Why CART and Ecclestone make perfect dance partners

 by Mark Cipolloni
October 13, 2002

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Bernie Ecclestone, the most powerful man in racing
Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Rumors have been rampant in recent weeks that Chris Pook and Bernie Ecclestone have struck some sort of deal whereby Bernie would either buy CART, buy a piece of CART, or start some sort of strategic working relationship with CART.  Exactly what may be coming down only Pook and Ecclestone know for sure, but suffice it to say something big is cooking.

The question on everyone's mind is why would Bernie Ecclestone, at the age of 71, want to have CART as a dance partner.  Isn't he supposed to be slowing down, taking it easy in his golden years?  That may be true for most people, but not Bernie.  He's driven by success, and if there's another successful business deal to be had, Bernie is all over it.  It makes getting out of bed each morning exciting.

The Problem
A few years ago most would scoff at the idea of Bernie having anything to do with CART.  In fact, at one time Bernie viewed CART as a direct competitor to his F1 series, especially when CART replaced F1 at Long Beach.  Not only he fearful of CART, he disparaged it every time he had a chance.

However, Formula One is in trouble now and Bernie knows it.  FIA president Max Mosley has admitted he does not get excited about Formula One races anymore. Mosley told BBC Radio 5 Live, "This season hasn't had the edge where you really look forward to a race and want to sit down and watch it. "There have been moments of excitement - but not as many as we hoped for. "Results have been predictable and this season could have been better from a spectator point of view."

"We have got a problem," he admitted. "People have stopped watching the television. It's never been a problem like this before. Maybe it's because people got spoiled. "According to Bernie it started in the last few races to be quite serious and he is getting serious complaints from TV companies." Mosley says that they are two problems facing F1 at this point, 'the show' and the enormous costs involved. "Even the biggest and richest teams are going to suffer badly if the smallest three or four go out of business," he said.

The real problems started a few years ago when Bernie Ecclestone sold the majority ownership of F1.  From that day forward, he lost the complete control he had over F1.  Before, when Bernie would say jump, everyone would say "how high"?  Now, when he says jump, they ask "what for"?

As the cost of F1 has risen, the control of the sport has fallen to the engine manufacturers.  They are the only ones with deep enough pockets to fuel F1's thirst for money.  Because F1 relies so much on the manufacturers to stay afloat, they are calling the shots now.  When Mosley and Ecclestone suggest ways to make the sport more entertaining by reducing technology, or handicapping the fastest cars, they don't want to cooperate.  Each manufacturer has their own agenda, and each is throwing more and more money at the sport in an effort to beat the other guy.

But that can only go on for so long.  Eventually costs will become so prohibitive, F1 will be reduced to just a select few companies willing to spend a fortune each year on F1.

An example of the big boys pushing their weight around is the latest Minardi issue.  McLaren, Williams, BAR and Jordan have threatened to take Paul Stoddart's tiny Minardi outfit to arbitration over their controversial acquisition of prize money.  When Alain Prost's Guyencourt team hit the pavement late last year, Italian-based Minardi immediately started the argument that the collapse moved them up to tenth in the 2001 Constructors' standings.   As a result, argued the struggling Faenza team, they should be awarded the more than $12 million originally destined for Prost.

Clearly, though, a band of Formula One teams - led by McLaren chief Ron Dennis - do not agree that this precedent should be set.  'I cannot believe that one of the biggest teams is trying to force one of the smallest teams out of business,' said 47-year-old Stoddart, from Coburg in Australia.

Asked if the loss of the crucial money would spell the end to his tiny team, Stoddart did not hesitate for a moment: 'It would totally wipe us out,' he said.

Tom Walkinshaw's Arrows team similarly argued that Prost's $12 million belonged to them, but a meeting of team bosses eventually awarded the funds to Minardi.

Paul Stoddart, meanwhile, threatened to quit the sport if this 'travesty of injustice' is allowed to proceed. 'I will turn my back on Formula One,' he said at the Suzuka circuit. 'I cannot afford four months of my time nor the $2 million of costs that it will take to fund a challenge to this.'  'At this time, with all the problems Formula One really does have, for this to happen for me is nothing short of self-destruction.

