Formula 1

What do Great Depression/war analogies mean for motorsport?

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
6 min read

At motorsport’s most senior level there are major comparisons being made that put the current global crisis into perspective, and hint at seismic change in the years to come.

To safeguard the future of racing, FIA president Jean Todt is making noises about a “New Deal approach, like America had after the Great Depression”. His deputy president for sport Graham Stoker has made a reference to the post-world war impact on grassroots motorsport, suggesting it could be repeated in a post-COVID world.

These are events of extraordinary magnitude to be involving in the debate about motorsport’s future. There’s no real substance within the comparisons as yet, perhaps because most championships and organisers are focused on surviving the short-term, and protecting themselves in the medium-term.

But references to devastating economic collapses and global conflicts are eyebrow-raising to say the least, as they carry a grim subtext. So, are they rooted in something real – and if so, what does that mean for how motorsport can or will change? – or are they just bombastic remarks?

COVID-19 times are extraordinary times, often referred to as the biggest challenge of this generation. Motorsport has not been exempted from this.

The 2020 schedule has been ravaged. On this side of the pond, Formula 1 is trying to lead the way back to on-track action but whether it will be successful and the form it will take are both up in the air.

Who knows how long it will be before other championships can follow? Who knows how many championships will be left and able to follow? Who knows how many teams will be there to compete, or will have been forced to pull down the shutters?

This is not pessimism for the sake of it. It is the grim reality of a situation that has devastated businesses, individuals and communities across the world. In this context, drawing comparisons to major problems from the past that had to become is not an unfair practice.

Jean Todt F1 2020

Todt’s idea of a ‘New Deal approach’ is nice in principle. It acts as a beacon of light in terribly murky times, because it promises a brighter future.

If we’re to take the analogy seriously – and we must, because the Great Depression and the world wars are such specific, titanic examples that they must have been picked deliberately – then it’s a worrying comparison that sets motorsport on a course for unprecedented and massive change.

First, the FIA must be planning, or will need to plan, widespread reform of motorsport for it to work properly in the new world. There must be major efforts made to overhaul rules and processes to make the sport more appropriate for the times.

Perhaps this will come in the form of increased electrification, to placate manufacturers who may otherwise abandon motorsport.

It’s difficult to imagine the circumstances re-establishing what we knew of motor racing pre-COVID. Which means motorsport will not fully recover from this for many years

“At the top level you have OEMs and manufacturers whose factories are silent and whose sales are visibly taking an enormous hit – and for motorsport that’s troubling,” says Stoker.

“When they emerge from the pandemic, their priority is going to be to re-start manufacturing, to sell cars and to manage costs.

“That could have a range of impacts and one of those might be on motorsport.”

An alternative strategy, or additional one depending on the likelihood of manufacturer involvement, would be to overhaul most categories to a customer formula.

Junior single-seater categories have become homogenised over the years already, IndyCar is a one-make chassis competition and the TCR movement was so massive as an entry-level category that it’s accidentally become the world championship.

With F1 adopting ever more standard parts, and categories such as GT3 and GT4 forming the bedrock of national and international sportscar competition, simpler components with less expense attached to them could be the new normal.

F1 Canada 2020

The second element of the ‘New Deal approach’ that will be inescapable will be the duration of the recovery.

In the 1930s Roosevelt’s New Deal policies definitely stimulated the US economy but it was never brought completely out of recession. Another major event, the start of the Second World War, was the catalyst for an employment spike and increase in national spending.

It’s difficult to imagine the circumstances re-establishing what we knew pre-COVID of motor racing. Which means motorsport will not fully recover from this for many years.

Stoker believes the beneficiary could eventually be entry-level motorsport. He talks about restarting it “from the grassroots up”.

“Grassroots motorsport has always been the lifeblood of competition and we should reconnect with that, whilst demonstrating that the sport has an important place in modern society,” he reckons.

“I think it will be vital in re-establishing a sense of normality before we start trying to tap into sponsorship money and suchlike.”

But how will that be possible when grassroots motorsport is underpinned by enthusiasts who have been directly hit by the pandemic?

It’s not just manufacturers who are tightening their belts. The average person cannot justify thousands of pounds on an expensive hobby when jobs are on the line.

And even the very healthy percentage of motorsport competitors who are wealthy individuals will need to think twice about funding their costly past-times if their business, big or small, have taken a hit.

Stoke seems convinced. “If you go through the history of motorsport there are lessons to be learned,” he says.

“If you look at what happened following the world wars, the re-emergence of motor sport was driven by a grassroots desire to compete.”

Again, this will require significant action from the FIA and its sub-authorities to make that a reality.

F1 fans Brazil 2020

To that end, the FIA has pledged to assist local authorities as much as possible. There have not yet been detailed plans communicated publicly. But fundamentally the FIA and larger local authorities have “at least one year’s reserves”, according to Stoker.

This is not the case for all of the 145 authorities, though. So Stoker has pledged to be “flexible” with the funds the FIA has available and will look at “formulating a rescue package and the mechanisms that go

with that sort of support so that we are able to help those in trouble”.

That is just survival, though. Will that be enough to rebuild motorsport from the grassroots?

Might it benefit from an explosion of pent-up desire to experience live events? That, at least, seems far too risky to take as a given, and rely on in a new world.

It will be a long time before the wider consequences of the current situation make themselves apparent.

It should be said that the FIA has worked very well with key promoters thus far, while the talk of financial support to national governing bodies that need it indicates there will be targeted protection across the board.

This is important because whether it’s a comparison to the Great Depression or drawing parallels with the impact of war on motor racing, such comments need to be rooted in fact and understanding rather than a flippant remark loosely connecting one crisis to another.

These analogies need to mean something. The situation is too serious for hyperbole.

Like the USA in the 1930s, or any community after 1945, motorsport needs action in a post-COVID world – not words.

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