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Racing splits: F1’s nightmare scenario


Brits On Pole is taking a three-part look at splits in sport and what the effect would be on world open-wheel racing if F1 surrendered to the tensions that lead to civil war. In this final part, we examine what would be at stake should it happen. You can read part one here and part two here.

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The bar-room veterans of darts did it, and so did the cerebral brawlers of chess. The gentleman of cricket and the bruisers of boxing each had their civil wars. Even the dickie-bowed denizens of the snooker table came close to splitting their sport asunder.

So what might cause Formula One’s collection of businessmen, entrepreneurs, engineers, retired drivers, technocrats and self-made millionaires heat up their cold war and break into open conflict?

So far, we’ve seen several factors that can cause a sport to split, including:

  • Difference of opinion about the direction of the sport in general
  • Treatment of competitors, including rules and pay / prize money
  • Influx of money from sponsorship or television deals
  • Reduced opportunities and income caused by loss of sponsorship or public attention
  • Individual egos and personality clashes
  • Lack of confidence in the ruling body or individuals

Of these, top level world motorsport is reasonably immune to the stresses of a sudden influx of money – few sports drink dollars so readily as Formula One, and problems more usually arise when a cash-starved sport suddenly finds itself rolling in the stuff.

The current administration has also proved itself to be fleet of foot in chasing replacement sources of funding when existing ones dry up.

The loss of tobacco sponsorship damaged some individual teams, and some European races are threatened by tightening government purse strings, but the sport as a whole has overcome this by exploiting new markets in parts of the world happy to pay for the privilege for joining the F1 circus.

Other causes on the list, however, are very visible as sources of stress that could have real implications.

F1 is far from a democracy. Organisations exist for drivers and teams, but they have no executive power over the future of the sport.

In America’s National Football League, the team owners set the strategy and employ the league commissioner to carry it out. In F1 the teams and their sponsors commit astronomical sums of money but are not trusted with the big decisions.

Instead, power lies with Max Mosley and the FIA, Bernie Ecclestone and his web of companies. And when questions arise about the transparency of rules, the fairness of decisions, the long-term direction of the sport, or the individuals themselves, there is no easy outlet for the resultant stresses.

Those are the circumstances under which sports turn in on themselves, with effects that we have seen elsewhere.

The good and the bad: six results of splits

Not all change is bad: some sports have emerged stronger, or have at least reaped some benefits from the whirlwind of argument. Taking the positives, benefits of splits for fans can include:

A wider variety of events, with a greater pool of entrants, covered across more broadcast channels

Without boxing’s alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies, there would be far fewer bouts – and even if some would have been better not been held, the overall effect is to increase the amount of boxing available to fans. Some sports have a surfeit of world class competitors, and having more than one global body for the sport increases their chances of taking part at a world class level.

In motorsport, there have always been fewer drives available than there are drivers wanting to fill them. Not everyone is convinced by the merits of series such as A1GP or – especially – Superleague Formula, but they have had the effect of allowing some pretty good drivers to compete where they would otherwise have missed out. No-one is saying Robert Doornbos, Narain Karthikeyan, Neel Jani or Adam Carroll are the next Ayrton Senna – but all are far too good to be sitting out a season or begging occasional GP2 drives.

More opportunities for fans to get involved with a sport they enjoy, possibly in ways that reflect their desires better

More races mean more chances to attend and to volunteer as stewards, more circuits in use, and more support races. If the atmosphere of one series is too unwelcoming – as Indycar driver and ex-F1 tester Darren Manning suggested European racing is when interviewed by Brits On Pole recently – a rival may have a different approach and offer a better deal to fans and drivers alike.

Management problems rooted out, improving the sport’s reputation

Sometimes, the people who are running an organisation into the ground are the worst placed to see what is going wrong. Snooker’s tangled recent history has a lot of candidates for chief villain, but if it emerges from the mess with a clear management structure that sponsors can be confident in and players can unite behind, then the turmoil will have been worth it. There are more than a few who would see the benefit in a similar process happening to F1.

Set against these potential positive outcomes, there a multitude of ways in which a house divided can fail to prosper. Some of the bigger ones include:

The prize funds, sponsorship cash and broadcast revenues are spread too thin to support rival series and financial problems ensue

The breakaway body in world chess foundered in the face of this problem, and North American open wheel racing almost went the same way. Outside of the handful of top teams in Formula One and the IRL, no-one in open wheel motorsport has enough money. Every team, every driver, every series is on a permanent hunt for sponsorship and funding. Increasing the number of series won’t increase the pot of money available – it will only dilute it.

Acrimony and disputes breed ill-feeling, ruin a sport’s reputation and can lead to court cases, accusations of incompetence or even allegations of corruption among management

Examples of this are legion, and do nothing to increase the fan base of a sport or make it more attractive to investors and sponsors. Very few splits take place without extensive washing of dirty laundry in public, and even those where the arguments happen behind closed doors spawn long-lasting bitterness between the participants. While it is possible to come back from them – the reunification of American open wheel racing has seen a lot of public peace-making – scars can run deep.

Uncertainty over the status of titles, regulations and eligibility, leading to competitors being excluded from tournaments

Some sports just seem to like to ban people. Cricket did so in the Packer years and is threatening to do so again. Darts talked of bans down to county amateur level for fraternising with rebels. But even in sports that don’t exclude players who sign up for the wrong organisation, a split is a sure-fire way to muddy the waters and prevent match-ups that fans would pay good money to see.

For years, CART drivers were restricted from participation in the IRL’s Indy 500 for a variety of reasons – quotas for non-IRL drivers, incompatible technical specifications, seemingly anything to maintain the divide. Even American professional wrestling, scripted though it was, suffered from the real-life split between the WWF and WCW that prevented lucrative bouts between stars from either side.

And who is the best heavyweight boxer in the world? Who was the world’s best chess player when both Karpov and Kasparov claimed to be champion?

So what does this mean for F1?

If there is a split, it will happen for one of two reasons. Either the manufacturers who see commercial benefit from participating in top-level motorsport, such as Mercedes, Toyota, BMW and Renault, will grow tired of having no say despite their considerable investment. Or the differing priorities of Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone will send them off in different directions, one to promote Formulas One, Two and Three, the other to promote GP1, GP2 and GP3.

Either way, it is difficult to see a positive outcome unless one side swiftly achieves dominance over the other. A split, followed by a swift resolution and unity, might well clear the air regarding how motorsport is managed and operated – and no-one would complain at that.

But any scenario that resulted in two rival series would weaken the economic base of the sport, potentially cancelling out the benefits of having more races for drivers and fans.

It would be very easy for whichever faction retained control of the granting of superlicences to use them as a weapon for restricting the options of drivers, while whichever side failed to land the FIA as an ally could find its races crippled by a failure to be given official recognition, with grim implications for insurance premiums and other regulatory necessities.

Worst of all, it would make it utterly impossible for fans to answer the most simple, most basic question that everyone who watches motorsport wants decided: who is the best driver in the world?

It is already bad enough that the Indianapolis 500 winner and the Monaco Grand Prix winner can never compete against each other in a meaningful race.

But imagine if Fernando Alonso drove a Ferrari to one version of the world championship – and Lewis Hamilton drove a McLaren to another version. The consequences for the sport defy imagination.

Formula One has seen many bitter arguments over recent years – and will probably see many more. But it is probably the thought of this nightmare scenario that keeps the lid on the tensions and prevents a fatal schism, despite the strong personalities and huge sums of money involved.


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