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F1, road relevance and getting the manufacturers back

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Another year, another period of melodrama and discussions about why F1 is or isn’t on the decline. This year, F1’s Strategy Group has come up with a bunch of silly ideas about how to make the cars look more spectacular (sparks, glowing brake discs etc), as if that would somehow be a silver bullet to F1’s problems.

Leaving aside the inherent issues with two other silver bullets dominating the 2014 season (which can’t be helped and will eventually be overturned; it’s always the way in F1), it all feels like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You could make the cars all look and sound like the Ferrari 412T2, the most glorious creation ever to emerge from Maranello’s windtunnels, and yet it would make no difference.

F1’s biggest problem at the moment is money – or rather the lack of in some key areas. It’s funny that a sport that charges the spectator over £100 to attend one of its events can be struggling financially, but it’s because all of the revenue goes via the commercial rights holder, and not that much comes out the other end. It’s why Bernie Ecclestone has mounted an enormous personal fortune while a number of teams are on the brink of financial ruin, including a recent race-winner and former champion in the shape of the Enstone-based team currently known as Lotus.

Financial problems for F1 teams is by no means a new phenomenon; teams collapsing was a frequent occurrence in the 1990s. The problem is this time F1 does not have the strength in depth. In the 1990s, teams collapsed because there were too many of them to begin with; it was Darwinism in action. But there would always be enough left or arriving to keep the grid at a healthy size. This time, if two or three teams collapse, the sport will likely lose a significant chunk of the midfield – and for good.

If Sauber, for instance, disappear, there is little prospect of them being replaced by a similarly-competitive team, and their top-of-the-range facilities at Hinwil, Switzerland will be lost to the sport for good at a time when no one has the money to build a new one. Any loss of a medium-sized or large team now would probably permanently damage the sport.

While F1 will soon gain at least one, if not two new teams in the next couple of years, it is unlikely that they will be battling for podium finishes any time soon, as evidenced by Caterham and Marussia’s struggles since joining in 2010.

At the heart of the financial woes of the likes of Lotus and Sauber is the decline of F1 sponsorship. Prior to the global financial crisis, front-running and midfield F1 teams could find title sponsors who would provide a big chunk of the budget, and they could bank on a lot of smaller sponsors to make up any deficit. But it was noticeable as early as 2008 and 2009 that F1 teams were losing many sponsors, both large and small, and were unable to replace them.

I doubt many people would have predicted that five or six years later teams would still be struggling to find backers. Even McLaren, one of F1’s best-known and most successful teams, was unable to find a title sponsor for this season after Vodafone’s departure from the sport. Luckily for McLaren, though, they have the arrival of Honda to look forward to next year, which should ease any concerns they have.

This itself highlights arguably the lack of the most important title sponsors of all: car manufacturers.

Over the course of 2008 and 2009, F1 lost three of the biggest manufacturers in the world in the shape of Honda, Toyota and BMW, all of whom ploughed millions into the sport every year. F1 has since been left with just three large manufacturers: Mercedes, Fiat (as Ferrari), and Renault, who themselves have scaled back their involvement.

2009 marked the end of the era of manufacturer domination, which had lasted since the late 1990s and had seen budgets skyrocket to incomprehensible levels. It has proven very difficult to return to a different state: technology cannot be ‘uninvented’, and the hi-tech facilities inherently cost a lot to operate, so you cannot just reduce budgets back to the level they were twenty years ago, especially when Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes have continued to spend big regardless of the collapse of their rivals.

Attempts have been made to kerb spending but usually a way is found around them, or they are just blocked altogether, as demonstrated recently when the FIA dropped their plan for a cost cap in the face of opposition from F1’s biggest spenders. It is clear that they are never going to allow parity with the smaller teams; it would be like trying to force Roman Abramovich to only give Chelsea the same budget as Cheltenham Town.

The alternative solution, rather than reducing everyone’s budgets to the same level, is to find a way of boosting the budgets of the teams struggling financially, and in the current climate, the only way this is going to be possible is to attract the manufacturers back to the sport. With the exception of a uniquely generous corporation like Red Bull, the manufacturers are the only companies who can and, if encouraged, will invest heavily in F1.

F1 has taken steps to try and entice manufacturers back into the sport; the new smaller, more efficient turbocharged engines introduced this year are meant to mirror trends in road car engines, while energy recovery systems were also meant to be environmentally-friendly technology to be used in road cars. But the sport could and should go much further.

Many F1 fans object to this principle, arguing that what F1 cars should ultimately be is pure thoroughbred prototypes. But this ignores the reality of the current climate, where financial and environmental concerns are at the top of the agenda. You are never going to find companies who would back someone to make a car that is only meant to go fast around a circuit 20 times a year and is of no relevance to the outside world. Motor racing in the twenty-first century has to have the facade of road relevance at the very least.

This isn’t to say F1 should be about getting twenty Vauxhall Adams together and thrashing them around a track; if people wanted to see that, they would flock to their local racing circuit every time there’s a track day on. The public want to see fast cars that look and sound good and will create exciting in action when in the hands of the best drivers in the world. But there has to be a balance struck.

