Are F1’s ‘small’ teams doomed?

Formula One used to be so accessible.

Privateer teams would spring up almost overnight and become instantly competitive – at times the sport was dominated by young teams such as Tyrrell, McLaren, Williams and Benetton.

McLaren and Williams, of course, remain two of the most successful teams in history but the same cannot be said of newer, smaller teams, particularly in the last ten years.

In the space of six years four teams – Super Aguri, Toyota, HRT and Marussia – have gone completely bust.

Another, Caterham, is in need of a buyer to remain in the sport after entering administration, although they have been told they can run their 2014-spec cars in 2015.

Marussia are hoping to preserve their existence by auctioning off their assets and assuming their maiden name of Manor F1 for the 2015 season, providing they can secure new ownership.

Not even the carrot of a £40m bonus for finishing in ninth place has so far proved tempting for potential investors in the Marussia team.

It means that F1’s three newest teams, HRT, Marussia and Caterham could all be wiped out after just five seasons.

So the inevitable question must be asked: Are F1’s small teams doomed?

The current trend certainly doesn’t look promising.

Ten seasons ago, in 2005, four small teams were taken over, some suffering with various financial ailments.

Those teams were Minardi, Jordan, BAR and Sauber and their current guises are Toro Rosso, Force India, Mercedes and Sauber – but their journeys to those destinations have been largely protracted ones.

Of the four, Toro Rosso has been running longest – a total of ten years.

The former Jordan team has morphed into Midland, Spyker and now Force India, while BAR has changed to Honda, Brawn GP and now reigning champions Mercedes.

Sauber, meanwhile, were bought by BMW before the Germans phased themselves out of the sport, eventually returning to the Sauber name in 2009.

In 2010 further overhauls at Renault, now Lotus, and Virgin Racing, now Marussia, were applied.

So the trend of the smaller teams encountering serious financial problems seems to be strengthening rather than decreasing, and that came to a head this season.

A new era of green V6 hybrid-turbo engines has prompted a tripling in their expense from roughly £5m per unit to £10-£15m.

The cost of running a team in just one season has consequently soared to £75m per season, meaning teams are increasingly turning to pay drivers to help fund their existence.

Pastor Maldonado is the highest-paying driver on the grid, with his Venezuelan oil money boosting the Lotus budget by £30m each season.

However, the spotlight has recently switched to the visions of the self-nominated ‘big teams’ who have been pushing for three-car teams.

Red Bull boss Christian Horner, who himself has experience of building a team from scratch in lower formulae with Arden, was vocal in saying that small teams should not be in F1 if they couldn’t afford it.

It is Red Bull’s close alliance with Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and Mercedes that has forced the microscope upon them.

These teams operate on a significantly higher budget than the likes of Force India and Sauber, who have seemingly been cut adrift in a ‘survival of the richest’ scenario.

The share of prize money is also weighted towards the top teams, with Ferrari given a guaranteed $100m per season just for turning up.

Frenzied calls have been made to divide the $800m in prize money more fairly and, until this happens, no matter how unlikely, it is difficult to see how smaller teams can close the gap on the track and earn more prize money by merit only.

With this in mind, it is unsurprising that automotive titans like Toyota have appeared and then vanished from the sport in quick time.

Armed with a mighty budget and an ambitious strategy, the Japanese manufacturer tried and failed to first establish itself in F1 and then win races.

A tally of 13 podiums was a poor return on an eight-season campaign which splashed hundreds of millions of pounds during its being.

BMW also dipped their toes in the F1 water, but found the going tough despite earning a race win in 2008 courtesy of Robert Kubica in Montreal.

Honda also quit the sport in 2009, despite building a championship-winning car and selling it to Ross Brawn for £1.

Some experts have questioned the existence of new teams in F1 with the stories of Toyota, BMW and Honda in mind.

If their extensive budgets were not enough, how can new and smaller teams expect to survive?

That conundrum has not deterred Gene Haas, who is set to enter his own F1 team in 2016, having deferred his entry from 2015.

Haas can call on a budget drawn from an expansive and hugely successful NASCAR career, with his long-standing interest in F1 finally proving too tempting to resist entering his own team.

There are also rumours that the VW Audi group are researching and assessing the viability of their own entry in 2017, having been buoyed by the £1.8bn worth of television exposure gained by rivals Mercedes this season.

It is likely that both these new projects will be well-funded but, as seen with Toyota, that does not guarantee success.

Small teams in F1 will continue to be discriminated against by Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, Williams and McLaren.

It is a reality that will endure until a compromise can be reached with either the distribution of prize money, or the yearly cost of running an F1 team.

The new green regulations have ironically repelled teams from the sport rather than attract them, so something has to budge.

Will that budging be the extinction of F1’s smaller teams, a fairer sharing of prize money or a reduction of costs?

At the moment the issue of money is poisoning the sport and with it, the smaller teams too.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

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