Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Fallacy of F1Malaysia


Many words have been written of the entry by the Malaysian government of a supposed national Formula 1 team beginning from next year. My initial instinct, though I have a tendency to support such attempts, is one of fear and apprehension. Fear at the lack of knowledge by people high up in the food chain, and apprehension at the team's potential success. I will not, therefore, attempt to regurgitate the same points over and over again. Rather, I'd like to take this opportunity to address a couple of points that I feel both the team owners (and indirectly, the government) and the commentators have failed to properly address.

From the majority of what I have read, it appears that one of the main objectives of us getting into Formula 1 as team owners appears to be one of of promotion. Malaysia can never be accused of lacking ambition and propensity in this area, so I am not surprised that this is one of the stated goals. However, it should be noted, first of all, for those who's not in the know...that Formula 1 is not really about promoting, marketing and publicity. Sure, such aspects are incredibly important, as they bring in the money, but what is that money used for? It is used for racing.

At its very core, Formula 1 is about men (and the odd women) who step into the cockpit and do battle on circuits all over the world in a bid to claim the title of being the world's best. The modern-day version of these battles appears to be somewhat diluted and less reliant on the abilities of the actual driver, but make no mistake about it: to enter Formula 1 with the sole purpose of promoting yourself just because it actually has a big audience is a big mistake. I will not claim to have followed F1 since its inception (how could I, I wasn't born in the 50s), but I do have a deep-seated interest in the sport. Recently, I have not made a bigger effort in following the races, but I did not stop following the developments within it. While my knowledge may be somewhat lacking compared to others, I do know that there are many, many teams who have messed up big time because they appeared to have their priorities elsewhere.

Historically speaking, the use of Formula 1 as a marketing tool is nothing new. People pay for advertising space on the cars, and the cars go about promoting these badges. Nevertheless, the amount of money they pay is used to seriously and consistently develop the car. The serious sponsors come in to expand their market presence, but they know that it is a primarily the team that wins races. They give the money to the racing team, and the racing team get down to the ground to...well, race.

For example, companies like Marlboro, Panasonic and Johnny Walker wants to promote themselves, but they do so by supporting the teams financially. They do not run the team by way of interfering directly with driver selections, team tactics, or other such technical decisions. In fact, such interferences in the past have often proved to be somewhat politically disastrous. The Ligier policy of selecting French drivers worked well until there were no French drivers who was good enough to drive for them left. Other drivers were selected based on the money they brought to the team, but time and tide showed them to be unworthy of a spot in F1 (Gaston Mazzacane, anyone?). Hence, if you want to promote yourself, there is a place for you as a sponsor, but going the whole hog as a team owner in order to promote your wares will only show you up. Did they not study the first season of Lucky Strike Reynard British American Racing BAR Honda?

That point in itself leads me to the name of the team, or rather, the slight confusion surrounding it. Reading the news and its reactions online, it seems to me that people think that the team itself will be called the 1Malaysia F1 team (or something of that variation). Perhaps misguided journalists themselves were to blame here, rather than the team owners themselves, but the official statement from the FIA clearly states that the name of the team is Lotus F1. The name of the company that owns the racing team is 1Malaysia F1 Team Sdn. Bhd., but the name that will flash up on screens all over the world during races is Lotus F1. What's the difference? Put it this way: the name of the company is Ferrari S.p.A, but the name of the team is Scuderia Ferrari. It doesn't really matter, in terms of brand recognition, if there is little difference between the two, but that is not the case here. They can probably try to amend the name of the team before the start of next season, but I don't believe that's how things are usually done unless extra money is being paid to effect that change. Maybe it will be 1Malaysia Lotus F1, or some variation of that, but make no mistake about it: unless there is no change on this front, the name of the team is Lotus F1, and not 1Malaysia.

