Friday, 9 May 2008

And then there were ten...

The 2008 Formula One season was supposed to mark a new dawn for the sport. As well as the much needed ban on electronic driver aids we would have a new set of aerodynamic regulations that would rob the cars of most of their downforce, thus facilitating better racing. We would also have a full paddock of 12 teams, filling all 24 available grid slots, and a brand spanking new Concorde Agreement clarifying the barbed issue of 'customer cars'. However, the reality appears to have fallen some way short of the dream we were promised. Some of these things have been postponed for a while, some seem destined never to occur. How did this happen? And who (if anyone) is to blame?

The protracted demise of the much-loved Super Aguri team means that for the rest of the 2008 season there will be just 20 cars on the grid. Up until the autumn of last year it had looked certain that there would be a full grid of 24. Super Aguri were continuing to raise eyebrows by punching above their bantam-weight, and David Richards' Prodrive team was coming together with the prospect of using McLaren customer chassis.

Things started to go sour, however, when it appeared that Prodrive weren't going to be able to use customer cars after all. It had been expected that a new Concorde Agreement to begin January 1st 2008 would allow some provision for customer chassis. Max Mosley had long since stated that this was his preference, as he believes privateer teams to be the real heart and soul at the basis of motorsport. The sport's last great remaining privateer Frank Williams, for one, wasn't so keen on the idea. Quite understandably he has been a little miffed that he and his team spend tens of millions of pounds each year or research, testing, development and manufacturing of their own chassis, when another team may simply roll up and buy an off the shelf item from another manufacturer.

Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso have managed to wriggle through a loophole to get around this issue, and Super Aguri had also been effectively acquiring customer cars from Honda for the past season and a bit. But the uncertainty and grey areas remain, and in that climate it became impossible for David Richards to enter F1. There's no way he or his investors could risk ploughing the vast sums of money required into an F1 team with the prospect that they wouldn't be allowed to enter this year, or possibly even next year. As well as a great team builder, Richards is a shrewd business man who has made his living out of successful racing teams. He is not a billionaire playboy type like Vijay Mallya who is willing to use Force India as his F1 plaything and not a serious business venture. How long until he gets bored or he realises that his chances of success are virtually zero remains to be seen.

At the time of Prodrive securing the nomination from the FIA for the last remaining garaged in the 2008 paddock there were allegedly teams and business men queuing around the block for the chance to hand over their $30 million bond. What chance of them now trying to succeed where Richards and Aguri Suzuki have failed? Very little I would imagine. Until an amended Concorde Agreement is put in place which will allow for customer cars, no team will be looking to simply buy from the likes of McLaren, Toyota or BMW. The only available route would appear to be to buy what remains of the Super Aguri team, which as been put up for sale by the administrators. But it would be an extremely ambitious individual or group that would take on the Super Aguri project given the problems they have had.

The notion of a team starting up from scratch and building a brand new chassis isn't even a vaguely realistic option given the enormous costs involved.

But isn't this the way things always used to be? Are things really any different now? In the 80s and early 90s new Formula 1 teams would come and go with the passing of the tides, often with hilarious consequences. One needs only to search the annals of F1 Rejects to witness some of the many spectacular failures like Andrea Moda or Pacific. Heroic failures like Super Aguri are part and parcel of what F1 is all about surely? The difference now is that the cost of even getting a team to the grid is simply enourmous, let alone the cost of making a team vaguely competitive. Where in the past any adventurous millionaire could cobble together a few bits of carbon fibre and an engine and have a blast at qualifying for an F1 race, now even billionaires like Alex Schnaider of Midland F1 are frightened off by the sheer scale investment needed to do any serious racing.

Whilst Max Moseley and FIA have campaigned furiously for reduced costs and more privateer involvement, the manufacturers' stranglehold on the sport has only grown stronger. One has to go as far back as Juan Pablo Montoya's Brazilian Grand Prix victory for Williams in 2004 for the last time a privateer team won a race. And even that was a one-off in that season. Every race since has been won by a team with big time manufacturer support. Williams have continued to battle on valiantly, but with the exception of a sprinkling of podiums here and there they haven't even come close to seriously worrying the big boys. If a team with the experience, expertise and resources of Williams can't take the fight to the manufacturers, what chance of a small upstart team even scoring points let alone winning races?

The saddest part of all of this is that it seems impossible to imagine how this situation could be overturned in the future. The fact is that Formula 1, like all the world's major sports these days, in not just a sport. It's big, big business. You can throw all the cost-cutting measures at it as you like, but while there are budgets available to be spent, F1 teams will spend every last penny. And nobody has more spending capacity than the big manufacturers. The move to 'greener' KERS technology system in 2009 will sadly only increase the manufacturers' willingness to spend big in the pursuit of F1 glory in an attempt to show off their wonderful new green technologies to the wider car buying market, thus undermining all the FIA's hard work in attempted cost cutting. Any prospective privateer entry would be a fool to think that he/she will be able to have even the faintest hope of mixing it with the big boys in this climate.

There are simply too many sharks in the F1 ocean. There is no room for the little fishies to swim anymore.

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