Formula One legend Niki Lauda has revealed he is worried about the future direction of the sport under the ownership of Liberty Media.
Against the backdrop of spiralling costs and a slowdown in revenues, the mass media conglomerate is seeking to introduce changes once the current agreement with all F1 teams expires at the end of 2020.
The controversial ‘Opportunities for future growth’ proposals, taken at face value include the introduction of a cheaper, simpler engine designed to level the playing field and rebalance revenues between the teams as well as a reduction in their commercial rights.
The ten teams received a total of £800.9m in prize money last year, although this could now be reduced by up to £155 million.
Furthermore, an overhaul of the current unequal division of prize money would mean the more established and more successful teams will no longer take the lion’s share of the pot. This could have significant implications for innovation, historically led by the likes of Ferrari and others at the top of the grid, namely Red Bull, McLaren and current champions. Mercedes.
In response, Ferrari CEO and chairman Sergio Marchionne recently issued a direct threat that the oldest, most decorated would be willing to walk away from the sport for good. In an explosive conference call the chief stated:
"The fact that we now appear to be at odds in terms of the strategic development of this thing, and we see the sport in 2021 taking on a different air, is going to force some decisions on the part of Ferrari.
"I understand that Liberty may have taken these into account in coming up with their views, but I think it needs to be absolutely clear that unless we find a set of circumstances, the results of which are beneficial to the maintenance of the brand, and the marketplace, and to the strengthening of the unique position for Ferrari, Ferrari will not play."
Renault and Mercedes have expressed their concerns too, and actually foresee the engine changes becoming an ‘arms race’ which would not necessarily benefit the sport at all.
The relationship between manufacturers and the sport’s governing bodies has always been fraught. And now Mercedes’ non-executive chairman Lauda has added his weight to the argument
"I'm worried," he told Italian newspaper Gazzetto dello Sport, as per Motorsport.com.
"It was right that the American owners needed time to understand what F1 is - but that is about to expire.
"And what they think about the future is worrying me.
"The FIA, Chase Carey and Ross Brawn repeat that we need to level off the performance, but the DNA of F1 is the opposite.
"You are a fool if you think that to make grands prix more attractive you need to have a different winner every weekend. F1 is about competition.
"Developing cars is one of the important foundations, as well as the bravery of the drivers.
"Instead, you want to penalise the best teams, and protect the drivers as if they are babies – with the introduction of the halo for example."
The plans, however, are still in their infancy, and as Lauda rightly added “(Liberty) has only announced that they want to introduce it, but they have not explained how they intend to realise it.”
Liberty would do well to listen carefully to Lauda’s impassioned views, delivered behind the rarefied experience of 25 race wins, 54 podium finishes and three world championship titles.
Given the unwelcome furore Liberty's vision has already caused, there will likely be further revisions before Liberty are able to alter the course of Formula One, post-2021.
For all the well-meaning intentions, interfering with technical development, innovation, competition and even tradition, altering the “DNA” of Formula One, as Lauda calls it, would be a grave miscalculation.
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