MAY 2, 2009

The rattling of sabres...

The announcement of the Formula 1 budget cap and the obvious distaste of the idea on the part of Ferrari was a sign that the deteriorating relationship between Ferrari and the FIA was continuing. Now that McLaren has been humbled, Ferrari is the team that looks likely to move into the FIA firing line.

The FIA does not like the idea that it can be pushed around by a Ferrari-led Formula One Teams Association - and vice versa. Hey presto! Up pops a story in the Financial Times (just where Ferrari does not want to see it) suggesting that F1 could live without Ferrari.

"The sport could survive without Ferrari," the FT quoted FIA President Max Mosley as saying. "It would be very, very sad to lose Ferrari. It is the Italian national team. I hope and think that when a team goes to its board and says, 'I want to go to war with the FIA, because I want to be able to spend £100m more than the FIA want me to spend' then the board will say 'Why can't you spend £40m if the other teams can do it?' We've got very little room to negotiate, but the message I'm getting from the board of two or three of the manufacturers is: If you can get it so that the cheque we write is not more than £22.3m, you can consider this a pretty permanent arrangement.' We have contacts with the boards other than through the teams. The teams spin to the board. The chief executive hasn't got the time, knowledge or expertise to question it. But now, because they are all [short of money], to throw away tens of millions on F1 is not acceptable.

"There is room for discussion, it might go up or down in 2011 and if the economy picks up, say in 2014, then it might go up. You might adjust the cap in the interests of the sport, but you'll have everyone on a level playing field. The credit crunch hasn't really hit F1 yet. Obviously we lost Honda, but the real crunch will come when current contracts come to be renewed. At the moment, you see ING, RBS, Allianz, big sponsors, but they wouldn't be there this year if they didn't have a binding contract. Those contracts were signed before their share prices took a dump. I believe FOM will not be able to give the teams as much money as they have. The Revenue can't put even one tax inspector into each business on a permanent basis. We can, we can put several in. The difficulty and danger of cheating would be enormous. If we had the slightest suspicion that anyone was cheating, we'd send a team in to check. That's part of the deal."

So Mosley has now said his piece. And we must wait to see the reaction from Ferrari. The team has been to the brink with the FIA before, notably in the mid 1980s when Enzo Ferrari and Jean-Marie Balestre (the then head of the sporting arm of the FIA) got into a fight over the future engine rules. In July 1985 Ferrari threatened to withdraw from F1 and switch to Indycar racing. To push the point Enzo Ferrari sent his sporting director Marco Piccinini to visit an Indycar race at Michigan. Balestre said he would not be swayed by Ferrari threats. A month later Indycar team owner Jim Trueman and his crew chief Steve Horne visited Maranello and in the months that followed the Italian team recruited a design team and built a Ferrari Indycar. This was completed by July 1987 by which time the two parties had come to their senses and hammered out a suitable compromise.

The FIA knows that Ferrari is a much stronger brand than F1. The Prancing Horse is far more evocative than the rather pedestrian F1 logo. Ferrari is by far the most popular team in F1. McLaren attracts fans with its glitzy technology, Williams gets support because of the passion of its owners, Minardi was very popular because of its underdog status but the only team that fans go wild for is Ferrari - and it does not matter who is driving. It is not only red-blooded Italians who follow Ferrari. It has the same following all over the world. Why? Because Ferrari has a great heritage in competition. It is a team of legend. The Ferrari brand relies not on the fact that rich people by the road cars it builds - that is true of many companies - but rather because there is a mystique about Ferrari which people want a part of. Ferrari has long represented Italian pride and style, the red cars being a symbol of all that Italy does well.

But F1 is a key element in the Ferrari brand. And Ferrari is a key element in the F1 brand.

Thus it would be stupid for the two parties to fall out. However, Ferrari has already hinted at such a possibility when there was a suggestion that there might be homologated engines.

"A change of this nature would detract from the actual point and purpose of a race series that Ferrari have given their uninterrupted support to since 1950, namely competition and technical progress," a statement said. "If this key element were to be abandoned, it would be necessary to consult with our partners to see whether our continued involvement in this sport made any sense at all."

Ferrari might argue that it can live without F1. Its road car sales held up well in 2008 despite the economic problems at the end of the year. The company managed to sell 122 more cars than were sold in 2007, with a total of 6,587, however revenues were up 15.2% to $2.49bn, mainly due to the success of the 430 Scuderia and strong demand for the 612 Scaglietti and 599 GTB Fiorano. The United States remained the biggest market but Asan sales are fast catching up and will probably take over this year as the main market. Non-car related income rose by 28%.

But the bottom line, which everyone knows, is that Ferrari's success is underpinned by its racing.

Thus the threat to depart and the FIA's stance that Ferrari is not that important are both charades. Yes, the sport would survive without Ferrari and Ferrari would survive without F1, but both would be poorer if that were the case. All the talk is therefore not to be taken too seriously.

Mosley has a very good point about the money. Ferrari may not like it, but cutting off one's nose to spite one's face is not really a logical next step.

The option is for Ferrari to try to lead all the teams away from F1 to a new non-FIA championship, but it is doubtful that this would lead to any good.