Rules of engagement

After last Friday's open debate between some of F1's leading figures in a press conference during the Hungarian GP weekend, Autoport.com's Tony Dodgins investigates why it so difficult for F1 team principals to agree on a stable future for F1, and asks just how damaging the current stalemate is to the sport

Rules of engagement

Friday afternoon's press conference in Budapest and the FIA served up a mixed helping of team principals and technical brains. On parade for the TPs was Jaguar's Tony Purnell, Eddie Jordan and Minardi's Paul Stoddart. The tech men were represented by Ferrari's Ross Brawn, Pat Symonds from Renault and Sauber's Willy Rampf.

The FIA's selection is no coincidence. The six teams represented just happen to be the six who have agreed to the FIA's rule proposals for 2005/6, encompassing changes to the chassis/engine/tyre rules.

First, a bit of tedious but necessary background. In case you didn't know, on July 7, FIA technical delegate Charlie Whiting informed the F1 teams, via the F1 Technical Working Group (TWG), that under article 7.5 of the Concorde Agreement (which governs F1), they are required to slow down their cars on safety grounds. The safety bit is important. It means that the usual lead time required for technical changes can be disregarded.

The teams were given two months to agree proposals on which there must be 80 percent agreement (eight teams out of the 10). If they cannot - and the FIA figured it highly unlikely - the governing body can propose three alternative rules frameworks, of which the teams must choose one, within a further 45 days. If there is still no agreement, the FIA can impose its own ruling after three months, ie by January '05. Way too late to be practical, of course.

To help the teams along, the FIA served early notice of its own intentions. These included doubling engine life (one engine must last two '05 race meetings), cutting aerodynamic efficiency via modifications to the front wing and rear diffuser and limiting teams to three sets of tyres for a race meeting.

Any delay in finalising the rules impacts on design of 2005 cars and, post-Hockenheim, Jordan sent a letter advocating that the teams bite the bullet, agree the FIA's proposals right now and get on with the programme. Basically, any uncertainty about rules only plays into the hands of the big teams because they have the resources to run parallel R&D programmes.

What was supposed to happen in Hungary was that the six would all sing from the same song sheet about how sensible all this was for Formula 1 and how the rules were now decided, along the lines of what Max wants. The press could then go away and write that all in the garden is rosy.

Admittedly the technical men were broadly in agreement and, as far as the constitutional process was concerned, Brawn explained, it was as good as done. If six teams agree with what Max wants then, by definition, there could not be any alternative proposal with the necessary 80 percent agreement. So they might as well go along with the Max rules and get on with it.

But where was the evidence that these six teams agreed, Stoddart wanted to know. As far as he was concerned, if the FIA proposals were adopted, he knew of a constructor and a manufacturer who would not be turning up. He simply couldn't afford to make a wrong choice and design a car around a phantom set of regs. It wouldn't be a disaster for Ferrari, which spends more on espresso than Minardi does on its cars, but it would break Stoddart. The tech men, in their world of downforce, widgets, grommets, bores and strokes, are more likely to co-operate, but team principals inhabit a sea of vested interest, where agreeing on the time of day is beyond them.

Stoddart, basically, was not confident enough that the TPs wouldn't influence their tech men into a U-turn before the September 7 deadline. And looking at the history of F1, recent or otherwise, you can't really blame him. There's been more U-turns than an autotest, from Max included. After all, it's only three short months since we sat in Monte Carlo listening to Mosley telling us that control tyres and standard engine ECUs were non-negotiable. An extra terrestrial sent on an F1 fact-finding mission these past few weeks would have gone home with his bug eyes crossed and his mind well and truly boggled.

Of the six in agreement, you can understand the poorer teams wanting to get on with it, but Ferrari's agreement to rules that seem to dumb down F1 ahead of time does make you wonder.

Purnell, in fact, has an interesting theory on that.

"My belief," he said, "is that Toyota and Honda (BAR), although they don't say it, have no real interest in making F1 cheaper. If I were Toyota I'd go out of my way to make F1 as expensive as possible, because everyone knows that is one race they'd win hands down.

"I think that might just be vaguely spooking Ferrari. They might have started believing that it needs to be cleverness that decides the championship in future, not just money muscle. Our best chance by far is to make it a racing series that has more cleverness content than just money."

