Motorsport Thoughts

Monday, December 08, 2008

F1 - Honda's pull-out and the future

Yesterday, Honda announced plans to withdraw from Formula 1 racing if a suitable buyer for their Brackley-based team (formerly BAR) cannot be found. Whether than happens remains to be seen – the Jaguar team were of course saved by Red Bull, as later were the Minardi team, now Toro Rosso – but whatever the ultimate outcome it throws a lot of issues about the sport into sharp focus.

First off let's start with some numbers. It is alleged that Honda spend about £250M on their F1 program each year, which is a similar number to that spent by McLaren, Ferrari and Toyota. We understand that BMW and Red Bull put about £150M a year into their teams, with Renault and Williams at about the £100M mark and then Toro Rosso and Force India at about £50M. Force India didn't score a single point this year for their money (ironically, Adrian Sutil was nerfed out of fourth place at Monaco by a wayward Kimi Raikkonen, the only time Force India were near the scoresheet) and half of Honda's meagre total of 14 points was due to a wet weather podium for Rubens Barrichello. That's a lot of money for little or no return. And everyone on the grid is spending a lot of money just to participate.

Let's have some more numbers. We currently face the prospect of nine teams competing in 2009. If we rewind twenty years, there were twenty teams trying to get onto the grid. There were so many cars that we had to have PRE-qualifying to weed out cars that wouldn't be allowed to qualify, and then more were cut to get us down to a 26-car grid. We've more than halved the grid in two decades, and the grid is currently lower than at any time since the 1960s. Honda's withdrawl may be due to the current economic climate, but that's hiding the real issue – the grid size has steadily declined in size since 1990 during which time we've had long periods of economic greed, the kind of thing that the fat cats of F1 have fed on while leaving nothing for the runts of the litter.

This all points to massive worry for someone who has watched every form of motor racing during that time. I've seen series boom and series dwindle and fade out, and from experience a grid size of 18 cars is warning time (See F3000 2003 ish, CART 2003 til the end, IRL last year, Indy Lights final two years in 2000-1 – all times that brought massive changes immediately after that). But when you're talking about F1 rather than a lesser series, the amount of money involved is higher, the technology more complex, the publicity much more widespread and therefore the issues involved in resolving the difficulties much more fraught.

Question from the back: “Why is a grid of 18 cars a problem? We only see the leaders on TV anyway.”

It's a problem because there's less entertainment for the fans at the track to watch. Simply, less racing. It's a problem because if you're sponsoring a car and they're 17th in a field of 18, they're second to last. 17th in a field of 30+ is well in the midfield. Differing perception of how you're doing. If you're a car manufacturer and you're last, you're not selling your product too well. If you've got people behind you, you're not doing so badly – again, perception. If you're second to last in the pecking order of a series and the guys behind you drop out, you've got to be worried. If there's less cars on track, there's less for sponsors of events and the people promoting them and reporting on them in the media to get worked up and generate publicity and attention about.
The last time a true privateer team entered F1 was the Stewart team (which became Jaguar, now Red Bull) in 1997. (BAR being effectively Reynard, at the time the world's largest racing car manufacturer, BMW coming in with Williams and then Sauber, and Force India being a buyout of what was the Jordan outfit. Super Aguri were also Honda-backed). A decade is a long time without a non-manufacturer entering the sport when a big-spending manufacturer has now bailed out.

Where do we go from here, then?

Everything described so far points to a massive need for a sweeping change in the culture of what Formula One actually is. If manufacturers aren't willing to spend big money to participate and smaller private teams can't step up to the plate (teams like Carlin, Racing Engineering, Campos etc would be the sort of team who would be possible step-ups) then something has to give.

Costs HAVE to come down – enormously so. If £50M – an amount no junior team has anything near – won't get you a point in F1, the numbers are clearly silly. So how do we get the costs down to an amount where the sport is genuinely sustainable in any economic climate, recession or not? That's a much more difficult question to answer, owing to the ingrained culture and traditions of what F1 has become since the early Eighties.

As an F1 historian, you spot trends developing within the sport (although it has to be said, I'm a textbook historian of the sport pre-1994 since I didn't watch it on TV as a youngster). Since 1980 when Bernie Ecclestone got involved in the promotional side of things there has been a massive increase in the amount of money involved in the sport, the publicity and media interest, and the level of professionalism which today is pretty clinical indeed. Pre-that time we could still see genuine 'privateer' efforts with hand-built cars of weird and wacky design, or more to the point teams leasing a chassis or two off a bigger car-builder and going racing. Frank Williams himself started out by leasing cars from the Italian de Tomaso builder and March Engineering (who featured amongst its staff one M. Mosley) during the early Seventies. In 1980 that all stopped with teams having to build their own cars, and from 1992 onwards teams have had to field two cars so singleton entries have stopped and a greater financial commitment has been involved. The culture of what F1 is has changed from those days of car-hiring in the Seventies, and many people have always watched F1 with things pretty much as they are now (in effect, I should be one of those people). Therefore to a lot of people the very idea of going to leasing of cars or – gasp – F1 becoming a spec series like GP2 or WsbR is horrific in itself simply because of ingrained tradition of what they're used to watching.

