SEPTEMBER 7, 2002
There is much talk in Formula 1 circles at the moment about the idea that F1 cars should be handicapped in the future. People are up in arms. Formula 1 is back in the newspapers. People are talking about the sport again. Will it happen?
The Mole does not think so.
The story, broken in The Times newspaper in London, suggests that cars will have weight added if they are too successful. The step is supposed to be necessary because of the damage being done to the sport by Ferrari.
There is no doubt that the current Ferrari domination in Formula 1 is not very healthy. But it is also the end of the world. The season is ending and so for the next few months the sport will have a lower profile, at least terms of the regular cover that occurs when the races are taking place. The domination and things like Michael Schumacher's ham-fisted attempt to stage a finish at Indianapolis will soon be forgotten and people will then begin to focus on what is going to happen next year. If there is to be a real crisis in Formula 1 it will come after the first couple of races next year if there are signs that Ferrari is still dominant.
So what is the purpose of all the current rumours?
The sport, at least in the modern era, has gone through several stages during which one team or another has created a better package than its rivals. That happened in the early 1980s with the McLaren-TAGs and then with the Williams-Hondas. This was followed by a period in which McLaren-Hondas were unbeatable and then Williams-Renault became the dominant force in the early 1990s. In recent years we have (finally) seen a Ferrari revival. It was necessary and Ferrari bosses pulled out all the stops to make sure it would happen. It has happened and Ferrari's business has improved as a result. But the law of diminishing returns means that a Ferrari victory is now not worth what once it was and people are becoming bored with Maranello's success.
The thing that makes this era different to others that have gone before is that in all the other cases the teams involved agreed that their drivers would be allowed to fight one another. Sometimes this had a very dramatic effect, notably when Williams drivers Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet took points from one another to such an extent in 1986 that Alain Prost was able to sneak through to win the World title.
It was, the team believed, a necessary sacrifice to ensure that the sport was not damaged.
Ferrari has not shown the same respect for the sport. Under the current management it has been a question of winning at any cost. That was important after 20 years of losing but now the Ferrari men need to assess whether it is really in anyone's interest for it go on. The total concentration on Michael Schumacher now needs to stop for the good of the sport and for the good of Ferrari.
But the current bosses in Italy do not want that to happen. They want to win everything and break all the records. They want to sell cars. This is fine except that the sport is being hurt. There is clear evidence that people are turning off their televisions.
What is really required is an agreement from Ferrari that the team will allow its two drivers to compete against one another without any restrictions and without team orders. There are some who will tell you that this is a waste of time because Rubens Barrichello is not fast enough but The Mole is willing to give the Brazilian the benefit of the doubt, at least for the moment.
Ferrari's domination is not something for which the team should be blamed. It is just the way in which it is being handled. There comes a point at which it is necessary for Ferrari to face up to its responsibilities, if only because the future of the company is so closely linked to Formula 1. The Mole does not know what the future of Ferrari would be without F1 nor what Formula 1 would be like without Ferrari but somewhere along the way there now needs to be a compromise.
On first analysis the idea of introducing weight penalties is not the way to achieve that but let us not underestimate Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone. There is no doubt that the handicapping ideas comes from them. The Mole's spies in the media world indicate that The Times is the preferred place for the FIA to do its leaking, although in recent times The Financial Times has also been getting its fair share of nice little scoops from the federation. At the same time, the story also popped out in Germany in Bild am Sonntag (a day earlier than The Times story) and this is a publication which is well-connected with the new owners of SLEC, the German banks. In other words Mosley and Ecclestone are again working together to force change. This is for the good of the sport.
Mosley and Ecclestone may have their critics but their primary motivation is safeguarding the sport. They are both old-fashioned racers and the idea that they would believe in handicapping as the answer to F1's problems is an absurd one.
Handicapping is the ultimate in race-fixing and at a time when the general public is feeling that it is being cheated by the antics of Ferrari, the idea is just stupid and The Mole does not believe that Mosley and Ecclestone are stupid men. And thus there is an agenda which is not immediately obvious. There are things that can be done to improve the sport without resorting to handicapping but as the teams cannot agree on anything it is impossible for changes to be made without pressure being applied and The Mole believes that this is what we are now seeing. The threat of handicapping is one which will be resisted by the top teams but the less serious players in the midfield will probably fall into line. The vote would be a close one and the chess game involved in the vote-winning process will be a fascinating one.
But let us not be sidetracked from what is really important at the moment. The really big issue is to find a settlement to avert the sport splitting into two rival championships. That needs to be the priority for the men in power and The Mole thinks that the handicapping issue is a smokescreen. When dealing with magicians one should always watch the hands even when there are other distractions going on elsewhere.
The Ferrari domination will take care of itself as rival teams build better machines with which to take the fight to Ferrari.
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