Once in a while someone in the paddock comes up with a phrase that, in absolute terms, means nothing, yet to anyone imbued with the world of Formula 1, means everything.
Back in 1977, for example, when downforce was in its infancy, and Colin Chapman’s Lotus 78 ‘wing car’ was exhibiting levels of grip previously unknown, Mario Andretti memorably described how the car felt through a quick corner: “Man, like it’s painted on the road…”
One knew instantly what he was trying to convey, and it was the same a few years ago when I was sitting outside a motorhome, people-watching with Martin Brundle. “You know,” said Martin, “there are some people in this paddock who are ill with their money…”
So there are, and it has increasingly been that way since the 1970s, when, thanks to Bernie Ecclestone, owning and running an F1 team could suddenly make you very rich indeed.
Bernie’s rise to power
Prior to that time team owners negotiated individually with race organisers, and Bernie correctly saw that they were in a stronger position than they appeared to realise – without them there was no race, after all – and were being ripped off.
After acquiring Brabham at a knockdown price, he suggested that in future he negotiate on behalf of all the teams, and his colleagues were only too happy to acquiesce. The Formula One Constructors Association was founded, and the team owners quickly saw the benefits.
Over time many of them became, as I say, very rich indeed, and Ecclestone himself rather more than that. His power base expanded ever more, and only Jean-Marie Balestre, the choleric president of FISA (then the sporting arm of the FIA), made any attempt to keep it in check. Once Balestre had been deposed by Max Mosley, Bernie’s longtime buddy, the last piece in the jigsaw fell into place.
Funny now to remember Max’s first informal press conference in his new role, at Suzuka in 1991. An hour or so earlier Ayrton Senna had spoken glowingly of him, rejoicing in the departure of Balestre, and suggesting that the sport was now safe in Mosley’s hands. Max, ever the smiling assassin, told us he really didn’t expect to be devoting much of his time to Formula 1: “It sort of runs itself, doesn’t it?”
In the aftermath of the FISA-FOCA War (during the winter of 1980-81), the deal struck between Balestre and Ecclestone had been that henceforth the sport’s rules would be controlled by the governing body, its commercial rights by FOCA. Just as Bernie had intended.
As time went by, changes were made. First, in 1993 Mosley became President of the FIA, and FISA fell into disuse. Then, two years later, the commercial rights passed from FOCA into the hands of Formula One Management, Ecclestone’s own company. Five years after that, in 2000, Bernie – for the derisory sum of $360m – was granted the rights for 100 years, no less. With Mosley in the Place de la Concorde, his ducks were indeed in a row, and the F1 world was literally – understandably – stunned by this development.
“You wait,” Ken Tyrrell said to me at the time. “Bernie’ll move the rights on to a bunch of bloody asset-strippers…”
In the fullness of time Ken was proved right, but before being eventually acquired by CVC Capital Partners, they went through other hands, including BayernLB, and it was the sale of the German bank’s stake in F1 to CVC which has, among other things, led to Ecclestone’s standing trial (on bribery charges) in two months’ time.
I’ll admit that in my saner moments I still struggle with the thought – the concept – that any sport could be owned by an individual or entity, but that is the situation Grand Prix racing finds itself in, and since CVC acquired majority control of it in 2006 the consequences for F1 have been catastrophic.
FOTA’s first press conference
As Tyrrell correctly predicted, its assets are indeed being stripped – to an outrageous degree, and at a time when a majority of its teams are struggling to survive. If CVC’s rape of F1 were not enough, it comes on top of the financial meltdown gifted us all by the darling bankers in ’08.
As I boarded my flight back from Geneva on March 5 2009, though, I thought I saw glimmers of light – indeed, I felt more optimistic about the sport’s future than for quite some time. For one thing, on arriving in Switzerland that morning, we had learned that the erstwhile Honda team had indeed survived, and would in future be known as Brawn GP; for another, we had then attended the inaugural press conference given by FOTA, the Formula One Teams Association.
When word first surfaced that the teams had decided to form their own association, I confess that I had been highly sceptical, for F1 people had long been renowned for being unable ever to agree about anything save the need to put their own interests first.
