Ingram's Flat Spot On Piranha Clubbing by Jonathan Ingram There's a downside to the more democratic version of the Formula One World Championship, the one where any aspiring team can join if it meets the FIA's criteria. Although the autocracy...
Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
There's a downside to the more democratic version of the Formula One World Championship, the one where any aspiring team can join if it meets the FIA's criteria. Although the autocracy is still in place -- who gets chosen and why remains a mysterious process -- the procedure is most easily recognized by its messy nature.
The plot has thickened on two fronts regarding the future of the F1 grids. The man with a publicity penchant -- and not much else when it comes to racing -- is back as an applicant to join. Zoran Stefanovic brought us engine tests via cell phone, cars without titles and now yet another self-important announcement, this one with a mysterious prop in the background.
On the other end of the spectrum, Williams Grand Prix Engineering has increased its holdings to a controlling interest in the company that builds the KERS systems using flywheels instead of batteries for storing electrical energy in hybrid vehicles. The Williams team has more clearly than ever staked its future on exporting vehicle technology to the transportation industry.
In this make-up, Williams ends up in the same camp as McLaren and Ferrari when it comes to sustaining large F1 teams for the purpose of tangential business elsewhere in the automotive and other industries. Coupled with the factory teams at Mercedes and Renault (albeit the French car company is no longer the majority owner), the future of these F1 teams does not look like they would be open to the prospect of downsizing their staffs or budgets in the future.
Ferrari has already fired another direct salvo in this direction by suggesting the team would like to run a third car out of Maranello, perhaps for two-wheel hero and Italian heartthrob Valentino Rossi. In the past, both McLaren and Ferrari have also backed the prospect of selling chassis to other teams as a way to sustain the F1 grid.
The framework of how to sustain full fields in the future has a Serbian confidence man on one end and the classic backbone of the industry on the other. In the middle is FIA president Jean Todt, whose job description includes no longer allowing the teams and Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Management to dictate the organization of F1. The weapon of choice has been opening up the grid to new teams under the Concorde Agreement and proposing that budgets be slashed, eventually, by limiting the number of employees and a salary cap.
Given this tableau, is it any wonder that keen and talented racing businessmen like Dave Richards of ProDrive and Martin Birrane of Lola Group have opted out of the process of applying to join the grid in 2011? In what way would they be able to build an organization capable of competing at the front of the field given the existing circumstances? On the other hand, their racing expertise and experience would certainly add a level of professionalism no matter where they appear on the grid. Ultimately both businessmen likely see their future being brightest in the same way as the owners of Williams and McLaren -- as transportation industry specialists with large, well-funded F1 teams that generate opportunities across the spectrum.
The struggles of the team of Peter Sauber, despite many years of experience, indicates the degree of difficulty when it comes to even surviving in F1 without a major plan in place. The stillborn efforts of US F1, the near-miss efforts of HRT (and its lack of development for the Dallara chassis that still carry payment due notes), and the travails of Virgin Racing are signposts that beg a larger question. It's not a matter of should F1 be a series of haves and have nots, rather how to sustain a grid in the future.
It's a practical approach to have two or more teams supplying cars to other teams to sustain a grid. But as Ecclestone likes to say on various occasions, "That's not the way it's done in F1." Such an approach may short change the long term, because it puts more political power into the hands of fewer teams and pushes the risk when it comes to a budget crisis resulting in a withdrawal. Yet, Ferrari has been known to outmaneuver all manner of opposition and a third car may be proposed as a type of insurance for F1 as well as insurance against cost-cutting.
Meanwhile, the Stefanovic approach is to press on with media releases about wonderful plans for the future that merely mimic the real world of Williams and McLaren when it comes to high technology and the transportation industry. The background to one of Stefanovic's latest releases looks like the drawing of an F1 car taken from a magazine published in March of this year, for example. It begs the question of whether the whole operation consists of two dimensions: borrowed smoke and rented mirrors.
I suspect there are real players who are looking for an alternate approach such as a merger with an existing team that goes out of business. That way, one does not have to sign up for the Concorde Agreement with its inherent risks of commitment and possible penalties while still shopping for sponsorship/engine deals and drawing away on a car design, both of which are easy enough to accomplish by those such as ProDrive and Lola. Taking up ownership of an existing chassis, presumably at a cut-rate price, also has its benefits when it comes to preparing a car for pre-season testing in addition to acquiring a track history.
While not necessarily endorsed by Ferrari, this approach would likely find favor from Ecclestone and the FIA, whose first order of business is keeping cars on the grid. Above all, it would sustain F1's image as the Piranha Club.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.