Go ahead Ferrari, make my day

The announcement of outline plans for F1’s future engine formula prompted Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne to threaten to pull his team out of the sport.

Unhappy with the proposals for greater standardisation of engine parts from 2021 onwards, Marchionne issued the threat to withdraw F1’s longest running team.

F1 without Ferrari considered unimaginable

Regular F1 fans will be no strangers to similar threats from the Italian team.

Under the stewardship of Bernie Ecclestone such threats were never followed through. F1 without Ferrari was considered unimaginable by Ecclestone and the FIA.

This latest shot across the bows for F1’s new owners – Liberty Media – does raise the question of whether the sport really has something to fear from Ferrari’s latest threat.

Could there in fact be reasons for cautious optimism for F1 without Ferrari?

2021 F1 season and no Ferrari…

A 2021 F1 season without Ferrari would – assuming a status quo on teams and engine supply deals – mean 2 cars off the grid and Sauber and Haas looking for a new supplier.

Worst case scenario, without a replacement partner we could lose a quarter of the current F1 grid.  Bad news whichever way you look at it.

On the plus side, it would free up a sizeable chunk of cash from team payments.

For example a more equitable distribution of even just Ferrari’s long-standing team (LST) payments – thought to be around $70m per season – could secure the future of smaller teams like Sauber and Force India within the sport.

More cash for more teams

The LST is around $15m-20m more than teams like Sauber and Toro Rosso typically receive in total per season. Based on projected team payments in 2016 the LST payment to Ferrari alone was nearly double the total payments to the now defunct Manor.

Cumulatively Ferrari’s payments from F1 constituted just under 20% of all payments at nearly $200m. That is equivalent to total payments to Toro Rosso, Sauber and Renault. And a very healthy full-season budget for a mid-grid team.

Supporting small and new teams

Admittedly a future F1 minus Ferrari would likely see some dip in revenues but even redistribution of a lower figure could be used to entice new teams to the championship. Especially were it to come in conjunction with the latest engine proposal which should, in theory, offer a cheaper engine formula.

Given the near constant demise of teams in recent seasons, securing the wider field must surely be a greater concern for Liberty.

Other major sports series would not countenance such threats from what is effectively just a participant. The NFL would not sacrifice the prospects of the rest of their teams to ward off the departure of the Green Bay Packers (football’s longest continuously running franchise). Why should F1?

Would F1 fans miss Ferrari?

In the glory days of Schumacher and Ferrari, the grandstands at almost all races were predominantly scarlet. Monza will always remain the realm of the tifosi but anyone casting their eyes across race day crowds in 2017 will see a much more varied spectrum.

The success of Red Bull and then Mercedes (and Lewis Hamilton in particular) means there are just as many Red Bull or AMG Petronas branded jackets, tees and caps as those emblazoned with the prancing horse.

The rise of Max Verstappen’s ‘orange army’ has swelled popularity for Red Bull even further despite their relative lack of results since 2013.

Similarly McLaren still retain a mighty following, owing much to the swashbuckling Fernando Alonso and the place their supercars have in the psyche of modern petrol heads.

Based on this, were Ferrari to disappear from the grid even next season would it hit race circuits that hard? I’m doubtful.

Fans of the drivers, not the teams

The key is that – with the exception of Monza – fans predominantly follow drivers and not teams.

Plenty of Vettel fans were decked out in Red Bull teamwear until his switch to Ferrari and are now mostly to be found wearing red. Similarly Alonso fans swapped scarlet for McLaren black/red/papaya around the same time.

How would F1 without Ferrari impact TV audiences?

The perspective on Ferrari and F1 has been that F1 without Ferrari is no longer F1. And consequently no longer the pinnacle of motorsport.

The logical extension being that the millions of fans that tune in to watch the races – often on pay-per-view – do so to see the prancing horse and would be devastated by their departure.

Cast your mind back however to the ‘glory days’ of Schumacher and Ferrari. Steamrollering all around them on the way to multiple titles between 2000 and 2004. By this skewed F1 logic, that should have been the sport at its best. The F1 team winning and winning gloriously.

Ferrari = guaranteed big audiences, right?

Except we know that was not the case.

Ferrari’s dominance had the opposite effect with viewing figures dropping and turning fans off F1 for good. If fans turned away in their droves when Ferrari were all-conquering, it suddenly doesn’t seem such a dead cert that they would desert F1 if the scuderia packed up and headed home to Maranello.

What about fans under 30?

Much of the work Liberty has done this season and its plans for the future is focused on younger audiences. The youthful future fans who are predominantly more interested in social media, gaming and e-sports.

For them Ferrari does not carry the same cache as it does for those aged 30+.

This is the generation that has been fixated with the Bugatti Veyron, Koenigseggs and McLarens. Leading gaming titles like Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo have made icons out of the supercar pretenders to the Ferrari throne.

Similarly, those younger audiences that have tuned in to F1 have done so because of Hamilton, Alonso, Verstappen or gaming. Few have witnessed Ferrari success. But in that time it has been the establishment shaking arrivals and success of Red Bull and then Mercedes.

What would the departure of Ferrari from F1 mean to them compared with the departure of Hamilton, Mercedes or Red Bull for example?

It could of course go very wrong…

Were both Ferrari and Liberty to dig their heels in, F1 could face an IndyCar-style implosion.

Back in the mid-1990s American open-wheel racing was devastated when a part of the championship – chiefly the CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony George – decided to break away after his demands were not met by the championship organisers.

The ensuing decade of ‘civil war’ destroyed IndyCar’s fanbase and bankrupted teams.

Such a scenario is not completely unrealistic. Especially if Ferrari were to resort to one of their previous threats to create a break away championship. IndyCar history proves that two open wheel series cannot survive.

F1 will more than likely work to appease Ferrari. The fact both Mercedes and Renault are also voicing concerns – despite the engine suppliers effectively asking the sport to ‘save them from themselves’ – will force Liberty’s hand. 

It is nice however to imagine a situation where F1 might, just might, stand up to Ferrari for once.

Watch this space…

 

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