Are Ecclestone and Todt Gravediggers for F1?

Jean Todt, head of the FIA, seems to exhibit a laissez-faire attitude regarding the current problems in F1.
Jean Todt, head of the FIA, seems to exhibit a laissez-faire attitude regarding the current problems in F1.

I know what my main complaint about F1 is. Let me tell you.

On the eve of her first triathlon, duly completed in fittingly excruciating style on Sunday, I asked my 8-year-old daughter what she thought about Fernando Alonso having to almost beg the FIA for the right to race his car in China due to having one or two damaged ribs.

“Did they ask him what he wants to do?” she asked me. I said the Spaniard answered that he is “120 per cent” keen to race, despite needing to close his eyes over the bumps due to the last dregs of pain not erasable by medication. “That’s cool,” she answered.

Exactly. So when an 8-year-old, who also thinks it’s “cool” that her first triathlon left her with a bruise on her torso and a graze on her knee, suspects she might not find “cool” when watching a ‘halo’-ensconced F1 car in the future driven by drivers whose ribs have been x-rayed and re-x-rayed, that’s a big problem for F1.

Sadly, that – nor a ridiculous 20-minute red flag in qualifying to ensure more drivers don’t have their talents tested over a little damp bump – is nowhere near being F1’s biggest problem. No, the most worrying sign is not that a cool kid thinks F1 is uncool, but that even the sport’s chefs are spitting out the soup they are making.

The Head Chef is Bernie Ecclestone, who moans non-stop that after winning every trophy on a Sunday, trench-coated Mercedes bosses rush around a dark corner with best ‘frenemy’ Ferrari to orchestrate the running of a political ‘cartel’. Oh, and he also hates these pussycat-purring V6 engines, just in case you’ve missed the 163 occasions on which he has let the world know.

But what a minute. Isn’t Bernie the ‘F1 supremo’? Why can’t the headmaster just pull these naughty children into his office and give them a damn good paddling? If he wants grids decided by last Wednesday’s lotto results, and 2000-decibel Cosworth engines from 1969, can’t he just issue an Executive Order?

No. And he dug these graves – mostly all by himself – a few years ago.

F1’s foremost grave is the ridiculous ‘Strategy Group’. Bernie complains non-stop about it, but that’s like me complaining that my brand new, size 30 ‘Skinny’-cut jeans, bought at full price and tried on in a changing room complete with three mirrors, are just way too tight. For it was Bernie, that lover of Putin-like dictators who “get it done”, who calmed the power-hungry major teams a few years back by offering them seats at a fully democratic decision-making table, fit for a 21st century of consensus. In other words, in order to maintain his iron grip on Formula 1, he introduced Enemy Number 1 of ‘getting things done’: democracy. And he regrets it, big time.

As odd as it may seem, Putin is quite popular in the West if only for his decisive behavior.
As odd as it may seem, Putin is quite popular in the West if only for his decisive behavior.

His other problem is Jean Todt, and Bernie also played a role in placing this almost invisible figure – Napoleonic only in his physical appearance – at the head of the FIA. Bernie thought he had pulled a masterstroke by doing a $40 million a year deal with the diminutive FIA president in exchange for what the unimpressed European Commission called a “dilution of its regulatory authority”. That would have been Putin-esque brilliance, except that it handed all of the FIA’s “regulatory authority”, formerly wielded so brilliantly and mercilessly by Max Mosley, straight to the teams, who cannot decide what brand of sparkling water to put on the tables at meetings let alone the best next step for the world’s most prestigious motor racing series.

Another problem with the F1 contracts, binding through 2020 and bearing Bernie’s signature, is that they lock in a system for distributing an eye-watering billion dollars per year that favours a financial powerhouse like Ferrari over those who actually need some help catching up, like Sauber, who live barely hand-to-mouth. Felipe Massa, who made his debut for the Swiss team that might not make it through 2016, said in Shanghai: “If the teams had enough money then you might see different cars winning again.

“Like in the NBA. Or when I think of baseball or American football, you see everyone with at least enough to spend on transfers and things,” he said. But that would make too much sense for a Formula 1 in which the battle just behind the runaway grandees is more about putting food on the hungry mechanics’ tables rather than a Mercedes-beating front wing on the car.

So annoyed at himself for the disaster that these contracts are that it is widely rumoured that Ecclestone is in the driver’s seat alongside poor Sauber and Force India when it comes to urging Europe’s anti-competitive arm to throw them in the fire. That is how unbelievable this has all become.

But until the EU hauls a grinning Ecclestone into court, Todt says F1 is stuck with what it has got, as the V6 engines whisper their way to blank grandstands by 2020. “We wait until the renewal of the Concorde Agreement by 2020,” says the uncomplaining FIA chief. “The governance is not good but we are in 2016, and it cannot be (changed) until 2020 unless the teams, the commercial rights holder and the FIA decide to change. Then we can do it tomorrow.” Remember what I said about that raging debate about sparkling water, though? Yep.

So for now, serious and experienced correspondents like Livio Oricchio, of Brazil, are admitting their ridiculous thoughts that Lewis Hamilton’s troubles so far in 2016, culminating in his horrendous weekend in Shanghai, might actually be some giant conspiracy to keep viewers honouring their pay-per-view contracts by seeing someone other than the tattooed, half-American-accented Briton at the top step of the podium. “Not everyone believes that the difficulties of Hamilton are just the result of chance,” says Oricchio.

But it’s not that. What is at least undeniable is that F1 has created the toxic environment in which serious commentators can surmise that a once-great sport might now be little more than Cirque du Soleil overseen by a panicky medical committee. “We should make Formula 1 simple, raw and wild,” Sebastian Vettel told a German newspaper at the weekend.” Amen to that.

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