Depending on who you ask, the Grand Prix World Championship is either ‘the promised land’ for F1, or an idle threat made by a small group of manufacturers who want more money out of the sport.
The ‘GPWC’ acronym has been echoing around the paddock for a few years but perhaps never more than in recent weeks. The concept has arisen purely from the dissatifaction of the majority of F1′s engine manufacturers (Mercedes, BMW, Honda, Toyota and Renault) with how Formula One is run.
They especially object to FIA President Max Mosley’s dictatorial style of governance, the repeatedly failure of supposed ‘cost-cutting measures’ to achieve their objectives, and what the manufacturers believe is preferential treatment given to Ferrari.
Bernie Ecclestone’s recent handout to Jean Todt of Ferrari to keep them in Formula One is rumoured to be worth $320 million (Â£166 million) over eight years. F1 Racing magazine’s recent costs survey suggests this is more or less exactly the amount Paul Stoddart would need to keep Minardi running for the same amount of time. This sheds considerable light on Stoddart’s furious denouncement of Mosley at every given opportunity.
Ferrari are so far the only team to have agreed to participate in F1 beyond 2007 – the date at which a new Concorde Agreement outlining the share of F1′s profits between the teams must be signed. Expect Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz and Jordan/Midland owner Alex Schnaider to agree terms with Ecclestone fairly quickly. The remaining seven teams are basically stacked against the FIA-Ferrari axis to varying degrees, and none more so than Mercedes boss Norbert Haug.
GPWC, then, has been concocted by the manufacturers as a means of threatening the FIA. If the FIA do not back down from their plans to introduce V8 engines (which will cause further cost increases) and share the income streams more equitably, the major manufacturers will form their own championship and build cars roughly along the lines of existing F1 machines.
Is there any credence to this threat? It would certainly be a last resort – when the IndyCar series in America split in the mid nineties it left two series far poorer (in quality and wealth) than the original one had been. Only now, a decade later, is either looking very healthy.
The FIA believe they hold all the trump cards. The nineteen circuits on the FIA calendar are obliged by contract with Ecclestone not to hold any other major single seater events. While there are plenty of alternative circuits in Europe and the Western nations, there are far fewer in the emerging Asian markets including, perhaps crucially, China. They also hold the rights to the ‘Formula One’ brand.
They also believe that the watching public will not take a new series without Ferrari seriously. This is a point of contention. The popularity of ‘home’ drivers in many nations is greatly underestimated – look at Takuma Sato and Narain Karthikeyan, for example. Many F1 fans simply feel that Ferrari’s domination and refusal to pair Michael Schumacher with a genuine rival as a team-mate dulls the sport, and agree with the manufacturers that Ferrari receive preferential treatment from the FIA. Some leading commentators suspect that, as Ferrari cannot expand their road car production for fear of diluting their luxury brand, FIAT may yet rebrand the F1 outfit as Maserati. Stranger things have happened…
The odds are not weighted quite as heavily in Bernie & Max’s favour as they would have us believe. But crucial to the formation of a GPWC is whether or not the manufacturers can hold together. Ecclestone is a widely regarded master of ‘divide and rule’ business tactics, and the present situation was simply made for his unparalleled guile. Mercedes and BMW are firm converts to the cause. Renault, too, are likely to go the distance. Honda have already wavered and threatened to break ranks over the question of limiting testing. Toyota are keen to curb their own astronomical costs, but they, like Honda, have the ultimate motive of beating one another at no cost. Expect Bernie to exploit that.
As bad as things have been allowed to get in F1, you have to hope that the GPWC will not come to pass. It would be infinitely better for all concerned if the FIA made steps to accommodate the not unreasonable demands of the manufacturers. What is most frustrating is that nine of Formula One’s ten teams had reached a workable solution at the Brazilian Grand Prix last year. But because Ferrari had not agreed to it, the FIA refused to give it the support it needed, and matters have simply got worse. If this situation now leads to the formation of a GPWC series and the death of F1 as we know it, the guilty culprits will be Mosley, Ecclestone and Todt.