Reaping the Whirlwind

So it’s come down to this. Eleven years after Ayrton Senna’s tragic death cast a pall over Formula 1 and made everyone rethink safety, Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley have put up a tent and made everyone rethink clown cars.

This weekend’s US Grand Prix was the ninth race of the season, the first season of the millennium to not be so boring as to serve as a prescription insomnia cure. All seven teams running Michelin tires did not race, giving Michael Schumacher his first “win” of the season.

The official reason for the withdrawal was that the Michelin tires were not prepared for the Indianapolis track, which is somewhat cobbled out of the oval designed for our “go fast, turn left” style of racing. However, rules changes were offered that would have let the race go on as planned – changes that weren’t accepted. This begs questions about Max and Bernie’s respective grips on (market) reality. Are they mad, power-mad, or just plain desperate for Ferrari to win? Since Bernie and Max have made careers – and billions of pounds – by running F1 (into the ground), we can’t assume they are idiots, but it’s worth looking at the series of events which brought us to this point.

In the mid-nineties, when Ferrari couldn’t win a race if their life depended on it, many people thought that Formula 1’s fortunes were rather tied to Ferrari’s. From all outward appearances, Bernie and Max joined the Ferrari team in an all-out attempt to make sure Ferrari was once again competitive, and by “competitive” we mean “dominant”. This may not actually be what the Formula 1 powers-that-be set out to do, but it sure looks that way from the outside.

At first, Ferrari could use all the help they could get – their car was actually less reliable than Jaguar’s. Yes, they had Michael Schumacher, but while he’s quite good, there’s a reason Wikipedia lists him with the passionless “statistically the most successful F1 driver ever”. He’s no Senna, and he’s certainly no Fangio. Some days he isn’t even a Damon Hill.

But, with Hill retired and the rest of the field relegated to teams who weren’t willing to pour nearly as much money into winning, Schumacher and Ferrari’s dominance was assured. Schumacher had a car he could drive the way he wanted, and Ferrari had a driver who would win races. Sponsorship revenues soared, fans went wild, and vendors started paying attention. And still, the F1 governing authorities seemed to do whatever was necessary to ensure Ferrari owned the field.

Over time, though, the shine faded. Who were the new drivers? Where was the excitement? Who cares? Of my four friends who would obsessively watch F1 at race time in 2000, only one still occasionally catches a race in replay. While he still makes the pilgrimage to a couple races a year, he now comes back with stories about the parties which are far more interesting than the stories about the race.

Still, the Ferrari-favoritism lived on, with no apparent end in sight. Yes, every year they rolled out new rules to make it look like Ferrari was at risk of losing, but every year Ferrari seemed to grow more entrenched.

Until, quite by surprise, this year. Suddenly, we were eight races into the season without a single Ferrari victory. Suddenly, Fernando Alonso was dominating the Drivers’ Championship, and Michael Schumacher was third behind Kimi R‰ikkˆnen. Suddenly, Schumacher was taking home over three million dollars per race he lost.

What went wrong? Fingers point everywhere. A month ago, Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo blamed Bridgestone for failing to make competitive tires. Yet Ferrari’s tire problems were of their own making – after years of pressuring Bridgestone to pay more attention to Ferrari, Bridgestone wasn’t supplying any top-tier teams with tires. With this year’s more radical rule changes, Bridgestone had no other competitive cars on which to test tires, and Ferrari was suddenly running inadequately tested tires.

Fans joked that Montezemolo was blaming Bridgestone for making the season interesting, but suddenly the season was, yes, interesting. Which brings us to another question: is Ferrari still competitive? They clearly know how to dominate, and they know how to keep winning, but have they forgotten how to win in the first place? Is Schumacher past his prime? And can he win again now that people realize he isn’t invincible? It’s worth remembering that Schumacher has won the championship by a close margin in the past, and on some days that margin put somebody else into a tire-wall.

Which brings us, then, to this past weekend.

During qualifying, Ralf Schumacher’s tire blew in Turn 13, and Michelin realized that their tires were not safe for the speeds through that turn. Michelin is familiar with the United States’ reasonably prudent person standard for legal liability, and warned everyone that the tires were not safe.

[queue dramatic music]

Michelin teams wanted a chicane installed right before the turn.

Ferrari didn’t want the chicane.

The Formula 1 governing bodies – who usually seem willing to arbitrarily change the rules “for reasons of safety” whenever and wherever it furthers Ferrari’s chances of winning – engaged in professional hand-wringing.

Eventually it was decreed that drivers running Michelin tires should slow down in turn 13.

Having told professional race car drivers to maybe not drive so fast, the FIA sat on its thumbs and waited.

Every team running Michelin tires withdrew from the race, citing safety reasons.

Ferrari and Jordan engaged in the ritual of “hey, free points”. They were joined by Minardi, whose boss, Paul Stoddart, promptly went on Dutch TV and called the entire race “a farce”, apologized to the fans, expressed sympathy for the Michelin teams, placed the blame squarely on the FIA’s shoulders, and then switched to more colorful language.

Fans - many many of whom paid over $100 per seat, took time off from work, and flew in for the event - walked out.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George refused to wave the checkered flag, took a bath on the proceeds, and may not allow F1 back next year.

Other fans are suing everyone in sight.

And now, facing a backlash, Max Mosley – who apparently learned his management skills from his father – has summoned all Michelin teams to explain why they dared to consider their drivers’ safety and the safety of the fans to be more important than the safety of FIA’s pocketbook.

The unanswered question is: why did the FIA not adjust the race rules so there would be an actual race and not a farce? History and appearances would suggest that Ecclestone and Mosley were desperate for a Ferrari win, any Ferrari win. But, that may not be the case at all, and the decision was so bizarre that it’s almost pointless to pontificate.

Instead we need to ask a different set of questions: why are the teams taking the heat for this? For all of the FIA’s historically tense relationship with the teams, why did Mosley think the solution to this problem was a giant game of safety chicken with 100,000 fans in the middle? Why does Mosley still have a job? Is F1 dead in the US? When will the FIA management relent from the WWF style antics, put fans first and let competitors compete? And will anybody still care by the time it happens?

The clock is ticking.

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