Friday 25 May 2018

Belleek future for Formula One as fans vote with their wallets

Just seven races back Nico Rosberg enjoyed a 43-point championship lead. This looked to be his year. Photo: AP Photo/Jens Meyer
Just seven races back Nico Rosberg enjoyed a 43-point championship lead. This looked to be his year. Photo: AP Photo/Jens Meyer

David Kennedy

What do a tour of Belleek Castle in Co Mayo and a Formula One race have to do with each other? Warriors and helmets is the correct answer. Except with the former you're allowed to touch the remnants of a bygone era while the latter, F1, has become too precious for its own good.

Like plenty of people I've been on many a tour, and up until now Glasnevin Cemetery trumped them all. Belleek is now vying with the dead for the top slot.

It's like a walk through the pages of a history book. Brian McDonagh, the curator and historian, takes you on a journey that encompasses the Spanish Armada, shipwrecks and even the pirate queen Grace O'Malley's four-poster bed. But the pièce de résistance has to be the 16th century German armoury; steel helmets that weigh several kilo, body armour, chain mail, medieval gauntlets and two-handed long swords to name but a few of the artefacts on display.

Marshall Doran, its colourful owner, sadly passed away in 2007. He travelled the world in search of trilobites, ammonites, woolly mammoths, dinosaurs fossils and battledress. He personally rescued the wood from a shipwreck in Killala Bay (having inherited the lease with the castle) and engineered it in his workshop to recreate the exquisite Armada Bar, which now has Captain Ciaran and his crew at the helm. The ghostly nautical figurehead of Hernán Cortés, the Conquistador, hangs from the wall, looking like he's gasping for a drink. Marshall's son Paul and his charming partner Maya are the present custodians and Paul's father keeps an eagle eye on his legacy from a painting in the reception hall.

Formula One drivers risk life and limb going into battle every weekend they race. Their sword is the throttle and their helmets are lightweight Kevlar, but like those 16th century knights many are prepared to die. It used to be that only the very rich became knights because their armour cost three years' salary, but occasionally mercenaries did too.

So in F1, who's the knight and who's the mercenary? Just seven races back Nico Rosberg enjoyed a 43-point championship lead. This looked to be his year. But Rosberg watched helplessly as a voracious Lewis Hamilton ate into it like a hungry caterpillar, indeed Hungary was the country he chose for his feast, and he continued the banquet in Germany last weekend when he won his sixth GP of the season to better Rosberg's tally of five. Hamilton goes into the summer recess with a 19-point surplus.

Rosberg will spend the next three weeks trying to figure out how on earth it all unravelled. Their collision on the first lap in the Spanish GP was telling. Rosberg may well end up with his then quote as his career epitaph, "I was very surprised he went for the gap".

Hamilton, the boy from the hood, has emerged as leader of the championship because he's a classic street fighter. Neither privilege nor entitlement blight his path. He always pulls that something extra out of his bag of tricks when the situation calls for it. Rosberg, son of former world champion Keke, is no walkover. But when you grow up in Monaco on streets paved with gold, patrolled by police wearing white gloves and what seems like three million CCTV cameras to record your every movement and keep you safe from the great unwashed, the sword cannot be as sharp.

It's not over yet of course. Still, if Rosberg cares to look back to the second half of 2015 for some sort of reassurance, he won't find it. Hamilton kept up his winning streak (except in Singapore which went to Sebastian Vettel) until he didn't need to prove anything more and the newly-crowned world champion handed his team-mate free reign to mop up the remaining three, like it was some sort of consolation prize carelessly dropped from his arsenal of abundant talent. If Rosberg wants to reverse Hamilton's lead in part two of this season, he's going to have to dig a bit deeper and get a bit dirtier, starting in Spa at the end of August. He doesn't have a minute to lose.

Max Verstappen inherited the Spanish GP and he is being rightly touted as a champion in waiting. But for me, after Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo is the brightest star in the F1 firmament. He should have won Monaco and possibly Spain but lost them due to team strategy. He's overdue a win.

Ferrari is chasing its tail - firing personnel left, right and centre - unable to look inward and admit that, for starters, re-hiring Kimi Raikkonen was almost certainly an error, even if he did finish second in Bahrain. This season has been another Mercedes lock-out, save for Max Verstappen's win. Co-stars Vettel and Nico Hulkenberg also got to the second step of the podium while Sergio Perez, Valtteri Bottas and Daniil Kyvat touched the hem of the all-conquering Hamilton and Rosberg show from the third.

In Germany, despite Rosberg's fight for the title, the Hockenheim grandstands were half empty. Formula One is no longer accessible to the public. It has locked itself away in a glass menagerie, elusive and untouchable. Artefacts are handed around on the Belleek tour and you're allowed to connect with the past. Every history teacher in the country should bring their class along. When you hold a steel helmet you conjure up the knights and relive their battles.

Formula One by contrast, has over the years, eroded the connection between the audience and its gladiators. These latter-day knights in shiny racing cars only get to interact with corporate invitees whose often jaded palates don't appreciate the spectacle. Meanwhile the paying exasperated fans in the grandstand gets a sanitised remote view from their seats in the coliseum. No wonder they're voting with their wallets.

A few kilometres down the road from Ballina, in Kilcummin, we visited a re-enactment of the landing of French troops in 1798 in the harbour there, when they joined Irish rebels to fight the British red coats. All the players were in full regalia charging each other with guns blazing and bayonets flashing. More interaction and inspiration and not a cash till in sight. Formula One would do well to learn the importance of keeping its audience connected before the sport itself is consigned to history as a result of its myopic aloofness. Maybe County Mayo tourist board should invite Bernie Ecclestone on holiday there to sample just how it's done.

Sunday Indo Sport

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