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Sunday 10 March 2019

The road to hell

  • Vietnam was “bombed back to the Stone Age” by Americans, but it is ready to prove itself as a modern, advancing nation.
  • Hanoi will host a Formula One grand prix in 2020 – shorthand for power, prestige and glamour, and proof of Vietnam’s lust for development.
  • F1 is not the future – it is a celebration of fossil fuel consumption and the roar of the past. But can the West really blame developing nations for wanting to join the party?

By Simon Barnes

Had the Hanoi Grand Prix already started? Would I never cross Hang Kai and get to Hoang Kiem Lake, rippling so invitingly on the far side of a dozen lanes of traffic? I manoeuvred downstream of a local and shadowed her as she made her fitful progress to the far side.

Typical modern city in the developing world: developed much too fast to have room for such inessentials as people. Cars, bullying cars: that’s what cities are for, with their noise and their emissions. Hanoi, like a thousand other cities, continues at breakneck pace to embrace all the mistakes the developed Western world is now – occasionally – trying to repair.

Vietnamese motorists endure air pollution

It is as if the developing world is claiming a moral right to those errors.

In 2020 Hanoi will hold its first Formula One grand prix. Mercedes, Ferrari and the rest will take to the streets of the capital of Vietnam, and an estimated 425 million viewers will watch the big cars roar and scream and smoke their way to victory and defeat. It will be the first time the nation has held an international sporting event.

In the 1960s General Curtis E LeMay, formerly of the United States Army but by then in politics, said that the best way to win the war in Vietnam was to “bomb them back into the Stone Age”. It’s a phrase that’s never been forgotten in Vietnam: what the Vietnamese call “the American War” ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

The process of recovery from the war has been remarkable – and now they want a grand prix to prove it: a nation that has truly arrived, complete with what marketing people call “a destination city”. That’ll show snooty neighbours like Malaysia a thing or two.

Formula One is associated with power, prestige and glamour. To hold a grand prix is to line yourself up alongside Monaco: out of the tunnel come the screaming cars, and then round a harbour filled with the yachts of billionaires: very exclusive, if you call wealth exclusive. It is as if they were racing on a road-surface of banknotes.

Hanoi will gain by its association with the other F1 cities: in 2020 there will be grands prix at the traditional sites across Europe and the Americas, with comparatively recent destinations including Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, Singapore and Baku.

Why do it? To prove to the world that you have advanced
a long way beyond the Stone Age: that the war is history, that the growing economy is the future. Formula One has a hard core of devotees – petrolheads – who find the meaning of life in the nuances of different rubber-compounds in tyres.

But there are also a huge number of people who follow
the sport from this side of obsession: relishing the extravagant personalities, the duels, the rivalries, the rows, the scandals, the crashes, the spectacle, the blatant wealth and, above
all, the great champions: people with talents beyond computation.

In 1989 I stood in the sun with Ayrton Senna at the racetrack in Montréal. It was rather like meeting a saint.

“I feel it is right to slow down, but something inside of me, something very strong, pushes me on, makes me try to beat myself. It is… an enormous desire to go further and further, to travel beyond my own limits,” he told me.

A public entertainment that produces people like that can’t fail to be compelling. (Senna, three times a world champion, was killed in an F1 racing accident in 1994.) Behind the personalities, the colour, the speed, the smell, there is, above all, the noise. Stand close to the track and you can feel the passing of a car in the vibrating earth. Stand by the grid at the start and it seems that the earth is shaking itself like a wet dog.

Lewis Hamilton typifies the glamour of F1

Formula One glorifies machines as much if not more than drivers: the unlevel playing field is the fundamental principle of the sport. The best drivers sit in the fastest cars, so by an exacting definition it’s not sport at all. But then it rains and that levels things up: when the tyres cannot grip, the skills of the drivers are revealed.

The best drivers who ever raced are – more or less by definition – the best drivers in the wet: Senna, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton, the current champion: taking the curves at double the motorway speed limit with a great pheasant-tail of spray following hard behind them. It may not be great sport but it is great something.

It is not cheap to hold a grand prix. The Hanoi race is the property of Vingroup, the largest private company in Vietnam with significant interests in Vietnamese real estate. Vietnam is a communist state, and this adventure could not have been set up without government support – but the race will show that Vietnam does not have a socialist-orientated economy. The event will line Vietnam up with the West, emphasising the warm relations that already exist with the United States and Australia – which both have grands prix of their own. The sport is owned by Liberty Media, which purchased it from Bernie Ecclestone in 2016 for $4.4 billion.

You must pay Liberty for the right to stage a grand prix: the price is reckoned to be $30 million a year, rising 10 per cent annually. That’s before you have built your circuit. It is cheaper, at least initially, to run your race on a street circuit, and in many ways better because you can incorporate city landmarks into the race; the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has expressed interest in staging a grand prix in his city.

But once you have invested in a specialised racing circuit, you cut your annual costs: you do not have to erect and dismantle grandstands and upgrade the road surface to racing standards. The plans for the Hanoi grand prix are to create a hybrid, combining permanent grandstands and a section of racetrack that merges with the Hanoi streets.