Which brings us to 1Malaysia itself. Ever since the concept was mooted by our prime minister, I have to admit that it is not an idea or vision that adds value to previous concepts mooted. Even the idea of 1Malaysia itself is somewhat vague, but the answers given up until now, such as being a concept of unity, suggests that it is more of a political exercise than a practical reality that people can actually use to further their lives positively. That's me being extremely kind in this particular post; on a more crueler day, I may well feel inclined to describe it as utter bullshit. "It will be a national team under the 1 Malaysia banner which stands as unifying foundation for all Malaysians to come together in celebrating the cooperation between our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society through sports." Whatever it is, it is not one that even Malaysians are that familiar enough to have a clear definition of the top of their heads. And yet, it appears that it is this concept, this idea, that is being promoted in Formula 1. What is it? What is being promoted? And how will this promotion be considered a success? Is it a success if the team is a success, or is it merely an exercise in expanding market awareness of the brand of 1Malaysia? If it is Malaysia that is being promoted on a global scale, instead of the 1Malaysia concept, then it is more understandable, but the same questions remain. How would we measure its success? If there is indeed an increase in tourism, how can we properly discern that it is directly due to our F1 exploits? And what is it do you actually want to promote? People interested in finding out more about Malaysia may not actually like what they may find. For example, let's take a very quick and unscientific look at what's going on in Malaysia now through the website of The Star. Under the section of 'Most Viewed', there's a story about a boy hit and dragged by a car to his death, Malaysia apparently attempting to patent its own food, political problems in the opposition, and khalwat in Terengganu. Under the 'Nation' segment, we have the Penang Hill train having problems, the police intending to round up people because of leaks of documents that could shed light on Malaysia's biggest scandal, and an international report recommending that separations between the public, private and political sectors (a common concept of fairness practised in many other countries) might be a good idea to fight corruption in Malaysia. Would we want them to dig deeper and find out about cow head protests? Even more so, would we want to them find out about our esteemed ministers defending the said protesters, and the government trying to censor the media about it? If we're going to put ourselves out on a stage like Formula 1, we better make sure that the things we put out there won't embarrass us.

And who are we promoting to? According to the numbers released by official studies, F1 regularly attract viewers of around 600 million every season. These are official numbers, and the word “official” is important. This means that the numbers are tallied by the same people who run the sport and own the commercial rights to F1. Thus, the words 'interest' and 'conflict' can be neatly arranged by your good self. Furthermore, such numbers are not exactly representative of the people who actually follow F1 enough to be influenced by its advertising. Previously, the numbers have always been bumped up by what I would call padding figures. It's like this: a highlight of the day's F1's race would be shown on the nightly news programme. It may only take up a small portion of the sports section (which, in itself, is not particularly long, compared to national and international news), but the powers that be would actually count the viewing numbers for the whole news programme, and add it to the total. You can apply this to a number of other programmes such as racing magazine TV shows, and the end number will always look far more impressive than it actually is. I do not know how the current numbers are tallied, but I do think that we should not take figures like 600 million at face value.

What kind of image do these figurative 600 million feast their eyes upon? In terms of racing, it has not been particularly bad, but the image of the sport itself has been particularly toxic as of late. The whole sport is still reeling from charges that last year's Singaporean GP was fixed. This is a particular blow to me, as one of the people I respect, Pat Symonds, turns out to be one of the main actors here as well. This disappointment is absolutely huge, but it is merely the latest in a long line of scandals that have rocked the sport. Prior to this, don't forget about Liegate (Lewis Hamilton being cheeky in Australia), Spygate (McLaren engineers being cheeky), and...er, Mosley-gate (the president of the governing body of F1 being more than just a little cheeky). Yes, blue chip companies are still pumping the cash in, and I believe it is this image that Malaysia wants to get in on, but I do not believe that Formula 1 is currently the place to be in if you want to promote things. "What I do know is that there is something fundamentally rotten and wrong at the heart of Formula One," said multiple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart. “Never in my experience has F1 been in such a mood of self-destruction.”

