SEPTEMBER 26, 2005
An important day in Munich
The Formula 1 team principals returned from Brazil on Sunday night and in the days ahead will be preparing for an important meeting which will take place in Munich on Wednesday. This gathering will decide whether or not the automobile manufacturers are going to do something to actively promote a rival series to the FIA Formula 1 World Championship or whether they will shilly-shally around further and then fold up and accept whatever terms Bernie Ecclestone offers them when the house of cards collapses.
It is time to put up or to shut up.
FIA President Max Mosley - who is firmly in the Ecclestone camp on these matters - has made it known in the course of his ongoing FIA "election tour" that he does not believe the manufacturers are serious in their plans. Mosley is betting the house on this as the FIA's credibility is going to suffer if it has to back down and switch its sanction to the new series. Mosley's interventions in recent months have not necessarily helped matters as they have tended to drive the wavering teams back into the arms of the manufacturers.
The problem is that the manufacturers cannot seem to get themselves organised behind a credible leader who can be allowed to get on with the game, a process which is aimed to result in a compromise with everyone getting back together with half-sensible rules and a better distribution of money.
The meeting in Munich on Wednesday will almost certainly seal the fate of the manufacturers' series one way or another. If the result is more wishy-washy talk and no real action beyond new working groups and committees we would expect to see one or two of the alliance members defecting to the FIA-FOM-Ferrari camp. If that happens the manufacturers will crumble. Toyota and Williams are often cited as being the two teams which are most likely to break ranks and do their own deals with FOM for an extension of the Concorde Agreement. Obviously these teams are being offered financial incentives and unless there is some concerted action by the manufacturers there is no logic in them waiting around to see what happens. With discussions believed to be up in the nine-figure number bracket, it is not a surprise that the teams are considering taking the money and running. Those teams that jump first stand to gain huge financial reward while those who are left on the losing side, will have to take whatever terms are on offer.
There is little doubt that at the moment the manufacturers cannot afford to lose another high profile team because the FIA-FOM-Ferrari series will win the game if it has a credible package. If the manufacturers do get their act together and the rebel teams stay united, there will nothing left for Ferrari, Red Bull and Jordan to do except joining the manufacturer series. Ferrari cannot expect to be offered bonuses if it is on the losing side. If the FIA-FOM-Ferrari alliance crumbles, FOM will lose a great deal (perhaps everything) and the FIA will take a serious hit in terms of its prestige as a sporting authority. The FIA could extricate itself from the FOM deal and sanction the new series but there would probably need to be a new name and a restructuring similar to that which resulted in the establishment of the Premier League soccer series in Britain.
If the manufacturers decide to go ahead and start work on a new series, with a credible leader, they will need to work quickly to decide on the number of franchises that will exist and how much investment is needed. Finding the money to get things going is unlikely to be a problem if agreement can be found at board level in the various companies because the financial projections of a new series are much more optimistic than those from a revamped version of the Concorde Agreement, if only because the Formula One group will not be taking money (or as much as much money) out of the sport. The key question is actually not money but rather whether or not the manufacturers reckon that they can put together a series which looks strong enough to force a settlement between those involved or, in a worst case scenario, run successfully on its own.
FOM has all the arrangements in place for its own races but there are plenty of venues which would like an F1 level event but cannot have one. These include Adelaide, Dubai, Zandvoort, Estoril, Buenos Aires and both venues in Japan, which are owned by the car manufacturers. There would be serious pressure also on the two German races which rely to a large extent on the German car makers. Monaco is important but if the major F1 venues joined a manufacturers series, Monaco would be stupid not to go along with them.
The second important criteria is high profile drivers. By 2008 Michael Schumacher will probably have retired and the sport will have lost its biggest star. Kimi Raikkonen may move to Ferrari but the manufacturers will have many of the other big names in the sport and most of the rising stars. This is probably why some of the manufacturer teams have been signing up lots of young drivers in recent months.
One way or another the feeling in Brazil is that the fight is now getting into the endgame. This can only be good for the sport. F1 has drifted along in self-obsession for so long, quibbling over everything, that the leading players are not seeing that in the big picture F1 is beginning to lose ground not just to other areas of the sport but also to other recreational activities.
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