F1's Split Personality: The Dangers of Going It Alone

Andy ShawCorrespondent IMay 1, 2009

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 18:  Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner (R) is seen talking with F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone before qualifying for the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit on April 18, 2009 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

In the last 24 hours several of F1's teams have expressed grave doubts about the FIA's new budget caps, set to come into force in 2010, with many fans sharing similar views.

The feeling among the teams is that F1 must of course be sustainable, but ensuring its future must not come at the cost of the fundamentals of the sport, those that make it different from any other racing series.

Those key elements are generally agreed to include the best drivers, the quickest cars and the pinnacle of motorsports technology.

FIA President Max Mosley has long argued that these founding principles should indeed be retained at all cost, but they need not go hand-in-hand with seemingly limitless spending, as has been the fashion in F1 since the late 1990s.

The budget cap is a relatively simple way of controlling the way money is spent in the sport, ensuring that the kind of inevitable financial instability that put an end to Aguri Suzuki's dreams of running an F1 team no longer prevails.

Many teams are concerned about the "two-tier" nature of the proposals, with teams free to spend as much as they like as long as they adhere to certain technological restrictions.

This, of course, is another political tool used by Mosley: He expects no one to take up this option; instead everyone will sign up to the budget cap. The purpose of the "choice" is so that, if teams should come to protest about the caps in future, Mosley can point out that they were not forced into accepting his terms.

Strength of feeling among fans of the sport has run so high that many are now advocating that the Formula One Teams' Association break away from F1 entirely and start their own series.

FOTA's predecessor, the Grand Prix Manufacturers' Association, considered a similar tactic a few years ago, but feasibility studies and thinly veiled threats eventually came to nothing, and led to the GPMA disbanding in 2006.

The GPMA did not have Ferrari on board; FOTA does, and some believe that this would be enough to make any breakaway series viable.

A new series would be able to end Formula One Management boss Bernie Ecclestone's stranglehold on the financial affairs of the sport, resulting in a better deal for teams, circuit promoters and fans.

Moreover, getting FIA backing for such a series would be very simple, as the federation is duty-bound by European law to sanction any such competition in Europe.

But history tells us that breaking away for the sake of breaking away cannot be a good idea.

The tumultuous CART/IRL split in the United States destroyed the credibility and marketability of both series, with CART's successor Champ Car finally collapsing in early 2008.

The newly "merged" series, in attempting to please both sets of fans, has satisfied none, and the only ones to have gained from the whole sorry affair are NASCAR, whose brand has enjoyed unprecedented success while open-wheel racing in the US languishes as a shadow of its former self.

Any attempt by FOTA to leave F1 would certainly not be a clean break; some teams would choose to remain with FOM, and Ecclestone's aggressive contracts with many of the world's top circuits would undoubtedly mean they would be unable to host events from any FOTA-backed series.

Furthermore, FOTA is led and chiefly funded by major car manufacturers, whose participation in motorsport has been chequered at best; Honda's withdrawal from F1 at the end of 2008, as well as several threats over the years from the likes of Renault and BMW to leave the sport, show just how fickle this business can be.

With the automotive industry currently suffering major repercussions as a result of the global economic downturn, is it really wise to place the future of Formula One—or whatever championship that may succeed it—in the hands of the manufacturers?

They will only continue in motorsport as long as it is profitable for them, which in many cases may not be for much longer.

For F1 and FOTA to have a strong, sustainable future, they need to work together. With Mosley and Ecclestone currently bent on fracturing the unity of FOTA, this seems like an unrealistic aim.

But, despite being in a weak position to begin with, FOTA can increase their influence over F1's affairs without exercising the motorsport equivalent of hurling their toys from the pram and setting up their own series.

Bernie Ecclestone will not last forever: Any talk of a successor to F1's commercial guru has always been in hushed tones, but by working closely with Ecclestone, FOTA's Commercial Working Group, currently headed by Flavio Briatore, can certainly place themselves in a position to have a greater say over F1 finances when Ecclestone finally moves on.

Max Mosley's position is under threat even more imminently; his term of office as FIA President expires this autumn. A failed bid to oust Mosley from office this year need not be the end of it, either: Should he take another term, as has been hinted, FOTA will have four years to groom a suitable candidate to take his place at the head of the FIA.

All of this power politics may be a long and bitter struggle, but it is far more worthwhile than the incredible gamble of a new racing series. F1 is struggling enough these days without a spanner in the works like that.