It is interesting to see in recent weeks that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles/Ferrari boss Sergio Marchionne has been ramping up his remarks about the state of Formula 1, saying things in public that others in F1 industry only whisper sotto voce for fear that such opinions will come back and bite them. Marchionne does not care. He is a top banana in the automobile world, he has made a great fortune and he really doesn’t care if he knocks a few noses out of joint in what he sees as something of an backwater, in real world terms. He sees the sport in a rather different perspective than those involved in it. He is also a man who is used to getting what he wants and he knows how to play the games that required to do that. It is very clear that he understands that the automobile manufacturers are currently in a position of power within F1. They control the engine supplies. Racing cars need engines and, as you cannot go off to Cosworth with a cheque in hand, you have to be respectful of your engine manufacturer, lest you find yourself in the kind of mess that Red Bull pancaked into last year.
And this, of course, is why Marchionne is talking about wanting to see new manufacturers and new brands coming into the sport. He has been talking on and off about a possible Alfa Romeo F1 project (read rebadged Ferrari V6 engine, mated to something like a Toro Rosso chassis). He wants to see BMW come back and buy Sauber again, he wants Toyota back in action, and he wants Volkswagen, in whatever form he can get it. He says he has been encouraging the CEO of Volkswagen Matthias Müller to bring the German giant into the sport. One must remember that Müller’s predecessor Martin Winterkorn seems to have given an F1 project the go-ahead last summer, just a few days before his world crashed around his ears with the still-developing diesel emissions scandal, that led to Winterkorn’s resignation. There is no question that the VW group has the technology to compete (quite quickly) in F1 as its Porsche 919 Hybrid Le Mans-winning sports car uses many of the same systems as F1, even if the engine itself is a V4 turbo, rather than a V6.
What Marchionne would like to see more than anything is all the teams having different manufacturers behind them (or at least appearing thus). It would help too to have at least one American brand so that the sport can grow in the world’s biggest consumer market, so maybe Gene Haas will be encouraged to use an FCA brand in the future…
It makes perfect sense because the car industry these days is all about big companies with multiple brands that share “platforms” and have as many common parts as possible. There are many examples of the same engine being used by competing car companies, although such things are not necessarily pointed out much in public. F1 fans tend to get huffy and puffy about it, but they may be too close to the sport to see the fact that most people don’t really care and accept what they are spoon-fed on the TV. It is true that F1 isn’t like the industry, but logically it ought to be. If Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari used different badges from their portfolios the grid could be filled with “manufacturer teams” very rapidly – and with very minimal costs, compared to the investments that have been made. If Renault is happy to have Red Bull running TAG-Heuer V6 engines, what in the world would be wrong with using Gordini (better than having that used rather oddly on the Dakar by Robbie Gordon), or even Alpine? It will all help sell cars.
Keeping the regulations unchanged means closer racing because development will inevitably cause the competition to get tighter. Change always opens up the gaps, stability closes them and attracts other competitors. It is small wonder, therefore, that Marchionne is trying to get other car companies to think about F1. It is also pretty logical because other motorsport programmes have very little market penetration. Almost all other racing series either have to either give away coverage for free or pay to have the racing on television. F1 is unique in this respect, while other championships require additional money to be spent on publicising the success. The technology in Formula 1 is also ground-breaking and useful to the industry so all manufacturers involved with benefit from this, even if all cannot win races.
This is why Bernie Ecclestone thinks there is a need to break the power of the manufacturers. His customer engine idea would do that. The manufacturers are more than sceptical about the performance-balancing, or at least they would not be willing to bet billions on it, and they would almost certainly leave. They have said as much. Ferrari might stay, because it needs F1 as much as F1 needs Ferrari, but Ferrari sales would probably not suffer at all in the short term, while F1 audiences assuredly would. Without manufacturers F1 would be back under Ecclestone control, but it would be less relevant and in a far weaker state. This is probably why Marchionne has started chipping away at Ecclestone, something considered sacrilege in F1 circles.
“Ecclestone knows that he is not going to be there forever and maybe this is also connected to the future of FOM,” Marchionne said. “The real challenge for Bernie is to get organised. He needs to come up with a system where maybe some responsibilities can be developed differently.”
We have already seen the first skirmish between the manufacturers and FOM over the question of historical money from Renault. Renault boss Carlos Ghosn basically told the Formula One group to agree to a deal or go screw itself (without any Renault team nor engines) and after some bluster, a deal was agreed upon. With the car manufacturers in what seems to be quite a tight alliance, it is going to take a lot to shift them from their path, particularly as we head towards negotiations for a post-2020 commercial deal.
What I fail to really understand is why the FIA President Jean Todt is supporting FOM as openly as he is. This does not make much sense because giving up the current engine formula would be a disaster for FIA prestige. The logical thing would be to try to ally with the manufacturers at the same time as looking for cost controls. Perhaps Todt is just sitting on the fence and is a bit lopsided at the moment.