The Strategy Group. Three little words that are killing Formula 1.
The bitterly ironic thing is that everybody saw this coming. Ever since it was created as a replacement for the Sporting and Technical Working Groups back in 2013, there have been questions over its composition, its fairness and even its legality.
The Strategy Group, for those unaware of the complex political structure of Formula 1, is a body whose purpose is to debate and propose regulatory amendments, which are then passed to the F1 Commission for ratification. The Strategy Group is composed of 18 voting parties – six for FOM, six for the FIA and six for the F1 teams. Those six F1 representatives are Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, Mercedes, Williams and the next best team in Formula 1, which after the 2014 season saw Sahara Force India replace Lotus.
In the year and a half of its existence, the Strategy Group has been responsible for some of the most maligned proposals and decisions I can recall in a decade and a half of working in the sport.
But perhaps its nadir came just yesterday. Given the opportunity to potentially save one of its own, the teams instead essentially condemned the Manor F1 entry, hitherto the team known as Marussia, to death. The squad was seeking an exemption to allow it to start the 2015 season with a 2014 chassis. The request required unanimous approval. It failed to receive it.
“They wanted to come in with last year’s car and it didn’t get accepted,” F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone said. “It needed all the teams to agree and there were three or four of them that didn’t agree.”
As we understand it, Force India’s Bob Fernley was the first to vote against the proposal. As such, no further votes were cast as unanimity had failed. Ecclestone’s comments that “three or four” of the six teams represented had intended to vote against the proposal however suggests to this writer that the scorn being thrown at Fernley and Force India is overly harsh. If over half of the F1 teams on the Strategy Group were going to vote against it anyway, it is pot luck as to who the first dissenting vote would fall to. Russian roulette, if you will.
Fernley has, today, thus been forced to explain his reasoning for denying Marussia’s application. And he has done so.
“The strategy group was faced with an application for Marussia’s 2014 cars to compete in the 2015 championship,” he said.
“During the meeting it emerged that there were compliance issues and that the application lacked substance. Equally, the speculative application submitted contained no supporting documentation to reinforce the case for offering special dispensation.
“For example, no details were supplied of who the new owners would be or the operational structures that would be put in place. Given the lack of information, uncertain guarantees, and the speculative nature of the application, the decision was taken that it is better to focus on ensuring the continued participation of the remaining independent teams.”
These are valid points, but surely due diligence into the team’s new ownership is something with which the FIA should be concerned, rather than rival team bosses. If the question was whether to allow Marussia / Manor dispensation to compete using a previous year’s chassis, what does the nature of the team’s application or ownership have to do with the question being asked?
The true irony, however, is that Fernley himself is one of the most strategic and long term thinking team chiefs in F1. Indeed, when the Strategy Group was first created, Fernley made headlines in his vehemently negative stance towards the group, opinions which directly contradicted those of his own team owner, Vijay Mallya.
Back in 2013, Fernley described the Strategy Group as “unethical and undemocratic” given that the sport’s smallest teams would be denied a vote on any proposals.
“All teams basically pay the same amount to go racing,” he said at the time. “The only differentials are in drivers’ salaries and hospitality. And yet some teams have no say in how the sport is run. It could certainly be deemed abuse of a dominant position.”
“There is genuine concern among some of the teams on the Strategy Group, particularly the ones who are public companies. This is not ethical governance.”
It is this very governance which Fernley’s own vote has now thrust into stark contrast.
But I do not believe for a moment it is a vote which he will have taken lightly or easily. As I said, Fernley is a smart man and one with a wider view of the sport. But if reports are to be believed, his team is not in the strongest financial health. Force India sat out the first test in Jerez and may not see its 2015 car run in Barcelona later this month. There are widespread reports of unpaid bills and delays in chassis construction.
The team’s title sponsor, Sahara, is in financially questionable times as its founder Subrata Roy has been imprisoned since March 2014. Vijay Mallya himself was declared a “willful defaulter” by the United Bank of India in August 2014, with his now insolvent Kingfisher Airlines owing over $1 billion in bank loans.
It seems only logical that Mallya might order Fernley to vote against Marussia’s request for leniency, thus freeing up the estimated £34 million which would have gone to Marussia / Manor for their ninth place finish in the 2014 Formula 1 World Championship, to be divided amongst the remaining teams.
“The money that they should have got gets distributed amongst the teams that are racing. That’s a pretty good reason I suppose,” Ecclestone added after yesterday’s meeting.
Ultimately then, this all seems to boil down to the question of just under £4 million… that’s all that is left when one divides the £34 million between the nine teams remaining.
It was hoped, in the run up to yesterday’s meeting, that the Formula 1 teams would recognise the importance of maintaining a full grid. After all, if grid numbers are depleted further, we fall into a situation where Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren are under a contractual obligation to run third cars. At this point, far from safeguarding the future of the sport and the smaller teams, one will see F1’s minnows further marginalised.
Two dominant Mercedes, two speedy Williams and nine cars from Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren… how will Lotus, Force India or Sauber enter the frame? How long then will they survive? How long can they survive?
How long then before they too are forced to withdraw? How long then before a manufacturer is left in last place and they too pull out?
The refusal to give Marussia a sporting chance, in return for a quick but in the grand scheme incredibly small injection of cash, is one of the most short sighted decisions I’ve witnessed. It is at times like this that one must question where the strong leadership this sport so desperately needs and always used to have, has gone.
We used to decry the political games of Mosley and Ecclestone but, my God, at least they got the job done.
What we have now is a feckless and impotent President of a governing body being run roughshod by a group of self-interested businessmen with no long-term strategic plan.
It’s an often-used phrase that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
These turkeys seem insistent on stuffing themselves.