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Postcards from the edge



Bill Oursler looks at the FIA beyond The Mosley Affair

Whether or not FIA president Max Mosley’s escapades are viewed as a private matter, or a public scandal, the real issue is what happens when, and if, he is forced from office. Clearly under the tandem team of Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One has become the more than billion dollar giant that drives the world of international motorsport. Just as clearly, unless the FIA can find a replacement whose personality is strong enough to balance the competing interests of those involved in F-1, not only could the effect on the open wheel universe be disastrous, but, the fallout could extend across the board to the rest of the industry as well, this including the sports car community.

Regardless of what happens, the “second class citizenship” status that the prototype and GT community have found themselves in for more than 30 years now, probably won’t change, at least in the short term. The reason for this is simple: money. The manufacturer investment in F-1 is based not only selling product, but enhancing one’s image in order to gain acceptance for one’s products and thereby increase sales. It is a fine distinction to be sure. However, it is important.

Japanese and European car makers alike value their overall image even more than they do the immediate sales figures for any particular model. That isn’t to say that they ignore those figures, because quite obviously they don’t. Their bottom line is crucially important. Yet, image is the basis for the future. Mercedes, for example may have quality control issues in the short term, but the company’s long term heritage as an elite automotive manufacturer tends to attract buyers regardless. The BMWs, Renaults, Hondas, Toyotas and alike all hold similar views.

What Mosley has done is to tarnish the image of F-1 was the world’s premier racing series, its position as an earthbound NASA pushing the technological boundaries to, and sometimes beyond their limits. This is why Mosley most likely will be forced to resign: the manufacturers, the guys who sign the checks believe his continued presence will diminish their investment in Formula One as a tool to improving their position within the marketplace.

So, given all that, why can’t sportscar racing improve its lot in life? The answer is that it can, but only if those in charge are able to take the long, rather than the short view. In the first several decades following the revival of motorsport after the Second World War, the infrastructure was such that drivers could not only, but financially needed to embrace the open and closed wheel disciplines. Today that luxury has disappeared, and while few, if any, would argue that those racing in the sports car arena are as good as, if not better than their F-1 counterparts, the fact is that they are far less known.

It is within that relative obscurity sports car racing has lived, playing a an almost mandated subordinate role to Formula One whose fortunes Mosley and, obviously Ecclestone have focused on, while virtually ignoring the needs of those dedicated to vehicles wearing enclosed bodywork. Indeed, conspiracy theorists have suggested that Mosley and Ecclestone engineered the early 1990’s demise of the World Sports Car championship in order to eliminate it as a potential distraction in promoting F-1 as the premier level of the sport.

That sports car racing has survived, and prospered, if to a lesser amount than it might have if the FIA had given it a more than passing glance, is a tribute to the fact that it has a loyal following which is not going away anytime soon. If Mosley does step down, as most believe he will be forced to do, will the fortunes of sports car racing necessarily improve?

One man rumored to be in line for Mosley’s position is Jean Todt. While the Frenchman is best known as the man who guided Ferrari’s fortunes in F-1 during the Michael Schmacher era, before he went to Italy, he was head of Peugeot’s racing efforts, which included two straight victories at Le Mans in 1992 and 1993. Would Todt, as FIA president be more balanced is his approach to the future of the sports car side of the house as opposed to F-1?

Perhaps. But, then there is the larger question of whether or not he could get the job in the first place. There are other qualified candidates. However, while they all could presumably fill the office, there remains the matter of their strength as the potential leader of an organization filled with complexities and sometimes competing agendas. If not Todt then who? And, even if were to replace Mosley, would he be strong enough to carry on in a successful manner as the effective head of what is now a huge business more than it is a governing body for motorsport?

It would be nice if the profile of international sports car racing could be returned to its former glory. Yet, it would be even worse if whomever takes of the FIA is unable to control its children. Such a failure would lead to anarchy, and no one makes money in those circumstances, even if the person running things likes sports cars as well as he does Formula One.

Bill Oursler April 2008

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