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Review: Books - THE ROAD KINGS OF.

Byline: RICHARD WILLIAMSON

SIR Stirling Moss should have been Britain's first motor-racing world champion in 1958 and, had he behaved like one of today's petulant, cynical, overpaid stars, he would have been. Instead, he spoke up for his rival Mike Hawthorn who had been threatened with disqualification from a Grand Prix for a technical infringement.

At the end of the season, Hawthorn took the title by just one point.

Moss has described his decision to rob himself of the title as ``the right thing to do'' and, to my mind, that makes him a hero far greater than any of today's drivers.

He was the consummate professional who was ultra-competitive but never forgot that this was also a sport.

But many would probably call him a fool for giving up his chance of glory.

Even the best of the modern generation - Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher - have been a little too ruthless in the desire for victory ever to qualify as truly great sportsmen.

But sport long ago surrendered its Corinthian ideals and not just because of the win-at-all-costs philosophy. One game after another has surrendered to both personal avarice and the demands of big business.

Tennis, golf, soccer - even the Olympics - all went down the route of fabulous riches. These days we probably read as much about the business affairs of Manchester United as we do about what happens on the pitch.

But perhaps no sport generates quite so much money as Formula One motor-racing.

The Piranha Club (Virgin, pounds 20) is Timothy Collings' fascinating account of how a handful of extraordinary men turned a dangerous, glamorous, exciting sport into a billionaire business that attracts a worldwide TV audience of 500 million for every race.

The title comes from a comment made by McLaren boss Ron Dennis to Eddie Jordan in September 1991: ``Welcome to the Piranha Club.''

It came after a secret deal had whisked Jordan's discovery, a new boy called Michael Schumacher, away from the small Northamptonshire team and into the Benetton squad.

Collings' opening sentence sums up the whole problem with this sport: ``No-one outside those who were present knows what happened at the Villa d'Este on the night of 5 September 1991.''

Because The Piranha Club - the bosses of the 11 (12 when Toyota join next year) teams - keep their affairs obsessively private.

Collings does his best to peep behind the curtain but, let's face it, this is an industry that has successfully rebuffed financial investigators from Brussels, let alone journalists.

There are fierce rows, endless walk-outs and disputes, but we mere mortals are never allowed to glimpse what goes on behind the high-speed show on Sunday afternoons.

Collings is good on describing how the sport developed from the days of Ferrari and BRM, Cooper and Connaught via Lotus and March to today's ultra-professional outfits.

John Cooper and Colin Chapman were engineering geniuses, Enzo Ferrari was an autocrat, Ron Dennis and Frank Williams are the very model of modern, hard-bitten, managers - and this book is about how they seized control of their own sport.

But none of them quite has the flair of Bernie Ecclestone, the diminutive ringmaster who is credited with creating modern F1 and making himself into a multiple billionaire in the process.

The key was control of the commercial aspects of the sport and, most particularly, the television rights.

Ecclestone, who used to race against Stirling Moss in the 1950s and later owned the Brabham team, regularly tops the British earnings list.

If Bernie is making billions, then just how much money is there washing about in this sport?

There have been some outrageous rumours about Bernie but it seems that he is a straight guy who revels in making deals and always keeps his word.

Even those who know nothing of motor sport heard about Bernie when he gave a million pounds to New Labour, sparking a row over the delay in banning tobacco advertising from racing cars. Ecclestone insists he asked for nothing in return, but the money was sent back just the same.

Nobody can deny that he has turned his sport into a global success story.

According to Collings: ``He is a generous and loyal friend to those he trusts and the enemy nobody wants to have.''

He adds: ``Many say he is an autocratic dictator but others talk of him more as a benevolent despot.

The truth is somewhere between the two.''

I think we can take it for granted that motor-racing is no democracy and few organisations can be operated in quite such a secretive and exclusive fashion.

Books like this lift the veil a little but each tiny glimpse of the politics and the money merely adds to the intrigue.

Fascinating as it is, I preferred a time when Stirling Moss went racing because he loved it, Black Country industrialist Alfred Owen bought BRM for patriotic reasons and there was still room for private entrants who understood that it was a sport and ought to be fun.

On the other hand, if you have a motor-racing nut in the family, this book could solve a Christmas present problem.

CAPTION(S):

TRUE HERO... Britain's Sir Stirling Moss
COPYRIGHT 2001 Birmingham Post & Mail Ltd
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Dec 9, 2001
Words:861
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