Between F1 last year and this you could hardly see the join. Not just either in that Mercedes remains on top (albeit with a much closer challenger) and that Lewis Hamilton has won three rounds from the first four.
F1’s politics have not so much as slightly faltered in their stride heading from one season to the next. The list of matters that people think is wrong with the sport remains almost untouched. Costs, technical freedom, noise, what the sport’s doing for fans, lap times relative to before and to other series, driver challenge among plenty of others. They’ll be so familiar to you by now that they’re scarcely worth repeating.
They’ve been given a boost lately too. Mark Webber for one with his typical frankness has visited a lot of these issues; Silverstone’s Managing Director Patrick Allen joined in with similar sentiments.
Cost control of course remains the sport’s great unresolved issue, and the non-moving nature of F1’s problems was demonstrated by ex FIA president Max Mosley emphatically. With something straight out of 2009 he dusted down his calls for a budget cap in return for greater technical freedom, which came oh-so near to being implemented back then.
Right on cue also the excellent Silverstone 6 hours in WEC – a tight exciting race in an apparently healthy formula much bigger on technical freedom than F1 wherein the drivers too seem able to push for the whole distance (ironically for an endurance series) – ramped up the F1 cringe still further.
But it is no surprise that we can recite the problems in F1 like reciting a nursery rhyme. Nor that the issues it seems are barely moved on from before. Many of them have lingered and festered like uncleansed wounds for years, and the sport does near-nothing about them as it seems no one can. Instead F1 is in a state of impasse.
The FIA has abdicated its regulatory role. The teams – intoxicated by immediate term self-interest – can’t agree on anything. Bernie Ecclestone meanwhile is in effect an employee of apparently amoral, only minded of the bottom line, venture capitalists CVC.
Ah yes, CVC. F1’s owners of the commercial rights, those that Bernie was leased by the FIA in return for a pittance, which he in turn sold 75% of and which ended up eventually in CVC’s hands. And now is notorious for taking a lot of money out of the sport (a proposed flotation of a few years would have had its gain at over $7 billion reportedly). And not doing an awful lot else. Again it’s all said so often that it feels we hardly need to reiterate.
But CVC might not be as impregnable as you think. I was intrigued to read an article by James Allen on his website a few days ago, reporting that rather than all fiddling while Rome burns instead “there is a pincer movement going on behind the scenes in F1 at the moment” against CVC. That CVC’s Donald Mackenzie was present in the paddock for the Bahrain round, and “cannot have gone away from his weekend meetings with the key stakeholders in any doubt that the sport is at a crossroads with his next move being a decisive one.”
The clear message to CVC reported Allen was for it either to invest significantly in F1 rather than take money out, or to step aside for someone else.
Further, you may have encountered the Save our Formula website which has emerged in the past few weeks, and which outlines a manifesto for F1 change. And this site according to Allen with its mysterious authorship may not be entirely unrelated to these wider goings-on. “Many in the F1 paddock believe it to originate from quite a high level within the sport,” he said.
“The argument runs,” Allen went on, “that, although the racing can be very good with the current formula, as Bahrain showed, and the technology F1 is employing now is both innovative and aligned with the automotive industry, there are some deep fault-lines in the sport. These can be summed up as follows: The costs are too high, the income isn’t being distributed in a sustainable way for all teams and the show is losing its appeal to the audience, especially the under 25s in a very crowded sports media space.
“The fees for hosting a race are too high, which means that races in F1′s heartland like Germany and Italy are under threat, replaced by new venues some of which fail to build an audience and a future for the sport. The knock-on effect of high race tariffs is that in most countries ticket sales are too expensive for ordinary fans as promoters are forced to price them at premium levels to recoup their investment. So the grandstands aren’t full in many venues.”
The Save our Formula site itself went a little further more recently and added to its targets: “high costs, manufacturer backed dominance and a general lack of excitement have been supplemented by new discussions about opening up the engine formula, freeing up technical innovation and, finally, a push for a proper understanding about what fans actually want!”
As mentioned there are no shortages of opinions, even of campaigning entities and websites, pointing out what in the view of the author is wrong with F1. But this one feels different somehow, and not just because it might be from a senior source. It’s that it seems to strike at the things that really threaten the sport. Ticking off the biggest priorities one by one. You’d be forgiven for being tempted to shout ‘house!’ at the end of reading it. As whatever else one might think of the rest of the sport, it’s near impossible to argue against the problems that it identifies. And therefore it’s possible to create a united front about them. Even among the usually disputatious F1 lot.
And this part is crucial. While as outlined there is plenty that we can rally around on the sport’s future direction there also are a few things that we can fall out over. A few come to mind – the general direction of the engine regs, DRS, the Pirellis, perhaps the noise factor too… Honourable positions either way can be held on these of course, but perhaps for now we should hold our tongues on them. That’s not to say that they’re not important, more that they’re not quite at the same level of priority; not in the here and now at least. They can be returned to later.
Most pointedly they’ll create divisions when you suspect unity is what is required to affect change. And to delve a bit further into our sense of paranoia (no bad thing – to borrow from business guru and former Intel CEO Andrew Grove “only the paranoid survive”) we know that divide and rule is quite Bernie’s thing at least. And we can imagine he might try it again here; he of course potentially has much to lose here given many of the sport’s problems listed have his fingerprints all over them. Given Bernie’s tendency indeed to raise at least a couple of the divisive issues listed regularly if you were to be terribly cynical you might join the dots on this one.
