel to watch out for - piecing together cars with an accuracy of 99.9 per cent. But, this still means that around 80 components are out-of-place when the car finally screeches onto the track.

While the glamour and glitz around the top teams and drivers bring their fair share of sponsors, for the lesser machines, such as the Vijay Mallya-owned Force India, it is a perpetual fight to get the economics right. Despite the struggle, Formula One is all about recreating magic - it's risky, charming, glamorous, sharp and, often, is the manifestation of the unreal in a real world. The excitement, the thrill, the money, the buzz, are an invitation for all those who love to live life in the fast lane - the creme-de-la-creme of the glam world, from Hollywood A-listers, and sports personalities, to politicians and corporators.

And, when the most happening Grand Prix on Bernie's global map, Monaco GP, takes place in May every year, we see the likes of Will Smith, George Lucas, Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio at the stands, basking in the glory of the F1 world. In 2014, for example, revenues for the Monte-Carlo Societe des Bains de Mer's, the owner of Monaco's flagship Monte Carlo Casino, rose to a five-year high of $649.7 million. About 5 per cent of the amount ($32.5 million) was generated at the Monaco F1 GP race. Add to this the revenue generated from rooms and food and beverages. The total money spent during the four days of the race can put the budget of many small countries to shame. The glamour quotient at the Monaco GP cannot be even distantly matched to other luxury events, including polo championships or yacht regattas.

This is not a race for normal F1 junkies to get their thrill. Everything comes here at a premium, from a bottle of wine to Grand Stand tickets, with the more privileged watching the action from their yachts! The lowest price for a race-day ticket for the 2016 GP at Monaco, a tax haven, is e7,500 (aroundRs 5.42 lakh), while a platinum ticket for the VIP terrace would cost e2,50,000 (around Rs 1.8 crore).

If this is not luxury, what else is?

If Monaco is beyond the reach of the average F1 fan, Grand Prix events at Sepang in Kuala Lumpur, Bahrain, Dubai and Shanghai can still be affordable if planned well. You can also buy a package deal that would factor in air travel, hotel stay and Grand Prix weekend ticket prices. In recent years, the Singapore Grand Prix has also been on top of the charts as it is a night race and comes with its own set of thrills.

So, what is this obsession of generations of aficionados to splash the cash when it comes to the high-octane world of F1?

Well, the answer is obvious. The combination of fast machines, handsome drivers, beautiful pit babes, unending supply of booze and opportunity to brush shoulders with top celebrities make for a heady cocktail which is too hard to resist, that is, if one has ample money to spend.

India did dabble with an F1 event at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida for three years between 2011 and 2013, before going off the calendar. The reasons for the Indian event falling of the global F1 calendar are many, but even the licence fee that needs to be paid every year to the Formula One Management, or FOM, to host a race can be enough to throw the plans off track.

Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone
The costs at F1 are mind boggling. Top teams like Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull spend anything between $250 million and $300 million on development of engines and cars. Reams have been written on Formula One being a white man's sport. And, our own drivers, Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok, who dabbled with F1 for a while, confirmed it.

(Illustration: Raj Verma)
If you flip through the annals of F1, the event was not so commercial two decades ago. Thanks to the involvement of global sponsors and lavish global television coverage, Formula One has been a super hit as a business. But then, if you are going to ask what drivers make in comparison to Bernie Ecclestone, it's peanuts. Unless you are a Lewis Hamilton, Vettel or Raikkonen, there is little money. Many people find it hard to comprehend why drivers backed by a good consortium of sponsors are willing to pay anywhere between e8 million and e10 million for a single season. And this, when there is no guarantee you are going to be behind the wheels of a car which can challenge Hamilton, Vettel or Raikkonen.

In fact, back-of-the-grid drivers pay through their nose (via sponsors) to be part of the circus! Many have come and gone unnoticed, but having satiated the dream of being in F1. Quite similar to the old Indian athletes who went to the Olympics in years gone by, just to be a part of the atmosphere!

The author is Sports Editor, Mail Today
With additional inputs from Abhishek Paul

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