Dirty – Yet more politics in F1
With the 1993 Grand Prix_season-fast approaching, Formula On. is not exactly a happy ship … Why exactly are so many people getting hot under the collar?
It’s a happy little world at present, Formula One. First we had Nigel Mansell quitting Williams amidst much wailing and gnashing of teeth. More recently, however, more fundamental issues have arisen. There’s been Alain Prost’s ill-advised and ill-timed outburst against FISA and all who sail in it and, just to fill Frank Williams’ cup to the point where somebody’s lap is getting wet, the exclusion of the World Champion constructor from the 1993 FIA Formula One World Championship. Throw in the frankly ludicrous suggestion of a non-safety pace car to prevent any race leader building more than a 12s cushion and you can quite easily be forgiven for believing that the highest echelon of the sport has gone completely loopy.
Bernie Ecclestone has recently been quoted as saying that Prost has no right to a super licence. That’s modern F1 for you. I’ve always hated FISA’s complete lack of sentiment, sense bf history, call it what you will: The way in which the spouses of past world champions don’t qualify for some sort of pass should they wish to come to modern races. Other sports fête the relatives of deceased heroes, bt not F1 . And now here is Prost, with three World Championships and 44 Grand Prix victories – nearly 50 per cent more than anyone else – in a twilight zone.
Behind this, of course, lie his remarks in the French weekly Auto Plus, where he accused Ecclestone of wanting to control everything, of greed ruling the roost. “He takes decisions which are exactly the opposite of what ought to be done,” Prost claimed among other things. Not really calculated to win friends in high places, but then one of the undoubtedly political Frenchman’s best qualities has been his penchant for speaking his mind. What I cannot fathom is why he ever made the remarks when he did. Really, somebody should advise him when to keep quiet.
The upshot is that a seriously miffed FISA is considering imposing a ban on him, while simultaneously criticising any ‘negative’ publicity elsewhere. Keeping one of the world’s best drivers out of F1 isn’t negative, of course…
What sucks in this situation is the behind the scenes manipulation. Back in late 1989 and early 1990 Ayrton Senna was at loggerheads , with FISA over his exclusion from the Japanese GP, which he felt he had won. The exclusion cost him that year’s title. Feelings ran high. He and Ron even stooped so low as to seek the help of the non-electronic media. President Jean-Marie Balestre ranted amid apoplexy for an apology, threatening to withhold his superlicence. Face-saving compromise was reached then, but later that year Senna was at it again when he drove into Prost in Suzuka. Incredibly, in the same year that FISA had threatened dire action against dirty driving, even that it might set up a judgemental ‘Star Chamber’ to deal with miscreants, no action was taken. When, at a Japanese press conference in 1991, Senna finally admitted that he had deliberately driven into the Frenchman, FISA again did nothing. Now, for mouthing off, Prost faces a ban. Strange world, n ‘est ce pas?
Then there is the celebrated exclusion of Williams. To cut a long story short, through a mixture of procrastination, intransigence and poor organisation Frank didn’t get his entry papers to FISA by the Sunday February 15 deadline. They duly arrived at noon, by hand, the following day at FOCA’s headquarters and were faxed to FISA. This was deemed insufficient. No entry could be granted, it was said, unless there was unanimous agreement of all the other teams to let the yardstick make a late entry. Frank’s little error had exposed him to rivals whose frustration had been mounting for months. Never mind that the punishment didn’t fit the crime.
Let’s look at the background to all this. First, FISA isn’t particularly well disposed to Frank right now, especially President Mosley, because Williams joined Ligier in defending Elf’s fuel stance last year. That little battle is still being waged in court. Then there is the manner in which Williams has a) exploited the current regulations far better than anyone else and b) defended such regulations.
Under the Concorde Agreement, thrashed out in the old days of the FISA/FOCA war, unanimous agreement is required before any changes that are not of a safety nature can be implemented. You can’t blame Frank for defending what a great investment of time, effort and cash has created for his team.
Benetton boss Flavio Briatore – whose principal F1 achievements to date would appear to be the dismissal of Johnny Herbert and the snaffling of Michael Schumacher – refuses to agree to Williams’ late entry. He is joined by Giancarlo Minardi. Minardi uses ex-TWR Ford HB engines this year, via agreement with Benetton.
Says Flav, a man who speaks like a star of Godfather III and whose house in Cadogan Place was bombed by the IRA on February 10, “We keep exactly to the rules of the Concorde Agreement. If we ever try to put anything through in the past, maybe to cut costs, people like Frank always tell me no way. At the moment we need 100 per cent agreement under the terms of the Concorde Agreement. But in no other business do you need 100 per cent in order to run it. In Formula One there are always private interests, which can stop you getting 100 per cent. Its crazy. In any large business you only need 51 per cent to have a controlling interest. Our business in Formula One is a little more complicated, so we would need more per cent. But I would rather we changed the Concorde Agreement to a requirement of 80 per cent or whatever.”