'In the last 12 months we have been through so many problems, the sport as a whole, and we've lost two teams. Now we are going to lose three as I can't afford to fight this.  'Maybe there's another team that's not so steady as well,' he mused. 'Do they really want eight teams in Melbourne next year? I have gone to hell and back again this year and this is the icing on the cake.  'It's bad enough having to deal with the problems I have had to deal with, but when you get knives in your back from your co-team principals, I'm not interested.

'It's a case of 'Is this the straw that breaks the camel's back, do I want to be involved in a sport with such individuals in it?' I'm not sure that I do.'  

Does all this sound a bit like CART in past years, with the manufacturers playing politics, buying teams, buying drivers, in an effort to gain the upper hand?  You bet it does.

Then of course there is the breakaway F1 series threatened by the manufacturers after the Concorde agreement expires at the end of 2006.  Basically they are saying, if you don't do things our way, we're going to take our toys and play elsewhere.  It's not hard to predict what would happen if the manufacturers controlled the sport.  Before long they will be fighting, and be at each others throat, trying to gain the upper hand both on and off the track.  It's a recipe for complete and utter collapse.

Formula One is in trouble, big trouble, and don't think for one minute this escape the cagey Ecclestone and his sidekick, FIA President Max Mosley.  They have proposed ways to even the competition in F1 and make the racing on the track better, with the hope of boosting their sagging TV ratings.  It's hard to justify $1/4 billion budgets if the TV ratings are not there.

While some of their nine proposals may be approved, it's likely going to be difficult to get anything really substantial approved because what's good for one team or manufacturer may not be good for another.  They have as much chance of getting that bunch to agree on the fact there is a problem, let alone the sweeping changes that are needed to fix it.

The situation in F1 appears almost hopeless, but that has never stopped Bernie from finding a solution, and this time that solution may lie in, of all places, CART.

The Solution

Did Chris Pook make Bernie Ecclestone an offer he couldn't refuse?  He's been smiling like this quite a bit lately.

In a previous article, CART, like the Phoenix, about to rise up from the ashes, I suggested I had a gut feeling CART president Chris Pook may have struck a deal with Bernie Ecclestone, whereby F1 will start putting restrictions on engine design to significantly lower runaway costs, and those engines would be used in both CART and F1.  With identical engines to F1, instantly Ferrari, BMW, Mercedes, Renault, Toyota, Honda, and Ford/Jaguar have the lucrative NAFTA market open to them through CART, or whatever new name Chris and Bernie come up with.

Why would the engine manufacturers agree to this?  Because the USA is the largest market for all the F1 engine manufacturers and having just one race per year at Indy doesn't give them enough media exposure.  In addition, there are demands for more races around the world that F1 can't meet.

NASCAR, and the IRL to a lesser extent, has the right idea - limit the technology and exotic materials in their cars.  This reduces cost, equalizes the competition, and moves the money being spent on R&D, to where it belongs, in promotion and advertising of the series.

I'm not for a moment suggesting CART and F1 adopt NASCAR's 1950's technology, or shall I say lack of technology.  However, what is needed is a philosophical change in attitude that racing is a sport where the competition should be primarily on the track, and not totally in the Engineering design room, which to a large extent, is where it is now.  Technology advancements should be focused more on safety and less on speed.

You're probably wondering by now where am I going with all this?  In essence, I think both Pook and Ecclestone realize the need to gain control.  NASCAR is successful because it has complete control over every facet of their sport.  With CART undergoing  a complete overhaul of how it does business, I think perhaps Bernie sees CART as a chance to show the F1 world how it should be done.

While the plan for CART is be a feeder series to F1, don't think for a minute it will be reduced to a F3000 type of series.  Not if Bernie is involved.  One would expect he, along with Pook, will position CART to be everything F1 should be, but can't....because of lack of control.  The costs will be in check, the competition on the track will be better, and the series will be commercially successful.

