It's time to get proactive because by the time we react, it may be too late.
This weekend’s United States Grand Prix will feature an entry of just 18 cars following the financial problems that have forced F1’s two smallest teams, Caterham and Marussia, into administration – A state of affairs many have been quick to label a ‘crisis.’
The likely disappearance of the sport’s two perennial minnows is unquestionably a setback for the sport, as well as a bitter pill to swallow for the hundreds of dedicated personnel they employ, but to describe heading to Austin with the smallest field seen since the 2005 US GP (which had a small field due to very different circumstances) as a crisis is perhaps somewhat hyperbolic.
Doomed from the start?
Caterham and Marussia both entered the sport in 2010, under the guise of Team Lotus and Virgin Racing respectively, on a shoestring budget, lodging their entries believing that a strict budget cap would be in place. That proposal was of course kicked into the long grass shortly after, arguably dooming both teams to failure from the start.
That it took so long for their wealthy owners to run out of patience is perhaps in itself a surprise, given that neither outfit had scored a single point prior to this year’s Monaco Grand Prix.
Few casual fans will mourn the passing of either Caterham or Marussia – Besides removing a small layer of intrigue concerning which of the four ‘Class B’ cars will qualify or finish the race the highest, shrinking the grid down to 18 cars won’t dramatically impact the quality of the spectacle.
Other teams face dire financial situation
That said, F1’s financial problems don’t end with the two teams absent from the Circuit of the Americas this weekend. Sauber is known to be badly struggling, with Lotus also in a less-than-ideal fiscal state. And, with the disappearance of the backmarkers, it’s these two teams that will suddenly find themselves scrapping to avoid trailing home last this weekend.
Unless Caterham and Marussia find a buyer that allows it to return to the grid next season, which seems a rather distant prospect at the time of writing this, it’s quite possible that Sauber could become entrenched at the back of the field in 2015, especially as Lotus is set to receive a competitive boost next year by switching to Mercedes power.
Sauber teetering on the edge
In such a scenario, especially if third cars were introduced in a bid to shore up grid numbers, it would be difficult to see the Swiss outfit surviving in the absence of urgent action to improve their position – and then F1 really would be facing a crisis.
Clearly, the problem facing the sport at the moment is two-fold: costs are too high for all but the richest teams to afford, while revenue, a combination of sponsorship funding and a share of the TV money, is too low for the smaller teams to sustain themselves.
A budget cap is a good idea, but it won't work
A budget cap may seem like the obvious solution, but even if it were possible to introduce one at a level acceptable to big teams and small ones alike, it would be impossible to police. On the same token, sharing the proceeds generated by F1 more equitably may be a noble idea, but the reality is that it would be nigh-on impossible to convince either CVC or the largest teams to take less from the pot in the longer-term interests of the sport before the current deals expire.
So, if the big-hitters can’t be prevented from spending money they have, and there’s little prospect of immediately boosting the revenues of the poorer teams, then some lateral thinking is required – namely how to reduce the need to spend, and/or limit the benefits of gargantuan budgets.
Give the little guys a boost
There are several ways of going about this, including introducing customer cars, more liberal technical regulations to allow smaller teams to innovate their way up the grid, or some sort of ‘claiming rule’, similar to that used in MotoGP in recent years, to allow cash-strapped teams to buy certain components from their wealthier counterparts for a price determined by the FIA.
Perhaps F1 could go even further down the MotoGP route and introduce rule concessions for those teams which agree to radical cost-saving measures such as using certain standardised parts, cutting staff headcount beneath a particular threshold and having more factory shut-down time.
We need more outside-the-box thinking here
The point of this article is not to champion any one particular solution, but to highlight the need for all concerned to show more imagination when it comes to trying to find a viable long-term solution to F1’s financial quandary – and that continuing to kick the can down the road isn’t an option.
The start of 2016 will be a critical juncture for the sport, as the scheduled arrival of Haas F1 promises to bring back the number of teams to 10, the minimum most would consider a prerequisite for the sport to thrive.
That gives the teams, the FIA and the CRH a little over a year to come to some sort of arrangement – a tall order, certainly, but not impossible given the gravity of the situation.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and never has it been more necessary for F1 to invent a solution to its current problem. It would be a damning indictment of the sport’s inability to face up to reality if we have to witness one or more of the nine established teams fail before the powers that be finally lift their heads out of the sand.