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GP Week : Issue 213
20 GPWEEK.com // 20 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: For various reasons, I'm not a great fan of sir Richard Branson, the British businessman whose cockamamie space project blew up and crashed into the Mojave desert last week, killing one of its pilots. With photographers present on land and in the air, the incident had dominated the TV news and garnered acres of Technicolor front-page coverage for Virgin, the airline in which Branson holds a minority interest and which was briefly involved in F1 at the beginning of what was to become Marussia. My friend Bill, who believes that there is no such thing as bad publicity, somewhat cynically averred that Virgin's free exposure would be good for business. I gently disagreed on the basis that images of smoking wreckage bearing the name of an airline tend to frighten off paying passengers who have a choice of carrier. But then what do I know? After all, Branson is a bit wealthier than me, although I am glad that I won't be spending as much time in the US courts as he now seems likely to be doing. Having briefly dipped his toes into F1 five years ago, at least Branson had the common sense, or possibly just the luck, to have got out of F1 before the roof fell in, both on his old team (now Marussia) and on Caterham. I tend to feel sorry both for Andrey Cheglakov and Tony Fernandes, the tycoons who came into F1 believing the honeyed promises from the FIA's then-president Max Mosley that the cost of running their teams would be capped at US$40 million. But I feel a lot more sympathy for the hundreds of people who've been slung out of work by the collapse of their teams and for the suppliers whose long-overdue invoices will now never be paid, even in the unlikely event that either one or both teams survive under new management. Who should we blame for the crisis? The FIA, and its shrinking- violet president Jean Todt, cannot be excused, because although the federation is not allowed, under EU regulations, to intervene in the financial affairs of the sport, Todt should certainly have fought to bring the moneymen to their senses when it became clear, at least three years ago, that F1 in its current form had become unsustainable. The FIA stands condemned, too, for imposing a hard-line ecological element in the engine regulations which were introduced this year, increasing annual costs to the teams from US$6million to $20million or (lots) more. Yes, it's true that the three car manufacturers who supply the power units wanted to be seen as 'green' by their shareholders and to the eco-overseers appointed by their governments, but the sudden leap from 150 kilos of fuel per race to just 100 in the first year has had negative consequences for the sport, both in terms of engine noise and reliability, which were entirely predictable. Then there are the dog-in- the-manger big teams, whose unwillingness to share the spoils on a more equitable basis has effectively barred the minnows from ever becoming big hitters. If it were not so chilling for the little guys, it would be amusing for hacks like me to note that McLaren boss Ron Dennis – who has lived high off the hog with big-ticket car manufacturers like TAG-Porsche, Honda, Peugeot and Mercedes in his back pocket for an unbroken period of 30 years – has the gall to complain after a couple of years as a Mercedes customer that it's impossible to win championships for any team which doesn't have first place in its chosen supplier's queue for engines. The loss of Marussia and Caterham will have other previously unanticipated consequences. Suddenly the likes of Sauber and Lotus are exposed as the runts of the pack, no longer the mid-field stalwarts, and will suffer the consequences when they look for fresh funding. Eddie Jordan, who knows a thing or two about the matter, was starkly pessimistic about this on BBCTV. "No sponsor wants to see his car propping up the end of the grid," he observed. It would therefore appear that we're going to have to look to Bernie Ecclestone to unlock the impasse. There are reports of him holding an impromptu press conference to discuss the situation with my fellow hacks present in Austin, and my experience of such encounters tells me that something concrete will follow. The irony is, of course, that by far the biggest slice of the blame falls on Bernie himself, for having sold the F1 business to the bunch of private equity banking shysters who continue to take a disproportionate share of F1's global income while at the same time having ruthlessly burdened the business with billions in debt that they have pocketed for their shareholders. "There is too much money being distributed badly – probably my fault," Bernie told my colleagues (and when Bernie says 'probably,' he means 'definitely'). He added: "Like lots of agreements people make, they seemed a good idea at the time. I know what's wrong, but don't know how to fix it." Nevertheless, he knows that action is called for. "We'll have to do something about it because we can't all sit back nicely, relaxed and think the problem will go away," he said. "The situation is such that if enough people want it resolved, we can resolve it." Actually, Bernie is the first person who wants it resolved. He even dared to suggest that he would be prepared to urge the private equity bandits to give up some of their income. He added: "If [the teams] sat down here with me now and said they want to share out all of the money they get in a different way, I would say: 'Good, give me the bit of paper'. "It makes no difference to me," he concluded, "how the money is shared out." Well it wouldn't, would it? After all Bernie banked his billions a good few years back when he sold out. Strange to say, though, he is now the only person with the authority and the clout to get things done. It's going to be interesting to see what eventuates. But he's going to have to be quick about it. BERNIE BLAMES ... BERNIE OPINION OPINION MiKe doodSon