How to solve Formula 1's problems in an afternoon

Postcard from Hell

Postcard from Hell 


The other day I went to Hell. People have been telling me to go there for years. Well, if the truth be told I didn't actually go there, but I flew over it at 33,000ft in a British Airways Boeing 747 on my way back from Japan. Hell is in Norway and I really did go there many years ago when I was touring Scandinavia in a VW camper van. Hell was a rather nice little place but I did not meet anyone I knew, although I have to admit that I had not at that point started my career in motor racing.

The thing I remember most about Hell was that you could buy postcards of an old steam train pulling into town against a blood red sunset. I have always regretted not buying more of them. One day I will have to go back but I must admit that when the F1 season ends these days most F1 people like to go home. With 17 races a year it is really not nice not to go anywhere.

But next year, so they say, we will have 18 races to amuse us. This is crazy at a time when everyone is talking about cost-cutting.

"I went on a cost-cutting mission at the team a couple of years ago," said one technical man in Suzuka. "And we started looking in all the cupboards and the stores and we found that we had new parts coming out of our ears. The engineers had just kept ordering new ones each year without checking to see what was left over. We haven't ordered any brakes or driveshafts for a couple of years now."

It was a similar story when Paul Stoddart went to see what was on offer at the sale of Arrows assets.

"I could not believe the amount of stuff they had," said Stoddart. "There was tons of good equipment just sitting around which had been forgotten."

The most effective way of cost-cutting is probably for the big teams to take a look at the way in which the small teams operate and ask them for advice.

The big teams talk about saving money and what is in the best interests of the sport but what they mean by that is that they will only agree to what is in their best interests in the short term. They forget that the important thing is that the show keeps the punters amused. This year that happened but it would not have done had Max Mosley not marched in and bashed them all round the ears back in January and forced them to accept parc ferme regulations.

In a way you cannot blame F1 people for being ruthless. They have chased a dream, taken risks and lived on the edge. To get to F1 one must be highly motivated, willing to work, vaguely talented (although not in all cases), and slightly mad. But the strength that makes people successful in F1 may also be the force that sends the sport off the rails. Successful F1 people tend to think that they incredibly clever but we have seen a number of teams unraveling and falling apart in recent years because the people running them were not clever at all. We have heard learned judges say things about F1 people, which put everything into perspective.

"I knew nothing about the British legal system until we got into the contract problems a few years back," says Heinz-Harald Frentzen's manager Monty Field. "And then we learned what the letters QC meant. Those guys are incredibly expensive they have the most extraordinary brains. We learned that it is better for motor racing people to steer clear of Queen's Counsels."

Eddie Jordan had to learn the hard way but it was a lesson that he should have learned in the playground at school: you do not kick the big kid up the backside and expect to get away with it. Any number of people warned him not to take on Vodafone but Eddie would not listen and now he finds himself running across the fields of life with a pack of baying hounds on his tail. His only consolation is that he has millions in the bank.

The sport is getting old and it needs new blood to liven things up. The current leaders are too rich and too blinkered to develop the business any further. At the moment we are just drifting along towards self-destruction. What is needed now is not a new anti-competitive Concorde Agreement, which protects the existing teams but rather a more open approach, which keeps them competitive.

At the moment the top teams have a lot of money but they are not efficient organizations. The man with the biggest pocket book wins the game. The get-up-and-go spirit of competition that built the sport is missing. Those who want to rise to the top are blocked from doing so unless they can find a backer with half a billion dollars to invest.

The way forward is to provide cheap engines and allow teams to sell their old chassis.

The rumors in F1 circles say that Sauber Petronas is going racing next year with the complete Ferrari F2003-GA chassis and engine. There are some who say this is not allowed but while the Concorde Agreement, the commercial contract which governs the sport, apparently states that only a constructor may enter a car but there different definitions of what constitutes being a constructor. It is clear that teams are not allowed to sell the actual cars to one another but there does not appear to be any rule stopping the sale of the design.

Back in the mid 1990s it is widely believed that Ligier benefited from using a chassis which had been designed by Benetton. The cars were built in Magny-Cours and indeed were good enough to enable Olivier Panis to win the Monaco GP in 1996 but there was never a challenge over the car's legality.

There is no argument over Minardi using Arrows chassis next year as when the cars were bought by Paul Stoddart, Arrows was no longer a signatory to the Concorde Agreement. Having said that Stoddart took the precaution of buying the intellectual property rights as well as the cars themselves.

The only way that a Sauber-Ferrari deal can be stopped is if someone challenges the move and that will entail an ajudication at the International Chamber of Commerce in Lausanne, a time-consuming and expensive business.

If the deal goes ahead unchallenged it will open the way for other teams to buy chassis for 2005 and, if cheap engines are available, it would be possible for new F1 operations to spring up, thus ensuring that there is some new blood in the sport. There is plenty of scope for racing teams with $30m budgets but very little when the budgets start at $100m.

The big teams will not listen of course. In fact I expect they'll be telling me to go to Hell again...

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