Carrots, broths, cooks and hot kitchens

The FIA President in classic pose

The FIA President in classic pose 

 © The Cahier Archive

Some of the stories you will read today about Formula 1 cost-cutting will dangle the carrot of new F1 teams: from Prodrive; from Penske and from anyone who might one day be able to afford $100m. But attractive as this may sound, such projects are not realistic. The costs of Formula 1 are not going to suddenly reduce. The best that the sport can hope for is a few new midfield teams without sufficient funding to challenge the big players. Perhaps that would increase F1's footprint around the world and help build the sport from a demographic point of view but the reality is that this will probably not happen.

Japanese interest in F1 is still flagging despite the best efforts of Honda and Toyota. Renault just won the World Championship but coverage of F1 in France has never been as small, at least not in the modern era. The thing that makes the difference; that sparks the interest, are the people. Spain loves Formula 1 at the moment because of Fernando Alonso. Finland gets excited about Kimi Raikkonen and Germans are still delighted to have a star of Michael Schumacher's proportions. British interest remains at the kind of level one would expect with two men who are constantly on the verge. If a British driver started winning, the interest would go through the roof, as it did when Nigel Mansell was around. The key point in this is that the thing that makes the difference is character and winning. Without it the spotlight merely passes by from time to time.

So let us not be side-tracked by dreams of exciting new teams because there are always going to be big spenders and also-rans. Once Ferrari was the big spender but now the Italian team cannot keep up. They enjoyed the success when they were in the dominant position and if they wish to win again they must invest again. As the old saying goes, if you cannot take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. The fact is that at the moment there are more than enough cooks trying to squeeze into the F1 kitchen.

It is more than ironic that on the very same day as the FIA launched its new plans for cost-cutting in 2008, Super Aguri F1 confirmed that it has pulled off a miracle and managed to get all 10 of the other F1 teams to agree to let it join the party. F1 is growing.

There is a second point that should be noted. If the FIA is really keen on stimulating competition from new teams why does it leave the $48m deposit in place? This was the hurdle that caused the problems for Super Aguri. $48m is a massive amount of money to leave sitting in a bank account for a year. If the federation wants more teams it should drop the deposit. The quality of the teams will not improve but it will make it easier to fill the back end of the grid.

But does F1 really want or need to pad itself out with also-rans?

It was not so long ago that there were too many F1 teams and the FIA moved to get rid of them with very tough pre-qualifying rules which wiped out those who did not deliver. The current 10 teams do not want any more competition and Formula One Management has always baulked at paying out to more than 10 teams. Theoretically, FOM might treat everyone fairly and pay for 12 teams but Hell might also freeze over before that happens. And in purely practical terms some of the racing circuits have trouble fitting in 10 teams and would struggle with 12 or more. The current balance is about right and new players can come in if they have the money as we have seen in the last year.

It is a fact that five of the 10 teams have changed ownership in the last 12 months. This is a clear indication that there are buyers out there. It does not matter if these buyers build road cars or bake beans so long as they are willing to pay and the sport is so successful a marketing vehicle that big companies consider it a worthy investment. Vodafone has just , in effect, committed around $500m to the sport. Intel is making another huge investment. Some sponsors come and some go, but the sport as a whole is healthier now than it has been for a long time.

Cost-cutting could one day be important if the current trends continue, but then we were saying that 15 years ago and the sport is still growing.

The answer to why there is conflict appears to me to be more about the control of the Formula 1 "kitchen". It belongs, in theory at least, to the FIA although most of it is rented to Formula One Management. Trying to regulate the heat in the kitchen when you are not doing the cooking is a process which is bound to bring the FIA into conflict with the people who are spending the money to make the broth.

This does not mean that the FIA should abandon the kitchen, nor that the federation should be thrown out. There is a role to be played but it is how that role is played that is important. As we have seen in recent months the automobile manufacturers do not really want to run their own championship. They build cars. What they want is a sport that they feel is fair and treats everyone in the same way and that is not too much to expect. The FIA exists to fulfil that role and, while it is fair to say that the referee gets blamed for every decision, the federation can sometimes be accused of not playing the statesman role as well as it could. In part this is down to the personalities involved. That will change but not for a few years and so the best thing for the sport is for those involved to learn to live together, work together and not try to force one another to do things that they do not wish to do.

Formula 1 is a world of enterprise and energy. If the manufacturers do ever decide to decamp and do something else there will always be someone else to take the teams forward, perhaps at more sustainable levels. The greatest expense in F1 is research and development. Over time new technology spreads around and drops in value. Companies spring up to market new ideas. This is the spirit on which the British motorsport industry was built by men like Colin Chapman, Eric Broadley, Keith Duckworth, Robin Herd, Max Mosley and many others. Many failed but the foundations of F1 remain in engineering and innovation and that is something that must never be forgotten. There has to be the correct balance between engineering and show business.

The FIA should also look at other areas where improvement is needed. Formula 1 is by nature a hugely spectacular sport and one of the problems in recent years has been that the F1 coverage on TV has failed to keep pace with available technology. Investment is needed there. Investment is needed in centrally-marketing the sport. F1 needs to develop a more positive approach to the Internet. F1 needs to brush up its image in the corporate world by being more transparent and less secretive. Once these goals have been achieved, the sport can move into a more mainstream position in the world of finance, and the growth can continue.

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