GLOBETROTTER

Battles for the soul of F1

A shocking moment has arrived. I find myself in agreement with Flavio Briatore, a man who has always typified, at least in my mind, all the things that Formula 1 needed to avoid. He was no sportsman but rather a wheeler-dealer who could see ways to make good money. I guess that it was inevitable that such people would arrive in a sport awash with cash but Briatore happened to be the first and I disliked everything he stood for as a result.

To give him his due, Briatore knows how to put together a winning team and he has some good ideas about marketing and self-promotion. I do not have a problem that he has figured out that there are people stupid enough to buy things at vastly inflated prices because they are branded "Billionaire", but I do have a problem if his ideas mess with the fundamentals of the sport.

The reason I agree with Briatore is that he believes that F1 needs a better show. There is not much wrong with what we have, if you are there at the race tracks and you understand what is going on. All the races are thrilling. But when it comes to the TV coverage and the information with which commentators have to work, the sport is falling down. Ross Brawn, out of F1 for a year, said that himself the other day.

There was a time when there were great camera angles, loads of in-car footage, and new and innovative computer tools to wow the public. That was in the days of the failed pay-per-view concept. Since that stopped we have been forced to watch coverage that would be good one weekend and awful the next. Some companies did it right, others did not. The way to solve that problem was to centralise the TV coverage, get good people doing it and then provide them with the right equipment. That process is now moving along but new technology requires investment and it seems that the rights-holders do not want to invest.

I absolutely disagree with Briatore that F1 should adopt the GP2 format, with two races and the top eight grid finishers in the first race being reversed on the grid for the second race. Making changes to make the sport more TV friendly is a short term solution with long term repercussions. It would result in journeymen winning Grands Prix, which would destroy the sanctity of winning. The purity of the sport. Being a Formula 1 race winner means something and to open that exclusive club to people who do not deserve to be in it is a very bad idea. F1 is all about being the best of the best. There are always the occasional lucky winners and drivers who win because they are in the best car but that is part of the game. Reversing grids is not because the man who finishes eighth, who may have qualified 10th, would then start from pole and perhaps be able to stay ahead in the second race because overtaking is so difficult in the modern cars. In GP2 this has meant that there have been a number of undeserving winners, men who have failed to break into F1 and in several cases disappeared without trace. The F1 team owners know who the fast men are and ignore the false results, but these remain forever in the record books, cheapening them.

This is just one of the suggestions at the moment that need to be treated with care. FIA President Max Mosley continues to push for the introduction of rules that will allow for customer cars, arguing that there is not enough money around to support 12 constructor teams. His argument is that when one looks at F1 as would a financial controller in a car company it makes no sense that there is such parallel development going on. It is wasteful but that direct competition is the very foundation on which F1 is built. The sport has always been a fight for the survival of the fittest and those who did not keep up fell by the wayside. Success was based on innovation and it is the reason that the motorsport industry - and the mentality - is so strong. Mosley argues that changing the rules to allow constructors to supply two teams each which give them a better return on their investment as they will get twice as many cars for not much more than they are now paying for two. With six manufacturers there could be 12 teams and 24 cars. On the surface the argument sounds sensible but the reality is that with on-track testing now increasingly limited, the means to progress is restricted and thus the team with the highest number of cars will learn the most and thus be able to make the fastest progress. This is the concept that has led to the current trend in NASCAR in the United States where the smaller teams have been left behind by the big combines and are now either going out of business or being forced to merge with others to create new combines. The sport is throwing away its strength in depth.

In F1 terms the same thing is bound to happen because of the advantage in testing, the manufacturers would have to have two teams if they want to remain at the front. And the switch from two two-car to one four-car team would be subtle but rapid. This would push out all the smaller non-manufacturer teams, unless they can find a means to expand to four cars themselves.

The downside of the idea is that with four-car teams the sport will become even more reliant on those involved and thus more vulnerable if they depart. If two manufacturers decide one day to shut down their F1 operations - and one cannot rule this out, even if there are contracts involved - the grid would be cut by a third.

With fewer voices involved there might be less political trouble in F1 but it would also make the sport more dependent on the manufacturers and they would no doubt use this new power to negotiate a better financial deal for themselves in the longer term, putting the squeeze on the commercial rights holder.

In short, Mosley's plan is effectively handing power in F1 to the manufacturers.

At the same time a number of people are campaigning for all 12 teams to receive prize and travel money from Formula One Management. The current system, they argue, is tough on newcomers, who have to overcome disproportionately high costs compared to the top 10 teams as they have yet to earn the right to the benefits. The disadvantage of this is that the teams turn over ownership fairly quickly as each new owner tries and then fails to break into the big time. The advantage is that there are no teams cruising along at the rear of the field, existing simply to collect the money that they can gather. The danger of creating stronger tail-end teams is that it will make it even more difficult for new teams to find a way into the sport as the top 12 teams (or six teams if the customer car concept goes ahead) will be stronger because of the money involved.

All three arguments being put forward are portrayed as being good for the finances of F1 but the reality is that all have hidden dangers. By far the best way for the sport to move forward is to provide better quality TV coverage, giving a better idea of what F1 is all about and how exciting it can be.

The more people watch, the more money will come.

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