I promised myself I wouldn’t do it again, but sometimes it’s difficult to write a weekly article on F1 without going off on yet another rant, usually about the FIA. This week’s most likely candidate was their handling of BAR’s ‘underweight’ car in the San Marino Grand Prix.But, no, in the interests of journalistic balance (and because we give the FIA a pretty hefty kicking in this week’s article Testing times) I’m going to pick a more obscure and, hopefully, more light-hearted story.
So I’ve settled on David Coulthard at Red Bull Racing – in fact, the whole RBR way of managing and promoting their drivers, which is all rather fascinating to me. In the past two decades, as commercial investment in Formula One has ballooned to stratospheric proportions, so, inevitably, have drivers been required to toe a more corporate-friendly line. Be positive about your team and – most importantly – their technical partners, don’t say anything controversial, and so on.
The problem is that this doesn’t make for especially interesting racing drivers, and Red Bull, finally, are the first team to understand that this may not make commercial sense. It certainly doesn’t when you’re trying to promote a caffeine-loaded soft drink to the ‘extreme sports’ market (which many analysts are now suggesting F1 as a whole should position itself towards).
Consequently Red Bull’s brief to their drivers has been to approach the media more positively. Christian Klien and Vitantonio Liuzzui – the Red Bull Babes, if you will – are urged to cultivate snowboarder-chic styles (Klien – earring; Liuzzi – hairdo/floppy hat thing) and buddy up to one another. British viewers of ITV cannot fail to have noticed endless bits of Red Bull public relations film featuring the two drivers monkeying around – be it testing at Valencia or checking out Red Bull’s flash new three-storey motor home.
Coulthard’s role is basically the same with a few subtle tweaks, because Coulthard fills a dual role. He has to be cool to impress the kids, and he has to be the experienced, technically-minded leader to underline the team’s genuine racing aspirations and, of course, develop the car. He does the latter by simple virtue of being the older driver (the Red Bull Babes call him ‘Uncle David’) and because he’s come from McLaren – the most corporate-aware team in the pit lane.
And he proves his coolness by not shaving. Over the course of winter testing it was put to him by the Red Bull hierarchy that, freed from the Gilette-ocracy of Woking, he could liberate his chin follicles. He may also speak his mind and not just parrot back the corporate line – and so instead of, â€œThank you Cosworth, thank you Michelin, thank you Dietrich,â€ we see him literally pouncing on Felipe Massa after the Brazilian thumped him out of the San Marino race.
All of this begs the question – is the DC who has the ‘liberty’ to grow a beard any freer than the DC who had the ‘liberty’ to be clean-shaven? Of course not – this is PR all the same, but for different ends and, I would argue, a better rationale than that practiced by any other team in F1. People watch F1 because it’s fast, glamorous and spectacular. Because it’s out of the ordinary. When a journalist thrusts a microphone at a Kimi or a Michael and gets more bland platitudes or indifferent grunts, it’s an opportunity for a soundbite lost. Sure, DC’s remark at Malaysia about Montoya’s injury being â€œwhat happens when fat people exerciseâ€ might have been suggested to him – but does it really make a difference?
An ultra-purist would argue that it does. And, of course, nothing would please me more than a return to the frank, outspoken honesty of drivers like Mario Andretti or James Hunt. But it’s not going to happen. So, if we’re going to be patronised, at least let us be entertained at the same time.