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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Sebastian Vettel – A true F1 ‘great’?

Formula One drivers come and go. Some may win races but most won’t. Others shrink into obscurity after a career spent hidden in the midfield. But there are an elite few, those who are recognised as ‘greats’.

Undeniably, after clinching a fourth consecutive title following victory at the Indian GP – his third in succession – Sebastian Vettel now joins a pantheonic group of F1 drivers who are freely regarded as ‘great’.

But sadly this historic achievement, for a significant proportion of F1 fans throughout the world, is being devalued with claims that he has had it all too easy during his short but illustrious career.

True, the 26-year-old has benefitted from an Adrian Newey-inspired Red Bull car for the past four seasons.

Red Bull’s rise from midfield runners to all-conquering world champions has coincided with a change in regulations in 2009 that mixed the ‘normal’ grid up.

The struggling Honda effectively forfeited their 2008 season, concentrating on the 2009 regulations and inventing the ingenious double diffuser.

Despite knowing the potential of their cars, the Japanese giant pulled out of the sport citing high costs and sold their operation to Ross Brawn, who promptly guided the rebranded ‘Brawn GP’ to a world championship double, with Jenson Button taking the drivers’ championship.

Since then, Newey has worked his magic, developing the Red Bull cars into a force so strong they have swept away all before them. It has been a Vettel stampede across the subsequent four championships.

To undermine Vettel’s ability during this period though, is to flirt with grave ignorance.

F1 bosses had long been aware of the German’s potential ever since an astonishing performance in 2004, when driving for Mücke Motorsport in the German branch of Formula BMW.

His team was not the fastest in the championship, but that did not stop the immensely talented Vettel winning 18 out of 20 races. To underline his brilliance he finished second and third in the two races he didn’t manage to win, amassing a staggering 20 podiums.

In fact, that title remains the last drivers’ title that Mücke won, further illustrating just how special Vettel is.

These are not the achievements of a man who has zero ability, or who would later rely on a superior car to win four F1 world championships. Moreover, it was a telling sign of the domination that was to come.

After progressing to Formula Three in 2005, he drove a so-called inferior car to fifth place in the standings, before earning the F1 test driver role with BMW Sauber in 2006.

The following season, Vettel was leading the Formula Renault 3.5 Series – a platform to F1 – when BMW driver Robert Kubica suffered a huge crash at the Canadian GP, sustaining concussion and forcing BMW to promote him to a race seat in the next race.

In another sign of his talent, Vettel qualified seventh and finished eighth, scoring his maiden point in F1 at the first attempt.

Four races later he replaced Scott Speed at Toro Rosso. The Italians, Red Bull’s sister team, were perennial backmarkers but Vettel took an outstanding fourth place finish at the Chinese GP.

This convinced Red Bull enough to place him in a full race seat with Toro Rosso in 2008, where he again surpassed expectations.

Bouncing back from four retirements in the opening four races, he took the slow Toro Rosso to five points finishes before a breakthrough moment set his career on a fast upward curve.

A wet Monza qualifying session was the stage on which Vettel needed no second invitation to demonstrate his capabilities. He surged to pole position – the first of his career and, to date, the only one during Toro Rosso’s short time in F1.

On race day, his achievements rocketed even higher. Despite his lack of experience and a wet start to the Grand Prix, he showed extraordinary skill to guide his Toro Rosso to victory.

It was the type of lights-to-flag win that would become gut-wrenchingly familiar to his opponents over the next five seasons.

He went on to finish eighth in the 2008 championship, ahead of established names such as Rubens Barrichello and Jarno Trulli.

Red Bull came calling after the retirement of David Coulthard, and suddenly Vettel was winning races again.

In a season where Brawn were dominant, Vettel managed to outperform team-mate Mark Webber to take second in the championship behind Button. He took four victories in amongst a total of eight podiums.

His record since then is scary.

He has won 31 times more, taking his career race win tally to 36 – the fourth-highest ever.

With 43 pole positions, he has started over a third of the races in his career from the front.

He has also been on the podium 50 times in his four title-winning seasons, recording 59 in total.

That means that of the 117 races he has started in F1, he has been on the podium in 50.43% of them – a mind-boggling display. Additionally, over 30% of those races have been victories – hardly an example of a driver who relies solely on his car.

These are the kind of statistics that remain unchallenged in modern F1. Nobody even comes close to the achievements that Vettel has carved out.

His meticulous approach to everything F1, including a unique visit to the Pirelli tyre factory, is a trait of a winner, a champion with a fierce desire for success – and success he has grasped.

It is clear that his unpopularity this season largely stems from the ‘multi-21’ incident with Webber in Malaysia. The team had instructed the drivers to respect track position after the first pit stop, but Vettel relentlessly chased the Australian – who had dialled his engine power down – before passing him for victory.

Webber, himself a popular figure in the paddock and with fans around the world, was incensed. Nevertheless Vettel, although sheepish in victory, displayed a ruthless streak compatible only with that of a champion.

He has since been booed on the podium during victory, something which has been on the wane in recent races – particularly in India where it was perhaps non-existent and if not, inaudible.

Unfortunately, the fans have also attacked the sport because of his dominance, claiming it to be boring – whether that would be the case if ‘greats’ Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton were to have been as dominant is extremely unlikely.

His driving style may be win at all costs and some may frown upon that, but out of the cockpit he is as personable and friendly as they come. His cheeky and fun personality is always engaging and makes him a wonderful ambassador for the sport.

It is doubtful too whether the steadfast Alonso or the cocksure Hamilton would show as much humility as Vettel has done in the wake of four consecutive world championship triumphs – if they even get there.

Vettel’s record alone is worthy of the ‘greatness’ tag. Add to that his almost limitless talent and ability – displayed with crushing victories in junior and senior formulae – and you have a driver who should unquestionably be lauded as a true F1 ‘great’, joining names of the calibre of Schumacher, Fangio and Senna.

He really is that good – and the scary part for his opposition is that he is improving all the time. Are title numbers five, six, seven and eight feasible? For Vettel, anything is possible – and with the talent at his disposal, it is entirely probable.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89