Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 September 2020

CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus crisis has shown F1 heavyweights what life is like at the back of the grid as revenue dries up

Recent sale of Williams demonstrates the pernicious nature of the sport's escalating financial arms race

If the coronavirus can be thanked for anything, it is that it has forced F1 team bosses to accept the need for radical change.

Although painstaking talks have been going on for years, there is nothing like the faint whiff of doom to bring about a sudden mood of compromise.

Even the richest, most entrenched, self-absorbed leaders (and there are a few of those in F1) have been pushed into a reckoning they could never have imagined a few years ago.

No races and no income for several months has meant their reality had become a devastating stasis, quickly emptying bank accounts and a sight of what might be.

So it was that in the last few days the 10 team owners signed up to a radically new Concorde Agreement which should mean closer, better and cheaper racing for the teams.

The agreement underpins everything from technical and sporting regulations to the way the billions it generates are dished out.

As you might imagine of a modern sport, much of the discussion had been about a fairer distribution of the enormous global income. The dreaded d-day for fat cats who don’t want to share.

The reality is that F1’s traditional model just didn’t work.

The richest teams win, the winning gives them a huge slice of the prize money. With more money they go faster and win even more. And so the cycle continues.

It was a model built around an age in which a championship could have been had for $50 million (Dh183m).

It was anchored in the ethos of 'greed is good'. That worked when technology was relatively non-existent and computers in their infancy.

Forty years later budgets are out of control. There are exotic materials, unimagined technologies and power sources, computer analysis and round-the-clock 3d printing so an engineer’s horizon is limited only by the hours in the day – and the depth of his team’s pocket.

Mercedes and Ferrari spend around $450m a year, Red Bull $340m, McLaren $270m. Williams £160m (Dh774m).

The system created a high speed feudal society where the rich got richer – three teams have done all the winning for the last seven years – and the ‘poor’ just had to suck it up.

At the tail end of the grid it was a case of diminishing returns; less competitiveness usually resulting in an all too predictable spiral of death as sponsors deserted them.

The recent sale of Williams to American financiers demonstrated the pernicious nature of F1’s escalating financial arms race.

Few are as passionate or knowledgeable as Sir Frank William and Patrick Head. And yet in 2019 they found themselves spending more than twice that used to win championships and the return was just one single championship point. A ruinous rate of return.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 16: Ferrari members try to fix the problem with the car of Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Ferrari during the F1 Grand Prix of Spain at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on August 16, 2020 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Emiliano Morenatti/Pool via Getty Images)
Top teams in F1 have budgets over $300 million. Getty

The reality is that F1 had run into its old truth: the conflict between the perennial presence, the teams, and giant transient operations like Mercedes, Renault, Honda who come and go as promotional campaigns and budgets dictate.

They have always waded in, all guns blazing, and then quit when it suited them, leaving chaos.

Enter ambitious new owners Liberty Media followed by a shocking dose of reality supplied by Covid-19.

Even Ferrari and Mercedes, with 1,000 staff, and vast corporate backing got a stiff dose of what it was like to be Williams or Haas in a world of relatively no income.

So last week, the Mont Blancs came out and the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place.

Long-debated rules will limit budgets to $145m from 2021 and have been instrumental in heading off the departure of the sport’s only American operation, Haas, and the collapse of Williams.

Of course the figures do not include the salaries of the drivers and three leading management figures: an amount that could easily top $100m.

And there is also the question of how effective the FIA can regulate the new financial limits.

But most exciting of all are the changing car design rules from 2022 in which slower teams will be allowed up to two-thirds more aero development time than the champions to even out the playing field.

And new aerodynamic rules should mean closer duels and the hope is that the holy grail of racing is in sight: driver talent will once again rule.

If anyone questions the need for change they only need to peruse the results of the last seven years. One team has won every championship and taken four of every five wins in 127 races.

Unpredictability is what pulls in the fans. Such statistics shame the sport and the people who run it.

Tragic as it has been, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world. And hopefully F1’s fat cats, frightened from their high tower torpor, have paused long enough from counting the cash to grasp a moment in history and deliver changes decades overdue. Time will tell.

Updated: August 27, 2020 08:18 AM

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