In the fifties, sixties and to some extent even the seventies, Formula One racing was simple. Enthusiasts representing manufacturers and teams got together to build state-of-the-art racing cars which met the rules set by the ‘Formula’ and raced against each other. Racing was mostly on historic European circuits, and car makers stood a good chance of selling more cars when they won on Sunday afternoons. When the costs of car development mounted, a new breed of teams with huge financial backing sprang up. They used new-age metallurgy and tyre technology to take Formula One to a level where it became impossible for just any old bunch of enthusiasts to build cars and race them competitively. And so it was that Bernie Ecclestone made use of his tobacco millions and created the highly-televised, money-spinning circus that the world knows as Formula One today.
There was a time when the Formula needed to be tamed to save the lives of drivers, and there were times when technology needed to be taken out of cars to make racing interesting. Aided by glorious victories and monumental tragedies, Formula One grew in stature. Superb teams like Ferrari and legendary drivers like Michael Schumacher were the result. Formula One gained even more popularity with the spread of cable television, and then race circuits started coming up in Asia. But the near-dictatorial way in which the sport is run by Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body, never attracted friends within team circles, and the current spat can be seen as a venting of this anger. A $65 million budget cap aimed at democratising F1 and thereby ensuring that new, competitive teams entered the sport has been scoffed at by the top teams, who want to win at any cost — literally. Such spats have occurred in other sports; cricket saw its Packer circus, and boxing once had rival heavyweight titles.
The irony is that, for a change, FIA has a point. To its credit, it has ensured that Formula One is safer (no deaths since Ayrton Senna’s in 1994) and quicker (lap times keep getting re-written despite smaller engines and reined-in technology) than in years past. Mr Ecclestone, the top F1 stakeholder, and Max Mosley, FIA president, are certainly capable of bringing a top team or two from the rebel FOTA (Formula One Teams Association) to their side. FIA holds an ace up its sleeve because, in a deal with the European Commission, FIA will have to regulate any rival race series set up by the car constructors. Negotiations are still on and both parties seem to have realised that a few more rounds of discussions are better than trying to settle scores in a court of law. Whichever way the drama ends, do not expect the premier racing series of the world to return to its innocent roots.