The weekend in Monaco was a fairly pleasant one. The weather was not bad and the controversy was minimal. Monaco is always a buzz although the F1 race was not exceptional although the Mercedes screw-up made for an exciting last few laps and plenty of post-race chatter. Nico Rosberg was an undeserving winner and his celebrations seemed hollow, but as he said, you take what you get. One had to feel for Lewis Hamilton and I felt that he handled it very well. No matter what Lewis does someone thinks it is wrong.
In the paddock, there was some talk about the Strategy Group decisions of the previous week but no-one was getting worked up about them. The consensus was that refuelling is simply NOT going to happen and there were more discussions about the situation regarding customer cars. There was a meeting with Bernie Ecclestone on this subject on Friday morning to which only a handful of (big) teams were invited. They seem keen on the idea, but I just do not understand how any of the parties involved can reasonably agree to such a thing. If there is no way that a small ambitious team can climb the ladder in Formula 1, what is the point in being there simply to make up the numbers? It is wiser to climb other ladders where one can be successful.
And what would happen when one of these big teams decides – as inevitably they will – that they no longer want to be in F1. Or when one team consistently builds better cars than its rivals? If one team is dominant and supplies chassis and engines to rivals, the other big teams will be pushed back to fourth or fifth in the pecking order and, as McLaren is finding out, this weakens them.
The concept has already been gone through before by CART back in the 1980s.
Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc (CART) was running the IndyCar series at the time. Teams built their own chassis. There were some car manufacturers who sold cars to others, but there was great variety with companies like McLaren, Penske, Chaparral, Phoenix, Eagle, March and Wildcat all winners. Others such as Longhorn, Coyote, Parnelli, Lightning, Interscope, Primus and Rattlesnake did not win. However, over time the bigger chassis manufacturers were able to invest more than the smaller ones and so by the mid-1980s the number of manufacturers had thinned out because teams could buy more competitive March and Lola chassis.Even Penske gave up building his own cars. When March hit trouble only Lola remained until Reynard joined the fight in the mid-1990s. There were a few attempts to challenge the status quo along the way, but in the end the money was not there to sustain them and so eventually only Lola remained. CART became a one-chassis championship. Today no-one considers CART to be a rival of F1 as was once the case. Today the technology is unimportant and the series is dominated by a few well-organised teams, which win depending on the engines and who does a better job. Ganassi, Penske and Andretti have won the last 12 titles between them and a 13th will be won by one of those three in 2015. The series is entertainment, but irrelevant and the audience is tiny. The US motorsport scene is dominated by NASCAR, which does the whole show business thing better and even has road cars that look like the racing machinery (even if there is nothing at all the same bar the shape).
The basic logic for customer cars is that F1 cannot support 12 competing constructor teams, all of which are doing what amounts to parallel development work. This is very wasteful, but at the same time this created the cut-throat world that led to the development of the vibrant motorsport industry in the UK. The culture was always one of “must try harder”. The teams at the back of the grid struggle for money because they do not have the results – or more importantly the exposure – to bring in more. These teams tend to be supported by eccentric wealthy folk who either run out money and/or enthusiasm or they make enough of an impact to move up the F1 ladder. Using the same or similar engines is sensible in that it is impossible for everyone to build their own engines, but having a limited number of chassis is not at all the same thing.
It makes sense to the big teams because they see ways to get return on their investment at minimal cost. The problem is that when one takes this idea to its logical conclusion, it makes more sense for the bigger teams to own the smaller teams rather than just being suppliers. Running twice as many cars does not cost twice as much money and the bigger teams will inevitably want as much control as possible over smaller teams, to ensure that they do as well as they possibly can – and do everything that the bigger teams want. Having six constructor teams plus six customers would very quickly change to a situation in which there would be six four-car teams.
