SCAN SPORT – A former F1 journalist and former Grand Prix commentator on TF1, Jean-Louis Moncet discusses the evolution of the discipline on the occasion of the 1000th meeting in China.
Why not talk about the 1000th Grand Prix but 1000th race this weekend in Shanghai?
Jean-Louis Moncet: The FOM (Formula One Management) rightly refers to a 1000th race for the World Championship. Between 1950 and 1960, the 500 Miles of Indianapolis, which are not Grand Prix, counted for the world championship and it also ran in Formula 2 in 1952 and 1953. Present this appointment as the 1000th race for the world title is therefore fairer.
Could we imagine reaching this symbolic figure at the start of the first Grand Prix in 1950?
I would go back to Bernie Ecclestone's formula: "No one expected 1000 races, not even 100." Until 1958, many Grands Prix were 500 km or more. It was long. The International Sports Commission (CSI) of the FIA was very annoyed because over the first seven years of the championship, an already old man, Juan Manuel Fangio, had won five titles (1951, 54, 55, 56, 57). She told herself that she was going into the wall and thus rectified the shot by shortening the races to 300 km. Fangio, who was 47 years old in 1958, soon realized that young people were more agile and able to provide more violent effort over shorter distances. And he stopped.
What makes the success of Formula 1 in your opinion?
Despite its regulatory changes, F1 retains the immutable elements that make the success of its Grands Prix, those of the Greek tragedy. The unit of time with about two hours of running. The unity of place, with new circuits certainly but always the mythical routes of Monza, Monaco or Silverstone. And a clear action unit with cars on the starting grid and victory for the first to cross the finish line. And this is a perfect format for the public and television.
What role did television play in the success of the discipline?
She participated greatly. In this respect, F1 owes a lot to Bernie Ecclestone. By regrouping the manufacturers in the FOCA (Formula One Constuctors Association) in the late 70s, he gave more weight to the teams for financial negotiations with the circuits and the FIA. Ferrari, McLaren, everyone followed. One day, the Italian Grand Prix had taken half an hour late because the president of the Italian council, who had probably not woken up from his nap, was still waiting. And before each Monaco Grand Prix, Prince Rainier had taken the habit of opening the race with one of his cars. Ecclestone said stop and has established immutable rules: when they compete in Europe, the races will leave at 14:00 precise. And the teams that were not on time saw the fines fall, 20, 30 or even 40,000 dollars.
And the pilots, have they evolved a lot?
Those I knew in the 70s-80s like Niki Lauda were confirmed and beefy but also fun and rowdy pilots. During the previous period, it was the lords of the war. It took a lot of money to pay for an F1. There were factory stables but also enlightened amateurs who ran. The kart democratized the discipline and allowed boys who had little or no money to start. This is the case of René Arnoux and Alain Prost who started with the kart. At the time of Prost and Senna, the drivers became athletes. To drive 800 hp cars on big tires, with the violence of a GP, you had to be an athlete. A guy like Schumacher was able to compete in a marathon without specifically preparing for it. Today, all drivers are athletes. They also obey the finger and the eye to the engineers who take a terrible importance according to the formula "shut up and drive" ("shut up and drive"). We would never have said that to a Senna or a Prost. This is perhaps one of the excesses of the discipline. The pilot must be at the heart of the action, not the engineers. The star is the pilot.
You've been covering F1 since 1978. If you had to remember five characters who scored F1, what would they be?
You put me a glue … I would say Bernie Ecclestone, a big guy who made the F1 as it is today even if he took a lot of money in passing (smile). Ron Dennis, McLaren's historic boss who transformed F1 into a radically beautiful communication tool with the beautiful motor homes, the brightly lit booths without a dragging cloth. Mauro Forghieri, the technical director par excellence who designed great Ferrari. I am obliged to put Prost, Senna and Schumacher. Superstars, it was them. The first two made me live my best years as a commentator but also the worst with the death of Senna in 1994. And we can not deny that Schumacher was a formidable flag carrier of F1. 50% of the followers of the planet were against him and 50% for him. It was a unique driver. At that time, he eclipsed everyone.
It may seem odd but I choose Suzuka in Japan, the most difficult and the most dangerous. Jean Alesi said that from the moment we passed the Raidillon Eau Rouge to Spa-Francorchamps thoroughly, it did not have the same difficulty then while with its very difficult curves, Suzuka is what there is better. This circuit was asked by Mr. Soichiro Honda, the founder of the brand. He had asked an engineer, John Hugenholtz, to draw a circuit where one could test all the qualities and especially the defects of his cars. It is an extremely complete circuit with very different curves, straight lines, climbs and descents. And shaped 8 with turns on both right and left.
It's impossible to choose one. There are at least fifteen who have made history. The Ferrari with the first fins or that of Prost in 1990, the Mercedes W196 of Fangio. Lotus with the effect of soil. There is also the Michelin radial tire that has eclipsed all the other manufacturers, the 12-cylinder and 6-cylinder turbo engines … It's very difficult to hold a car or a technology.
What are the big challenges of F1?
There are two in my opinion. As mentioned before, that the pilot really comes back to the center of the game. It is necessary to contingent the radio dialogue between the engineer and the pilot. And it takes a clear return on television for a number of races. Pay channels limited the audience of F1. The Americans (Liberty Media, owner of the commercial rights of the F1) say by the way that it still needs to produce audience. This is how TF1 has recovered 4 Grands Prix in clear 21. This is not much but it is already that of winning.