The clear message to CVC is for it to either invest significantly in F1 rather than take money out, or to step aside and let someone else do it
– James Allen
Pointedly one of the latest additions on the Save our Formula site seems to betray a wariness of this elephant trap of falling out among ourselves by throwing too much into the mix: “While an answer to all Formula One’s troubles is unlikely to be found quickly, that must not stop agreement being reached for a transition period that can reduce the cost of competing to help save the independent teams and classic races” it said.
Moreover trying to do too much too quickly is where blunders can creep in, and not just in F1. As a minor aside I read a book recently called The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, which outlines the occasions in recent history in which the UK government has rather egregiously got it wrong, sometimes wasting billions of pounds and losing about as much in credibility as it did so. And a running theme is that blunders often result from trying to do too many things too quickly; feeling obliged to create a sudden big bang of change when most of the key priorities can instead be achieved by progressing more slowly and in smaller steps. On his findings King said more recently: “Let’s not have a big bang, let’s have little bangs. The old textbooks always used to say, and I thought them very wise, on the whole and unless there’s a very good reason not to, proceed incrementally. Start from where you are, don’t pretend you’re somewhere else, and see if you can move it on a little bit.” And F1 specifically of course has been known to act in haste and repent at leisure.
In this game too even though we seem in a rather desperate place what is striking is that a lot of changes required might in fact be much simpler and much closer to reach than we often perceive.
As we know for one there’s been much discussion about current new engine spec, and what can be done to boost the power perhaps to the magic number of 1,000bhp, and with it the challenge to drivers as well as perhaps the sound. I’m glad also that this debate has moved in recent weeks more to incremental change from where we are – thus maintaining the good part which is road car relevance – rather than clearing the decks totally. The teams apparently do not share Bernie’s desire to start again on engines such as by moving to souped-up V8s. And moreover, as Toto Wolff recently outlined, most of the desired objectives outlined can be achieved with relative tweaks to the current framework:
“I think by 2017 those engines, between all manufacturers, are going to have north of 900 horsepower” said Wolff. “Then it’s a question of how do you want to market that? Does it make a big difference between having 950 horsepower or 1,000? I think there are pretty easy tools to increase the horsepower, and this is increasing fuel flow. If you want to increase the fuel flow by 10kgs an hour or 20kgs or whatever it is, then you are going to have more than 1,000 horsepower.”
This way too to return to the unity point you’ll take a lot more people with you – both those enthusiastic about the current F1 engines, and those not so much.
Then there is the matter of cost control, which as Mosley said of in his foreword to Adam Parr’s The Art of War: “You have a group of ten or so team principals who, if they could only agree on a few sensible rules, would find themselves in charge of very profitable businesses. Yet they choose to operate in a way which makes life for most of them a desperate struggle to survive.
“All the teams, even those at the back, spend huge sums…yet this money is largely wasted. Things like gearboxes, endlessly refined for minimal weight saving, or tiny aerodynamic devices that cost a fortune to develop. None of these adds anything to the spectacle.”
So again it seems a relatively small change would make a big difference. Mosley’s resurrected budget cap idea for one has already got a couple of teams backing it in Force India and Sauber. And the man himself certainly sounded optimistic that unity can be found this time: “I could imagine that very soon all the teams would be in the budget cap camp,” he said to Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport recently. “They would realise that for $100 million, you could have great motorsport and build technically advanced cars.”
The main perceived sticking point with a budget cap is whether it can be policed. A reasonable point, but football for one appears to be policing its ‘Financial Fair Play’ much more effectively than most anticipated.
Of course we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. Allen indeed noted in his article that some of the demands being made are not realistic in that they are predicated on (well fed) turkeys voting for Christmas. Bernie and CVC aren’t known for handing money over, while expecting those who are served well by existing long-term agreements to tear those agreements up is rather pie in the sky.
While another thing Allen’s article didn’t outline is what is likely to happen next and on what timescale. The sport’s tendency for impasse still has to be surmounted somehow. There have been plenty of false dawns before.
The Save our Formula site’s proclamation that “Action needs to be taken immediately. Somebody with the power to do so needs to step forward and break through the vested interests and fix the problem” again is hard to disagree with but also again seems easier said than done.
But we might be reaching the point that the sport’s in such a state that something simply has to be done. And that even the sport’s blinkered, self-absorbed lot are beginning to twig. As Samuel Johnson once noted, impending execution concentrates the mind wonderfully. It might just lead to a brief flash of collective sense even in F1, as all its protagonists stare over the precipice and actually reflect that if the sport diminishes then they all diminish in turn. Just as was so in F1 at roughly the end of 1982, after two and a half years of apparently impenetrable murk of the FISA-FOCA war and a debilitating split looking inevitable, all decided apparently as one to switch the lights on and see some sense finally. As Maurice Hamilton said at that sudden shift then: “Perhaps sanity did prevail after all; perhaps people really did care about the future of the sport and the image it presented”. Then too, the apparently gaping chasm between people was in fact much narrower and more simply bridged than most had given the impression of it being.
We can but hope that this renewed pressure now will create some movement from someone somehow. The pressure on CVC at least seems real and it doesn’t seem like a bad place to start.
As an early blog on the Save our Formula site outlined too: “We all share one important thing. We are all fans of Formula One. We love this sport. We want it to be better.”
Which is the bottom line. It sounds corny, but ultimately whatever our views on F1 and its future, what unites us far outstrips what divides us. We shouldn’t forget that. And above all else, that is the very factor most likely to rescue this sport.