The Art of War

It is been a while since The Mole read Sun Tzu's Ping Fa in the original Chinese but after dinner the other night he found himself in the library with a glass of his favorite Glenfiddich (the Rare Collection of 1937) and as he savoured its leathery smell and smooth silk toffee taste with a finish of bitter chocolate, he chanced upon a copy of Ping Fa on one of the shelves.

The book, also known as The Art of War, is the oldest and wisest treatise on the conduct of war. The essential premise is that one does not need to go to war to defeat one's enemy.

"One who is skilled in the principles of warfare subdues the enemy without doing battle, takes the enemy's walled city without attacking, and overthrows the enemy quickly, without protracted fighting," it argues (in rough translation for some of the characters can be interpreted slightly differently). "War is about deception. If you are strong appear to be weak. If you are ready appear to be unprepared. If the enemy is strong avoid him, but if he is weak attack him. If the enemy is united divide him."

The Mole paused for a moment. It is really just a question of establishing what it is that one is trying to achieve.

And this gave The Mole a thought: What with all the excitement in political circles in F1 in recent weeks there has been a tendency for those involved to lose sight of the bigger picture. Formula 1 folk have a tendency to hurtle at high speed into a forest, dodging trees with great flexibility and aplomb but failing to notice that the forest is getting thicker and thicker. Wander around the F1 woods for a while and you will probably stumble upon a wolf called Mosley, dressed as a grandmother and ready to eat anyone who is not on their toes.

The thought stayed with him and the following day The Mole decided to employ his troops to work out what Mosley is actually doing with his "cost-cutting measures". The skirmish we have just seen is clearly not the end of the story.

The message that came back was that no-one has really looked beyond the end of Granny's big hairy nose.

The Mole feels that there has to be a long term plan behind Mosley's manoeuvres and because everyone has been concentrating on telemetry and software, no-one it seems has looked at the bigger picture. In warfare - as in magic - when there is a flash or a bang one should always be looking somewhere else to see what is really happening.

The next day one of The Mole's researchers rushed into his office and pointed at the FIA press release from December 15.

"Look here," he cried and began to read from the communique: "If the number of car manufacturers involved in the FIA Formula 1 World Championship decreases significantly. In the first instance we believe we will have overcome this problem by increasing the life requirement of the engines - the greater the number of races between engine changes, the less onerous a requirement to supply more than one team. However, at a certain point, even with six-race engines, this could place an excessive burden on the remaining engine suppliers. We would then have to enter into discussions with those concerned in order to find a solution. In the most extreme case, however, a single-source engine supply might be the answer."

He paused.

"Could it be," he asked, "that Mosley is trying to drive out the manufacturers?"

Could it be that he is actually delighted to hear that Renault boss Patrick Faure say that Renault will pull out of the sport if forced to make "tractor engines" in 2006? Could it be that the FIA would like to see Mercedes-Benz go back to Stuttgart and stay there for ever?

The Mole immediately called in his research teams and set them to work to write a report on the relationship between automobile manufacturers and the sport and whether, historically, this has been more positive than it has been negative.

The following morning The Mole read the report when he arrived in the office.

The general thrust was that manufacturer involvement is not a good thing unless it is controlled. The report cited examples of the Mercedes and Auto Union involvement in Grand Prix racing before World War II and Alfa Romeo's domination in the immediate post-war era. In modern times, they argued, the same problems have emerged time and time again in sports car racing and in touring cars. Big manufacturers arrive in a series with huge budgets and push the small teams out of business. Once they have then achieved their goals the automobile makers leave and the championship implodes.

The only way in which manufacturers are really good for a sport, the report went on, is when they are tightly controlled as, for example, they are in NASCAR in the United States of America. There the cars are virtually identical under the different body shells but the manufacturers gain huge advantage from the series in which they do more or less what they are told to do by NASCAR. It may not be very technically advanced, the report said, but is any motor racing technology these days really of any value to an automobile manufacturer?

The authors of the report had spent part of the night talking to F1 engineers and quoted them as saying that the technology they are developing is not really relevant to the automobile industry these days. They are simply applying expensive aerospace technologies to the automobile. This has no relevance at all because car companies are run by accountants who insist that every widget is manufactured as cheaply as possible. The value of manufacturer involvement in F1 is in essence one of image and marketing and because the battle for the luxury car markets is getting more and more intense, so is the need to win in F1. This has escalated costs still further and independent teams are going out of business. The sport is teetering towards the implosion.

The report produced numbers that shocked even the cynical old Mole. Did you know, for example, that some of the F1 engine companies are now building more than 400 engines a year just to service two cars in each Grand Prix? The report suggested that one manufacturer built as many as 600 engines last year although the authors felt that the source was such that it might have been disinformation. But 400 was a definite figure and these engines were little more than mechanical Kleenex. You use them once and thow them away.

In the light of such investment it is easy to see why the manufacturers have begun to demand more and more control. Now they have started buying (or buying into) teams to ensure that they can protect their investment. The report concluded that the sport will self-destruct if this development cycle is not broken, just as other series have self-destructed in the past. The only way to stop that happening is to try to slow the development and bring down the investment needed.

One cannot, of course, stop car manufacturers spending money on development. They spend vast sums all the time on new components for road cars but these then have to be manufactured as cheaply as possible as the accountants will not let them make things from carbonfibre and metal matrix composites.

The FIA seems to be trying to adopt the role of the irritating accountant by aiming to restrict the use of the developments which appear. Componentry which lasts for six races inevitably slows development and so cuts costs because one is suddenly building only one-sixth of the number of parts. By allowing teams to sell componentry it is trying to create a market to allow manufacturers to recoup some of their development costs while also enabling the smaller teams to get the equipment without having to spend hugely to develop it. This closes up the gaps between the teams and means that a small well-run team might still one day he able to win a race.

The big issue, the report said, was whether or not the manufacturers will leave the sport as a result.

The conclusion was surprising. There really is no reason that any car company would leave the sport if the TV package remains as it now is. If one offers the chief executive of an automobile company the same TV coverage for a tenth of the current price without any obvious difference in the show, there is no reason why he will not go for it.

The FIA seems to think that the only people who stand to gain from the continual escalation of costs are the big independent teams which feel the need to constantly increase their turnover. The margins in F1 are very tight indeed and while some of the F1 teams have tried diversifying into building supercars or preparing other racing machinery they have all found that it takes away the focus from the job they do in F1.

The Mole put the report down on his desk and looked out across Pimlico.

"One who is skilled in the principles of warfare subdues the enemy without doing battle," he said.

If only to himself.

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