JANUARY 9, 2007

Why the question of chassis design is so important to F1

Formula 1 was built on the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest: constant competition forced the teams to seek technological breakthroughs and weeded out the companies that were not meant for success. Every aspect of a racing car was examined constantly and improved and the result was that only the best survived. The F1 teams and attitudes of today grew out of that system. There is an argument that it makes no sense to have 12 F1 teams all doing parallel development work which has no real purpose beyond the sport - but the reality is that the competition will remain that way as long as there is money to fund it - and at the moment F1 still provides a good return on investment for sponsors and car manufacturers.

The FIA has decided that it wants to add some kind of industry-relevance to the sport by embracing hybrid technologies (albeit to only a limited extent to avoid pushing up costs still further) and with the Concorde Agreement coming to an end the sport will be governed by new regulations which have been published by the FIA. In June 2005 the FIA World Council voted a change that teams "will be free to buy a complete car or any part of a car from another constructor" arguing that because of restrictive regulations there was little revolutionary change possible and so the opportunity to gain a technical advantage has been a process of constant updating which costs a great deal of money.

There are some who believe that allowing customer chassis is a disaster in the making and that it will result in the bigger teams controlling the smaller teams to ensure that they do as well as they possibly can - and do everything that the bigger teams want. Team owners like David Richards may talk about the new era of low cost F1 operations with small teams and no need for huge investment but the downside of this is that the smaller teams are unlikely to have any political voice or indeed independence. With testing restricted the number of cars that a team has access to is of key importance and thus, as we have seen in NASCAR, the drift is towards the big teams getting bigger and the small being gobbled up. As BMW's Dr Mario Theissen recently pointed out, having six constructor teams plus six customers would very quickly change to a situation in which there would be six four-car teams.

The budgets in F1 will go on rising as long as there is money to spend. The problem comes when the money runs out and car manufacturers decide, as they are wont to do, that they have had enough of F1 and withdraw. And while there will always be people willing to step in, there is unlikely to be the kind of money needed because of the sheer scale of the investment involved. The only way to keep up the number of cars if one or more manufacturers departed would be to have the remaining teams supplying more teams and that would send the sport down a path towards a situation in which F1 could end up with only one or two chassis suppliers - and, if one of those failed, a single chassis supplier. This is what happened in CART in the United States between 1980 and 2004. Nowadays, running Champ Car teams is cheap but public interest is a fraction of what once it was and the manufacturers have long since walked away, leaving one or two well-funded teams and most of the others struggling to survive. This is why Newman-Haas Racing has been so dominant in recent years.

Some of the F1 teams seem to believe that the question of customer chassis is still negotiable but others have already embarked on setting up satellite operations. The problem over 2007 has come because these operations are trying to muddle through 2007 without needing to invest too heavily.

This is not a question of regulations but rather of contractual obligation. The teams (and the other signatories of the Concorde Agreement) are bound by the terms of the agreement and it is not a question of whether the FIA rules that a car is legal. The FIA is contracted to act as the sport's regulator but if the other signatories do not agree with decisions made they have the right under Concorde to go to arbitration for a legal ruling. This is a lengthy and expensive business which would leave the outcome of races uncertain until a ruling is made. It is thus not a desirable route for the sport. The counter argument to this is that it is of key importance for the long-term future of the sport.

The FIA owns the sport and can do as it pleases in 2008 - but only up to a point. The teams have agreed commercial terms with the Formula One group until 2012 but the details of these agreements is currently not clear. Some say that they agreed to sign only on the basis that there would not be major changes to the Concorde Agreement and there may be people willing to challenge the legality of these contracts, if there is too much tinkering with the fundamental principles of the sport.

The rapprochement between the FIA and the car manufacturers is obviously designed to head off as much opposition as possible but that will mean that the private teams are more isolated than ever, which does not fit with the federation's stated position as protector of the smaller teams.