There are some stories floating about today which suggest that the new engine regulations in 2014 will be scrapped. These come from a journalist who is famously known to parrot everything Bernie Ecclestone says without ever questioning it.
The story raises a number of interesting points. At the moment, Bernie Ecclestone does not make the rules in Formula 1. The right to do that belongs to the FIA. Ecclestone would like to be in a position to write the rules, but thus far he has only leased the commercial rights to the sport. If the FIA gives up its right to create and police the rules, the federation will become completely irrelevant to the sport and F1 will become entirely self-sufficient. It is possible that the federation might choose to sell those rights, but this would stir up a great deal of trouble amongst the membership because F1 offers the FIA the highest visibility in any of its activities, as can be seen from the fact that the post-qualifying background is all about the FIA’s road safety campaigns. Selling control of the sport would be akin to selling the family silver.
Former FIA President Max Mosley did that somewhat when he let Ecclestone have the commercial rights for a century, for what was a nominal sum of money. The purpose of that deal was to cement the FIA’s right to control the sport and for that right to be recognised by others and it provided sufficient finance to set up a foundation to do good works. That might not be seen to have been sufficient cash nowadays, but at the time it seemed like a lot of money. There is no question that current FIA President Jean Todt wants to get some more money from F1 – which is only sensible – but it would be a wildly radical step for him to sell the right to make the rules. Todt has not shown much desire to do anything radical in the course of his presidency, preferring to avoid conflict where possible and to make changes gradually. He has elections coming up a year from now and the last thing he needs at the moment is controversy.
The second point worth considering is that at least three motor manufacturers (and one independent operation) have invested hundreds of millions in designing engines for the new rules. They are not going to want to throw this money away, and while they might worry that they do not have as good engines as their rivals, they all know that the new regulations are what the car industry wants to see from F1. Ecclestone is focussed on the commercial side of the sport. He makes money, but the longterm future of the sport is not really served by maintaining engines that have no relevance in terms of modern technology, and that cannot be significantly developed. Although car manufacturers may gripe at the costs involved, they also know that the new rules should lead to technology that will be useful for the industry – and development that will outstrip the normal plodding pace of the automobile industry. The fastest ways to develop new automotive technologies are by going to war or by getting involved in motor racing and, with cost-effectiveness a vital element in the modern automotive world, manufacturers want new ideas and engineers who will make them happen. There is a clear argument that other manufacturers might become involved in F1 once they see that sort of things being developed. There are also suggestions that some of them are standing back until the management of the sport is changed, although no-one is ever going to say that out loud.
For the F1 teams, there are obviously some who think that the new engines will be too expensive. These teams might be accused of having a lack of imagination. When a new formula is created, there are opportunities as well. Teams that are competitive or close to being competitive, have the opportunity to go out there and convince car companies that F1 is the right place to develop their future powertrains. Thus, the likes of McLaren, Red Bull, Lotus, Sauber, Williams and Force India should really be beating a path to one car manufacturer after another, explaining the value of the future F1 and trying to get manufacturer deals of their own, rather than sitting in queues as customers of Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault. There are still plenty of car manufacturers in the world and they are all constantly investing in new technology and so it is down to the teams to sell themselves and the sport. This is the pattern that has been seen over and over in the history of F1 and it was what Bernie Ecclestone tried to do with Alfa Romeo when he was a team owner. One thing that is guaranteed is that, if the old rules are maintained, there will be no new car manufacturers in F1.
New manufacturers will bring more money to the sport and, of course, things would be a lot better for all concerned if more than half the money generated were not being handed over to men in suits with no interetst, let alone passion for the sport – beyond its money-generating potential. The man who put this structure together is therefore perhaps not the right man to preach on the subject of needing to keep down costs. If the money coming into the sport was actually staying in the sport, then no-one would have any problems.
Good for Bernie for having the nous to do such deals, but making yourself and your pals rich does not mean that you will be remembered fondly by those who love the sport and feel it is being damaged by such exploitation.
The other element that needs to be considered by the automotive industry is the fact that the supply of engineers in the western world is drying up. A recent report by Britain’s Royal Academy of Engineering says that the UK needs to increase the number of science, technology, engineering and maths graduates by as much as 50 percent if the country is to avoid slipping down the international innovation league tables. The problem is the same across Europe. In the UK some 23,000 engineers are graduating every year. But India is producing eight times that number, and China 20 times as many. One thing that would help European automobile manufacturers is a little bit more inspiration for youngsters.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s there were millions of children inspired by NASA’s space programme and by Concorde. These days there are no such thrilling projects and a ground-breaking relevant Formula 1 World Championship would be a good way to improve that situation. Plodding along using the existing machinery may help the Formula One group produce solid profits, but there is always the chance that a more ambitious approach would produce better results.
It all boils down to the same old discussion about sport versus entertainment. F1 has been chasing the entertainment route for more than 20 years and has done very well. But the signs are that such success is in the past, because the younger generations are not inspired by (or even vaguely interested in) Formula 1, which means that the business needs a rethink and going back to its roots might be a better way to move forward, while at the same time embracing new technologies to engage with fans around the world.