McLaren, Ferrari in harmony on F1 future
|By Jonathan Noble||Friday, January 30th 2009, 15:43 GMT|
During the height of the 'Stepneygate' affair in 2007, when the only time Ferrari and McLaren came close to each was on track or in a court room, it was hard to imagine that the two teams could ever work in harmony again.
Yet, just 18 months on from that torrid summer, the men from Woking and Maranello are not only enjoying a better than ever relationship, but their friendship is mirroring a more unified approach from all teams in their efforts to make Grand Prix racing better.
Such has been the turnaround in relations between F1's two most successful teams that this week a small piece of history was made at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking.
On Thursday morning, Ferrari's media chief Luca Colajanni became the first contemporary employee of the Scuderia to step foot inside the hallowed turf of McLaren's factory for a visit, before holding meetings with senior personnel including team boss Ron Dennis and marketing managing director Ekrem Sami.
"It was definitely a strange feeling," conceded Colajanni during a media dinner held by him and McLaren's group head of communications Matt Bishop in London on Thursday night. "If you had told me 12 months ago that I would be doing this I would not have believed you."
There is no suggestion that such friendship between the two teams marks an end to their competitive spirit - as Colajanni made clear to tell McLaren that Ferrari's own trophy cabinet at Maranello was much bigger than the one he was shown in Woking.
Yet, this off-track love-in between McLaren and Ferrari has come at a time when all of F1's competitors are attempting to work closer to try and improve the sport through the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA).
There has already been some progress in working with the FIA to achieve cost cuts, but potentially FOTA's biggest successes - and perhaps its biggest challenges - are set to come over the next few weeks.
Within days, FOTA will be delivered a global marketing survey to tell them what fans want to see in F1 - be it more access to drivers, new formats for qualifying and races, or even more radical concepts like reverse grids.
Once that survey has told the teams what the fans want, they will then set out to work through improvements that could be in place for Melbourne. And already talk is of teams providing more data than ever to fans - like fuel-loads post-qualifying and more access to radio traffic.
Senior FOTA figures concede that, against the backdrop of a worldwide financial downturn, action has to be taken that is in the best interests of the sport as a whole and not just to help individual teams.
As McLaren boss Ron Dennis told the official Formula One website this week: "We're not complacent; we're not reluctant to embrace radical change; we're not hidebound by on-track rivalries. No, working together for the good of the future of Formula One, we'll continue to devise powerful strategies and innovations intended to improve our sport so as to make it more affordable, more environmentally friendly and more appealing to spectators and TV viewers."
Yet despite a spirit of cooperation that has been so exemplified by the Ferrari visit to Woking, there remain tremendous hurdles to overcome. One test will be keeping harmony when the heat of competition flicks on in Melbourne.
We've already seen differences of opinion about diffuser designs in a season when technical controversy could become quite common because of the all-new cars, so managing teams' unity when they disagree about rules will not be straightforward.
Yet the experience of Spa last year, where Ferrari and McLaren disagreed about Lewis Hamilton's chicane-cutting antics but still continued working together well within FOTA, points to the fact that FOTA unity does not suffer from on-track politics.
One of the biggest challenges will be in FOTA dealing with Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley. Both Ecclestone and Mosley have achieved great things for F1 in the past by using the tactic of 'divide-and-conquer' - exploiting an inability of the teams to wholly agree on ideas to get through what they want themselves.
Yet now, as FOTA chairman Luca di Montezemolo said last year, such divide and conquer tactics will be a thing of the past if the team's association can hold its own.
There have been plenty of times in recent weeks when rules concepts, like BMW's standalone belief in sticking with KERS for 2009 or a big divide about standard engines, could have been the cause of a split down FOTA's middle. Yet so far, although the occasional gripe remains (especially with KERS), unity within FOTA appears strong.
What could be biggest hurdle of all, though, is what happens when FOTA agree on something that the FIA does not approve of. Who wins then?
There are already the first rumblings of such a divide in relation to the wind tunnel and factory cost-cut restrictions agreed at the end of last year.
The FIA has already implemented a strict wind tunnel usage limit into the regulations, but FOTA itself wants the restrictions to be less - something the governing body may not accept. Likewise, the teams are believed to want to cut back the FIA plans to shut factories for four weeks in the summer down to two.
Seeing how these specific situations pan out in the next few weeks could prove to be a key indicator of where the battleground will lie over future rules changes - something FOTA accepts itself.
It is new territory for F1, just as Colajanni's visit to McLaren marked a new chapter in the history of relations between the sport's two big teams.
Yet if FOTA can fulfil the promise that is being talked about now, and indeed remain unified to act in the best interests of the sport rather than just the individual teams, that could be the single piece of best news fans have had for years.