Keeping Up With the Mosleys
A Lesson From Sportscar Racing's TurmoilArticle is written by and copyright (c) 1999 Emily Wheeler, Capitola, California, USA.
by Emily Wheeler, USA
Imagine, if you will, this tragic scenario:
WOKING, England--McLaren rocked the motor racing world today by announcing their withdrawal from Formula One for the 2000 season, based on the FIA's requirement that all teams adopt slick tyres for the new year. A spokesman stated "the team cannot justify the expense of a complete chassis redesign, as required for the new tyres, especially in light of the changes made in 1999 to support the four-grooved tyre. Therefore, the decision has been made to withdraw from Formula One competition for the year 2000."
Happily, this is not the state of affairs. But the world of sportscar racing, which carries the same long-held traditions and extraordinary costs as Formula One, was shocked by news as earth-shattering when Porsche withdrew from competition at the end of 1998, because of the skyrocketing expenses associated with changes to racing's rules.
Porsche dominated sportscar competition from 1970, when they won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time. Over the next three decades, their muscular German designs won the endurance race 15 more times; "Le Mans" and "Porsche" were nearly synonymous in racing parlance.
1998 was a watershed year for Porsche, and for sportscar racing in general. Porsche and its rival, Mercedes, ran teams both at Le Mans and in the FIA's GT1 series. In stunning final-hour fashion, Porsche clinched another Le Mans victory, while Mercedes mimicked its Formula One domination, winning every race of the GT1 season.
Despite this single-marque domination, the FIA GT races were still a pulse-quickening affair. Spectators witnessed much more overtaking than any F1 race could boast, care of manoeuvres by stellar names like Klaus Ludwig, Allan McNish, and Yannick Dalmas. For a moment, the fragmented world of sportscar racing looked like it had found solid ground.
But the sands quickly shifted when the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, Le Mans' governing body, announced that they would favour open-topped prototypes over GT cars in 1999. The FIA was quick to follow, pitting the open cockpits against the closed GT's and renaming their series the International Prototype Cup.
Mercedes did not publicly object to the change, due to its worldwide success with open-cockpit racers. But Porsche objected. Quite simply, the closed cockpit series was its area of expertise, and its entire design program was geared in that direction. A complete overhaul of its racing program was an expensive proposition.
Shortly after the ACO and FIA announcements, Porsche decided to withdraw its works teams from all 1999 venues. It would continue to support customer teams, but Porsche's Stuttgart garage door closed with a resounding thud. The rule changes were simply too expensive. Even plans to return to Le Mans in 2000 were tempered with fiscal caution. Future competitive endeavours "would be checked regularly in order to keep costs within reasonable limits," according to the company's official statement. "Porsche ... cannot accept any inflationary use of materials and resources."
Thus was Porsche's thinly veiled frustration with sportscar racing's rule makers demonstrated. The company had invested millions in the development of the 1998 Le Mans-winning 911-GT1, only to be undermined by the powers that be. It seemed to be a slap in the face.
Le Mans, of course, would go on, though Porsche's withdrawal crippled the fledgling IPC series. Soon after, Mercedes dealt the series its deathblow by announcing its intention to pull out as well. The reason? Mercedes saw no point in participating without it's rival, Porsche, especially since no new works teams stepped up to the challenge.
This left the FIA series with only private teams. Even perennial backmarker Panoz had pulled out to concentrate on their founder's new American Le Mans championship. This lack of entrants violated another FIA regulation regarding the minimum number of participants. Thus, before its inaugural season even began, the FIA's IPC series was dead. Lower-level GT's would continue to run, but the jewel in the sportscar series' crown was lost because of arbitrary and expensive rule changes. Ironic, considering the FIA enacted the open-cockpit rules with the aim of attracting more competitors.
Of course, this is the same FIA that governs Formula One. The same FIA that, over the past few years, has introduced a series of rule changes to F1, mostly with the aim of reducing speeds - though it must be stressed that not all the changes have been negative, like the recent ban on failure-prone flexible rear wings.
But some high-profile rule changes have not been so happily received, nor has their benefit been so obvious.
Take grooved tyres. Max Mosley and the FIA stated over and over again that this change is supposed to replicate wet conditions on the track, and thus reduce cornering speeds. The aim they say, is to increase driver safety, just like wheel restraints and removable seats.
But speeds haven't been reduced enough to worry about. Four races into the new season, track times are down only slightly from last year. In fact, top qualifying times at Interlagos were actually over a half-second quicker than they were in 1998. By the end of the season, team engineers could make up enough through aerodynamic witchcraft that the tyre changes won't have made much difference at all.
But the issue here isn't tyres, or cornering speeds, or even the lack of overtaking; though all of these are symptomatic of the real disease: the financial burden that teams bear as a consequence of arbitrary regulation. Unlike the sportscar series, no frontline constructor has yet pulled out of Formula One as a direct result of its fiscal incapacity to keep up with the rules.
But warning lights are beginning to flicker.
Each team has spent mountains of cash, redesigning their cars for the extra groove, without its intended benefit being realised. Even the drivers joined the chorus condemning Mosley's fallacious rule. If the FIA wishes to increase safety, why are slippery tyres - something that reduces safety - being implemented by the governing body?
Michael Schumacher has been especially vocal. The two-time World Champion expressed his discontent early on: "With the extra groove, the tyres have to be harder, so the cars will slide more ... The tyres are not a big safety issue, but the spins can lead to dangerous situations."
Dangerous, and expensive. Spins often turn into accidents, for which teams must shell out even more money to repair damaged cars. While even seasoned pilots have had their share of the four-groove blues, it is predictably the less experienced drivers from the smaller teams who have suffered most. BAR's Ricardo Zonta and Minardi's Luca Badoer have both sported bandaged limbs already this year, and we've all watched Marc Gene spin off over and over again like a million-dollar yo-yo.
History tells us that young drivers either get better or get out, and that the veterans will come to grips with it by summertime. Then the status quo will resume. Isn't it the same story every year?
Possibly, as another battle shapes up between McLaren and Ferrari for 1999. But the front runners aren't the real story here, even though it is their disdain we hear of most in the pages of Autosport.
Instead, the smaller teams' situations are the most worrisome. Teams without the resources of Mercedes or Fiat. Teams who often base their choice of driver on how much cash he brings rather than how much talent. Teams who buy last year's frontline engines. These teams can't afford Schumacher, Hakkinen or Hill. Thus, their younger, inexperienced drivers simply crash more frequently and - as Ricardo Zonta demonstrated in Brazil - crash more violently because they don't recover as deftly when the car gets away from them.
Zonta's Brazilian mishap was a complete disaster; the BAR 001 was a total loss. At a cost of well over $1 million per car, it doesn't take a Wall Street analyst to figure out that smaller teams can't afford many of these incidents. It's a vicious cycle: the smaller teams can only afford younger drivers, who tend to crash more (especially on slippery tyres), and cause even greater expense.
When shunts occur at Ferrari or McLaren, they tend to be more annoying than catastrophic. But for smaller teams, these accidents cause a significant financial burden. These extra expenses, along with the costs of keeping up with changing rules and simply keeping cars on the grid race after race, add up to an utter inability to compete with the leaders. As Arrows team manager Tom Walkinshaw said, the frontline teams "have good drivers, reliable cars and huge resources behind them." These things make it difficult for smaller teams to keep up. Even a team like BAR, with resources rivalling larger teams, must worry about this issue because the longer they remain uncompetitive, the more likely they are to lose the sponsors that provide those resources.
Thus, the FIA's arbitrary rule changes have created something one might call "financial attrition." Tyrrell finally succumbed to it at the end of 1997, selling to BAR. Were it not for the resources of Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim, it might also have eliminated Arrows. "These days, almost every team is supported by a manufacturer," said Cesare Fiorio, Minardi's sporting director. "Those who are not will probably disappear within the next five years." Recent news from Toyota regarding their possible buyout of the team makes Minardi's disappearance seem likely as well.
Who cares? They're backmarkers anyway, right?
But if the trend that decimated the GT1 series continues in Formula One, spectators are in danger of never watching a team like Jordan or Stewart claw its way through the field again. How many years in a row can Mika Hakkinen's permanent residence on pole remain entertaining? How many times can one watch the silver cars beat the red ones, without an overtaking manoeuvre, without getting a little jaded - especially those of us doomed to Bernie-less terrestrial TV?
Lack of thrills means fewer spectators. Lack of spectators means sponsors might not lay out millions to support a Formula One team. As with the GT's, how long will it be before some larger teams give up, because the lack of competition added to the cost of a racing program can't attract sponsors?
Sponsors crave legions of excited fans: note their growing participation in the unpredictable NASCAR arena, where high speeds and overtaking abound. The predictability that is beginning to plague Formula One is not conducive to sponsorship growth.
The rules keep changing; teams stop racing; fans stop watching; sponsors stop sponsoring. Right now, the sport has more fans than ever. A world without Formula One? Unthinkable.
Kind of like imagining Le Mans without Porsche, isn't it?
Emily is an ex- English teacher, who somehow became an accountant for a California Software Firm. She began following Formula One while living in the UK in the 80's, and happilly rediscovered it in the late 90's after stumbling across it on TV one Sunday afternoon.