In any case, an entirely thoroughbred formula probably wouldn’t be very exciting to watch, as evidenced by period between 1992 and 1993 when F1 was dominated by Williams and many of the races were processions of unspectacular cars wired up to the brim with the latest electronic gadgets, including active ride suspension, anti-lock brakes and traction control. There has to be a limit on the lengths you can go to with an F1 car.

And then there’s the cost issue, and the attraction of the formula to manufacturers. When BMW announced their departure from F1 in 2009, they said they would be willing to return if F1 became more road relevant. And while F1 has made some concessions to this, it has not made a major visible push.

Ironically, the wishes those fans who want a more open formula and a more competitive, innovative development race between teams, harking back to the 1990s, may ultimately be satisfied by more road relevant technology in F1.

At its core, F1 was an engine formula but engine development remains incredibly restricted, even when designing new engines as was the case for this year. The engine freeze has led to an increased focus on the cars themselves, which has probably had a negative impact on the sport.

Instead, the solution may be to restrict development of the cars and move the focus back to the engines; after all, very few road cars benefit from front and rear wing development, but all of them have an engine. And the way to do this would be to have engines based on those found in road cars.

Of course, they would have to be heavily modified; we have already seen how controversial ‘disappointing’ engines can be this year. The only restrictions should be the size, that they would have to be based on a road car engine, and that they would have to have a turbocharger attached (even if not found on the road car version). But this would still probably be much cheaper than developing one from scratch, as well as being more relevant to road cars.

This would be an incredibly enticing package to road car manufacturers; the two main hurdles to their involvement would be removed. With restrictions on development also gone, F1 will once again be an engine formula, sacrificing very little for greater support. As an added bonus, fuel supply should also be opened up: why exclude diesel, hydrogen, LPG and other alternative fuels when they are becoming an increasingly important part of road car development? Sports cars and touring cars have embraced them; so should F1.

Ultimately, this is what F1’s Strategy Group should be discussing. Dressing up the cars in fancy clothing or adding double points for the final race will only ever be temporary, plastic solutions. If F1 wants to move forward as a sport, it has to fundamentally change. Otherwise it will look increasingly out of step and out of date in a world of very different concerns and priorities to the one in which it was established back in 1950.

The six most important manufacturers F1 needs to entice:

6. Hyundai

F1 has lacked Asian manufacturer involvement in recent years since Toyota and Honda pulled out, and even before that, it had been largely Japanese. Hyundai, now the fourth-biggest manufacturer in the world, have long been rumoured to make an assault on F1. Their motorsport involvement has largely been limited to rallying, but their influence is growing in Europe and North America, as well as being powerful in their home country, South Korea

5. BMW

The German company’s shock withdrawal in 2009 came after a successful second period in the support, firstly with Williams and then with Sauber. Their return would add enormous credibility due to their status as one of the world’s most popular car brands, particularly in the luxury sector. Their current focus is on the DTM, the German touring car series, which they returned to in 2012.

4. General Motors

F1 has long been fascinated with the American market, in part due to its reluctance to embrace F1. Though they are no longer the giants of the industry, GM are still the second-biggest car manufacturer in the world, and remain the owners of the Opel, Chevrolet, Vauxhall, Buick and Cadillac brands. GM has never been involved with F1, but has recently returned to making IndyCar engines and is also the dominant force in NASCAR. Until recently, it was also the leading manufacturer in the World Touring Car Championship.

3. Volkswagen AG

VW AG are another giant corporation who have so far steered clear of F1, despite enormous success in motorsport: VW marques have won 13 of the last 14 Le Mans 24 Hours, and Volkswagen is the current dominant force in the World Rally Championship. But the corporation, which owns Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Skoda, SEAT, Bentley and Bugatti, as well as the famous Auto Union name and the Ducati motorcycle company, has so far avoided entering F1, though some of its brands have been involved in the past.

2. Toyota

The world’s largest car manufacturer entered F1 in 2002 to much fanfare and with a gigantic budget, but in eight frustrating seasons, the team never won a race and withdrew at the end of 2009 despite a successful season. The former F1 base is now being used to prepare the company’s Le Mans prototypes. The Toyota brand is enormously valuable and well-respected around the world, and there is unfinished business in F1.

1. Ford

Having dropped to fifth in the manufacturing rankings, you could be forgiven that the Ford brand has taken something of a hit in recent years, but the famous Blue Oval is still an enormously powerful symbol. It is also intrinsic to F1: the Ford Cosworth DFV engine remains the most successful F1 engine of all time, winning races between 1967 and 1983, and the company remained a vital supporter of teams lower down the grid well into the 1990s.

But the Ford name has not been seen on the grid since 2004, when the company withdrew after a disastrous winless spell owning the Jaguar team. Only Ferrari have started more races as an engine supplier than Ford; Renault will almost certainly pass the American marque with their 524th start at the next grand prix to move into second. F1 just doesn’t feel right without Ford.

Images used with the spirit of fair use

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Written by James Bennett

April 25, 2014 at 17:37

Posted in F1, F1 politics, F1 teams

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