So I would argue that having customer chassis does not protect weak teams but rather condemns them to lose all independence. And what happens when big teams quit? At the moment we have Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull and McLaren who constitute the “big team” status. One might be able to rely on Ferrari and McLaren because their DNA is F1 (although after Ferrari floats things could change), but Mercedes will go at the drop of a hat if the next chairman is not a fan and Red Bull is already whining about departing because it cannot win races. Two of the four big teams thus cannot be relied upon to be around in the long-term, even if Bernie Ecclestone has written big penalty clauses into their contracts. If they want to go they will go. Toyota did exactly that six years ago. The staff lost their jobs and the team shut down. We also lost Honda, BMW and Renault at the same time (all team owners) but racers like Ross Brawn and Peter Sauber stepped up and kept those teams alive. Thus the idea of pushing out the racers makes no sense at all.
The other thing that makes no sense at all is that the teams have been given power to make decisions about the regulations. This is daft. You don’t ask footballers to decide on the rules of football, do you? Inevitably they will argue their own cases on all occasions and so nothing will ever be agreed. This is why the Strategy Group came along to try to restrict the number of decision-makers, but that is not right either because that means only half the teams in the football league are allowed to change the rules. It’s crazy.
What is required is a governing body that governs, a promoter that promotes and teams that behave like teams. There is nothing wrong with the promoter making some money, but it would be best if this was a sensible kind of promoter’s fee – 10 to 15 percent. Beyond that is simply greedy and to the detriment of the sport. The sport does not need private equity jackals, squeezing every penny out. We need a promoter that works towards creating harmony so that the sport can work as a proper corporation and can then concentrate on being better than other sports, rather than always beating itself up. The key is really fairness.
A good team will beat a bad team no matter what vehicles they race and how much money they have. Thus financial control is absolutely logical. There is no need to waste money. The division of the revenues should reflect success but only in moderation, as the smaller teams will only grow stronger if they can afford to do so. Thus there is an argument that the value of winning should be reduced, or even negated completely because success will bring money from other sources, such as sponsorship. in other words, if everyone gets an equal share of the revenues, the big teams will still have more money.
The other thing that the sport needs is better promotion. Right now promotion is left to the TV companies and race promoters. This puts a strain on both such groups because they are already paying out hugely for rights. These organisations are the ones that deal directly with the public and so they should be allowed more money to invest to put on a better show, or to create a better experience to grow the audience. Cuts in the fees for both would be a good idea because with financial control, an even spread of prize money and a promoter who is not greedy, there would be money available to do these things and make the sport more attractive to the ultimate customers. It would obviously help if TV was not pay-to-view, it would obviously help if the top people in the sport were not swathed in controversy and unseemly matters, such as the new tax battles that Bernie Ecclestone is going through, or the road safety palaver that Jean Todt has created with his ambitions, which seem to be more personal than for the FIA. The FIA already has a very successful road safety operation in the FIA Foundation. There is no need to build a parallel operation. And the conflicts of interest are everywhere, as we have seen already. At Monaco there was another attempt made to make Todt feel uncomfortable and to draw F1 into this mess with the anti-alcohol lobby pointing out that the sport does a lot to promote booze but Todt refuses to do anything about it, while the road safety lobby are desperately keen to stop drink-driving. Todt seems to be on both sides…
Anyway, the race came and went and on Monday we headed home on the highways of France, leaving the Cote d’Azur at eight on a quiet holiday Monday. The long weekend traffic built up as we went and with the Rhone Valley “en accordéon”, speeding up and slowing down because there were too many folk on the road, we decided to do something different and not struggle through Lyons and so turned west instead at Givors and headed down the valley of the River Gier. It was here that the great Georges Boillot fought the Mercedes for victory in 1914 with his outpaced Peugeot, winning himself a place in the pantheon of French racing stars. Further down the valley near Saint-Etienne is a drab little town called St-Chamond, where a youngster called Alain Prost grew up and started his career.
We then climbed up over the hills of the Forez, where there were Grand Prix races in 1946 (won by Raymond Sommer) and then it was downhill almost as far as Clermont-Ferrand before turning north up the A71 to Paris. It was longer in terms of mileage, but we were able to run faster and so we were back in Paris by the early evening, without having to deal with the vast traffic bank holiday jams getting into and across the capital.