Formula One is all about twists and turns on the track. But now it's the offtrack maneuvers that are revving up drama. Talks in London among the teams and authorities in motor sport's blue-ribbon championship ended without agreement Friday, failing to settle an ugly row over plans by the FIA, Formula One's governing body, to impose a voluntary $60 million budget cap on teams next year. Those who accept it will then have greater technical freedom to upgrade their cars beyond the current tight bounds.
While some teams have cheered the idea, others have blown a gasket. Ferrari, the sport's oldest and most illustrious team, this week threatened to quit Formula One unless the plans were parked. On Friday, Team Ferrari filed an injunction in a French court to block the cap. Rivals Renault, Toyota, Red Bull and Torro Rosso all issued similar warnings. "If the regulations for 2010 will not change," read a Ferrari statement, "then Ferrari does not intend to enter cars in the next Formula One world championship." (See the 50 worst cars of all time.)
The teams' gripe: such a scheme would create a two-tier championship, with those able to accept the cap free to add movable front and rear wings, for instance, or carry out unlimited out-of-season testing. Such activities could chop three seconds off a lap time. Moreover, the manner in which the plans came about has also put teams in a spin. Not having been consulted sufficiently by the governing body, Renault said in its own statement, it was now refusing "to accept unilateral governance handed out by the FIA." (See pictures of the American muscle car in the movies.)
Despite the breakdown of talks Friday, it's still unlikely that those opposing the cap will need to follow through on their threats to leave when the deadline for entering next season expires on May 29; after all, few sports can rival Formula One for its history of posturing. Ferrari, the only team to have competed since the series began in 1950, threatened in the 1980s to leave for the Indianapolis 500. Drastic proposals by the FIA last year to introduce a standardized engine across all teams a nonstarter for the likes of Ferrari quickly looked like scare tactics aimed at exacting concessions elsewhere from the teams. "Formula One is Ferrari, and Ferrari is Formula One," Bernie Ecclestone, the sport's commercial-rights holder, said in response to the Italians' ultimatum. "That is not going to change." (See a brief pictorial history of the Pontiac.)
That may be, but deeper issues remain. For a sport eager to attract more teams and sponsors owing to financial pressures, some of each have left the sport in recent months the arguments and uncertainty do little for Formula One's appeal. With the FIA already having raised the budget cap from $45 million under pressure from the teams, "it's wrong that it has become such a public debate," says Jackie Stewart, a three-time Formula One world champion and exteam boss. "It's unsettling for the marketplace."
Take sponsors. In theory, with several backers cutting ties with the sport the recently nationalized Royal Bank of Scotland, for one, has other things on its mind new ones could have negotiated more in the way of exposure than they might have three or four years ago. But amid squabbles over the future of Formula One, "at the moment it's not a good proposition," says Mick de Haas, a sports-sponsorship consultant with a history of involvement in Formula One deals. The sport, he says, is "destroying itself."
New teams might do well to consider their involvement too. While British racing team Lola announced on Friday plans to submit its own new entry for 2010, the sport's unpredictability could turn off others. "It's a very dangerous time to enter," says a former adviser to Formula One teams. "They enter on the understanding the budgets will be as low as they're now being predicted, or that the rules will be as stable as they're now being described. But we've seen it before things can change very, very quickly."
The uncertainty reflects poorly on those in charge of the sport essentially Ecclestone and the FIA. The snafu "brings to light that there's no real professional process in place to agree on the future" of Formula One, says the former adviser. Stewart agrees. "There's got to be a restructuring of the governing body to project more stability," he says, "to take it through the long term." For now, fans will just be hoping that that future includes Ferrari.