Bernard Charles Ecclestone is said to be a man who not only has his cake and eats it, but simultaneously indulges on a platter or two of choice shortbread.
Thus, when it became clear his strategy of maximising the money on offer from Asian cities and countries keen to host grands prix as substitutes for the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cups they would never qualify, was resulting in dwindling TV audiences ratings for early morning races (in Euro time zones), it was clear that corrective action would be taken. Three options were open to the 79-year-old:
A. Return to the west, where promoters - in the main businessmen with little or no public money - generally pay less than their government-backed counterparts in the east, with obvious repercussions for investors who borrowed heavily (around $2.3bn) to fund the purchase of the sport's long-term commercial rights from him,
B. Force delayed start times upon organisers, preferably rescheduling affected grands prix as night races regardless of costs to promoters, or
C. Impose/threaten increased race hosting fees for dissenters as a lever to agree compromises over start times.
Robert Kubica (BMW Sauber F1.09) racing in the twilight of Melbourne © XPB
Thus the opening two races of the current season started at 17:00, and, in both instances spectators, promoters and even the drivers themselves were massively short changed as the commercial rights' holding entity (headed by vulture fund CVC Partners) greedily went about its business of chasing ratings and dollars.
For starters, many punters in Australia were forced to spend an extra night - at steeply hiked prices - in Melbourne as they were unable or - willing to travel or fly out after the event, as had been possible in the past. The result: an estimated drop of 20% in paying attendance, with the premium corporate sector voting with its collective feet to the tune of around - 30% over last year.
But, the fans sat in the stands got a double raw deal: not only had prices been hiked whilst the support programme had been trimmed, but, as the sun sank they increasingly battled to see the track action, with some blocks alleging that they had been blinded from the halfway point onwards.
Although only Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg were the main critics of twilight visibility during the weekend, many more voiced their opinions, and by the time Malaysia had come along the chorus was widespread.
"The race should either be held at night or in the day. It should not be somewhere in the middle, it's crazy," said Felipe Massa, whilst Jenson Button, winner of both races, was more circumspect but equally anti: "We never thought it was a good idea, even before..."
Melbourne's overall race attendance was the lowest since the grand prix moved there from Adelaide in 1996, and, whilst the worsening economic situation certainly played a part, the user-unfriendly qualifying and race times hardly attract spectators just when the race most needs them.
Coupled with rocketing ticket and hospitality prices (brought about by the CRH's stratospheric hosting fees), reduced support programmes (through reduced budgets, brought about by pressure from hosting fees), inferior facilities - ditto, the reduction in public toilets and big screen TVs was remarkable - and the net effect was that the Australian Grand Prix Corporation reduced grandstand capacity by around 15%.
The first turn grandstands before the start © Dieter Rencken
But, if Australia suffered poor attendance, Malaysia was even worse off, with some estimates placing race day attendance at 30,000, and the total for the three days at under 40,000 - saliently the circuit had no official figures available at 22:00 local time on race day, whereas previously these statistics had been freely available by mid-afternoon.
Photographs taken during the formation lap show that prime seats in the main grandstand opposite the Ferrari and McLaren garages were, at most, 60% occupied, whilst the platinum stand which overlooks the main straight and Turns 1-3 displayed vast swathes of empty green and white seats and was filled to around 50% of capacity. The rest of the stands being virtually deserted.
The hills, for which general admission tickets were available at around $25 (£15), were equally underpopulated, whilst hospitality, too, was way down compared to previous years - at a time when Singapore's excellent event should have increased interest in F1 in the Straits region, particularly as Sepang ticket prices ran at around 50% of those for the city-state's event.
But, if the attendance was bad, the show was worse once the expected rain arrived. In the 60-year history of the FIA Formula One World Championship only three grands prix events had been halted before the halfway point, so Sunday's race made history for all the wrong reasons. From Thursday through Saturday evening it poured during the crucial window - and has done so in early April for as long as weather records exist.
What comes next, though, beggars belief: In December last year, the FIA convened a Sporting Working Group meeting, attended by all teams' team managers and/or sporting directors, in Nice. During the meeting, the FIA's Safety Delegate and Race Director Charlie Whiting requested approval to move the official practice and qualifying times for three races - the Australian, Malaysian and British Grands Prix.
According to sources, the first two needed to be moved, Whiting said, in preparation for 17:00 (local) race start times, whilst the times of last-named event were being 'off-set' due to an earlier start time, as is customary in the UK.
The team members reportedly voiced their disapproval at the later start times, citing the dangers of twilight sun at both venues and expected monsoon conditions in Malaysia as reasons. According to sources, both F1 folk with years of experience and impeccable pedigrees in the sport, Whiting explained that this decision lay outside the ambit of the FIA as the right to determine race start times sat with the commercial rights' holder.
Red lights © LAT
It can, of course, be argued that rain in Malaysia does not fall solely during the 17:00-19:00 window; that it can (and has) fallen during customary times as well. The difference, though, is that an earlier start time would enable the Race Director to postpone any restart without backing the race into darkness. A 17:00 start does not provide that luxury - as conditions made abundantly clear on Sunday.
As a consequence, the fans who made the trip to Sepang were hardly given their tickets' worth, whilst, rather ironically, those European TV viewers for whom the start had been delayed, saw around an hour's worth of action and no more. Better, surely, to get up an hour or two earlier and watch a full race...
Jenson Button, too paid the price: he was effectively robbed of five points despite doing everything that could reasonably be demanded from a racing driver, whilst the teams and sponsors had their logos visible for just 50% of allotted period. Worse, the resultant indecision and cack-handedness surrounding proceedings made professional motorsport's premier championship seem distinctly amateurish to the greater world.
For his part, Ecclestone seems unmoved by the criticism, but the Sepang promoters certainly are not, as they made clear to the Malaysian media. Equally, the ratings increase alleged by Sports Marketing Surveys - the company claims the UK audience share was up from 2008 by almost 300% - was most certainly in part due to the stupendous performances of Button and Brawn GP and were then further 'positively' influenced by 'Lie-gate', in which British hero Lewis Hamilton played more than a cameo part.
As proof hereof, consider that even before the Australian race, most international websites reported record 'clicks' and that these have increased steadily since - sadly driven by the various controversies surrounding the sport at present.
When AIG recently went under, a US politician suggested the initials stood for arrogance, incompetence and greed. Far be it from this column to suggest the first two descriptions apply to F1, but there exists a sneaking suspicion that downright greed of the type which pushed the world's financial system to the absolute edge - and, in some instances, beyond - lay at the root of the decision to delay the start of the last two races.
Bernie Ecclestone on the grid with Malaysian dignitaries © XPB
If the staunchest free market governments can justify their (belated) regulation of the international financial systems on the basis that they need to save the world from itself, then so, too, should the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile be in a position to regulate the decisions of the commercial rights' holder, particularly where they impact on the image and/or safety of the sport.
Yes, its EU mandate precludes it from involving itself in commercial matters, but, if the FIA can justify its push for budget caps and single spec engines on commercial grounds, then surely it can justify overriding Ecclestone's given right to determine race start times on commercial and safety grounds. It is, after all, the FIA Formula One World Championship which stands to be besmirched.
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