Suspended in a three-week limbo between races, the political machinations in F1 again become the focus of attention. This time, two significant individuals have broken ranks with the group-of-nine and joined Bernie Ecclestone, Max Mosley and Jean Todt at the negotiating table.
Before we get to the heart of what this means for the attempts to get all the teams to agree on the future direction of F1, let us cast our minds back to the last time the sport was so desperately torn in two: San Marino, 1982. On that occasion the split was between the major manufacturers with turbo engines (Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo and others) and the garagistes – the English chassis builders who chiefly used customer Ford Cosworth normally-aspirated engines.
The garagistes had been circumventing the weight limit rules to run lighter than the heavy turbo cars, and make up for their horsepower deficit. As a consequence, Brabham and Williams successfully challenged Renault and Ferrari in Brazil, and took the top two places on the podium. When they were protested and thrown out, they announced that they could not attend the next race, San Marino, because they had to modify their cars to properly meet the rules.
The intention was to call the FISA’s (now the FIA’s) bluff into backing down on the disqualification. And it failed. The San Marino Grand Prix went ahead with a meagre entry of 14 cars (poor by 2005 standards, anorexic compared to a typical 1982 entry of 31.) The garagistes forgot that in Italy you only need two cars to make a race, as long as at least one of them is a Ferrari.
FIA President Max Mosley is applying precisely the same logic today as his predecessor Jean-Marie Balestre did 23 years ago: that people don’t watch F1 for the racing, but for Ferrari. And already some of their opponents have broken ranks and attended talks with the FIA: Red Bull, because owner Dietrich Mateschitz wants the best deal for his time, and because the FIA granted them a change to the third driver rule to allow them to swap Christian Klien and Vitantonio Liuzzi. And Jordan, because new owner Alex Shnaider is in F1 for commercial, rather than sporting, purposes, and cares not who the rules are fixed in favour of as long as he can get a fat chunk of the F1 pie.
Mateschitz and Shnaider are the new men of F1 – they may very well be its future. They are businessmen first and businessmen second – F1 is a marketing exercise, not a sport. Although the teams tolerate Bernie Ecclestone’s excess because he is a racer at heart, he must have been rubbing his hands with glee when Shnaider ousted Eddie Jordan: here is someone he can do business with.
But it may well prove that Balestre’s winning formula in 1982 is now a false economy. The public’s infatuation with Ferrari may be over. Do people still watch F1 to see if Ferrari will win, or to see if Schumacher will be beaten? Or, do they simply follow their national sportsmen – as the tens of thousands of Japanese who turned out for Sato last year did, and the vast numbers of Spaniards who’ve just bought out all the tickets for this year’s Spanish race?
The 1982 row ended as more of the garagistes made their own turbo arrangements, and the pressing need to make the cars safer became a priority. Though the latter is less likely, it will be intriguing to see how many more teams defect. Will Ferrari entice Sauber back with the offer of cheaper engines? Will Renault and Toyota become fiercely protective of their newfound success and seek a deal with Ecclestone?
Perhaps. We would do well to remember two points: one, that the strength of the now group-of-seven’s distrust of Mosley; and two, that a certain Mr Ecclestone will doubtless have played out every scenario in his head to his maximum advantage.