This week will see Thanksgiving celebrated in the United States. It is a national holiday which dates back to the Pilgrim Fathers, who gave thanks for their first harvest and the good things that had happened to them in the previous 12 months. Although rooted in religion, Thanksgiving has long been a secular tradition, part of modern American culture and, in truth, it is not very different to the Harvest Festivals of old England, which were traditionally held in September, on the nearest Sunday to the autumn equinox.
I have always felt thanksgiving was a good idea, not for any religious reason, nor indeed because it is a chance to have a party, but simply because it never does any harm to take a moment to stop and look back and assess whether one is making progress, going round in circles, or getting it very wrong.
So let’s give it a try with Formula 1 at the moment.
Some believe that F1 is in a right mess at the moment. The TV figures are not doing well, sponsors are hard to find, fans are fed up with ticket prices and, in many cases, having to pay for TV coverage. On the upside, the sport is making more money than ever, even if this means visiting places that are strategically irrelevant, while failing to make much of an impact in the most lucrative markets. In addition, far too much money is being plucked straight out of the sport by the commercial rights holder, which is viewed by many as being little more than a company that is asset-stripping the sport and loading it with debt. The FIA is powerless and the teams are split, as ever. No-one has a fix for the problems because of the contractual arrangements that are in place.
Many fans believe that profiteers such as CVC Capital Partners should not be involved in sport because the money that the sport raises should be ploughed back into it, to help support international growth and promising young drivers and for investment in the future. CVC Capital Partners does not care about that. It is involved simply to rip as much money as possible out of the sport, without actually killing it. Small wonder they are so despised in the business. This rubs off on Bernie Ecclestone because he was the one who allowed the foxes into the chicken coop. He remains the pay-master of the sport, but his inability to fix the problems has weakened him in political terms. With the FIA having sold its right to regulate F1 (which is scandalous) all the federation can do with try to ally with Ecclestone to out-vote the teams. The problem is that the regulator and the governing body have different goals and so it is an uncomfortable alliance. The teams, inevitably, are divided because the system favours the bigger operations and they do not care a jot about the little teams. The big teams are greedy. They want the technology that F1 brings them but they also want the promotion for free and they want to squeeze as much money as possible from their customers within the business. It is a short-sighted approach, but they have the power at the moment because they supply the majority of the teams and have the Ferrari veto to stop changes they do not like.
Yes, it is a mess.
Ecclestone and the FIA have currently got together in a fairly unholy alliance in an effort to push through an alternative engine proposal. They are pretending that this is about reducing the prices of the engines, but it fairly clear that it is about power and trying to break the manufacturers’ current influence. As everyone involved appears to understand the motives behind the move, it seems to be a fairly pointless and rather counter-productive strategy. And it adds to the impression that the sport is run by people without vision beyond the end of their own noses, who are fighting amongst themselves while the sport drifts rudderless at a time when leadership and forward-thinking are clearly required.
The manufacturers do not need the money, nor do they gain a great deal from not reducing their prices. They could, for example, agree to a lower price and claim the moral high ground, while at the same time maintaining their current position of power.That would checkmate the others. Fighting the proposals will end up in a fight over whether or not Ferrari has the right to veto the new rules, which will end up in court for years and be a completely useless argument. It is hard to know who will win because all the documents involved are secret. This fact adds to the image that the sport is anything but transparent. This is not helpful and, whether he likes it or not, Bernie Ecclestone’s adventures in various courtrooms have not helped either. F1 has the opportunity to portray itself as a clean and transparent business at a time when all sports administration is under intense scrutiny.
The irony of all this is that the FIA is arguing for an engine formula that it does not want and which will drive manufacturers away, as they are not willing to allow their success to be dependent on an equivalency formula over which they have no control, as this is clearly something that could be manipulated or incompetently managed. It would be much better if the FIA and the manufacturers could agree on a sensible future for the sport and drive the sport in that direction.
Those with any experience in these matters know that what is required to make F1 more competitive at the moment is not an artificial equivalency formula, but rather time, to allow the rival companies to catch up with Mercedes. Technology always tends to spread quickly in the motorsport world and at the same time the rate of development slows. This means that new engine companies can enter the sport without needing anything like the same level of investment as the pioneers required. They are currently getting the benefit of their early investment, but the sanest thing for F1 to do, is to stick with its hybrid strategy and extend the formula for another five years to 2025, in order to provide the stability that is required for more manufacturers to want to be involved.
The issue of noise is far less important than some think. What fans want is good racing and reasonably-priced tickets and not to have pay premium prices to watch the sport on TV. There is also need for social media engagement and a solid strategy to try to attract the younger generations. This requires younger and more open minds than those who rule the sport at the moment. It also requires investment, a concept that CVC Capital Partners does not seem to understand at all.
So, there you have it. No turkey for F1 this year. There is not much to be thankful for at the moment…