The Six Nations Rugby tournament kicked off this weekend with some thrilling matches and highlighted a sporting dynamic that Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff insists exists between his team and Ferrari.
They can be bitter enemies on the race track and seek to not only beat, but humiliate each other.
But off-track the two team principals not only breakfast together on race morning, at a senior level the two manufacturers are well aligned and now it’s the F1 management team under Liberty Media that is the adversary.
This is set to be one of the key dynamics of 2018 and their unified approach will have some bearing on the shape F1 takes for the future.
F1 like rugby?
Ireland’s Johnny Sexton broke French hearts on Saturday, when he kicked a drop goal with the final action of the game, to steal victory. After being mobbed by his Irish team mates, his first act was to go over to the French team’s huddle and shake hands and share a word with them.
This is the spirit of rugby; the fact that the competitors can want to destroy each other on the field, but then immediately the final whistle blows, they come together with respect and humility thanks to their shared passion for the game.
“I like the analogy to rugby,” Wolff said last Autumn, “That you can be fierce and tough competitors and trying to punch each other during the match and win with all the necessary emotions – but you’re still able to have a beer afterwards.
“This is the attitude that we’ve had over the years..
“But it’s necessary; we are all stakeholders in this giant platform. And if this giant platform is successful, it makes the teams successful and it makes the sport successful and we are all benefitting from this.
“I think in the past – not only in the past, still today – there are individuals that are very narrow-mindedly focussed on Formula One as is there was nothing else besides it. And the truth is that there are many interests that we share besides the fierce competition on track.”
Throughout my 28 year F1 career, I have seen periods when some of the drivers had some sense of cameraderie and some of the team bosses too. When Stefano Domenicali ran Ferrari and Martin Whitmarsh was running McLaren there was a lot of off field respect and cordial relations.
But there has usually been a spirit of animosity off track, clashes of big egos and team bosses seeking to destroy rivals on and off the track.
The group of F1 team bosses was once described as “The Piranha club”, by Ron Dennis.
Shared purpose: to stand up to Liberty
There is a lot going on behind the scenes in F1 at the moment as the management team under Chase Carey reforms the sport for the future. They have had a year to learn who everyone is and how it all works and they’ve had some successes and failures with things they have tried.
But now comes the hard part; shaping the sport according to their vision, even if that puts them on a collision course with the top teams, especially Ferrari and Mercedes.
So far it’s been Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne (above) who has made most of the negative noise about Liberty’s plans. Mercedes have kept a lower profile.
But Ferrari have been more forthright in some of their actions too; for example Sean Bratches oversaw a bidding battle last year between Amazon Prime and Netflix for a new behind the scenes F1 documentary series. Netflix was chosen, but the word is that Ferrari aren’t playing. Mercedes will only feature in a limited way.
Liberty’s approach is to want to treat all their children the same, but Ferrari and Mercedes don’t want to be treated the same as the smaller teams. Much of the fascination of this season ahead will lie in how that negotiation progresses in parallel to the racing competition on track.
All possibilities remain on the table for where this could all end up, from a new Concorde agreement binding in all parties and agreed rules from 2021 onwards, through to Ferrari and Mercedes exploring a different series.
But unlike in the past, where one suspected that Ferrari would always break ranks and do what suited them when push came to shove, there does seem to be a shared sense of purpose with Mercedes and it is important to bear that in mind when watching what unfolds in the Great Game off the circuit.
All photos: LAT Images
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