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Once upon a time, there lived a group of dashing and heroic Princes who battled in the sport of Formula One. They were the finest racing drivers in the world, able to coax remarkable speeds from their magnificent machines.


They were a noble bunch, too. From the very beginning they loved nothing more than adventure. They would travel the world, gracing famous racetracks like Monte Carlo, Nurburgring, Spa and Silverstone, performing driving miracles in front of hundreds of thousands of adoring spectators.


The women wanted to be with them, and the men wanted to be them. Death, the ever-present spectre, would claim many of these Princes. That was simply the price they paid. They lived fast and died young. Literally.


For decades the people of the Kingdom of Formula One spoke of these Princes’ great heroics, reading tales of their exploits and watching their dramas unfurl as the noble warriors sped their way around the globe in a never-ending blur of champagne, beautiful women, and dangerous cars. So daring were Princes like Jim Clark and Graham Hill that once in a while they’d tire of the continual challenge of Formula One, crusading to foreign lands like the USA on a whim and claiming great tiles like the Indy 500 as their own.


This was a golden age before awareness of global warming, and many kingdoms fell for the charm of these lovable rogues and their formidable steeds. From Europe to Australia to South America and beyond, all knew that these Princes represented the absolute apex in racing skill and courage, and for over 30 years they would watch their magical moving picture boxes every Sunday to see them battle for supremacy.


The Princes’ became steeped in legend. Some became world champions. Many died trying. They were foolhardy, exotic and impossibly charismatic. They were some of the most famous sportsmen in the world.


Nothing magic lasts forever though, and all this changed on one sunny May Day afternoon in 1994 when the most dashing and heroic Prince of them all, Brazil’s Ayrton Senna, crashed on live TV at the San Marino Grand Prix, dying virtually instantly from massive brain injuries.


’Twas indeed a tragic day. And the people from all over the Formula One Kingdom mourned greatly. And not just for noble Prince Senna. For the glamour, the heroism, and indeed the fun had been snatched from their favourite sport. Where before they could revel in their heroes’ daring, now they were confronted with the knowledge that if the very greatest of the Princes could die without a witch’s curse to blame, what terrible fate could befall mere mortals?


The steeds became safer (and slower). The racetracks had extra chicanes and corners added to them. But there was a hideous side effect of this increase in safety, as the late 1990s and 2000s saw Formula One become racing in name alone. The people of the Kingdom watched sullenly as Grand Prix became little more than a procession of Princes parading around increasingly snaking tracks, only able to overtake other cars when their competitors were changing tyres.


Tactics and the ability to secure a swift carriage, rather than skill and courage, became the focal points of the sport. Equipped with the finest steed in the Kingdom, the new Prince of Princes, Germany’s Michael Schumacher, whose talent was only equalled by his repellent personality, would inevitably win every race. The people of the Kingdom began to look elsewhere for their cheer.


Even then, away from the track and the fading cheers, something sinister was swelling. A troll called Bernie ‘The Troll’ Ecclestone, who was very, very rich, yet very, very short, coveted Formula One. At the end of the 1970s he owned one racing team. But by the beginning of the 1990s he owned the very sport of Formula One, snaffling shares here and there, and securing long-term TV deals that lined his pockets.


Much like Evil Baron Simon de Cowell did years later with his bloodless coup to takeover pop music, by the time anyone noticed that the kingdom had become an oligarchy it was too late. The damage had been done.


Bernie The Troll knew that his sport was boring. He also knew that despite the people of the kingdom turning away from it, the very words Formula One were more valuable than precious gems. And so, when the people of the Kingdom didn’t want to pay him millions to host his tedious races, and weren’t happy with cigarettes brands wantonly splashing their names all over the racing machines, Bernie simply found other kingdoms that were willing to pay the ransom to host Formula One and weren’t so fussy about their subjects’ respiratory health. And so, with the glorious history of Princes and honourable battles abandoned like used oil filters, Formula One opened up new kingdoms in Malaysia, Turkey, Bahrain, China, India and the USA.


Bernie 'The Troll' Ecclestone

Bernie ‘The Troll’ Ecclestone


Bernie The Troll didn’t fare as well in the USA as Baron Simon de Cowell. During their invasion of the sacred track of Indianapolis in 2005 the Princes and their consorts became embroiled in an argument over safety, tyres, and track configuration. Unfamiliar with dissent in the ranks, Bernie The Troll was unable to solve the problem, and the ‘race’ took part with only six cars competing. Spectators’ tickets were refunded by tyre manufacturer Michelin. Bernie The Troll wasn’t going to waste any of his treasure on the actual fans. Oh no.


But children, like Aesop’s fable of the goose and the golden egg this incident summed up the new world of Formula One perfectly. For when the brave and noble Princes were once able to drive for honour and the spoils of victory a new generation has become obsessed with short-term victory over their sport’s long-term health. Despite having budgets of small countries the top teams cheat with impunity (even a $100million fine levied against McLaren in 2007 didn’t result in any beheadings or resignations), so convinced are they that faceless drivers triumphing in meaningless contests are still important. The races have become uncompetitive, the contestants graceless and sullen, and the Kingdom’s leadership has no interest beyond the financial bottom line.


The Princes themselves have long since realised this. Even potential world champions have grown wise to this accursed sport. Montoya, Franchetti, Carpentier, Hornish and Villeneuve have abandoned the dream of racing Ferraris, McLarens and Mercedes around Monaco and Monza, preferring to drive Fords and Toyotas in circles across the American south. The irony children, is that no one even dares to criticise them. Like the glory hungry Princes before them, they only want to race.


The sad end to this tale is that Formula One and its storied heroes of old are no more. Once, people would flock to the back pages of newspapers to read their heroes’ exploits. Formula One was a Kingdom of magic and heroes. Now it’s a playground for billionaires full of high-speed advertising hoardings, relegated to its own little sporting backwater. Only the virginal and those afflicted by the curse of automotive nerdliness bat an eyelid.


But children, do you want to know the real tragedy? There are still enough virgins and nerds in all the kingdoms to keep Bernie and all the other trolls in gold until the end of their days. And there always will be.

Robert Collins is a freelance journalist based in London. Since 2000 he's been Features Editor of Playmusic magazine, edited the musicians' sections of NME and Melody Maker, and has contributed to The Sunday Times, Globe&Mail;, The Toronto Star, thelondonpaper, Ryanair Magazine, FourFourTwo, Sleaze Nation and many others. He earned his degree in American Studies at the University of Manchester, where he developed his exacting standards for chicken kebabs, and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he learnt the finer points of the pick and roll. Robert writes about global sports culture in his column, Sticky Wickets. Before you ask, his favourite sports moment of all time is the Second Test between The British & Irish Lions and South Africa in 1997. He cannot dunk and has never even come close.


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