So what happens next in this dramatic final act of the 2009 season? As Toyota F1’s tearful president Tadashi Yamashina made his sorry way off the podium after announcing the company’s withdrawal from F1, it seemed that Formula 1 was in trouble again. Renault’s board meeting to discuss it’s F1 involvement added to the tension, Bridgestone’s decision to end its involvement was still ringing in the ears. So is F1 in a crisis, or are these the inevitable aftershocks of a credit crunch? F1 is always the last into a recession and the last out of it.
The noises I hear on Renault are that the meeting was broadly supportive of the F1 programme, for now at least. There will be no sudden pull out, it seems.
And this is important because the balance of power is shifting in F1 back towards the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone. The lesson of 2009 was that if the teams stay together, as FOTA did, with the backing of the world’s leading car makers they can get things done. FOTA won the battle in June when it threatened the breakaway series and forced Max Mosley and the FIA to back down on its budget cap proposals, but it looks like the other side is winning the war.
With BMW and now Toyota out FOTA’s power is being diluted, thanks to a host of fragile new teams, all behoven to Ecclestone for the $10 million cheque and liable to side with whoever can help them to survive, rather than feel a spirit of brotherhood with their rivals. Especially when rivals like Ferrari publicly belittle them as non-entities, barely worthy of being in F1, as they did in May and again yesterday.
Ferrari were dismissive of the new teams on their website yesterday,
“In reality, the steady trickle of desertion is more the result of a war against the big car manufacturers, ” it said. “Formula 1 continues losing important parts. In exchange, if one could call it that, Manor, Lotus, USF1 and Campos Meta arrived. You might say, “same-same” because it is enough if there are participants. But that’s not entirely true and the we’ve got to see if next year we’ll be really as many in Bahrain for the first starting grid of the 2010 season.”
Ferrari feel that Sauber should be in F1 ahead of all the new teams. They are a long time Ferrari customer and will be again next year. FOTA needs another strong partner, as Sauber would be. It also needs Renault to maintain the balance. Without that their influence will diminish on issues like forcing Ecclestone to retain the British Grand Prix or to put a US Grand Prix back on the calendar. And where will their diminished power leave them in the negotiations which are set to start soon into the new Concorde Agreement post 2011? The teams are looking to greatly increase their share of the commercial revenues from the sport. Having the big manufacturers behind them increased their bargaining power. It will be much easier now for them to be divided and ruled.
As Ecclestone observed yesterday, “When you look at the history, since Formula 1 started, I think there have been 73 teams coming and going.” Only Ferrari has stayed the course.
Defeated FIA presidential candidate Ari Vatanen couldn’t resist having his say on the latest developments and had a pop at the FIA, “We must realise the economic reality is nothing to do with the crisis, ” he said. “Big companies always look to market and promote, even when times are tough, but only if it is in a sensible way. I do hope [Renault do not leave], but if they do it is the final alarm call that we cannot continue with business as usual. I’m sad to say the old guard are still in power in the FIA, but teams are starting to vote with their feet.”
The withdrawal of manufacturers was foreshadowed by Mosley last year. The issue here is did he see that they were likely to jump and acted accordingly, or did he give them a push?