The plan for 2014
Just before the storm in a teacup outlined above got into full swing, the long-term plan was mapped out and argued about.
The worldwide economic collapse came at a particularly inconvenient moment for Formula 1, as the sport grappled to position itself within a more environmentally aware world – a process that was potentially very expensive.
Back in 2006, the governing body was in the early stages of addressing F1 powerplants of the future. No more irrelevantly high-revving fuel burners; in their place, smaller, turbocharged units – which would mark the first time since 1986 (ABOVE) that the entire F1 grid featured turbo-engined cars. In combination with KERS and turbo compounding, this would give equivalent performance but use only half as much fuel. In this idealistic vision, the car manufacturers then populating Formula 1 would stay, aligning the technological drive of their ever-greener road cars with their F1 programs, driving the technology forward at a faster rate than it would otherwise progress. In this way, this top branch of the sport would be seen to be part of the environmental solution rather than part of the problem.
Then came the global economic meltdown that scared the car manufacturers into seeking an easy way to wipe a nine-figure sum from their annual outlay. Honda, BMW and Toyota left in quick succession, Renault wavered and, reportedly, Mercedes-Benz's decision to stay involved was won by only a couple of votes in the boardroom.
Suddenly, Formula 1 was staring at a new era of independent entrants. Short-term survival was taking precedence over long-term strategy among the teams, but still the governing body was absolutely wedded to the idea of projecting a greener F1, even more so once Jean Todt (with Ecclestone, RIGHT) took over as FIA president. For a year, maybe two, they pressed ahead with their own concerns, apparently ignoring the looming conflict. F1 would go to 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder engines, limited to 12,000rpm from 2013. (Back in '06, the change had been scheduled for 2011 but was then progressively delayed).
As the time approached when serious planning would need to be made by Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and whoever else might be supplying engines for the new formula, there came the inevitable attempts to delay yet further. But Todt's message was clear: this was going to happen. Only then did the real issues start coming out into the open. Aside from the estimated $80 million investment a new engine program was going to require of each supplier, there was an additional problem of image for Ferrari. Luca di Montezemelo stated four-cylinder engines couldn't be aligned in marketing terms with road-going Ferraris. Next, Bernie Ecclestone waded in with his objections as the promoter of the series on the grounds of the quality of noise.
But the biggest obstacle was the potential cost to the teams. Those buying their engines rather than making them (83 percent of the grid) would potentially have to exchange their $15 million deals (a fraction of the cost of a decade earlier) for something much more costly.
In early May, the teams decided en masse they could not afford the proposed new formula and informed Todt. Their expectation was that he'd have to accept the current engines would stay. Instead, he repeated that any alternative to a green formula was not up for discussion. Complicating matters further, Renault Sport said it wasn't interested in anything other than a green formula, while Cosworth intimated it couldn't afford to invest in a turbo program without some guaranteed customers.
The apparent impasse was broken by a couple of key developments. FOTA chairman Martin Whitmarsh persuaded Ferrari and the others to accept a V6 rather than a four – still 1.6-liter turbo, still “green” but acceptably sexy in concept and sound, and better suited to current expertise in using the engines structurally as part of the chassis. Oh, and a delay of one year until 2014. The FIA accepted. With that breakthrough made, Renault stopped wavering. It already supplies three teams and, with a Williams partnership set for next year, that makes four. Suddenly the numbers began making more sense as the investment could be spread out longer and between more customers. In that sense, F1 didn't need more engine suppliers; the fewer the better. Ingenious commercial tie-ups are being planned that may see, for example, TOTAL devoting its F1 budget not to teams but to Renault Sport, subsidizing the engine program, with Renault-supplied teams carrying TOTAL branding in return, with added value road car tie-ups.
Rumbling in the background of all this is F1's commercial future. The teams are adamant the new Concorde deal will not allow an outside entity to take 50 percent of the sport's income, as is currently the case with CVC. Without that happening, there would be money available to pay engine suppliers.
And so – gradually – a solution to a seemingly intractable problem is starting to emerge.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the September 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.