Yesterday was a pretty big day for news in motorsport. It began with Robert Kubica leading the Monte Carlo Rally and was quickly followed by Bernie being indicted on criminal charges in Germany. Mr E then stood aside at CVC, just as the Oscar nominations were read out and Rush was somehow snubbed in every single category. And at the end of a day of huge news, Ron Dennis announced to McLaren employees in a 20 minute speech (so, about three sentences) that he was back in charge. What impact this will have on the team and on the future of Martin Whitmarsh is sure to be a storyline that carries immense interest.
But hidden amongst all the power politics yesterday, came the leaked news via Auto Motor und Sport in Germany that three teams were being viewed by the FIA for final consideration of the last remaining place on the F1 grid for 2015. The three interested parties were StefanGP, an entry from former F1 team boss Colin Kolles, and a new US venture run by Gene Haas.
The last time we saw new teams enter the sport was back in 2010. It is worth remembering that the initial three parties granted a place on the grid by the FIA were Campos, Manor and USF1. Campos became HRT, Manor became Virgin (later to become Marussia) and USF1 failed to happen at all. When BMW Sauber pulled out, the team we now know as Caterham entered the fold. HRT folded, and neither Caterham nor Marussia has scored a point in its four years of existence. Nor, if we are being brutally honest, have they ever realistically looked like doing so.
It does seem odd, that with such a poor recent history for new teams, coupled with the top-heavy, arguably unfair financial structure of the sport and a world economy in the midst of a drive towards cost-saving, there would be any interest in setting up a new F1 team at all. But apparently there is, and that’s great news for the sport.
Of course, Colin Kolles knows Formula 1 only too well and one supposes that an entry from him would not have been launched had it not sufficient support and infrastructure to make a decent run of things.
The American entry also looks interesting. Gene Haas is a NASCAR team owner and runs the Windshear windtunnel out in the States, which has been used by many F1 teams. Although based in California, Haas does have European interests and could possibly use a European base for his team. The entry supposedly has a deal to run Ferrari engines, will start life with a Dallara designed chassis and Guenther Steiner has been mentioned as Team Principal. Not a bad little line-up when you think about it.
And so to StefanGP. The story of StefanGP is long, complicated and thoroughly messy, but a good run down of its F1 interest can be found here.
The last time I saw Zoran Stefanovich was underneath the podium in Monza in 2012, cheering for Luca Filippi as he took the win in GP2 for Coloni. There was talk at the time that Stefanovich had bought Coloni’s GP2 entry. The only issue was that Coloni no longer had a GP2 entry.
With such a tumultuous history, including filing a complaint against the FIA with the European Commission, one wonders how much realistic hope StefanGP has of being taken seriously. But that is for the FIA to decide.
What interests me most, however, is how any new team would fare in 2015 and beyond. As already stated, no new team has scored a point in four years. Perhaps the massive shift in technical regulations will allow scope for the gap between the “new” and established teams to shrink. Perhaps the gap will merely increase.
What, then, is the answer for a new team?
For my money, the answer is customer cars. Just hear me out on this.
What I am not proposing is the opportunity for anyone to come in and buy a 2015 chassis and stick an engine in it and go racing. I don’t like that idea and I don’t think there would be any appetite in the sport for it either.
At the Indian Grand Prix last year I asked the Team Principals in the Friday press conference for their views on Customer Cars. There were a wide range of opinions from positive to overwhelmingly negative. This is the Reader’s Digest version of what they said.
Christian Horner: It’s an interesting debate, really, because if you look at costs and the cost drivers in Formula One, the necessity to have four or five hundred people in order to even compete is, in all reality, too high. Now if you’re just looking at it from a pure cost point of view, the most logical way to take out a huge amount of cost would be to sell a car or a year-old car in its entirety. Now whether that goes against the grain of what a constructor should be and is in current Formula One is a separate debate. But if you are absolutely transfixed on saving costs, it is, without a shadow of a doubt the most effective way to reduce costs. Whether it’s the right thing to do is obviously another questions. Inevitably there is going to be a lot of debate about it and it’s something that, as a sport, we need to be open-minded to.
Ross Brawn: I don’t think we, as a team, are particularly enamoured with the idea of customer cars. I think we are more keen on working towards reducing the base cost of the cars for all teams. And perhaps finding ways of sharing parts that are non-performance differentiators. I think there is some progress that can be made in those areas without damaging the DNA of the sport at all.
Vijay Mallya: We are completely opposed to the even the concept of customers cars. To try to address lowering of costs through a radical customer car concept is ridiculous in my view. What happens to the smaller teams that have factories, that employ hundreds of people and who are effectively running companies. You can’t just discard everything and just buy a one-year old car from an established team and go motor racing. I think that affects the total DNA of Formula One from the day it was started.
Monisha Kaltenbourn: I absolutely agree with that. Sauber’s been in motorsport now for more than 40 years and our core business is making race cars in different series, so we are absolutely against this concept of a customer car because we’re ruining our own business here. When you introduce these kind of measures you’re changing so much. This will not lead to any cost reduction because you might have four teams in there that are capable of putting in that much money, but at some point in time – they are all in their to win – when they don’t do that and maybe just end up with a few points they leave the sport as well. So it’s a very dangerous route to go down.
