Where next for Formula One: Can a two-tier system ever work?

Analysing the quandary of a dwindling grid size, and the compromises that will need to be made for customer cars.

There are those who purport that recent developments in Formula One have come about with the express purpose of creating conditions in which customer cars and three-car teams become inevitable.

Towards the end of last season, with Marussia and Caterham missing in action and serious concerns about the financial viability of at least two other outfits, there was much discussion in channels both official and backroom about the creation of contingency plans should yet another team fall before 2015.

The message

As is often the case in Formula One, however, the message was somewhat confused. Some team officials were sure they were required to provide third cars should the grid drop below a certain number (the exact figure varied from source to source), while others weren’t sure just what would be required of them. No one seemed to know whether three months’ or six weeks’ notice would be required.

What wasn’t confused was that the sport was facing the prospect of the smallest field in years, with grid sizes at or perilously close to contracted minimums. The financial aftershocks of Marussia and Caterham entering administration were felt by all and sundry, as even those teams not owed money by their broke colleagues found they were being asked to pay suppliers in advance as companies throughout the motorsport supply chain attempted to minimise the impact of debts on their books.

And with big-money sponsorship deals still few and far between, it was unlikely that any white knights would ride to the rescue over the winter, boosting the coffers of one of those teams at risk of joining Marussia and Caterham in the abyss of financial collapse.

Contingency plans had to be made.

The solution?

German correspondents Michael Schmidt and Ralf Bach have both separately reported that Ecclestone’s current vision – rejected in its original form by the F1 Strategy Group – is to create a second division of teams running Red Bull RB9s powered by Mecachrome V8 engines.

The plan involves Ecclestone allies Colin Kolles and Flavio Briatore preparing chassis and engine respectively, and with the combination of a low entry price (estimated at EUR 15 million) and a short production timeline, does tick the grid-boosting boxes required.

The consequences

But the problem with a two-tier structure inside Formula One isn’t that it is impractical, but that it is – or should be – undesirable. Purists argue that the concept of customer cars goes against the sport’s DNA, and while that is true up to a point (and very much dependent on era), progress and evolution of mankind led to changes in our DNA. Change is not to be feared in and of itself.

A two-tier Formula One will not solve the problems that the sport currently faces. Attention paid to the second tier is likely to be minimal at best, as the mainstream media focuses only on those racing brands with any sort of public recognition. Any sponsorship will consequently be hard to come by, and with single suppliers and proprietary parts the entry cost will quickly spiral far above the initial estimates, as has already happened with GP2 and GP3.

Facing financial difficulties and a bar for entry far higher than that they were originally promised (sound familiar, 2010 F1 entrants?), teams initially attracted to Formula One under the two-tier system will fall by the wayside as did HRT, Caterham, and Marussia before them.

Grid sizes will once again be at risk, and nothing will have been done to change the fundamental problem at the heart of the sport, which is that the cost of competitive entry is prohibitive and the division of spoils unequal.

Evolutionary changes to DNA stick because they were an improvement on what came before, because they provided some form of advantage. The two-tier F1 concept in its current form is little more than a sticking plaster.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Flavio Briatore , Colin Kolles , Michael Schmidt
Article type Commentary
Tags bernie ecclestone, caterham, f1 cost crisis, marussia