The plight of the Caterham and Marussia F1 teams is a sorry state of affairs. That two teams should reportedly be placed into administration within a month of each other is deeply troubling even if it is not, in all honesty, a tremendous surprise. It is very sad for the team’s hard working employees and for their many fans. But for anyone to pretend that this is some new phenomenon and that it should not be permitted to happen is utterly absurd. If success is the barometer against which all racing entities are judged, then failure is inherent in the very DNA of the sport.
In the 64 year history of Formula 1, 164 teams have existed. Today, including Caterham and Marussia, 11 survive. 153 teams have thus failed within that time period. That’s an average of a little over two teams (2.390) failing each season. While unfortunate, the demise of the sport’s two slowest and most poorly funded teams is well within acceptable and statistical, if slightly Darwinian, limits.
Only one team, Scuderia Ferrari, has competed in every year of the championship. Even looking back a decade to the grid of 2004 highlights the fact that just four teams survived to take their place on the grid in 2014. That’s 60% of the 2004 grid that either withdrew, folded, or sold up and shipped out over the last decade.
There are no guarantees in this sport. There never have been and there never will be. For the uncompetitive, both sportingly and financially, life in Formula 1’s state of nature has always fallen under Thomas Hobbes’ most famed principle of social contract theory. Namely, that it is nasty, brutish and short.
Back in 2003, I remember well a conversation I had with then Minardi boss Paul Stoddart at European Aviation’s base just outside Ledbury, England. Stoddy was a battler, and either a bastard or a hero depending on which side of the fence one wished to sit. Constantly at loggerheads with fellow team owners and the FIA, he preached that without the small teams Formula 1 would die. His reasoning was simple. Without a Minardi or a Jordan occupying the final rows of the grid, those final positions would be taken by a major motor manufacturer. Said manufacturer would then have to explain to the board why hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent on this folly, only to be seen as slow and weak. The manufacturer would thus pull out, leaving another manufacturer on the back row. And so the unravelling effect would build speed until just one manufacturer was left and the sport was dead.
But while Stoddy sold up to Red Bull, turning Minardi into Scuderia Toro Rosso, and while teams folded all around, the sport didn’t die. It evolved. The Ferrari empire collapsed and the Red Bull empire was built. The great garagistes peaked and troughed. Big manufacturers withdrew. And in 2010, three new teams were welcomed into the fold.
Today, it is this process to which one must now give serious attention if we are to truly understand the situation the sport now finds itself in. Questions have always been asked but now answers must be given as to the true story behind a selection process that saw the seemingly worthy applications of Epsilon Euskadi, N Technology, Prodrive and Lola, amongst others, overlooked in favour of Campos (which became HRT), Lightspeed (which became Lotus/Caterham), USF1 (which never even made a race), and Manor Racing (which became Virgin and then Marussia.)
Each entry was sold on the promise of a budget cap which was never realised. Not one made the first race of the 2010 F1 season in the guise in which it had applied for and been awarded an entry. Only one scored an F1 point, and all four have now failed.
With the exception of Manor, a team with tremendous junior formula pedigree, and to a lesser extent Campos which itself had success at sub-F1 levels, answers must be given by the FIA as to how and why the teams were chosen in the 2010 process. As maligned as they now are in F1 circles, without the likes of Branson and Fernandes, and one must not forget Kolles’ role for HRT, the Lightspeed, Manor and Campos projects might well have proven to be as stillborn as was USF1. That they survived as long as they did is testament to the tenacity and hard work of those that will be hit hardest by all this – the staff.
So how do we progress? And can the teams be saved? Quite simply, in the cases of Caterham and Marussia, while administration will allow a chance for a buyer to be found, one would now sadly not place any serious amount of money on seeing either team on the grid in Melbourne next season. But while their demise is a perfectly natural part of the dog-eat-dog world of Formula 1, it does not mean that one should not learn from the problems the teams have encountered, and strive to find solutions for the future.
Bernie Ecclestone has today reignited the debate on the potential for teams to run third cars in Formula 1. But rather than the top teams running their own third cars, he has suggested something altogether different…
“They would supply a third car to someone else so if, for example, Sauber disappeared, a team could do a deal with Sauber. Ferrari could say, ”we will give you a car, all that goes with it, and we want you to put this sponsor on it. You have your own sponsors but we want you to include this one as well and we want you to take this driver”. The team wouldn’t have to go under then would they? If Red Bull decided they would give a car to Caterham for example that could solve their problem,” he told The Mail in an article written by Christian Sylt.
The issue with this is that it doesn’t solve the issue. Not for anyone. Except perhaps Ecclestone himself.
In order to qualify for payments as a Formula 1 constructor a team must be a bona fide “constructor.” As such, running another team’s third car would mean that it was, in effect, running a customer car and would thus forfeit its rights, rewards and obligations under Concorde. Let’s not even get into the concept of a team simply “giving” a car away to another squad and the cost implications implicit in this. At its very base, the idea negates a team’s position as a constructor and far from saving it, would merely condemn it.
