With all its trappings of power, glamour and money, Formula One is a perfect breeding ground for ego-driven struggles. So it’s unsurprising that the posturing on both sides of the current war beween the FIA and the Formula One Teams’ Association has a strong element of déjà vu about it. For example, the talk of a “rebel” grand prix series reminds me of a similar breakaway back in 1981, in which, ironically, Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley were key participants… on the side of the FOCA (Formula One Constructors’ Association) teams in their feud with FISA (the FIA’s sports administrating body), then headed up by Jean-Marie Balestre.
The South African Grand Prix was the scapegoat, signing up to a new series to be run by “The World Federation of Motorsport”, a body set up by the constructors with Mosley acting as its legal brain. The race was contested by a field of Cosworth-powered cars, without the teams that the British came to refer to as “the grandees” (from Balestre’s “grands constructeurs”), such as Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo and (somewhat oddly) Toleman, all of whom boycotted the event.
It was a great grand prix, won by Carlos Reutemann in his Williams, with Nelson Piquet second in a Brabham. As might happen with FOTA’s mooted alternative series, many of the teams ran extra cars… for instance, South Africa’s Desire Wilson drove a works Tyrrell. But, when the first Concorde Agreement was signed a few months later, the SA race was left out in the cold, forever to be listed as a non-championship event.
Fought out against the backdrop of the adoption of turbocharged engines by the “grandees”, and the banning of “ground effect”, as well as issues around payouts to the teams, the FISA/FOCA war has many parallels with the current situation.
The Concorde Agreement, a mysterious document signed by the parties brought back some stability, though unrest continued to simmer – there was the Kyalami drivers’ strike in 1982, when FISA tried to introduce a transfer system for Superlicence holders, and a boycott of the 1982 San Marino GP by the Cosworth teams.
The Concorde Agreement was modified and re-signed in 1987, and again in 1998. But, for the last year or so, the parties have failed to come up with a new agreement to replace it. As before, the sticking points have been the technical regulations and the sport’s finances.
In the absence of a new accord, Max Mosley, now on the administrative side, has tried to set the rules, but has come up against the teams. Not surprisingly, Max has gone for the “innovation beats expenditure” route pursued by the Cosworth teams who signed up to The World Federation of Motorsport back in 1980/81. One can see in his efforts a desire to go back to the days when you could buy a Cosworth for 7 500 pounds and strap it into the back of your chassis (built in your sawmill, as Tyrrell did, or even in your back yard!). But FOTA – the modern-day successors the “grandee teams” feel differently…
And, of course, there’s the ever-present problem of the distribution of the monies brought in by this mega-rich sport. Under previous versions of the Concorde Agreement, Bernie Ecclestone (and now his successors, CVC) took huge swathes of F1’s income. But the teams want a bigger share…
The more things change, the more they stay the same…
PS: Interestingly, the major difference between now and in 1981 is that the teams will not have to set up a new governing body to run their new series. Some years ago the European courts decreed that, in terms of EU competition legislation, the FIA has to sanction any credible new series in opposition to F1 provided it meets certain financial, sporting and safety requirements.