F1 must turn a corner or risk crash and burn

Max Mosley has many skills. But when it comes to forecasting on the future of Formula One racing, his crystal ball is about as clear as mud. The president of F1’s governing body Federation Internationale de L’Automobile may have warned as early as October that the motor sport will only survive for one more year, unless drastic spending cuts are made, but even he could not have prepared himself for Honda bowing out last week.

True, the financial troubles faced by the automotive industry have caught up with F1, whose profligacy is quite lost on the current economic times. And with an investment of £300m into the competition, and having won only one race since 2006, Honda must have had some serious misgivings about the exorbitant costs. The situation can’t have been helped by the fact the car manufacturer was facing a lack of exposure in its key markets after both the US and the Canadian Grand Prix were cancelled.

But the real worry is the huge psychological damage to the sport and the domino effect that the departure of Honda from F1 will bring.

My petrolhead friends, however, tell me that problems for F1 have not been prompted by the current economic crisis alone, but that its fall was almost overdue. Not only because for too long the sport has been surviving on billionaires’ handouts, which favours teams such as Ferrari, supported by the uber-wealthy sheikhs from the oil-rich Abu Dhabi. But also because the once glamorous and exhilarating sport has more technology injected into it than a mission to Mars, the result being that its elaborate development programmes for aero-dynamics, gearboxes and suspension have taken the passion out of the sport. Not such a great spectator sport then, if the skills of the driver has been taken away and put into the hands of the mechanics.

F1’s governing body has already been talking about reforms to help the sport ride through these tough fiscal times, including introducing standard engines; medals to replace the existing extravagant trophies; and capping team budgets – changes that Mosley himself says could mean “draconian measures” for the world of motor sport. But with rising costs of running a F1 team, the sport will need to expedite its plan to establish a new and innovative model to help future-proof itself. One of the options is to include regulations to allow smaller, privately funded teams to be able to compete with manufacturer-run teams.

The obligation for most businesses to start exploring creative ways to do businesses has almost been urged by the events around us. And as we start accepting the death of big capitalism, it will mean that “out of necessity” the new year will see an emergence of new business models. As our columnist Ruth Mortimer argues this week – 2009 could bring a seismic cultural and corporate shift. F1 could well take advantage of this new world order and get the adventure and thrill back into the sport. 

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