It has been the right-on thing to say, throughout the British Grand Prix weekend, that we’re here for the racing and that’s the important thing; the politics is an unhappy distraction. I could hardly disagree more: as ever, the dry-weather racing at Silverstone was processional and dull, while the politics has been captivating, and remains a key part of the appeal of the sport to long-term afficionados.
Now, I have no inside knowledge or deep insight, but I have been following websites and blogs by a few people who do, particularly James Allen and Joe Saward (see links right), who between them have put the BBC’s utterly inane F1 website to shame. Most of what follows is a summation of their analyses, though I claim credit for any inaccuracies, wild theories and off-beam interpretation.
This weekend seemed to yield little publicly in terms of developments, other than the teams’ declaration on Thursday night of their intention to form a new series, and the FIA’s response of legal action; neither was especially surprising by that point. Negotiations were clearly ongoing throughout the weekend, and probably will be for some time to come. This is at least promising – in recent weeks, the two sides seem to have been corresponding via published, or leaked, letters, with an apparent eye on leaving a paper trail for subsequent disputes rather than on sorting anything out. Now that a crisis has been well and truly precipitated, they can get on with attempting to find a solution.
So, while we have a bit of breathing space, let’s take a step back: why is this happening, and why now? The estimable Mr Saward’s clear view is that the teams’ ultimate goal is to get rid of Mosley, and that references to “governance” really mean “Max”. Why now? Well, perhaps the other teams are more rattled by the recent beatings dealt out to McLaren than they initially thought to be: after all, if one team can be singled out for unfair treatment, any other team can be (and I doubt anyone in the sport seriously believes that the grossly harsh punishment inflicted on McLaren in 2007 wasn’t at least in part down to Mosley’s deep personal distaste for Ron Dennis). Perhaps after last year’s sex scandal, Max could have been expected to be cowed; but his ambitious budget cap plans and other regulation changes might just have made some teams think he has got too big for his boots.
There is a deeper struggle at work here, though. Formula 1 is not a poor sport: OK, times are tough in the short term, but by most people’s standards there is still plenty of money sloshing about, and there is clearly enough sponsorship for several new teams to have put together credible entry bids. With this in mind, a 40 million Euro (or whatever currency it was – I forget) budget cap seems very low, perhaps to the point of being tin-pot or Mickey Mouse – F1 types who glance across to football will see, after all, that it equates to about half a Cristiano Ronaldo. This might not be such a problem if the teams actually saw much of that money… but another way of looking at the need to reduce costs is that it shows how difficult it is to run an F1 team as a profitable business, and by extension, how little prize money they get.
Bernie’s deal to sell F1’s commercial rights in the early 2000s remains significant: CVC borrowed a lot of money to pay for the deal, and are taking a lot of money out of the sport to finance the loan. There was talk of a breakaway championship under the auspices of the Grand Prix Manufacturers Association in the years after this, which died a death when Berni splintered Ferrari off from the other group and got them to sign up to F1. By comparison, this present storm under FOTA has taken a lot less time to brew up – FOTA has existed for less than a year.
So it’s not totally clear what will satisfy FOTA: governance changes to remove an over-mighty Max; or a realignment of the commercial structure of F1. Or both. Or neither.
Given where we are, let’s look at some possible scenarios. One is that FOTA unity splinters: Mosley has talked up the differences of opinion in the FOTA camp, and the perspectives of Brawn and McLaren, who exist primarily or principally to race in F1, are different from those of global motor manufacturers like Toyota or Fiat (Ferrari). Until Thursday, it looked posisble that Brawn and McLaren could be enticed back into the F1 fold – but they have stuck very firmly indeed with FOTA.
So, let’s look at another scenario: FOTA unity remains, but Ferrari and the Red Bull teams lose the legal battle, and are obliged to race in F1 next year. That would probably be curtains for the breakaway series, which would not be so credible without Ferrari. And the reason Williams and Force India left FOTA is that they already had contracts in place to race in F1: Mosley claims Ferrari signed just such a contract when they split from the GPMA back in 2005 – if he is right, Ferrari will either be obliged to race in F1 or compensate the FIA for their absence.
In this scenario, Mosley had left enough spaces on the grid for Brawn, McLaren, the Red Bull teams and Ferrari; the three new teams announced last week, plus Williams and Force India, would have left insufficient spaces on the grid IF the FIA also granted entries to two or three credible bidders who had surprisingly failed to make the cut in the provisional entry list – particularly Lola and ProDrive. So, it seemed, the provisional entry list had been carefully balanced to squeeze out some of the existing manufacturers if they were too slow in coming to heel.
But this scenario now looks unlikely, as Prodrive and Lola, plus N Technology, seem to be sticking with the FOTA teams and their supposed new series – they will, after all, be very reliant on manufacturer support to get up and running. So that strategy by Mosley seems not to be a good prospect: without th FOTA teams, he will be unable to fill the F1 grid next year, still less fill it with credible teams. At the moment, he only has Williams, Force India and the three new entrants.
Nightmare scenario: F1 continues with the above teams plus some other small newcomers, as a pale parody of itself, while the new series presses ahead with the manufacturers, Prodrive et al, and picks up F1’s still-credible cast-off venues like Montreal, Silverstone, Adelaide, Buenos Aires and so on. If this happens, or looks likely to happen, either the split will be protracted or the FIA will co-opt the new series as the official Formula One. What would happen to the teams in the “old” F1 would be hard to say, as there would be two series’ worth of teams vying for space on one grid. But if this even begins to look likely, surely either the FIA will ditch Max or Max will give in.
The most likely scenario is that the budget cap plan is dropped in favour of some other “resource control” regime and F1 continues as normal, but with the three “unexpected” new teams instead of Lola and Prodrive, who will have been left out in the cold by the shenanigans. Trouble is, to achieve this, the teams will have to climb down. A long way. Will they be able to do it?
Perhaps ultimately the Boards of the major motor manufacturers will lose patience with their motorsport people and just tell them to get on with it, even if they have to make an embarrassing U-turn. But here’s something I don’t understand: reports a few weeks ago suggested Toyota might use this hoo-ha as an excus to pull out of F1, while it’s known that Renault have lost their title sponsor and speculated that they may just sell the team to Flav when that deal runs out. Yet Renault and Toyota appear to be the hard-liners within FOTA, and John Howett from Toyota stated today that Toyota is committed to F1 until 2012. How all these things square up I have no idea.
The only thing I’d be seriously worried about if there is a new series is the danger of Sky getting the broadcast rights, which means I’d be unable to watch it. Which begs the biggest question of all: in such a scenario, will Martin Brundle stick with F1 or defect to the new series? Now that really does get me worried.