Back at Silverstone

For the past longer-than-I-can-remember, I’ve been coming to Silverstone every February to join the faculty of a three day trauma course we teach at the Medical Center. The instructors are a fabulous group, with massive cumulative motorsport medicine experience. Ian Roberts, the current F1 Rescue Coordinator is there every year, as is the Chief Medical Officer of the British Superbike series.

This past February, perhaps more as a dare, Heike (the Superbike CMO) asked if I’d come up for MotoGP at the end of August.

So here I am.

My thoughts so far?

In no certain order, and with scant attention to the importance or lack thereof of any of this drivel, here goes:

  • I’m sure it’s a total coincidence but I’m riding in Chase 1. The previously mentioned (Twitter) M550d. The power comes on so linearly that one can be fooled. It’s very quiet and quite comfortable. Not as agile as the Merc, but BMW has not yet tried. It needs to shed a hundred or so kg. Or better, 200.  A no drama mama.
  • The medical folks are a totally charming group. They really seem to be committed to getting it right, and have not been there long. Closer relations between these guys and some of the FIA medical people would benefit everyone, and help these guys move up their learning curve even faster.
  • I am staggered by the amount of time I have spend getting to, shitting around at, and queueing to leave, circuits all over the world for the past 17 years.
  • I am staggered by the amount of time I have spent sitting in medical cars over the past 24 years. I am actively avoiding thinking about the opportunity costs of this passion.
  • I had a fantastic day, learning about bikes, talking to the team in the car, and soaking up being at a circuit again.

For info, I did NOT go to the race at Spa. It’s massively nice of Mr. E. to have approved a pass for me, but stuff kept coming up that totally prevented me from actually  getting there.  Interestingly (for me at least), this was accompanied by none of the angst, drama, or panic that one would think normal under these conditions (my home GP, first race in a year, first Belgian GP not attended in 24 years, etc).

I think this means nothing more and nothing less than that “it” is officially out of my system. Yes, here I am at Silverstone, but besides this being a 6 month old commitment, it’s FUN, and it’s my choice.

I love this racing thing. I’ll certainly work at events in the future. But right now I’m working on some super exciting possibilities for the near future, and besides keeping me busy, it feels like starting to prepare for a journey, and I’ve always loved that feeling…

I just wanted you all to know . . .

I’ve surprised myself with how affected I’ve been by Robin Williams’ death. After thinking about it since yesterday, I’ve finally realised why.

I cannot bear the thought that people can be so sad, and see the world coloured so darkly, that they feel there is no one who can help. Or that their sadness and darkness is too much of a burden for others, and needs to be ended. That others would be better if they weren’t around any more. 

I cannot bear the thought that someone reading my blog might feel this way. 

So I want you to know – no matter how alone you think you are, no matter how much of a burden you think you are, and no matter how incontrovertibly correct you think you are, it’s not that way.

If you feel alone, or if you can’t lean on people around you, for whatever reason, please let me know. Send a comment – I won’t publish it, but I’ll get in touch. Please.

I’m no shrink, and I’m not even particularly good at running my own life. But I’m (allegedly) a fellow human being, and this is what we humans do. We help each other. We’ve been doing it since the savannah thousands of years ago, and it’s what makes us what we are. Send me one word – just one – or type me half a novel, it’s fine with me – and you won’t be alone. Just one other person who actually cares. And for whom it’s NOT a burden. Please.

Nobody should die thinking there’s no way out.

What is wrong with this picture?

I’m going to venture out of my usual terrain, and allow myself to talk about the sport of Formula 1 in general. This is brought on by a tweet this morning by the CEA, the (fabulous) crew of fire marshals at Monza (and Imola). The tweet shows the start of restoration on the tarmac at Parabolica. It jarred me to realise that even Monza has raised the spectre of no longer being able to host the Italian Grand Prix.

This summer has been oddly and uncomfortably full of ruminations and reflections as to what’s wrong with F1. Commissions have been formed . . . and disbanded. Those asking the question itself are accused of negativity. And meanwhile, a spine tingling championship is underway, with team orders given and followed, team orders given and disobeyed, and drivers battling as much with their minds as with their cars. And the cars – brand new, beautiful machines with power trains that are stunning in their sophistication. Is there anything REALLY wrong at all?

Let’s imagine something, to help me illustrate my answer to that question.

I’ve just built a bottling factory. Modern, efficient, state-of-the-art. And you, well you have a soft drink you need bottled. A very popular soft drink indeed. People all over the world want to drink it. And you want to use MY factory to bottle it!

