Honda website
Honda website

MAY 12, 2002

Formula 1 and the wildebeest


ASK any student of nature: elimination of the weakest strengthens the species. Why else does a migrating herd of wildebeest force its weaker members to the outside of the crowd, thus making them the first to be taken out by predators?

That way, by removal of the weakest link, only the strongest survive to eat another day.

The law of the bush is simple: be strong and live; be weak and die. Simple. In fact, nothing could be simpler. At no stage does the law differentiate between male and female, between old and young, hale or frail. Nor does it allow for past achievements or abilities. Potential, neither.

In a time of siege or hunger the good escape; the poor disappear. This law applies to all species, and evolution is the name of nature's game. And, zoologists, far from upsetting the balance of nature, accept that survival and improvement of all species depends upon the simple law of evolution. Sad, maybe; true, none the less.

Formulus Uno, too, was once governed by that law, and, as a species, got stronger by elimination of the weak. Only Ferrari has been in the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since its inception in 1950 and only McLaren is a child of the Sixties. Williams and Arrows were born a decade later, while Renault is a reincarnation of the Toleman-Benetton team which began in the early 1980s.

Before that, others, like Brabham, Lotus and Cooper - multiple championship winners - lived too long on past glories to survive the evolutionary processes while the likes of Andrea Moda, Pacific, Lola, and Simtek were too young to run or too ill from birth, and died on the hoof. Since 1950 more than 120 constructors have entered the World Championship. Only 11 survive.

Yet, Formulus Uno is stronger than at any other stage in its 52-year existence. More money is being pumped into this most capitalist of sporting businesses than ever before, TV ratings are hanging in there, and giant Toyota has just entered, having spent record amounts to get to the grid.

When, last year, Prost went under, the world of Formula 1 was shocked. But, why? After all, Minardi was all but liquidated the year before, and only made it to Australia on a (European Aviation) wing and a (entrepreneurial) prayer.

Since 1999 - the reason for that date will become clear - BMW, Jaguar, Renault and aforementioned Toyota have made substantial investments in Formula 1, Michelin and Honda have returned, and blue-chippers like Compaq, Panasonic, Fedex, Becks, Credit Suisse, Vodafone, Acer, Hewlett Packard and AMD have joined the fray.

On the oil front Castrol has increased its involvement, Esso is in via Toyota, and Petrobras sponsors Williams. British American Racing started that year, bringing with it Lucky Strike and 555, and, latterly, snaring Honda.

Honda is in itself an interesting competitor: glaringly unsuccessful at present, the company has still found the means to partner both BAR and Jordan. It may be the world's largest engine builder (14 million motors of all sizes built in 2001), but its involvement is still said to be costing upwards of $120m - or $10 per unit assembled, whether it be an air-cooled 50cc moped power plant, or an alloy V6 destined for the NSX sports car.

The signs of a sick sport? Certainly not! But, hang around certain motor homes in the paddock; read certain journals; listen to certain people, believe all the doom-and-gloom and you may believe the sport to be dead on its feet. And, surprise, surprise, the cries come from Jordan (in particular), Arrows (in chorus fashion), and Minardi (in serial fashion). Now, hands-up: when last did any of those teams win a grand prix?

Jordan, in September 1999. The rest? Never! Now, excuse me, but I thought the business of Grand Prix racing was about winning. Renault and Honda have not done too much of that recently (and Jaguar and Toyota not at all), but all are bigger businesses - whose objectives in F1, rightly or wrongly, go way beyond surviving another season, way beyond snaring the next sponsor - that operate in market environments which cull regularly.

Peter Sauber, the Swiss, despite being said (by others) to be on the endangered list, is treating the scenario stoically, and seems better-placed than the rest to fight his way through the 'Post 9-11' downturn. Yet, he has no motor manufacturer behind him: his Ferrari engines are paid for by a sponsor Petronas. Sauber chooses the potential of youth ahead of (costly) race experience, watches every cent, and does not sail, play Rock 'n' Roll or name energy drinks after himself. Peter's only extravagances are enormous cigars and a holiday cottage in the Alps. Why, he even does seriously unhip things like name the cars after the initial of wife Christina. Not even his own name!

So, if there is enough grass (in wildebeest parlance; sponsor money to Formulus Uno) for Sauber, is it Formula 1's fault there is not enough for others?

Remember, too, that there are teams in F3000 aiming to break into F1. Why should any law or circumstance prevent the promotion of (winning) F3000 teams to the premier division when the time is right?

Eddie Jordan, who is leading cries for a handicap - for that is what ultimately it is - system to allow his team to survive, is adamant that jobs will be lost. That sponsors will be lost. That the spectacle will be lost. That drives will be lost. That Formula 1 will go under.

Let us examine each "cry" in sequence. In any economy jobs are lost and created as the economy ebbs and flows. Where were Jordan's sympathies when Pacific, Simtek, Brabham, Lotus and Minardi were on their knees? As good operators leave a particular team due to its demise, so they are snapped up. Are the better people from Prost still unemployed? Nope. Are the weaker ones? Yes. Do they deserve artificial respiration? Nope.

Why on earth would sponsors getting good value for money walk? Sure, those not getting a good bang for their buck will, but that is a fact in any business. But, the quickest route to ensure that sponsors walk is by talking down the value of the medium. Can you imagine a newspaper proprietor talking down the value of print as an advertising medium?

And, as EJ can attest, Mastercard, having got the wrong end of the bull down at Lola in 1997, easily transferred to Jordan once a better package was presented. So, why should DHL and Deutsche Post (for example) be lost to F1 if Jordan goes? There ARE teams out there offering results as a precursor to exposure

As far as drives being lost is concerned, remember that good drivers are always in demand. Has a single soul suggested that Michael Schumacher take a drop in pay to ensure a fitter keeps a job? Did Jordan retrench a driver as part of his cost-cutting exercise?

Of course, there are drivers out of work at present - there always are. That is why a podium placer like Alex Wurz hangs around McLaren as tester and not racer during race weekends; will not enter the cockpit except in unforeseen circumstances.

If Formula 1 is a sport, it is also a business - a multi-national mega business - and if, as McLaren boss Ron Dennis succinctly put it, "you are not very good at it (business) you go out of business". Is it a bad thing should an unsuccessful (bad) business goes out of business? Is it a bad thing if only eight or nine teams remain to enter the 2003 Grand Prix season?

Only if F1 restricts itself to teams of two cars each, and even then the agreement with circuit owners to supply minimum 16 cars per race will be fulfilled. But, consider the alternative: nine teams of three cars gives 27 entries, enough for three Charlies to be bumped every Saturday.

Sponsors would flock to the survivors, and good value would be assured for each. Closer racing from a field of three each Ferraris, Williams and McLarens is a given, and engine suppliers could further spread their costs over a third entry running for honors.

None of this adds seriously to costs. Teams take a third car to races, take crews to man the entry lest it is needed, and most take their 'third' driver. In fact, at most events, the third car is run at some stage during the weekend to ensure race worthiness.

I would rather see a Fisichella, Frentzen and Webber in a Ferrari, McLaren and Williams respectively - plus Fernando Alonso in a third Renault - than in their present mounts or in motor homes. Wouldn't you?

There are numerous such examples. Opening third seats gives talents like Jacques Villeneuve an even opportunity against, for example, Juan-Pablo Montoya; Webber against Rubens Barrichello.

Plus, all cars have space for the stickers that will suddenly be available. So, voila: 27 car entries, at least nine cars running against each other. All for less money than F1 collectively spends at present. How is that for a bargain in these recessionary times?