Brought to you by TJ13 contributor DV Bree
Senna once famously proclaimed that F1 is politics by definition. A view which is today shared by many.
In the modern world of instant feedback through new kinds of media, the politics have become much clearer to the general public than could possibly have been 50 years ago.
Senna would have agreed with Vettel that above all, F1 should be about racing. Both the German and the Brazilian drivers have expressed to be less interested in the politics of sport, though at times its impossible for drivers to stay disentangled.
But racing and politics have been entwined for over 2500 years, though it came in different formats for the fans to enjoy.
In Western Greece, just beneath the border with Albania, lies Epirus. Situated in between two seas and covering the surrounding green hills lies an ancient city in ruin. The ruined city bears the name of victory itself, Nicopolis. The city was founded by Octavian as a token of victory upon defeating the combined fleet of Marcus Anthony and Cleopatra in the adjacent inner-sea.
Among the first things Octavian constructed in the newly -founded city, was the hippodrome. So important was horse racing to the Romans, that the circuit’s existence was secured whilst the aqueduct was still being constructed. Although simple in its layout, the track constitutes a time in history when racing was vastly different from what we see in Formula 1 today, though some similarities are really quite striking.
The Greeks were among the first civilization to generate enough wealth for its people to allow them to enjoy extracurricular activities such as arts, science, philosophy and professional sporting events. Horse racing was the most prestigious of Olympian events, only surpassed in attendance by Greek wrestling or pankration.
Racing was an ongoing event in many cities outside the Olympics too. There were four racing categories, single-mounted horse riding, two-horse chariot racing and the main event; four-horse chariot racing. Prestige was the main prize to be won and privateers gained this for their city or family finding finance from usually distinguished families.
Attendance as now, was an issue back then. The only seating available was in the surrounding hills. This did not stop people from watching though, as a maximum of 50 charioteers per event was surely a sight to behold. It was dangerous, pure and the entertainment came from the racing itself.
But Greeks also liked to fight amongst themselves, something the Romans were keen to exploit. Although possibly a match for the Romans, the internal divide secured Roman/Byzantine rule over Greece for well over 1500 years.
The biggest Roman strength was to adapt to changing conditions and adopt new and foreign technology into their own. They saw Greek horse racing and realized that money could be made from it. Under the Romans the sport gained a far more international and professional character, more easily permitted by the vast size of the empire and the influx of new technologies and relative stability.
As these events gathered crowds, the Romans built specialized hippodromes with seating for spectators. The events were financed by the empire, with financial backers supporting individual teams. These teams were distinguished by colour and each attempted to invest in the best horses, vied for the best drivers (no longer just distinguished men) and tried to secure the services of the best engineers to create the fastest chariots. One can only imagine that the tech analysis before each race would have been no less interesting then, than it is today.
Competition breeds innovation and the Romans played that game like no other. The races around this time became more politicized as this was one of the few times the people could get into close contact with the leading classes. In between events people would shout for political demands or changes, a viable way to get the people to be heard. And as prestige was still the main prize to be won through racing, financial backers would try to gain more of the prestige in order to gain political power. It is also from this time that we find references to racing being described as a circus.
As the Roman empire transformed into the Byzantine empire, so did the nature of the sport. Gladiatorial games were out due to their unchristian nature and horse racing became THE major sport of the empire and its capital Constantinople. There, different well-developed associations known as Demes took control of the coloured teams, fracturing the sport in turn.
There were only four major teams left, The Reds, the Whites, The Greens and Blues. Emperor Justinian was a supporter of the blues. His palace was attached to the local hippodrome which gives an indication of the political significance the sport had gathered. Since the racing was much more centralized, so became the political aspect. Success in racing would garner support from devoted and large groups of fans, which in turn could lead to advances in militaristic, theological and political positions in the empire.
Since the citizens lacked any other form of political outlet, the races became a focal point of political demands. Clashes between fan bases were common and although drivers could switch teams, fans in general could not. So intensely laden with political undertone were these events, that outside forces even used the political influence of the Demes to destabilize the empire from within. This came to a nadir in 532, when the famous Nika riots devastated over half the city, and killed tens of thousands of its inhabitants.
The authorities were unable to control the large groups of fans, enraged by the imprisonment of one of their comrades and fuelled by political rage. Racing would never be the same again. The scale was cut back whilst politics endured, and as the empire declined slowly over the next 900 years, so did racing. Racing died out in Europe, and would not return until the British and French started organizing events to test the reliability and effectiveness of combustion engines.
If we were to look at F1 in its current form, it would be somewhere between the Roman and Byzantine form of racing. We have highly politicized teams, listening to the emperor. Though the sport is still accessible for most, it has become a focal point of a variety of interests that are often not related to the sport. I would bet my money on it, that 2000 years ago a man named Bernardus would be calling the shots. 😉
And as currently, he would be intended on cutting down on the number of teams to gain political power over all of them. He appeases the Demes through financial constructions which ensure their existence. But the sport itself lacks a clear strategic vision and its members are more involved with undermining strategic gains to garner tactical advantages. This is a major issue for all parties involved, as it is both short-sighted, and as history has proven, disastrous for the overall health of the sport.
The emperor only has a few years to live. Martin Sorrell’s comments on the future commercial direction of the sport are an indication of changes to come over the next 5 years. Above all, that the interview was posted on the official website of Formula 1, indicates an upcoming change in the political structure of F1.
It is rare for the organization to criticize itself, let alone for members to criticize the emperor himself. Bernie is milking the sport until he can no more. Just like the Romans, he commercialized the sport to the extent of greater reach and profit. With most of the sport’s commercial agreements up for renewal within the next 5 years, it will be highly interesting to see which direction its politics will take . History tends to repeat itself, and a repeat of early Roman racing would be more desired than a Byzantine approach.
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