F1 has been careful to avoid manufacturer domination for the past few decades, but that’s been allowed to slide – and therein dangers lie
I’ve been alternating recently between covering current Formula 1 for Motor Sport and writing about the 1980 season for a forthcoming book, and the strings of history linking then with now strike powerful chords.
Some remain unresolved.
That season 37 years ago was when the Ecclestone-Mosley partnership, which would later come to run F1 from the 1980s through to 2009, laid its first serious claim to outright power – and was initially rebuffed by the governing body’s president Jean-Marie Balestre. The war that played out over the following couple of years was for the sport’s future, with each side having strongly conflicting visions of how it would look. This 2017 season being the first post-Bernie, it book-ends quite neatly with 1980, illuminating that broad slice of history in between as the sport heads into a new and very different era.
Power struggles have shaped the sport right from the start, but that of the early ’80s was a humdinger – and Balestre’s conviction that he was going to wrest control from the commercial grasp of Max/Bernie was absolutely as naked as their ambition.
He made no secret that he was going to prise apart the fault line of their power base – which was that they did not represent the interests of the three automotive manufacturers then involved, Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo.
As such, he had announced that for 1981 he was massively favouring the turbo engines they (and only they) were either using or had under development by increasing the minimum weight limit to something they could get down to (ensuring they’d have a big power-to-weight advantage over the normally aspirated independents that made up Bernie’s power base).
Simultaneously, he was banning the skirts that were so intrinsic to the ground-effect aerodynamics that the best of the independent teams had mastered so well. At the stroke of a pen, Balestre was potentially turbo-boosting the independents out of long-term existence and making F1 a playground for road car manufacturers.
Denied the oxygen of competitiveness, Bernie and the teams he represented would cease to have commercial clout with race organisers and – as new road car manufacturers poured in – the power would return to the ‘rightful’ place of the governing body.
It didn’t work out that way, of course. Although it wasn’t clear in 1980, what was coming was a series of partnerships between independents and automotive giants, with exponential commercial growth and riches beyond the dreams of the 1980 participants as Bernie fully exploited Formula 1’s potential.
With Mosley then succeeding Balestre as president of the governing body, he and Ecclestone succeeded by infiltration where they’d failed through conflict. They proceeded to work as a double act, their interests entwined like the fibres of a rope. Only when Max eventually took too much of that rope did the partnership break up, a couple of decades later.
But if it had gone Balestre’s way and F1 had come to be dominated by road car manufacturers and not specialist F1 teams, the category would inevitably have crashed some time later. Having it largely populated by teams that relied upon Grand Prix racing for their very existence – which had happened by historical chance in the late 1950s – gave it the strong backbone it had previously lacked.
The manufacturer-dominated GP scene had boomed and busted for half a century before it acquired that robust skeleton. Outside F1, manufacturer-dominated series – sports cars, touring cars, rallying – have boomed and busted continuously, while F1 went from strength to strength. Under Max and Bernie, F1 welcomed manufacturers (and the money they brought) but was never beholden to them.
But taking excessive advantage of that power led to the partnership breaking apart upon threat of a mass team revolt. Bernie lingered on after Max’s departure, but was increasingly out of touch with the changing times. Meanwhile, this FIA president Jean Todt (ironically the man anointed by Mosley as his successor) has proven much more manufacturer-friendly.
It’s a delicate balance to tread, for the manufacturers bring much to the sport. But are we now at the point where they are the tail wagging the dog of F1?
While we rejoice in Liberty Media’s new era of transparency, fairness and modernity, it has inherited an F1 in the powerful grasp of an automotive industry that is moving away from many of the sport’s core values. As the post-2020 engine regulations are being formed, the manufacturers hold sway – and we look to be heading for a continuation of the current hybrid turbo V6s (with tweaks that will attempt to address the issues of noise and cost).
With F1 at a crossroads between the raw, noisy essence that a significant number of fans say they wish it to be and the high-efficiency technology showcase that the manufacturers would like it to be, and the FIA anxious to be on-side with the manufacturers, Liberty is caught in the middle. At least part of Balestre’s 1980 vision could yet unfold – and it could be one the fans do not like.
Since he began covering Grand Prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation