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The Ark of the Covenant

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The scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Nazis open the Ark has to be one of the most gruesome scenes in the history of family film. The Nazis are attracted by the power of God that it’ll bring. However, when they open it, God is not best pleased to say the least, and turns them all into slimy goo and they vapourise. Or something like that. Just wonderful.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the Formula One World Championship. Well, I can tell you now that I am not referring to the man who was caught in a Nazi sex orgy. Allegedly. Actually, I’m referring to his opponents, the Formula One Teams Association, to many fans the knights in shining armour that will ride in to save the damsel in distress that is F1 from the Maxis of Evil, Mosley and his despised chum Ecclestone, whom 99.9% of F1 fans around the world hate. So the idea of the teams taking their ball elsewhere and running it themselves, free of politics on traditional tracks that have been removed from the calendar with many fan-friendly new additions, is like the Ark of the Covenant. The teams seem to be attracted by the god-like powers running a breakaway series would bring, especially the money. But like in Raiders, when they open the Ark, it will be far from the idyllic vision many believe FOTA will create with a new series. Grand prix motor racing will be turned into slimy goo and will vapourise.

These teams have said a lot lately, and to me, it all seems to be a charade. For an organisation that has said it doesn’t want open war, it’s used a lot of weaponry and fired a lot of shots at the FIA. For an organisation that just wants to be an “advisory committee” that doesn’t want to run the show, they’ve said an awful lot about governance of the sport that, if you squint enough to be able to read between the lines, reads suspiciously like “we want Mosley out and us in control of F1”. For an organisation that has said it’s all about the budget cap issues, they’ve whinged a lot about governance and revenues – see Renault CEO Ghosn’s recent comments on how F1 teams are soooo hard done by even though most of them are owned/co-owned by multi-billion pound corporations.

The FIA might be the kings of spin but FOTA are definitely challenging them for that crown. They say that all they want is a say in the formation of the rules, but it seems that they’ve conveninetly missed out the word “ultimate”, i.e. they want full control over the rules. As well as the commercial rights. I have come in for a lot of stick for “siding” with the FIA and its budget cap proposals and for “believing everything the FIA says” – not only is this not true, I am often told this by people who believe everything FOTA says.

It’s easy to hate Max Mosley, because of the allegations last year, his father, and some wacky ideas he’s come up with (that he probably had no intention in bringing in, may I add). So it’s easy to support FOTA and their vision of an ideal world. A lot of people have been taken in by it but, like when the Ark was opened, they will be shocked to see what is inside. Politics will not go away – far from it. They will not necessarily go to classic tracks – they were removed from the calendar for a reason. They’ll only do things for the fans to the extent that it’ll make them more money – we will be pawns in their little scheme, and is that really caring about us? And Ferrari will most likely remain the most influential and most powerful team – as the most popular team, the other teams will always be slaves to what they want as any breakaway series would find it difficult to survive without them. In fact, I think it’ll find it difficult to survive with them.

Look at some of the other examples of teams that have been dominated by manufacturers – the World Rally Championship is a great example. In 1996, there were a grand total of 4 manufacturers – Toyota (albeit banned for most of 1996 after getting caught cheating in 1995), Ford, Subaru and Mitsubishi. So for 1997, they introduced the World Rally Car formula, designed to be a far more cost-effective way of doing things. It worked well – 3 out of the 4 manufacturers developed new models, with Mitsubishi given dispensation until 2o01 to continue with non-WRCars. They were joined by SEAT in 1998, Peugeot and Skoda in 1999, Hyundai in 2000, Citroen in 2001 and later Suzuki in 2007. On the face of it, very good. But the FIA failed to really keep costs under control, and soon, many of these manufacturers  found their investments to be rather pointless because they were still struggling, with the “main” manufacturers maintaining their stranglehold on the top, namely Ford, Subaru, Mitsubishi and, until the end of 1999, Toyota, who pulled out to concentrate on their F1 programme. SEAT pulled out after 2000, Mitsubishi went after 2002 due to a lack of success with their WRCar but returned in 2004, Hyundai went after 2003, and then in 2005 came armaggedon. It reached a head. PSA pulled Peugeot and Citroen out, and they were joined by Skoda and Mitsubishi (again). Overnight, 6 manufacturers became 2. The private Kronos team got together a campaign to run as a semi-works Citroen team and the French manufacturer returned in 2007, but the damage had been done. Then, last year, came another disaster, as Suzuki and Subaru also pulled out. This time, the championship was genuinely down to 2 manufacturers, and with an uncertain future as political wranglings have led to a lack of agreement on a new cost-cutting formula. The sport of rallying is currently a mess and it isn’t going to magically get better overnight.

