Tangled web of politics snagging Formula One

It's good to be Ferrari in Formula One, whether the team is winning or not. Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Formula One has gone through a period of soul-searching in the last few years.

Declining TV audiences in major territories over the course of the decade suggest it has lost its mojo as it struggles to compete for people's attention in an ever-crowded marketplace. As a sport that previously relied on its raw appeal to attract fans, it is suffering something of an identity crisis as it yearns to rediscover the visceral thrills it once offered without getting stuck in the past.

F1 drivers are no longer seen as the heroes they once were, and the cars no longer look like a physical challenge to drive.

Compared to extreme sports stars that can be seen risking life and limb on YouTube, the job of an F1 driver on a Sunday afternoon looks relatively cosseted. That's not to say Formula One should be more dangerous -- the drive toward safety is essential for the long-term survival of all motorsport -- but the cars need to look like the fastest, most outrageous vehicles on the planet.

Right now, they don't.

Plans to make the cars significantly faster by 2017 are on the agenda, but have stalled in recent weeks amid concerns there will not be enough time to test and develop suitable tires.

More testing seems like the obvious answer, but allowing a selection of teams to assist Pirelli in developing better tires would hand those teams a significant advantage over their rivals. Introducing more testing for all teams would significantly increase costs and would also complicate matters for Pirelli, which needs focused testing with just a few cars in order to deliver the product the sport needs.

It's a genuine problem, but one that appears to have been left too late ahead of a March 1 deadline for signoff on the new rules.

As a result, the regulations are likely to be watered down and could inadvertently lead to less exciting racing. For long-term F1 fans, the deadlock in the rule-making process will seem all too familiar and exposes one of the main issues that has held the sport back in recent years.

While the on-track action needs to be made more exciting, it's the constant off-track power struggles that prevent a clear vision for F1's future becoming reality. Paranoia over competitive advantages of rivals prevents consensus among the teams, and plans that started as clear ideas with clear aims get battered into unsatisfactory compromises by the self-interest of those involved.

Rather predictably, the root of the problem can be traced to money (or more specifically its distribution within the sport).

F1 boasts revenues in excess of $1.4 billion, but an investigation by Autosport magazine last year revealed how skewed the distribution of that money has become.

In total, 66 percent of F1's revenues were redistributed as prize money following the 2014 season, with 50 percent shared between all 10 teams based on where they finished in the championship and the remaining 16 percent distributed between the sport's five biggest teams -- Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, Mercedes and Williams -- as bonus payments in recognition of their historical significance in the sport and previous championship successes.

Under this structure, Ferrari outearns its rivals almost regardless of where it finishes in the championship, while the smallest teams are left with barely enough to go racing.

After finishing a lackluster fourth in the championship in 2014, Ferrari earned $97 million from its bonus payment alone and $67 million for its championship position, resulting in a total of $164 million. By contrast, Mercedes, which won the title with 16 victories from 19 races, received a total of $126 million, $38 million less than Ferrari.

It's even worse for the teams that don't qualify for the bonus payments, with Force India, which finished a creditable sixth in the constructors' championship in 2014, receiving just $60 million ($96 million short of Ferrari) and Sauber, which finished 10th, receiving $44 million ($120 million less than Ferrari).

With so much money at stake and the cost of failure so great, teams understandably work to protect their interests. That would be acceptable if their work was limited to developing their race cars for the track, but with so much money at stake the top teams have negotiated their way into the rule-making process.

The five teams that receive bonus payments also sit on the sport's rule-formulating body, the F1 Strategy Group, alongside the FIA and the commercial rights holder. There is a space reserved for whichever one of the others finishes highest in the previous year's championship (currently Force India), but the remaining teams are not represented until the next stage of the rule-making process.

What's more, Ferrari, due to its historical significance in F1, has the right to veto any rule changes it disagrees with.

To expect teams that are rivals on the track to agree off it is optimistic to say the least. Each of the top teams have different strengths and weaknesses and have become adept at suggesting regulation changes that play to their own strengths while talking down those that complement the strengths of their rivals'.

The smaller teams, meanwhile, have little say over the regulations while the unequal distribution of revenues means they have little hope of barging their way onto F1's top table. Even those sitting on the Strategy Group are willing to admit the sport's governing process is not working.

"I suppose when you look at it, the teams have collectively been spectacularly incapable of coming up with solutions and sensible remedies to the problems -- and I think the problem we face in Formula One is you've got vested interest," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said at the final race of last year. "Within your own team you try to protect the elements that are your strengths, that offer you that competitiveness over your opponents.

"And I think this is where Formula One has tripped over itself over previous years.

Instead, Horner is campaigning for power to be handed back to the sport's governing body, the FIA, and F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone.

"They need to come up with rules and put them in front of the teams and say 'that's what Formula One is going to be and that's what it should be for the future,' and they need to bring in some people with the right skill set to be able to define what those regulations are.

"There's good people that aren't currently in employment within teams at the moment that are impartial, that can come up with a set of regulations that are in the best interests of Formula One.

"That's going to provide the best show for the fans, for the public, for the paying spectators who are the backbone of what we do because without them there is no show, there is no Formula One and we need to get Formula One back to being a sport that is enthralling to the public."

The FIA has started to exert more of its power in the last 12 months, and its president, Jean Todt, is working more closely with Ecclestone to make essential changes away from the influence of the Strategy Group.

What they come up with and how it is implemented over the next few years could decide whether F1 is rescued from itself or allowed to continue on a downward spiral of self-interest and bickering.

Satisfying everyone will not be possible, but careful changes to the regulations could create a formula that satisfies the car manufacturers' hunger for new technology, creates a more financially stable environment for smaller teams and once again promotes heroes on track.

Achieving such an outcome will require egos to be tempered, greed to be quelled and common sense to prevail, but it is essential for the long-term health of the category.

The stakes are high in Formula One this year.