Now, though, the notion of togetherness had actually taken flesh, in the sense that the team owners had apparently come to understand the need to unite. And what seemed to give cause for hope was that, crucially, Ferrari was on board: not only that, Luca di Montezemolo was to be the first president of FOTA.
“It’s the best thing to happen in years in F1,” said Flavio Briatore when I interviewed him a few weeks earlier, “because if we’re not together, we’re very weak.
“In F1 what do we have? We have the FIA, we have the commercial rights holder, and we have the teams. The FIA is one person. The commercial rights holder is one person. The teams, though… that’s 10 or 12 different people, all trying to do the best deal for themselves.
“It wasn’t working anymore, so we decided to try to unify, to have one voice to speak for everybody. We should take this opportunity to make F1 right, because the moment the economy starts to recover we might start to lose the unified feeling again…”
We took our seats, and in they trooped, the team principals, beaming and genial. The president then began his address, and this was Luca at his most statesmanlike. Throughout his speech he emphasised – as had Briatore – that F1 was a triangle, with the FIA (Mosley) at one corner, FOM (Ecclestone) at another, FOTA at the third. It was imperative, di Montezemolo said, that the three sides worked together in taking F1 forward to new and greater heights.
This Luca was very different from the one who three months earlier had been moved to suggest that the era of domination over F1 by Max and Bernie was now at an end, who the previous year had proposed, in the wake of the News of the World affair, that Mosley should step down as FIA president ‘for reasons of credibility’. No, this was a man striving to appear conciliatory, and very well he did it.
After a while Luca handed over to the Working Groups within FOTA, Mario Theissen of BMW presenting the technical vision of the future, Briatore dealing with the commercial aspects, and Martin Whitmarsh the sporting stuff. Five years on, where are they now?
Finally di Montezemolo came back to the microphone, and in the course of his closing remarks invited Ron Dennis to say a few words. It was all very good-humoured, and if the intention had been to demonstrate harmony among the teams, it worked. This was, after all, not long after the infamous ‘Spygate’ affair, and it was difficult to believe how much had changed in a year. Dennis sat alongside Stefano Domenicali, and symbolically that was not insignificant.
It was not a day for dramatic announcements, and afterwards we were left with a certain feeling of anti-climax, but, playing back the tape of what had been said, one seemed to detect evidence of steel beneath the silk.
“What’s certain,” di Montezemolo said, “is that the time for ‘divide and conquer’ to rule in F1 is over.”
Ha! On the face of it, the formation of FOTA amounted to Bernie and Max’s worst nightmare – but it would, of course, have teeth only if it remained united, and, as history had repeatedly shown, no one gets his chisel into unity like Ecclestone. Nor, for that matter, does anything grease wheels like money, and ‘ere long it became known that Bernie had reached a new financial accommodation with Red Bull, whose resignation from FOTA swiftly followed – as did that of sister team Toro Rosso.
It is not by chance that Red Bull is far from the most popular team in the paddock. Many blame Dietrich Mateschitz’s outfit for the sad, powerless, predicament in which they now find themselves against the cold heart of CVC.
That said, it was not only Red Bull who were bought off by Ecclestone. ‘The favoured team’ in his special fiscal arrangements had always previously been Ferrari, and di Montezemolo, fearful that his company’s status had been compromised, swiftly followed the lead of Red Bull. Now Ferrari, too, was gone from FOTA – and so was Sauber, long an engine customer of Maranello. What was that Luca had said about the end of ‘divide and conquer’ in F1?
From the outset he had also said that he would be president of FOTA only for a limited time, and, boy, he meant it. After he stepped down, the position was taken by Martin Whitmarsh, who worked hard, in very difficult circumstances, to try to ensure that even a depleted FOTA had some clout, but it was essentially a hopeless task.
Now, following the palace coup at Woking, Whitmarsh is sadly gone from F1, and FOTA meantime is in its death throes. To the delight of its investors, CVC will continue to plunder our sport, and to put not a cent back into it, while more than half the teams survive only by hiring drivers bearing gifts.
Brundle was right. If there are many in F1 struggling to get by, so there are indeed also those ill with their money. FOTA was the teams’ best hope, and it was traded in for 30 pieces of silver. Sad, ain’t it?