Engine dispute threatens F1 schism
Seven different winners from the first seven grands prix, an intensely competitive and wide-open championship battle, unpredictable races. On the surface, all is well with Formula 1. Behind the scenes, though, there is ferment.
At its heart is the planned introduction in 2014 of new rules, including new, energy-efficient, turbo-charged engines. The debate about whether this is wise or even possible in the current global financial climate has the potential to tear Formula 1 apart.
The new engines are being pushed strongly by governing body the FIA and have the support of the key manufacturers in Formula 1. But there are fears they will be much more expensive than the current 2.4-litre V8s and that the teams - the engine manufacturers' customers to a large degree - will not be able to afford them.
The engines have a powerful enemy - F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone has been against them from the start. He describes the arguments behind adopting them - which can be read in detail here - as "PR" and thinks they should be dropped.
He lost the first battle - they were formally adopted last year as part of the 2014 technical regulations, which also feature major chassis changes - but is still fighting to kill them off.
In that context, the recent formation of a group representing the interests of the F1 circuits should be seen as a transparent attempt by Ecclestone to bring more weight to the argument to scrap the engines.
What has developed is a classic impasse.
Bernie Ecclestone is working away behind the scenes to stop the new engines. Photo: Getty
F1 is in theory committed to the new engines. Renault and Mercedes want them to happen, and Ferrari dismiss rumours they would prefer them to be dropped by saying they will happen. Whether independent Cosworth, which supplies lowly Marussia and HRT, will be able to afford to build one is unclear.
But the teams not directly supported by engine manufacturers have not yet been told how much the new engines will cost, and fear it will be much more than the five million euros they currently pay annually.
Meanwhile, Ecclestone is working away behind the scenes to stop them. He has got former Renault team boss Flavio Briatore to come up with a 'GP1' set of rules, which include - among other things - continuing with the current engines.
The threat, clearly, is that he will take the commercial rights holders and the circuits with him (and possibly many of the teams), giving the FIA the choice to drop the engines or lose the substance of its championship.
But if that happened, Renault, for one, would almost certainly drop F1, and so might well Mercedes. So who would supply the engines to the new championship? And it would take a brave team to join any breakaway series.
On the other hand, if the FIA presses ahead and the teams cannot afford the new engines - there are rumours they could be as much as four times the price of the current V8s - where will all the cars come from in the FIA F1 world championship?
As the chief executive of the Sauber team, Monisha Kaltenborn, puts it: "If we go back to the days when engines were so much more expensive, I wonder how many teams could afford that. And F1 with four teams wouldn't be very exciting."
The manufacturers, though, believe dropping the new engines would be a mistake - as would delaying them by a further year (their introduction was already pushed back from 2013 as part of negotiations last year).
For them - and particularly for Mercedes and Renault - the new small-capacity turbos with significant energy recovery systems are in line with the way the road-car business is going. Without them, there would be no justification for a continued involvement in F1.
Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn says: "We're committed to a new engine programme, it's progressing, we've been able to justify the budgets to our board and we don't want to see a deferment or a delay in that new engine.
"It sends a very bad message back if Formula 1 keeps changing its direction on things that are so fundamental, which need so much investment to make work. I think the new engine is very exciting."
Brawn adds that the future sustainability of the sport depends on moving with the times.
"We're going to be running around on two-thirds of the fuel that we're running on now with, we think, comparable power outputs," he says.
"We've got to change the engine at some stage. We will become irrelevant with the engine if we don't look to change.
"The world's changing and I think the new engine is a far more relevant engine for F1 for the future.
"If we're going to get new manufacturers into F1, which I think is a good thing, then why will they come in to build an antique V8 engine? They won't.
"They will only come in with this new engine, so we want to attract manufacturers back into F1 and this new engine is very important (in doing that)."
But the sustainability argument has a counter-point, as detailed by Marussia chief executive officer Graeme Lowdon.
"The teams do understand the direction the FIA is going with the new engines and people do generally support it," he says.
"We're happy to see technology go in that direction, but that has to be secondary to the sustainability of the sport."
The backdrop to that statement is that times are tough for all but the very biggest teams in F1. While the top four are all pretty much financially secure, there are concerns to one degree or another for the other eight.
The latest development in the saga came at last weekend's Canadian GP, when Mercedes vice-president of motorsport Norbert Haug said: "It's absolutely clear if you introduce a new engine that it will cost more in the beginning but I think we can achieve comparable spending over a five-year period and that has to be the target."
This was news to most customer teams - but even that might not be enough to end the argument. As Lowdon puts it: "The challenge for most businesses is cash-flow." In other words, many teams don't have the money to pay higher up-front costs, even if they come down later.
Talks are continuing behind the scenes, but as for what the solution to the conundrum might be, Lowdon voices the current situation best: "I have absolutely no idea."