Tiers and tantrums

May 12, 2009

As I had hoped, the Spanish Grand Prix answered a lot of questions about the potential direction of the 2009 season.  It’s now clear that Brawn are set fair to be the team to beat this year and that when it comes undone, as it inevitably will, in terms of reliability, mistakes or other japery, that Red Bull are the team most likely to pick up the pieces.  Ferrari, too, are starting to show their teeth, and in a season where the field is covered, front-to-back, by 1.5 seconds, it can’t be too long before someone other than Jenson Button or Sebastian Vettel wins a race.

The quality of the racing was also notable for its improvements.  The cars are now certainly following one another closer than they have been able to for some time, and although overtaking is still incredibly difficult (which, I have always believed, it should be… this is Formula 1, after all), steps which have been taken to improving the closeness of the racing have been steps in the right direction.

Of course, F1 being the sport it is, it threw up just as many new posers in the process of answering these points of competition.  Firstly, the budget cap issue has the potential to be the post divisive and damaging since the FISA-FOCA wars of the early 1980s.  Ferrari’s board are today meeting to discuss whether or not they would still be willing to enter a two-tier version of the sport.  Whilst I firmly subscribe to Max Mosley’s view that the sport can survive without Ferrari – it did so for great swathes of the 1980s and 1990s, from a competition standpoint at least – more of a concern is that the Scuderia are merely at the vanguard of a larger exodus.  Dietrich Mateschitz, the owner of Red Bull, was in Barcelona to state categorically that his teams would similarly not enter next season’s championship in the current proposed form.  It also looks likely that Toyota will follow suit… even if it proves to be  a move of financial expendiency dressed up as a sporting objection.

Formula 1 would be hugely devalued by such a walk out.  Ferrari, the Red Bull quartet and Toyota are more than just eight cars, they are thousands of exceptionally talented and experienced people, many of whom count the business of Formula 1 racing as their whole life’s work.  A turnout of hastily cobbled-together teams with new names, mercenaries and refugees racing to an arbitrary financial constraint, probably all with a Cosworth engine… it would be the end of the sport in everything but the name.

It cannot be denied that, particularly now, the costs of Formula 1 racing are totally unsustainable.  To complain that new teams are being put off from entering, blanching at the level of fiscal commitment, however, is to ignore the fact that it was ever thus.  During the insane turbo era, Formula 1 saw more entrants than at any time in its history.  Very few remnants of those heady days still exist in their current form, but notable drivers and engineers have been cherry-picked from the projects and have gone on to enjoy famous careers.  Formula 1 is a meritocratic exercise.  The better you are, the more money you earn.  The more money you earn, the better you can invest in being better still.  However, you only need to point to this season as an example of the fact that it’s not simply a case of money talking.  The raft of measures the FIA has instituted in recent years have been with a view to helping the teams to help themselves, to help the sport.  I think that they have worked.  Before the budget cap row erupted, talk was of two new teams entering the sport for 2010.  Things looked healthier than they had in nearly 20 years.  Perhaps the best thing the FIA can do now is to take a step back and try and help the sport themselves.

Maybe a better solution would be to get each team to declare their outgoings for the previous season at the start of the new, and then apply a penalty in that season’s constructor’s championship – let’s say a point for every $1 million dollars, over a certain sum of money.  This would allow teams to set their own budgets, but also allow them the option of balancing this against a better position – and ultimately more prize money – in the following year’s Constructors’ Cup standings.  Either way, to penalise the teams for their decades of excess is one thing, but to end up penalising the fans can simply not stand.

It’s a scary future, so the best thing we fans can do is relish the present.  2009’s big sporting issue is currently Rubens Barrichello.  After years of toeing the Ferrari party line, Rubens’ throwaway comment that he’d not tolerate a similar situation at Brawn has been gleefully jumped on by the media, trumpeted as a QUIT THREAT or an ULTIMATUM.  Things are, in reality, likely to be far less fractious.  Barrichello knows why it was he lost the Spanish Grand Prix – his pace in the vital 2nd and 3rd stints was just not sufficient.  He and his team will, I’m sure, work to work out precisely why this was.  Because if Rubens starts to find himself in a position where he can’t trust the team or their strategic judgement, he knows better than anyone that his role will be completely untenable.

