NOVEMBER 11, 2008

The implications of the McLaren-Force India deal

Force India's new relationship with McLaren is going to be interesting to watch and the clear out of the old management - plus the addition of McLaren man Simon Roberts as Force India's new chief executive officer - suggests that this is not a normal engine supply deal. McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh has, however, denied that Force India will become a McLaren B team.

"I believe we can bring business benefit to this organisation and I hope that we can learn some things," he said. "We are going to learn lessons by looking over the shoulder of Force India and take stock of some of the things we do. I believe we will become stronger as a consequence of this. I would not have gone into this unless I believed it was going to help us win World Championships in the future."

For the moment the five-year deal is for Mercedes-Benz engines, plus McLaren gearboxes and hydraulic systems and the kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) that is currently being developed by Mercedes-Benz High Performance Engines and McLaren Racing. In addition Force India will "have access to the McLaren Group's network of bespoke suppliers".

Roberts steps in to Force India from his previous role as racing operations director at McLaren. A mechanical engineer, he became head of manufacturing engineering at Perkins Engines before joining Rover/BMW as the chief engineer for diesel engines. He then moved on to work with Alstom building Pendolino tilting trains before joining McLaren Racing in September 2003 as General Manager. He became Operations Director in 2006.

The move to Force India is seen as a way in which his career can be developed while keeping him ready in case new management is needed at McLaren.

The big question now is whether or not the alliance will move on to chassis as well. This obviously makes sense from both McLaren and Force India boss Vijay Mallya's point of view. McLaren would gain more research and development capability having two teams of engineers working on the same car and twice the testing mileage, while Mallya will gain much better results without needing to invest in new infrastructure. There are a number of teams in F1 who are opposed to the idea that billionaires can come into the sport and buy success, but this is part of the tradition of the sport. The one danger of such deals is that the manufacturers will all start to do it and the remaining independent teams will be driven out of F1. It could also result in a shrinking of the F1 manufacturing base as in future there may be only a handful of teams capable of building F1 cars, compared to the current nine organisations involved. Mallya and McLaren are likely to get support for the idea of sharing chassis from Red Bull and Scuderia Toro Rosso and probably also Honda, which was building cars for Super Aguri until the latter operation went out of business. Such deals make sense when one considers the economies of scale involved.

That means that half the teams are - in theory at least - in favour of allowing customer chassis and others will see the benefits of such alliances if the McLaren-Force India deal is a success. Ferrari will no doubt want to go down a similar route, particularly if there is a performance advantage to be gained.

It is worth looking at the experience of NASCAR to see that allowing customer cars and restricting testing is not a very good combination. What happens then is that the team with the most cars gets the best information and makes the most progress. In the US stock car series this resulted in the midfield being gutted as the big teams took their sponsorship in order to expand the number of cars being run. Even celebrated teams such as Petty Enterprises and Dale Earnhardt Inc are now struggling to survive as they cannot compete with the big combines such as Roush Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing as they are running more cars and overseeing satellite operations as well, thus driving the smaller teams back on the grid. The only way for teams to avoid this is to build better cars than the big combines but with regulatory and financial constraints this is not easy to do.