MAY 19, 2009

Who are the new F1 teams and are they serious?

The FIA President Max Mosley has made much of the need to keep costs down in Formula 1 in order to allow new teams to enter the sport. His reason for this is that the car manufacturers will not make a commitment to the sport for the longer term because they believe that the teams should get a larger share of the revenues that the sport generates. With the existing teams bonding (to a lesser or greater extent) in the Formula One Teams' Association, it is very useful to have some other organisations to talk about. One might argue that this is not very different from the use of dummy tanks during World War II to confuse the enemy into believing that units existed when in fact they were simply Jeeps fitted with metal frames and canvas.

So what is real and what is just hot air?

From what we can gather there is a lot of hot air about, but we hear that there could be eight teams bidding for places if there was a $40m budget cap (in reality this would be a $30m plus $10m per team that has been promised by the Formula One group. Finding $30m in the current economic climate may seem hard but it is not impossible, although an established team has a great deal more chance of landing such support than a new operation. It is clear that the planned USF1 team has a budget of around $60m for 2010, but beyond that there is only gossip. There has been talk that Alejandro Agag, the former politician turned wheeler-dealer, who is the son-in-law of former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, may be putting together a team to be called Addax, with backing from Qatari real estate company Barwa. A business partner of Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone in the Queens Park Rangers soccer team, he would obviously fit in with them. The team, which is based in Valencia, does not have the manufacturing capability for an F1 operation as it currently uses GP2 machinery supplied by Dallara.

There has been some talk about Lola and Prodrive, and even a combination of the two. Lola has the facilities it needs and people capable of building a car and says that it is pushing ahead with a design, but there is no indication at the moment whether there is money behind the project, although the company has said that it had to look closely at the numbers when the budget cap was raised. This suggests that there is some budget available, but without a budget cap it is probably not enough to be a serious operation. A combination of Prodrive and Lola might work, but the two companies were recently scrapping over the intellectual property rights to the Aston Martin sports car and thus there must be some questions about any possible alliance. Prodrive alone (or perhaps sister company Aston Martin) might be able to find some money in the Middle East, but team boss David Richards has been saying that F1 is not stable enough at the moment and that would suggest that he does not yet have any deal. He is probably negotiating.

The Spanish media seem to think that there could be bids for franchises from GP2 team Racing Engineering, which is owned by the well-connected Alfonso d`Orleans Borbon. He has backing in GP2 from the green tea-based slimming drink Fat Burner, a brand owned by an Estonian company called ToneTea. This is a partnership between Estonian entrepreneur Margus Reinsalu and American Greg Grace, a former president of the Coca-Cola Beverages of Estonia company. It is doubtful that Fat Burner has the cash for F1 but Orleans Borbon has very good links in the boards of big Spanish companies, such as Repsol and Telefonica and so cannot be discounted. His team, based in Jerez, designs and manufactures parts for racing cars and so has some of the infrastructure needed for F1. It should be considered a possible F1 team but it must also be remembered that Spain is in a deep recession at the moment and money is not easy to find.

Joan Villadelprat's Epsilon Euskadi is also considering an entry. The former Ferrari, McLaren and Benetton employee has long wanted to start the first Spanish F1 team and has recently opened an impressive new technical centre in Spain. The operation has designed and built a Le Mans sports car and has the right kind of people involved. It has a suitable windtunnel as well. But the question is really the money. There have also been talks of Villadelprat's operation joining forces with the USF1 team. Tiago Monteiro moved into GP2 this year with Ocean Racing Technology, which is the revamped version of Enrique Scalabroni's BCN Competicion. The Argentine engineer has long wanted to run his own F1 team but never had the money. Monteiro may also share that ambition and there is probably money to be had in Portugal, where the new Algarve circuit is helping to revive interest in F1. But is there enough?

There has also been talk that iSport International, another GP2 team, has ambitions for F1 and some finance from the Danish newspaper group Den Bla Avis. There has been other mutterings about a revival of Super Aguri and a switch to F1 by A1GP's Team Ireland, but neither seem very likely to happen.

In addition to that, Bernie Ecclestone has said that there is interest from another American team, which has led to speculation that Penske Racing or Andretti Green might be interested. Neither seems to have much motivation as there is plenty to do to rebuild IRL and both have other projects. Penske is active in NASCAR and GrandAm, while Andretti runs teams in Indy Lights, the American Le Mans Series and operates several street circuits as well. F1 does not make much sense for either one. NASCAR has sufficient problems of its own and it is hard to see any of the teams involved wanting to try to break into F1. Any diversification into open-wheelers would likely be in IRL, as shown in recent weeks by the Richard Petty entry in the Indy 500.

There are probably others in Britain, such as the Litespeed Formula 3 team but once again the question of money is the key limiting factor. One might suppose that Carlin Motorsport would be another potential team, as the team wanted to be in F1 in 2006 when the FIA last opened up the entry, trying to force the existing F1 teams to sign up. Nothing has been heard of Carlin this time round, which means that something is probably happening...