FEBRUARY 3, 2006
What is best for the sport?
Now is the time in Formula 1 to be settling matters and trying to find solutions and there is little doubt that the fastest way to revive the political strife seen in recent years between the current power brokers and the big teams is to propose to create new inequalities in the sport.
Reports that FIA President Max Mosley would be happy to see manufacturers no longer being offered revenues generated by the commercial rights will drive the manufacturers back together again and should worry all the F1 teams as even the smallest players aspire to manufacturer status.
And how can one define a manufacturer team? The Chaparral team in CanAm in the 1970s was supposed to have no manufacturer involvement but had a famous Chevrolet "skunk works" producing some of the most advanced technology ever seen in racing.
Mosley's remarks, carefully leaked as usual to the media, will no doubt create a lot of ink in the days ahead but it is necessary to cut through all the smoke and mirrors and ask the key question: is the proposal serious or is this simply part of a negotiation process relating to the Concorde Agreement? Clearly, the FIA cannot be seen to be proposing financial arrangements because of EU restrictions on its powers but at the same time Mosley is too good a politician to have simply started spouting off without knowing exactly what he was doing.
The negotiations between the FIA, the Formula One group and the teams are at a critical juncture at the moment and this may be viewed by some as a warning shot to try to get the manufacturers to accept the terms that are on the table. This is the most likely explanation for the story.
In all probability, there would be legal problems upholding such a system. Automobile companies will not take long to point out that motor racing has always been and will always be based on the fact that one team has more money than another. In the old days, it was the rich who got to go racing, indeed in a world based on driving talent alone, FIA President Max Mosley would never have had a Formula 2 career. He was there because he paid to be there and he has admitted as much on many occasions in the past. The pattern has not changed. The difference is that the price has gone up and so gentlemen racers have disappeared and now it is only big corporations that can afford to compete.
The key point however is that it is not just car manufacturers that are involved in spending money. Red Bull is outspending everyone in F1 at the moment and it makes an energy drink rather than cars. Marlboro has been outspending many teams in the last 15 years and it makes cigarettes. To give non-automotive companies benefits and exclude the car manufacturer teams from financial reward is not very likely to work because automobile industry lawyers will soon be banging on the door of the Competition Directorate in Brussels and complaining about unfair competition.
This no doubt also explains FIAT President Luca di Montezemolo's rather lame remarks last week about Ferrari no longer being a manufacturer. This is absurd and will remain absurd until Ferrari stops producing expensive sports cars which come off the production lines at Maranello. And, anyway, using Ferrari logic, McLaren is also an independent team rather than a manufacturer operation.
The danger of putting forward such a idea is that the sport will now head back towards the same sort of mess as existed last summer with the two sides at loggerheads and the sport suffering as a result. No-one benefits from that. If Mosley's opinion became a proposal the manufacturers would have to decide whether they want to go on fighting or whether they might finally accept that it is better to simply leave F1 and go and invest in sports which are more appreciative of their efforts. However, as their ultimate aim is to sell more cars, it is logical that they compete in automobile competitions rather than as sponsors of golf and tennis tournaments.
The FIA has long said that it is not trying to drive the manufacturers out of the sport but there will, no doubt, be some arguing that this is not the case and that the only manufacturers that the FIA is willing to accept are those who accept whatever the federation insists upon. Getting to that situation is not going to be about doing what is best for the sport but rather would be an exercise in power-politics. What is best for the sport is a sensible compromise. The sport's financing will look after itself. If the investment outstrips the value, then car company executives will axe the programmes, manufacturers will depart. If only one manufacturer is left standing at the end, the programme will inevitably be axed as no-one is interested in watching the same car winning over and over again (as was proved in recent years by Ferrari). The sport is a self-levelling mechanism and when big players depart there are always smaller players ready to take over. That is certainly the case now as Prodrive, Roger Penske, Gerhard Berger and many others will attest.
The question therefore is really what is in the best interest of the sport? Having a weaker group of teams would mean that the FIA and the commercial rights holder would have much less trouble and could divide and conquer the teams as they have done for the last 25 years.
But this is overlooking one important point: manufacturers, for all their sins, bring many positive aspects to a sport. They spend money promoting the sport (which is more than can be said for the current commercial rights holder) and that helps the sport to grow. Driving them away and into rival sports will strengthen the opposition.
The best thing for the sport would be a situation in which there was no political upheaval and the focus was on the race tracks and on marketing the sport correctly. Race fans do not care about billionaires quibbling with one another, they just wish to see good racing.
The best thing for the sport would be to see the money that is generated being spent to improve the sport at grassroots level, to build new facilities around the world and spread interest in the sport and to help talented youngsters in countries where there is no tradition of racing to make it to the big time so that the title World Champion will mean more than it does at the moment.
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