When the time comes to do the deal, you tell me “there’s just one thing Gary. Our business model is a bit . . . unconventional. You see, normally I’d pay to use your factory. But since my beverage is SO popular, YOU’RE gonna have to pay ME for the privilege of hosting my drink”.

I guess you see the concerned look on my face. My factory cost money to build. It costs money to maintain. Everybody ELSE rents my factory when they want to use it. I seek reassurances.

“Don’t worry a bit, Gary, you can run guided tours and have people pay to see your factory working. And you can serve them lunch!”

I guess you see what I’m getting at. I’ll have to charge $100 for a tour, and get 100,000 people over the weekend. No way that’s gonna happen. A guaranteed loss. Every time. Damn.

Right now, as we all know, for $15 million or so, a circuit can buy the privilege of hosting an F1 race. And all it has to do to recoup that is to sell tickets and hotdogs. A lot of VERY expensive tickets and hotdogs. Not one cent of the TV revenues generated by that race, and not 1 metre of signage around the circuit can be used to generate revenue for the circuit itself.

It’s not FOM who makes F1 tickets astronomically expensive. It’s the circuits. Do the math. You need to make up several million dollars with three days of tickets, food, and beer. No wonder it’s only races with government support that avoid the year to year threat of bankruptcy.

So here we are with the backbone of the season, with virtually every European F1 circuit, either under severe financial threat . . . or gone. Spa, Monza, Silverstone, Hockenheim, Nurburgring, etc. This is insane.

Why do these circuits not do what any normal owners of crucial and rare resources would do? Form a cartel.

Why do the owner/operators of the “classic” circuits of the season not band together to put an end to the bizarro world of F1 circuit use. You want to use our infrastructure? It will cost you this much, plus a percent of global TV revenues (averaged over a season, to avoid late season races, with their bigger box offices, earning more just by their place in the calendar), plus some portion of the signage at our circuit.

Sure Bernie will bluster. He’ll threaten to go elsewhere. And to some extent he will go elsewhere- he’s been “going elsewhere” for years now. But remember a few things:

  • F1 homologated circuits are not a dime a dozen. They are rare birds indeed, and the lag time from project to race is YEARS.
  • Google earth is littered with abandoned Tilke-domes, each having cost $200-400 million. Think Istanbul, Korea, India. (What will archeologists in 500 years think these things were?) Only governments awash in petro- (or narco!) dollars will keep building these white elephants, and even that will ultimately peter out. Even the most corrupt autocrats have better ways to waste $400 million!
  • Even if FOM moves strategically away from Europe, it’s wrong to think that the circuits will be losing a prestigious money-making event (countries might be, clubs might be, fans might be . . .); in FACT, they’ll be (temporarily, see below) losing their biggest headache of the year. As a taxpayer here in Belgium, the question of who exactly is going to foot the known and expected loss from the upcoming Belgian GP is a perennial favourite, of which I’m growing quite sick.
  • FOM cannot, by the nature of the series, reduce the number of European/North American/South American races well below half (or slightly more) of the season. How many corners on ANY new-ish circuit do you remember? Is there an Eau Rouge? A 130R? A Becketts-Maggotts complex? A Tabac? This is not a diatribe about circuits, but dammit, they really ARE intimately involved in what we love about the sport. People will not get up early, or stay up late, to watch a race if this is not felt viscerally to be a EUROPEAN series. They’ll watch the evening news, and see the best overtakings and the results . . . and there go your TV revenues Mr. E. Sooner or later, European races will have to comprise close to the bulk of the season, with a smattering of exoticism added, because it’s F1.

Enormous advantages would accrue from a system like this. Not least would be a significant lowering of ticket prices, and an opening of the sport to a wider audience AT THE CIRCUIT. And as you all know, once you’ve seen this sport live, you’re hooked forever!

A different system for distributing revenues from the sport would vastly increase the “health” of the infrastructure supporting it. The team principles, until now staggering by how completely they ignore the long term interests of the sport that gave them all yachts and Gulfstreams, and FOM itself, would have to make do with slightly less. But the pillars of our sport would survive and flourish, and government support for what many view as a frivolous pastime would largely become unnecessary.

Rant over.

A petition for action on helmets

Link: Tell Jean Todt – Help Make Helmets Safer for Everyone

Since it’s pretty clear that the message of Michael’s tragedy hasn’t been picked up by those with the wherewithal to actually DO something, I’ve created a petition asking Jean Todt to commit the FIA to taking the lead on improving helmet safety.

Let’s get this done, so that when people strap helmets on, they can actually be confident they’re being protected!

Thanks so much!

Glad someone is talking sense

Daily Telegraph: road safety and Jean Todt

One of the most faithful and productive commenters on this blog has sent this link. It’s fascinating and I encourage you all to read it.

