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Three views on third cars in F1 and other rescue plans

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Three views on third cars in F1 and other rescue plans
Oct 29, 2014, 5:40 PM

Over the course of this season, and indeed for much of the last five years, F1 has been wrestling with the issue of the cost of competition – wi...

Over the course of this season, and indeed for much of the last five years, F1 has been wrestling with the issue of the cost of competition – with little success.

Earlier this year, FIA President Jean Todt called on teams to address the issue and called for a cost cap to be introduced. Again, the silence on the issue was deafening. Deadlines came and went, with no result. In the end, the idea of a cost cap became 'cost reduction' and a few token gestures were agreed upon, to be introduced through the sporting and technical regulations.

The financially threatened smaller teams protested that these were empty gestures but the pleas feel on deaf ears. The result, of course, has been the failure of both Caterham and Marussia in the past two weeks.

Clearly, this is a major problem for F1, but solutions are hard to find. Here three JA on F1 writers give their views on possible ways forward and we post a couple of the best readers' suggestions from the abundant common sense posts we have had over the last week.

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James Allen writes: This is one of those situations where you are asking for directions and the response is: "Well I wouldn't start from here..."

It's not surprising that F1 finds itself in this position, close to the minimum limit for a grid size, given the imbalance in the share of F1's commercial revenues and the fact that the small teams like Caterham and Marussia (Virgin Racing) originally entered the sport in 2010 on the promise of a budget cap of £40 million. On 30 April 2009 Max Mosley's FIA issued a statement outlining how the budget cap would work from 2010 onwards. It said: "All teams will have the option to compete with cars built and operated within a stringent cost cap. The cost cap will be £40 million per annum."

The top teams like Ferrari and McLaren would be allowed to spend more if they wanted, but to level the playing field, the budget-capped teams would have some technical advantages in the form of a) moveable wings, front and rear and b) en engine which is not subject to a rev restriction.

Not surprisingly the top teams, led by Ferrari, spat the dummy and a war broke out. The F1 Teams' Association (FOTA) was still going strong then and it got to the point by July 2009 where the teams collectively threatened to quit F1 and start a breakaway series. At this point, as TV companies started panicking and Ecclestone and CVC's entire business was under threat, Mosley's position crumbled quite quickly and he ended up stepping down eventually.

Bernie agreed to pay the new teams $10 million a year to get them started.

It was very naive of the newcomers to think that a budget cap would get past the powerful top teams, but that's the basis upon which Tony Fernandes and others piled into F1. Tens of millions of wasted pounds later, it's all over.

So we know that cost caps won't wash, even though Mosley reiterated that idea when I spoke to him for BBC Radio 5 Live on Monday. Customer cars are a very bad idea in my view, because they kill the medium-sized teams like Williams and Force India. Why build an decent car when you can buy (or lease) a very good one?

So what about third cars? It depends on how it's done. The plans circulating this weekend sound too much like customer cars. I support the idea of young drivers getting a chance to drive a third Ferrari or Mercedes or Red Bull, but how would you do the points scoring so that the third cars don't count? As a commentator I'd find it hard to explain why Esteban Ocon has just finished on the podium in a third Mercedes, but in fact it's fourth-placed Nico Hulkenberg, who will get the trophy and the 15 points.

I'm glad I'm not the one who has to fix this. Especially, as one paddock sage put it to me, because F1’s has its own unique brand of dysfunctionality,

“A disproportionate amount of time is spent arguing over how to split a dollar, as opposed to working out how we are going to make two dollars,” he said.

Sad, but true.

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Declan Quigley, former Setanta and RTE F1 broadcaster writes: "Formula One racing risks abandoning the so called small teams at its peril and the actions of some of the front-of-grid squads betray failing memories: Enzo Ferrari shook off the shackles of the Alfa Romeo factory to build his own cars, McLaren were an ambitious project for an ex-Cooper driver, Red Bull can trace its lineage to Paul and Jackie Stewart's family team, and Williams was a 'wing and a prayer' group of racers with a similar reputation to that currently enjoyed by Marussia.

Some teams will never escape from the back of the grid before they wither and die but others will morph into race winners – or at least they did in the days when the financial rules weren't stacked quite so aggressively against them.

These days the wildly unequal distribution of revenues and a diminishing pot of sponsorship funding means that only multi-billionaire patrons with a short-term view need apply. It simply doesn't make financial sense to buy a back of the grid team the way the series is currently designed and that is a grave mistake the leading teams make.

They, more than they seem to realise, desperately need the stimulating variety that the midfielders and back of the grid outfits offer to an entertainment 'package' fighting to justify its place in the sports market place.

Remember, for every Andrea Moda or Life shambles there is an Arrows, Wolf or Jordan team that will provide an outlet for gifted engineers to express themselves free from the corporate homogenisation of the big manufacturer supported outfits and provide an interesting context from which to assess the performance of the big boys.

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Justin Hynes, former editor of the Red Bulletin, writes:  There's no such thing as an ideal world, and the structure of the Formula One world is often about as far from ideal as it's possible to get, but for me the sport has blindly steered itself up a financial cul-de-sac defined by a reliance on the funding of major motor manufacturers and billionaire benefactors and the only way to back away from this unsustainable model is through the imposition of a unilateral cost cap.

It may seem strange to say but former FIA President Max Mosley's attempt to bring in a $40m cost cap, derided by many as a backward-looking plan to fill the grid with garagistas running Cosworth-powered chassis, now looks like the right way forward, though perhaps without the '70s rose-tintedness or the political agendas that clouded the choices made as to who would run what and how.

