I have been puzzling for some time about what the FIA is up to in relation to Formula 1. It seems that the federation has no real interest in saving the sport from itself. Today will feature the latest meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council and it is an important one in that any decision to adopt customer or third cars in F1 will likely have dramatic effects for the sport in the long term.
No one seems to care much about the financial struggles at the back end of the F1 grid, caused by the absurdity of spending at the front end, and by the unacceptable distribution of money that favours the strong. No one seems to see that allowing the big teams to expand will drive out the smaller teams. The current commercial structures were created in order to “buy” the support of the big teams in F1’s political fights, which was fundamentally a simple way to protect the status quo which sees far too much of the money generated by the sport disappearing off into the hands of financiers who do not care a jot about Grand Prix racing, nor for its future after they have sold out.
The one hope we all had was that the FIA would protect the sport by NOT rolling over and having its tummy tickled by the money men, but alas a year ago, seeking a pre-election victory, the FIA President signed away some of the federation’s regulatory powers in exchange for a pile of cash.
It emerged later that the FIA is no longer able to make rules in F1 – without asking the Strategy Group nicely – unless safety is concerned. Thus it cannot impose a cost cap, and cannot stop customer cars, unless it has the votes to do it. Jean Todt said as much himself in Bahrain, while trying to defend the FIA’s apparent lack of action in all respects. Quite rightly, some asked questions about the FIA’s deal with the European Competition Directorate about 10 years ago, which carefully divided up the powers in the sport ensuring that commercial influences were separated from the regulators, but nothing seems to be happening on that front. Maybe the new arrangements could be undone, but who cares enough to make it happen?
The next step from here, if there is no EU intervention, is that the FIA will probably lease the right to control the title “World Championship” and the FIA will then be clear of F1 – and richer still. That will leave the federation as a wealthy conference organiser with some involvement in lesser championships, where it can dabble and have structures it likes – rather than trying to work with the difficult ones inherited from Max Mosley.
Launching the FIA Sport Conference in Munich this week, Todt said that motor sport “can no longer exist in a vacuum and content ourselves with playing our historic role as the regulator of motor sport” and that it must adapt “to a new reality, which is sporting, economic and social in nature”.
It is not entirely clear what that means, but it sounds like the FIA is now planning to get involved in commercial matters outside F1. This was followed by a press release announcing that the federation has done a deal with Polyphony Digital for a “long-term innovative partnership” which will involve the first-ever video game to feature FIA-certified content. I am not sure what “certified content” is but I presume it is content of a certain standard relating to FIA events that is not covered under other commercial agreements.
One would hope that one of the representatives from the 109 national sporting authorities gathered in Munich will ask such questions, but in my experience everyone in the FIA is too busy kissing the President’s hand to get involved in any meaningful discussions, in the knowledge that any serious questioning of the powers-that-be will be deemed by Todt’s flunkies to be opposition, which then makes you the enemy. It is all rather old-fashioned in terms of political practice in an age where some people believe that open discussion is good for sensible decision-making.
Todt concluded in his speech that the key to development would be the careful allocation of the funding “made available by the F1 Concorde Agreement and funds from the 100-year rights issue of F1 that are now available”.
This is sensible but one must suppose all of the President’s advisors and speechwriters do not seem to understand that a “rights issue” is an opportunity for the shareholders of a company to buy additional shares in the business, in exchange for cash, not a 100-year commercial agreement. It is alarming that such a basic error could have got through JT’s flunkies without being picked up. Given that the world does business in English, it might be wise if the FIA had someone who spoke it well enough to spot such a gaffe.
If the FIA is selling out of F1 and concentrating on other championships with different commercial structures, then so be it. This is probably an easier route than trying to unseat Bernie Ecclestone’s empire.
In the end, one must suppose, the goal is to create a racing series that is bigger than F1, on the basis that the current formula will end up killing itself and the flotsam and jetsam will float back into FIA activities, having no other choices.
The goal, one supposes, is to do what happened in Australia and the United States and have cars with lids dominant in the marketplace rather than the exotic prototypes of F1. That may be unthinkable for single-seater fans but try as I might I struggle to find another explanation for the FIA’s behaviour. Perhaps there is scope for the federation to one day launch a new single-seater series with rules it likes when F1 begins to implode and the refugees have nowhere else to go.
There is one other conclusion that one can draw from all this. Jean Todt will need to remain in charge of the FIA for a lot more time if he wants the strategy to succeed.