Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Struggle Within - FIA World Championships On The Verge Of Collapse

In medias res: FIA is fighting (or rather witnessing) a war with its own 'children'. F1 and WRC. One is forced to make decisions for its own benefit, but it might come with a price it cannot afford and gears up for war instead, while the other one just wants to be seen and not overlooked in favor of its step-sibling, not wanting to be stabbed in the back or vanish altogether. Whatever happens, it might change the future of motorsports for decades.

Perhaps needless to say that the root of the problems in both cases is finance, although from very different perspectives.

V6 turbo engines in F1 should be effective from 2014. To cut a long story short, teams don't like the idea because engines would cost more to buy (initially at least), thus they want the current engines to be in charge for as long as possible, because they are cheap and got to the point where they are bulletproof due to their perfected multi-year designs. Let's admit: there hasn't been too many engine failures in recent years. But the world of motorsports stepped to a way new level in the meantime with the added 'green' factor. And while F1 has jumped on the bandwagon with the KERS system, it just draws more attention to the elephant in the room: the engines have been the same for a long time.

When a couple of years ago engine development was frozen, it was the right thing to do for cost-effective reasons and with the added rev-limiting reliability was strengthened that enabled multi-race usage, too - another cost-cutting feature. It all seemed to be going well when the recession hit big time leaving F1 in 2009 with works teams leaving or about to leave and classic races threatened with dropout. To give a nudge and a twist to the knife in the open wound, FIA announced even more restrictions in budget and an equalizing two-tier concept between the 'big' and the 'small' teams in their new Concorde Agreement proposal. This of course enraged the Formula One Team Association enough to quickly announce a breakaway rival series to F1, where works team were free to throw around and burn money according to their good will, getting rid of all the 'green' stuff, in front of  audiences that were witnesses of decades Grand Prix tradition but deprived of F1 in recent years or with no GP tradition at all, but simply being new markets. Ultimately a compromised settlement between FIA and FOTA was made until 2012.

On a personal note, in retrospective, I would have liked to see the Grand Prix World Championship happening. Although it all seemed a disaster at the time, it would have correlated with the tradition of pre-war Grand Prix racing more - the Golden Age of its kind - with all the national works teams and the classic events.

Well, we arrived to 2012, the time for the new Concorde Agreement - mostly centered around the aforementioned V6 turbo engines. And surprise-surprise: the fulminated Flavio Briatore is rumored to be working on a GP1 series taking effect in the near future. Powered by the current, normally aspirated V8s.
This time it seems more of a reality because, frankly, all the tools are given, and this time it wouldn't do a favor to the biggest teams, but the smaller ones who would not be able to afford the new V6 engines. Delaying or postponing the new engines in F1 wouldn't be a wise choice as the manufacturers already spent a budget of the GDP of a small, third-world country each, thus giving the plan the red card would make them leave for good surely.

So what could the FIA do to save the cabbage and feed the goat at the same time?

A 'slow' introduction of V6 turbo engines would be an acceptable alternative á la Toro Rosso in 2006, where the newfound team was left without the then-new V8 powerplant on the ruins of Minardi and was forced to use V10s from the previous year, although with serious restrictions on revs. A similar transition could be achieved in a year or two in the current situation, but those who shall choose the V8 should not be part of the Constructors' Championship - if FIA really wants to push the new engines.

Whatever the solution might be, a two-tier system seems inevitable or face two separate series.

As far as WRC is concerned, the situation is quite the opposite. Or very much similar - depending on which side you take on the looking glass. WRC has to face extinction. In the 80s it was competing with F1 in popularity and was the only World Championship sanctioned by the FIA beside the open-wheel series during most of the 90s. Now it has two works team with Ford about to leave allegedly and initially no rallies signing up for the 2013 calendar due to an extra 80,000 GBP to be paid by each event's organizers.

In the meantime, the Intercontinental Rally Challenge is lavishing in works teams and televised, classic rallies despite its almost exclusively European range of territory. During its short history it saw events as the Tour de Corse, the Sanremo Rally, the Targa Florio, the Safari Rally, the Circuit of Ireland and at one point even the Monte Carlo Rally! This and works teams as Honda, Peugeot, M-Sport (de facto Ford), Renault, Skoda and Subaru makes one wonder why isn't this series called the World Rally Championship.

