On the grounds of safety

The Mole is by nature a cynical fellow, believing that one can never treat things in Formula 1 at face value, particularly when you are dealing with such clever people as Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley. Thus The Mole thought it odd that the FIA chose last week to (very quietly) issue a report on safety in Grand Prix racing over the last 38 years. This was very interesting and creditable.

But why should it be published now?

Could it be because the federation is about to embark on more change "on the grounds of safety"? There are some in Formula 1 who will tell you that there is a giant conspiracy going on to drive the car manufacturers out of Formula 1 so that there will not be a rival World Championship in 2008.

The fact that FIA President Max Mosley is about to make one of his infrequent visits to a Grand Prix (and there always seems to be a reason for such events) made The Mole even more curious.

One needs also to put all of this into the perspective of the modern political situation: the Concorde Agreement which has ruled the sport so successfully for so long is under threat with the car manufacturers discussing starting their own championship in 2008 in response to what is seen as the greed of those who control the commercial rights of Formula 1.

The Mole found the whole recent interlude over engines really very odd. It achieved nothing much beyond annoying everyone; proving that the FIA is powerful, making sure that the sport is seen to be cutting costs and introducing a very dubious system of penalties which pushed the sport further towards entertainment.

Using "the grounds of safety" as a weapon is an old trick which the FIA officials have long been using in order to get things done. Sometimes the changes have been justifiable but on other occasions there have been other agendas. The glorious thing about using safety is that it is very hard for anyone to argue against it. Team bosses know that it is an untenable position for them to take and so when push comes to shove it always works.

In order to try to establish what is going on The Mole sent the problem to his Think Tank to try to unravel whether or not devious things are happening. The best brains in Christendom (and a few pagan ones) were gathered for a weekend of brain-storming in a discreet but expensive country hotel (with a good restaurant) "somewhere in England".

The conclusion reached by teatime on Sunday was that it makes no sense at all for Max Mosley to be trying to drive the manufacturers out of F1 to help his friend Bernie Ecclestone.

The conclusion reached was that Mosley wants to use the success of safety in Formula 1 to launch the work of the FIA Foundation to a larger audience and intends to use the F1 press at Imola to fulfill this task. Imola is a good place to talk about safety as eight years ago Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger died there. It is significant also in that eight years was the gap between the deaths at Imola and the testing accident at Paul Ricard in May 1986 which killed Elio de Angelis, the last previous fatality in an F1 car. In other words, we are now entering the most successful period in the history of F1 safety and each new week without a death will add to that impressive record.

The FIA Foundation is, in a twisted way, the child of Formula 1. If only because of the money. It has been in existence for about eight months and was established with a payment of around $360m made by SLEC for the commercial rights for Formula 1 racing for the next 100 years. Leo Kirch, the chief shareholder in SLEC, may now feel (given his insolvency) that it was not a wise investment. But what is done is done and the money is now locked away in a trust fund with all the necessary trustees and so on. The interest that is gained will be used to make cars safer, more environmentally-friendly and so on. While it was a good idea for the federation to give itself a purpose for the years ahead it was also a significant moment as it cut the federation's dependency on money generated by Formula 1.

The FIA Foundation became an independent force, structured in the proper way. The FIA itself can survive on licence fees, fines and memberships as it always has.

Since that deal the aims of Mosley and Ecclestone have diverged somewhat. Mosley believes there are bigger fish to fry before he gives up his FIA role. Ecclestone has fried his fish and is sitting on top of a pile of money, wondering where he goes from here. He might have predicted the collapse of Kirch but it is hard to imagine that he foresaw the moves by the motor manufacturers (particularly Ferrari) to start their own World Championship. Mosley knows that while the foundation now has the funding to do as it pleases, it still needs a good relationship with the car manufacturers because a million dollars is not worth what it used to be and he may still need the help of the big car companies to continue his work on road safety and the environment.

The next aim is for the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) to go global and for further steps to be taken in Formula Zero, the strategy for reducing the number of fatalities and injuries on the roads. There is still a great deal of research that the FIA would like to do to develop intelligent cars, to promote better pedestrian safety, increase the use of seat belts for children and ultimately to convince car companies to design safer cars.

All this left The Mole's team rather bleary-eyed after lunch on Sunday (because racing folk tend to get rather bored when safety and the environment are discussed) but they did at least feel that Mosley will only intervene in F1 in the future if it becomes a horrible mess.

Or at least that is what should happen.

Click here to read previous Mole columns: The Mole Archive

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