The first race of the year is rarely one with much gossip. The focus is on what is happening on the track (blimey) and not on the Paddock. Mind you, access to the paddock has been further restricted this year by the Formula One group, which seems to be intent on having only it own guests these days and Rolex salesmen are not that interesting…
The biggest talking point in the paddock was, of course, the disgraceful debacle that was qualifying. It made F1 look amateurish and one needs to ask how and why such a stupid thing could have occurred. What is obvious is that someone, somewhere made a mistake and none of the checks and balances worked. To explain what happened and how, one first needs to understand the system, which is as clear as Mississippi Mud Pie. Some have blamed the teams, others have taken shots at Bernie Ecclestone and some have had a go at the FIA. Lots of reporting has aimed at the F1 Commission, but this is really a red herring. The F1 Commission is a rubber-stamping body that can only accept or reject proposals. It is not allowed a mind of its own. Even if it was, the political situation is such that its members generally vote things through and do not rock the boat, either because their objections are overruled and there is no point in stirring up trouble, or because they really don’t care about the sport. It is a similar story with the second rubber-stamping body – the World Motor Sport Council.
The reality is that the new qualifying was the work of the F1 Strategy Group or, in other words, the eight voting parties involved: these are the FIA, the Formula One group, Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren, Red Bull, Williams and Force India. The FIA and the Formula One group each have six votes, the teams have one vote each. The Strategy Group is where this problem came from.
Now here’s the thing. It took me five whole minutes to get a very clear picture of what was going to happen with the new rules. You simply have to ask some team strategists and they will tell you. And they did. The Q1 and Q2 sessions would be fraught with difficulty, they said, because of time, tyres and traffic. There would be no second chances and the action would be disjointed. No-one would be able to react to other times being set and so ultimately it would be a question of everyone running as fast as possible at the start of the sessions. Those who went earliest might get a chance of a second run (as we saw with Jolyon Palmer), but that would involve speed and discipline. The team would need to guess whether its time was good enough before deciding on a second run. If they waited too long, the run would be stopped by the clock.Explaining it all to the public, they said, would be tough. In Q3, they added, it would be over with five minutes to go. You might as well go and make tea, one said.
And that was exactly what happened.
The question, therefore, was very simple. If the cleverest people in the paddock all said that it wouldn’t work, why on earth did the Strategy Group vote it through?
There are two possible answers to this: politics, and/or arrogance. I don’t know which is right, but it has to be one or the other. When you stop to think about it, it may be a similar case to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, with the Emperor being sold on the idea of an invisible suit of clothes and no-one daring to say that they don’t see it, until the inevitable “But he isn’t wearing anything at all”…
The decision to go ahead was taken in late February and announced by the FIA, which explained that the goal of the new regulations was to deliver “a faster, more spectacular FIA Formula One World Championship”.
The thinking behind a change in qualifying, such as it was, is as follows: by getting qualifying to scramble the grid, one can inject more action into the races. This is not as artificial as drawing starting positions from a hat, as used to happen. For the last 80-odd years the fastest driver has been given the best starting position because it is logical. The sport does not want to see undeserving drivers at the front (as happens in GP2) where drivers with limited talent can win races by being put to the front with the reversed top 8 system. It is a major flaw which, for me, undermines the credibility of the series because when overtaking is tough, slower drivers stay ahead and win.
“Two proposals were on the table,” Mercedes’s Toto Wolff said. “One was the reverse grid idea and the other was this one. We voted for the least worst solution. You can’t say no, no, no, all the time, so this time we felt maybe it’s worth exploring and see how it is.”
Under the rules of the Strategy Group, if the FIA and Formula One vote together then the teams can do nothing, except if Ferrari decides to use its veto on any decision, sporting or technical, which it has a right to do. But if there is a stupid idea that might make the FIA and Formula One look bad, then there is no reason that Ferrari would veto it, if it knows it is a bad idea. Similarly, one can argue that the teams look bad if a daft idea is adopted, so one can imagine the Formula One group doing that, given the current political situation. The truth is that the voting structure means that there must be alliances and thus there must, therefore, be politics.
The Formula One group’s legal people are threatening to overturn the Ferrari veto, arguing that there are clauses in the hyper-secret FIA-Formula One group 100-year commercial deal. It is impossible for anyone to say whether this is fact or fiction. And here is the key: the motivations of those involved are different. Formula One wants the best possible show in order to try to drive more revenues. The teams want to win, but they want a fair system, while the FIA under Jean Todt seems to have abdicated all responsibility and has signed away its right to do as it pleases, in exchange for large amounts of money. One can disguise this by pretending its all about consensus decision-making, but I think a sensible High Court judge, faced with the facts, would conclude that the motivation was that the FIA President wanted money to fund his other ambitions. If that is not the case, he’s not doing enough to convince people of anything.
I do not believe that the eight people who voted this through are stupid enough for this to have occurred. For me, this is all about blame-shifting and scoring points off one another in the overall fight for control in F1. The teams are happy to see the FIA and Formula One being weakened by bad decisions and so may have agreed to the system knowing it would fail – because it would have useful consequences. Formula One may have had the same thought process, believing that a public failure would weaken the manufacturer credibility. It is either this, or they are all not competent.
It is increasingly clear that the current political structure must be broken up if the sport is to thrive. But that will not happen because no-one wants to give up the power that they have won. The whole system is stuck and the only real hope, is that European Competition Directorate might arrive and order all parties to find solutions or face the bureaucrats doing it for them.
The other thing that is bizarre is the complete lack of any reaction from the FIA after the teams met in Australia and said that they want to change the qualifying. There was no sign of either the FIA President or the CEO of the Formula One group.
They were not the only ones missing, by the way, the crowd in Melbourne was down 24,000 compared to the four-day figure last year, from 296,000 to 272,000.
Beyond that there was not much real gossip in Melbourne. The race was very good and the action generated one key question: will the track now have to get rid of its sand traps? Fernando Alonso’s accident was a clear indication that the sand trap is not the right thing for safety. Alonso’s car was up-ended by the change of surface and the sand trap caused it to fly for something like 50 metres, without losing much speed. In safety terms, flying is never good. In my opinion, this is much more important a question than the halo.
When I got off the plane in Paris, I heard the bad news from Brussels (not that such things are unexpected today). I also heard horrible news from Ferrari. I do not normally write about the private lives of people in the sport, but I was desperately sad to hear of the sudden death of Becky Allison, the wife of Ferrari technical director James Allison, at the age of only 48. James is one of the good guys in F1, a proper old school racer and one of the smartest engineers in the sport. he has played a key role in the team’s current revival. James and Becky were married for 23 years. Becky was an accomplished singer, trained at the Guildhall School of Music, to which she won a scholarship. Her career was a little disjointed because she moved to Italy for four years when James first went to Ferrari. The couple have three children: Emily (22), Matt (19) and Johnny (17). One can only hope that James and the family can draw strength from the knowledge that the good people of F1 – the majority – understand that sometimes humanity is more important than the games that are played. Their pain is shared even if not everyone knew Becky.