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Is the F1 Engine Development Loophole a Symptom of Larger Problems at the FIA?

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2015

FIA president Jean Todt.
FIA president Jean Todt.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The FIA, Formula One's governing body, has admitted there is a loophole in the wording of the engine development regulations introduced last year, according to Autosport's Jonathan Noble. This means that manufacturers will be allowed to develop their engines during the season, although development was supposed to be frozen in an attempt to contain costs.

This latest embarrassment for the FIA is only one in a recent string.

Since Jean Todt, a former team principal of Ferrari, was elected president of the Federation in 2009, the FIA has failed to introduce promised cost-control measures and instituted a Strategy Group that has effectively given control of the sport's regulations to Bernie Ecclestone, representing the sport's commercial rights holder, and the biggest teams.

Now, Todt is not to blame for all of the FIA's or F1's problems; many of the current ones began under his predecessor, Max Mosley. However, the buck stops with Todt—or at least it is supposed to—and it is hard to argue that the sport is in better shape than it was when he became president.

Former FIA president Max Mosley.
Former FIA president Max Mosley.Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

The three new teams that entered the sport in 2010, Virgin (renamed Marussia), Lotus (renamed Caterham) and HRT, have all gone belly-up as the costs of competing continue to mount.

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Early in 2014, Todt admitted that he was powerless to implement an effective form of cost control. "All the teams that are part of the strategy group are against the cost cap now," he said, per Joe Saward's Grand Prix blog. "So clearly, if the commercial rights holder and if six teams…are against, I cannot impose. It’s mathematics. In this case, no more cost cap."

If the president of F1's governing body cannot act in the sport's best interests, then there is a problem—but the problem is Todt's own making.

According to Forbes' Christian Sylt, Todt made a deal with Ecclestone that will give the Federation $40 million per year to give up its rule-making power to the Strategy Group. That deal is reminiscent of one signed by Mosley, which sold F1's television rights for 100 years to Ecclestone for a relative pittance.

Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt
Bernie Ecclestone and Jean TodtVladimir Rys/Getty Images

If the FIA becomes just a rubber stamp for the decisions of Ecclestone and the sport's top teams (only six are represented on the Strategy Group), it no longer has a purpose in F1.

The teams—especially the rich ones—have repeatedly shown they are unwilling or unable to act in the best interests of the sport as a whole. They need a non-partisan group in charge, and that is supposed to be the FIA's role.

Lotus, Force India and Sauber are the next teams on the brink, as illustrated by their threatened boycott of the United States Grand Prix last November over the lack of cost-control measures.

Monisha Kaltenborn, team principal of Sauber, one of the teams that threatened to boycott the United States Grand Prix.
Monisha Kaltenborn, team principal of Sauber, one of the teams that threatened to boycott the United States Grand Prix.Mathias Kniepeiss/Getty Images

The engine development freeze each season was one attempt at cost control, although its effectiveness is debatable. The new V6 hybrid engines introduced for 2014 are costing teams more than three times as much as the old V8s, per The Telegraph's Daniel Johnson.

Now, any savings that might have been achieved by the freeze have vanished with the loophole. Again, this failure cannot rest solely on Todt's shoulders, but he cannot escape blame.

If Todt cannot whip the teams into line, perhaps it is time to give someone else a chance. However, given the TV rights deal and the abdication of power to the Strategy Group, the FIA is so neutered that the Federation—new president or not—may no longer be able to save F1 from itself.

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