Power struggles

Start, Chinese GP 2004

Start, Chinese GP 2004 

 © The Cahier Archive

There may come a day when historians look back on Formula 1 and say that it all went wrong on October 22, 2004 when the FIA issued its regulations for 2005 and 2006. Article 2 of the FIA Statutes defines the objects of the FIA: the third is "promoting the development of motor sport, enacting, interpreting and enforcing common rules applicable to the organization and running of motor sport events".

There are some who believe that the rules issued on Friday do not do that; the FIA obviously feels that it is doing the right thing for the right reasons. Since the dawning of the automobile age, the federation has believed itself to be right. But history relates that there have been some bad mistakes. The sport of Grand Prix racing died out in 1908 after the first attempt at writing international rules. There were no Grands Prix between 1909 and 1912. When the rules were changed the sport revived but the first regulations after World War I - in 1921 - were another flop and there had to be a new formula for 1922. The 1920s became a confused waltz from one set of rules to another and for a while many of the big Grands Prix were for touring cars. It was not until there were no limits on weight or engine that the sport perked up in the early 1930s.

The first Formula 1 regulations came only after World War II when 4.5-litre normally-aspirated (or 1.5-litre supercharged) engines were dictated. Within a few years entries had dwindled to the point that the FIA World Championship had to be switched to Formula 2 cars. And so it goes on. And who can name the FIA presidents who made those fateful decisions? Who today has heard of Count Hadelin de Liedekerke-Beaufort? Race fans remember the drivers and the teams not the motorsport politicians.

So let us not dwell on the personalities involved (although in the short-term such things seem to be important). There may be some (quite a number in fact) who argue that Max Mosley is rather too autocratic for the sport. In the immediate aftermath of Ayrton Senna's death 10 years ago, that was exactly the kind of leadership which was needed to bring the sport through its crisis. But times have changed since then.

Ultimately Formula 1 is completely democratic. The answer as to who is right and who is wrong is not made by the FIA politicians who flutter through the corridors of power. The answer comes from you: the Formula 1 spectators around the world. You are the people who will choose. When you see the F1 cars of 2005 and 2006 you may like what you see. You will vote with your remote controls and either watch F1 or zap off on a Sunday afternoon to watch MotoGP, B movies from the 1950s; perhaps even the odd gardening programme or hymn-singing religious types in churches in the Home Counties. These activities are all in competition in the world of television. Perhaps some canny entrepreneur will become the Bernie Ecclestone of lawn mower racing. Perhaps the racing hovercraft will finally get the recognition it deserves.

Formula 1 will live and die on whether or not it produces a good show. Darts and snooker were once big business on British TV. Now they are not. Baseball has yet to fully recover from the disastrous players' strike in 1994. In a world of multiplying TV channels one cannot dictate to the viewer. The market will decide. In a few years from now Formula One.com will probably still be selling windscreen treatments, GrandPrix.com could be advertising a horse race.

The new Formula 1 engine regulations published on Friday are endlessly detailed, with four pages of restrictions on what can be done with F1 engines in the future. These include restricted dimensions, weight, centre of gravity, variable geometry, fuel systems, electrics, actuators and materials. In effect, some argue, the new rules mean that engine manufacturers can remain in Formula 1 only if they wish to build all-but identical powerplants.

But the rules are more than that. They are, in effect, a declaration of war on the automobile manufacturers in F1. Max Mosley and the FIA World Council want to take Formula 1 back to the 1970s when most of the teams used identical engines, the only advantage gained being in the preparation of the engines and in the aerodynamics. Now aerodyanmics are so restricted that such gains cannot be found.

There is one completely outrageous rule which appears to allow teams to use old V10 engines. Article 5.2 states that "For 2006 and 2007 only, the FIA reserves the right to allow any team to use an engine complying with the 2005 engine regulations, provided its maximum crankshaft rotational speed does not exceed a limit fixed from time to time by the FIA so as to ensure that such an engine will only be used by a team which does not have access to a competitive 2.4-litre V8 engine."

This complex sentence, when carefully taken apart, says that the federation reserves the right to control the revs of individual engines whenever it chooses to do so. And that teams which decide to go with V10s cannot have the fallback position of a V8 engine.

The challenge is there: Mosley is telling the manufacturers to accept his rules or go away.

Article 5.2 seems to be an attempt to dodge the arbitration case which is coming from some of the teams. The Concorde Agreement states that the rules will be for 3-litre V10 engines until the end of 2007. The FIA wants to turn its back on that commitment and is arguing that change is necessary on the grounds of safety.

Safety must always be an issue, but what does not make sense is that while the FIA is willing to stand up to the engine manufacturers it has at the same time backed away from conflict with the tyre manufacturers. The obvious way in which to reduce costs and safety in F1 is to have control tyres. Mosley himself argued this at Imola six months ago. It was a step which NASCAR took back in 1995 after a tyre war between Goodyear and Hoosier after things got out of control and two drivers were killed. The precedent is there and for NASCAR it has worked. So why is it that the FIA will not stand up to the tyremakers, and justify a much easier rule change on the grounds of safety? Why, when safety is supposed to be paramount, does the FIA back down under the threat of a challenge to the European Union over its meddling in commercial matters?

The manufacturers recognise the situation in which they find themselves and have accepted that they must stand fast and accept whatever is thrown at them. They will survive until the end of the Concorde Agreement at the end of 2007. After that Grand Prix racing - and one must use that term rather Formula 1 - is open house. The FIA will come up with new regulations and if the manufacturers do not agree, presumably there will be a rival series put forward by the GPWC. Perhaps there will be a rival bid from GP2's notional cousin GP1.

When that happens the future of the sport will be a question of which championship Ferrari is tempted to join.

The FIA will end up supporting whichever championship it chooses to support but it cannot afford to back the wrong one.

In the meantime there are three years to kill. Or perhaps it would be better to say that there are three years in which the sport runs the risk of dying on its feet, by alienating all those with a passion for it.

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