Would the Prancing Horse really leave F1?

gillesThis week the F1 world was stunned by Ferrari s threat to withdraw from the sport in 2010 if the budget cap of €44m, with its concomitant ‘two-tier technical rules, is brought in. Forumula1.com s Hugh Podmore looks at whether this is likely to happen or not.

There have been many allegations directed in Ferrari s direction in recent days that this is all posturing political manoeuvring designed to earn them more bargaining power in the negotiations over the future of the sport. But there are many reasons why Ferrari may actually make good on their threat.

There is a sentiment within Ferrari, notably in its executive board, that it has been unfairly targeted by the sport s governing body, the FIA. Ferrari have an agreement with the FIA that, because of their status in the sport as the oldest participant and weight with fans the world over, they are not treated like other teams. It is a tacit agreement, for the most part, and conspiracy theorists often suspect it of being worth more than it is. Nevertheless, it exists, and recognises that the DNA of F1 and Ferrari are intertwined.

In this latest case, Ferrari feel that they are being treated like any other manufacturer. In fact, they would have cause even to feel as though they had been singled out for penalty over budgets, as Maranello s spending is comfortably the highest in the game. And why should they cap their budget? If they have the money and want to spend it racing, they should be allowed to, shouldn t they? Many would say the FIA is overstepping its brief in telling people what to spend and where to spend it.

The second reason why Ferrari could leave is the nature of the rule change. While it is difficult to predict the exact performance differential resulting from ‘greater technical freedom , consensus is that it would result in the teams without capped budgets at the back of the grid. Evidence could be found in this year s contest, where the budgets of the big teams have been no match for some smart thinking about diffusers. Should Ferrari et al accept the premise of budget caps but refuse to cap theirs at €44m, they would be signing up for a sport in which they were almost certain to be backmarkers. In other words, a sport with no commercial value for them.

So Ferrari s argument, in sum, is the following. Although F1 is tremendously valuable to the marque, the mooted 2010 F1 that is being proposed would not be so valuable, and a devalued sport would hold no interest for the team.

However, there are also reasons why Ferrari will not follow through and leave the sport. Firstly, Max Mosley s argument that costs have to be cut is a convincing one in the new global climate of thrift and financial caution. Honda s withdrawal from the sport at the end of last year put the wind up the motorsport world as it realised its alliance with the car manufacturers was built on shakier foundations than it thought.

Secondly, the bit of Mosley s proposal that Ferrari object to the budget being capped at €44 million and the two-tier rules is unlikely to translate into serious FIA policy. Mosley often with Ecclestone in tow frequently makes outlandish demands about what the teams must do or not do, only to backtrack and negotiate a compromise. It is a clever strategy that normally results in Mosley and Ecclestone getting more than they wanted, but the teams also feel they are winners because they negotiated the two down from their first, somewhat ridiculous position.

This is a textbook case of that strategy in action, albeit with tempers frayed a bit more than usual. Threats will be made, but negotiation surely will take place, starting tomorrow (Friday) in London.

To Ferrari, the continuing commercial value of the sport cannot be underestimated either. The English Premiership has lost football teams of great commercial value before Leeds, for example, and possibly this season Newcastle. And it continued stronger than before. Make no mistake Ferrari need F1. It is the pinnacle of motorsport, and if it could lose Lotus…other categories such as GT racing do not have the same allure, and Ferrari know it.

Fourthly, the FIA by dint of its cost-cutting policy in the first place must believe that the sport is in danger of manufacturers leaving, which it does not want. So why would they pursue a policy which will result in that? The answer is, they won t. When it thinks hard enough about itself, the FIA believes that F1 needs Ferrari. Although Mosley talks with great vigour about the exciting prospect of new teams coming in, this is mere showboating. His organization is as in love with Ferrari as it has ever been.

And so fans money should be on the FIA backing down. The governing body have said something that has upset Ferrari, and she has flounced off. But this marriage is not on the rocks yet, because it is still well within both parties power to compromise.