For the past few weeks there have been rumblings of unease behind the scenes following the FIA's selection of three new teams to race in F1 next year. This is hardly surprising since Manor, Campos and USF1 aren't exactly the best-known names in motorsport whereas teams like Lola and Prodrive had an F1 pedigree but were turned down.
First we heard that Alan Donnelly, the FIA president's representative, was doing PR for Manor and then, just a few days later, we learn that Donnelly had even brokered the sale of stakes in Manor weeks before it got its grid slot. Donnelly wriggled out of both accusations but mud sticks. Today's revelation is so strong that the FIA hasn't been able to deny it and it sums up everyone's worst fears about the selection process.
Writing in the Telegraph, Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt reveals that several of the teams which failed to get grid slots next year have accused the FIA of bias. They say that during the application process the FIA insisted they had to buy engines from Cosworth in order for their bid to be accepted.
This had previously not been a condition but in fact it was a crucial one. "We were told that if we wanted to take up the 2010 grid slot we would have to sign a three-year engine contract with Cosworth." said one team boss.
In an explosive letter seen by Pitpass, another team boss said "I went to the FIA's London commission to defend our application on Thursday 11th June. It did not take me long to realise that something strange was afoot. Just before entering the meeting I was advised by Tony Purnell that for my application to have any chance of success I would need to report Cosworth as my engine supplier for three seasons. I commented that I had a real possibility of obtaining a Renault, Mercedes or Ferrari engine, however, it was made very clear to me that it was considered a 'mandatory' condition from the powers that be (Max) that Cosworth was the engine supplier."
Incredibly, this meeting, where the team boss found out this crucial condition which needed to be met in order for his bid to proceed, took place just one day before the 2010 team selection was announced by the FIA. It didn't give much time to alter plans to incorporate Cosworth which previously hadn't been known to be necessary.
Yet another source in the sport told Sylt that one hopeful team boss "said he was going to use Mercedes engines and he was told that if he wanted to be selected, he would have to use a Cosworth engine." With that old chestnut of alleged bias against Mercedes rearing its ugly head again you would have thought that the FIA would have come out with a robust denial. You'd be wrong.
Sylt put the charges to an FIA spokesman asking why it had favoured Cosworth in the process to select the F1 teams, adding that this came across as commercial bias - not what you expect from an independent governing body.
The surprising response was that "the FIA has always considered the availability of an independent supply of engines to the new Formula One entrants and the other independent teams to be a priority. Without the independent supply of F1 engines, the whole grid would be at the mercy of the car industry and no new team would be able to enter without their permission. Existing independent teams would also have to follow their instructions. An independent supply of engines is essential to a healthy Formula One."
In summary, the FIA's argument seems to be that it was in the best interests of F1 to favour Cosworth. By doing so it was breaking the grip of the five manufacturers which currently supply engines to all the F1 teams and could hold the sport to ransom by threatening to leave as they have recently done. A threat which of course was averted by Max Mosley allegedly accepting not to stand again as president in October this year.
Whilst the FIA's intention of securing the future of F1 is an admirable aim, that doesn't necessarily justify the method used to achieve it. Whether it is proper for the FIA, as an independent governing body, to be biased towards certain businesses is a debate which is sure to rage. Not to mention the behind the scenes nature of the bias.
After all, why didn't the FIA tell prospective teams that they had to use Cosworth before the application process began rather than waiting until it was underway? This simply led to some teams spending money on bids built around certain engine manufacturers only to have to scrap these plans when they found out they needed to use Cosworth.
For example, Sylt heard from several senior sources that Mosley said Prodrive would be on the grid in 2010 only for team boss Dave Richards to later learn that he had to use a Cosworth if he wanted to get the slot. Another prospective team is believed to have spent £1m on its bid which was subsequently aborted after finding out that using Cosworth was crucial. This seems quite inconsistent with the FIA's insistence that teams shouldn't waste money.
The Formula One Teams Association is, understandably, not impressed with this news. "Without having seen the full context of these stories FOTA is not in a position to offer an authoritative response however if these stories are true then it would be an example of the bad governance within our sport," said a FOTA spokesman.
