Jean Todt doesn't want to be a F1 dictator, but in a month from now he may need to be
FIA President Jean Todt is here in Bahrain for the second round of the F1 World Championhship and plans to chair a meeting tomorrow of teams, comme...
FIA President Jean Todt is here in Bahrain for the second round of the F1 World Championhship and plans to chair a meeting tomorrow of teams, commercial rights holder and FIA to review the elimination qualifying to get the right format for the rest of the season. Everyone knows it will be another damp squib this afternoon, but it's a process the sport has to go through, we are told.
So much for the short term goals, repairing what is essentially an unforced error of governance by the three sets of stakeholders around one element of the F1 weekend.
But the long term picture is far more interesting and there is a crunch point coming later this month, that is likely to bring things to a head.
As well as the deadline for agreeing a set of bodywork regulations for 2017, on which the teams are quite divided, there is the even more toxic subject of the demands Todt and Bernie Ecclestone have placed on the engine manufacturers, which require a 'satisfactory response' by April 30. These are things like lowering the cost of of engines to €12m, guaranteeing supply to all teams and so on.
This, you will recall, was a compromise agreed in January, following the threat by the pair to introduce a competitive 'standard engine' to a different specification from the V6 hybrid turbo. The manufacturers went away to work out a suitable plan and in exchange for that the FIA said that it would keep the hybrid turbos until 2020.
Now the way things are looking, the manufacturers are shaping up to make this a battleground, which could have huge repercussions for the management of the sport; in other words they may not be about to give the response that Todt and Ecclestone want, to provoke a battle. And that's where this would get interesting.
"More controversy than unity"
Remember that the World Motor Sport Council tasked Todt and Ecclestone with finding a solution to the problem of the cost and supply of engines and gave them a mandate to do whatever was necessary to see this through.
If Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault plan to make this matter the battleground to take control of the sport, then Todt and Ecclestone will need to impose a solution, probably involving the standard engine. Ferrari will then use its notorious veto and all hell will break loose.
There's a lot at stake. Bernie Ecclestone faces a formidable foe in the shape of three captains of industry, who know this sport well and who are more aligned than any foe Ecclestone has faced before; Carlos Ghosn (Renault), Dieter Zetsche (Mercedes) and Sergio Marchionne (Ferrari). In the days of Luca di Montezemolo as Ferrari chairman, Ecclestone was always able to work things around. Marchionne is an altogether different animal and the jury is out on how things might evolve.
Ecclestone cannot afford to lose this battle if he wants to retain control of the sport.
Todt is in a slightly different position. As the president of the FIA, which owns the F1 World Championship, he can stand alongside Ecclestone on this up to a point, but can also work with the manufacturers in a post-Ecclestone era, if such a thing comes about. He has strong relationships with all three captains of industry.
Speaking to the Financial Times this week, Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff gave a hint of what potentially lies ahead, arguing that the sport needs an urgent change of governance and added that this could not wait until 2020, when the current bilateral agreements with teams come to an end.
"The current governance creates more controversy than unity,” he says. “So many controversial ideas are just thrown into the room, which creates even more controversy and hardline standpoints, rather than trying to find out what the common denominator could be, and then developing and taking it from there.
"I think 2020 is too late... to reset some of the structural deficits in F1. Certainly 2020, with a new Concorde and new governance, also means there is opportunity. But beforehand we all need to align ourselves and understand that this is a joint platform, a common platform that we need to continue to develop — rather than dragging it through the dirt.”
Of course, there are some problems with manufacturers taking over; it would be difficult for the independent teams like Williams, Force India, Sauber and Manor. They believe that the manufactures do not want them around and would prefer to see F1 based on the Ferrari and Haas model. This would make F1 more like the DTM, which is not everyone's idea of what the sport should be culturally. The independent teams are an important part of the make up of the sport and always have been.
Sauber has some serious issues going on at the moment and may sell to Marchionne to become the new Alfa Romeo F1 team or alternatively may withdraw from F1 competition to become an automotive consultancy, like Prodrive, using its quality facilities and wind tunnel to develop the kind of work it currently does with Audi, for example. This would save the jobs of some of the workforce, while the Alfa Romeo takeover would probably save more, but it's a question of which offers better terms.
Another consideration is that Ferrari will not want to tear up the bilateral agreements before 2020 as these agreements guarantee it not only $100 million a year in bonus payments, before prize money, but they also have the veto right over regulations. If the governance structure were to be completely torn up and started again, there is no way that the other manufacturer teams would allow them these privileges. Todt has said today that it he does not believe that these agreements can be broken before 2020 anyway.
So Todt can afford to see what comes up in the next month, but he spelled out today, in an informal briefing, that he does not want to be a dictator, even though that is what he may need to become if the manufacturers decide to make the engine topic the battle ground for its power struggle with Ecclestone.
"I’m against dictators," Todt said. "I’ve always been running teams - with some success - by giving responsibility. It’s one of those things, what can I do? Can I accept my responsibility? I’ve read some of you saying I do concentrate unnecessarily on other things than Formula 1. Unnecessarily is not my word. I give the responsibility to all. But being the President of the FIA, which is a global organisation, Formula 1 is less than ten per cent of our members. We have a lot of other things that need to be done."
Asked whether F1 would be in better shape if the FIA had complete control over it, he replied,
"That would be more logical. FIA should have complete control as a regulator and as a the adjudicator of Formula 1. But historically, it has not been like that."
With all that has gone on in the last few years, the succession of poor decisions, the ongoing fiasco over qualifying, which embarrasses the sport and the F1 Strategy Group that created it, one feels like it's all going to kick off soon.
This is set to be a tense month, but what follows this summer could make 2009 and the manufacturers' breakaway threat then, look like a tea party.
What do you think the manufacturers will do? Will they bring things to a head this month? Leave your comments below
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