What it does do, however, is keep the grid filled. And this, as the sport’s Commercial Rights Holder, is Ecclestone’s only real concern. Bernie has created deals with racing circuits, promoters and the world’s television networks worth hundreds of millions of dollars per annum on the basis that he and CVC will provide a Formula 1 World Championship… that means every driver and, of course, every team. Crucially, there is understood to be a clause in these contracts which designates a full grid as being composed of 16 cars. Austin will feature just two above this number. Should Sauber, which is also believed to be in financial peril, fold, Ecclestone has a real problem on his hands.
Ecclestone’s concept of third cars run by smaller teams is a short term stop gap, seemingly to save CVC and the sport from defaulting on its contracts promising full grids of a certain size. What it will not do is save the teams under pressure, let alone those who have already placed themselves in administration.
I have long argued the benefits of customer cars and today, as the last of the 2010 entrants admits defeat and enters its final weeks, I feel its potential importance to be greater than ever. It will not help those who are already failing, but it could be a solution for the future. Those who are regular readers of my blog will know my concept. For those that are new I will outline it in very simple terms.
Any new team entering Formula 1 may purchase and use an old (previous year or older) customer chassis for the first two years of competition in the sport. It is permitted to make its own upgrades to this car and to develop it up to the point where, starting at the first race of the third year of competition, it must field a car of its own design. A budget for the chassis of each team will be set by the FIA on a sliding scale whereby the bottom ranked team’s car is the cheapest up to the champion’s being the most expensive. As such, there is a higher chance of mid-grid to lower ranked teams receiving the benefit of a cash injection from the new squads, at a sensible level of affordability for the new entrant.
It is the principle which Super Aguri ran in its short F1 lifetime, and used to such effect to take a knackered Honda and start taking the fight not only to its big sister team, but to the established order on occasion. The car that Aguri would have fielded for the 2009 season it never saw, the first of its own design, actually went on to form the basis of the Brawn BGP001 which won the championship. Had Aguri had better financing, there is every reason to suspect that in just its third year of competition, it could have truly been a contender.
It is a simple concept, and one which I believe would help new teams. It gives them a step up to be able to compete, but it doesn’t hand them success on a plate. It must still be achieved by hard work and ingenuity.
What the last four years has taught us, however, is that talent alone is not enough. The teams can do their very best Emperor Nero impersonation, but if they want the sport to survive and if they want new blood to stand a chance, as they proclaim they do, then this small allowance must be permitted. I still find it beyond reason that Williams should be one of the chief voices against the return of customer cars, when Sir Frank himself began his F1 team running Piers Courage in a purchased Brabham in 1969. But that’s by the by.
Because, at the root of much of the discontent in the sport, is the simple fact that the teams have too much power. You want to blame someone for double points? Blame the Strategy Group. Engine Unfreeze? Strategy Group. That initial Team radio ban? Strategy Group.
I’ve said it once and I will say it again. You cannot expect competing entities to legislate for the furtherance of the sport. They will always be driven by their own agendas, be they sporting or financial. The teams will sit and crow that the demise of Caterham and Marussia is terribly sad and something should have been done to save them, but the truth of the matter is that the sport exists today in a political mess where only the teams have the ability to truly save themselves. That they have let two of their own destroy themselves is their responsibility. But it is a responsibility they should not have.
It has been reported that Jean Todt became so incensed with the teams’ inability to agree on something as simple as the enlargement of driver numbers that he realised early in his tenure that an agreement on a budget cap would be impossible. If that truly is the case then it is up to the President of this sport’s Governing Body to do what his job entails and to actually govern. If he cannot then he should move aside and an election should be held to find a leader of suitable conviction to take this sport by the neck and save it from itself.
The financial structure of the sport is also in desperate need of an overhaul. The very concept that certain teams should be given windfalls purely for being part of the sport, coupled with the unjust structuring of payments from top to bottom, would make any sane businessman walk away from the sport before he even began due diligence into the project. For while in principle all teams are equal, Formula 1 falls only too easily into the Orwellian nightmare that some are more equal than others.
That Gene Haas believes he can make a success of the sport, without the promise of a budget cap or customer cars, is bold. Some might say it is brave. Some might say it’s bloody stupid. One thing, however, seems certain. As things stand, his team might well be assured a top 10 constructors’ position in its debut season. And that, in itself, is why the sport must get on top of its issues. If there is no pressure to perform, no carrot of payments to dangle, then there is no need to develop and advance. While the financial structure does at least have this element correct, the precise payments and the structure of percentage increases per position is in need of a serious overhaul.
33 years ago, Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley led a revolution in the sport. The Concorde Agreement, which signaled the end of hostilities, remains today in a fairly similar form to the treaty that was drawn up more than three decades ago. The world has changed. The sport has changed. But its governance has altered little.
The time has come to rewrite this ageing document and reform our sport’s constitution. I do not have the answers as to what the solution should be, but one cannot operate a sport where competing entities have the absolute say on regulation, where the governing body sits impotent to the desires of those over which it was elected to govern, and where the finances of the operation and restrictions of regulation for the newcomers make it impossible to nurture the green shoots of a promising newcomer.
Caterham and Marussia will be missed. Their names will be logged alongside the other 153, many of whom achieved far more than 2010’s minnows. Race winners. Championship takers. No team is impervious to failure. None must ever become so.
But all should be given a fair chance to succeed. Sadly Caterham and Marussia, like HRT and USF1 before them, were seemingly doomed from the start.