Formula 1 Insight

Bernie Embattled

Bernie Ecclestone is very busy at the moment, firing out statements left and right, creating a smokescreen to hide the the wear and tear becoming apparent in his favorite toy, F1. After trying to frighten the teams by suggesting their money from FOM should be cut, rather than increased, he tackles the looming possibility of shrinking grids (never mind the fact that he has asserted previously that there is no minimum number of entrants he has to assemble). Three-car teams, he shouts, that will solve any shortage of cars for the races.

Seeing triple
Bernie's triple vision

All he has to do is ask, he reckons, and the big teams will supply third cars to make up the numbers. The flaw in his theory is then cleverly buried in more blustering about just how it would work - and that problem is that there is no reason why any of the teams should comply with his wishes. Particularly at a time when FOTA is locked in battle with FOM over money, why on earth would the teams so graciously help Bernie extricate himself from his latest difficulty?

Apart from the battle of wills induced by Bernie's combatative style of negotiating, the thing makes no economic sense anyway. The reason for shrinking grids is that it becomes increasingly difficult for teams to pay the price of competing as the credit crunch bites ever harder. To field a third car means more expense; not just the cost of making the car but paying the driver and extra team members to keep it running.

In easier times it might have been worth it but, now that teams are cutting back on staff members and shaving costs here, there and everywhere, it would be madness to see any savings swallowed up by running a third car. And for what? The only possible benefit would be to increase the chance of points - but that is only if the third car and driver are allowed to score - and how are the other teams going to feel about that?

Clearly, the idea is a non-starter unless Bernie can get the FIA to issue several rule changes very quickly. Max Mosley, once Bernie's lapdog, is unlikely to bow down to him on this occasion, especially now that it becomes obvious that their views on the future of the sport differ so fundamentally. While Max is set upon creating a spec formula and is already well along the way to such an abomination, Bernie wants to free up the rules in exchange for some form of commitment from the manufacturers. We all know that is not going to happen and neither is Max going to start a new war with the teams by introducing yet more rules just to suit Bernie.

So forget third cars - the idea is just more hot air from Bernie. The problem of shrinking grids will not be solved until the FIA obtains agreement from the manufacturers on the matter of customer cars. This should be the first item on the agenda for all concerned, it being the only way that new entrants will be induced into the sport in the foreseeable future. Without the legalization of customer cars, Toro Rosso will disappear at the end of 2009. Honda may still sell, although it is getting perilously close to the deadline without any happy news breaking cover, but for how long would the new owners continue if they cannot scale down the costs by buying in a chassis?

Williams teeters on the brink, saved for the moment by an advance of cash from Bernie, but with their main sponsor in trouble and vowing to look at their investment in June, their survival is anything but guaranteed. And now that ING have admitted that they are reviewing their sponsorship of Renault, Flavio Briatore must be losing sleep at nights.

The point is that F1 could easily lose a few more teams before the 2010 season begins. Those involved in the sport must surely see that the idea of three-car teams is far from an ideal solution and probably impossible anyway. Rather than duct-taping things together to keep the existing teams stumbling onwards, the governing body needs to be changing the environment to make it easier for new teams to enter. It has always been true that the manufacturers will go when it suits them - now is the time to prepare for that future.

To some extent, Mosley's rule changes have altered the environment to ease such preparations. His apparently pointless deal with Cosworth for a standard engine does suggest that new teams could buy engines at a reasonable price, as does the manufacturer teams' agreement to supply cheap engines. If the sale of chassis is also allowed, things would become easier still.

There are many groups and individuals who have been wanting to enter a team into F1 for a long time. What has deterred them has been the cost of setting up a complete operation capable of building the entire car - and the economic downturn means that this has moved from deterrent status to impossibility. The cost-cutting measures agreed between the FIA and FOTA are a step in the right direction but cannot reduce costs quickly enough to save the threatened teams. It is very likely that Williams and Renault will cease to compete in F1 after 2009; Toyota has one more year to improve or be axed. This is not a problem what will go away if a few more Ferraris, McLarens and BMWs appear on the grid.

The prospect of losing so many teams should scare Bernie no end. Shrinking grids mean less entertainment, less entertainment creates falling viewing figures. And that amounts to less money for Bernie's bosses to service their borrowings. We need less bravado from him and more good sense, if he is going to be a part of the solution rather than a braying nuisance in the background.

He is getting old, however, and I cannot see him changing now...


I think that part of the problem is that Bernie in his current senile state doesn't think the backmarkers as part of the show, so a third McLaren and Ferrari more than make for the lost of a Williams or a Toyota.
Date Added: 26/01/2009

Doom and gloom, Clive. These are indeed dark times for the sport. But should they be?

Oddly, Williams are the main reason customer chassis were not allowed, yet they may be one to benefit from their re-introduction, if only (hopefully) temporarily. It appears to me that Bernie isn't the only older chap that needs to change his thinking a bit. Within the blink of an eye, we could see 12 teams and 24 cars on the grid if Sir Frank relaxed his stance. While he did have a point at the time, things have changed, and I'd much rather see a Williams-BMW hybrid, for example, than no Williams name at all. Plus, we'd get David Richards back in the mix, and my favourite - Paul Stoddart. It's time that the powers of the sport started to make some sense, and it might be a good time for ALL of them to work together. But since this is F1, dark times....
Date Added: 26/01/2009

It’s convenient to believe Honda are the only manufacturer that our economic times will force out of F1. Fact is, the other manufacturers are all public companies too, wherein their various Boards of Directors, CEOs, CFOs, etc., etc., are in reality merely custodians of their shareholder’s investment - albeit extremely well paid custodians. With this in mind, and all other factors considered, Honda management made a responsible decision to depart the sport. Fact is, all car manufacturers have been impacted and will continue to be so for some time to come, for not surprisingly there are several other items that take precedence over a new car in our current economic climate. So the real concern is, how much longer will these shareholders, whose capital investment has already been slaughtered, allow their (yes, I mean their) management to go on frittering money away on what in reality is a significant expense that returns little to their pockets - especially when the Honda solution continually reminds them of this folly.