Interestingly, if, as expected, the FOTA teams sign a Concorde Agreement to commit to F1 until 2012 then one would expect that it would neutralise the FIA's concern that the team owners could hold F1 to ransom by threatening to leave. Accordingly, FOTA could argue that if the manufacturers can no longer hold the sport to ransom by threatening to leave then the condition (using Cosworth) which the FIA used to protect against it is no longer valid. If so, FOTA may argue that the 2010 team selection process should be carried out again.
The FIA may respond that it is the teams, not the manufacturers, which are committed under the Concorde but that would effectively be an admission by the governing body that the contract is inadequate. If this is the line taken by the FIA then we should surely not hear it pressing for the Concorde to be signed in future unless the manufacturers are signatories. Somehow that seems unlikely.
Sylt also approached Cosworth about the claims of bias. Cosworth responded that it "is not aware of any evidence that supports this speculation" and it "in no way, shape or form requested that the FIA make demands on its behalf of potential entries to the Formula One World Championship."
This seems surprising, particularly since the FIA itself made no efforts to hide the fact that the independent engine supply was a "priority." Sylt pressed Cosworth, wondering whether the cost of supplying engines to the teams would decrease if the number of teams being supplied increased. This would be perfectly logical though perhaps still not a legitimate reason for insisting that new entrants use its engines.
However, Cosworth replied that it "made no stipulation regarding a minimum number of teams that would be necessary to proceed with engine production. The offering made to potential competitors for the 2010 Formula One World championship was identical for each and every team regardless of the eventual number of teams which a) selected the Cosworth engine package and b) were successful in gaining a grid position from the sport's governing body."
This surprised Sylt even more, since last December, when Cosworth won the tender for a standard engine which the FIA hoped to introduce, the governing body released a statement saying that the price of the power-train was "based on four teams signing up and includes full technical support at all races and official tests, plus 30,000 km of testing. The annual cost will reduce if more teams take up the option."
So why should the cost be reduced if more teams had taken up the standard engine option but not when it is producing engines for the new teams now? Leaving no stone unturned, Sylt asked Cosworth whether the FIA's December statement was accurate.
Cosworth replied "I would suggest that you approach the FIA for clarification on this matter. The document to which you refer is an FIA communication, which was not addressed to Cosworth."
Ouch! Surely if the cost of the standard engine really was due to reduce as more teams signed up then Cosworth would simply have said that the FIA statement was accurate. Giving it one last try, Sylt put it to Cosworth that since the FIA statement refers to Cosworth he would like to know whether it believes the comments in it about the company to be truthful. This was sent on Thursday July 2 and Sylt still has no reply.
But don't feel too sorry for Cosworth. Even though it may not agree with the FIA statements about it, the company's finances have been given a big boost by the three new teams. Each of them is believed to have paid Cosworth a non-negotiable £1.2m fee upfront. It comes at just the right time since Cosworth's latest accounts show an after-tax loss of £1.9m in 2007 on £12.6m revenues which fell 53% after it withdrew from F1 the previous year.
The upshot of this sorry saga is that F1 fans may not be seeing the best new teams in the sport in 2010 but instead they will see the teams which agreed to using a certain engine manufacturer. "It is necessary to see if the three licenses that have been granted have seriousness and financial backing, because the appointments have been hand-picked for political, rather than sporting or project criteria. To me, this is evident," said one prospective team boss.
It leaves Pitpass wondering why the FIA is involved with selecting new teams for F1 in the first place. If the new teams go bust it could have a huge effect on the sport's viewing figures (and thereby the fees paid by broadcasters) and circuit fees. The simple reason for this is if 13 teams are expected to race but only 10 turn up then the TV companies or circuits may try to reduce their fees accordingly. This affects Bernie Ecclestone's business but not the FIA since it is not legally allowed to profit from F1's commercial rights.
Some may say that if Ecclestone was in charge of team selection he could be equally biased but one thing that's for sure is that the teams wouldn't run the risk of going bust. Ecclestone's sole goal is maximising revenues from F1 and he is the most skilled person in the sport at doing this.
Perhaps the fairest way to decide which teams should be offered entry into F1 would be to ask previous GP2 winners in the order of how recently they won the championship. That way the decision-making process would be out of both the FIA's and Ecclestone's hands. Now that really is an admirable aim.