As the management of the former Marussia team jumped through the hoops of attempting to rise from the ashes as Manor Racing, so it found its way blocked recently by the Formula 1 Strategy Group. Unanimous consent from all other teams was required to allow Manor dispensation to run modified versions of the 2014 Marussias this season. As the first to vote, Force India’s thumbs-down meant the motion was over almost before it had so much as started.
If that sounds mean-spirited, it’s nothing of the sort; this is about survival. Force India would (probably but arguably) qualify for about £4 million of the £30 million FOM money to which Marussia was entitled, having finished 10th and ninth respectively in the last two constructors championships. That £4 million could make a difference that enables Force India to survive. It was hardly surprising it voted ‘no’ and thereby saved other teams the potential embarrassment of being painted as the bad guys.
The bad guys here are not the small teams that are being pitched against each other for the crumbs from F1’s table, but the sport’s owners and the big teams. There’s a stand-off between those two parties about which of them should surrender income to prevent the smaller teams – quality teams with long histories of success in the sport – from going bust.
A few weeks earlier McLaren boss Ron Dennis voiced his opinion that title sponsors in F1 have become a thing of the past, that the budget of a top F1 team is now so big that no one sponsor can cover it. He’s probably right, but that’s simply yet more evidence the sport’s business model does not work.
If sponsors do not value participation in F1 to be worth as much as it’s costing, then obviously the sport is over-priced. It’s over-priced because the size of the top teams is out of step with the current economic reality.
Even Christian Horner, team principal of one of those top teams, agrees that they have all become too big. But – just as with the conflicting interests of the smaller teams – the big teams are lined up against each other in the solutions. They are unable to agree on how to be cost-controlled, as whichever method is used would disadvantage one more than another because each team is structured differently.
From the perspective of the sport’s owners, fewer teams would mean fewer pay-outs having to be made. So do they a) surrender more of their income, propping up the smaller teams by increasing their payments or b) let them go out of business, thereby saving twice? Given that it’s a private equity company governed only by the rules of the financial market, the answer is obvious.
So it then falls to the governing body, surely? Except of course it’s no longer empowered as once it was. Since accepting a vastly increased fee from the commercial rights holder, the FIA is only one part of the governance power – along with assorted stakeholders, including the financially favoured big teams.
The whole thing is structurally dysfunctional, trapped in a stalemate of conflicting interests. It’s time for the power of the strategy group to be dissolved by mutual consent – because its structure makes consensus, and therefore meaningful change, impossible.
We used to have a system of dictatorship, and it worked – after a fashion. Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone together would agree what needed to happen and decree it so. There would be lots of bitching, sometimes a little bit of compromise after listening to the arguments, but change would happen. The decisions didn’t always turn out to be right, but they got more right than wrong and had the power to correct any mistakes. In the decade between Max’s ascension to presidency of the FIA and him extending the commercial rights to Bernie for an extra century, it worked. But greed changed the equilibrium and Max’s vindictiveness against those who were objecting led to a groundswell for him to go. Which brings us to the current stalemate-inducing shared power of conflicting interests, and the crisis it is inducing.
It’s a story cycle with striking parallels to those of pretty much any empire in the bigger world. What happens next is usually bloody.