Columns - Big Al

If it looks like a duck, squawks like a duck, then it probably is a duck


US presidential aide James Rubin spoke those words on a UK television interview earlier this year. My mind won't recall what the hell he was referring to, but it could well have been the hugely damaging split between US racing factions CART and the Indy Racing League.

I was chatting to an F1 team boss last week when we were talking about the decision of the major car makers to start their own independent series in 2008. "It's not like the split between the IRL and CART," he told me,"that's a very important point to make." At that point I found myself thinking the very words of Mr. Rubin. "If it looks like a duck, squawks like a duck, then it probably is a duck "

And therein lies the whole problem surrounding this ambitious strategy. The car makers basically want to stop the commercial rights holder - once Mr. Ecclestone, now the Kirch media group - from lapping up 53 per cent of the commercial rights into their own kitty and leaving the remaining 47 per cent to be split between the top scoring ten F1 teams.

Trouble is, the car makers, clever though they are, will have to get up extremely early to get the better of Mr. E's cerebral functions. This week Bernie has hinted that F1's major sponsors are not happy with the possibility of a split, while obliquely suggesting that these wicked auto makers are on a mission to completely ruin a sport into which they came originally to capitalize on as a shop window for their products. And the worrying thing is that it is only a short hop from this line of argument to a situation where the dilemma is being compared with the split between CART and the IRL. Even if the analogy is neither fair nor realistic.

The fundamental problem with this row is twofold. Firstly, I don't believe for a second that the car makers really want to feel they've been pushed into a situation where they have to start their own series. Secondly, the car makers need to carry all the second division F1 teams with them. And the way I understand things, some of the teams which parroted their support for the manufacturers' plans in Geneva last week were really banking on one or two of their lesser rivals sticking a spoke in the wheel to moderate Paolo Cantarella's assertive stance.

I have huge respect for Cantarella, and perhaps even more for DaimlerChrysler's Jurgen Hubbert and Ford's Wolfgang Reitzle, all of whom are on the board of this fledgling Dutch registered company established to advance the interests of the proposed manufacturers' championship. But I have yet to be convinced by them that ALL the car manufacturers can guarantee the continuity of participation in F1 - or whatever it's going to be called after 2008 - in the very long run. History, after all, is against them here.

It is less that two years since I stood at the launch of the McLaren-Mercedes MP4/15 at Jerez and heard McLaren Managing Director Martin Whitmarsh speaking into my tape recorder and saying; "The biggest challenge, in my view, facing F1 over the next decade is how it manages the structured withdrawal of the major car companies."

At the time, I recalled thinking that seemed a very mature and balanced assessment of F1's immediate future. And I still suspect it remains as valid a viewpoint as it did then.