The once so proud sport of Formula One is going through a revolutionary period. Now, it has reached its final chapter, with eight teams threatening to leave Formula One. The reason for it is that the teams (organized within the Formula One Teams Association, or FOTA) do not accept the proposals made by the International Autosport Federation (FIA), concerning the downsizing and capping of spending budgets. Much has to do with a power struggle between Max Mosley (president of the FIA), Bernie Ecclestone (holder of all commercial rights of the sport) and the teams. The result is that Formula One might go on, but without famous names and constructors, such as Ferrari, McLaren, and BMW Sauber. This would mean that Poland’s most popular and best-paid sportsman of the moment – Robert Kubica – would be without a seat for next season.
Crisis and Change
It all began in late 2008 with the economic crisis kicking in. The Honda team pulled out of Formula One. Its remains, together with financial help from sponsors and FOTA, resulted in the Brawn GP team, currently dominating the field, much to everybody’s surprise. Brawn responded well to the technological changes implemented by the FIA, that actually aimed to level the field and prevent more seasons dominated by two or three teams only, such as Ferrari, McLaren and Renault have done over the last two decades (the last one to win a championship from a different club was Nelson Piquet in 1987 in a Williams-Honda). But the established teams complained about the new rules being too vague and not obligatory.
First there was the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). This experimental system works like a quickly self-recharging battery, so that the use of oil could be brought down. However, the battery weighs a lot, thus making the cars heavier and slower. The established teams entered the new season with KERS, the others without. Also, debates about the size of wings and diffusers (regulating the airflow around the car) were the talk of the day: the established teams came with the traditional diffuser, whereas the newer teams built a double diffuser, doubling the airflow and streamline of their cars, making them much quicker.
Needless to say, the teams that suffered from this new situation (notably the top four of the last three years: Ferrari, McLaren, Renault and BMW Sauber) demanded firm action by the FIA, in fear that they themselves would lose their dominating position within the sport. The FIA responded with an announcement that KERS will be banned and double diffusers legalised. Budgets would hold an official limit of 45 million Euros, giving technical bonuses to the ones staying under the spending budget line and restricting the ones who do not.
With that decision, a breach between the teams in FOTA and the FIA was inevitable. Apart from the privateer teams of Frank Williams and Force India, every other team has more money to spend on their Formula One projects. The downsizing and capping of their budget would be unbearable for some. For example, Ferrari and McLaren currently work within a budget that’s eight to 10 times as much. Both teams were very vocal, stating they would refuse to participate in a sport with hypocritical rules and inequality. The protest was supported by Renault, BMW Sauber, Red Bull Racing and its sister team Toro Rosso, Toyota and Brawn GP. The teams of Williams and Force India, seeing the gains of the new regulations, joined FIA and were banned from FOTA.
FOTA made a counter proposal, by downsizing the budgets bit by bit, to around 80 to 100 million in 2012. This was declined by the FIA. The result was that the teams in FOTA now declared a break with the FIA and announced the establishment of a racing league of their own. But Bernie Ecclestone is still mediating between both parties. Ecclestone states that Formula One cannot allow itself the departure of brands such as Ferrari, McLaren, Renault and BMW. In fact, he made it public that Ferrari was to receive 80 million euro annually, to make ensure that the team remains in Formula One, simply because of its commercial value to the sport. It cannot afford the loss of three popular former world champions: Fernando Alonso (Renault), Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) and Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) and whoever wins this year’s championship. But most importantly, it cannot afford the loss of the six biggest Formula One audiences in the world. The most loyal viewers of Formula One come from Italy (supporting Ferrari mainly), France (Renault), Great Britain (McLaren, Brawn GP), Germany (BMW, Toyota and Red Bull), Spain (Fernando Alonso) and Poland (Robert Kubica): all together some 100 million people and the bulk of the European attendants of the racing weekends. Losing those people to a rival racing league would mean the death of Formula One. It would mean that Polish F1 fans would be deprived of Cracovian racing driver Robert Kubica, who would end up without a racing seat as a consequence.
Behind the scenes, Bernie Ecclestone is working hard on a compromise. Thus far, both the FIA (lead by Max Mosley) and FOTA (spearheaded by Ferrari) do not seem sensitive to any proposal. They remain stubborn, both convinced that they best represent a sport that might not be around anymore after this year.