Market forces and Forti Corses

December 4, 2008

Here’s a little fact that you might not know, unless you’ve been following Formula 1 for over twenty years or like to read the FIA rule book at bedtime. The maximum number of cars permitted to start a World Championship Grand Prix race is 26.  Qualifying sessions would weed out the slowest runners, and, where necessary, Pre-qualifying sessions were held on Friday mornings to decide who had sufficient speed to be allowed to attempt to qualify.

This little nugget of information is likely to only serve any useful purpose in pub quizzes for the forseeable future, because the risk of there being a 26-car field in Formula 1 is very much on the wane.  The big news is that Honda are now all but certain to pull out of Grand Prix racing effective immediately, their team and assets offered on the market to anyone wishing to throw £100 million per annum at a very below-par F1 outfit.  Failing that, there will be just 18 cars on the grid in Melbourne next spring, the lowest entry in 12 years and just two above the magic 16 mark, at which stage the front-running teams are obliged – under the sport’s commercial and sporting agreement – to run a third car.

Honda’s news is a shock, but it’s not a surprise.  I’ve written here before about the dangers of Formula 1 making the blasé assumptions that it will neither be harmed by the financial crisis, nor should it affect the prolonged involvement of largely-unsuccessful teams owned family car manufacturers, who are answerable only to their shareholders.  The 1995 Monaco Grand Prix was the last time the grid of a World Championship event was completely full up.  Six months previous to this, in Adelaide for the 1994 season finale, was the last time a driver or team failed to qualify on the basis of grid position alone – the hopeless Pacific Ilmors of Gachot and Belmondo, unable to even outpace Jean-Denis Deletraz.  These 1994 and 1995 seasons marked a major watershed in Formula 1.  It was the end of more than a decade of plenty, where one, two, three or more new teams would emerge for the start of every season.  The last new team to truly arrive in F1 – rather than buying out an existing outfit – were Toyota, six years ago.  Before them, it was Stewart Ford, another five years previous.  If the time of AGS, Larrousse, Simtek, Pacific and Forti Corse seems like it belongs to a different age, it’s most likely because it does.  Gaps which emerge in the paddock nowadays are simply not refilled.  And the worry in that, as any buff midshipman would tell you, is that it’s a sure sign that things are about to start sinking.

The reason for this, very simply, is money.  Running a Formula 1 team, never a cheap enterprise, is now prohibitively expensive.  It’s perhaps telling that the majority of the Russian energy billionaires or Arab oil oligarchs splashing the cash at the moment have chosen football instead of motorsport.  Whilst the extra global appeal of football is sure to have a major bearing on this, it also rather suggests that Formula 1 is neatly sidestepped as a money pit.  It is, apparently, a more financially-sound proposition to buy Manchester City or Queens Park Rangers and try and make them champions of England than it is to fund a Grand Prix team, against just 9 rivals – at least 7 of whom will spend next season with one eye on their points tally and the other on their rapidly-balding accountants.

To their credit, the FIA are aware of this and are looking at a number of cost-saving solutions for the short-to-medium term survival of the sport.  But to use the sinking boat analogy again, it looks to be one puffy middle aged man trying to bail out the Titanic with his bowler hat.  Indeed, the hat may well have a hole in it, as some of the solutions mooted – standard engines being the major sticking point – seem likely to see teams start to withdraw for sporting reasons rather than just financial ones.  The FIA’s problem here is incompatible with the teams’ wishes.  The FIA want to find a solution which will preserve the current field and entice new entrants.  The teams, whilst not wanting to be forced to run a third car, don’t want to make it easy on any Johnny-Come-Lately, ramshackle, oily Herberts to come into the paddock and have a chance of beating their pristine and shiny cars.  Something is going to have to give.

For all this tension with the entrants, it would be easy to overlook the other issue thrown up by the market wobbles.  Namely, we could end up with a healthy-looking field of cars but nowhere to race them.  The astronomical fees charged to Grand Prix organisers are starting to tell, especially in Grand Prix racing’s European motherland.  Next season sees the oldest Grand Prix of them all, in France, absent because the ACF simply can’t justify the expenditure.  Hockenheim, home of the German Grand Prix since 1977, looks set to be the next to go, organisers seemingly unwilling to have a repeat of this year’s event, which made a loss of five million Euros.  Canada, too, has fallen victim, leaving Formula 1 teams seeking American investment with only one showcase event on that continent next year, in Brazil.

It’s a bit like the beginning of the Great War, all this.  Everyone can see it coming.  Everyone can see the problem.  But everyone has dug themselves into such a rut they are simply not willing to take any action which may stop the inevitable.  The inevitable in this case being a 12-round, 4-car blast around a series of Middle Eastern circuits, some of which have corners demarcated by stray camels, depleted-uranium shell casings or war crimes.  Formula 1 is I think, in its current incarnation, too sick to survive.  The question surely is, considering all the bluster, backbiting and nonsense, is this such a bad thing?

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