Did Christian Horner Kill FOTA?

Saturday 01-March-2014 13:12

In the space of a week we have had two important announcements for which there is an interesting link. Both are connected with Bernie Ecclestone's ability to control the commercial interests of F1.

Last week a High Court judge ruled that Bernie had bribed Gerhard Gribkowsky to sell (but not undervalue) the commercial rights of F1 to a buyer of his choice. Bernie wanted a deal that would leave him in charge of F1- and he got it.

This week FOTA, the Formula One Teams' Association, the body set up by the teams to counter Bernie's control of the commercial rights of F1 was formally wound up. Oliver Weingarten, FOTA's secretary general, said: "I can confirm that FOTA has been disbanded, as a result of its members having re-evaluated their requirements in the face of a changing political and commercial landscape in Formula 1."

FOTA was set up in 2008 to present a united front for the F1 teams in their discussions with the FIA and F1 boss Ecclestone to maximise their revenue from the sport. In other global sports, the teams that are competing get the bulk of the revenue. This wasn't happening in F1 and the teams were fed up, both with the FIA (then under Max Mosley) and its dictatorial attitude, plus the fact that they were handing over a lot of money to a multi-billionaire and the sport's new owners CVC Capital Partners.

FOTA's unity made Ecclestone realise that he had to offer more favourable terms when the money split came for renegotiation, especially when FOTA suggested a breakaway 'Grand Prix World Championship' series in 2010. They also managed to swat away some of Mosley's more stringent resource restrictions which would have cut some teams' payrolls by 75%.

Bernie had kept control of the sport's commercial rights thanks to Gerhard Gribkowsky selling to his preferred buyer. Now he set about weakening FOTA's unified resolve by offering a special deal with Red Bull to break ranks.

Christian Horner's team shattered the unity of FOTA by making their own deal with Bernie under a new Concorde Agreement (the financial agreement that determines who gets the money in F1). It was a calculated move by Ecclestone, because Ferrari has always maintained its position as the premier F1 team, both in results and its historical importance, not forgetting its huge worldwide fanbase.

Luca Montezemolo had allowed Ferrari to be picked off first in commercial negotiations with Bernie in the past, but this time round he had maintained unity. Montezemolo had been instrumental in setting up FOTA and was its first chairman. But in the face of this young team coming in and getting special treatment, Montezemolo reverted to his natural instinct, quitting FOTA and making his own preferential deal with Bernie, and taking his chihuahua, Sauber, with him.

So with Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Ferrari and Sauber now out of FOTA, its negotiating position was severely compromised. Bernie then set up the F1 Strategy Group to discuss developments in the sport. But instead of all the teams making collective decisions about the future of their sport - only six of the teams are represented on the Strategy Group with six votes to Bernie's commercial sector and six votes to the FIA.

It's the 'divide and rule' principal used time and again.

Gerhard Gribkowsky gave Bernie the control of the sport in 2005 and it could be argued that Christian Horner has helped him keep control of the sport going forward. The big difference being that the first method, as ruled by Mr Justice Newey, was a bribe, whereas with Red Bull it was a negotiation for preferential status.

And it could also be argued that Red Bull, by maintaining two teams in the sport while the likes of Toyota, BMW and Honda were fleeing to the hills, deserve that preferential treatment. They have invested a lot in F1 ever since they became a Sauber backer.

Certainly Christian is still an enthusiastic supporter of Mr.E. After Bernie 'won' his High Court battle last week Horner said. "It's good news for F1 and great news for Bernie. The business needs him at the moment as it's tough times with such a big regulation change. Formula 1 more than ever needs Bernie Ecclestone."( Readers of the Winners and Losers column might notice that this sounds a bit like Eddie Jordan's compulsory soundbite)

It was FOTA who introduced fans' forums - it was Ecclestone who introduced the fan-derided double points for the last race of the season. Bernie's wish to have double points for the three last races of the season (something Christian has also supported) was voted down this week. That the double points issue is still with us at all is thanks to the demise of FOTA's power and influence.

Horner and his team's defection started the process that ultimately killed off FOTA and for that Bernie has got to be grateful. Bernie may not be with us for much longer either and he has been asked by CVC to find a suitable successor, should things not go his way in a Bavarian court later this year.

It's not hard to guess one of the people he suggested could be in line for the role...

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