But it runs a lot deeper than gut feeling of fans, of course. You can't ever ignore the path that something's taken to get to the way it is, and as one looks through the F1 history books and sees money flowing into the sport one also sees corporate entities coming in wielding large chequebooks to go racing. Very large chequebooks. A lot of this money helps get F1 into new countries and markets, for one. One other facet of the technologically-advancing face of motor racing – not just F1 – is that things are developed on racing cars that filter down to road vehicles. Safety enhancements. Anti-lock brakes. The best demonstration of the way diesel cars have come on has been the Audi A10s winning at Le Mans. People nag me incessantly about 'needing to get rid of traction control' from racing motorbikes particularly (but also cars) because 'it takes the skill away'. It's true, it does take a little of the skill away but the basic need for forward progression means it won't go away, because that's the pathway of change. It was supposed to have been taken away in F1 this year, but funnily enough no-one's mentioned the 'massive changes' they thought it's removal might bring, simply because they haven't happened. How on earth can you take away electronic engine management when EVERY engine is electronically managed? That's what traction control is, after all. As well as simple self-promotion, everyone's in this to progress their road technologies, if they're a car manufacturer.

Technology costs money, there's no getting away from it. That's why despite everyone's wise words, it's not simple to find a way to get the costs of competing in F1 down. Remove the technology and you'll get costs down, but you also remove some of the incentives for manufacturers to be involved. You also run the risk of angering people who have an ingrained tradition of what F1 'should' be. Like it or not, having car-builders involved has built F1 up to it's 'pyramid' of which it's currently sitting rather precariously on top of – remove them and everything might collapse to nothing very quickly. I'd love to see the return of weird and wonderful amateurs or wealthy individuals funding an 'out-there' new F1 car as in the Seventies particularly and indeed as a lot of what went before that was (Cooper, Brabham, anyone? McLaren started out that way too), but the way things have moved on means that won't happen.
I love GP2 – it's by far the best car racing series of the moment for a racing purist – but Formula One shouldn't be a spec series in my humble opinion. So there goes that idea. And we're still in the same position – we still haven't got any new teams involved.

So how about this: in some forms of Japanese racing (I think) there's a rule where after a race any opponent can put in a bid for your car or engine and you HAVE to sell it to them. That idea needs a little tweak, but a simple change to the current rules could really get F1 motoring again. If a team wants to buy your current chassis or your engine if you're an engine builder, there will be a set price and set time prior to the start of the season by which time you will have to have produced the chassis or engines for the other team, so they can get testing and racing. Furthermore, if the regs remain pretty tight for a few years, how about the previous year's chassis for a set lower price? None of these ideas are new; they've all been done before in F1 and for a long time were the norm. They've been semi-done in the past few years with Super Aguri and Toro Rosso (although in both cases the junior team was/is part-owned by the parent concern, so it's not quite the same) and both teams were in the mix. How about seeing a couple of Campos Toyota-Ferraris on the grid? Or a Carlin Williams-Cosworth? If you're a genuinely separate entity from your car or engine builder and simply buy from them (I dunno, £5M for a pair of cars, £2M for some engines? Going to the manufacturer for their R&D budget, so you don't have to) then 'team orders' shouldn't be an issue. You still get the technological development; you still have the manufacturers, you have more teams on the grid if you get the prices right. In theory the big guns could get benefit back from others racing their cars, and if not they can always go with the 'well, it's not the factory team' line. Maybe put a limit of four extra cars per manufacturer to prevent the grid being clogged with McLarens and Ferraris etc and ensure a good spread.

Another proposed rule change is the 'medals system' with things being changed from a points system to simply award the title to the driver with the most wins through the season. You don't need me to explain to you why that idea is a load of nonsense, and instead let's occupy our time with a better points system that does indeed reward the winner more but also encourages more competition throughout the field.

Motorbike racing awards 25 points to the winner, 20 to second, 16 for third, 13 for fourth then 11 for fifth scaling down to 1 point for fifteenth. All of a sudden your winner is getting a bigger benefit and even if you're 15th, it's worth your scrapping for that extra point. Or how about even a NASCAR-style system where points are awarded all the way down (to 43rd, now there's a grid size I like!) so even if you've crashed it's worth getting your car fixed and trying to get as high up as you can (although it should be noted that NASCAR's beasts are rather more sturdy than F1 missiles!). Any points system that rewards you passing the guy in front wherever you are has to be good. It gives the Hondas, Force Indias etc of the world something to play for. How can that not been a good thing when the worry is that teams are dropping out? The medals system is the absolute antithesis of what are good scoring system should be – if you're in eighth you've got nothing to play for ('trying harder' as Bernie puts in won't suddenly make up for your car's deficiency of even half a second a lap – which'll put you 30s down at the end of a race). Or for another good scoring system, how about the Club 100 one which more strongly rewards the winner and goes down to 35th (shameless plug there).

So there we have it, those are my ideas. The technical rules do need some tweaking – less aero grip, more mech grip with slicks, etc, abolish pitstops, etc but I think when combined those rules I've suggested would go a massive way towards solving it.

Over to you, FIA.


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