Towards third cars in F1: Are the smaller teams a "nice to have" or a necessity?
The sad tale around the Caterham F1 team - the latest on which is that the administrator has locked the staff out of the team's factory today (Thur...
The sad tale around the Caterham F1 team - the latest on which is that the administrator has locked the staff out of the team's factory today (Thursday) - has once again highlighted the plight of the smaller teams in F1. It raises the question of whether we are soon to see an F1 grid made up with third cars from leading teams and whether that loss of diversity would be damaging to the sport?
It is a subject that has come around several times, usually soon after a global financial downturn, as the money supply becomes tight. Today is no exception and F1's commercial leader Bernie Ecclestone has been championing the idea this year, with strong interventions in July and September on the subject, as the viability of some of the small teams at the back of the grid comes into question.
As Caterham teeters on the brink amid an estimated £12-15 million of unpaid debts and legal action between new and former owners, today we are asking the question - is the diversity of the grid provided by the small teams important to F1, or should seven or eight powerful teams each field three cars and share F1's US $750 million annual commercial revenues between them?
Tough times for small teams
The smaller teams argue that they are only in this position because those huge commercial revenues are not divided equally, with Ferrari taking $100 million off the top before they even start. Bernie Ecclestone and the top teams argue that the outfits that have been around a long time and which have been successful, should be rewarded.
So there is stalemate and the current situation: Caterham looks shaky, while Marussia is holding on for a payout at the end of the season if it can retain the ninth place it currently holds in the Constructors' championship, thanks to the two points scored by Jules Bianchi in Monaco. Marussia is currently bankrolled by a wealthy Russian shareholder Andrei Cheglakov, but there is interest in the team from Max Chilton's father Graham and also from a potential American investor, who has been on the scene this year. Sauber continues to roll on, despite its worst ever season in F1, but CEO Monisha Kaltenborn and team founder Peter Sauber have both said that it is a real challenge to do so.
Bernie Ecclestone has been quite clear on the subject, he would rather consolidate,
"It's always been on the cards that if we lose up to three teams then the other teams will run three cars," he said. "I think we should do it anyway. I would rather see Ferrari with three cars, or any of the other top teams with three cars, than having teams that are struggling.
"If you don't have the finances, you quit. I'm ready for a Formula 1 with eight teams with three cars each.
"Is it better to have a third Ferrari or a Caterham? Ferrari could maybe find new sponsors in the USA and an American driver: fantastic. It is the same for the others."
As each day brings fresh depressing news from Caterham, does the 84 year old ringmaster have a point?
The rules say that in the event that the grid drops below 18 cars then the remainder of the entrants can be asked to supply a third car. But is that feasible, given the time scales?
It is five months to the start of the 2015 season in Melbourne, Australia. That is not long enough for the top teams to gear up to supply a third car for a season, according to one team boss.
McLaren's Eric Boullier spoke about third cars recently in one of the regular McLaren phone-ins, saying that for the chassis and third car logistics, "We would need at least six months’ notice.
"We have to wait, (until) obviously there is a need to run three cars and then we will see. So you can question many things about revenue, about whatever.
“At the end, if one day we are called and asked to help F1 and run three cars, we have to.”
Making a business case for racing in F1
Those who worry about the loss of diversity, can look towards 2016 when the new F1 team from America, Haas F1, is due to join the series. It's entry has been accepted and it is gearing up towards that date. Haas has a business plan for the team, to promote his Haas Automation CNC machine tools business globally, having done so successfully in the USA via NASCAR.
Haas Automation turns over around US$1 billion a year and half of its sales are outside the USA. It will use F1 to generate new business in many of the key markets which F1 visits, like Asia, Middle East and South America. There is a clear plan there.
Bridgestone entered F1 in the 1990s, as a tyre supplier, with a clear strategy to increase global market share and it worked. They exited having made significant gains globally from 1997 to 2010.
There was a strategy of sorts behind Caterham, but the execution was all wrong, while it is not clear what Marussia's strategy is. At its heart its a very good little racing team, run by Graeme Lowden and John Booth, but the overarching business plan isn't clear. Sauber is just another small racing team, that doesn't make or promote anything, it's just a high speed billboard, but other similar offerings get more attention.
Lotus is another good race team, but again the business plan behind the whole Lotus connection has become very unclear. It exists for owner Gerard Lopez to leverage his other businesses, via the presence in the key markets that F1 visits, rather like Haas, but the constant reports of financial problems rather undermine the case.
A boost for Young Drivers?
One area where third cars probably would be positive is in the development of young drivers. With teams like Red Bull, Mercedes, McLaren, Ferrari and Williams obliged to run a third car, the most talented youngsters would have a route to F1, without needing to provide funding, which often stops them from getting a break, losing the seats to "pay drivers". The likes of Euro F3 champion Esteban Ocon, World Series 3.5 champion Carlos Sainz Jr and GP3 challenger Alex Lynn would be far more likely to get a chance to show what they can do in F1. It would lead to a far more competitive driver market, that's for sure.
So what do you think? Would F1 be poorer if it were just seven or eight powerful teams fielding third cars, or would it make for better racing? How would the points system work? Would a third Mercedes or Red Bull be able to score points ahead of a Force India? And would it be healthy for Red Bull to control 2/7th of the field rather than 2/11ths of the field as it does currently?
Let us know your thoughts below.Do you think F1 would miss the smaller outfits if it went to 3 car teams?
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