Apocalypse not yet

fota-2.jpgThe F1 world woke this morning to the sound of uproar and upheaval, as FOTA announced that preparations for a new and separate championship would commence. Discussion between the FIA and FOTA have palpably failed, and millions of fans are sad and angry that the sport they love has been wrought in two. But is this the disaster it appears, or is there some glimmer of hope on the horizon?

Let us for a moment imagine the situation this time next year. In ‘real F1′, run by the FIA, ex-Williams tester and GP2 star Nico Hulkenberg is sitting on top of the world having just won poorly attended events in Monaco (!) and Turkey. His nearest rival in the championship is Adrian Sutil…followed down the pack by a motley collection of unreliable and gaudy cars driven by largely crash-prone ex-Indy Car men. Max is bogged down in a lawsuit that has seen Ferrari put two cars on the grid that are woefully off the pace and do not want to be there. Bernie is negotiating for his life…the declining TV and attendance figures have angered TV executives, sponsors and track bosses who signed up to full-fat F1 a few years back.

Meanwhile over at FOTA Grand Prix Series, things are little better. A few months of bitter fighting over regulations has seen Ferrari come out on top, but with the British teams massively resentful. The lack of an independent regulator and mediator between the teams has meant that the best-funded teams effectively bully the smaller ones. On the track the racing has been good, if a little processional, with a few whispers about safety perhaps not being what it was. Meanwhile, the global car industry has still not recovered to its pre-2008 level, and worried manufacturers are still making noises about leaving. The lack of commitment from these manufacturers makes the future of the series insecure, and the drivers all want to go to Ferrari.

As we can see, neither of these scenarios is a million miles from what the truth would be if a rival series took place. Both sides would end up losing in the long haul. There are myriad problems that both sides will encounter that no-one – least of all the protagonists – has foreseen. But the suspicion is that both sides actually know that. They know that a split would mean definite difficulty and probable disaster, and no-one wants that.

So what was today’s announcement for, then? Why did FOTA announce they would start another championship? Simply because they were left with no other choice. The FIA has all week been making out that the ball was in FOTA’s court; that they (the FIA) had put compromise after compromise on the table and it was up to FOTA to accept one. The deadline was today, and if FOTA were to stay credible (with any diplomatic weight at all) and unified, there was only one option open to them – declare that they would be starting a rival series. Cleverly, this means that FOTA have put the spotlight back on the FIA. What are the governing body going to do about this, they are saying.

Blame will be apportioned for the current crisis in the next weeks. FOTA will say the concessions over governance were too little too late, and the underlying issue of the money denied to them by Ecclestone and CVC over the years will still rankle. The FIA will say that FOTA were trying to dictate the rules in a championship that was not theirs, and that they were intransigent and obstructive during negotiation. But eventually and more broadly speaking, the two organisations have similar objectives. They both want to race motor cars at the pinnacle of motorsport with reduced expenditure; they have simply fallen out over how to do it.

There is a distinct risk here of sounding like a lovelorn fan in bitter denial of the world crashing about his ears. But most observers believe that because there is still so much to lose, compromise will yet be found. To use Ed Gorman of the Times’ wonderful divorce analogy, the warring parents will get back together for the sake of the children. Or so we hope.