Off-Track Intrigue as Season Opens

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By the time New Yorkers have gulped their first cup of Starbucks on Sunday morning, the first of 19 races in the 2013 Formula One world drivers and constructors championships will have finished in Melbourne, Australia.

Whatever the outcome, the race will have earned minor landmark status: in a championship that is supposed to advance automotive technology, the series will have intentionally taken a backward step.

In the real world, the goal of a tire manufacturer is to deliver products that offer the ideal balance of adhesion and wear. Yet Pirelli, the exclusive supplier to the series, has been directed to reformulate its tire compounds to wear more rapidly.

The motive is to add the excitement of pit stops. At least two tire changes will be needed during the races, which are roughly 190 miles in length. That means a set of four on a 1,400-pound car will last about 65 miles.

Not changing for 2013 are the contenders for the driver's crown. The favorites include Red Bull's three-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso of Ferrari and Jenson Button at McLaren. Lewis Hamilton, who moved from McLaren to Mercedes, has shown promise in preseason testing as the German team attempts to recover from a poor showing in 2012.

As always, much of the drama of Formula One takes place off the track. In a series where a two-car team can spend upward of $300 million a year and still come up empty, a shortage of willing investors has left only 11 two-car teams participating in 2013, although the regulations allow for 13.

The breadth of the financial gap separating the teams that have and the teams that don't made news last week. Bloomberg News reported that the power broker behind every Formula One action, Bernie Ecclestone, raised the possibility that an initial public offering that had been delayed until 2014 might instead happen this year.

Last year's prospectus for the offering indicated that the biggest shareholder, CVC Capital Partners, sold its original 63.4 percent share down to 35.5 percent, with the customers being three investment houses. CVC has now made about $4 billion on its original investment of $1.25 billion and should earn another $3 billion after the offering.

Litigation is a looming problem. Most of this is directed at Ecclestone, 82, the Englishman who brought the series out of fiscal darkness in the 1970s and became a billionaire in the process. He has also made fortunes for many others, and as a result he meets with little or no opposition from the teams.

The legal questions are another story, and as a result grand prix racing faces its first major tipping point since Ecclestone bought the Brabham team in 1971 and gained a seat at the owners' table. By the time he sold the team in 1987, Ecclestone was head of the Formula One Constructor's Association, or FOCA. He was in charge, among other things, of negotiating for the worldwide television rights -- retaining 23 percent for himself.

He is being sued, along with CVC Capital Partners, for $650 million by a failed suitor for the empire. In addition, German government agencies are still investigating a payment of $44 million that Ecclestone made to a German banker in connection with the 2005 sale to CVC for $1.25 billion. The banker, incidentally, is in jail.

In addition, the series is having difficulty finding teams to fill the two available slots, which only goes to show the basic imbalance of the F1 situation.

When viewed with dispassionate eyes and after its veneer of glamour is rubbed away, Formula One presents a picture unlike that of any other series. While this year's championship will almost certainly go to one of the previous winners -- Alonso has won it twice -- the chase for the constructor's title, which doesn't receive the media attention devoted to the driver's competition, presents an almost comical picture: the defending champion (and three-time winner) is an energy-drink company, Red Bull, that races largely to promote its product.

Red Bull has the engineer widely considered to be the sport's best, Adrian Newey, and the top-ranked driver in 25-year-old Vettel. So world-famous names like Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz are, in effect, chasing a soda can.

In addition to hiring Hamilton, Mercedes fired its longtime racing director, Norbert Haug, and replaced him with Toto Wolff and a former world champion driver, Niki Lauda, forming a triumvirate with the chief racing engineer, Ross Brawn.

One of the more positive events in the Formula One saga was the return last fall of a race in the United States. The Grand Prix of the Americas, held on a new track near Austin, Tex., proved an exciting race, won by Hamilton when he ran down Vettel in the closing stages.

A hoped-for 2013 championship event in New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan, ran into financial problems and has retained its "hoped for" status for 2014.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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