Well, it's come to this. In the midst of a global credit crisis, the opportunistic FIA has again decided to play rulemaker to Formula One by pushing the idea of a standard engine for all F1 teams as a cost-cutting measure. Predictably, F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone has lept to defend the idea but in reality this signals the beginning of the end of what used to be a great sport.
Let's look at the fundamental problem. Forty years ago--in the days of Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, and Graham Hill--Formula One was the pinnacle of spectator motorsport. Constructors large and small competed, and the design rules allowed a great deal of freedom and experimentation. A frantic pace of development ensured that competitors were constantly pushing the boundaries, and drivers accepted a level of mortal danger that makes today's environment seem like a bowling alley with those inflatable tubes in the gutters.
Major automotive manufacturers such as Ferrari, Honda, and Ford participated so that they could use their victories as marketing tools to improve their brand image. But there was still room for smaller car makers like Lotus and Cooper (and pure racing teams like McLaren and Matra) to challenge for wins because the bigger teams did not have the budget to outspend smaller ones 10:1 like they do today. So, what changed?
In a word, television. By broadcasting Formula One races--and a large amount of press coverage--the playing field changed, and the powers that be did nothing to address it. Namely:
- The marketing value--It's estimated that F1 reaches over half a billion unique viewers each year--is now immense
- On the flip side, losses or embarrassing failures (or, tragically, injuries and deaths) reflect very poorly on these brands
- Modern brands are incredibly risk averse, and since winning is the only goal budgets of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars as an acceptable investment
Since big manufacturers are essentially in a 'go big or go home' position, they spend like crazy which makes it impossible for independent teams to compete. But the key takeaway here is that the money spent is directly proportional to the perceived value of brand marketing. It has nothing to to with engines or any other technical aspect of the sport. Building a spec engine will just force the teams to spend more money on technologies like aerodynamics. Make aero standard and the teams will work on suspensions, differentials, simulators, low-drag paint...the list goes on. You cannot stop Toyota from spending $500M a year trying to dominate the sport because that's what their brand managers say they need to sell cars.
I'm not saying that brands won't participate in racing series that do not allow them to directly showcase their technology. In fact, NASCAR (which is essentially a spec series now) is contested by large brands that spend quite a bit of money there. My point is that F1 sets itself apart (with perhaps the exception of WRC) as the only worldwide racing series where development of automotive technology is at the center of the excitement.
If Bernie has buyer's remorse, let him go run NASCAR. He can bring his ol' pal Max Mosely from the FIA too--I'm quite sure that no one in F1 would miss either of them. But please, stop trying to ruin F1 and turn it into euro-IRL. The goal here should be to keep F1 as the highest form of motorsport technology, and allow brands to showcase their capabilities in some other way than simply winning the world championship.
Look, I'll even be a nice guy: here's some great ideas to keep F1 interesting, viable, and useful to global brands:
- Mandate at least 15 teams each year
- Set aside a large portion of the TV revenues for funding smaller teams
- Create a new pool of sponsors using an auction for each market
- As a team you can either fund yourself or accept a 'development' budget paid from TV revenues and the new sponsor pool
- 'Development' budgets would be set at 50% of the average of the top three teams--for 2007, this would have been about $200M
- Let the self-funded teams decide which new teams to admit by some kind of weighted vote
- Allow self-funded teams to run three cars instead of two
- The top three engine manufacturers would have to make their powerplants available to any non-manufacturer team for the season at a low fixed price (say, $250,000 per engine, $100,000 per rebuild) but restrictions would be lifted on engine layout to allow for four, five, and six-cylinder engines
- The aero rules would be dramatically altered with the primary goal of reducing turbulence/wake so that cars can follow more closely and increase overtaking
- Bring back multiple tire manufacturers, but mandate a low flat cost per tire and allow teams to run more than one tire brand
- Eliminate (or drastically reduce) testing outside of race weekends. Make race weekends last four days with two days of testing before qualifying
- Re-vamp the constructors championship, giving different awards for things like fastest laps, longest mileage between failures, best gas mileage in the top five finishers, etc. Allow brands to sponsor those prizes as well.
Rules like this would still ensure that the top teams could outspend the smaller ones, and that on the balance the major brands would win races and world championships. The larger teams would in effect be subsidizing the smaller ones in a way that it discourages them from spending their budget in ways that aggressively harms competition. As the investment and technology advances within the top teams, it would raise the competitiveness of all teams. This would encourage a lot of innovation, diversity, and excitement. Most importantly, F1 will still be the cutting edge for racing technology, not just another spec series.
I'm sure there are a lot of holes in the ideas I've suggested above. But my point in doing so is to show that there are much better ways to address the challenges of F1 than a spec engine. The leadership of FOM and the FIA is old and tired. They need to step aside and let some fresh new ideas attack the problem of keeping F1 relevant, viable, and the pinnacle of motorsport.