There are some interesting tie-in’s in this story. For example the Qatar connection. We’ll not forget how the miraculous last-minute payment of back dues of some of the Middle East and Gulf ASN’s pushed Jean Todt to victory in the 2008 FIA presidential elections. Nor his almost unseemly chumminess with the ruling regime in the Kingdom of Bahrain.

I’ve complained on many occasions about how incredibly . . . ineffective . . . the FIA’s “Action” for Road Safety campaign seems to be. I’ve seen countless photos of Todt and his ambassador for Road Safety (yes, Mrs. Todt) posing with Transport Ministers and even Prime Ministers of various countries, cutting ribbons for new stop signs, solemnly swearing grade school students to wear seat belts, etc.

SERIOUSLY? It was clear that in a part of the world where vehicle-related deaths are increasing at an explosive rate, the FIA campaign is rather more of a schmoozefest photo-op than a serious effort to make a dent in the problem.

I remember a conversation I had with David Ward in 2008. David was President of the FIA Foundation (and ironically, or perhaps not ironically at all . . ., Todt’s opponent in 2013); the Foundation is in fact the part of the FIA specifically charged with road safety – NOT the FIA proper. More of this later.

I spoke to David about using some of the Foundation’s money to organise a huge project. This would involve development (recruiting the right people to think this through) and implementation of a staged trauma care program for rural areas in the developing world. Only by ensuring that victims actually survive from the village level to higher echelons of care could we hope to have an effect. This project would proceed in multiple steps, culminating in an actual trial, with actual data generation, as to the efficacy and efficiency of the proposed system in improving outcomes on a large scale. In line with current “philanthropy”, it would be subject to rigorous metrics. Money, in no small amounts, would be spent improving survival and quality of life, not for official dinners and luxury travel.

It was clear that conflict between the Foundation and Todt’s FIA began almost immediately. The Foundation’s road safety campaign hit (sorry for the pun) roadblock after roadblock, and was essentially choked to death. The difficulties extended to the FIA Institute (charged with r & d and education). Parenthetically, this is almost certainly why progress on publishing the Medicine in Motorsport book stopped when Todt became president. The book was Max’s project, not Jean’s, and was therefore unceremoniously halted.

Things then got even more infantile, with Todt starting an in-house road safety campaign, taking the Foundation’s stickers off the Medical and Safety Cars, and replacing them with his own. All this was no doubt to better control the pursestrings, and to personally reap the various “rewards”, of putting his face on road safety. Problem is, if you don’t actually DO something for road safety, you kinda can’t become its face. In my eyes, it’s not so much a conflict of interest, as an immensely sad admission of defeat. This man has had one full five-year term (plus, soon, one more year) to accomplish something, anything, in the area of road safety. It’s not hard to imagine, given the resources available, that a well orchestrated campaign would indeed have made Todt a household name, almost a near-saviour for those who’d have benefitted from improved road safety. 

Hearing about these UN pretensions helps all these kilometres (in first class and private aircraft, bien entendu) make sense. I think it’s been clear for all those willing and able to look closely enough that Todt has viewed the FIA presidency as a stepping stone. He has systematically hired up ex-Sarkozy staff, and I’d have thought this was rather with an eye to French national politics. Now that the UN route would appear to be (temporarily) barred, and that Mr. Sarkozy appears to be having his own problems, perhaps we’ll see manoeuvring  with an eye to a national political position. Minister of Sports? 

Looking back a bit, under Max and between 2005 (when Sid retired) and 2007 (my last season with the responsibilities of Medical Delegate), we had g-triggered Medical Warning Lights installed on all cars, made integrated accident simulation exercises mandatory before every F1 race weekend, and wrote and readied for publication a Medicine in Motorsport book.

At risk of sounding repetitive, I point out again that in 2008 Todt appointed Gérard Saillant, an orthopaedic surgeon with no motorsport experience, as president of the Medical Commission. The members of this body have several centuries of cumulative motorsport experience between them, and found their Chairman seat, formerly occupied by Sid Watkins now hosting . . . the above mentioned. He also appointed Jean-Charles Piette, a rheumatologist with no motorsport experience, as Formula 1 Medical Delegate.

I’d almost defy anyone to point out ANY advance in medical/rescue science, technique, or prevention (with the exception of the Zylon visor reinforcement, developed purely by engineers) applied by the FIA since 2008. 

The lack of progress, I believe, results from leadership that views the organisation as a cash cow rather than as a means to an end. From a leadership that either doesn’t understand the stakes (worrisome indeed), or doesn’t care (a truly terrifying prospect).