Matters of Moment, May 2015

Just after 5.30pm on a Friday evening, the FIA confirmed what we’d long feared: for the first time since 1955, the Formula 1 World Championship will be without a German Grand Prix this year. Like the French before it, another of the races formerly considered a ‘grandee’ had bitten the dust.

Immediately the wringing of hands began on social media amid predictions that beloved Monza will be next. I too expressed my sadness, having always enjoyed the atmosphere during the Schumacher years when Hockenheim and the Nürburgring positively bounced to the rhythm of horn-blaring, flag-waving hordes. There was room on the calendar for both circuits back then, of course, the ’Ring carrying European (or Luxembourg) GP tags to capitalise on Germany’s F1 boom.

How times change. Despite the efforts of Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg and a dominant Mercedes-Benz, an underwhelming 50,000 filtered through Hockenheim’s turnstiles last season. The writing had been on the wall for years after stories of financial woes at both venues, and then there was this.

In recent years, the tracks have taken it in turns to run the German GP so – as one observer wryly put it – they’d only lose money on it every other year. It was supposed to be the Nürburgring’s turn this time, but the management elected to pass the ‘honour’ back to its rival. With only a few months to sell tickets, there’s nothing to suggest the crowd at Hockenheim would have been any better this time around, had the race gone ahead.

Among the social media outcry, some pointed out that the GP’s demise is down to public indifference, that if the F1 audience has been lost then tradition should not be enough to save it. Perhaps. Certainly neither Vettel nor Rosberg, perceived rightly or wrongly as ‘silver spoon’ racers, appeal to the German fanbase in any way like ‘working class hero’ Schumacher. But still, this is one of the foremost automotive nations in the world we’re talking about – and it cannot sustain either an audience or a business to host a GP? The failing, once again, must surely fall at the feet of F1 and its brutally flawed business model rather than simply a disinterested public.

We’ve said it before, and make no apologies for the repetition: the precipice for the sport and its lemming-like stakeholders looms ever larger.

Beyond the confirmation of the German GP’s demise (and the helpful point that the Australian GP did indeed take place…), the statement of decisions taken by the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council on March 20 included much that will change the shape of things away from the F1 limelight.

The headlines included a plan to create an FIA GT World Cup to be held on the fabulous Macau street circuit on November 19-22. Such a concept has worked before, most notably in the Super Touring era when end-of-season World Cups were run at Monza, Donington Park and Paul Ricard between 1993 and ’95. The booming GT3 class more than merits such an event and the Macau Grand Prix, which already hosts a GT race on its schedule, will be a perfect setting. This idea sounds promising.

The same cannot be said of the statement that: “A single engine will be designated with the goal to universalise the 2017 LMP2 category”. This just sounds alarming.

The second division of sports- prototype endurance racing is a modern success story, offering fantastic competition, from the European Le Mans Series to the World Endurance Championship, and also the United Sportscar Championship in the States.

It has become the hottest destination for young racers hoping to build a career when single-seater dreams turn sour, with the likes of Mike Conway and Harry Tincknell living proof that it’s a direct stepping stone to a factory drive in the top LMP1 class.

Most significantly of all, it is an open formula that encourages competition between chassis constructors, engines builders and tyre suppliers. At least, it has until now.

Strict cost controls have been key to LMP2’s success and it’s precisely this which has allowed the division to avoid the dull ethos of one-make racing.

A ‘universal’ engine is a retrograde step for a perfectly sound category – and is also a direct contradiction to the spirit of Le Mans. Strange decision.

The Council also confirmed its next step in the FIA’s offensive to wrest back control of the fractured junior single-seater hierarchy in Europe. It has approved “the creation of a new FIA F2 Championship, aimed at bridging the gap between F3 and F1 and completing the single-seater ladder. As a consequence, a detailed project will be submitted to the WMSC in July and a call of interest is planned to be launched with regard to the promotion of this championship as soon as possible”.

No mention of GP2 or GP3 here, the F1-supporting series that are controlled by Bernie Ecclestone. That’s hardly unintentional. The launch of Formula 4 around the continent and the renewed focus on F3 were part of FIA president Jean Todt’s strategy to get a grip on single-seater racing – and out of the clutches of his old mate Bernie. A new F2, wiping out what exists already, would complete his vision of a clearly defined path to F1 – just like it used to be.

The addition of another attempt to revive the old F2 label hardly seemed the answer when first I considered it. But while watching the 1960s F3 ‘screamers’ at the Goodwood Members’ Meeting, it occurred that the words ‘single-make’ do not appear in the statement. It’s also undeniable that GP2 is hardly doing the job for which it is intended. Yes, the racing is deeply competitive and the cars are fast, but it’s eye-wateringly expensive and is hardly rocketing young talent into F1 race seats. A new approach certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Ideally, at this point collusion with GP2 would be sensible to blend strategies into one strong series. This being motor racing, self-interest and the ever-present power struggle that defines the Ecclestone-Todt relationship will probably rule out such logic. Direct competition between GP2 and a new F2 might be painful in the short term, but perhaps that conflict needs to play out to clear the decks and resolve the ladder problem once and for all.

The lovely F3 Marches, Lotuses, Brabhams and Tecnos then inspired another thought, connected to the disappointment of the ‘universal’ LMP2 announcement. Why not make the new F2 an open formula, just like it used to be? In his column on page 26, Mark Hughes explains his alternative to an engine freeze in F1: that manufacturers should be free to develop engines as they see fit, but are capped on how much they can charge to sell them on to teams. Such an idea is self-policing because tuners will only spend so much on development if they know revenue from sales will always be limited.

The same could apply to junior single-seaters. Chassis builders and engine tuners should be free to compete, to build the best products they can to a defined rulebook – as long as they can’t pass on excessive costs to their customers. Why can’t the cost-controlled LMP2 philosophy carry over into single-seaters, too?

The FIA is abandoning the perfectly sensible principles by which LMP2 has thrived, so no one at the governing body is likely to agree. Indeed, there is already talk of a ‘spec’ Alfa Romeo-badged V6 to power the cars. But is this really the answer? Lest we forget, the previous F2 devised by Max Mosley was single-make and quickly ran aground.

They say repeating the same mistake is a sign of insanity, but Todt is resolutely his own man. He has already championed something different in Formula E and another shot of inspiration is required for the new F2.

What does he have up his sleeve?