There are real solutions to this quagmire the FIA et al have successful created through their collective short-sightedness and greed, but by example this body and its parasites are all sadly lacking in what it takes to come up with them - never mind implement them in time to be effective. So, what are these solutions? Come on now, when has this circus ever listened to common sense! The best us lowly fans can wish for is that the economy will turn around quickly enough to go on supporting their incompetence.

Date Added: 27/01/2009

Making customer chassis legal is a compelling answer to the problems facing F1 right now, and Toby points out that the Williams argument against them held water before things started to unravel.

The problem with customer chassis is the probable domination of a certain supplier which turns the grid into the equivalent of a spec. series. Look at Daytona Prototypes. The Reilly chassis has dominated for so long that even the new Reilly chassis can't compete with the old one. And the rules and licensing for construction are so restrictive that all the cars look alike (which means they are all being funneled down the same path). It is possible the same could happen in F1 if customer chassis are allowed.

One solution to this would be limiting the number of chassis each manufacturer could sell (i.e. each chassis manufacturer could only supply up to two other teams). This might alleviate the tendency for one manufacturer to dominate, while providing both the incentive and viability for continued development of the chassis manufactured by others. The teams might also agree to an increase in development budget and testing time for those teams who are supplying chassis to others thus providing incentive for teams to become chassis suppliers (if they have the budget). This presupposes that the rules would be open enough to allow continued chassis development (a tall order to start with).

As David points out, it is extremely unlikely that rules would be changed quickly enough that F1 would actually benefit, thanks to Bernie and Max.

But maybe we are missing the obvious. Bernie and Max are providing an entertaining show of their own... It is becoming more and more apparent that these guys are going to hang themselves with all the rope (power) they have been gathering up, and as it approaches it becomes more entertaining. However, it is a show none of us really wanted to watch, and it is a poor substitute to the true F1 show.
Date Added: 27/01/2009

Filipe: Good point Bernie does tend to despise the little guys. And that means us as well, doesn't it? ;)
Date Added: 27/01/2009

Toby: I am hoping that Sir Frank's views on customer cars have changed over the last year or so. As you say, it looks now as if F1 is doomed to be a spec series if the sport remains so difficult to get into - and the idea of a standard chassis must be even more devastating to Frank's ideals than the possibility of having to compete against customer teams. With Williams being in a precarious financial position anyway, it may be that the last opposition to customer cars is crumbling.
Date Added: 27/01/2009

David: Distressingly true - we can suggest solutions to the problems confronting F1 until we're blue in the face but the likelihood is that the governing body will never hear us.
Date Added: 27/01/2009

Marc: Agreed that there are dangers in allowing customer cars. But, if I may introduce an example contrary to yours, we should remember that historically there were no restrictions on customer cars, the 1970s being their heyday, and the suggested problems did not appear. We should be wary of potential snags such as those you point out but, with careful legislation, it does seem that the customer car is the only viable way to retain the extent of competition within the sport.

As for the Max and Bernie show, I know exactly what you mean, since they provide me with such excellent fodder for the occasional rant or two!
Date Added: 27/01/2009

Nothing wrong with customer engines or transmissions but there's no way a team should be allowed to buy a current chassis off another team.I don't mind if it's something like a 5 year old modified Arrows chassis but there needs to be rules which prevent the use of chassis which aren't older than two years being used.

I think there should be at least some element of original car development for an F1 constructor really , rather than just repainting generic cars.
Date Added: 27/01/2009

Alianora La Canta
If Max stays in charge, we'll get spec cars regardless of whether customer cars are also permitted or not. Restricting chassis sold per manufacturer only works if the FIA can be bothered to enforce it - and Max hasn't stopped Ferrari from selling six engines instead of the maximum of four over the two years the rule's been in place, so why would it do any better with chassis? If customer chassis are permitted with the sort of oversight (double meaning intended) the FIA are likely to impose, then we'll get one manufacturer dominating and it will almost certainly be Ferrari. And if customer cars don't come in, the rules will be restricted more and more, even though restrictions increase costs, so eventually there will be a spec car anyway.

I could accept customer cars as a time-limited option for beginning teams, but for established teams, it reduces competitiveness, encourages B-teams (which harm both the competitiveness of F1 through identically-behaving chassis and politically through having "yes" teams), makes the sport more expensive for anyone who wants to compete as a full constructor and makes F1 less diverse and attractive in the long-term. In short, they would harm F1 in the long run, and some teams would be hurt in the short term as well (and not necessarily the ones who can most afford it).

That said, business cycles are such that anything done now would only make a difference next year anyway. By then we could well have lost and Renault (even if the latter did commit until 2012 about 18 months ago). We could lose Toro Rosso, but since they could have saved themselves had they upgraded their Faenza factory upon purchase instead of breaking the rules, I don't have a massive amount of sympathy for the management there. Williams say they've secured next year's budget as well as this year's, but that only sees them through to the start of 2011. Mind you, the economy may be starting to pick up again by that stage so Williams could ride this storm.

The real solution is to make GP2/F2 (and only one of the two; the other can remain driver-orientated) a proper bridge for teams into F1 so that they could do part of the investment at one stage and make the final leap when they've stabilised. However, nobody seems to be looking at that option and in any case it could not be instituted in time.
Date Added: 28/01/2009

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