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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Women in Formula One

Women in Formula One – it’s the topic on everyone’s lips in the motorsport community.

This morning, the subject was elevated further into the public domain with the patronising comments of Sir Stirling Moss.

In an interview with BBC Radio 5live Moss, 83, said on the prospect of women competing in F1: “I think they have the strength, but I don’t know if they’ve got the mental aptitude to race hard, wheel-to-wheel.”

Such comments are not only unnecessary, they are fundamentally flawed.

There are several women competing in motorsport’s most famous disciplines – notably Danica Patrick, who earlier this season became the first woman to take pole position for the Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s biggest race.

Patrick, who currently drives for the Stewart-Haas team, also became the first woman to lead a lap in the Daytona 500 and went on to finish eighth, despite entering the final lap in third place.

Patrick, 31, is also a former IndyCar driver – and a very successful one at that.

In 2008, she became the first woman to win an IndyCar race, securing victory at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit in Japan.

She also earned the rookie of the year accolade in 2005, while also showing her consistency by boasting the record for the number of consecutive IndyCar races finished – which stood at 50 before she switched to stock car racing in 2012.

Fellow female racing driver, Britain’s Katherine Legge, 32, also competed in IndyCar during the 2012 season, but she was cruelly replaced at the Dragon Racing team for 2013 despite having signed a two-year contract to race for them.

Her sponsors, TrueCar, took the decision to sign Colombian driver Sebastian Saavedra for 2013 despite entering the sport looking to sustain their Women Empowered initiative the year before.

TrueCar’s sudden change of heart has been viewed by many critics as a dishonest way of breaking in to IndyCar – and now Legge has been left without a drive this season.

Legge undoubtedly has the skill to drive at the highest level of single-seater racing in the USA, but this development leaves her future IndyCar career in jeopardy.

However, the future for women in Formula One, motorsport’s highest level of competition, looks altogether brighter, despite today’s comments from Moss.

Legge tested a Minardi car in 2005, becoming the first woman to do so for three years, and since then Spanish driver Maria de Villota and Scotland’s Susie Wolff have both driven an F1 car in testing format.

Sadly, de Villota lost her right eye in a freak accident during a test with F1 minnows Marussia last year, but the probability of Wolff – a development driver for Williams – driving competitively in F1 is much higher.

Wolff, who is married to Mercedes big cheese Toto Wolff, has completed seven seasons in German Touring Cars (DTM), with a career-best finish of seventh for Persson Motorsport – a privateer team which has seen good success, counting current F1 driver Paul di Resta and McLaren test driver Gary Paffett among its former employees.

However, sceptics of Wolff’s involvement in F1 claim that she has not done enough to warrant her place within the Williams setup, and that her powerful husband is putting his clout behind her in her bid to race in F1.

Such opinions seem unsubstantiated, but she will need to impress Williams – who currently employ Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas in F1 – to earn a drive in a future season.

One driver who is also turning heads with her performances is 18-year-old Dutch driver Beitske Visser, who last week announced that she had been signed onto Red Bull Racing’s junior team.

Red Bull have claimed both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles in the past three seasons and are the dominant force in F1.

They also have two graduates of the junior team – Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne – racing in their second F1 season for sister team Toro Rosso.

Visser will look to maintain her impressive results in the ADAC Formel Masters series, where she recorded two victories, as she bids to become only the sixth woman to earn an F1 contract.

Of the previous five, just two have qualified sufficiently to start a race.

Those two drivers are Italians Maria Teresa de Filippis and Lella Lombardi, who is the only woman in history to have scored points in an F1 race.

That success came at the horrific 1975 Spanish Grand Prix where Lombardi, racing for March, finished sixth in a race that was abruptly curtailed by the death of five spectators following a big crash involving Rolf Stommelen, who sustained a broken leg, wrist and two cracked ribs.

As the race finished before half distance, the points were halved meaning that Lombardi received just 0.5 points for sixth instead of the usual one.

De Filippis, meanwhile, was the subject of additional comments from Moss this morning, with the 16-time race winner claiming in debasing fashion that he used to “blow a kiss” to de Filippis if ever he lapped her, later adding that “she knew there was a race going on around her and she’d keep her eye on the mirrors and she’d always pull over.”

Moss and his comments have provoked angry reaction from women and feminists in and outside of the sport, with Wolff claiming his opinions made her “cringe”, before stating that she is part of a “different generation.”

It appears that Moss is in the minority with his views, particularly as several women are now involved in the sport on merit.

Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn will, in future, no longer be the sole female team principal on the grid, as Claire Williams, daughter of founder Sir Frank, is being given a more involved role at Williams with a view to running the team when he is no longer capable.

Add Wolff and Visser to the equation and there is a good possibility of F1 welcoming a female driver to the sport for the first time since 1992.

