A formula for failure

How has F1 motor racing, a sport once so glamorous and fashionable, lost its way so badly? By David Tremayne
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The Independent Online

For much of its life Formula One has basked in its reputation as being among the most glamorous, as well as most popular, of modern sports. In the wake of the farce in Indianapolis on Sunday, however, it stands accused of resembling the Conservative Party - an entity in severe decline whose principals are so involved in political infighting that they are doing nothing to safeguard their own future.

The sport is trapped in a maelstrom of ill-feeling that threatens to destroy the very fabric of its existence by alienating the people who ultimately pay for it: the fans.

How has it come to this? The six-car farce at the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is only the latest in a series of acrimonious disputes between the governing body's president, Max Mosley, and teams who have become increasingly dissatisfied with his autocratic style of government.

In February, Sir Frank Williams - whose team have won world championships for drivers such as Alan Jones, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill - said: "The prevailing atmosphere stinks. It is very unhealthy. It was never like this before, not even during the war between Bernie Ecclestone and the teams versus the governing body back in 1980-81. We are seriously unhappy with this."

He continued: "There will be an event, a denouement, which may one day crystallise what is going to happen to Max. There is just too much enmity around."

The previous October, nine of the teams - all bar Ferrari - had presented proposals for the sport's future which included a reduction in testing to cut costs. Ferrari refused to agree and without unanimity nothing could happen. But to Mosley's surprise, the nine stayed together and implemented some of their own suggestions; voluntarily reducing testing, for example. In January, Mosley, together with Ecclestone, the sport's commercial rights holder, announced that they had agreed an extension of the Concorde Agreement with Ferrari, who would take the lion's share of income. They expected the nine rebels to sign up, and were surprised when they became even more united.

In March at the opening grand prix in Melbourne, the Minardi owner, Paul Stoddart, picked a legal fight with Mosley claiming that his introduction of new technical regulations had been unconstitutional. Opinions vary as to who won that spat.

In April BAR-Honda were ruled by the FIA and their court of appeal to have used fuel as ballast during the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. They were excluded from the results, and for two subsequent races.

Then came the US Grand Prix. Michelin's tyres were not durable enough to withstand the forces in the banked Turns 12 and 13, and after Ralf Schumacher crashed heavily on the Friday afternoon Michelin advised its teams that they could not race on the tyres. The manner in which that problem was handled meant the dissatisfaction within the sport had reached crisis levels. Michelin advised the FIA that its tyres would be safe only if a chicane was installed before Turn 13 to slow speeds there to 174mph rather than upwards of 199mph. (There was precedent for this in Spain in 1994 when, post-Senna, drivers threatened to strike if a tyre chicane was not installed on the back straight). The FIA said that this would be dangerous and stood resolutely behind the idea of a 174mph speed limit in that corner alone for the Michelin runners. But that meant cars that were capable of 205mph might suddenly slow to 174mph while racing against other, Bridgestone-shod, cars that were still cleared for 199mph.

According to the teams, the FIA vetoed any other ideas. You could fill a whole story on the he-said, she-said stuff, but no accommodation was reached by any of the parties concerned that led to the solution that would have saved the US Grand Prix. So all seven of the Michelin teams pulled their cars into the pits at the end of the green-flag lap, leaving the Bridgestone runners Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi to entertain 130,000 bemused fans.

The FIA has summoned all seven teams to give account of themselves before the World Motor Sport Council in Paris next Wednesday, June 29, accusing them of committing "acts prejudicial to the interests of a competition, and/or to the interests of motor sport generally".

The gloves are now off in the internecine battles that have riven the sport under Mosley's stewardship, and Williams issued an angry response. "We were desperate to compete, to give the American fans their entertainment, even if it meant giving up championship points," he said.

"Racing in North America is fundamental to Formula One's commercial health. Please understand that teams consider North America an untapped commercial market of considerable potential. We all need to race in the United States, more than one race. More than 50 per cent of our team's sponsorship income comes from the US, so we were all prepared to compromise because we had been told by Michelin that the tyres were dangerous. We tried very hard for a compromise. But Max felt he could not compromise."

Williams also insisted that the teams were not to blame. "It's not accurate," he said of the FIA's statement. "They've blamed the teams totally - which is what we expected. The reality is that teams do not supply tyres. We've just received notice that we must appear in front of the beak. No doubt we will be humiliated, but we are quite used to that."

Quite so, but it was the sport itself that was also humiliated in Indianapolis. Mosley's critics say that upheaval is his lifeblood, and that he could never be happy if peace were to break out. But there are certain realities, as the teams prepare to employ the eminent QC David Pannick to defend them. There is a growing perception - that Mosley must allay - that the fiasco resulted because he insisted on fighting yet another round of his political war against the teams, possibly to embarrass Michelin in North America to pave the way for the single-tyre championship that he wants, or to bring the rebel teams to heel.

Until such perceptions are eliminated, and until all of the parties involved sit down and discuss the future in a spirit of co-operation devoid of petty sniping and acrimony, the sport's future looks as bleak as was the show in Indianapolis last Sunday. Formula One, or the Conservative Party: which can recover first remains a moot point.

A class-action lawsuit has been filed in Indianapolis, meanwhile, on behalf of a fan, Larry Bowers, who wants a refund for his tickets and travel expenses from his home in Colorado. Named in the lawsuits were the boycotting teams and the track.