MAY 30, 2012
Analysis: What's Bernie's game?
BY TONY DODGINS
Interestingly, Bernie Ecclestone has blamed the Barcelona Williams pit fire on KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems), despite the Williams team dismissing that idea in Monaco. Bernie, therefore, may well have an agenda...
Speaking in Monaco, Williams chief operating engineer Mark Gillan confirmed that the blaze happened during the fuel draining process and that there was no KERS issue. While the team cannot be sure about the exact cause of the blaze, static electricity was suspected.
Ecclestone, however, said: "I think the fire was a lot to do with that kinetic energy thing which sparked. It should never have been introduced. It's an expensive secret because nobody knows anything about it. The public don't know and don't care."
Although F1's politics is not quite so publicly played out following the Max Mosley era, the sport is going through an intensely political phase as its owners try to get the teams on board until 2020 with a new Concorde Agreement, at the same time as preparing to possibly float 30% of the sport with an IPO on the Asian market.
Amidst all of this is the question of the future role of the FIA and how to keep costs in check to make F1 a viable proposition for the lesser funded mid and lower ranking teams. Team principals met with Ecclestone and FIA president Jean Todt following Monaco, to discuss the big picture.
At the heart of the costs discussion are fears that the new 'green' six cylinder turbo engines due for 2014 and already delayed a year, complete with vastly more powerful/influential KERS systems, will mean a significant hike in drive train costs. As well as, potentially, a big performance differentiator for an F1 that has just entered a period of previously unknown competitiveness, whether or not that is being artificially achieved.
In Monaco, Sauber's Monisha Kaltenborn said: "We have to ensure that we don't go back to a point where engines were so much more expensive. We fully appreciate that an engine manufacturer wants to showcase his technology but the engines have to be affordable."
Ferrari, initially, was very much against the switch to low capacity turbos, a view easy to understand from a low volume producer of expensive high performance sportscars, but Mercedes and Renault are very much committed to the new direction.
"It would be a mistake to delay the engine again," Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn said in Monaco. "We're committed to a new engine programme, it's progressing, we've been able to justify the budgets to our board and I think it sends a very bad message for F1 to keep changing its direction on things that are so fundamental and which need so much investment.
"If we're going to get new manufacturers into F1, which I think is a good thing, then why will they come in to build an antique V8 engine? They won't. They will only come in with this new engine, so we want to attract manufacturers back into F1 and this new engine is very important in doing that."
Renault's Jean-Francois Caubet added: "To have an F1 with the old engine in 2014 will close the door to a lot of sponsors and new technologies. I think it would be impossible to change our minds. As for the cost, I think today you must add the cost of the engine and KERS. I think we will probably know in September the cost of the new engine. I don't think it will be a drama."
Well, there's one obvious problem right there if you're not a team awash with cash. How do you commit to something when you don't know what it's going to cost you?
Brawn, of course, speaking for Mercedes, which does not as yet have the offer of a commercial deal it is happy with. A point of conjecture is why, exactly, those teams who have been offered strong deals (reputedly Ferrari and independents Red Bull and McLaren) would appreciate a whole stampede of manufacturers all intent on showing how great their engine was. It's a closed shop and we want it to stay that way, they might quietly think.
Jean Todt, meanwhile, was determined to push through the switch to the 'green' low capacity turbos, to be operated electrically in the pit lane, for political reasons. He was prepared to compromise on the introduction date but not the concept itself.
Right now, however, the FIA is unhappy with its share of the F1 commercial pie and the future is anything but clear. It does appear to have an ace up its sleeve in the form of a right of veto over a change of ownership - the so-called Don King clause - if it feels that such a thing is not in the sport's best interests.
It's not impossible to envisage a situation where Ecclestone/CVC get to go ahead with their flotation and Bernie cuts the FIA a better deal and they become official referees of F1's cost management measures.
"Oh, and Jean, get rid of those silly little engines while you're at it..."