The letter from the small teams to Bernie Ecclestone is very clearly a message within a message. It is also an indication of where things have got to because the three teams clearly feel that it is worth taking the risk of annoying the big players because they do not see any other choices. Rule number one in conflict is never take on a man who has nothing to lose and this seems to be the message being delivered.
The key word in the letter is “cartel” and this is what indicates that the big teams, the FIA and Formula One need to sit up and pay attention because if the European Commission gets a sniff of a cartel, it will be arriving in Formula 1 and looking into filing cabinets that perhaps the folk in F1 would like to see left unopened. We have seen it all before, 15 years ago, when it took an EU investigation to put the FIA and the Formula One group back on the straight and narrow. An EU investigation, were it to happen, would put paid to any possible IPO (not that there is much likelihood of that happening at the moment given the mess that the sport has descended into in recent weeks).
The letter is not a direct accusation, because of the careful use of the word “questionable”, but it is very clear that the small teams believe that they are being treated unfairly and they want to get the problem resolved in order to avoid a situation in which the European Commission can come wading in. In other words, the pressure is on the Commercial Rights Holder, Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes, McLaren and Williams – not to mention the FIA – to get a solution found rapidly before bigger powers come wading into the sport in support of the small guys.
The European Commission does not need a complaint to get involved. If the bureaucrats think that there might be a cartel in operation they can take action on the basis that Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union prohibits abusive conduct by companies that have a dominant position in a particular market. They can take action “either upon receipt of a complaint or through the opening of an own–initiative investigation” and they are empowered to investigate as much as they like. This can include asking companies for information, entering the premises of companies believed to be involved in a cartel and examining and seizing records and questioning staff. The Commission operates a policy by which companies involved in cartels can hand over inside evidence, the first company to do so being exempt from any later fines. An investigation can be followed by a statement of objections, which informs the parties involved of the Commission’s objections about the way they do business. The Commission then gives the parties the right to respond, which includes having access to all non-confidential documents from the Commission’s investigation. The parties may then reply within a certain delay. The Commission will then examine the arguments put forward and may at that point close the case. However, if there are signs of a cartel, the Commission will then issue a decision prohibiting the identified infringement, which would then be sent to all the different competition authorities in Europe. Fines may be proposed as part of the decision. The College of Commissioners examines and then adopts or rejects the decision.