James Allen on F1

Analysis: What happens when F1 drivers become unified

It's very interesting to read today that all the current F1 drivers are now signed up to the drivers’ ‘union’ – the Grand Prix Drivers' Association.

This has not been the case in the past for various reasons, with drivers staying outside the group, which meets regularly to discuss issues facing them as stakeholders in the sport. It was originally formed to discuss safety matters, but increasingly other factors, such as commercial and image rights as well as the future direction of the sport, have made them take the union more seriously.

There were always drivers, who either didn't think it was worth joining, as the sport didn't listen to them anyway, or who couldn't be bothered or had other reasons for standing apart from their peers.

The GPDA was founded in 1961 and played an important role in the 1970s when Jackie Stewart and others were crusading for safety. After a hiatus through the 1980s, it was reformed during the ill-fated 1994 San Marino GP weekend, where Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were killed. 

Graham Hill, Hill Team Owner, as a GPDA representative, explains from the back of the McLaren motorhome on the Friday of the meeting, the drivers decision to strike over the poor condition of the guardrail lining the street circuit
Spanish GP, 1975: Graham Hill, as a GPDA representative, explains from the back of the McLaren motorhome on the Friday of the meeting, the drivers' decision to strike over the poor condition of the guardrail lining the street circuit

Photo by: Sutton Images

How will GPDA raise its unified voice?

The GPDA is led by directors Sebastian Vettel and Romain Grosjean, and its chairman is former driver Alex Wurz, who has an operational role at Williams, but who also convenes the drivers' association and is an eloquent and motivated chairman.

It is a notable success that the Austrian has managed to get all 20 F1 drivers signed up, for probably the first time in its history.

Alex Wurz, Toyota Racing
Alex Wurz

Photo by: Toyota Racing

He can use this as a strong platform for future roles in the sport – there have been suggestions he may even run for FIA president in 2021 – and it will be very interesting to see how and where the GPDA chooses to make its voice heard in 2018.

It has intervened a few times recently, such as after the death of Jules Bianchi, after the Pirelli tyre failures at Silverstone in 2013 and most notably when the 2016 F1 season began with a farce over the qualifying rules, and it called the leadership “broken”.

As the tectonic plates shift ahead of the 2021 relaunch – with F1 owners Liberty Media working alongside the FIA to frame rules to make F1 more competitive and entertaining, drivers increasingly want to protect their interests. They want to have their say on that as well as to consult on the increasing commercial and promotional demands on them from Liberty, for events like ‘F1 Live’ – of which five are planned worldwide next season.

“We consider F1 as sport, not show,” said Wurz. “A driver, rightly so, calls himself a sportsman and not showman, because it's still about the most natural human aspiration – to go faster, higher, quicker.

“Great sport is what we love to see, if great sport is embedded in a suitably created show and race experience, that would indeed be good. If the sport sucks, everything around the sport itself is only expensive, inauthentic and semi-irrelevant. We need on track competition, but not artificially created.”

Drivers observe the National Anthem on the grid

Photo by: Sutton Images

It wouldn't happen under Bernie's watch

When sub-groups in F1 form themselves into strong unions, there are usually ramifications. In the late 2000s the F1 teams formed a union called the F1 Teams Association (FOTA), which even hosted a press conference and show of strength in 2009 in Geneva.

Bernie Ecclestone, who rose to power as the shop steward of the F1 Constructors’ Association, a forerunner of FOTA in the early 1980s, wrestled the commercial power away from the FIA as a result. Knowing the power of unions, he saw FOTA as a threat and made sure it was brought down.

He did that by doing bilateral agreements in 2011 with the two Red Bull teams and Ferrari, which cut the legs out from under FOTA. He was quite dismissive of the GPDA – although he gave its 2015 Global Fan Survey his blessing in Monaco (below). As it never represented all the drivers' voices, it wasn't seen by him as a major threat.

More recently, after he was eased out of power by the sale to Liberty, Ecclestone attempted to get the circuit promoters to form themselves into a union, to stand up to Liberty and even to negotiate collectively.

So far that has not materialised.

Bernie Ecclestone and Alex Wurz, Williams Driver Mentor and GPDA Chairman and Charles Bradley, Motorsport.com Editor in Chief and the drivers launch the GPDA Global Fans Survey
Bernie Ecclestone and Alex Wurz, Williams Driver Mentor and GPDA Chairman and Charles Bradley, Motorsport.com Editor in Chief and the drivers launch the GPDA Global Fans Survey

Photo by: XPB Images

About this article
Series Formula 1
Article type Analysis
Tags gpda
Topic James Allen on F1