Formula 1's political tug of war

The Brazilian Grand Prix, a first-class motor race, was a welcome distraction from the wall-to-wall politicking that dominated the São Paulo weekend. Nevertheless, the political machinations come at a time crucial to the future development and well-being of Formula 1, writes Tony Dodgins

Formula 1's political tug of war

As reported by autosport.com over the Brazilian weekend, a heated meeting on Friday resulted in nine of the teams agreeing to radical cost-saving measures that they want implemented for 2005.

The document issued by them referred to Bernie Ecclestone consulting the tyre companies on measures that would eliminate the majority if not all tyre testing, which is a huge drain on F1's resources. The teams also want to use grand prix Fridays for four hours of testing and limit non-event testing to 10 days. If this was achieved, said the team principals (TPs), then there would be no problem in increasing the calendar from the current 17 races stipulated by the Concorde Agreement governing F1. Specifically, next year's French and British GPs, currently races 18 and 19 on the 2005 draft calendar, could then go ahead.

This was nothing new. The TPs have been advocating less testing/more racing for eons. The difference, this time, is that nine of the 10 teams are in agreement. Previously, teams such as McLaren have been loathe to accept testing restrictions.

The problem, of course, is that Ferrari has its own Fiorano test track on its doorstep, as well as Mugello, which it owns, and wants no part of to testing limitations.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, Patrick Head (Williams) pointed out to Ferrari's Jean Todt in the Friday TPs' meeting that it was time for F1 to sort itself out before half the grid went to the wall.

Paul Stoddart (Minardi) played the role of talisman for the cost-cutters, fittingly enough, but the changes proposed will have far greater effect than simple measures to help the chronically financially challenged.

Jean Todt, out on a limb, told autosport.com on Saturday that the document released by the other nine teams did not address key issues (see separate story).

Nobody is denying that F1 costs are out of control and that cuts are necessary, but the real issue is the share of revenue and the future control of the sport beyond 2007. I can't be alone in finding it highly coincidental that a set of '06 engine regulations that are as restrictive as they possibly can be, on Mosley's admission, appeared on the same weekend as a group of proposals that would radically cut the cost of taking part.

I asked Stoddart to put a figure on a workable F1 budget taking into account the 2006 engine regs in association with the desired cost cuts. He came up with a figure that was just over 25 per cent of some of today's budgets. All of a sudden F1 seems to be a realistic prospect for aspiring teams rather than an impossibly closed shop. Ditto engine supply. Mosley does not want F1 dependent on major manufacturers, especially at a time when they are threatening a rival series, and has done something about it.

Ferrari will argue that it shouldn't be portrayed as the bad guy when it is having a gun held to its head. But the others would argue, with some justification, that for at least three years they have been campaigning that costs need to fall drastically and that testing is key. The point has been reached where for some teams, and not necessarily the ones you might imagine, it is now or never.

What is Mosley's attitude to the teams' cost-cutting document?

Basically, he is supportive and relieved that the penny has finally dropped, even if it is late in the day.

Will Ferrari sign?

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Ferrari could be persuaded to put pen to paper if it was happy with the constitution of the sport beyond 2007.

So, will Ecclestone, in the weeks ahead, address the cause of discontent among so many - the fact that the teams share approximately 23 per cent of F1's revenue from TV rights, promoters fees and circuit advertising, while he pockets the rest?

He alone can do that soon enough to save F1 considerable grief. Because if not, that grief is coming much sooner than 2008.

Honda, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are severely unhappy with the 2006 engine regulations, for example. And are they really going to go to the expense of building a 2.4-litre V8 for '06 if they are planning to join a rival GPWC series? The official position from the three is that they are going to sit down together and rethink their position. Toyota, too, will not be happy.

The timing of a statement from the GPWC that they have appointed a new company, ISE, to handle the establishment and promotion of its rival series is hardly a surprise either. The message is: hello guys, we're here, we're serious and we're not going away.

But will they? Whatever you think of the politicking and the methods of implementation, Mosley is spot-on when he says that you don't need 500 people per car (the combined size of some teams/engine manufacturer projects) and spending approaching half a billion dollars to put two racing cars on a track 17 times a year. It's nonsense. And he is having a decent stab at stopping it.

Equally, it's just as big a nonsense to have one man riding off into the sunset with 75 per cent of the sport's revenue in his swag bags. But you can almost see what's coming. As soon as Bernie and Max have made the sport between 50 and 75 per cent cheaper, Bernie is going tell the teams that they don't need a bigger share of his money any longer.

Peering out through rose-tinted specs, he will keep Ferrari sweet enough to prevent them from making the GPWC viable, cut the teams a decent enough deal to make GPWC unnecessary and leave them fully shirted and happy. Then, with everyone onside, focus on improving the show for the benefit of all.

Where would we be then? Provided that Ferrari can swallow some testing restrictions for the good of all, we'd have a much more viable F1 with the two major cost factors - engines and testing - under control.

We would still be left with a group of disaffected engine manufacturers. This is tricky. You can understand them wanting to demonstrate their technical skill but it should not be through making F1 exclusively a spending exercise. Car manufacturers use F1 to shift metal and we need to remember that. They are important, but they are not the reason that motor racing exists.

What happens if they disappear? So long as a commercial supplier - a Cosworth or a Mecachrome - can produce an engine that is close enough in performance to those of the manufacturers that remain, then the answer is, not a lot. Which is what Mosley is trying to ensure by limiting engine complexity.

The problem is that the sport has grown to the level where there is inevitably going to be some pain. Mercedes, for instance, owns 40 per cent of McLaren. So Ron Dennis is in a tricky situation.

But the problems are not insurmountable. The likes of Frank Williams and David Richards (BAR) can try to persuade their suppliers to stay or, alternatively, look elsewhere.

Hopefully, a by-product of restricting engine design and therefore expenditure is that manufacturers need not win to survive. A mere involvement can be worthwhile. Especially if some of the saved money is spent on marketing the show properly.

I've banged this drum a lot, but Ecclestone's own huge 'Bakersville' TV facility has always produced a superb product. The press got it and so did the Sky TV subscribers in the UK for a time, until Bernie was forced to rein it in through contractual problems. This is in no way a criticism of ITV, which has to work with what it gets from the host broadcaster, but Bernie TV is/was unbelievably better. Those pictures on free-to-air TV, I'm sure, would boost viewing figures.

F1 should find a way to establish Bernie's operation as the host feed at every race, taking advantage of the latest in modern technology to help promote a sport that is crying out for it. I'd even argue that a central pot to help pay for it would be in everyone's interest.

You would then have more control over what went out and you could ensure the manufacturers/sponsors/suppliers got their pound of flesh. Then comes the problem of updating some of the more classic venues on the calendar, such as Silverstone, vis-à-vis the government-funded mega-projects such as those in Bahrain and China.

Clearly, F1 generates enough money to regenerate its circuits. If the promoters made a whopping great profit every year, then you could reasonably expect them to spend it on their tracks. But because they don't, you can't. If you can get government funding for a new track, great. But if you can't, then F1 should have a pot that pays for whatever updating is necessary.

If Ferrari gives a little, the manufacturers will give a little and Bernie gives perhaps more than a little, then the future is rosy. If not, who knows?

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