Just what the game needs to reconnect with its traditional fan base: a football-branded motorsport franchise. Al Needham witnesses the inaugural outing of Superleague Formula
It’s an obscenely crass and overblown spectacle that wastes millions of pounds a year on something that its detractors claim is nothing more than a season-long procession that clogs up the TV on Sundays, mainly decided by which teams have the most money. So why would motorsport want anything to do with football?
At first glance, a marriage of the two most insanely cash-rich sports in the world sounds like the premise for a bargain-bin Playstation game (Press triangle button: make Cristiano Ronaldo fire massive toilet roll at John Terry! Hit square button: leave Bovril slick on the chicane!), but Superleague Formula, currently trumpeted as “The Beautiful Race”, lurched into action last month.
The idea – to bolt the “passion and pride” of football on to the supposedly cold and technical frame of motor racing – is not a new one; as far back as 2000, a consortium including our old friend Graham Kelly launched Premier 1 GP, claiming that they were in talks with Barcelona, Juventus, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea. Two years later, only one of those clubs – the last-named – were on board, along with Leeds (who wheeled their car on to the pitch at half-time). Three years later, after a welter of haughty articles in motorsport mags in fear of the danger of football hooliganism at Brands Hatch and amid waning interest, the idea was dead in the water.
So why is it back? Have a guess. The clubs get between £14 million and £18m over five years, according to certain sources. Apart from every owner’s wet dream – a dead loud racing car with the club badge on it – the clubs get a cut of sponsorship fees, TV rights, licensing and merchandise in exchange for nothing more than use of the – gag – “brand”.
The gamble is entirely on the shoulders of Superleague Formula, who are banking on there being thousands of Big Club fans who would happily watch a lolly stick float down a stream if it had a logo on it rocking up to racetracks around Europe to see “their” car in action. It appears to be an insane risk, but one the organisers feel is worth taking. “As a global sports brand, Liverpool is one of the biggest names in the world,” said SF president Alex Andreu when the club signed up. “Donington Park is only a couple of hours from Liverpool and we are really looking forward to hearing fans break into You’ll Never Walk Alone at a motorsport event.” Hmm.
In the event, Superleague Formula’s inaugural meeting at Donington was unsurprisingly devoid of swaying Scousers. I counted about 16 Liverpool shirts, and more Flamengo (a mini‑bus full of Brazilians from London with enormous banners) than Spurs and Rangers combined. The truly ironic thing about SF, to this observer, who inwardly cringes at the Top Gear theme tune, is that when you strip away all the trimmings, its principles are about as far removed from modern football as possible. All the cars – with 4.5 litre V12 engines that kick out 750hp, if that means anything to you – are the same, the drivers are happy to mingle with the general public, and you get two shortish races for the price of one.
Apart from excruciatingly stillborn puns and desperate attempts by the PA to shoehorn in football references (apparently, Anderlecht were looking forward to a rematch on the track of their 1978 Super Cup final with Liverpool), it’s all about the racing, which is ultimately where SF will stand or fall. To the motorsport aficionado who knows what to look for, it was a good day’s racing. To me, huddled in the stand by the finish line, it was an endless procession of football logos screaming past my field of vision at ear-splitting volume, as if I was being forced to watch a Sky advert over and over again. Only at the end, when Sevilla, Liverpool and Flamengo took the podium (the drivers were pretty much always identified by team, which has to piss them off), did football take the whip hand again. Sevilla’s anthem, an appalling mid-tempo Eurovision dirge, was played, the drivers kicked footballs into the crowd, and that was it.
According to people in the know when it comes to cars going round and round, Superleague Formula has a chance of establishing itself, particularly in countries that have a history of football clubs branching out into other sports such as basketball and handball, and especially in Brazil. Here, though, it will face an uphill battle. A fraction of Liverpool and Spurs fans may be tempted to see “their” car, but Evertonians and Arsenal supporters definitely won’t be (though maybe Celtic fans will turn up in the hope of seeing the Rangers car reduced to a smouldering hunk of twisted metal). As the Champions League demonstrates annually, it’s hard to get worked up about a rivalry between Real Madrid and Shakhtar, so how is it supposed to work in an entirely different discipline?
Motorsports fan tend to follow drivers as opposed to teams, with the exception of Ferrari, and it is they who will keep the series going; whether they can put up with the implication that their sport (which has done quite nicely on its own merits for 121 years) needs to attach itself to the coat-tails of another will be interesting. Maybe we will see the League Two Soap-Box Derby on a hill near you in 2015. Maybe we won’t. Oh, and can we have Murray Walker commentating on a few England games in exchange, please?
From WSC 260 October 2008