Class conscious

Our society makes a fetish out of modernity, so it is taboo to talk in terms of class. Almost everyone I interview for this column denies its importance, whether it be an Oxfam spokesperson attesting to the broad appeal of diced organic mangoes from the developing world, or the crisp manufacturer claiming ignorance of the social profile of those who buy his jalapeno pepper crisps cooked with their jackets on. But, in my experience, almost everything comes down to class except (a) sexual perversion and (b) Formula One racing. This week, I will look at Formula One. (Thank you, incidentally, for staying with me after that disappointing announcement).

Once, it was very clear. Grammar-school-educated garagistes made the cars, and toffs drove them until they killed themselves. Today, Formula One is classless partly because, although the sport is essentially British, so many competitors come from places that are themselves presumably without a class dynamic. Mika Hakkinen, for example, is from Finland, where social nuance comes second to the national taste for drinking vodka and driving very fast through forests - two habits that are possibly not unrelated.

At the top of F1, however, are two men who are British class archetypes: Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley. Mosley is a patrician barrister, and one of those Mosleys. Ecclestone, by contrast, is a trawlerman's son who wears tinted glasses, white shirts and stonewashed jeans. In fact, given the way he dresses, it is a very good job that he's a billionaire and a genius. These two socially divergent characters seem to symbolise the incredible breadth of Formula One's appeal.

An Oxford history don called Martin Pitt, who died recently, was an enthusiast, as is the former editor of Marxism Today, Martin Jacques, and Brian Sewell. There again, F1 is very big down my local. The key is that F1 is about more than cars and engines. It is to do with helicopters shimmering in the heat haze, the beautiful line of a cornering car, the slowness of sound and the suspicion that there is more to the sport than meets the eye. It has, in fact, an abstract, poetical quality that transcends mere consumerism. But there again, I do speak as a fan.

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie