Archive: FIA

FIA statutes, article 1:

The FIA shall refrain from manifesting racial, political or religious discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect.

This is a principle that the FIA takes seriously. We know this, because the organisers of the Turkish Grand Prix got themselves into very hot water in 2006 after using the podium ceremony for political reasons. The race organisers were fined, and the circuit quietly saw out its contract.

Similarly in 1997, the organisers of the European Grand Prix, held at Jerez in Spain, were also found at fault after the mayor of Jerez, Pedro Pacheco, “disrupted the podium ceremony”. The then President of the FIA, Max Mosley, is said to have screamed at the Mayor, promising that Jerez would never hold an F1 race again. It hasn’t.

But the business model of F1 has meant that politicised events are increasingly inevitable. Almost every race in the F1 calendar (the British Grand Prix is a notable exception) receives some form of government backing. Even the new grands prix in the USA are receiving state help.

At moderate levels, this normally isn’t a problem. But Bernie Ecclestone’s pursuit of cash has led to him sealing deals with governments that are explicitly looking for a global platform and see Formula 1 as the perfect tool to provide it.

No prizes for guessing why countries such as Bahrain and China are keen to hold a grand prix. Some of them will be quite open about it: they want to put their countries on the map. Being part of one of the most popular sports in the world helps these countries gain legitimacy on the global stage.

Bernie Eccelestone’s approach is to chase the highest fees he can get. This has meant moving the sport further away from its core in Europe, particularly in the past 15 years. More and more races are taking place in Asia. The calendar has undergone significant evolution.

Of course, an increased spread of races across the globe is to be applauded. F1 is supposed to be a World Championship, after all.

But just now the balance just isn’t there. One race takes place in Australia. Eight take place in Europe. Two take place in North America. One takes place in South America. Eight take place in Asia. No races take place in Africa.

Among the newer races, a number have run into difficulties related to politics. I have already mentioned the problem in Turkey.

In Europe, the new Valencia Street Circuit was closely linked to Partido Popular, a political party. A news story posted on Formula1.com noted: “The deal is conditional on [Francisco] Camps winning local elections next month.” Since Francisco Camps left office last year, there have been murmurings that the Valencia Street Circuit will scale back its involvement in F1.

Malaysia and South Korea have similarly threatened to scale back their races after power changed hands in government.

Many of the newer races in the calendar are inherently political, either because they are vanity projects of local politicians, or global propaganda tools.

The tension between Bernie Ecclestone’s commercial needs, and the desire of the FIA to be apolitical, has been increasing for some time. This weekend in Bahrain, that tension is reaching breaking point.

In just one week’s time, the Formula 1 bandwagon will be making its way towards Australia for the first grand prix of the 2012 season. Two teams will be feeling particularly unprepared.

With the test sessions finished, Marussia and HRT will head to Melbourne having done no proper running. The two teams failed to pass all of the required crash tests.

Both teams are about to embark on their third season, and you would have thought that the fundamental task of passing a crash test would be within their capabilities by now. But perhaps the fact that these two teams have struggled really only underlines just how difficult it is to start a new F1 team and become competitive.

Genuinely new teams — excluding those that just took over an existing team — are as rare as hens’ teeth. Three new teams joined in 2010. Before that, the last new team was Super Aguri — a vanity project of Honda. Even then, Super Aguri used an old Arrows chassis as the basis of its car.

Toyota was the previous most recent new team. Starting in 2002 and after enduring years of midfield mediocrity — despite apparently having one of the largest budgets in F1 — they slunk off after 2009.

Stewart Grand Prix started its first race in 1997.

Lola tried that year as well, but their car was rushed out and was so disastrously off the pace that they failed to qualify for the first race and went bust straight afterwards.

Then we come to the glut of tail-end charlies that came along in the mid-1990s: Forti, Pacific, Simtek, Larrousse, Andrea Moda. Each of these teams lasted a maximum of two years.

Of the teams that have formed in the past 20 years, only one stands out as having achieved a modicum of success: Stewart Grand Prix.

Stewart’s success

Johnny Herbert 1999 Canada

Starting in 1997, Stewart had an astonishingly successful season for a new team. Poor reliability masked the fact that the car had decent midfield pace, able to challenge for points. A 2nd place finish in Monaco — only the team’s fifth race — was the reward.

1998 was more difficult. Nevertheless, Stewart finished one place higher in the Constructors’ Championship, clinching 8th place.

But the real achievements came in 1999. The Stewart car was genuinely competitive. It finished on the podium four times. It took a pole position. But most of all, it took victory in the European Grand Prix.

Luck played a part there — the 1999 European Grand Prix was a manic race. But regular points finishes ensured that the team secured 4th place in the Constructors’ Championship. For a new team to achieve this level of success so quickly is more or less unheard of.

After 1999, the team was sold to Ford, who badged the team as Jaguar Racing. Those were consolidation years, as management problems helped ensure the team couldn’t rise above the midfield again.

Then Red Bull bought it and turned the team into the incredible success it is today. Since its earliest beginnings in 1997, the team now has four championships to its name.

Apart from Red Bull, the newest team to have won a championship is Benetton / Renault, which began life as Toleman in 1981.

Putting the new teams’ struggles in perspective

In the grand scheme of things, the troubles facing Marussia and HRT are not too surprising. If you compare them to the likes of Lola, Forti, Pacific and Simtek, just surviving the first two seasons is a major achievement.

But the success of Red Bull, which in just 15 years has become the best constructor in Formula 1, is a reminder of what could be achieved. That Red Bull would have achieved this without the solid foundations built by Stewart Grand Prix is doubtful.

FIA President Jean Todt addressed the media today to discuss the situation surrounding the World Rally Championship. The Monte Carlo Rally has begun without the championship having a confirmed promoter for the 2012 season.

Jean Todt said, “The ACM has been dealing directly with Eurosport and the result is quite pleasing.”

Yes — it is quite pleasing for the WRC to actually be on television for a change.

Earlier this week Sébastien Loeb said:

In France, it’s difficult to understand why there is an eight-time world champion, [and] there is Sebastien Ogier growing up to the top of the sport, but we don’t see anything in France of the race [on TV].

We lost our promoter, but last year we didn’t see anything in France anyway, so maybe it’s not bad.

I have to say I have been very impressed with Eurosport’s highlights programme. Arranged at very short notice, they have put together a brilliant programme. Already they are innovating with Simulcam, which merges two shots from the same camera to compare two drivers. It’s exactly the sort of thing rally coverage needs, and hasn’t really been getting up until now.

Eurosport get a lot of things wrong when it comes to scheduling and the like. But as I have indicated in a previous post, they have done such a great job with the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. And now they are impressing with their WRC coverage. Hats off to Eurosport.

WRC Crash

To say the least, it’s been a difficult few weeks for the World Rally Championship. The future of the WRC’s promoter, North One Sports, has hung in the balance. Its parent company, Convers Sports Initiatives, went into administration following the arrest of its backer Vladimir Antonov.

Just days before the start of the 2012 season, it was not been clear who will promote WRC this year. North One Sports had hoped to secure backing from Qatar, but the deal fell through after the FIA said assurances were not forthcoming.

Autosport quoted a North One Sports source as complaining that the FIA would not answer their phone calls. My first reaction was that I probably wouldn’t answer the phone to them either.

This sorry state of affairs is just the latest nadir in the decade-long decline of the World Rally Championship. It was once indisputably one of the most popular motorsport championships going. In the late 1990s it had astonishingly good TV coverage for a sport that is difficult to televise. At its height, Channel 4 was broadcasting daily highlights shows at prime time for the duration of each rally.

But since those highs, WRC has slipped painfully further and further into obscurity. Far from having decent TV coverage, it started to be shunted around between the channels found at the nether end of your digital TV listings.

A new low was reached last year when it was broadcast on the subscription channel ESPN. For the first time in the UK, Eurosport’s rival (and nominally less prestigious) Intercontinental Rally Challenge was available to watch in more homes than WRC.

I became a big fan of IRC. Meanwhile, with WRC on ESPN, I had no access to watch it — even assuming I could muster up the interest.

Eurosport do a good job of televising IRC. Meanwhile, North One’s WRC highlights programme was slick, but deathly dull and formulaic.

Apparently the situation is not much better in other countries. Mini’s status in the WRC has hung in the balance, with parent company BMW citing concerns over the championship’s poor TV coverage in Germany.

Autorsport’s North One source said they had been “working so hard for 11 years on the WRC”. Working hard on driving it into the ground? There is no doubt in my mind that the decline of the WRC began exactly 11 years ago. Sure, North One can’t take all of the blame for WRC’s sorry state. But they were surely a major factor.

I guess after 11 years of declining fortunes, the latest turn of events involving North One’s ultimate backer was perhaps the final straw for the FIA.

The FIA have apparently now decided that Eurosport will be the new promoters. It is recognition that Eurosport have shown the way with IRC.

The situation seems bleak at the moment. It is a last minute rush. Eurosport have only days to put together a plan of action for broadcasting the Monte Carlo Rally, as well as setting up the vital timing and tracking equipment.

But I think this is the best news WRC has had in a long time. A big shake-up was needed. In the end, it was forced upon them and for a brief period it was panic stations. But with Eurosport now in place, it’s the best chance in a decade for some fresh air to be injected into the WRC.

This is part 2 of 2 in the series 2011 Formula 1 constructor rankings

Unfortunately my top five is a bit predictable, but here we go nonetheless.

5. Sauber F1 Team

Sauber actually had a worryingly variable season. The start of the season was very promising, with Kamui Kobayashi stringing together seven consecutive impressive points finishes (although the first of these ended in disqualification). The Saubers were noted for being particularly kind on tyres, in a season when tyre management was so crucial thanks to the entrance of Pirelli and their high degradation tyres.

The turning point came halfway through the season when Sauber made a decision not to pursue the exhaust blown diffuser at a point when it seemed as though the FIA was going to ban the device. Points finishes were still possible, but usually in 9th or 10th rather than 5th or 7th.

Exhaust blown diffusers will be banned for 2012, which hopefully bodes well for Sauber’s chances next year.

4. Mercedes GP

A year of consolidation for Mercedes. This is a team that is definitely still punching below its weight. On occasion Mercedes will be beaten by, say, a Renault or a Force India. But at the same time, they are also capable of putting up a bit of a fight against one of the Ferrari drivers at least. In other words, Mercedes are firmly the 4th best team in F1.

Mercedes will want more, and its drivers will demand more. They should have the resources to achieve their goals. But there is a danger that the team could also succumb to a Honda-style implosion — something the Brackley-based team knows all about. There are so many big names on the technical side that it’s tempting to wonder if too many cooks spoil the broth.

3. Scuderia Ferrari

Another disappointing year for Ferrari, who expect more than one solitary victory even in the worst of seasons. It gets worse when you consider that the one win, at Silverstone, came with a temporary rule change on engine mapping, which was rescinded at the next race. So basically, to the 2011 regulations as they were for almost the whole season, Ferrari had a car that was not capable of winning a race.

Worse still, the car seemed to get worse as the season went on. The flexible front wing suggested that Ferrari were perhaps turning to desperate measures in their attempt to carve some extra speed out of the car. Both Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso seemed to struggle to keep the car under control at stages towards the end of the season.

If there’s one thing that bodes well for Ferrari, it’s that exhaust blown diffusers will be banned in 2012. Given the encouraging result at Silverstone, Ferrari could be best placed to design a car to the new regulations.

2. McLaren

Yet another ‘almost’ year for McLaren. Once again McLaren designed a car that was poor out of the box — a worryingly consistent trend. But, as usual, McLaren developed the car superbly to the point where it was capable of winning races.

But McLaren need to get out of this rut. It is an incredible 13 seasons since they last won a Constructors’ Championship. Being 2nd every year is not good enough, and it might even be preferable to perform like Ferrari, who are sometimes 3rd but sometimes 1st.

1. Red Bull Racing

It goes without saying that Red Bull Racing were the strongest team in 2011. They weren’t as dominant as some teams have been in the past. Mark Webber was not always up there. How much of that is down to the car, Vettel’s excellence, or Webber being off-colour, is not easy to know.

But the fact is that every race weekend the expectation is that Red Bull are the most likely team to win. And on almost every occasion, they met up to that expectation.

Not bad for a soft drinks company.