CART, Formula 1A, or whatever it is called, will be much closer in performance to F1 than F3 or F3000 is, so in that regard, it will be a much better training ground for F1.  Physically the cars will be the size of a F1 car (just like NASCAR Busch and Winston Cup are identical).

With Ecclestone having a say in both Formula 1 and CART/Formula 1A, the two series would have a full schedule of races in the NAFTA market, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia markets.  Most importantly, though, the new Formula 1A would have international television and media coverage overnight through Ecclestone's TV distribution channels!   This in itself will be huge for CART/Formula 1A.

As Commando Cody writes in his latest article, sponsors who have global ambitions would have to look seriously at a motorsports series with 80% global reach. Bernie would not only get a big piece of the action but Formula One-style racing gets it first real shot at the U.S. market.  No matter how much Bernie and Max say they're not interested in the American market, NO marketer willingly turns their back on nearly 300 million consumers who have more disposable than most. And, with Formula One drivers coming and going from Formula 1A and the same style of racing, every new fan of Formula 1A is likely to become a fan of Formula 1.

CART will adopt the V10 gasoline F1 engines in 2005.  It would seem to me that between now and then, Ecclestone will try to take it one step further and convince the F1 manufactures to adopt the detuned, less expensive CART V10 version universally as a way to lower costs in F1. He and Pook must think they can successfully pitch this idea to the manufacturers, or Pook would not be talking V10's for CART already.  How else could the less well off CART teams afford V10's?

One would think the manufacturers will realize that a universal engine formula would suit their interests by opening up the lucrative NAFTA market to them.  If they want to spend money on R&D on the rest of the car in F1, so be it, but a universal engine formula that's affordable even for CART teams just makes too much sense.  It'll mean a far less exotic engine in F1 by today's standards, but it will still rev high, whine like the dickens, and if the racing is better, no one will care if it's turning 19,000 RPM or 17,000 RPM. 

Because Formula 1A cars will visibly look the same size as F1 cars, and sound the same (same engine), Ecclestone will have established 1) a perfect feeder series for F1.  Busch cars look and sound the same as Cup cars right?  2) An alternate series for tracks that want a F1 race, but can't get one. If Imola loses its F1 race, the tifosi will still have a Ferrari powered car in the race with Formula 1A.  3) a cost effective racing series whose model for success can possibly be adopted, in part, by F1 after the Concorde agreement expires the end of 2006.

In an ideal world, the F1 crowd will see this model of success and adopt it lock-stock-and-barrel in 2007.  With costs in check, and control in the hands of the sanctioning body where it belongs, it would make sense to have both a Formula 1A (Formula 1 Americas) and a Formula 1E (Formula Europe).  Both would play to identical cost-effective rules and, like in all stick-and-ball sports, there would be an end-of-year 3-race championship playoff between divisions/series to determine the overall F1 World Champion.  The final three races for F1A and F1E would be joint races at the same tracks, with the top 14 cars from each series invited to the championship rounds.

Will CART and F1 make perfect dance partners?

Can you imagine how hard all the teams would battle to make the playoffs?  And imagine how much worldwide attention the championship rounds would garner, something F1-style racing and its sponsors certainly need.  It would be huge, and would result in 1) a true would champion being crowned, 2) raise the level of media attention for Formula 1 style racing to new heights, 3) Bernie Ecclestone once again being declared the F1-God for saving the sport from itself.

It's interesting to speculate what Pook and Ecclestone are up to, but suffice it to say this move has all the makings of completely differentiating CART from the IRL.  Without ovals, CART will no longer be thought of as Indy Car racing, but F1-style road racing instead.  Then the USA will have three very distinct top-level forms of racing 1) NASCAR stock cars on ovals, 2) Open-wheel IRL Indy Cars on ovals, 3) Open-wheel Formula 1 style cars on road courses.  With this scenario, hopefully all three can co-exist and prosper in their own market niche, and this Hatfields and McCoys war that currently exists in American motorsports will cease.

Whatever happens, it's safe to say, "we live in interesting times indeed!"

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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