JUNE 3, 2009

The worst case scenario

We are in a period of quite extraordinary calm in Formula 1. Nothing much seems to be happening. The Formula 1 teams (at least nine of the 10 members of FOTA) have agreed to enter the World Championship provisionally, based on terms that they wish to dictate before the deadline of June 12. Yet there does not seem to be any negotiation going on. This is worrying. At the same time, each day brings new rumours about the "paper tiger "F1 entries that want to be part of the show in 2010. By our reckoning there are somewhere between eight and 10 new teams that have thrown their hats into the ring. Several of them are barely credible. It may be that some are allied with one another, but at the moment no-one is saying much. It is clear that David Richards will have an entry with Prodrive. All the signs are that he will ally with Mercedes, as was planned a couple of years ago. The USF1 team is definitely entered, as is Lola. Campos Racing has confirmed (but only in Spanish) that an entry has been made. Alex Wurz and Litespeed both seem to have made entries. In addition to that Wirth Research, Epsilon Euskadi and Manor Motorsport are all rumoured to be keen to get involved. There has even been talk of March making a comeback, but there seems to be little to back this up beyond the ownership of a name and some trademarks.

In theory at least, without any of the FOTA members being involved, there could be between nine and 11 teams on the grid next year. That is a big stretch, of course, given the lack of preparedness of all concerned but one has to think ahead (as no doubt FIA President Max Mosley has done) to what will happen if he decides to take the decision to call FOTA's bluff and not give the current teams entries for 2010.

What are the nine teams going to do if they are not granted entries?

FOTA says that the teams will act as one, but is that really what will happen? Is there something strong enough to stop the alliance coming apart? Will those involve really have the stomach to try to start their own championship? Is that even possible in the time available? This is the worst case scenario for all concerned as it would split F1 and drive away money and media coverage, just as the IRL-CART split did in the United States. It is not rocket science and there is a very recent model which shows exactly what a disaster that would be. People understand this, but it does not seem to be stopping them thinking about it. FOTA has some serious obstacles in its way. The use of the term "World Championship" would likely be challenged by the FIA, which claims for itself the status of being "the sole international sporting authority entitled to make and enforce regulations for the encouragement and control of automobile competitions and records, and to organise FIA International Championships and shall be the final international court of appeal for the settlement of disputes arising therefrom". A challenge to the FIA's right to control motorsport would be a tooth-and-nail battle from which no-one would emerge unscathed.

FOTA cannot easily use the term "Formula 1", because the Formula One group claims ownership of that. There are also questions about the copyright to the rules and regulations. They have no races planned (at least as far as we know). The idea that fixing all of this is possible in just a few months is stretching the imagination.

The alternative to a FOTA series would be the collapse of the teams' organisation. The smaller teams have to race to survive and so they are really in no position to sit and wait for something to happen. The manufacturers may have the financial muscle to create a new championship but are they really going to do that in the current economic climate? It is a time when the boards of the car companies are all concentrating on the core business: selling cars and even if the team principals think they can go off down that route, there are no guarantees that their bosses will agree with them, particularly if things start to get messy.

The option for them is to walk away and use the FIA's behaviour as an excuse to leave. Renault, BMW and Toyota are all not doing very well on the race tracks. There would be no shortage of people willing to give them a dollar for their F1 assets and staff. One can imagine Alexander Wurz being only too happy to take over BMW's share of BMW Sauber; and one can very easily see Renault F1 falling to Campos, Epsilon Euskadi or Wirth Research, with Flavio Briatore in the background, playing the puppetmaster. Toyota is more complicated.

If the manufacturers take the opportunity to walk away then they will face legal action from Formula One Management (FOM), which has a commercial contract with all of them lasting until the end of 2012. That could get very messy for all concerned and it would almost certainly be settled before the question ever went anywhere near a court, unless the car manufacturers really decided to go for Bernie Ecclestone's throat.

In all probability that would not happen. They have more important things to worry about.

If the three manufacturers mentioned walk away FOTA would have just six members left: Ferrari, McLaren, Brawn, the Red Bull teams and Force India.

With Williams and eight to 10 paper tiger teams there would still be room for as many as three or four existing teams to be given late entries - if they accept the terms offered by the FIA. It is unimaginable that one of these would not be offered to Ferrari, unless the Italian manufacturer really wants out and is willing to go to legal action with Ecclestone. Ferrari needs F1 as much as F1 needs Ferrari and it would be stupid for anyone to think otherwise. Ferrari provides F1 with mystique and magic and that reflects on all the teams. Yes, F1 could live without Ferrari, but it would be a much weaker entity - and would be worth a great deal less.

McLaren is at a disadvantage because of the recent unpleasantness with the federation and so has adopted the role of mediator. It exists to race, but has other businesses as well. Mercedes-Benz gains a lot from the sport.

Brawn, the Red Bulls and Force India would be left high and dry.

Brawn will probably end this year as World Champions - assuming, of course, that this year actually ends (which is something that also needs to be considered) - and the FIA and FOM would presumably like the team - and Jenson Button - back next year. It is logical to assume that they would be welcomed with open arms. McLaren Mercedes is also a valuable asset to F1 although the FIA will only want it back in a federation-friendly form. Red Bull might be offered a slot as well, but it is unlikely to get two. If the Austrian drinks company wants to protect its vast investment in F1 it would have to buy out one of the paper tiger teams. It is doubtful it would buy two.

Vijay Mallya too might wish to buy his way back in.

Alternatively, the smaller teams could be offered the free slots and the big teams left to buy out the paper tigers.

If this all sounds fundamentally depressing it is because the situation has clearly hardened to a worrying extent. Mosley seems willing to bet the house on winning the fight. He seems to have the support - or at least the acquiescence - of the FIA. The teams seemed to have left little room for any negotiation.

It is all rather reminiscent of something that happened in NASCAR in September 1969, when the Alabama International Motor Speedway at Talladega was first opened. Qualifying for the NASCAR Talladega 500 showed that none of the tyre companies had a product that could last more than a few laps. The Professional Drivers Association, led by Richard Petty, decided to boycott the event and 37 of the stars went home. NASCAR boss Bill France threw open the entry to anyone he could find with all manner of half-cocked machinery appearing for the race. It was won by the little-known Richard Brickhouse, who decided that the opportunity to race a top car was too good to miss and so quit the PDA.

The regular drivers were back in action a few days later at the Columbia Speedway in South Carolina.

Compare that to a similar disaster - the United States Grand Prix in 2005 - when the FIA held firm and the race became a charade with a procession involving only six cars. It was a farce and did untold damage to F1 within the United States and across the world. Perhaps Mosley thought that day that he would win and the teams would back down and accept defeat. They did not.

"This was stupid, really stupid," wrote Mike Mulhern, a reporter from the Winston Salom Journal at the time. "It is arrogance and stupidity that has caused this. It shows no respect for the people watching in the grandstands and on TV. It is slap in the face for the US public."

We can only hope that those involved in F1 do not make the same mistake again.