Whilst it is extremely unlikely that Patrick and Legge will be attracted to F1 to race for a small team due to the lucrative positions they find themselves in stateside, their presence in motorsport should serve as inspiration alone to a new generation of female drivers – one or more of whom could make it into Formula One in the future.

There is no doubt that women can and are driving at the highest levels in motorsport, but the moment when a woman competes full-time in F1 is merely a matter of when, not if – and rightly so.

Alonso the Alchemist: 2013 F1 season preview

Formula One cars are ugly – that is, before they are painted in their respective liveries.

Their skeletal shell is one of carbon fibre – a substance resembling a black synthetic cloth.

Had Fernando Alonso, in his carbon fibre Ferrari, actually pulled off his amazing assault on the 2012 F1 drivers’ championship, he would literally have turned his beastly car into gold – becoming an alchemist in the process.

So slow had the Spaniard’s scarlet machine been in pre-season testing, few had given him hope of getting into the points on a regular basis.

That Alonso led the drivers’ championship for much of the season, until the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel finally overhauled him, shows what a fierce competitor the man from Oviedo is.

This season, testing has flowed rather more smoothly for the Italian marque, and the hope is that they have finally given Alonso a car capable of exploiting his exceptional talent from the first Grand Prix in Australia this Sunday.

In theory, if Alonso had the ability to push a faster car all the way to the final race last season, he should be able to win it in a car which is vastly better than one year ago.

Formula One is never that simple though.

The ‘Prancing Horse’ will have to hurdle the imposing obstacle of Red Bull, who have fatally gored their opponents for the last three years to establish themselves as the dominant team in F1.

Their ‘lead’ driver, Sebastian Vettel, will be hunting for a fourth consecutive drivers’ title, and in Mark Webber he has a team-mate who is capable of winning any race on his day – despite the in-house nepotism built around his young colleague.

In McLaren, Alonso will also have cause for concern. The British team have elected to start afresh for 2013, rather than evolve a car that finished 2012 as the fastest on the grid.

Their thinking behind this move is that the new car will open up a new path of development which the old car lacked – and should their calculations materialise they will get stronger as the season wears on.

Despite losing Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, McLaren have a powerful line-up, with Jenson Button and newcomer Sergio Perez both likely to excel in an era where looking after the delicate Pirelli tyres is key.

Then there is Lotus, a team who arguably conceive the most inventive cars on the grid. Having been pioneers of the tricky passive DRS system, the team based in Enstone is rumoured to have mastered it – a potentially crucial advantage in the race for the title.

Their driver line-up, of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, remains unchanged for 2013 and their target of third in the constructors’ will depend on Grosjean’s ability to rid himself of the costly first-lap crashes that blighted his comeback season last year.

Mercedes too, seem to have made a step forward. Their car finished ‘fastest’ in pre-season testing – however the headline lap-times are to be taken with a pinch of salt as fuel quantities, setups and a number of other variants are religiously hidden by the teams (there is little way of knowing which car definitively looks quickest at this stage).

The addition of Hamilton also helps the German giants in their quest to bridge the gap to the ‘top four’, while his team-mate Nico Rosberg faces what is widely reckoned to be a career-defining season.

Aside from the top five teams, the midfield battle is microscopically close. Williams appear to have evolved their race-winning 2012 car into what is debatably the sexiest on the grid.

The sometimes maladroit Bruno Senna has been replaced by Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas – who outpaced 2013 team-mate Pastor Maldonado in several FP1 sessions last season – and the team certainly look ready to score consistent points.

Sauber and Force India are joined by Toro Rosso in the midfield race, with the latter looking likely to make a notable step up in performance from 2012, where they languished within the clutches of backmarkers Caterham and Marussia.

Sauber will hope that the exciting all-new partnership of Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez can bring instant dividends to a team that finished on the podium four times in 2012, while Force India need to improve on a season which was hallmarked in underachievement.

Scottish driver Paul di Resta is joined by Adrian Sutil, who returns to the sport following a one-year lay-off as a result of a GBH conviction, and their instant aim for 2013 is to score a podium finish.

Caterham and Marussia, meanwhile, have each brought in two new drivers as they try to stay afloat in Formula One’s money-guzzling environment.

Marussia were most visible in pre-season testing for their employment of ‘pay-drivers’ rather than their pace, as Timo Glock and Luiz Razia both lost contracts due to a lack of sponsorship – Razia rather more unfortunately so because of a last-minute U-turn from his financial backers.

They are replaced by British rookie Max Chilton and Ferrari academy prospect Jules Bianchi, whose rich reputation very nearly landed him a drive at Force India.

Caterham, like Nico Rosberg, face a defining season in the sport. Consistently finishing fastest of F1’s newest teams they have threatened, and failed, to catch the midfield and earn their first world championship point. If they are to show signs of progression their driver line-up of Charles Pic and rookie Giedo van der Garde must score that elusive point to keep their sponsors interested.

