Ecclestone’s comments raise question marks over F1’s political harmony

FOTA not needed in F1 says the Commercial supremo; storm brewing over branding

“FOTA teams to launch breakaway series”

“FOTA goes for breakaway, F1 holds its breath”

“F1 teams drop breakaway bombshell”

Just some of the headlines which dominated Formula One, as a dark cloud of political uncertainty formed on the eve of last year’s British Grand Prix.

Fast forward over twelve months and the situation could not be more different. Gone is the Machiavellian Max Mosley, with his plans for a budget cap and in its place is a more constructive relationship between his successor, Jean Todt, and the Formula One Teams’ Association (FOTA).

Peace and tranquillity now seems to flow throughout the paddock with issues discussed a very moderate manner. Previous crises now appear to be nothing more than a bitter memory.

Or do they?

Although off-track politics have largely been confined to issues such as the safety car and future tyre suppliers, in the background it appears that the teams may be on a collision course with the last known survivor of the sport’s formative era; Formula One’s very own Godfather, Bernie Ecclestone.

The issue is again financially motivated this time over sponsorship branding at each Grand Prix circuit.

In the run up to last month’s Canadian Grand Prix teams were warned not to excessively display their branding in the pit lane as the rights for the area were the property of Allsport Management.

Subsequently, this weekend has seen the dispute heightened with Autosport publishing an article on Thursday which revealed that teams were ordered to remove their tractor units from the Silverstone paddock, because of the branding that they displayed.

For those of you not familiar with Allsport, its impact on Formula One remains rather understated.

Founded towards the late 1970s by former journalist and Marlboro Man Paddy McNally, the Swiss operation worked closely with Bernie Ecclestone to improve and develop advertising around the calendar’s various racing circuits.

McNally himself was crucial in this process, establishing “themed advertising” areas where one advertiser was given total exposure at one part of each circuit usually surrounding a bridge or at a corner. Under his guidance, advertising boards were also positioned with the television audience in mind; facing the cameras rather than the spectators themselves.

By implementing these alterations, Allsport’s involvement was instrumental in the commercial explosion which gripped Formula One during the 1980s and 1990s and which morphed it into its modern form.

Allsport’s founding coincided with the rise in value of the sport’s television rights and thus became a vital organ in Ecclestone’s pursuit for improvement. Without these changes, it would have been more difficult to attract sponsors and sell them the notion that the sport could be beneficial to their product.

However Allsport’s involvement in the birth of modern Formula One did not stop at the side of the track. McNally, with support from Ecclestone, also founded The Paddock Club in 1984 Formula One’s central entertainment hub for the rich and famous.

Without these changes it would have been unlikely that the sport would have undergone such significant growth in popularity and gained the amount of exposure as it did in such a short space of time.

Such is the importance of Allsport to Formula One that it was no surprise that the company would be acquired by the Formula One Group in a reported £350m deal in 2006 following CVC Capital Partner’s investment in the sport’s commercial attributes during the winter of 2005.

Consequently, with advertising revenues falling throughout sport, F1’s commercial rights holders appear to have reacted to prevent their detailed sponsorship procedures being encroached.

It is true to say that FOTA itself has flourished since the end of Max Mosley’s tenure as FIA President and has seized the initiative to position itself as the sport’s unofficial ‘talking shop’. During this time the organisation’s power has failed to be contained, with Jean Todt’s earlier attempts to seize the initiative in the tyre debate being brushed aside.

However, undeterred, Ecclestone has chosen to turn up the heat on the teams, by choosing to convey his opinion on their organisation in an interview with Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport.

“It will never work because it is made by teams that fight against each other on the tracks,” he told the Italian newspaper.

“When the teams examine rules, everyone tries to get an advantage. The teams wanted to divide F1, but now they understand that it is good to give importance to the money that they get (from FOM). There is no space for FOTA… ”

Although many will quickly scoff at the 79-year-old’s latest outburst, his words should not be simply brushed aside.

While FOTA has currently presented itself as a unified and fully-functioning body, the suspension of the likes of Williams last season shows there is still the possibility for tensions to mount whenever a controversial issue arises.
Although up until now teams have been more than prepared to compromise, over issues such as KERS or this season’s F-duct, Ecclestone knows all too well that such politeness is not enduring.

Here is a man who has seen it all during his time. As the chief architect of Formula One, Ecclestone has fought many political battles and is equally apt to drive a hard bargain with the teams.

As the former president of the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA) the Englishman has first-hand experience of fighting on the teams’ behalves.

What was different then compared to now? Well during its most influential years FOCA had a clear power structure in place. Whilst the likes of Williams and Lotus were able to continue their battles on track, Ecclestone was charged with negotiating with race promoters and the sport’s governing body.

In this position he was allowed to hold dominance over proceedings something which was necessary when locked in confrontation with FISA during the early 1980s and largely welcomed by the competitors who found themselves significantly better off.

However, while this system worked when there was a common foe, the cohesion of the organisation was soon shattered once Ecclestone became more intertwined within the sport’s governing body.

Following years at polar opposites from one another, the formation of FOTA in 2008 came with the main aim to improve the team’s share of the sport’s riches. However, now this has been achieved, with the signature of the Concorde Agreement, what is there to hold FOTA together?

This is not to say that Ecclestone is entirely correct. Until such time when all sides of Formula One can come together to make decision on all levels you could argue there will always be a place for FOTA.

Whereas FOM has been slow to react to the explosion of the World Wide Web, FOTA has tirelessly campaigned to station the sport at the forefront of the modern media age, as well as positioning itself more directly with the fans.

Last week’s FOTA/Santander Fans’ Forum is testament to the tireless work of the teams’ to try and reconnect with the viewers who have previously seen their cries for change fall on death ears.

The teams have also attempted to be take the lead role when tackling the sport’s pressing issues, for example in terms of reducing carbon emissions and developing ‘greener’ technology.

Although there is no real evidence that there will be an immediate split between Ecclestone and the teams’, the former’s comments should not be underestimated.

Then again, the commercial supremo has a history of making controversial comments; usually in a bid to stir up coverage for the sport during lean periods.

Could this be the start of another political storm in Formula One or simply Bernie looking for media attention?

Either way it is worth keeping an eye on.