Honda website
Honda website

MAY 26, 2009

Compromise - an over-used word

For the last week or so there has been a lot of talk about compromise - but very little sign of anything close to it. This a very difficult time for Formula 1, not least because the Monaco Grand Prix is where the big deals are done and the team principals seemed to have had little time available to talk to potential new sponsors because they were too busy trying to get water out of the bottom of the F1 boat and keep the whole thing afloat.

There was some serious money floating about in Monaco, but will any of the teams land any big deals this year? It is doubtful. Now is not the time for normal businessmen to be making big investments in something as frivolous as F1. The only hope is eccentric billionaires and if the USF1 team can find one, then there is hope for the others as well... That at least is the dream.

It is such a shame that this is happening because the racing this year has been very good, even if Brawn GP has won five of six races. In any case, a dominant new team is great, particularly after such a fairytale story. The lap times have been astonishingly close and Jenson Button has shown that he is a driver of great poise and maturity; and - whether we like or not - the FIA has produced a set of rules that has made the sport this competitive and exciting.

It is clear that everyone needs to downsize in the face of the global economic crisis. But the arguments are all about how much must be cut and by when it must be done; but behind these discussions is a much more difficult question: who should be making the rules? And it is an important battle because a weaker FIA will make for a weaker Formula One Management in 2012 when the talk will turn once again to how the revenues of the sport are divided up. It is clear if one takes a long term view that the teams will inevitably end up winning control of the commercial side of the sport, that would be right. Indeed that is what the original Concorde Agreement settled way back in 1982. But it is not what happened. The teams went racing and left Bernie Ecclestone to build himself an empire and they were surprised when he grabbed it all with both hands. They were surprised again when the FIA under Max Mosley agreed that this was OK. And since then the fight has ground on, because clearly it was never really OK. The day of reckoning will eventually come when the original status quo is rediscovered. Perhaps it will take the removal of Ecclestone and Mosley to achieve that. They are tough cookies and they are not about to roll over and give up their positions, but Father Time is against them. They are getting older and neither one has a workable succession plan in place. Mosley has talked of Jean Todt becoming the next FIA President. The other teams have shuddered at that thought. Todt was very good at running Ferrari, but his grasp of diplomacy is perhaps rather lacking. And charm. The FIA President needs to be strong but he needs also to have charm. Todt appears to fail in this respect. To the lilly-livered FIA clubs he may seem like a new strong man, but to the F1 teams he is not the right answer. Some of the opposition to Mosley is based on the fact that teams are worried that Todt may suddenly pop out from behind Mosley once the warring is done.

All the other moves going on are either reflections of the negotiations or the facing up to realities that teams face. Bernie Ecclestone has been trying to straddle the fence in F1, as he always does, canvassing opinion about whether Mosley, his longtime ally, should go, while at the same time, staying loyal to him. In the background are the dark-suited men with no faces from CVC Capital Partners, who want only to maximise their income and calm things down, lest the investment blows up in their faces.

They seem to offer F1 very little, but they like taking.

The teams have written to FIA President Max Mosley wanting him to get rid of the rules for 2010, saying that they will create a new set of regulations that will achieve what everyone wants; Mosley is not going to like that. He has done his rules and that is what he wants. The Italian automobile club has written to Mosley in support of Ferrari's position; there has been talk that Mosley could be ousted as FIA President. That could happen if there is someone who could win enough respect to be credible, but if such candidates exist, they are hiding behind the FIA sofa at the moment, frightened to stand up and be counted.

The Williams F1 team has balls. It has broken ranks with the other teams and agreed to enter the World Championship in 2010, while at the same time, saying that it remains committed to what the Formula One Teams Association is trying to achieve. That is a pragmatic view and other teams may follow. Williams exists only to race. Thus they cannot risk pulling out. They must take what they can get. If the manufacturers want their support then they must make concessions to keep them on board. The manufacturers can always walk away and no-one really cares if the likes of Toyota and Renault stay or go, but Ferrari is different. Ferrari is a keystone to F1. Ferrari does not want to blink and says it will pull out. People suspect that this time the Italians might even carry out such a threat. Luca di Montzemolo appears to be on a mission. He wants to beat Mosley. Mosley says that Ferrari is not important. That is bluff. It matters a great deal. Not just because Ferrari is a team, but because it represents the mystique of F1. Without Ferrari F1 would lose some of its gloss and be less attractive to many other big sponsors as well.

They all want a little of the F1 magic to rub off on them and if the magic is gone there is not much point in staying at all.

In the meantime, all this fighting is dulling the glitter of what is a great sport. It is a shame. It would be so much better if the clever people in F1 were focussing on rebuilding the falling audience, rather than quibbling over who gets what.