Mark Skews explains why the struggle for supremacy on the track at Spa was overshadowed by a battle in the paddock
Although Ferrari ultimately prevailed at Spa, Williams arguably should have won, and McLaren contended that it could have won.
The outcome of the race revolved around the safety car period prompted by Jos Verstappen’s big accident. Williams immediately radioed Jacques Villeneuve to pit, but he didn’t receive the message clearly. Consequently, he stopped a lap later than Michael Schumacher and resumed the race behind him. He did fleetingly recapture the lead, when he exited his second pit stop, but the Ferrari had enough momentum to sweep past immediately. Was it not for the earlier confusion, Villeneuve would have been those vital few seconds further up the road.
McLaren likewise had good reason to rue the intervention. Both its drivers were committed to a one-stop gameplan but, trapped behind the safety car, most of the advantage they had hoped to accrue from their strategy was squandered. Mika Hakkinen eventually finished third, just 15 seconds behind the winner.
Between them, McLaren and Williams have dominated the past decade of Formula One. But the bitter wrangle over the Concorde Agreement, by which the sport will be governed in the next five years, now casts them in the role of rebels against the establishment.
At present they, like Tyrrell, have refused to sign the document. The dispute has dragged on for over two years, and involved 22 drafts of the Concorde. The threat, albeit implicit, is that the stars of the show might withdraw. In reality, as Ferrari Sporting Director Jean Todt points out: ‘Formula One teams’ job is to race in Formula One, that’s how they survive.”
It therefore seems inevitable that the triumvirate will race alongside the Concorde’s signatories next season. Whether they will succeed in negotiating the improved share of TV revenue they seek is less certain.
In one respect, the dispute is rooted as much in principle as it is in commerce, for it harks back to the conflict of the early ’80s and the issue of who owns F1 : does it belong to the organiser of the championship, or the teams who race for it?
The original stand-off saw both sides attempt to run their own show. The efforts of the Formula One Constructors’ Association, which organised rebel races in Spain in 1980 and South Africa the following season, were more convincing than those of the grandee teams – the big motor manufacturers which aligned themselves with the FISA – at Imola in 1982. The resultant compromise, the first Concorde Agreement, effectively acknowledged the governing body’s ownership of F1 but, in return, allowed the teams to exploit the rights. They have done so ever since, through the auspices of Bernie Ecclestone.
Now, however, the rebels perceive the latest Concorde to have cut out the middle man by enabling the FIA to negotiate directly with Ecclestone.
The teams contend that without them there would be no series. But should that give them the right to part-ownership? FIA President Max Mosley firmly rebuffs the claim. “One does not come to own a restaurant by eating in it each day, or a theatre by appearing in it nightly,” he pointed out in a letter to Ken Tyrrell. “One does not even acquire shares.”
It is hard to see how the matter can be resolved in the rebels’ favour, for a number of factors are against them not least that their opponent, Mosley, is something of a poacher-turned-gamekeeper.
It was he who negotiated for the FOCA teams in the original dispute. Now, on the other side of the fence, and acutely aware of the transient nature of individual teams, he is adamant that the governing body’s long term future must be secured to that end the new Concorde Agreement binds teams to a five-year participation, makes them the guarantors of 20-car entries, and provides for more races.
The dissidents’ second problem is that some of the show’s ‘extras’ have, as they perceive it, sold out. Little wonder, when you consider that the annual income for his signature on the Concorde is larger than the biggest sponsor Gian Carlo Minardi has ever attracted on his race car. Where the FIA shareout used to account for 12 per cent of the Italian constructor’s budget, it will now swell to 40 per cent.
Bertrand Gachot, a shareholder in the nowdefunct Pacific F1 project, says it is no surprise that teams have lost little time jumping aboard the bandwagon. “Pacific would still be going if we had the benefit of this Concorde,” he argues “Imagine how many small teams Pacific, Simtek, Larrousse etc this would have saved had it been in operation four years ago.”
Perhaps the Gang of Three’s main problem is that the best-known actor of all albeit one fallen upon hard times has signed the agreement. Ferrari might not have enjoyed great success in the past decade, but its pulling power for the audience remains undiminished.
Without Williams, McLaren and Ferrari, the whole circus would be in great jeopardy. For as long as the FIA has Ferrari on its side the show, as they say, must go on…
If the ownership of the theatre is contested, one thing beyond debate is that the show itself has problems which must be addressed. The Belgian GP should have been a blockbuster, for apart from the closing five laps, when the Canadian detected a strange note from the exhaust, Schumacher and Villeneuve ran within a second of each other all race. Yet only at the pit stops did either man even threaten an overtaking manoeuvre. On this particular racetrack, and in a duel fought out between two acknowledged ‘racers’, such sterility was a sad indictment of the manner in which the sensitivity of the cars’ aerodynamics is presently spoiling racing.
Just as Ferrari’s victory at Barcelona was testimony to the World Champion’s wet weather prowess, so success in Belgium was also attributable more to man than machine.
Spa-Francorchamps is a venue at which you always expect Schumacher to take centre stage, for it is a track he has held a special affinity for since making a spectacular Grand Prix debut there in 1991. In the five years since, he has won four times on the road (though he was disqualified once) and finished second on the other occasion.
Ferrari’s only modification for the race was the installation of a seven-speed gearbox. But Eddie Irvine’s plight he qualified 2.4 seconds adrift of pole position, and was lying 12th when he registered his seventh consecutive retirement indicated that the revision did more for Schumacher’s driving style than it did for his car’s performance.
While its rivals in the Big Four haggle over money with the governing body, Ferrari’s only concern is stumping up the 30 million dollars reputedly required to retain the services of its saviour in 1998. The sum might appear obscene to the man in the street but, on the evidence of the Belgian Grand Prix, Ferrari sees it as a small price to pay.