This is the sort of situation grand prix motor racing faces with a manufacturer-led breakaway. The manufacturers might produce some PR guff every now and again saying they’re committed to F1 and the team bosses might want to continue (naturally, considering they’re out of a job if they don’t), but the reality is any series based on foundations made up of manufacturers is doomed to failure. The World Sportscar Championship ended up the same way, albeit due to intervention from the FIA, as did the original DTM and its predecessor. Talking of which, the latter is great proof that manufacturer-led series will only intensify political disputes – Audi and Mercedes have been pointing loaded guns at the other’s heads since Opel pulled out after 2005, and it has nearly boiled over on a number of occasions, notably at Zandvoort in 2007 when the Audi drivers in 1st and 3rd, Alex Premat and Timo Scheider, moved over for their stablemates in 2nd and 4th, Martin Tomczyk and Mattias Ekstrom, in a nightmare scenario – yes, it was like Austria 2002 but twice as bad. I haven’t watched a DTM race since – it was that farcical. With a grand prix series on similar lines, possibly even with 3 car teams, this may be a reality once again. I can tell you now that team orders may be conveniently not banned – manufacturer teams are the sort of cold, calculating organisations that wouldn’t hestitate to do this. Just look at what Ferrari have gotten away with in recent years.

Manufacturer-led series have no long term stability. Neither do series run by the teams – just look what become of the Championship Auto Racing Teams World Series. Yes, that’s CART, which went bust not only once but twice. Successful racing series are usually built around a dictatorial governing body – look at NASCAR, for instance, where the teams rarely argue back against any potential rule changes and rarely win against the governing body. NASCAR teams are all relatively modern organisations with little history – the 2 biggest teams, Hendrick and Roush, were both formed in the 1980s. Of the 2 teams that were still going last year with history, Petty Enterprises has now merged with Gillett Evernham, whilst Wood Brothers Racing has been forced to cut back to a part-time schedule, and I hear few complaints. And yet NASCAR is now the biggest American motor racing series by far, because it has a good model for success. Teams are there to race, not to govern and race. There needs to be an organisation to set the rules that is distinctly independent. However, it is pretty clear that the FIA is not the organisation to do this as it stands. FOTA are right in that Mosley should go and the FIA should be reformed, perhaps with a devolution back to the old days of FISA which was essentially separate from the FIA. Unfortunately, I think the comparison between FOTA’s opinion and mine only goes as far as the first comma, with FOTA adding their own little bit on the end…

This is why I think a breakaway series is inevitable. FOTA have set out their stall – after hiding behind the budget cap, they’ve now started to come out and say the governance needs to be reformed first and foremost, which is PR blurb for “Mosley needs to go”. And given that I can’t see Mosley going yet, it is thus surely highly likely that the FOTA teams will be heading out the exit door. The only things to stop that are a dramatic FIA back-down, which I see as incredibly unlikely and would be a bad move (it would prove the teams are more powerful than the governing body), or a FOTA fracture. FOTA currently has 8 active members – if Brawn and/or the Red Bull teams and/or McLaren suddenly decided they didn’t like the way this was heading and, to be safe, jumped over to the FIA, that would leave FOTA in a seriously weakened position, as you can’t run a breakaway series with 5 or 6 teams. Plus I remain convinced that at least one of those manufacturers in FOTA is going to use this crisis as an excuse to get out of racing, probably either Renault or Toyota, although the thought of a new series could persuade them to stay on.

As it is right now, I don’t see FOTA or the FIA backing down and we are heading for collision course. The projected date of impact is Friday 19th June 2009, just 2 days before what could be the last British Grand Prix ever. It would be a terrible shame, but I fear Silverstone’s final F1 race could be marred by a boycott. Although they may say it’s not the sort of thing they’d like to do, if it continues as a stalemate after Friday’s deadline and the FOTA teams end up off the entry list (or at least 5 of them), it could all spill over into the race and we could see Indy 2005 all over again. It’s a definite possibility that cannot be ruled out, in just the same way that the breakaway was a possibility a few weeks ago that not many expected – now look where we are.

It’s sad that it’s come to this – the teams being powerful enough to think of themselves as bigger than the sport, the governing body trying to force through legislation that the teams don’t want, and the vast number of fans willing to be bought by the translucent promises the teams have made. It’s a mess that may take many years to clean. If it will be cleaned. Just go and ask some of the guys over in American open-wheel racing…

But I will conclude with a warning – in this world of brand names and corporations, do not underestimate the power of the F1 brand…

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Written by James Bennett

June 16, 2009 at 21:04

Posted in F1 politics

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