Mark Hughes

Straight Talk
McLaren, the FIA or more fishing? What will Ross Brawn do next?

The Formula 1 landscape remains pockmarked from the skirmishes years ago between two men: Max Mosley and Ron Dennis, each with their own idealistic visions of the sport, each very much in opposition to the other, the president and the rebel rouser. Steering an opportunist course through the rubble has been Bernie Ecclestone, initially aided and abetted by Mosley, latterly left to his own devices, his power underscored by a 100-year money-making licence Max granted him 14 years ago. But we now stand at a crossroads, with Bernie’s legal difficulties, the return of Dennis and the re-election of Jean Todt in Mosley’s former role of FIA president. There is one more potential heavyweight player in this ongoing drama. He is a weapon of awesome firepower, combining intellect with a willingness to get his hands dirty and he’s currently considering his options – while he sits on a river bank. The long-term future of F1 might well hinge upon whether Ross Brawn, once he tires of fishing, decides to work with Dennis or Todt.

Every one of F1’s ills is related to two unresolved, and strongly linked, problems: income and costs. Mosley’s vision involved reducing the ludicrous levels of team spending, Dennis concerned himself with the teams having a greater financial stake in the sport. Their respective self-interest wasn’t difficult to intuit, but if you stripped away the motivation behind pursuing them, both were laudable aims. They are not mutually exclusive either, but because they were tied up in the power struggles and ego of two such sworn enemies, two idealists who created alienation and division, those two aims became opposing points of conflict. The loser has been the sport – as you can read about in this issue’s cover story.

The world – and F1 – needs both idealists and pragmatists at different times. As president of the FIA for the past four years, Jean Todt the pragmatist was perfectly suited to healing a badly fractured relationship between the governing body and the teams. He was even able to introduce an expensive new technical formula that he deemed necessary – against the wishes of many of the teams but without alienating anyone. Alternately accommodating and tough, he sailed an extremely skilful path through there.

But now the mismatched cost and ownership problems are becoming urgent – and there is no sign of a consensus on either. Teams such as Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren are ideologically opposed to an outside body controlling what they spend – while much of the remainder of the grid is increasingly in financial distress. Meanwhile, the sport’s owners take about 40 per cent of F1’s vast income.

Solutions are not going to be reached by consensus. They need to be imposed – and that could get bloody. As the governing body, the FIA is looking to enshrine cost caps into the regulations from 2015. But with a pragmatist steering things, Todt is likely to accept a compromise between the various factions. Red Bull after all invests a lot of money in rallying, another of the FIA’s responsibilities. Ferrari is never shy about using the power of its brand to threaten to leave F1 for, say, Le Mans. As such we expect that any cost cap set will be so high as to be relatively meaningless – an annual £200 million cap is probably fractionally less than the top couple of teams are spending, but will still be way more than most teams can afford. Now is not the time for a pragmatist, but for someone who will accept no compromise on something that needs to be done for the bigger picture. That man could be Ross Brawn, but only if Todt would stand behind him the way he did when their mission was to return Ferrari to world championship glory after so long in the wilderness.

Brawn is a firm believer that enforced and swingeing cost control is necessary, that it cannot be left to the teams. If Todt and Brawn between them could decide on a joint, no-compromise vision, then they could achieve pretty much anything they wanted. It would involve a lot of turbulence, but F1 would come out the other side of it in much better shape. They might then begin looking into the matter of the validity of that 100-year deal…

But the early indications are that Jean is not up for such turmoil, that he wants to continue with deals, counter-deals and compromise. Ross will not be interested in being part of that. In the meantime, we believe he is entertaining thoughts of accepting a very tempting offer from Ron Dennis. It will be much better paid than any FIA role – and it would make McLaren-Honda one fantastic powerhouse. It could make the gap between the haves and have-nots even bigger. Ross is a powerful weapon – but how will his firepower be used?