And that’s it. That’s where the exposed nerve really is. Change the fundamentals. In reality, Briatore is trying to use his power to enforce Frank’s exclusion to blackmail him into agreeing to a fundamental change in the basic rules. Flav says he accepts Frank’s position, Frank says he isn’t going to succumb to blackmail of that sort. Frank naturally puts a brave face on all this but is very definitely not amused. Nor should he be. It smacks of intrigue and downright bad sportsmanship, rather like the way Ken Tyrrell, a bastion of integrity, was shafted in 1984 allegedly for siding with the non-FOCA teams at Imola back in 1982. But it does expose a key factor: that the unanimity demand in the Concorde Agreement is a massive bone of contention.
“Under the Concorde Agreement,” (the precise terms of which are not made available to the press) contends Frank, “you need nine out of 13 votes in favour of any serious change anyway, so why do we need to change the unanimity requirement? A mechanism for change already exists. Of the whole affair, he says quite rightly: “F1 will suffer, It’s another lot of dirty laundry gone public. It was even on the BBC news . . .”
But why pick on Williams now? Why was nothing said when the Williams-Hondas were dominant in 1986 and ’87, or when Honda power kept McLaren to the fore? Can people really have forgotten that McLaren damn nearly won all 16 races in 1988? Neither then, nor now, was it a team’s fault that it was more efficient than its rivals. That’s the aim of the game. To penalise Williams for its success is churlish. Nevertheless, there is a groundswell of feeling that something needs to be done to redress the current technical and financial imbalances in F1. It is possible to do something about the former, perhaps, but the successful will always attract the money.
Minardi has been struggling to survive for months now, pushing hard for changes on behalf of the more impecunious teams. “We’re being suffocated by the expense,” he claims, perhaps without awareness of the adage about withstanding heat or quitting the kitchen. “F1 has become too expensive, for both teams and Sponsors, many of whom are now investing elsewhere where they can get better value for money.”,
“We spend around $50 million annually,” says Briatore, ‘:around 80 per cent on development, 20 on everything else. My sponsors pay to be part of a show which will give them media coverage because of its high quality. They want to see the costs redistributed, and spent on the things you can see on the track,.not on research departments to which the public has no access. They want a spectacle and it’s our job to provide it.” Nevertheless, Benetton is currently matching Williams’ developmental investment at its new hi-tech factory, because that’s still the name of the game.
“Fl is the supreme form of the motor car. It’s a perpetual war in which you have to use all the arms at your disposal. If you haven’t got the means, it’s best to go and do something else less expensive, with tighter regulations,” says McLaren boss Ron Dennis. “I’m in it to win, not to accept rules which will weaken my chances so that others can win.”
In the midst of this impasse, Ecclestone and his colleagues have become increasingly desperate. In Italy television figures have been poor because of Ferrari’s lack of competitive status but elsewhere, FISA claims, viewership has risen by a factor 10.4 per cent. Recently it actually released the figures. Worldwide, it calculates, nearly 30m people watch F1. Nevertheless, Ecclestone is smart enough to appreciate that IndyCar racing, set to be televised via satellite in the UK this year, is going to pose a major threat now that Mansell has switched sides. The desperation is evident in the laughable idea of the non-safety pace car.
Ultimately, it all comes down to two things: strong leadership and forward vision; and the basic make-up of F1.
Historically, F1 team owners have never been the sort to agree with one another. CART or, better still, NASCAR-type government most probably could never be made to work in F1.
Yet there is a clear need for strong leadership. As long as the Concorde Agreement exists, however – and it does not expire in its present form until 1996 – there will always be the unanimity clause. And while that may be a devil at times, it does ensure long-term stability. Ecclestone’s shortcoming at present appears to be that he is looking purely at 1993; as Patrick Head said recently, “1993 is here, we should be looking at 1994 and ’95.” In doing so, he has forwarded proposals to FISA for a limitation of downforce – the enemy of spectacular racing – by a factor of 50 per cent.
Head’s are points worth considering, especially when Jordan designer Gary Anderson says that in his opinion electronics will do everything for the driver in five years bar, presumably, spending the pay cheque.
Which brings us to the final point. What do we want F1 to be? Should it be an out-and-out technical showcase, or a sporting spectacle? And within that lies another consideration: that there should be a fundamental difference between road and racing cars. The former nowadays are all about safer motoring. Technical advances are designed to make them easier to drive, more idiot proof. When was the last time you drove a mundane road car that was set up to oversteer? Racing cars should be different, should be capable of being driven in a way that makes spectators gasp. Says Dan Gurney: “You know, you could regulate these cars so they go through corners 30mph slower, but if they did so in a big slide do you think anyone could tell that they’d been slowed down? They’d actually look faster.” Briatore agrees, so does Benetton partner Torn Walkinshaw.
There is a case for each argument, of course, but if intelligent technical limitation creates cars that look spectacular, and which bring your heart into your mouth every, time you watch them teetering through a corner on the edge of control – and, the key point, they do so in a manner that even the least knowledgeable spectator can appreciate – then that’s what I’d have to plump for.