Independents to Break FOTA Unity?

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Yesterday’s news that Williams has entered its name for the 2010 Formula 1 World Championship caught many of us unawares. After a weekend of multiple meetings and relative media silence from FOTA representatives the media was, on the whole, fairly convinced that FOTA unity was tight. The teams had written to the FIA demanding the 2010 regulation changes be dropped and, from what I had understood to be true from a number of reliable sources, FOTA was due to enter its name for the 2010 championship as a block unit if their condition of a revision to 2009 regulations was met.

So why the sudden change in position from Williams? If the teams had agreed to make their demands known to Max Mosley and the FIA in writing, in return for the teams agreeing to sign a new Concorde Agreement, has Williams’ entry to the 2010 championship not seriously reduced FOTA’s bargaining position? Furthermore, does the action of Williams not call into serious question the unity of FOTA, and give us a true reflection of the divisions between the manufacturer teams and the independents over the issue of budget caps?

“The unity of FOTA is of paramount importance to Williams,” Williams F1 CEO Adam Parr told Reuters. “Yesterday [Sunday] we joined the other members of FOTA in writing to the FIA to request a continuing effort to find a compromise concerning the regulations for 2010.”

“We believe that under the leadership of di Montezemolo and John Howett, FOTA has extracted some very significant concessions from the FIA. These include not only the procedural aspects of the budget cap but also other elements that will enable the higher budget teams to participate. Having said that, Williams has, and has always maintained, that we have a binding contract with both FOM and the FIA to participate in the world championship from 2008 to 2010.”

“We have been paid in full for our participation and we feel both morally and legally obliged to make it clear that we will participate in Formula One in the future as we have in the past 30 years. We owe this to our employees, our sponsors and the fans, all of whom are affected by statements that the teams may not enter next year’s championship.”

“We will continue to work within FOTA and with FOM and FIA to find a compromise but no one should be in any doubt about our commitment to the FIA F1 world championship.”

Williams has long been known to have been in favour of a budget cap in Formula 1. Indeed, there have been very few public comments from Williams, Brawn or Force India over the past few weeks over the subject of budget caps. Quite simply, it makes an enormous amount of sense for independent F1 teams to agree to the budget cap. They cannot compete forever with the big spending of the auto manufacturers.

A division was always going to occur within FOTA at some point, and Williams’ decision to enter its name for the 2010 championship could yet come to be seen as a pivotal moment in not only the future of FOTA but the future of Formula 1. Williams, in citing its contractual obligations to F1 and in not wishing to let go of its 30 year history in the sport, is drawing a very clear line in the sand, as the team is displaying a position completely at odds to that of Ferrari which is claiming that all deals are off in F1 as the 2010 regulation changes breached Concorde, and that they have no qualms in breaking their 60 year history in F1.

It is widely rumoured that two of the major manufacturers will pull out of F1 regardless of what happens in these negotiations, at the end of 2009. Why then would Williams wish to align itself too heavily with a group whose own members do not even know if they will be around in 2010, if Williams itself is already certain that F1 is where it wants to be next year?

Williams may not be the powerhouse it once was, but its place in Formula 1 is no less important. It is the third most succesful team in F1 history. Its name is as synonimous with the sport as that of Ferrari and McLaren. Indeed, in both historical and emotional terms, Williams falls behind perhaps only those two teams in the heirarchy of Formula 1 public perception.

It’s also worth noting that in the top six most succesful teams in F1 history, only two (Ferrari and Renault) are motor manufacturers. The rest are independents.

Independent teams then have formed a critical part of this sport’s history, and could yet play a decisive role in its future. Williams’ decision to enter for 2010 has seriously weakened FOTA’s position. If they are joined by another independent team over the next few days, FOTA’s bargaining position will be weakened still further, particularly if Williams is joined by the championship-leading BrawnGP team.

Also, don’t rule out McLaren from splitting with FOTA’s bigger picture plan. Already under pressure from the FIA following the lie-gate scandal, Martin Whitmarsh has already claimed today that McLaren is playing peacemaker. The point at which the peacemaker does a deal to save its own skin may not be far away.

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