Eric Boullier: I think that customer cars are against the DNA of Formula One personally. But I think obviously there is a cost restriction that needs to be in place in Formula One. So if you want to avoid the customer car… we can maybe run three cars in the near future to keep a decent grid but still it’s more money and it’s against cost saving, so we need to think and think cleverly about it.
The one interesting thing that kept being said was how the concept of customer cars was against the DNA of Formula 1. Any student of the history of Formula 1 knows this to be complete rubbish. How many teams started life in the 60s and 70s buying a chassis and engine in order to go racing?
But if you want a modern example of how customer cars can work, I would still use the example of Super Aguri. If ever a team showed what can be achieved by allowing a newcomer to the sport the leg-up that a customer car could provide, it was this team.
The team made its 2006 debut with the SA05 which was, to all intents and purposes, the old Arrows A23… a car which was not a championship winner even in its 2002 heyday, let alone a further 4 years down the line. But not only did it get them through their debut season, with a fabulous design office, the upgraded SA06 actually impressed in the latter half of the season.
But it was in 2007 that the team made its greatest leap forward. There were arguments over its legality under Concorde, but the modified 2006 Honda works chassis put in some incredible runs. Takuma Sato scored points in Barcelona, and the Japanese driver put in one of the performances of his F1 career in Montreal to pass reigning world champion Fernando Alonso and finish sixth. But for a botched pitstop it could have been even higher. Crucially, the team finished above both works Honda cars in the race with a car that was a clever development of one the works team had discarded.
Ultimately Super Aguri folded in 2008, but the focus of the squad had always been on designing their own car for 2009. The design team at Super Aguri were incredible. Fascinatingly, the team had designed a nose hole for the SA07 almost identical to the one later seen on the Ferrari F2008. If the team had been granted more budget, there’s a chance Super Aguri could have run the concept in 2007, over 8 months before we saw it on a Ferrari.
The basis of the 2009 Super Aguri went into creating part of the 2009 Toyota, and was hugely influential on the car that would become the BrawnGP BGP001. A car which won both championships.
My point is this. Super Aguri took an outdated car, and with intelligent use of minimal budget turned it into a car that beat the factory squad. The team was competitive. With better financial management, had the team been able to complete the SA09 by itself, there is every reason to believe that at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix Super Aguri could have been fighting for the podium. If not the win. If not the title.
This is why I believe in customer cars. Not forever. But at the start.
The woes of Caterham and Marussia cannot be ignored, and one hopes that the technical regulation changes offer them the level playing field that will allow them to compete. But in the future, I firmly believe that any and all new teams should be given a two year grace period in which they should be allowed to utilise an old car as a stepping stone, and build their own car from year three.
It is cost effective for the new team. It is a source of revenue for the team from whom they are purchasing.
Does that really sound so bad?
I had a few extra thoughts on this while I was in the gym this afternoon… further to Yeti’s point below in the comments section, I don’t believe it is as simple as Super Aguri having had a great design department. Yes, they did. But the reason that design department was able to do such great things was that it was not having to spend all its time and money developing major parts of the car to eat into the huge chunks of time it lagged behind its competitors. By starting with a customer car it wasn’t starting from zero. The design department could look at ways to improve on a solid foundation, rather than having to build that foundation in the first place, all the while dedicating a large part of their design resources to that all important first car of their own.
This is a problem that the “new teams” have faced. For Caterham and Marussia to get to within five seconds of the front runners came quite quickly. The next challenge is to then find the next seconds. Then the tenths. Then the hundredths. Then the thousandths. And that takes time. Too much time.
If we allow customer cars for new teams, for that limited period of two years, we allow new teams to start from a position it has taken the likes of Caterham and Marussia the better part of four years to achieve. Four long, arguably wasted years. Why wasted? Because all of that effort was for naught. No points. And now a regulation change which puts a great deal of that work in the trash.
But, in order to not reach a point where a new team could simply come in and buy a year old Red Bull and start taking the fight to the “genuine” constructors and teams who have been around for a good few years, I think we would need to put a cap on which cars would be for sale.
I would say that the top five in the championship should be taken out of consideration. As such, if technical regulations were staying the same and a new team wanted to join in 2014, it would have the pick of Force India, Sauber, Toro Rosso, Williams, Marussia and Caterham. If these options were then priced on a sliding scale dependent on championship position, a new team would be able to decide what it wanted to do with its funding. It could pay a bit less and go for a Marussia or a Caterham and take a solid but not necessarily hugely competitive chassis… or it could fork out a higher percentage of its budget and plump for a Sauber or a Force India.
In this way, established teams which we know are struggling for budget would be the ones to benefit from any such introduction of customer cars, and in turn could use the money gained from the sale of old IP to ensure their new car doesn’t get beaten by the old one.
Just some thoughts.
If I was FIA President… that’s what I’d be trying to push through, anyway.