F1 Feature - Kate Walker: Dog eat dog eat F1
Formula One is in a terrible state of affairs. The hope is that the sport is big enough to bounce back from any problems, but while optimism is all good and well the pragmatic point of view is that - as the world at large learned to its chagrin in 2007/8 - there is nothing that is too big to fail.
If banks can collapse like a stack of dominoes (including one bank whose administrators still own a sizeable chunk of Formula One) why would anyone in F1 be so arrogant as to presume that the sport - part business, part entertainment - would be invulnerable to the same failures that cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of people their homes, their savings, and their livelihoods less than a decade ago?
Formula One is a luxury business, after all, and it is a luxury business that has seen a declining market share just as brands pitching to the same high earners - airlines, hotels, supercars, and six-figure watch-makers, to name but a few - have gone from strength to strength. Where other products targeting the high net worth market have become stronger, F1 has become weaker and is continuing to crumble.
The big difference betweem F1 and products aimed at a similar market is not the obvious fact that we are selling a concept, a brand, while watches and handbags and so on are tangible products one can buy, take home, and see appreciate in value. After all the difference between a mass-market item and its bespoke cousin is less in the product itself than it is in the brand myth behind the luxury good. You don't own a Patek Philippe - you simply look after it for the next generation.
No, the difference is that there is not a single other luxe brand currently on the market which has been subject to ongoing public criticism from its figurehead - a man who was preoccupied for much of the past few years while he fought bribery charges in court, leading to endless bad publicity for the sport - and which has watched two of its “departments” (read: teams) disappear with no support or rescue attempts from on high.
Whatever Bernie Ecclestone may have told the media about putting on a free charter flight to Abu Dhabi for the beleaguered Caterham, the truth is that the 40 members of staff and administrators who flew to Yas Marina for the season finale took standard passenger flights (Emirates to Dubai, if you were wondering; with 20 people flying out on the Monday before the race and 20 more the following day) which were paid for by Finbarr O'Connell and crew. No special efforts were made from on high to save the troubled team, and even that much-celebrated “allowance” to miss three races is actually a right enshrined in the small print of the Concorde Agreement.
But this is the Piranha Club, after all, a dog-eat-dog world in which all stakeholders are competitors fighting not only for victory on track but for a greater share of the sport's spoils. Why would anyone help anyone else? In a myopic world where the focus is entirely on the next victory, be it financial or sporting, who has time for long-term views on the state of the sport's health as a whole? Only the sick, and in a competitive environment who has time for the ailing? Poverty is a sickness, after all, and it might be contagious.
The teams are never going to change. It is not in their nature as competitive animals, and - as the likes of Toto Wolff and Christian Horner have made perfectly clear - it is not in their interests to cede any form of advantage either competitive or financial to their rivals. The two men should be applauded for their honesty, however distasteful the sentiment.
Which is why Formula One has never needed the FIA more than it does at present.
The time has come for Jean Todt to abandon all hopes of peacekeeping and diplomacy, and to impose his will on the teams. The FIA president has a potential - if unlikely - ally in British MEP Anneliese Dodds, who has taken her concerns about the distribution of both wealth and power inside the sport to the EU Commission. At present, the FIA is in Dodds' sights thanks to its one percent stake in the sport's commercial rights.
But if Todt and co can convince the MEP that the FIA is also a victim in this mess - as indeed it is, having been sold down the river for a song by the previous incumbent of the president's office - then the Federation may find the much feared EU investigation very useful indeed when it comes to regaining its power as a regulator. Given that the FIA is officially the sport's regulatory body, regulatory power would be rather useful to have...
By Kate Walker
Kate Walker is a senior F1 writer for Crash.net. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, she keeps an eye on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that makes Formula One a political melodrama.