Will Gray

Gray Matter: Fifteen days to save F1

Will Gray

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As of today, there are just 15 days to go before the closing date for entries into the 2010 Formula One season — and only three of the current teams are ready to put their names on the list.

A raft of dramatic budget-slashing proposals from the FIA, mostly put forward to the teams in a fairly hardnosed manner, have created strong protests from manufacturer and privateer teams who refuse to accept the new proposed terms.

But doesn't it all sound very familiar?

It was less than four years ago that the manufacturer teams formed the GPMA (Grand Prix Manufacturers' Association) and threatened to create their own championship because of disagreements over the way the sport should be run.

The threatened breakaway championship was supposed to start in 2008, but it never happened because the threats had the desired effect and F1 was reunited as all parties accepted costs had to be cut and entertainment improved for the sport to survive.

Now we are back in a similar situation.

With no legally-binding contracts from manufacturer teams to commit beyond the end of this year, the FIA claims that if the current financial climate forces some to pull out, the collapse of the sport can only be prevented by encouraging in new privateer teams.

Their solution is the optional budget cap — those who want to spend all they can are allowed, but restricted in what they can spend it on. Those who can't afford it can do what they want - but only have a set amount of cash with which to do it.

Although the budget cap has had some resistance, McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh quite rightly countered that all teams are given spending limits by their shareholders, so they already operate with a budget cap. It's just that the cap differs between the different teams — and with a bit of discussion, and a confidence that it can be correctly policed, there may be a way to get this agreed.

What nobody wants to see, however, is F1 run as the kind of two-tier championship seen in a series like Formula Three, with 'championship' and 'scholarship' classes.
And there lies the problem. The teams feel that the FIA is forcing the new budget cap through by making the alternative solution completely unattractive — and what this argument really comes down to is a dispute over the way in which these proposals have been introduced.

Back when the GPMA broke down, the teams and the FIA began to have good dialogue, but the FIA then began to push through more and more radical regulations so, through the creation of teams association FOTA, the teams hit back and began to lay down their own rules for the future of the formula.

It's a bit like Manchester United, Barcelona, Internazionale and the rest of Europe's top football teams getting together and telling governing bodies FIFA and UEFA: "Right, we want to play by our own rules now, with games lasting 100 minutes and split into quarters, and we want to make it so expensive to compete that nobody else can join in."

The offer of an optional budget cap, however, is like FIFA and UEFA responding: "Well, we want more teams to be able to afford to be in the competition, so Manchester United, you have two options for that expensive Ronaldo chap — either you cut his salary to meet the budget cap or you carry on paying massive weekly wages and chop off his legs."

But if past history runs true, this is just another political game that will see both sides come out with a compromise.

This argument will all come down to whether the FIA and FOTA can agree a solution to a budget-cap balance that is uniformly accepted and retains the technical innovation opportunities of F1 but still allows new teams to get a bite of the cherry.

The FIA have already budged, moving the budget cap from £30 million to £40m, and after losing a lot of interest from potential new teams through that move they will unlikely to be happy to shift it again.

But at the end of the day, surely an agreement will be found — because all parties involved know F1 is something too good to lose...



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