And this is only if you're winning! In terms of getting started on that, I think getting Mike Gascoyne in is not a bad choice. He is an experienced and proven leader, but only if you give him a free reign to do what he wants, when he wants it. A look at his resume made him look glamourous: apprenticeship under Harvey Postlewaithe at Tyrrell, with successful stints at Jordan, Renault and Toyota. However, at the first sign of trouble, the first sign of lack of support, Gascoyne would probably be the first to jump ship, and to hell with the consequences. I don't know if this is the environment that he will be given, and even more so when the stated aim is for the cars to be “made in Malaysia by Malaysians.” Quite apart from further illustrating the almost singular aim of merely promoting the nation, the idea of F1 cars produced in Malaysia is not a particularly good one. Generally speaking, teams who have based themselves outside of England find the footing to be unequal. Toyota, based in Germany, is hampered by local labour laws that restricts the amount of hours its people can work. Its solution: just to match the same level of productivity of the teams based in England, they had to double the amount of staff on their books. Furthermore, the team doesn't build a racing car all by itself. The teams, for example, don't make their own brakes, but Brembo does. It's practical and convenient to get the brakes quickly if they're based down the road from you, but not if they're on the other side of the continent. The engines, coming from Cosworth, would have to be flown over from England as well. This would take time and money that could definitely be better spent elsewhere. This is a big part of the reason why, despite claiming to represent India (and Russia in its previous incarnation as Midland F1), Force India never moved from its base in England. USF1 also appears to be doing the same thing as us, but at least they'll be based in the established motorsport country that is North Carolina (most of the NASCAR teams are also based there). As it stands, the team will first be based in England, which is probably one of the few wise things to have been decided thus far, but when we consider the cost of having our own national team, we should also think of the costs of trying to get a motorsport industry up and running back home in Malaysia.

Thus, the running of the team should be a job that is done willy-nilly. Yet that is exactly what is going on right now. The current team principal, Tony Fernandes, has already announced that he will quit once he managed to get things going. That runs smack in the face of even F1 logic. Quitting after getting things settled? What do you think this is, a bloody sweet shop? If there is one thing that is needed for success, it is to get good people in, and then to keep them there. McLaren has a reputation for doing this, where they hire a lot of good people seemingly with the intent of doing nothing more than to prevent them working for other teams. There are the odd success stories, like Brawn GP, but even that in itself is not a new team by any means. People need to be in there, to stay there, and to work over long periods of time. Things like this takes, at the very least, a year, to develop both the business and the technical side of things. You don't wake up in the middle of the night and say, “Yes, I'll run a team tomorrow.” No, it takes time to build up to even the slightest chance of having any success whatsoever. You need time to design the car, to build the car, to test the car. Neither do you decide to run and say, “Yeah, I'll start this up, then stop in a few months.” Stability is key, and stability is not what this team appears to have. Teams don't jump in and do well from the get go. This year's Brawn was essentially developed by Honda, while it is only now that Force India, after having raced for almost two years under the current management, is even beginning to register some points. And this is even with the team having a special 'relationship' with McLaren, using their gearboxes, hydraulic systems, and the same Mercedes engines. I have no doubt that Tony Fernandes knows his way around business, but perhaps his appointment is one that is only meant to fill the gap.

There are plenty more than I want to say on this matter, a whole lot more. However, I fear that if I do so, I may well end up at the front of my monitor all day long, because Formula 1 is not an easy thing to analyse. It's not easy to get in, not easy to be fast, not easy to win. It's even less so when the reasons for getting into the sport are not really sporting in nature, if at all. It's also going through a tough time, while the current economic climate has seen even multinational superpowers like BMW and Honda pull out.

However, that being said, I maintain a modicum of hope that the Lotus F1 team will be successful. It is always exciting to see new teams and new drivers line up on the grid come the start of the season. The Lotus name has a long and storied lineage, one that does not deserve to be sullied. The potential benefits to Malaysia, if the cards are played right, could be incredible. Owning its own F1 team is not something that our immediate neighbours can lay claim to. This is ground breaking, and I don't mind having an egg on my face for it. I truly hope that this endeavour will be a serious one and that it will be successful.

Unfortunately, that is hope merely for the sake of hope.

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