It’s that time of year when people write seasonal reviews and so I thought I might sum up the politics of the sport in one quick story.
Formula 1 is in a state of quiet conflict, with everyone pretending that all will be worked out and both sides dropping hints of things that they might do in the future. Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt want to get control of the sport back from the manufacturers and the big teams. They have told the world that they have some kind of magical “mandate” that will solve everything and they have roped in the usual suspects to write articles about how the Ferrari veto is wrong and can be overturned.
On the other hands the big guns are dropping hints about doing different things if the rulemakers insist on a combine harvester engine rather than the marvellous but unpromoted hybrid units of today. Some fans want more noise, others want exciting technology, most want cheaper tickets, free TV and better racing. It is not really very confusing. In the end it all boils down to power. Not horsepower, but power to make things happen. For years Ecclestone and the FIA worked hand-in-hand to control the game. It worked well, but Bernie is a man who sees money as a way to keep score and so he always wanted more. He started selling bits of his business and then, by accident, he lost control to some German banks. He got this back by fairly dubious means that ended up with a string of court cases (some barely reported) from which he emerged battered but legally-speaking not guilty. When it became clear that he wasn’t about to sink without trace, the FIA threw in the towel and got as much money as it could squeeze from him. All this negotiating and deal-cutting eroded the power of the powers-that-used-to-be because the teams fought for more money and more power each time there was a negotiation, and each time they got a little more. Ecclestone always had an ace in the hole: Luca Montezemolo was his ally, even if they fought from time to time. But when Luca was moved on from Ferrari, things changed. Sergio Marchionne took over Ferrari and, in league with his mates Dieter Zetsche and Carlos Ghosn, they envisaged a rather different Formula 1, one which the players would control. With engine supply being the key, they extended their influence over the smaller teams to the point at which they could block decisions they did not like, using the Ferrari veto and sticking together, at least politically. The one fly in the ointment was Red Bull which might have joined the manufacturers if Volkswagen had not got itself into such a mess over its diesels. The logical thing to do was for Red Bull to find itself a manufacturer but the team’s adventures with Renault made others wary. With customer Renault engines (hidden beneath another name) the team is unlikely to achieve much and one wonders how long Adrian Newey will sit around if he gets a more interesting offer from somewhere or other. If he goes, one can see things unravelling still further.
Anyway, the manufacturers want F1 to be more sexy. They want names like Alfa Romeo and Aston Martin. Perhaps even Maserati. They want Porsche too. They want F1 to be the one-stop shop for manufacturers who are trying to build a sexy image. And they want it global, properly global (which in rough translation means “strong in America”).When it comes to the next negotiation, for a post-2020 commercial deal, they are currently strong. They can say no. They can demand more cash and more power. This is why there is a need for something to break their power. The customer engine idea with an equivalency formula would do that. The manufacturers would be sceptical about the performance-balancing, or at least they would not be willing to bet billions on it, and they would leave. Ferrari might stay, because it needs F1 as much as F1 needs it, but Marchionne is different to Montezemolo and might just pull the pin. No-one is quite sure.
Logically, given the situation, the FIA might decide to ally with the manufacturers, as it always has done in the past, but for reasons that are not entirely clear, the FIA President is not doing that. One can only wonder why? Is he not a clever politician? Is he worried about the money the federation gets from the Formula One group? Does he not really care as he is using the FIA as a springboard to other things? No-one really understands. What they do understand is that the whole situation is drifting towards a battle. The Formula One group is committed to paying out certain percentages to the teams and they have certain amounts of power based largely on results, but it is not wise to do something your engine manufacturer does not like, lest you end up in the Red Bull mess. If one plays out this game, there will come a time when the big teams will refuse to agree terms on a new commercial deal, unless they get what they want. If the circuits smell weakness from the Formula One group they will side with the manufacturers in a flash. They need a break from the crushing fee structures. If that happens then the FIA has no choice but to do what the FA did when faced with the Premier League. If the Formula One group cannot deliver a field of credible teams, then the 100-year deal will break and the sport’s commercial structure can be reformed in a more sustainable shape. The FIA owns the F1 World Championship so the name can be applied wherever it wants it to be.
It’s all a big mess and while this plays out, the independent teams are looking to protect themselves by diversifying, as we have seen McLaren do, and as Williams is now doing. They want to be in a position where they can survive with or without F1. The manufacturers will want to have forces as strong as possible and so there will be encouragement for Aston Martin to get involved with Force India and perhaps other Fiat Chrysler brands with other small teams. No doubt the manufacturers are encouraging VW to get into the game by buying Red Bull. That was certainly the case before the diesel brouhaha. Now, so they say, Stefano Domenicali is moving to the VW-owned Lamborghini, Ferrari’s big supercar rival. He’s not really a car industry executive, but he knows a whole lot about F1. That will be worth watching. It may mean nothing, or it maybe be significant. We will have to see…
In any case, if the current drift goes on F1 will be going to war at some point between now and 2020. There is a strong argument that the problems could be fixed if Todt gets into bed with the manufacturers, and people within his federation may eventually pluck up the courage to ask why he is not doing this? Jean may be hoping that he does not have to deal with all of this because he will be off soon, chinking glasses with the UN jetset and intends to leave the mess to his FIA successor to sort out. But is there a man of stature among the pygmies? Either way, it makes little sense for Jean to stay on after the next FIA election if he is not willing to take the F1 bull by the horns.
And in the background we have the European Commission looking at F1 and considering what is right and wrong in terms of competition law.
It’s a fascinating time if you like this sort of stuff, but all the while F1 is in danger of weakening. It is interesting to see manufacturers like Peugeot, Audi and now Jaguar getting more involved in Formula E. It’s not the greatest show on earth at the moment, but F1 would be wise to watch its back. The world moves on and if F1 does not move with it, then things will change.
I think I’ll be off to take a look at Formula E when it comes to Paris next spring… Just in case.