Hardly a day passes now without some new development in F1’s latest political crisis.
Formula 1 has had many similar rows in the past and, so far, it has managed to avoid disaster scenarios of teams withdrawing en masse and rival championships being formed.
So how concerned should we be about FOTA’s refusal to accept Max Mosley’s budget cap, and the threats to the future of F1? Is F1’s latest crisis worse than what it has been through in the past?
FISA versus FOCA
The FIA-FOTA row today echoes a similar dispute three decades ago between the governing body (FISA) and the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA).
But there was one significant difference: back then Bernie Ecclestone, as boss of Brabham, headed up the teams’ association FOCA. Their legal adviser was a lawyer who had previously been involved in running an F1 team – Max Mosley.
Under Ecclestone’s guidance FOCA had made various advances for the teams – negotiating appearance fees, arranging travel to save money, negotiating TV rights (the fore-runner of FOM) and so on. But when Jean-Marie Balestre replaced Pierre Ugueux as President of FISA in 1978, he and Ecclestone soon found themselves on a collision course.
Over the coming years FISA and FOCA’s battle for authority over F1 was fought on many grounds.
When the 1979 Swedish Grand Prix came under threat following the withdrawal of a sponsor Ecclestone announced at the 11th hour it was back on after the necessary money had been found. Balestre seized the opportunity to undermine Ecclestone, and refused to reinstate the event.
The following year a dispute over drivers’ licenses on the eve of the Spanish Grand Prix led to it being stripped of its status as a world championship event and proceeding without the participation of Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Renault.
Breakaway championship threat
The same year an announcement by Balestre that FISA would take responsibility for paying start and prize money to the teams led Ecclestone to propose FOCA start a rival series – the World Professional Drivers’ Championship.
By now Balestre had the manufacturer trio plus Ligier on-side, while Ecclestone had his own team plus Williams, McLaren, Lotus and several other top teams. But Ecclestone’s plans for a rival championship fizzled out within a few weeks.
Events soon swung in his favour again as the technical rules became the next political battleground.
Cars with ‘ground effect’ aerodynamics had increased cornering speeds to unacceptable levels, contributing to huge and sometimes fatal accidents. Balestre declared the ground effect ‘skirts’ would be banned for 1981.
At first the FOCA teams insisted on competing with the skirts and turned up at the first round of 1981 in South Africa with them. The manufacturers kept their teams away, Balestre took away the race’s championship status, but the FOCA teams raced there anyway.
Finally the manufacturers’ resolve began to weaken. First Renault broke ranks, agreeing to compete at the ‘new’ season-opener at Long Beach, and soon the rest returned to the tracks too.
Then and now
In March that year the teams and FISA signed the first Concorde Agreement setting down the terms by which the championship would be contested. FOCA would retain responsibility for the financial management of the sport, and the FIA would be the regulator.
The precise division of those responsibilities has not remained consistent since then. Today we have Ecclestone in charge of the commercial arm of F1 – but no longer beholden to the teams – and Mosley is, of course, president of the FIA.
FOTA hope their refusal to enter next year’s championship under the proposed rules will force Mosley to accept their alternative suggestions to his ‘budget cap’ proposal. The Concorde Agreement – which has not been renewed for several years – is back on the agenda, and they want a new one signed by Thursday.
Mosley has explored various avenues of resistance to the teams. He has attracted a range of new start-up teams that claim to want to enter in 2010, presumably to show FOTA they are expendable. Ramming the point home, he told the world how F1 can survive without its oldest and most historic team, Ferrari.
He’s encouraged FOTA to sign up before the Friday deadline, and suggested – rather disingenuously – that he might listen to them in future if they do.
And he’s pressing the legal angle – insisting Ferrari are contractually bound to race next year, and threatening legal action against the other manufacturers.
So far F1’s political crisis has not spilled over into outright action. We have had no races cut from the calendar and no hint of a repeat of the Indianapolis 2005 farce.
But the present situation cannot go on much longer without having serious repercussions for the championship.