Friday, November 06, 2009

Formula One goes to hell in a handbasket made of solid gold

F1 this week has found itself falling in to crisis yet again this year as the Toyota Motor Corporation finally pulled the plug on its money sapping F1 programme. This is the third major car manufacturer in 11 months to do so along with Honda and BMW, and Renault too is considering leaving. Now I could write reams about my thoughts on the Toyota, and how I couldn’t care less that a dull team with no charisma or even a decent success record – especially considering that hundreds of millions a year were spent on the cars – has left, but that’s best saved for another day. Either way Toyota pulling out is a significant development for the sport.

Manufacturer boom

During the mid to late 90s F1 bosses lured major manufacturers into the F1, attempting to bring their wealth and influence to the sport. Needless to say these attempts were successful as Honda, Toyota, BMW, Renault and Ford (in the guise of Jaguar) all funded F1 programmes in the early years of the new century. These often started as engine supply deals, leading to management buyouts by the manufacturers. However success for these new teams was hard to come by. These were the days of Schumacher and Ferrari’s dominance, which meant there were few results for these teams to hoover up. Only Renault achieved a decent level of success managing two world driver’s and constructers championships in 2005 and 2006. The other manufacturers, by comparison, achieved little in the way of race wins and even struggled to score points some years. This of course was not good PR for the parent companies and this led to the inevitable decline of manufacturer in involvement between 2005 and the present day, leading to the situation the sport is in today. It’s also noteworthy that whilst all this was going on privateer involvement was greatly undermined as manufacturers raised participation costs to astronomical levels.

Controversy and the recession take their toll

The global recession of the past two years contributed greatly to the end of manufacturer dominance in F1. Car sales were plummeting, and this coupled with the relative lack of success of many manufacturer teams – considering great investment – lead many to speculate that company board rooms would start pulling the plug on F1. It didn’t take long for it to happen, as Honda announced they were dropping out at the end of last year. It was at this point the FIA realised the mistake of letting in too many carmakers in who didn’t really care for the sport, only about PR and success, so tried to implement a strategy to drastically lower costs. This came in the form of a €40 million budget cap for teams. This sadly backfired as the manufactures rejected the idea and even threatened to leave the sport if it was implemented. In the end a vague agreement was reached to “lower costs to the levels of the early 1990s,” but not before a major argument between the FIA and FOTA the teams association, which did untold damage to the image of the sport.

FOTA vs the FIA

The battle this year was a depressing episode for most fans, who just wanted to see the teams go racing, as many of the major manufacturers officially set up a rival championship to oppose a budget capped F1. The key players in FOTA’s camp were Ferrari and Toyota. Ferrari leaving the sport was obviously the biggest feather in the cap for FOTA’s plan. In the end of course the FIA really had no choice but to back down, but not before some serious posturing which dragged the whole sorry affair on for longer. Interestingly Toyota played a large part in the threatened exodus. This in light of the current problem seems odd, as the team fought tooth and nail to keep the huge budgets which inevitably sank the team. Ferrari’s position on the other hand seems more Machiavellian, as the team has always had a special arrangement – given its historical position in the sport – with the governing body, and in reality is FOTA anything more than Ferrari trying to seize more influence over the sport.

Old Boys Club

Ferrari has been very critical of the new four teams entering the sport next year – new teams marks entering marks quite a miraculous turn of events given the financial climate – which makes you question whether Ferrari really cares if everyone pulls out but them? Historically Ferrari has held this surly view to new blood, even referring to (at the time new) Team Lotus as ‘Garagists’ (a loose term for ‘grease monkeys’), but look how they flourished and became an integral part of the sport. Why can’t the new teams earn their place as part of formula one tradition? Ferrari in the meantime seems more focused on running 3 cars per team. Sure there is the risk the new teams might not turn up next year (because there’s no damn budget cap thanks to Ferrari!) but it’s better to try and get the privateers back into the sport rather than run with only a few teams making loads of cars. Personally I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to change the name of the sport to Formula Ferrari, as I feel that’s where the situation is leading.

Cap in hand

The manufacturer’s handling of the financial implications of the recession has been confusing and almost belies a lack of touch with reality. How can the sport now survive without the ever-lambasted budget cap? The FIA warned that the high costs of competing in the sport would lead us to a mass exodus of competitors, and lo and behold it’s now coming true. The sport has been dominated for too long with soulless manufacturer teams who add nothing to the personality to the sport; throw money at their problems; and then pull out when they end up embarrassing themselves having wasted a fortune for little success on the track. The most frustrating thing about this whole situation as a fan is that the problems are easily noticeable, and yet the people involved in the decision making don’t see what’s right in front of them. These companies have no passion for F1 yet they’ve managed to redesign it on their terms. Well that is until they don’t want to play anymore, and by then they’ve left everyone else in the lurch. This has/is happening in other forms of motor racing such as DTM, WRC and the British Touring Car championship, so why don’t people learn that this model of motor racing is unsustainable in the long term? Of course it’s probably due to the almighty dollar.

The Future of F1?

To be honest I’d expect to see the sport change in a dramatic way over the next year or so. What you see now quite frankly won’t be there in the long run, as F1 is in serious need of big change, and quick. I can only hope the new teams are credible and that more are interesting in making the jump up to the pinnacle of motorsport over the next few years. Otherwise we could be in for a very small field in 2010. I also would prefer it if engine makers were banned from running teams too, (an exception should be made for Ferrari though) as they often end up filling teams with unhelpful internal politics and bad boardroom decision making, before pulling out all their finance and leaving teams in an unfit position to survive. Formula One should look forward, not back. Many famous teams have already dropped out, and the manufacturers won’t look twice at coming back at the moment, so we should think about creating a new tradition in the sport. One where hopefully there’ll be more focus on the racing and the passion rather than the spending.

No comments: