Stoddart's strategy highlights plight of independent teams

Minardi owner abandons action which could have led to ban on traction and launch control at Sunday's British Grand Prix
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The Independent Online

A decade ago, in Canada, the race director Charlie Whiting made an astonishing discovery. Having re-read the rulebook, he found that all of the cars on the grid were illegal, because they used driver aids such as active suspension and traction control.

This was a cunning ploy by Max Mosley, the president of the sport's world governing body, the FIA, to bully the teams into accepting a ban on such gizmos for 1994. Once they had, they were allowed to keep racing their cars in the same set-up until the end of 1993.

There was a chance that the beleaguered Minardi team owner, Paul Stoddart, would use a similar tactic at next week's British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Stoddart is struggling for survival in the sport dubbed the "Piranha Club" by the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis. After much acrimonious argument, and the promise of a $5m (£3.1m) cash injection by Formula One's ringmaster, Bernie Ecclestone, he is still seeking some of the money from a "fighting fund" comprising television income due to the now defunct Arrows team.

Earlier this year the 10 teams unanimously agreed to defer a ban on traction control and launch control systems - that respectively help the cars to avoid wheelspin and to get off the start line like a rocket. Initially, this was to have taken place from the British Grand Prix. However, in Canada last month, when he failed to obtain any money from the "fighting fund" Stoddart withdrew his agreement so that the ban would have come into play from Silverstone onwards.

Without Stoddart's agreement, cars with traction and launch control next weekend could be deemed illegal. Having seen his cars temporarily finish first and second after Friday qualifying in France last weekend, Stoddart entertained ideas of winning the British Grand Prix by the simple expedient of being the only owner with legal cars. That threat finally evaporated last week when an undisclosed financial agreement was finally reached.

To some Stoddart is a pain in a delicate place; to others he is David grabbing Goliath in an equally sensitive spot. He, like fellow independents Eddie Jordan and Peter Sauber, is fighting to bale out his leaky boat in the face of a tsunami: major motor manufacturers who are spending millions of dollars.

Jordan is adamant that the key to the independents' survival, "is not just engine supply for us, but engine supply at a reasonable price." He puts a figure of $10m on this, as opposed to the $20m he is paying Ford this season. Norbert Haug, the motorsport director of Mercedes-Benz, appeared to concur with the former figure, but has since revised it upwards. At the same time, the Northampton-based Cosworth Racing has put an offer on the table to supply all of the independents at $19.5m a year, or $22.5m if the team opts for the package that allows it unlimited testing.

"I firmly believe that it is better to keep the independent teams strong," Jordan says. "And part of that process is getting an engine deal at an attractive price, or else at a price subsidised by manufacturers who do not supply engines to a second team. This should not be construed as a hand-out. In baseball and basketball in the US the big teams support the little ones."

Jordan also stresses the independents' role in bringing on young drivers who subsequently get snapped up by the bigger teams. "Take Ferrari - dare I say that there has been a Jordan-educated driver in one of their cars since 1991: Jean Alesi, Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine and Rubens Barrichello. We brought them all into Formula One. This year we brought Ralph Firman in. Paul [Stoddart] has brought in Mark Webber and Justin Wilson; Peter Sauber brought in Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa."

There is another, more tangible benefit, too. Under the Concorde Agreement, which governs Formula One, there must be a minimum of 20 cars on the grid. If another independent team follows Prost or Arrows into oblivion, two other major teams will have to run three cars to make up the numbers.

It would be a largely futile exercise. Other than increasing their running costs there would be little benefit for the teams concerned as their third cars and drivers would not be eligible to score championship points. But if they were to finish third, they would retain that place, thus preventing those finishing behind them from moving up to score the third-place points. Effectively, eight reliable cars from the top four teams could lock all other teams out of the points altogether.

Next season will see the introduction of another significant measure, after Mosley insisted that a team should be able to run for an entire grand prix weekend with only one engine. Thus engines must be good for 800 kilometres (497 miles) rather than 400km. After initial resistance, this has generally been welcomed by the manufacturers and teams as a worthwhile attempt to reduce costs.

In the longer term, Formula One faces other threats. At the end of 2006 a pan-European ban on tobacco advertising will finally see the likes of Marlboro (Ferrari); West (McLaren); Mild Seven (Renault) and Lucky Strike (BAR) driven from the sport. This has been coming for a long time and the remaining six teams all derive their sponsorship income from non-tobacco sources. Williams, which this week will announce a deal with Budweiser, has already taken the innovative step of enlisting the NiQuitin CQ brand which aims to help smokers to stop.

But the greatest threat to the present format of Formula One lies at the end of 2007, when the Concorde Agreement expires. That is when the Grand Prix World Championship alliance of major motor manufacturers bent on self-determination is due to start, in direct opposition to the FIA's existing World Championship run in conjunction with the Ecclestone, the commercial rights holder.

Those in favour of the GPWC see it as freedom from the financial shackles imposed under Ecclestone's regime. Ecclestone, and his fellow shareholders represented by Bayeriche Landesbank, take the view that those in favour of the GPWC are ingrates who got rich because of the structure he created. If no agreement is reached between the two opposing factions before 2008, an acrimonious civil war could destroy the sport.

Dennis, a GPWC prime mover, said recently: "We are very close to finding a good commercial balance for the future. It is inevitable that something that is as complex as this is going to take a bit of time. But I think it will be resolved well before the end of the year."

Dr Gerhard Gribkowsky, of Bayerische Landesbank, said in France that a deal offering teams double their current share of the pie plus profit-sharing had been ignored by the GPWC teams, but that agreement could be reached, "within 10 days if everyone sat round a table together". Ecclestone, however, suggested that agreement is still, "miles and miles and miles away".

All of the polemics of this multi-million dollar sport are an ironic backdrop to one of the best seasons in years, in which revisions to the regulations and greater effort from Williams and McLaren have taken the fight to Ferrari. Not since 1999 have six drivers won races, or four drivers been in title contention at the season's midpoint.

The infighting will be the last thing on their minds when Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen, Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya go to the grid at Silverstone on Sunday.