F1: A busted hush
FEBRUARY 29, 2012
The F1 personnel you see taking part in the final F1 pre-season test this weekend are focussed totally on performance. But what you won't see are the concerned expressions back at base as at least six team principals think about simply surviving this season, never mind winning. Although the bosses won't admit it to your face, their teams are evidence that the F1 business model is bust. Or close to it.
I'm not an economist - I can barely keep my Petty Cash book straight - so, I need to resort to a language I understand. And that is, the majority of teams have insufficient cash coming in to pay for a proper season of F1; 'proper' in this case being as competitive as a basic minimum budget of ¬¨¬£80 million would allow. That may not sound much - and it isn't compare to an estimated spend by Ferrari and Red Bull of ¬¨¬£120 million each - but the fact is that at least two or three teams are very hard-pressed to find the ¬¨¬£80 million.
I hear you say this may be expected of HRT, Marussia and Caterham. And you might also - wrongly in my view - suggest that F1 doesn't necessarily need these back markers running three or four seconds off the pace. But what if I said F1 could lose the likes of Sauber, Williams and Force India? You might then agree the grid would look decidedly thinner - and sadder.
Is this likely to happen? Not if you listen to the teams. But, put your ear closer to the paddock floor and the rumblings are beginning to shake F1's foundations. I'm hearing stories of missed wages payments; not enough money to cover a basic supply of spares when testing; requests for eight-figure bank loans being refused; existing F1 blue chip corporate partners 'negotiating down' their future deals. You may say this is merely confirmation of the difficult times we live in. But it is also evidence that F1, for all its gloss and pre-season optimism, is not immune to a world-wide recession. And the extension of that? F1 of the future is in trouble.
Which leads nicely to the next massive hurdle; the new formula for 2014. There may indeed be sound ecological and motor industry tempting reasons to go 1.6-litre turbo. But the frightening fact right now is that this is a hugely expensive menu being placed before teams operating - or attempting to - the aforementioned business model which is losing its wheels as we speak. One engine manufacturer reckons this turbo unit will cost 40 per cent more. Even I, with my price-of-a-pint economics, can see that's plain daft for the majority of teams to contemplate in the current climate.
What's the answer? If I knew, I wouldn't be sitting in this cosy little office above a charity shop tapping out a few words for a couple of quid. But I'm surrounded by books, including copies of the Autocourse annual stretching back to the Fifties. Re-reading the 1987 edition reminds me that F1 faced a mini-crisis when turbos were being eased out by the end of 1988. A 'second division' for 3.5-litre normally aspirated engines was introduced to give Tyrrell, March and others a chance to go racing. Seen initially as something of a side-show, this category more than held up its head on certain tracks and kept F1 looking healthy. The bottom line is that F1 has always needed to focus on the show.
Maybe we should think along similar lines now. Perhaps have a return to customer cars. As I said, I don't know the answer. But I am aware that F1 desperately needs to drive the costs down. With a sledge hammer. And by one man (preferably a grey-haired dictator) rather than, heaven forbid, the teams themselves. The current Resource Restriction Agreement merely scratches the surface; it needs to be enshrined in law and then acted upon with swingeing - and embarrassingly public - penalties.
But, above all, the majority of the teams need to stand up and admit they're in trouble. The irony is that the hugely competitive nature of F1 - you know, the pig-headed business where you never admit weakness to your rivals - is actually killing the very business these people are pretending is in fine fettle.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.