With testing indicating very little about what shape the grid will take in Melbourne, a unanimous verdict would be to say that the pack of 22 cars looks closer than it has ever been in recent seasons.

In that type of situation, the most consistent team and driver will usually come out on top to win the respective championships – an observation which favours F1’s resident alchemist Alonso.

The Age of Pay Drivers in Formula 1

Timo Glock’s departure from Marussia yesterday confirmed that “pay drivers” have taken control of over a third of the Formula 1 grid in 2013.

Currently there are three seats available for 2013, at Force India, Caterham and now Marussia, and they are all expected to be filled by drivers with vast financial backing.

A total of 8 pay drivers will therefore race amongst a field of 22, with Mexican youngster Sergio Perez the most high-profile.

The newly-signed McLaren driver, hastily appointed as successor to Lewis Hamilton after his move to rivals Mercedes, has backing from Carlos Slim – the richest man in the world.

Arguably, Perez has fully earned his seat at McLaren after a string of impressive drives in 2012 which included two podiums. Had he not ran wide in pursuit of Fernando Alonso in Malaysia, he may well have notched a maiden victory in just his second season in the sport.

His ability to look after the sensitive Pirelli tyres more carefully than any other driver on the grid (while still lapping as quickly as the leaders) is a highly-coveted trait that McLaren deemed irresistible – a point highlighted by the speed with which they swooped for the 22-year-old.

While his talent is obvious to see, his alarming drop in form once he signed with the Woking-based team led some to accuse McLaren of being too hasty in the signing of Hamilton’s replacement.

Another high-profile driver, Pastor Maldonado, has huge backing from Venezuela – his homeland – but has proved to be as reckless as he is quick.

A maiden victory in Spain last season gave him no shortage of confidence, yet it is this confidence (at times unshakable) that continues to undermine his ability.

Maldonado has a history of deliberately colliding with other drivers – notably with Hamilton at Spa in 2011, and with Perez at Monaco in 2012 – and his aggressive driving style also led to a crash in Valencia last season which led to Hamilton’s dramatic retirement from the race.

Perez and Maldonado graduated from GP2, Maldonado impressively so after winning the title, but they have yet to follow Hamilton’s lead and take their driving onto the next level – and this is causing an increasing number of problems in the sport.

Pay drivers are replacing more experienced drivers in the smaller teams towards the back of the grid – and the sport is seeing more accidents as a result.

Take Romain Grosjean for example. The Franco-Swiss driver was involved in seven first-lap incidents in 2012 having won the GP2 title in 2011, and, although he was not signed by Lotus for his cash, he has failed to translate his speed into error-free racing.

It seems also that long-term contracts are no longer honoured as the sport becomes increasingly costly for smaller teams.

Glock’s departure is a case in point. The German’s multi-year contract with Marussia was mutually terminated as the Russian-owned team look for more money to sustain their existence.

Similarly, in early 2012, Italian veteran Jarno Trulli was ousted from his seat at Caterham, despite having driven in the first test at Jerez, and replaced by Russian driver Vitaly Petrov.

Heikki Kovalainen, his team-mate and a highly-valued driver, was thought to be safe after three superb seasons with the minnows, yet Caterham disagreed and a lack of funding has seen his F1 career dissolve with heartless rapidity.

Kovalainen had enjoyed a distinguished career, competing in two seasons for McLaren in 2008 and 2009 (winning one Grand Prix), but his unwillingness to secure financial backing – instead arguing that his talent should be enough to keep his drive – ultimately led to his exit.

At Sauber, a similar story befell the exciting Kamui Kobayashi.

Kobayashi, noted for his daring overtaking manoeuvres, was an extremely popular figure in Formula 1, but again a lack of funding led to his seat being filled by Mexican 22-year-old Esteban Gutierrez, a driver who also enjoys backing from Carlos Slim.

Even a podium in the Japanese Grand Prix, his home race, and a subsequent fundraising campaign by the Japanese public (still recovering from the devastating effects of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami) which raised €8 million to try and keep him in the sport, was not enough.

It is only a matter of time before pay drivers infiltrate the very top teams such as Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren.

Perez is the first man with significant financial backing to take a seat in one of the top three teams, and with expensive new regulations coming into the sport in 2014, he won’t be the last.

Genuine proven talents are being dismissed from the sport as the costs needed to remain on the grid continue to escalate. Sadly, pay drivers are being fast-tracked to the midfield and tailend teams and their inexperience will continue to hinder a sport which once nurtured the brightest talents from the slower teams to the front (think Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, both Minardi graduates).

Until the cost of Formula 1 is seriously addressed, the age of pay drivers, no matter how able, will endure ever longer.

Think of pay drivers as a toxin and Formula 1 as your body. Would you honestly allow these toxins to circulate around your body, poisoning you until your death? Thought not. So why should Formula 1 be any different?