Formula 1 is in trouble – not because of the quality of the racing but because of its extraordinary ability to shoot itself, and its stakeholders, in the foot.
Amid the inquest into the meaningless parade around the streets of Melbourne last weekend, out came Bernie Ecclestone to declare that the beleaguered Manor team would pay dearly for getting to the event but not making it out onto the track. Manor, a victim of the massive and escalating costs of competing in F1, collapsed at the end of last year along with the Caterham team, but was rescued late on and faced a race against time to be ready for the Australian race. By going there the team would become eligible for a £30m prize-money payout; Ecclestone suspects that it knew it wouldn’t be ready to compete and turned up only to collect the cash.
But the details aren’t important. The issue is that F1 needs tail-enders, and it needs Manor even more now that the other tail-end team, Caterham, has gone. Without these outfits, major teams with the backing of major car brands come last. To not win in the global spotlight of F1 is hard one thing; to come last is another, and not acceptable. Put in this position, the big stakeholders will leave, and others will not replace them.
It’s hard enough when the times are good. BMW, Toyota, Renault and Honda have all retired hurt from running factory teams in the last few years.
And now the times are hard. As well as Manor and Caterham’s problems, Force India, Lotus and Sauber face possible extinction, and were reportedly advanced the start money so they could make it to Melbourne. Take away those teams and you’re left with Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams, McLaren (which thanks to the lack of tail-enders came last on the debut of its new relationship with Honda), Red Bull and its junior team, Torro Rosso. That’s just 12 cars, four of which come courtesy of Red Bull, which is threatening to leave F1.
Sauber’s lack of budget meant that it also nearly failed to make it onto the track in Melbourne. Having agreed to give 2015 a race seat to one driver, it had subsequently signed another two with bigger bundles of cash, so the first driver had them in court until well into the Grand Prix weekend.
A last-minute agreement saw Sauber make it onto the circuit, but there were just 15 starters – the lowest in a season-opener for over 50 years – and only two possible winners: the Mercedes cars, which are so dominant that they cruised to take the flag 40 seconds ahead of Ferrari.
In the same way that this paucity of competition diminishes the achievements of the championship-winning driver – the more he wins, the more, paradoxically, it devalues those wins – the corporations involved need competition. I launched Michelin back into F1 in 2001, and we only did it because there was another tyre manufacturer to beat.
Mercedes is now the sole car manufacturer team apart from Ferrari. For Mercedes, it’s better to win with a fight. For Ferrari and the engine suppliers, Renault and Honda, they can’t be seen to be among the tail-end. F1 is still watched by millions, and these brands need to have private teams finishing behind them if they’re to remain in it.
If not, they will copy BMW and Toyota and withdraw completely. Perhaps move into sports car racing alongside Toyota, Porsche, Audi, Bentley, Aston Martin and Nissan – a place where the carmakers compete among themselves and a large, healthy entry of private teams.
One final thing: right now it seems that the German GP will be scrubbed from this year’s calendar, and the Italian GP is in danger. F1 needs car manufacturer involvement, Germany is Europe’s biggest car market, Italy the home of the sports car, and F1’s only two manufacturer teams are Mercedes and Ferrari. How on earth can the people who run F1 allow these two companies’ home races to be replaced by automotive nonentity nations?
If I were in charge of a car manufacturer brand I’d be doing my best to protect that brand. Which currently means not being part of F1.