Honda website
Honda website

NOVEMBER 16, 2006

What does it all mean?

Peace between the FIA and the GPMA is, fundamentally, a good thing. It is also a natural state of affairs. It makes no sense - and never has made any sense - to have the manufacturers fighting with the FIA. In the last major upheavals in F1 history, the celebrated FISA-FOCA War of 1980-1982, the manufacturers were always allies of the FIA and without them the FIA would have lost.

On this occasion they were rivals - but only up to a point. There are a number of conclusions that can be drawn: one might, for example, argue that the manufacturers stood and fought this time because they did not like the way that the FIA was running the sport; one can argue that it was because of personalities or that the threat of a breakaway series was never really that serious and was simply to win more money from Bernie Ecclestone, although Ecclestone's talents as a negotiator it is hard to conclude that he compromised when there was no need to. The answer is probably a little bit of all of them.

Getting the manufacturers singing from the same songsheet as the FIA was achieved by delivering what the manufacturers wanted to hear. That was about giving them more money and more control - and not being seen to lose. Embracing green ideas - none of them new - is no bad thing as it gives them justification to go racing. The logic of it has been clear for years, indeed F1 designer John Barnard was arguing for small turbo diesels in the early 1990s and regenerative braking systems were stopped as long ago as 1998 when McLaren was developing just such a system.

The FIA dealt with criticism of the F1 cars a long time ago by acquiring Mexican forests and thus buying carbon-neutral status for the sport. As a result of that all but the tree-hugging lunatics have long ago stopped criticising F1 on these grounds but argue, logically, that the large crowds that drive themselves to events pump out bad things into the atmosphere. They argue that races should try to be linked up to public transport. This makes sense not only from an ecological point of view but also because city races tend to pull the biggest crowds.

Thus there is little new in the ecological arguments beyond the headlines that will do F1 and the car manufacturers involved in the sport no harm at all.

The one significant point in the deal is that in future the strategic thinking in F1 will be done between the FIA and the manufacturers - without the overt involvement of the F1 teams. This is significant only up to a point because car manufacturers now own (or have a significant effect in the decision-making process) of all but three teams: Williams, Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso. One could argue about Super Aguri but clearly Honda has a major voice in the team.

McLaren is in the process of being sold to Mercedes-Benz, while Renault, Honda, Toyota, BMW, Ferrari and Spyker all have their own teams. Thus the teams may have lost some of their power but at the same time the manufacturers now constitute a majority of the teams and if the rules develop as they want them to there is no reason to suggest that this is going to change in the mid-term. Indeed we may see more car companies arrive.

The interesting point will be how the manufacturers will know what is the best thing to do for them to be successful in Formula 1. Automobile company executives have a shockingly poor record of doing things well in F1 and the success stories have almost always been when F1 experts are left to do the thinking and leave the car companies to pay. This means that the team principals will still get a voice in defining strategy, depending on who is in charge at a motor company at any given point and, as the FIA used to point out on a regular basis, this changes often.

It remains to be seen how costs will be cut when car manufacturers have a direct link between racing and their products, given that costs are booming at a time when the association between F1 and production cars is weak. The last time F1 got into turbocharged engines, back in the 1980s, the costs went completely off the clock and in the end the FIA had to step in and force the manufacturers to accept 3.5-litre normally-aspirated engines before all the teams went out of business. It is quite likely that no matter what they say now, the manufacturers will spend and spend if that it what it takes to win. We have seen from the 2005 budgets that even with engine rules to slash costs, the major F1 teams ramped up their spending significantly in 2005 and we would be surprised not to see a similar picture 12 months from now. That is the nature of the competition and the only way that budgets are guaranteed to drop is when people can no longer afford to spend. There may be ways to force teams to spend less on some items but that will not stop them developing wherever the opportunity exists. If they have money to spend, they will spend it.

A good solution is one in which everyone wins - or at least believes that they are winning. The FIA seems to be happy, Burkhart Goschel seems to be happy and he represents the other car manufacturers. There may be a team owner or two who is not overtly happy but then again Williams exists only to go racing and is only really unhappy when there appears to be an uneven playing field. Red Bull seems to go along with the FIA so the only question mark is with McLaren and Ron Dennis will probably be very happy when he sells his shares in McLaren and retires and can live happily ever after, spending a cash pile that was built up with years and years of on-track success.

The media is happy not to have to write more about political griping and the fans should be happy not to have read any more about it.

All things considered, it is time for everyone to celebrate a little, although perhaps the thing to do is to come back and analyse the situation again in 12 months from now to see if everything is still going to plan.

Hopefully it will be.