The acquisition of a Formula One grand prix is not necessarily a drive straight to the money shop. India had a grand prix for three years, South Korea for four and Turkey for seven: but they all pulled out. India had two years left on the contract; among the many problems was that the government of Uttar Pradesh declared that F1 was not a sport but an entertainment and wished to levy tax accordingly.

Certainly, there are profits to be made from buying into the sport, especially if people actually come and watch it. But it is generally agreed that the best of it is intangible. PwC calculated that the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in 2016 and 2017 “created $277 million of increased economic value”.

There’s an implication, then, that the best part of hosting a grand prix lies in the reflected glory and prestige: the idea that you have joined an exclusive club of important – that is to say wealthy – places. You no longer say “Hanoi – isn’t that the capital of Vietnam, where they had the war?” You say “Ah yes, Hanoi, the sophisticated metropolis with the big motor race”.

After that you can bask in the global attention. I recall the Brazilian Grand Prix in São Paulo in 1990, when the president of the FIA, the governing body of the sport, Jean-Marie Balestre, was in fear of assassination by angry Senna fans and was accompanied at every step by two bodyguards carrying Uzis.

It was here that I was struck by a thunderbolt of realisation about Formula One. I was talking to a local reporter: female, very cool, very smart, great English. We were getting on like a house on fire; at least, that is what I thought.

So I asked her what sophisticated young urbanites like her felt about the conservation of the Amazon rainforest. This won me a glare of fresh-cut loathing. The last words she spoke to me were: “You destroyed your forests.”

Leaving me no time to explain that I had never destroyed a forest in my life. Or that the European forests were destroyed long before people knew about the importance of forests for climate regulation. So far as she was concerned I was a typical developed-nation hypocrite who wanted Brazil to stay undeveloped and Brazilians to stay poor.

Formula One is a celebration of fossil-fuel consumption and the consequent production of greenhouse gases. The destruction of forests continues across the world, compromising the Earth’s ability to deal with greenhouse gases.

The situation is still more complex in Vietnam. Vast areas of forest were destroyed not by the Vietnamese but by the American armed forces during the American War. The Americans saw forest as an enemy: a hiding place for North Vietnamese troops. They destroyed as much of it as they could with a defoliant named Agent Orange.

A Vietnamese food vendor

In half a century the forests have still not recovered. The process has hardly begun. I visited areas destroyed by the Americans: all that is left of the once-towering forest is a dense, tussocky expanse of uselessness that the locals call “American grass”.

Hard by one of these extensive, unwanted grasslands is an area where a local NGO, Viet Nature, is restoring forest. This is a long, slow process, but already the trees were beyond head-height. Here was a series of small victories. Pham Tuan Anh, CEO of Viet Nature, asked me what I thought of the project. “Impressive,” I said. “It should look really good in about 2,000 years.”

Tuan Anh laughed. “Not so much. Maybe 200 years.”

But Viet Nature must negotiate a stream of pell-mell modernism, just as I was when I was trying to reach the lake. I wondered if the Vietnamese felt they were more entitled than most to the errors and short-cuts to prosperity that developed nations now condemn. This is a country that has had plenty of errors perpetrated on itself, after all.

The acquisition of the grand prix for Hanoi is part of that lust for development. Stone Age? Not us. We are as modern and forward-thinking and progressive as any nation on earth. The grand prix proves it.

Except that Formula One doesn’t actually represent cutting-edge future-based technology. Rather, its stock-in-trade is nostalgia. F1 engines are a little quieter now, and people queued up to complain when the change was made. Eddie Jordan, former team owner turned pundit, said: “I’m a big, big fan of the noise.” Hamilton, current and five-times world champion, said that he missed “the roar of awesomeness”.

But even now, F1 does not deliver the sound of the future. It delivers the awesome roar of last century’s technology. A love for Formula One is like the nostalgia for the Wild West, a time that never really existed, but to which we would all like to return.

The future is better represented by Formula E: racing cars powered by electricity. This series has been going since 2014 and has 13 rounds in the course of the season; top speed is around 140mph, as opposed to F1’s 230mph. It is widely seen as worthy and rather bloodless: interesting but nothing like the real thing.

The fact is that a future with a reduction of greenhouse gases – of which 82 per cent comes from carbon dioxide, mostly from burning fossil fuels – is beyond our easy imagination. What’s tangible is the glory of human domination of the world by means of 20th century technologies. As Clint Eastwood says in High Plains Drifter, so we look at Formula One with the same fantasy: to look the world in the eyes without blinking while we growl: “I’m faster than you ever live to be.” Immense power over everything, with no responsibilities, no need ever for any remorse, absolutely no comeback, not ever… that’s the dream of Formula One, and it is still irresistible.

That’s why next year we will be able to watch the Vietnamese Grand Prix in Hanoi: representing a fully modern nation with as much right to pollute the planet and speed up the process of climate change as any other nation on earth. Why should they be denied?

Pictures by Getty Images