To me, it seems simple that unless you make Formula One a more level playing field, capable of being competed upon by scrappy new kids as well as big bruisers, then, in an era of $20m power units, 600-plus staff levels, and ever-more expensive R&D and racing costs then you must accept that you will race with at the very best eight teams, but in all likelihood less, as manufacturers are notoriously fickle and they will desert the sport with brutal rapidity (cf Ford/Jaguar, Toyota, Honda) if their agenda is not being served or the business climate changes.

Levelling the playing field via the instrument of an equal share of the financial pie in a structure similar to the franchised nature of sports such as NFL, MLS etc is all well and good in a utopian world but F1's dysfunctional set-up stretches back six decades and to tell favoured teams that a fat chunk of the grace and favour funding they now receive will instead go to some upstart start-up is simply a non-starter.

Therefore, creating an even footing can only come down to limiting the amount competitors, be they grandees or graduates, can spend. Forty million dollars always seemed hopelessly blinkered but drawing the line at $100-$120m seems like a figure that is enough to allow major manufacturers to exploit their R&D resources, while at the same time being sustainable for a competitive lesser entity that could potentially attract greater levels of sponsorship based on an ability to race the big boys.

Some of the larger teams have bleated that policing any cap is impossible but that seems like too easy an obfuscation. What if the teams' $100m budget was placed into escrow, managed by an independent body and distributed to teams upon requisition. The application of the requisitioned fund would be trackable, the results quantifiable and any large discrepancy between in funding withdrawn and the established costs of R&D undertaken would seem to be quantifiable. A quarterly or annual audit undertaken by the FIA and its associated independent body would then monitor the process. Excesses would then be penalised the following season via a reduction on budget or resources.

To me, the introduction of three-car teams would simply constitute the application of transparently inferior paper over a canyon-sized crack. Part of the richness of F1 is the abundance of good bad and indifferent teams that have taken part. At least, for me, there is as much fascination in the travails of some of F1's great back-of-grid strugglers as there is in the laurel-wreathed exploits of the great and good. The passion and drama in heroic failure is as alluring a sports story as that of the big winners.

The imposition such a cap requires huge conviction, however, and as the old saying goes, 'there will be blood'. However, if there's the stomach for that then it should be done.

F1's model is broken and the band-aid of three-cars teams won't fix it. Major surgery is required. However, in such a situation, the consent of the patient is needed and that's not always forthcoming.

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And we have picked out two of the best reader comments on this subject to complete the picture:

Reader comment 1 – Rafael says:

The larger teams do not have a responsibility to the smaller ones; it’s the FIA and FOM (FOM = Bernie Ecclestone) who do:

In the case of the FOM, they should/could:

(1) Allocate a larger sum of prize money to the teams, and ensure it is distributed in a fair, consistent and logical manner, as to continue to incentivise teams who finish at the upper end of the constructer’s championship without (extremely) short changing those who finish at the lower end.

(2) Rationalise the championship calendar and bring it back down to around 16-17 races a year rather than 19-20. This should bring down the no. of people employed by teams, who were hired to keep them from falling off a hectic schedule, and at the same time reduce the logistical costs involved in shuttling a racing team from one country to another. If FOM (Bernie) continues to insist on such an expansive calendar, then see no. 1 (and double/triple the amount while their at it).

(3) Oust Bernie Ecclestone to enable (1) and (2)………..

As for the FIA, they should/could:

(1) Stabilise the technical regulations and refrain from medium/major technical changes happening every 5-years or so (the last major shake-up was 2009, before that was 2006 (V8s) and before that was 2005 and then 2001). I think what did the smaller teams in this year had a lot to do with the costs of having to purchase new power units.

(2) Continue to limit pre-season testing, but bring back that other format of in-season testing from 2003, wherein a team who chose that set-up had a free session on Fridays but had limited 10-days testing during non-race weekends. This may increase costs, but it will allow teams to develop their cars properly, which may slow down their need to invest sums of money on technologies that they otherwise wouldn’t be spending so much on had testing not been so limited.

(3) This site (http://www.racecar-engineering.com/blogs/gravel-trap-f1-saving-the-small-teams/) suggested a good idea of allowing customer cars, i.e. only the sale of the bare monocoque but not the aerodynamic / other mechanical bits. This type of set-up, as the site suggests, can cut a large part of the design process and surely save a substantial amount of money. Maybe the FIA can make this a viable option for teams who finish 7th/8th and below in the Constructor’s table.

(4) Another good idea in the article from the website above, is to allow teams to enter 1 car rather than 2. Surely that will make things more interesting and sustainable for privateers, as well as the fans.

Budget capping, constant rule changes, resource limitations and an expansive calendar to “new” (albeit uninterested) markets will not help but only inflame an already dire situation.

Wolf says:

I don’t have a problem with there only being 9 teams. You just need to look at the funding model from last year to see that the bottom two teams between them get about 60% of the amount of the 9th placed team. There would be a much stronger field if that extra money (say 5m per team) were split equally amongst the bottom teams.

To make up the numbers the top two teams (plus Ferrari) could be obliged to contribute 3 cars each. Any cost caps associated with the physical chassis (eg construction) as well as the transport allowance would be increased by the physical cost of the chassis only – development caps would remain the same as for the other teams. Drivers would be permitted to change chassis as long as the regulated parts (engine, gearbox and tyres) are moved across. This would mean that teams with a third car have an additional ‘spare’ chassis for the weekend. Any other team (at their discretion) would be allowed to enter a third car under the same conditions, in order of grid position, until a limit of 24 cars is reached.

This would lead to an exciting season as teams could still comfortably develop within season using a third car, whilst still keeping profit margins viable for the smaller teams. This sounds at least as good as (if not better than) the current situation where two teams of mobile chicanes clog up the back of the grid and generally crap up the race for everyone else.
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