Book Review – The Piranha Club: Power and Influence in Formula One by Timothy Collings

The ever wonderful L got me this as a present a couple of years ago and has been very patient waiting for me to read it.

I almost want to write two reviews, one for F1 fans and one for other readers.  Because, despite a few flaws, I would utterly recommend this for anyone with more than a passing interest in F1.  If you’ve not got an interest in F1, you’re really not the target audience.

Both reviews would make one similar complaint – what Collings needs, even more than someone to thoroughly proof-read the book (I’d complain less, were this not supposed to be the revised edition), is someone to help him organise his thoughts.

The book follows a mostly chronological path, beginning with Enzo Ferrari and carrying on to the present day (which was 2003).  Which makes sense, and it was interesting to get an overview of how the sport developed and changed, through the prism of the teams and team bosses.

Only sometimes the book randomly jumps so Ron Dennis and Frank Williams get introduced before Ken Tyrrell, for no obvious reason, especially as Ken Tyrrell was also a garagiste.

And then we suddenly get a section on the skulduggery of the 1993, 1997, 1999 and 2003.  And each individual section is very good (especially the 1997 bit, which, as a Ferrari fan, I remember *differently*), but the whole would have been so much better with an introductory paragraph to the chapter (which is called Tempestuous Times) and and intro to each section.  For the price of five extra paragraphs, the chapter could have gone from ‘really good’ to ‘excellent’.

Following that chapter we jump back to 1997 (admittedly to a really excellent chapter on Jackie Stewart, Stewart Racing and how to organise an F1 team).

The jumping also affects the flow of his introductions to team managers, so we get Paul Stoddart doing his thing in the 2003 section of ‘Tempestuous Times’, before he, Minardi, and why he bought Minardi are introduced a chapter and a half later in ‘2001 – A Political Odyssey’.

I think the lack of organising principle is why, particularly in the early chapters, you quite often get an anecdote on one page, only to have it be repeated over the page.

All those complaints are utterly unimportant if you’re an F1 fan though, because the book has so much interesting stuff, especially about how things work (or don’t work) on the business front, and some of the personality background on the team leaders.

And Bernie.  Oh the Bernie stuff was interesting.  Particularly Stirling Moss saying that Bernie was a half decent driver.  There is a man whose opinion I respect in these matters.

I keep forgetting how old Bernie really is.  Because I always assume that he’s Ron Dennis’s age, and he’s not, he’s 16 years older, which I think is because one reaches one’s business years about 20 years after one reaches one’s racing years.

Collings also tries to predict the future, and while there’s a reason that’s a mug’s game, he does get some of it right.  The imbalance in the prize money has lead to other teams going bust, and is still causing ructions between the remaining teams.  He’s right that it will probably be the EU Commission that eventually gets it sorted (courtesy of complaints from Sauber, where Peter Sauber has left F1, rejoined, and then sold his team).

He’s also right in predicting the rise of manufacturer teams such as Renault, and teams that are part of larger organisations, where they’re basically extended marketing departments (looking at you so much Red Bull), at the expense of truly privateer teams.

Where he’s wrong is the effect that that’s had on who the team bosses are.  Contrary to what Collings predicts, they are still mostly ex-racers and mad petrolheads, for example Christian Horner (and if anyone wants to horrify us all by digging out *that* centrefold of Horner, now would be the right time) and Toto Wolff.  The bosses of big companies don’t have the time to devote to just one part of their brand that it would need for them to truly run a Formula 1 team, so they’re going to try to hire the best they can and those people are going to come from the same motorsports-enthusiastic places they’ve always done, they’re just not doing it under their own names now.  And I don’t think you could.  Gene Haas apart, and time will tell if he stays, you need a pre-existing business empire to enter F1 nowadays.

And Bernie still prevails.  As I suspect he always shall until he’s bored of it.  The book was written before the present Concord agreement was signed and therefore ends on a note of ‘how will the teams ever agree to a new one, and how will Bernie cling on to power?’  Sound familiar?  The book also has a fantastic anecdote that explains why Bernie remains,

“At various times, he has left a room, during a meeting, after suggesting that the team principals present decide among themselves who the new leader should be, only to return and find they had spent so long arguing about the air-conditioning levels, or something similar, that no-one had even proposed a replacement leader.” (pg 137)

Now, yes, it’s one of those anecdotes that’s probably far too good to be true, but it sounds infinitely plausible and I suspect the same thing would happen now.  He is what keeps F1 moving, and I actually do worry about what happens post-Bernie, and I think the ‘Bernie out’ people should consider that before they get too vociferous.

But yes, in short, definitely read it if you’re an F1 fan. Not so much if you’re not.