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The FIA Gods Challenged

There is no doubt about it, the FIA do not like to have their decisions questioned. Way back in October last year, David Coulthard was smacked down for daring to put forward the GPDA’s view on safety matters and there are many other examples of the governing body reacting angrily to criticism.

David

David Coulthard

Now I see that even mighty Autosport magazine has had to print a retraction of earlier FIA-related statements made in a column of theirs. The fuss revolved around just how many teams were unhappy with the FIA’s sudden reduction of the engine formula from 3 liter V10s to 2.4 liter V8s, although I find it hard to see what was wrong with Autosport‘s columnist pointing out that not all the manufacturers were in favor of the change. Perhaps the problem really lay in his earlier assertion that the FIA had yo-yoed a lot – to hint that the FIA might be a tad indecisive would definitely be heresy.

The whole episode illustrates the FIA’s increasing tendency to see itself as infallible and above criticism. Which is a silly attitude to strike in a sport as contentious and full of differing interests and opinions as F1. The governing body would do wonders for its image if it were to accept criticism gracefully and listen a bit more. No-one has ever said that their job is easy and it is only to be expected that some will disagree with whatever they do; you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

The FIA would like us to see it as a forward-looking body that prepares for the future – hence their sudden fascination with green issues and the interests of car manufacturers. But they seem to be missing something very important about the brave new world of tomorrow: that in the information age, everything becomes known and is examined ad infinitum. They may be able to prevent the traditional media from voicing any uncomfortable opinions but the internet is a different matter entirely. Even governments have failed in their efforts to keep a lid on that beastie.

So the FIA would do far better if it were to act with more consideration of the views of those involved in the sport (and that includes the fans) and to be a lot more transparent in their actions. Except, of course, it can’t. So many of its decisions are driven by financial considerations and shady deals that it dare not explain some of them.

You may think that is a rather wild assumption; but it seems that Michelin agree with me – they are taking the FIA to court over the way in which Pirelli was selected as the sole supplier of tires to the World Rally Championship. Which brings to mind the odd way in which Microsoft MES were chosen as the suppliers of ECUs and Magneti Marelli’s doubts over the process.

The love of money is the root of all evil…

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Microsoft, McLaren and the FIA

The potential storm over the FIA’s choice of manufacturer for a standardized engine control unit, as mentioned in my post Microsoft to Enter Formula One?, is brewing nicely.

Ever the diplomat, Jean Todt has played down suggestions that McLaren will have an unfair advantage since their subsidiary, McLaren Electronic Systems, will be working on the units. Whilst admitting that MES will have experience of the Mercedes engines that power the McLaren cars, he says that the FIA have been clear in their specifications and this should prevent any conflict of interest arising.

That seems a bit hopeful to me. If we are talking “conflict of interest”, it is obvious that the possibility should be avoided entirely by awarding the contract to a company unattached to any of the teams competing in F1. Without casting any aspersions on the good faith of the McLaren organization, the fact remains that the opportunity is there for a bit of tweaking to favor a particular team. Computer programming is an arcane science and Microsoft have already proved experts at sneaking unexpected and dubious nuances into their software.

Eau Rouge

Spa’s Eau Rouge corner – it’s prettier than a picture of a black box

Magneti Marelli, one of the major suppliers of electronics to F1, are surprised at the news that their services will no longer be required after 2007. Their Managing Director has wondered at the logic used by the FIA in coming to their decision. Clearly, he feels that the choice was made on grounds other than technical excellence and my cynicism leads me to the conclusion that money has once again been the deciding factor.

If F1 has to have a standardized ECU (and I can’t see that it does), should we not expect that any contract for such a device be awarded to the best system offered by a company without any conflict of interest? Magneti Marelli must have tendered for the contract since they are surprised not to have won it; yet they have a long history of supplying electronics to F1 teams and their current customers include Ferrari and Renault. I find it difficult to believe that their system was not as good as that offered by a company that has nothing like their track record.

So it has to be money that decided the issue. Either Microsoft MES tendered their system at a much lower price than Magneti Marelli’s or sweeteners were offered. And that brings the whole question of the FIA’s decision-making into doubt. Do we really want the sport to be governed by a body that considers its own income the most important factor in designing the regulations?

