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Egmont's column: Who's fooling who?

2009-06-22 07:27

Egmont Sippel

The British GP came and went, and Seb Vettel did what we have been expecting him to do for a long time now: he trounced the opposition.

Which is exactly what FOTA should do: deliver the killer punch.

For such is the unhappiness with Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, that car manufacturers like Renault, Mercedes, BMW, Toyota and Honda have issued the following statement:

“Whilst the group remains open and willing to discuss with the current commercial rights holder, Bernie Ecclestone, and the FIA on the future of Grand Prix motor racing, the current uncertainty leaves them with no option other than to progress preparatory work for a new series.

“Although the team principals and manufacturers agreed that some progress was made in the recent meetings, they considered it was not sufficient to delay the preparations for the new series.”

Issued at the end of last week, then, by FOTA, this statement?

Nope. Look at the list of names again. The presence of Honda is a dead give-away, as is the absence of Ferrari.

Bernie’s sweetener

This was a statement by the GPMA (Grand Prix Manufacturers’ Association) in the second half of 2005, when they threatened – without Ferrari, who had signed with the FIA in return for special financial rewards as well as veto rights on rule changes – to form their own series in 2008, after the expiry of the Concorde Agreement.

It never happened, of course – just as the new one won’t happen, either. That’s now, despite Ferrari’s refusal to accept budget caps (dubbed by Max Mosley as

a “power grab”) and despite Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn’s explicit statement that those responsible for the show – the teams – should get a larger slice of the monetary pie (dubbed by Mosley as a “money grab”).

That’s what the 2005 fight was about, as well.

The GPMA took a stance and looked at the enormity of setting up a new series for a while – and then took Bernie’s sweetener.

It was light enough for Ghosn to be disgruntled at the teams’ deal a mere four years later. But hey presto: F1 carried on as before.

Except that Max wanted to save the game from itself. The sport is too expensive, he argued. Costs are spiraling out of control.

Spiraling costs

To prove his point, Max – in cahoots with Bernie (and nope, not Ecclestone, but that other swindler of note, Madoff) – engineered the financial crunch all by himself, sending Honda off to save car sales and using their departure as an excuse for a budget cap.

Okay, that’s not quite true. The financial crunch didn’t come about because Max spent too much money in his Chelsea dungeon.

It came about because Madoff and many many others like Madoff exploited the system.

Yet, now that it has happened, for whatever reason, Max is using the financial climate to try and impose some draconian measures, all of his own making.

It’s like trying to tell Real Madrid that they cannot buy Ronaldo, as they have already spent enough on Kaka.

What kind of logic is that?

Well, it’s about saving costs to save the sport, Max says.

Saving costs?

Saving costs? From a man who, in this decade alone, has re-allowed traction control, only to ban it again, only to re-allow it, only to ban it again.

A man who, in 2004, has changed the engine regulations to one engine per race weekend. Then to one engine per two race weekends. Then he changed the formula from V10s to V8s, with a cut from 3 to 2.4 liters.

When everybody except Ferrari wanted a limit on testing, Max decreed that the FIA did not have the jurisdiction for such a rule. Now he’s made that rule in any case: no in-season testing by nobody.

Gearboxes now have to last for four races as well.

Soon turbos will be back, with yet another reduction in engine capacity.

This year we also had KERS on some cars.

All of these, in Mario Theissen’s words, entailed huge financial expenses. And yes, KERS might yield some everyday benefit, but once all F1 cars have it, the benefits of overtaking will be nullified.

In fact, it has not really worked out this year at all, in any case, even when racing against cars without it.

With all his nefarious little – or rather major – rule changes from year to year, it is doubtful if Mosley himself set an example of arresting spiraling costs over the last decade.

And yes, the F1 teams will confirm that costs became prohibitive. But that’s the logic of the market place, the law of the financial jungle; development will die a natural death, if there is no more to be spent.

And if Max was so right about in all that he did and proposed, why was the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) so adamant in declaring that “the current governance system” could not continue?

Nothing has changed

The issue of cost is precisely also why Ghosn wants F1 teams to rake in more of the vast fortunes gobbled up by Ecclestone.

At issue here is exactly the same as in 2005. In that instance, Ecclestone promised the teams more money – money that they now claim they have not seen – and the problem went away.

This time, Max appeared to have been playing the team’s game for a while, promising – after calls that he should retire after last year’s dungeon scandal – that he has unfinished business, which was to channel more money to the teams.

Hey, what a politician. That was just to sooth the sorest tooth. Reluctantly, the teams forgave Max and accepted him back in the fold.

Once re-established, Max turned the tables once more. Instead of helping the teams by channeling more of the vast F1 fortunes their way, he tried to help them to spend less of their own, by unilaterally accepting a budget cap, and publishing it as a rule for 2010.

About face

It’s all good and well to say the FIA make the rules. But in a sport as exclusive as F1, the participants gotta be happy as well.

And Ferrari, Toyota and Renault – to begin with – were very unhappy with a cap of 45 million euro.

Stand-offs in terms of conditional entry lists ensued; we’ve been through that. Both sides refused to budge. More intrigue followed with the FIA having deemed Ferrari, Red Bull and Toro Rosso to have entered as unconditional entrants for 2010, the three teams stating flat-out that they won’t compete under Max’s published set of rules.

Were they serious? Would FOTA yield to Max’s new deadline for unconditional entries, initially given last Friday? Would Max accept a final offer of compromise from FOTA, in the week leading up to the British GP?

Nope. The offer came, but Max refused.

And then, as the crisis sped onwards to Nasty Friday, Max suddenly relented. On Thursday he upped the cap from 45 to 100 million euro. He had sweetened the deal at the last minute. Surely, this is what FOTA had been waiting for.

The bomb

Then came the bomb as FOTA didn’t even react to Max’s new limit, but announced a breakaway series instead.

In short succession, Mosley reacted in three different ways. The FIA will sue in a court of law for various transgressions pertaining to contractual issues, was his Friday stance. Then, on Saturday, he declared that the teams, “the loonies”, will see their folly in time, and come around to his point of view; a solution will be found. On Sunday he announced that legal action will be dropped.

He’d like to talk to the teams some more, Mosley said.

Taking on the manufacturers

This after having insisted last week that no more talks would be held, and that – by constitutional imperative – the final entry list for 2010 would have to be published by Friday.

Well, Friday came and went, but no list was published. Painted into a corner, Mosley forgot all about constitutional imperatives. His bluff had been called.

Even then, Max reverted to force – “I will make the teams do what I want them to do, via legal enforcement”.

That’s no way to treat the stars of your own show. Neither is calling them loonies.

That’s exactly one of the things that FOTA had been rebelling against, this disdainful way of being treated.

What does Mosley think in any case, that the FIA can take on the financial might of the manufacturers in court?

Eventually then, over the weekend, it dawned on Mosley and Ecclestone that they need the teams more than the teams need them. It was a bitter pill to swallow. Max and Bernie have always bargained on the impracticalities of setting up a new series.

That’s exactly why the GPMA’s (Grand Prix Manufacturers’ Association) breakaway threat in 2005 was thwarted. The sheer magnitude of setting up a new series was just too overwhelming.

And then came Bernie’s sweetener...

Failed sweetener

This year, that last minute sweetener failed. Ecclestone and Mosley were shaken out of their boots. No wonder their reactions have vacillated between threats and anger, to appeasement and playing it safe.

No talk any more of “absolutely non-negotiable dead lines” from Max and Bernie, oh no; only talk about more talks.

And it will happen, if only for the sake of keeping the F1 brand – and the rich history that goes with it – alive. That will be for the good of us all.

So, let’s just hope that FOTA persist in their admirable opposition to the reign of Robespierre and Dante, I mean, Ecclestone and Mosley, with the same clarity of vision and unity of purpose that have brought them to this point.

Now is not the time to fall for another little sweetener. Now is the time to break the spell of authoritarian rule and cheap intimidation once and for all - even though FOTA will in all likelihood race in an FIA-run F1 championship next year. Fact is, that FOTA must now go for the jugular and wrest as much control as they possibly can from Max and Bernie.

By heavens, Ecclestone as the commercial rights holder is licensed to be such for 99 years. That’s one year short of a century.

Where have you ever heard of such an absurdity? And how come Europe’s various commissions of fair financial play – amongst them anti-trust and anti-monopoly – cannot break this vice-like grip on the sport?

If they can’t do it for FOTA, FOTA must do it themselves.

So: Go Luca! Go Flavio! Go Martin! Go John Howett! Go Dietrich Matesitch! You have the enemy where Seb had his adversaries on Sunday, on the ropes.

Now for the killer punch!

Egmont Sippel is Rapport and Beeld’s Motoring Editor and SA Motoring Journalist of the Year 2008.


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