The sporting discussion in Europe recently turned to the subject of football. The European Championships were hosted in England, and the rules had been altered to hopefully eliminate the penalty shoot-outs that often provided a worse way of deciding a drawn match than the previous method - flipping a coin. The extra time would be run to a 'Golden Goal' rule - i.e. the first team to score a goal wins. For many of the matches, the theory that this would provide a thrilling last minute 'go for it ... or else' contest fell far short of the mark - both teams invariably played a defensive game and waited for the slightly less risky penalty shoot-out. By the end of the tournament - as the stakes got higher - it was beginning to work, but it still looks as though the idea will be revised or scrapped before the next major international competition. But what does this have to do with Formula One?
The most dramatic change to the rules in recent years has been the 107% rule. For years we've had to endure the sight of virtual no-hopers tagging onto the back of the grid by virtue of the fact that they were able to run a few non-competitive laps during qualifying. Whist no-one begrudged them their chance to compete in Formula One, they were doing themselves more harm than good. If they lasted a reasonable time in the race, they would invariably be the first to be lapped - often holding up the leaders in the process. The powers that be decided enough was enough. The 107% qualifying rule was introduced to keep all the cars that would be racing at a fairly comparable speed. The initial fears - that four of five cars would be barred from the race, resulting in severely depleted grids - failed to materialise. In fact, it has worked rather well. The only races where we haven't seen the full batch of cars on the grid have been Australia, the Nurburgring, San Marino and Spain. The problem is, though, that the cars not making the grid were invariably the Fortis. As regular readers of Atlas will know, I am a massive fan of the Forti team and I have an enormous amount of respect for their ability to keep running on a budget that is a fraction of a top team's equivalent. Continually they've struggled on, despite numerous setbacks - a delayed new car, poor handling and having the bravery to hire drivers on their driving skill rather than the size of their wallet. Autosport's annual season preview suggested that 'If a Forti qualifies at any of the first three races, it will be a minor miracle...'. Amazingly, they qualified for two of them, but the team now appears to be facing a crisis that even they probably can't work their way out of.
During this weekend's Friday practice, the Forti cars made no attempt to run their 30 allocated laps. It was all down to that perennial Formula One problem - commercial difficulties. It is strongly rumoured that the major contributors to Forti's coffers -the Shannon Racing Team and their parent company the Finfirst group - are having trouble supplying the necessary funds to Forti. In fact, they have been rumoured to have paid only $300,000 - a mere drop in the ocean in Formula One terms. All this means that the team can't afford to pay Ford for their customer Zetec engines, hence their lack of running. Rumours of the Shannon Racing Team downsizing their strong European F3 and F3000 presence only served to add the proverbial nails to the coffin. After such a positive change of sponsor, the future is beginning to look bleak once more for the Forti team.
With Shannon's apparent financial difficulties, it appears as though the Forti team will have a hard time keeping to a budget. First sign of that was surely this weekend's lack of running. This poses a problem for the team though - if they don't run on Friday through lack of funds, they can't have a good set up for Saturday afternoon and they won't be within 107% of the pole time i.e. they don't qualify. If this happens then the team will surely lose yet more sponsorship. Alternatively, the team could neglect Friday and just run Saturday, concentrating on qualifying setup. This would probably get them in the race, but means that they have no firm race setup or strategy. This weekend, they didn't even run until the Saturday afternoon. With no setup experience of the circuit, they obviously didn't make the grid.
As ever, the harder and more seasoned Formula One pundits who have seen Lotus, Pacific and Simtek fall by the way will say that it's merely a question of survival of the fittest, but how long can we keep this going? For sure, we have the Stewart racing team entering next year and this should swell the ranks of F1 hopefuls some more, but the Japanese Dome team are rumoured to be putting back their entry into the top echelon of motorsport, citing the problem as 'trouble raising the necessary finance'.
The vicious circle will continue for Forti, though, until the financial situation is resolved - for better or worse. One person came up with a unique idea in the letters page of this week's Autosport that could provide a temporary solution: If Ferrari's qualifying performance at France is anything to go by, then you could just raise your side panels to make them illegal, get an innocent team boss to protest and start the race from the back. With the dilemma the Forti bosses currently face, it might bear thinking about...