CW: strong language
Last year, Mercedes Formula 1 team boss Toto Wolff wanted a rule change to stop drivers’ backs hurting from high-speed bouncing. But Christian Horner, his Red Bull counterpart, told him, “If you’ve got a problem, change your fucking car then.” Without his consent, the rules did not change.
F1 is a cartel, which is bad for smaller teams and fans, as it makes the racing less competitive and more predictable. Not only have the Big Three teams – Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari – won 198 of the 201 races in the last 10 seasons, but they control what happens off the track as well. They have the power to veto the both decadal Concorde Agreement, which sets the terms of competition between teams and F1 management, and the entry of new teams (who must then pay a $200 million entry fee). Some rule changes only need five of 10 to consent, but smaller teams often “vote against their own interests to satisfy the agenda of their A team,” according to Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren, a mid-ranking team. Red Bull, for example, owns the AlphaTauri team (previously named Toro Rosso, Italian for “Red Bull”); Mercedes provides engines to three competitors. “To protect their own competitive advantage, [the Big Three] are effectively holding the sport hostage from what’s best for the fans and therefore the sport at large,” Mr Brown argues.
The Big Three’s power has been especially evident lately. Ferrari opposed introducing more sprint races, a new format that adds excitement to race weekends. Red Bull resisted harsher, sporting penalties for exceeding the budget cap, a limit on how much teams can spend each season (which they then exceeded). Now, Mercedes is blocking Andretti Motorsport’s bid to enter F1. They would improve the competition (Andretti is successful in the American IndyCar series), give young drivers more opportunities (with only 20 spaces, talented youngsters often miss out) and increase the sport’s American appeal (where it has long struggled). Yet Mr Wolff claims they might not “bring in more money than it’s actually costing”.
Sauber and Force India, two smaller teams, formally complained to the EU in 2015, describing the sport’s division of revenues and rule-creation as “unfair and unlawful”. But they withdrew the complaint after it made little progress. Contrastingly, Britain’s government promised to “put everything on the table” – including competition law – to stop the footballing European Super League proposed last summer. Regulators seem disinterested in people who they think simply drive around in circles.
Nevertheless, F1 has tried to reform itself. Ferrari no longer gets $100 million for simply showing up. And persuading the Big Three to accept a cost cap – cutting their budgets by two-thirds – was a coup by Liberty Media, the sport’s new owners. But they should go further. Secret ballots would free smaller teams to vote against their technical partners; such collaboration could be outlawed entirely, perhaps in favour of standardised components like engines.
However, people rarely replace the system that brought them to power. If smaller teams want to win, changing the sport’s governance will be slow going. As Mr Horner taunted, they will just have to improve their cars.
Image Credits: RickDikeman //CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons