GENTLEMEN, TAKE ARMS ~ by Tim Swietochowski

It seems there are storms of discontent brewing rapidly in the teacups of Formula One’s protagonists. Or, to put it bluntly, war is coming.

The battle lines have been forming since the genesis of the Formula One Teams’ Association (FOTA), a development that was met with declarations of unprecedented unity and perceived productivity. What has emerged, however, is a duel for control and a marking of territory that has pitched FOTA against the combined weight of the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone.

Such a clash harkens back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA) and the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA), of which FOTA and the FIA are essentially current equivalents, engaged in combat for fundamentally similar reasons, namely a jockeying for control.

That particular fracas can trace its lineage back to 1972, when Ecclestone bought into Brabham. As both a team owner and the personification of business nous, Ecclestone persuaded his rivals to group together and hold the circuits at ransom, making a collective financial demand that, if not met, would leave those tracks with empty grids. Given that the teams had previously been bargaining with race promoters as separate entities, the FOCA way offered considerably greener grass.

However, a threat to FOCA’s strengthening grip began to form when the president of the French motorsport authority, Jean-Marie Balestre, became frustrated at what he believed was a lack of interest in motorsport from the FIA, subsequently proposing that an autonomous sporting subsidiary be set up. The result was FISA, and Balestre became president.

With designs on recapturing ultimate control of the sport, the Frenchman immediately placed Ecclestone, as FOCA’s ringmaster, in his crosshairs. Thus began a two-year war, culminating in the boycotting of the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix by the FOCA-affiliated teams and ending with the signing of the original Concorde Agreement. The deal allowed FOCA, by Bernie’s hand, to manage television rights while passing a cut to FISA, a compromise for Balestre that saw him fail to take total power but which impressed FIA members.

Fast-forward to the present day and it is a measure of Ecclestone’s entrepreneurial trait of looking after number one that he stands on the other side of the fence to the teams. And amid accusations by Ron Dennis and Flavio Briatore that have surfaced in recent days that CVC, the majority shareholders of Formula One Administration, owes them money dating back to 2006, Bernie seems to have been seriously riled. It has emerged that Dennis and Briatore threatened not to send their cars to Melbourne if they weren’t paid what they believed they were owed, which led to Ecclestone telling The Times: “If they come in here with a gun to my head, they had better be sure they can f***ing pull the trigger.

And they should make sure it’s got bullets in it because, if they miss, they better look out.” That, plainly, is fighting talk

Posing a potential hindrance to FOTA’s efforts, though, is the prospect of a minor civil war. When the new Williams and Toyota, and later the Brawn GP machines broke cover, it was apparent that they had found ways of manipulating the wording of the new regulations to produce taller and more complex diffusers than had originally been intended, allowing for a performance benefit not too shy of half a second per lap.

The ‘offending’ teams were adamant from the outset that their designs were legal – a view to which Max Mosley quickly subscribed – and on the Thursday of the Australian Grand Prix the cars all passed scrutineering. In response, and in line with previously stated intentions, Ferrari, Renault and Red Bull lodged a protest that will carry the matter to the International Court of Appeal.

Of course, FOTA has said that the issue won’t prove fractious to their collective aim of paving a better way forward for themselves and for the sport, and this may well be the case but if the heat rises in its tussle with Ecclestone and the governing body, such distractions will hardly be helpful. A cynic might even accuse the powers-that-be of recognising this and intentionally dithering over the matter so as to stir up some trouble among the teams. Then there’s the very real possibility of Brawn, Williams or Toyota taking the spoils at the early races. Such an eventuality would surely exasperate teams that would believe they were being beaten by illegal cars.

While that fuse burns slowly, there also exists the contentious issue of the FIA’s £30 million optional budget cap for 2010 with a freer technical rulebook for any takers. While FOTA stated on Friday that it only opposes a two-tier formula rather than the notion of limited spending, the earliest and most significant grumble concerned the FIA’s perceived ignorance of the teams’ own cost-cutting drive. That ignorance seemed almost patronising, particularly given Max Mosley’s explanatory comment in the Daily Telegraph, to wit: “All we’ve had from the teams so far is ‘We’ve done a fantastic job, we’ve reduced costs by 50 per cent’. So what?” If there’s anybody who won’t appreciate being spoken down to, it’s the boss of a Formula One team.

Should all of the plans to which FOTA protest be pushed forward by the FIA, it is not inconceivable that one or two more manufacturers could throw in the towel, Toyota being the most likely candidate should it fail to find success this season. Ecclestone and Mosley would likely dismiss the ramifications of such an eventuality, perhaps making the point that with a low budget restriction there would be an influx of new specialist independents.

That may turn out to be the case but to help understand the picture this would paint it is perhaps wise to cast an eye on the World Rally Championship. Whereas only a handful of years ago rallies were being fought out between Ford, Citroen, Peugeot, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Skoda and Hyundai, now only the first two remain. Despite the presence of only two manufacturers the series continues, propped up by the involvement of small, private teams. If truth be told, however, those entries don’t really figure in the true thrust of the championship, with the headline story for each rally seeming almost invariably to be whether Mikko Hirvonen can get one over on Sébastien Loeb.

Worth bearing in mind at this point is that the private machines in the WRC are previously used manufacturer cars with very similar performance to the latest-spec models at the front. Nevertheless, the prowess of a full works team will always hold an advantage and pull away, leaving the privateers hoping merely for an occasional scratch time. So, if Toyota, Renault and perhaps even BMW were to bow out, Grands Prix could potentially face a similar dull storyline from race to race, with the Ferrari and McLaren drivers romping home a long way up the road from the rest. Even with costs capped, manufacturer teams would soon find legs on the independents, and so it could be said that for depth of competition to prosper in contemporary Formula One, there must be either several manufactures involved or none at all.

Although the thought would not likely have been entertained at the time, it is now conceivable to look back at the first two or three years of the century as a golden age for the WRC, and it is precisely because the notion never occurred back then that the championship has been left with its hand in its pockets, staring solemnly at its shoes. If Formula One fails to recognise that this is its own golden era, with major car companies involved and with the entire grid standing shoulder-to-shoulder for the first time, it could go on to meet – and regret – that time-honoured adage of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. It’s happened before in motorsport and it could happen again; just ask the rally boys.

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