Monday 8 July 2013

Further thoughts on the German Grand Prix

Strike averted
Thus the German Grand Prix happened, and it was a good one. But for a time there was a possibility that it wouldn’t happen at all, or at least there was a threat of that.

On the Thursday before the race the Grand Prix Drivers' Association (GPDA) issued a statement promising to boycott if the tyre failures that were such an unwelcome presence at Silverstone were repeated this weekend. I have a lot of sympathy with the drivers' position, after all it is their lives on the line, both if they experience a tyre blow out themselves, or find large pieces of tyre debris fly towards them at 200 mph as was the case so harrowingly a week ago. So undoubtedly the drivers had right on their side.

Bernie Ecclestone - gets his own way
But equally, I couldn’t see a boycott materialising, and mainly because history suggests that at such moments getting such action to hold is next to impossible. In short, for various reasons drivers struggle to stick together when the chips are down.

Time was when driver power, and the GPDA, did have such clout. Both the 1969 and 1971 Belgian Grands Prix, at the fearsome original Spa, were cancelled after the GPDA refused to attend on safety grounds. Similarly, the 1970 German Grand Prix was moved from the Nurburgring to Hockenheim as major safety work was done on the Nordschleife. There were earlier examples of driver power winning the day too.

But in the course of a late April weekend in 1975 that all changed. Again, drivers had right on their side, as then all turned up to the Spainsh Grand Prix in Montjuic to find the crash barriers in woeful condition. But in effect the drivers' bosses, spooked by the threat of legal action from the organisers, barged in on where the drivers were assembled and ordered them into their cars. And almost all of them did as they were told. That was the day that the constructors and the organisers won, and probably driver power has never been the same since.

Perhaps in the modern age of commerce and professionalism, with contracts that are hard to break, boycotts would have become much harder to bring about generally. But whatever is the case it seems that these days drivers are easily 'got at', that unity is quickly broken, and that perhaps drivers when given a competitive situation cannot resist temptation. 1976 in Japan, 1989 in Australia, the story was the same. In advance the air was thick on boycott talk; in the end almost everyone raced. And sure enough it looked the same this time. Within hours of the GPDA statement Bernie was threatening recourse, and Sebastian Vettel was pouring cold water on the boycott idea. Then by race morning the GPDA confirmed that only race control could effect a race stop. There was also the not small unresolved matter of what the three drivers not in the GPDA would do. And in reality if it did come to it, during a race especially, it's hard to imagine any of the drivers being the one to take the lead in downing tools. As Alain Prost discovered in the Australian race mentioned, the risk is that no one will follow your lead.

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