This is a situation I simply can’t see a man as intelligent as Ross Brawn allowing to happen.  Barrichello’s huge experience – Jenson Button is Formula 1’s 4th most-experienced current driver, yet Rubens has started nearly 120 Grands Prix more – was an important part in giving Jenson the car that allowed him to win pole position and the race.  It will continue to be priceless, more and more so as Button and Brawn edge closer and closer to a sensational championship tilt.  Rubens Barrichello’s day in the sun will come in time.  At the moment, he just has to accept that no-one is driving at Jenson Button’s level.  This is evidenced by the fact that he won on Sunday on a non-optimal two-stop strategy.  If Ross Brawn, the sport’s most celebrated tactical genius, wanted to deliberately scupper Rubens Barrichello’s race, I’m sure he could think of a better way than giving him the faster strategy and hope beyond hope that it would go wrong somehow.

For all the new and exciting in 2009-vintage Formula 1, it’s in a way comforting that hot air, rumour and hearsay still rule the roost.


With apologies to Ferrari-engined cars with Bridgestone rubber, which have become the dominant winning combination in Grand Prix racing in the last decade, they have some way to go before they match the longevity, breadth, variety or scope of what is easily the winningest engine-tyre combination in Formula 1 history.  Admittedly, Goodyear’s utter dominance is in no small part helped by the ten year period between 1987 and 1997 where they were the sole tyre supplier, bar a brief and occasionally race-winning dalliance by Pirelli.  Cosworth, on the other hand, maintain their position due to the reliability, affordability and quality of their legendary DFV engine, the normally-aspirated, 3-litre V8 which won 155 Grand Prix races in almost countless hands between 1967 and 1983.

A tyre monopoly, then, is nothing new in Grand Prix racing.  Since 2007, indeed, Bridgestone has been the sole supplier to the field – as they were from 1999 until 2001, too.  However, the huge cost-cutting package which the FIA and FOTA are currently grinding out in Monte Carlo may introduce a new concept – the engine monopoly – into the sport.

Many people, including myself, are not at all keen on this idea.  Whilst its objectives of cost-cutting and maintaining F1’s competitive viability are noble – perhaps vital – I cannot help but feel there should be other ways to get similar results without compromising one of Formula 1’s founding technical principles.  Cosworth’s DFV dominance was never a monopoly.  Rivals could and did emerge to challenge, but until the Turbo era dawned, the DFV was able to see them off.  It’s ubiquity in the field, in other words, was based on excellence rather than statute.

The FIA’s new proposal, which looks set to be passed, is for a standard engine in Formula 1.  This unit, which would (naturally enough) be built by Cosworth and based on the 2.4 litre V8 unit raced by Williams in 2006, would be the standard power plant.  If other engine builders wish to compete, they must build their engine to the exact same specification and design as the Cosworth unit.  Many high-ups in Formula 1 are not particularly keen on this idea, not surprising considering that of the nine teams currently registered for next year’s World Championship, only 4 (Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Williams and Force India) are not owned or fundamentally subsidised by a major car maker.  I think the standardised engine will, in the long term, be a salvation for the sport.  However, there’s every chance that the sport will look radically different as a consequence.

My idea for a solution to this problem is this.  Every engine manufacturer designs and builds their own unit, but in such a way that they are able to, if required, supply their engine (and entire drive train package) to a certain percentage of the entire field – say 50 or 75 percent.  This should keep engine building costs down, as no team would risk exotic materials or construction knowing that they may be called upon to provide and maintain 10 or 12 identical units all season, whilst preserving the sport’s technical purity.

When I first started to seriously follow Formula 1, in 1994, the cars – including the front running teams – would often run with many off-the-peg components.  Suspension systems or gearboxes would be bought from catalogues, whilst steering wheels would be standard Momo units.  Formula 1 has marched on since then, and it is never right to force this, the pinnacle of motorsport, to take a major technical step backwards.  However, if the rules can be tweaked to make things more cost-effective without removing the innovation, then they simply must be.

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?