I’ve been trying to decide whether I trust myself to comment on the current state of affairs in my favourite sport, but reading Only In America‘s amusing but information-free rant persuaded me to offer a few thoughts.
For those who haven’t been following things, here’s my analysis of the situation. First, the players:
- The FIA: the governing body of motor sport, with self-described non-Fascist Max Mosley in control.
- Formula One Management (FOM), the company that runs the business, wheels and deals with the teams, picks and discards circuits to race at, and generally does whatever Bernie Ecclestone’s Napoleon complex dictates.
- The teams: Ferrari, McLaren, Brawn, Williams, Red Bull and so forth. Most are members of FOTA, the Formula One Teams Association. Each builds its own car (nominally independently), and gets engines from one of the…
- Engineering power-houses: Mercedes, Renault, Toyota, BMW, Fiat. Some own teams; some supply engines to one or more teams; some do both.
- The drivers: the stars that we all know and love (or hate). Each is under contract to a team; playing games with supposedly binding contracts is a popular pastime.
- The circuits: the venues where the races are run. There are classics like Monza, Monaco and Silverstone, and new built-for-TV extravaganzas like Bahrein and Turkey.
- The fans. Though it might not be obvious, the vast majority of these live in Italy, Germany, France, England and Japan. (There are plenty of fans in the US, too, but Bernie doesn’t like dealing with American motorsports businessmen because they than play the game of divide-and-exploit even better than he can.)
Next, supply and demand. There is an oversupply of circuits, so Bernie can play them off against each other and dump anyone, like Silverstone, that doesn’t toe his line. There is an undersupply of money, which means that although there are more drivers and teams that want to take part, the wannabees can’t afford to join. This is because there’s an oversupply of technology, which has two causes. First, the engineering powerhouses want to leverage F1 for promotional purposes: their investments really come out of the advertising budget. Second, Mad Max and a few others are worried about the image of gas-guzzling racing cars at a time of high fuel prices and environmental sensibility, so they browbeat the engineers into building esoteric things like Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems.
(It would be nice to say that this was necessary to promote R&D that would benefit everyday cars; in fact the R&D has already been done and cars like the Toyota Prius use KERS everyday. It makes sense in commuter stop-and-go; not so much at 148MPH around Silverstone.)
The recent crisis was provoked by Mad Max declaring that he was going to change the rules to save money, with preferential rules for new teams so that they could participate on the cheap, and that all of the other teams had damn well better sign up immediately, even though the rules weren’t fully worked out. The idea that savvy commercial players like Toyota, Mercedes and BMW would sign up without even knowing what they were agreeing to is… well, delusional. And they didn’t. So yesterday FOTA called Max’s bluff and declared that they were going to participate in an alternative championship series next year. Of course this has provoked threats of lawsuits all round.
Speaking as one of the fans, which I have been since 1964, here’s my opinion. The fans care about three things:
That’s it. The fans appreciate the role that the engineering powerhouses play, and they are glad when the business is run well enough that they can attend races where possible and see the others on TV. But they love the drivers: the heros of today, like Button, Hamilton, and Vettel; the giants of the recent past, like Schumacher and Senna; and the legends like Moss, Clark, Fangio and the Hills (Phil and Graham). They follow the teams, like Ferrari, McLaren and Williams, with the family feeling that football supporters accord to the teams they support, and they remember the legendary teams of the past, like Lotus and Tyrrell. And they appreciate the importance of the circuits, because, like tennis fans, they understand that each circuit makes special demands on the skill of the driver and the engineering talent of the team. (This is, perhaps, why the rash of new circuits are so uninteresting: they all seem to test the same skills.)
Although Mad Max is the instigator of the latest and greatest stupidity, I actually blame Bernie more than Max. It has been Bernie who has treated Formula One as his personal plaything, cutting deals which pay little attention to the teams and none whatsoever to the fans. In a way, Max is reacting to the bloated state of Bernie’s cash machine. but he is responding by trying to out-Bernie Bernie, to be even more dictatorial than Napoleon.
I want Formula 1 to continue and succeed. Frankly the only group that seems to have a clue is FOTA, and thankfully the drivers seem to be supporting FOTA 100%.
One final thought, thinking about tomorrow’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Back in the day – specifically between 1964 and 1986 – the British Grand Prix alternated between Silverstone and Brands Hatch. I really liked that scheme: both circuits had their own distinctive features, and it seemed like the ideal compromise. I’d prefer that the race remained at Silverstone, but if Bernie really wants to include Donington perhaps we could alternate once again.