It is quite the shame that two of the best season-opening races of a Formula 1 season in recent memory have been overshadowed by an argument over how the sport came to set the very grids from which they began. While some may wish to argue otherwise, it is the sad reality that to view either contest as having been created purely from the make-up of the field at lights-out would be utterly false.
The extra permutations created by the addition of a third compound of tyre for race weekends has opened up a new edge to Formula 1 strategic thinking. It is this competitive facet, allied to a race stoppage in Australia and a first corner bottleneck in Bahrain that gifted us compelling races. Qualifying, I think we can all agree, has been a disaster.
But what became incredibly clear over the course of the last weekend was that the argument over 2016’s qualifying procedure has got absolutely nothing to do with the manner in which the sport goes about setting a grid. It’s not about ensuring an exciting show on Saturday. And it’s not about jumbling up the order of the grid to give us an exciting race on Sunday.
It’s about power, who holds it, and how it is exercised. How foolish of us all to have believed otherwise.
The rarest thing in the Formula 1 Paddock is unanimity between the teams. If we decry the Strategy Group and the current state of Formula 1 politics, it is because the pseudo-democratisation of the system, and the inclusion of a select group of teams to the decision making process, comes with the knowledge that competing entities will rarely reach consensus. Finding an advantage, be it on track or in the boardroom, is the primary function in the business of racing.
The notion of self-interested racing teams acting in “the interest of the sport” simply does not exist. At least, it rarely used to.
Those charged with the governance of the sport and its promotion were those whose responsibility it was to concern themselves with “the interest of the sport.” But then those same governors started selling or simply handing away that right, and those whose job it was to simply race found themselves in a sport drifting further away from the core principles upon which they believed it had been established.
On Sunday, in Australia, for one of the first times in recent memory, the Formula 1 teams reached a unanimous agreement. And yet, when the subject upon which they agreed was put to a vote later that week, the path down which they had agreed to tread was not offered. Two weeks later in Bahrain, their resolve remained. A simple switch back to 2015 qualifying was a simple enough request. After a 90 minute meeting in which all that was agreed was to hold another meeting, one thing became clear. The solution upon which every team was agreed would not be offered up for the next vote either. Instead, only a vote for an even more ludicrous system than that currently in place would be granted.
Don’t worry about whether and how aggregate qualifying would work. Don’t worry about the irony in the fact that the last time Formula 1 changed its qualifying procedure mid-season, it did so in 2005 to GET RID of aggregate qualifying. Because aggregate qualifying isn’t and wasn’t ever supposed to be a serious idea. It is a “Sophie’s Choice,” designed to show the teams who is in charge.
A united group of 11 teams is a powerful, and to some a dangerous, concept in the current political make-up of the sport. Even in the days of FOTA, there were teams who failed to join. The body itself soon fell apart after Bernie Ecclestone started doing individual deals with members, who then dropped out and weakened the body irreversibly. A united body of teams is rare indeed.
The qualifying argument exists to weaken the teams’ resolve and to drive wedges back between them. To divide the unity which so threatens the other power players.
It is important to remember that the change to qualifying came in a meeting at which the threat of Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt taking absolute authority to change regulations, without any say from the teams, hung over proceedings. If teams did not reach agreement, these Executive Powers would be implemented. And so it follows that if the teams are allowed to push through their solution to this qualifying debacle, it shows not only that the ultimate powers of the sport were wrong in the first place to force through a change nobody wanted, but that it is the teams themselves who now hold the balance of power in the sport. It emboldens the teams and makes a mockery of the governing bodies.
And that’s why heels are being dug in.
Don’t think for a moment that the alliance between the FIA and FOM won’t fracture in a heartbeat, the second that a coalition with the teams for either body would best suit their political desires. We have gone far beyond the concept of what is best for the sport, into a quagmire of brinksmanship and power politics.
Jean Todt held court on Saturday in Bahrain. He reclined slovenly in his chair, a bodyguard on each shoulder, attempting to joke his way through the tough questions, relying on the worn out line that the system over which he presides is one he had inherited. The responsibility for the mess, he argued, was not his.
There were some moments of mirth, but the sad reality of the press conference and of his situation was not lost on a single person in that room. He finds himself powerless to govern.
Almost a decade previously, Bahrain had been the scene of the beginning of the fall of his predecessor. I spent much of that weekend trawling through FIA statutes, and what became both fascinating and deeply troubling was just how powerful the FIA President truly was at that time. Those with the power to impeach him relied on his patronage for their very positions. The system was set up to protect the power of the President, and to ensure the strength of the body over which he presided in all matters, both touring and sporting. It was, it could be argued, utterly dictatorial in nature.
How different a role the FIA President now holds, forced to admit that he could effect no meaningful change until 2020 at the earliest with the writing of a new Concorde Agreement. Todt’s desire to move his position away from the dictatorial stance of those who went before has seen his role become, arguably, little more than that of a figurehead. For while the complex system of F1 Commissions and World Motor Sport Councils may have existed for decades, the weakening of the FIA and its President’s own position within those groups is an entirely new phenomenon.
Now, however, Todt finally admits that he would like to see the FIA as the sole regulatory body in the sport, something that Bernie Ecclestone too is once again advocating.
“Maybe what we should do is that the FIA should write the regulations and ask the teams if they want to enter the championship. We shouldn’t ask their opinion; just ask them if they want to enter,” Ecclestone told the British press in Bahrain.
He has often argued that democracy has no place in the sport.
The events of the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend may have finally proved to the teams that if they genuinely believed they were part of a democratic process, they were desperately mistaken.
But Ecclestone himself has also taken a slightly different stance to usual. He has always played a Machiavellian role in Formula 1 politics, at all times being both the lion and the fox. Allied to his extreme political aptitude however, has been a devilishly mischievous side in which one could sense a deep joy in his unique style of dividing to conquer.
As such, his comments in the aftermath of the open letter from the GPDA after the Australian Grand Prix should be noted. At first he dismissed the drivers’ comments with a jibe. In recent days his indignation has proven more resolute. His reasons are born in a history he created.
Cast your minds back to the late 70s and early 80s and what was known as the FISA / FOCA war. The politicisation of the drivers, allied to a unified front from a section of teams, was at the heart of Ecclestone’s own coup. If today the teams are united, and can bring the drivers along with them, then it follows that those who create the show could once again rise up against those who run the show. Ecclestone knows the tactic well. Because he invented it.
The last time the teams were actually taken seriously was when they threatened to form a breakaway championship in 2009. Indeed, when one looks at the history of this sport, it is only when the teams have held a united position and threatened to walk away and do their own thing that true, genuine and meaningful political change has occurred.
This time around, there is no FOTA as there was a decade ago. There is no FOCA as there was 30 years ago. But the discontent with the manner in which the sport is being run appears far deeper, far more desperate, and with no easy solution in sight, far more depressing.
Be under no illusions, this isn’t a war over qualifying. It’s a war for political control.
One only wonders what will be left of the sport, when the fighting finally ends.