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F1 battle lines are drawn

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Andrew Benson | 11:42 UK time, Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Ferrari's threat to quit Formula 1 over plans for a budget cap and two-tier championship in 2010 will appear shocking to many - that, after all, is the idea. To those more familiar with the sport's intricate politics, though, the biggest surprise may well be that it took them so long to say it.

F1's history is littered with examples of Ferrari threatening to pull out if they did not get their way over some rules row or other. In the late '80s, in one of the most notorious, they went as far as building their own IndyCar to underline their point. Yet they remain the only team to have competed every year since the start of the F1 world championship in 1950.

That is why few people within F1 will think there is any realistic chance Ferrari will not be on the grid next year.

That is not to say, however, that Ferrari's threat is not serious, nor that this is not a serious situation. In both cases, it is.

The new rules proposed for 2010 have got everyone in F1 exercised - and every single team opposes at least one of the two main changes.

Max Mosley, the FIA president (pictured), has forced through regulations that a) introduce a voluntary £40m budget cap; and b) give greater technical freedom to those teams who choose to operate within it.

Max Mosley

The rules are framed - deliberately - to give a significant performance advantage to those teams who do choose to accept the FIA limits, with initial estimates suggesting said advantage is up to three seconds a lap.

Ferrari - along with other major teams such as McLaren-Mercedes, Toyota and BMW - accept the need for costs to come down. They have already reduced their spending significantly, and are working on other proposals to ensure they continue to do so.

But they are not ready to meet Mosley at his £40m mark - even though driver salaries and marketing are not included in that cap.

They do not want to make hundreds of employees redundant; they do not think it is any of the FIA's business to tell a major corporation how to spend its money; and they do not want the FIA poking around in their accounts.

What makes this such a delicate situation, though, is that not all the teams are approaching it from the same position.

Ferrari want neither the cap nor the two-tier championship. All the other teams are implacably opposed to two sets of rules, but are more malleable - to a greater or lesser extent - on the subject of a cap, although many believe the figure should be higher. And Williams, Brawn and Force India - the teams with the smallest budgets - are all believed to be behind the £40m limit.

In theory, this plays into the hands of Mosley and his partner-in-arms, F1 commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone. Their modus operandi for ruling F1 has long been divide and conquer, and on the face of it they have the teams where they want them.

If the teams are not united, one might think, how can they hope to win a stand-off?

Mosley's argument is that the budget cap is the only way F1 can survive the credit crunch relatively unscathed. He believes several of the major car manufacturers are poised to quit the sport at the end of the year - with Toyota, BMW and Renault the hottest candidates - and he says F1 is out of reach to new teams if it does not become more affordable to run a competitive car.

The FIA accepts the two-tier championship is an imperfect solution, but says it is a necessary, temporary evil while F1 makes itself fit for purpose.

But the risk is that, by pressing ahead with his plans, Mosley's claim of potential manufacturer withdrawals becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy - one precipitated by his plans for change, not by the companies themselves.

There is also the wider question of the future direction of F1. In this, the teams - represented by their umbrella organisation Fota - and the FIA have diametrically opposed philosophies.

Ferrari

Fota's position was summed up eloquently by my colleague Mark Hughes in Autosport magazine last week:

"Yes, the teams should get a greater share of the revenue, no the sport should not be owned by a venture capital company that squeezes half the sport's profit out of it, no the traditional venues should not be priced out of the championship, no it should not be so stupidly expensive for fans to attend a grand prix, no F1 should never be about spec cars or engines, yes F1 should be represented in North America, no it shouldn't be going to places where no-one wants to come and watch."

Usually, the way these things play out is predictable. Mosley comes up with an extreme suggestion that provokes the teams into action. They argue for a bit. Mosley waters down his position a little. The teams grumble a bit but accept it. And everyone goes away until the next political crisis - usually precipitated by another FIA initiative - starts the whole process again.

But this time it might be different.

For one thing, the teams have in recent years been getting increasingly aggravated by Mosley's constant changing of the rules. They want stable regulations and a level playing field.

For another, the teams remain determined to keep Fota together in the face of Mosley and Ecclestone's politicking - and if they can manage that then Mosley has to listen.

But most significant of all is the position of Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo as chairman of Fota.

Until very recently, Ferrari were at loggerheads with the other teams and more often than not in Ecclestone and Mosley's camp on most political battles. But not any more.
Now, Mosley finds Montezemolo on the other side of the battlefield and it is almost certainly not a comfortable feeling for either man.

These two are political heavyweights, neither of whom is used to losing, and it is going to be fascinating to see who comes out on top.

For all his grandstanding, Mosley knows F1 cannot afford to lose Ferrari - not when surveys suggest that a third of all fans at grands prix are there to watch them.

So the question is, what is better for F1? A championship without Ferrari - and Toyota - with a grid filled out by privateers such as Prodrive and USGP, run to a formula for essentially standard cars with rules manipulated on the whim of the FIA? Or fewer new teams in a more transparent championship with more stable rules and a parachute down to a more affordable budget over a number of years?

There will be a number of meetings over the coming weeks, there is a deadline of 29 May for teams to enter next year's championship, and we can expect many more public utterances from the parties involved.

Eventually, almost certainly, a compromise will be reached, one that keeps Ferrari on board.

But things might get bloody before F1 gets there.

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