F1, FIA Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place
2009 has been the year of the tier as far as F1 controversy.
First, we had the two-tier diffuser row that rumbled on and had FOTA at each other's necks before the FIA showed a rare engagement of brain and declared them legal.
Now we have an even bigger (and potentially more damaging) row over the plans for a "two tier" budget system in 2010.
The basic mechanics of the system work as such; one tier would allow teams to spend unlimited amounts of money, but with one set of strict technical regulations to adhere to, although how strict is still largely unknown.
On the other hand there would be a capped option, where a team would be limited to a budget of £40million, excluding driver's pay, marketing and other stuff they can prove doesn't lead to having a faster car.
In return for scaling back their expenditure, they get a looser set of regulations, that would, in theory, allow them to build a faster car.
Everyone agrees that motorsport in general needs to cut back the amount of money teams spend. NASCAR is doing it, and F1 has been headed in that direction for years with two-race engines, four-race gearboxes and with this year's in season testing ban.
So the plan to cut costs is admirable, saving a race from becoming a matter of he who spends most drives fastest.
However, many of the current teams are unhappy about the way the FIA is going about it. This has led to the current crisis, with several teams, most notably Ferrari, Renault and Red Bull, threatening to withdraw from the sport if the plan goes ahead.
Part of their complaint is with the differing technical regulation their unlimited budget cars will be too far off the pace (and presumably they cannot, or will not scale back to £40million—it has been rumoured that several teams have already spent enough money on their 2010 cars for that figure to be impractical).
This is my first question. Do they know their cars will be off the pace or are they simply guessing? The vague contents of the two-tier technical regulations contains such things allowing a bigger KERS capacity and movable wings.
Now, on paper, of course these things are going to make cars faster. You only have to compare a KERS equipped car to a KERS-free competitor in a straight line this year to show that.
However, have the complaining teams thought what would be possible with £40million?
Are capped teams going to be able to take advantage of their wider tolerances? They may be able to have movable wings and more KERS power, but are they going to be able to make them with the resources available? Are they going to have to prioritise one aspect of their car over another in order to keep within budget?
You can have a super-powered KERS unit, but is is worthwhile if it's very heavy and prone to failure. You can have flaps and winglets all over the place, but if the underlying aerodynamics are flawed then they're not going to help much.
There is really no way of knowing this until a cost capped car takes to the track, and even then results may be up for debate.
You can't programme a £40million budget into a CFD programme.
You can't stick a team of engineers and designers into a wind tunnel to take into account all the human decisions that have to made between the plan to enter F1 and the car taking it's first Grand Prix start.
Because any advantage cost capped teams is theoretical you can't tell Ferrari et al not to worry.
So do the FIA simply admit they did wrong and take back the idea of the budget cap?
I'm not sure they can, and this is their big problem.
While the FIA should, and appear to, be falling over themselves to keep these big teams in F1, they need to realise that while current teams are considering their future, so are other teams, and they could be headed in the other direction.
To my knowledge there are already six teams who have jumped at the chance to enter F1, at least partly because of the budget cap.
And we know at least one—Lola—had a sizable look at whether F1 was worthwhile for them because of the budget cap, and have decided to go ahead with the plan, presumably spending money in hiring staff, and other things that go with a new program.
If the FIA pulled the plug on the very thing that had caused them to spend this money, do you think for a minute that the lawyers wouldn't be round faster than you can say "money back guarantee?"
While the teams who are lining up—Lola, Prodrive, Isport, Litespeed and the two amorphous blobs of US efforts—are no match for the historic names (well, name) apparently heading for the exit, the FIA cannot afford to mess these teams around by umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether the budget cap will actually happen (although this might slow them down a little).
The FIA have made their bed and now they must sleep in it.
No matter who comes to join them and who rolls over and falls out.
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