Where did it go all wrong and how IRC become such a massive success in such a short time? Parts of the answer has already been detailed as above, but the presence of works teams had to be settled first. What have IRC had that WRC doesn't?

The answer might lie in two crucial errors made by the FIA on behalf of WRC: granting media (i.e. TV) exposure and introducing the rotating calendar. In other words: it had a convincing live appearance all around the world, but on the downside one could never expect if one's favorite event would return the next year. Combine this with the relatively hard access to it by the masses. Put it simply: a WRC run completely new to the calendar capable of giving the jizz almost exclusively to the locals only due to hard to find it on TV. As opposed to IRC that simply picked up events familiar even to non-motorsports enthusiasts and were left out of the WRC calendar, with having granted first-class coverage on EuroSport. The different approaches resulted in the strange phenomenon in 2009 and 2010 where WRC was left without the Monte Carlo Rally while IRC had the Col de Turini televised live on EuroSport.

And maybe there's a third reason: FIA being at IRC as a sanctioning body only, not peeking over their shoulders all the time. Nevertheless, this sandbox war happens in its own backyard. Such as the alleged F1 vs. GP1 battle.

What is the FIA doing? Perhaps five world championships is just too much, never mind that F1 - the most popular motorsport and one of the most viewed sports in general all around the world - is one of them? And where could all this lead in the future?

(Un)fortunately, motorsports have been there already. IndyCar is one prime example. When the Indy Racing League dissected from IndyCar, it took the Indy 500 with it and nothing more. It promised low-cost, but competitive racing, truer to American traditions and having one race from the "Triple Crown of Motor Sports". The other half, CART/ChampCar seemed altogether strong and somewhat unbeatable: engines and chassis from different manufacturers, not one-make series as the rival one. But something happened down the line. People started watching NASCAR and even in the decreasing TV figures IRL started slowly coming up and finally beating ChampCar. Also, Team Penske and Ganassi Racing decided to do their own take and go to the Indy 500 anyway later with more and more teams leaving ChampCar in favor of IRL, manufacturers leaving the dying series altogether. The double bankruptcy of the series' owner didn't help either and led to the merge of the two series creating once again a unified IndyCar Series.

What were the crucial downfalls of the ChampCar series that are relevant to our current case with F1 and WRC beside finance?

Briefly: disrespecting traditions.

ChampCar couldn't be further from the American tradition. It virtually had no input from the USA as far as the cars were concerned. One could order chassis from British manufacturers and engines from Toyota, Honda, Mercedes or Cosworth. that sounds more like an F1 assembly rather than an all-American showdown. And then the races. The US developed an open-wheel racing tradition on oval tracks and ChampCar managed to put out a calendar with zero oval races on it in its final year. And for the same reason, European and South-American drivers dominated the championship for over a decade, which didn't help to build the American image either - turning more viewers to NASCAR.

But it's all back now, with a completely new car, various engine manufacturers and a growing demand to more oval tracks, as they are providing immense amount of spectacle.

Same way with WRC and IRC: a merger of the two series seems inevitable if FIA doesn't want to lose WRC's credibility and time is running out: the more they hesitate, the more races will sign up for IRC - the current torch-carrier of traditional events and teams. WRC will lose to IRC at some point, the question is when.

As far as F1 and GP1 is concerned: it is a lot harder mountain to climb, but Bernie burned enough bridges to worth revisiting many of the events that were rejected by F1 long ago or discovering new places to race (not necessarily with the most up-to-date venues). This and a well-known, easily accessible format to racing and regulations could make even the big teams think and would be essentially a no-brainer for the rest of the field to switch. The question is whether Briatore would be able to convince such heavy weapon machinery akin to Ferrari to "join the dark side".

For the final word in the matter is: where Ferrari goes, de facto Formula 1 will there be.

FIA, it is now your turn: WEC has just been reborn. WTCC is overshadowed by one works team. GT1WC is dying. WRC is about to lose out to a rival series. F1 is seduced by easy money.

You were looking so much forward to reinvent everything at the same time that you were fooled by simplicity and old wisdom.

Pick up the fight, go!