F1 Minus Four: What Would the Sport Be Like?

Andy ShawCorrespondent IMay 14, 2009

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 10:  Mark Webber of Australia and Red Bull Racing drives during the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya on May 10, 2009 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

In the last few days four F1 outfits—Toyota, Red Bull, Ferrari, and Renault—have threatened to leave the sport if dialogue about the new-for-2010 budget cap is not entered into between the FIA and the teams.

This means that of the current ten Formula One teams, five would not be on the grid in 2010: Red Bull own two teams and have threatened to withdraw both if their demands are not met.

The incessant "Will they? Won't they?" pertaining to the future of these teams, especially Ferrari—who are regarded by a majority of fans as being integral to the success of Formula One as a global sport—has been dealt with elsewhere, but what if they really did leave at the end of the year? What would it mean for Formula One?

For one thing, the answer to this question depends on what the schismatic teams chose to do next season. The threat of breaking away and starting up their own series has been thinly veiled in recent weeks, but such an outcome would damage both sides, perhaps irreparably.

Assuming that to be the case, we would be left in Formula One with Brawn GP, Williams and Force India as the three remaining teams from 2009.

What BMW and Mercedes will do is unclear—McLaren will be unwilling to ruffle too many feathers in Paris after their recent run-ins with the FIA, but a mass manufacturer-backed exodus from F1 would hardly be something the Mercedes board would wish to ride out.

The three remaining teams would most likely be joined by a set of GP2 teams making the suddenly cheaper step up from motorsport's second rung to its first; other entrants such as Lola and Aston Martin would probably join them.

It is not inconceivable that, even with the manufacturers leaving F1 entirely, we could see a full grid of cars in 2010—but at what cost to the credibility of the sport?

F1 has existed without huge numbers of manufacturers in the past; those that did participate in the sport did so as engine suppliers rather than car builders, but there is a solid argument for the fact that mass manufacturer participation in F1 has helped make it the multi-billion dollar global enterprise that it is today.

With the option of a rival, manufacturer-backed series drawing away crowds and revenues, the new-look Formula One would probably suffer, as the Indy Racing League did upon its formation in 1996.

What the IRL had to offer was the flagship race of American open-wheel racing, the Indianapolis 500, and it is possible that the Monaco Grand Prix could hold similar sway in the event of a catastrophic split between Formula One and the manufacturers.

Tony George "won" the IRL/CART wars by radically modifying his vision for the sport: What he wanted was an oval-only, all-American race series. Only by moving onto road courses and allowing a steady influx of foreign drivers to participate did the ratings rise and the series' profile eventually rise higher than CART (later Champ Car).

Bernie Ecclestone, who occupies a position analogous to George's as head honcho of the Formula One effort, would probably require no restructuring of his goals to help the series move foward: All that would be needed would be a shrewd business attitude and an ability to bring money and sponsorship to his series.

This is exactly what Bernie has been doing for years, and the presence of a rival championship is unlikely to suddenly obliterate his business sense.

Many people have said that they would regard the pinnacle of motorsport as that with the best drivers; the drivers will follow the money, as they always do, and if F1 has more money then F1 is where the drivers will stay.

The only thing that may have to change in Bernie's business plan would be his attitude to race promoters; rather than raking in millions of dollars from every venue that hosts a Grand Prix, he would need to negotiate a better deal with the promoters to ensure that they do not jump ship to any rival series.

Either that or he will be, at this very moment, negotiating cast-iron, long-term deals with many of F1's more profitable circuits to ensure that no rival series can encroach on his turf.

If the same attitude for business that has made Ecclestone and countless other F1 people millionaires over the last 25 years or so can pull him through the threat of a rival championship—if he can keep the money coming in to F1—then in all likelihood the manufacturers will return, tails between legs, within a few years and ask to participate in F1 again.

They will be welcomed, of course, as their presence is undoubtedly good for business, but they will have learned a valuable lesson.

The whole situation becomes a lot simpler if the teams in question simply walk away from F1 and turn their attention to other categories of motorsport—Ferrari to GT racing, Toyota to Le Mans and so on.

When one considers the fact that the car manufacturers are currently bearing some of the worst fallout from the global recession—and the risk associated with building a new global open-wheel championship from the ground up—this surely seems like the most likely outcome.

If this proves to be the case, then Formula One will carry on as normal: Ferrari, Renault et al won't be there, but significantly they won't be in anything like Formula One either.

Fans complained when refuelling was introduced in 1994. They complained when the qualifying format and points systems were changed in 2003. They complained when the FIA introduced long-life engines and gearboxes, shuffled the tyre rules and chopped and changed aerodynamic regulations on a seemingly annual basis.

And now they are complaining about budget caps. But every year, thousands still turn up at race circuits, with millions more tuning in on television to watch the Formula One World Championship. And however much they complain, Bernie knows that they will continue to watch.

The sport has undergone several radical changes in the past and has never surrendered too many viewers: Indeed, what was more damaging to F1 was the dominance of a single driver and team in the early part of the decade. As long as the racing is good and the names vaguely familiar, Formula One will bounce back from its present low.

In short, Formula One without these teams will live on, but not as we know it.