“If you are going to bark, you need to be prepared to bite.” This is what a member of one of the FOTA teams said to me yesterday afternoon, with respect to the threat of leaving Formula 1 and forming a breakaway series.
Shortly after midnight FOTA made the announcement that many had feared was coming and which takes the sport into unchartered waters. The teams met at the Renault HQ near Oxford prior to making their announcement. They will have done so with a heavy heart but had to do it, really. It was put up or shut up time and as the spirit of team unity has survived through the winter and the early part of the season, despite the diffuser row and various other challenges. I have seen them get progressively more angry as this row has gone on.
“(The) teams.. have no alternative other than to commence the preparation for a new Championship which reflects the values of its participants and partners, ” says the statement. “This series will have transparent governance, one set of regulations, encourage more entrants and listen to the wishes of the fans, including offering lower prices for spectators worldwide, partners and other important stakeholders. The major drivers, stars, brands, sponsors, promoters and companies historically associated with the highest level of motorsport will all feature in this new series.”
Of course ‘commencing preparation’ for a new series is not the same as closing the door on F1 and walking away. The teams expect a compromise to be found and are trying to force it. It has always been the case that if they stay together they can achieve something, but if they allow themselves to be split they will fail. So they have gone for it and put the ball back in the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone’s court. This is going to cause damage to F1 whatever happens. There could be a swift resolution, through negotiation, after all the gaps between the two sides are not that great and both want to achieve the same things. The gap is ideology and increasingly the FOTA teams have come to resent the way in which the FIA has governed in this situation.
Last week, when the entry list was published with Ferrari and the two Red Bull teams on it and the other FOTA teams conditional, FOTA appealed over the head of Mosley to the FIA senate and World Council. This was the equivalent of saying that there could only be a solution if Mosley is removed from his position.
Since then there has been a round of mud-slinging and name calling both in press statements and in press conferences. It got highly personal with Mosley and Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo at the forefront of it all.
Today is the FIA’s deadline for finding a solution and FOTA have pre-empted the action by issuing the statement in the night, allowing a day of frantic diplomacy to take place. It is going to be one of those very dramatic days in the paddock.
TV executives will be really alarmed. They see the numbers on F1, get the commercial proposition and sign off cheques for tens of millions of pounds a year. But many of them do not understand the sport and will not be happy to face the prospect of holding the rights to a series which on the face of it has Williams, Force India and some new teams. Circuit owners and regional governments will feel the same way. And this will not make it any easier for Donington to find investment.
Of course the FIA is confident that it has a binding contract with Ferrari to race in F1 and if this continues, that contract will have to be tested in a court of law.
“FOTA is proud that it has achieved the most substantial measures to reduce costs in the history of our sport. ” says the statement. “In particular the manufacturer teams have provided assistance to the independent teams, a number of which would probably not be in the sport today without the FOTA initiatives. The FOTA teams have further agreed upon a substantial voluntary cost reduction that provides a sustainable model for the future.
“Following these efforts all the teams have confirmed to the FIA and the commercial rights holder that they are willing to commit until the end of 2012. The FIA and the commercial rights holder have campaigned to divide FOTA. The wishes of the majority of the teams are ignored.
“Furthermore, tens of millions of dollars have been withheld from many teams by the commercial rights holder, going back as far as 2006. Despite this and the uncompromising environment, FOTA has genuinely sought compromise. It has become clear however, that the teams cannot continue to compromise on the fundamental values of the sport and have declined to alter their original conditional entries to the 2010 World Championship. ”
A lot of the focus will now fall on Bernie Ecclestone, the 78 year old chief executive of the body which holds the commercial rights to the sport. He has threatened a hailstorm or writs if the teams took this step. His reaction and that of the FIA will be interesting. They have pushed FOTA to this point to see what they would do. But did they really think they would go for it?