My Life in Words

F1 Should Tell the FIA to go F- Itself

June 20, 2005

As a leader and/or leading decision-maker in no less than six organizations in college, I learned two very important things. The first is that you need a clear and specific set of rules that define your goals and purpose and give parameters for how you go about achieving them. The second is that once you have that set of rules and guidelines, the more focus you put on them and making sure they are followed to the letter, the fewer people show up and the quicker the enjoyment of participation goes out the window for those that do. After Sunday's laughable spectacle at the Formula 1 US Grand Prix, I've learned that the same principle applies to multi-billion dollar organizations in just about the same way, perhaps even more so.

In other circumstances I would refrain from writing a piece like this, as it is outside of what I would normally consider my area of expertise, but this has really struck a nerve with me, and I suspect with most US F1 fans. I don't make enough money to afford anything but basic cable, and consequently not the Speed Channel. So when my visit to my parents' house coincided with the US GP, I was thrilled that I would actually be able to watch a race in stead of reading about it two days later, and one on home soil no less - at least until I actually turned on the TV. I had read passing headlines about the developing tire crisis. In Friday's test session Toyota's Ricardo Zonta and Ralf Schumacher both crashed out after spectacular tire failures. Other teams were noticing potential problems as well. Michelin were unable to determine what it was about the high, banking curve of turn 13 that caused their tires to fail and consequently were forced to tell their teams (seven out of the ten in the championship) that they could not certify the tires as safe to race.

This began a frantic series of discussions and negotiations to save the race. Unfortunately, what has since come out about those meetings reveals a spectacle of selfishness and self-interested politicking that would make even Republican Senator Trent Lott shake his head. Michelin first offered to airlift replacement tires for all seven teams - at extensive cost to themselves. The FIA (F1's international governing body) said that wouldn't do, the rules didn't allow that. The Michelin teams sought compromise: they offered to start from the back of the grid, allowing all the Bridgestone teams to run out front from the beginning. Their plea was, "we just want to race." Still not good enough. The teams talked about limiting their speed through turn 13, but ruled that out on two grounds - primarily that a Bridgestone-shod car going 100 to 150kph faster than a Michelin car through a major turn would have been a serious hazard, but also that the spirit of competitiveness would prove too much for drivers who live to push the limits. Once again Michelin came forward with a compromise. They could certify the tires if the speed through that area of the track was limited by adding a chicane (a combination of tight curves, creating an s-shape and reducing the speed necessary to traverse it). The crew at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway said they were willing to implement it. The drivers seemed united. This looked like the best chance to save a competitive race. Negotiations on this idea ran right up until the last moments before the race.

The reasons for the failure here were two-fold. First, the FIA, and specifically FIA head Max Mosely, refused to compromise, saying that to change the rules for this reason would have been unfair and against its policies. Second, Ferrari, who have been the FIA's lap-dog in pretty much every controversy in recent memory, refused to endorse the plan as well, negating the negotiating power of the teams themselves. The Michelin teams decided that they would run the parade lap, but that if they did not see a chicane at turn 13, they would retire without taking the starting grid. There was little else left for them to do. This is exactly what happened, with fourteen cars flooding the pit lanes, leaving only the six cars of Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi to line up in their assigned spots on the grid. Ferrari ran a race against itself (Jordan and Minardi bring up the rear in terms of F1 competitiveness), uncontested for the two top spots - and their championship points.

That's what happened. This is what I think about it. First, this season's tire rules are just ridiculous. Before now, the most obvious example of this was Kimi Raikonnen's crash out of the lead at the European GP in Germany. He had created a flat spot on one of his tires during a brake lock-up. His team had been inclined to replace it, but that could have resulted in disqualification. Take a moment to think about that - a team had to make a choice between disqualification and running the risk of a potentially damaged tire. As it turns out, the vibration that resulted from the wheel running untrue slowly weakened the suspension, resulting in a spectacular crash, with the wheel flying off the car, and Raikonnen only saved from catching it in the face by the safety tether. Mclaren later said that they made the only choice they could in the circumstances: to run the race out front and risk crashing out, or to lose places and possibly be disqualified anyway. In this way, the one-set-of-tires rule has caused an unsafe racing environment, and many drivers have said as much in their own public statements.

Second, I am totally disgusted with Ferrari. In stead of looking for the greater good of the sport or looking to act in a spirit of sportsman-like competitiveness, they took the line of "it's not our problem, we shouldn't have to compromise." That in itself is selfish, but add to that the fact that their fellow Bridgestone-equipped teams sided with the Michelin teams, and Ferrari begins to look even more suspicious. Go back to the events of the race though, and it all becomes obvious. If the Michelin-equipped teams could not run, then Ferrari would benefit phenomenally, upping their points standings at the expense of events out of control of their competitor teams. And so it was. Self interest to the highest degree, n'est pas? One begins to get the impression that Ferrari's team owner gets up in the morning and follows Mosely and Formula 1 Impresario Bernie Ecclestone around like a goofy old golden retriever, his tongue sloshing around outside his mouth and his tail wagging, saying, "Where we going today, guys? Huh-huh? Where we going today?"

Finally, and most importantly, it seems to me that the FIA, and specifically the ego-consumed Mosely, are so obsessed with their rules that they don't even see the sport anymore, just a code of conduct that must be rigidly implemented at all costs. In their press release, the FIA stated, "To change the course in order to help some of the teams with a performance problem caused by their failure to bring suitable equipment to the race would be a breach of the rules and grossly unfair to those teams which have come to Indianapolis with the correct tyres." Now wait a minute here. We are not talking about a private-school student who came to school with her skirt three inches above the knees in stead of two, the proverbial equivalent of "suitable equipment." We are talking about a multi-million dollar partnership between a tire manufacturer and seven racing teams. Partnerships that invest hundreds of hours and hundreds of thousands (if not millions, I haven't seen the exact numbers) of dollars, per team, in safety testing alone. Yet even that cannot test for all circumstances, as we saw this weekend. The tire manufacturer had a problem in an isolated area of this particular track. They were open and honest about it form the beginning and sought compromise, and did so at significant cost to themselves and their partner teams. Yes, it would have changed the dynamics of the race to add a chicane. But keep in mind, neither the Michelin nor Bridgestone drivers would have gained an advantage by it, the change would have affected everyone in the same way. What it would have done was keep the race running, keep the fans involved, keep the Formula 1 franchise reputation relatively untarnished, and most importantly, keep all the drivers at the highest level of safety possible.

Unfortunately, what we will now see is the likely exit of Formula 1 from American soil for a good long time. Further, as fans from all over the world begin to voice their disgust, be it with the FIA, Michelin or the teams themselves (as blame seems to be spread widely and assigned on an individual basis), the already fragile coalition that hold the championship together now will likely fray even further. For me, the rigid application of an excessively complex rulebook makes it more frustrating than fun to watch a race these days. I know others share my frustrations as well. Whatever the case, it seems to be universally accepted that the future of F1, as we know it now, looks bleak. Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen, but anything that changes the farcical state that exists now and brings back the true spirit of the sport is fine by me.

A more comprehensive and up-to-date (June 29) article can be found here.



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