Purnell, asked what he thought the rules would be, shared Brawn's take on the eventual outcome. "Ross is the probable clairvoyant here," he said.

Cue, a hot under the collar Stoddart.

"But that's the whole point... We don't need a bloomin' clairvoyant, we need a regulator that makes rules!"

It was a good point, well made, and Purnell picked up the baton.

"If the sport is going to reform, this sort of thing needs to be tackled," he said. "In the future it just shouldn't come up because the regulations and the methods need to be clear, pragmatic and sensible."

Amen to that.

Here's a couple of things for you to consider. At a time when F1 is supposed to be way out of control in terms of expense, BMW Motorsport director Mario Theissen admitted last weekend that BMW is already working on parallel 2005 engine programmes because it doesn't know the rules.

And, to me, the most stunning revelation of last weekend, was McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh saying: "We now have technical reviews where we estimate the percentage probability of what the rules will be and then we go away and design it. When you get it wrong you have to go back and re-appraise that part of the design."

How cretinous is that?

These uncertainties can also have repercussions. BAR's David Richards, for instance, hasn't put his name to the FIA plans because his engine partner, Honda, doesn't like them. And at Hockenheim, the Japanese admitted that if they didn't like the way the future was shaping up, they might not play. Although there were other issues involved too, this was enough, some say, for Jenson Button's management to interpret that the team had no guaranteed Honda engine supply next year, further boosting their alleged contractual right to jump ship to Williams.

Two of the best lines on the rules issue came from Tony Purnell and Frank Williams. Purnell first: "The way F1 is regulated is a Byzantine system - very difficult to understand and as much for politicians... I tell you what, I spent nine years learning science, engineering and logic, but political science and psychiatry would have been far better."

And now Frank: "The problem is that there is not one single team the same as another. You've got Eddie and Paul struggling to survive and doing an amazing job. There's Ferrari's super-team, all credit to it, with a massive budget. We've all got different perceptions and problems. And we have a conductor of the orchestra, the taller one of the two (Mosley), who plays a very powerful tune that some of us can follow and some of us can't. It is difficult to get a common agreement when some people are happy to follow the conductor instead of the music, the music being the Concorde Agreement. From this, confusion arises."

That's the crux of it. Mosley arguably drove a bus through the Concorde Agreement last year and there is already an outstanding case of arbitration brought about by Williams and McLaren. Experience tells you there could well be more of the same before anyone appears at Melbourne next March.

Publicly at least, McLaren was playing that down.

"The reality is that the time pressure is on us," Whitmarsh said. "We want to design our cars and get on with the business of racing. Those who we might be arbitrating against don't have those pressures, so ultimately we are going to acquiesce in the best interests of the sport."

Okay, good. So everyone's going to get on with it.

But wait. It gets sillier. As Symonds pointed out, they all want to design their cars but can't. Why? Because one of the starting points is the fuel tank capacity, so they need to know the qualifying regs and whether there'll be parc ferme after qualifying or not. And, wait for it, that's not a technical regulation, it's a sporting regulation, which doesn't have to be sorted until the end of October...

There are plenty of examples of technical regs masquerading as sporting ones. Why? Well conventional wisdom says because sporting regs can be changed later, it's so that the governing body can have more 11th hour influence on what goes on. Tweak something for the sake of the show, for example.

Take Ferrari last year. They'd steamrollered '02 and designed last year's car around parameters that proved highly disadvantageous when the FIA, a month before the season, suddenly revealed that you had to qualify with race fuel.

Was that a deliberate FIA ploy to clip their wings from someone with knowledge of the design route at Maranello? I couldn't honestly tell you. But as long as such opportunity exists, then the highly-tuned paranoia that exists in the F1 pitlane is never going to wane.

Whatever happens beyond the 2007 Concorde Agreement, whether it's another one or a different mechanism altogether, F1 needs to put its house in order. It needs majority rather than unanimous agreement. Better still, it needs to be run by a regulator who is not directly involved. Perhaps also with some input from the marketing and media side. It needs technical stability without any means of circumventing it and, if safety is involved, anticipation rather than knee-jerk response. Then we might get somewhere.

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