Back to the Future: Why F1 Will Survive a FOTA Exodus
With progress in talks between the FIA and FOTA stalling, and the two parties appearing increasingly at loggerheads over the governance of F1 and the 2010 regulations, the threat of a split between the two series is growing by the day.
History tells us that such a division would be hugely damaging for all parties. In biology it generally holds true that for any given environment, only one species can occupy a particular niche—that is, a role within that environment—at any one time. If two species try to occupy the same niche, one or the other will eventually go extinct.
Such appears to be the case with motorsports, too.
When the IRL split from CART in 1996, what resulted was an attempt by both parties to attract the same audience to two series that produced essentially the same racing product; it was no surprise, therefore, that something had to give, though despite the IRL essentially "winning" in the end it is nowhere near as strong as CART was before 1996.
Felipe Massa and Mark Webber, both prominent drivers in the world of F1, have already lent tentative support to the concept of a FOTA-led split from F1, and even world champion Lewis Hamilton has said that he would have no problem with following McLaren out of F1 if that was the route the Mercedes-backed team chose to take.
Clearly these drivers believe, along with the rest of those within FOTA who are calling for a split, that in the event of FOTA's championship and the FIA competing for dominion of the same niche, the FOTA teams would win out.
FOTA have a lot on their side. Ferrari, the most prestigious and historic of F1's teams, are the ringleaders of the organisation, and quite probably the reason that FOTA has managed to cause such a stir in an era where earlier manufacturer-led breakaway threats (such as the Grand Prix Manufacturers' Association) have never previously achieved anything.
FOTA also appear to have a semi-cohesive game plan for how to acquire a solid commercial foundation in the event of a breakaway.
It has been suggested several times in recent weeks that FOTA could use the structure of A1GP, an initially popular series whose profile has dwindled even in the face of considerable support from Ferrari themselves, in order to get their own series started.
A1GP has television deals in place and contracts with popular circuits such as Zandvoort in the Netherlands and Brands Hatch in the UK. By utilising these commercial deals, a FOTA-backed series could take shape in a matter of months—in time for the start of F1's 2010 season.
There is also the possibility of using the framework of another series to make FOTA's vision a reality. Renault's Flavio Briatore recently announced the formation of GP3, a series intended to run a rung below his popular GP2 series.
But, apart from its existence, no other details have been announced. Could "GP3" simply be a placeholder to set the wheels in motion for FOTA's own, considerably higher-profile ambitions?
And finally, one fact in FOTA's favour is that the FIA have no power to stop them. Under European competition law, the FIA is unable to refuse to sanction a rival series to F1, unless it is due to safety concerns—a point which Max Mosley has already conceded on several occasions.
So, a FOTA series could conceivably take shape and become a modest success in a short amount of time. With prestigious teams, famous drivers and the competitors themselves running the show, it could gather momentum and even usurp Formula One as the pinnacle of motorsport.
And then again, maybe it won't. As the FIA alluded to in a statement released earlier today, the differences between themselves and FOTA lie in a disparate set of philosophies of what the sport is about.
In recent years, the major thrust of FIA rulemaking has been about limiting the freedom of F1's engineers to innovate. Whether for safety, competition or cost-saving reasons, restrictions on what teams can and cannot include in their cars have reached crippling levels.
The consequence of all of this is that the focus of design and engineering in F1 has switched: Aerodynamic efficiency is now more important than the generation of mechanical grip; until the ECU was standardised for 2008, devising clever electronic driver aids was a workaround for the banning of mechanical equivalents.
As many fans and pundits pointed out in this time, the rules introduced seemingly arbitrarily by the FIA achieved neither of the federation's stated aims, firstly of improving safety by reducing speeds and secondly of reducing the cost of competing in F1 to a sustainable level.
The ingenuity demonstrated by F1's technical departments in finding ways to make the cars ever quicker far outstripped the pace of the FIA in banning the more outlandish innovations. And by radically shifting the goalposts of research and development year on year, the FIA did more to increase costs than it ever did to reduce them.
What the rules for 2010 represent more than anything is a change in the approach of the FIA. They have recognised, years after many of the rest of us, that they cannot cut speeds or costs by restricting the freedom of F1 teams to innovate.
The FIA are now intent on reducing the cost of competing in a far more explicit manner, by actually capping budgets and insisting that teams operate to within a certain fixed level of expenditure.
The flip side of this arrangement is that it paves the way for many of the technical restrictions on F1 cars to be relaxed; the FIA have already gone some way towards achieving this by announcing a raft of changes to the technical regulations in the wake of the budget cap.
Moveable aerodynamic devices may be permitted on F1 cars for the first time in more than 40 years; rev limits on the engines may be removed; I have even heard that four-wheel drive F1 cars may be allowed in exchange for a cost cap.
By introducing these technical freedoms the FIA will begin to reverse the changes it has made to the sport in the last twenty years, many of which have been poorly received. By reducing the reliance on stringent technical regulations, F1 goes back to what it is meant to be about—an engineering challenge.
In their stance against the FIA, FOTA appear to have missed this bigger picture. They are worried about how a budget cap will remove their right to spend their way to the front of the grid.
In the glory days, before F1 was stifled by over-regulation, there was no need for a budget cap: But then, there was next to no interest from car manufacturers, who have since destabilised the sport by spending literally billions of dollars in pursuit of a slight competitive advantage.
In these times of global economic hardship, we are seeing that even those who led the spending spree are no longer able to compete—Honda have already withdrawn and the news for Renault and Toyota is not good.
One long-time motorsports fan, whom I respect greatly, said recently, "I would rather a sport that rewards the clever, as opposed to the most well funded." I couldn't agree more with this statement, and it is for this reason that I support the FIA's approach to reducing costs if the technical regulations are freed up along with them.
If the FIA's plan for 2010 goes ahead, with or without the FOTA members, it will be much closer to the "pure" sport of Formula One than anything FOTA can produce. The FIA will have F1 in something close to its original form; an arena for some of the cleverest minds in the motoring world to show just how fast they can make an open-wheeled racer go.
And what will FOTA have, even if they do secure a decent television deal and some sponsorship money? An unregulated, directionless monster, the perfect mechanism for spending themselves into oblivion.
As with any dispute of this kind, there are rights and wrongs on both sides. The FIA's approach to pushing through its vision has been short-sighted and damaging; by not involving FOTA in any preparatory stage, they were certain to anger the team bosses who feel that they are owed the right to a say in the governance of F1.
And there is a case for saying that Max Mosley is not the right man to lead F1 into its new era, that he is a relic from a past that the FIA would do well to distance itself from.
There are even those who suggest that Mosley is seeking a legacy other than that bestowed so inelegantly upon him by the News of the World, and that so far as he is concerned what happens to F1 after him is immaterial.
I prefer to think less cynically, and to assume that the federation besides Mosley—for it is far from a one-man show—has an interest in safeguarding the future of Formula One. It will suffer if FOTA leave, but it will not be eradicated.
For progress to be made in this dispute there need to be concessions on both sides. A new Concorde Agreement needs to be signed, removing the ability of the FIA to make rules without first consulting the Formula One Commission, a long-forgotten body that has not met in years despite its supposed authority in matters of F1 legislation.
The teams need to accept the right of other outfits to enter F1, and their responsibility to ensure that they are able to do so by not requiring massive levels of spending for any team that wishes to become competitive.
But most importantly, everyone needs to understand that the FIA's plan for the future of F1 is fundamentally sound, and that a true engineering challenge would restore the spectacle of the sport and strengthen its fundamental principles. But that cannot be done without shedding some of the expense that has crippled the sport in recent years.
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