There is a glorious naivety in motor racing circles that the FIA can somehow warrant Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt to “fix the sport”. Judging by some of things I have read, it seems that the duo can now don their Batman and Robin gear (after a fight over who wears which costume) and, after a fight over the car keys, and adjusting the driver’s seat, they can accelerate into the F1 world (after an argument over the route to take) and zap all the problems, like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo taking on the evil empire.
It is not quite like that… The problems that they have is that there is a vast spider’s web of legally-binding interconnected and overlapping contracts that no cartoon hero is going to fix without wading into battle as OC of the 1st Battalion of the Legal Eagles. You cannot just zap binding commercial contracts without fear or favour, as the BBC and Austin, Texas are currently finding out. If you sign a deal with the Formula One group and you do not keep to that deal, the other party seeks compensation and even damages.
The irony here, of course, is that the system was created by those who are now seeking to un-make it. It is a bit like the French attacking the Maginot Line.
They created these structures in order to ensure the steady flow of money to the shareholders in the Formula One group, by tying in the big F1 teams until 2020, but in order to get their support there was a price to pay and terms and conditions that were not what was needed. However, a quick buck is much admired in the money world. The sport is now paying the price for this short-term botching. The problems can be fixed, of course, but that will cost the Formula One group money, as it discovered recently when trying to get Renault to stay in the F1 fold. That is the shape of things to come. If we are lucky, someone else will buy the mess from CVC Capital Partners and set about fixing the problems, but the price of $8.5 billion, plus around $5 billion in debt, is pretty high for what you are getting. So the primary focus of the sport should really be to explain to CVC Capital Partners and their fellow investors that they have taken enough and if they want to get out with their trousers, they need to reduce the price they are asking. If not, they are going to get a load more pain and reputational damage as their high-profile investment spins out of control and eventually smashes itself up against the crash barriers of reality. However, the problem here is that they have probably promised the earth to their investors and must now deliver…
The manufacturers are a powerful bunch and they do not want to mess the sport up. It is not in their interest to do that, but they feel that they have been exploited for far too long (which they have – although it is their own fault) and they want a fair share. They have not been smart in grabbing only what they want and not helping the smaller teams – and so there has always been a question of unity (or, rather, the lack of it) and that has been skilfully exploited by the money-grabbers. It is ironic that Ferrari should be leading this challenge because the Italian firm would not recognise a fair share if it landed on its foot. They have been the primary reason that the system developed because they understood their power and exploited it and then, at the right moment, dumped the other teams and got the best deal they could. Good business, perhaps, but short-sighted and now a problem. The argument that the sport needs small teams to survive because manufacturers come and go, is only valid if there are not huge penalty-laden contracts that tie the car-makers to the sport, and the rules are such that they want to be there all the time – even if they are not winning. If the rules and technology are right they will be there.
To be fair, Ferrari has been in the World Championship non-stop since the start, Mercedes has been a solid F1 supporter for more than 20 years (allowing for disguised early efforts) and Renault has been in the business pretty solidly in one form of another for nearly 40 years, so you cannot call them disloyal. Yes, Honda has come and gone, BMW too, but the small team argument is not as valid as once it was. As we have seen with Brawn, Sauber and Lotus F1 when a manufacturer departs, there are usually people ready to step in and try to win…
The first thing that we must establish in order to fix the sport is to define its purpose. The besuited vampires of The City see it simply as blood bank to be sucked dry so that they can impress pension fund managers and thus get massive commissions and bonuses to allow them to afford shooting parties on country estates. The competitors and fans see it rather differently. The sport is their passion. A game they love to take part in or to watch – and make a living from if they are lucky. They don’t want it to be a pawn in the shekel-shoving world which excites the vampires, they want it to open, sensibly-priced, sensibly-run and just good fun. When it ceases to be that, they turn away and the audience dissipates and the game is over. The money stops coming, the world moves on and some other form of entertainment becomes “the in thing”.
None of us want that, although some believe that certain parties would prefer to by buried with the sport, so that history will see them as having been important. Hmmm… Not sure about that. Can anyone name the promoter of chariot racing in Roman times? No, I didn’t think so. If we dig around, we can name a few charioteers, at best. A good lesson.
So, we have the solution of the problem staring us in the face and the FIA, the self-appointed guardian of the sport, should polish its rose-tinted spectacles and peer into reality and face the facts. They probably cannot do much because of the 100-year deal that was signed, but perhaps within that deal there are clauses that could be used to terminate the agreement. That would require a fight and the federation has no real appetite for conflict, as appeasement of the commercial forces massed on the borders has paid OK up to now.
Of course, it this warrant thing works then it is good news for all concerned because we can then fix everything easily. We can fix the fact that the sport is about as transparent as the skyline in Beijing. We can make all the deals public so that we know how the sport operates; we can have someone explain us to us why there are two parallel FIAs (one in France and one in Switzerland), we can know who pays for what and we can know the wording of the celebrated Ferrari veto.
Transparency is a good thing because it shows that there is nothing to hide. It attracts business and makes sponsors feel safe and secure. Obviously, there needs to be some cost-cutting and budget-capping, but beyond that there is nothing much wrong with this great sport. We must go with the technology if we wish to remain relevant, but we must also remember what sport is and why opening the doors to the greedy people was such a very bad idea.