JUNE 7, 2008

The idea of a breakaway series

There has been much talk overnight about the possibility of a breakaway Formula 1 series without the FIA being involved. Those who were talking it up yesterday are now denying that there is anything to the story. So what was achieved? A few headlines, presumably designed to rattle FIA members. Did it work? Probably not. Breakaway championships are something that have been mentioned intermittently in F1 for more than 30 years, notably when there are negotiations over the commercial arrangements in the sport.

In 1980 rebel F1 teams - members of the Formula One Constructors Association, which was run by Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley - ran a race at Jarama without the teams which supported FISA (the governing body). In November that year FOCA was behind the announcement of a rival governing body called "The World Federation of Motorsport" which declared that it would be running "The World Professional Drivers Championship" the following year. In February 1981 the FOCA teams raced alone at Kyalami in South Africa - without Ferrari and Renault - but the event was not a success and in March FOCA and FISA made peace, creating the Concorde Agreement. Years later both Ecclestone and Mosley were happy to joke that they were a few hours away from capitulation when Jean-Marie Balestre, the man in charge of the federation offered a compromise which was way better than they thought they would ever get. The FIA is a strong body. It has won legal recognition over a 100-year period and enjoys consultative status with the United Nations and the Council of Europe. In short, the FIA can run motor racing - a small part of its activities - as it pleases. There can be outlaw championships but these must be completely independent. The FIA issues licences for drivers, teams, circuits, stewards, scrutineers, marshals and medical and any FIA licensee involved in a rebel championships could be sanctioned it the events did not meet FIA standards. The FIA also owns the registered trademark for the "FIA Formula One World Championship".

Ecclestone and Mosley realised that the way to win the game was to become the federation, rather than trying to beat it. The manufacturers learned the same lesson a few years ago when they spent a great deal of money having Goldman Sachs looking at the practical questions involved and eventually settled for a deal to get 50% of the F1 revenue, an improvement on the original share, but a great deal less than the 100% they might have got had they gone their own way. The reason they did not head off on their own was that they did not have the FIA with them and to start a new series, with a new name, new rules (because the FIA rules are copyrighted) would mean throwing away 58 years of work building the F1 brand. It made no sense. Car manufacturers exist to sell cars. Owning a racing series would make about as much sense as buying a bakery to make cupcakes to give out to customers. It might attract a few more sales, but is it really worth the effort?

The Mosley Scandal has weakened the FIA President. He cannot do what previously he could do. But that does not mean that the FIA is weaker. Max Mosley and the FIA are often seen as one unit, but they do not have to be. It is just the way it has been for the last 17 years. Many of the delegates who voted for Mosley did so because they felt he was the best man to deal with the current commercial negotiations. It was not because they supported what he does in his private life.

No-one knows where this will all end, but what we do know is that it does the sport no good at all. The image of F1 is being damaged and those who do not recognise that are fools.

The pressure is on all concerned to find solutions.