Maybe I am wrong. It is just possible that the FIA made this decision after careful consideration of all sorts of technical matters. But it would be helpful to know just why they opted for the Microsoft MES system. Do you think they’ll tell us if the storm gets big enough?

Separator

On a lighter note, we can hear what Microsoft says on the subject of F1. On one of their support pages, MS announces:

When you press F1 after a Web page dialog appears, Microsoft Internet Explorer may unexpectedly quit, and you may receive the following access violation error message:

Internet Explorer has encountered a problem and needs to close. We are sorry for the inconvenience.

I really don’t know what to say…

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Who Owns Formula One?

One of the latest news items is that CVC has sold MotoGP (for a mere $626 million) so that it can own Formula One. This has been announced without fuss on several networks but it raises all sorts of questions in my mind.

For a start, I didn’t even know that it was possible for F1 to be owned (or MotoGP for that matter). But apparently everyone else has known this for ages – at least, no-one seems surprised by the news.

And what exactly is being owned? F1 Racing-Live says that “CVC’s control of formula one is now official” but what the heck does that mean? It cannot be that they are in charge of the rules and regulations – the FIA does that. And the circuits are owned by various concerns around the world, as are the teams. Bernie Ecclestone sells the television rights to a media company every year so maybe this is what they’re talking about.

Bernie

Bernie Ecclestone

I googled CVC to find out more about the company. There are a few possibles but the leading contender would appear to be an American Cablevision System; which would fit with the theory that it’s the television rights that are being owned. But it’s only a theory – I’m guessing here.

And how much sense does it make that the owner of the television rights can sell them to anyone they choose, as appears to have happened with MotoGP? Wouldn’t that make a mockery of Bernie’s careful choice in the first place? Or am I being too trusting and all the FIA really care about is how much they can sell the rights for?

I find the whole business rather unsettling. To discover that one’s favorite sport is actually owned and “controlled” by a multi-million dollar and faceless corporation is a bit of a shock. In fact, it has uncomfortable undertones of F1 not being a sport at all but rather some sort of marketing exercise designed to lull the masses to sleep while their pockets are picked. And the masses means you and me, buddy. Oh, brave new world.

As the saying goes, I only ask because I want to know. If anyone out there does actually understand what this is all about, I’d be very grateful if they’d clue me in.

Separator

Update on Microsoft to Enter Formula One?:

It’s true. If Scoble says it is, it must be.

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Microsoft to Enter Formula One?

One of my commenters has pointed out a BBC report that suggests the FIA has agreed that Microsoft supply all engine control units in F1. The full thread of the resulting conversation can be read on my post, Here’s to the FIA.

Egine fire

What can I say?

Apart from all the MS jokes that will inevitably result, the news raises some interesting questions. Further digging has revealed that Microsoft are in partnership with a McLaren subsidiary called McLaren Electronic Systems. If true, this would surely give McLaren a potentially unfair advantage over the other teams.

Given Microsoft’s complete lack of a track record in ECU systems, one must presume that the real work would be done by McLaren’s subsidiary. And how tempting will it be for them to ensure that the software works best with Mercedes engines? In fact, that would be quite natural, as the engine most readily available for testing the system would be their own. Is this why Fernando Alonso is so sure that McLaren are going to be the team to beat in the future?

It has been reported today that the World Motor Sport Council has approved the changes to the 2006 and 2007 F1 regulations. The concentration has been on the reduction of final qualifying from 20 minutes to 15, and the elimination of third cars from Friday practice. Presumably any mention of standardized engine control units will wait until the engine homologation issue has been signed, sealed and delivered.

The whole business reminds me of the FIA’s introduction of standardized fuel delivery systems several years ago. The company awarded the contract for these produced a system that has given constant trouble with sticking fuel nozzles, yet the teams were forced to soldier on with them. Will we see cars stopping inexplicably in the middle of a race while monitor screens suddenly turn blue and advise that the engine has committed an illegal operation? Will the teams have to phone MS to activate the software every time they change an engine? The mind boggles.

If the report turns out to be accurate, I can see an interesting struggle developing between the FIA and the constructors. With McLaren Electronic Systems involved, it might well become a war resulting in a split similar to CART’s. Can the FIA really be serious?

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