Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Formula Fiscal

There isn't enough money in the entire world for Formula 1.

That's not just a nice bit of hyperbole, it happens to be literally true: if the entire $75 trillion GDP of Planet Earth was poured into Formula 1, we'd get some superb racing machines, sure, but the teams would still be screaming for money. There is no upper limit on spending when it's going towards R&D for a competitive activity. Only the military gives you that same crippling equation, which is why only defense can give you more out-of-control spending than Formula 1.

But on a more-practicable, less-hypothetical level, it seems that statement has become true as well: there aren't enough willing investors to keep every Formula 1 team afloat, and certainly not if you want to spend at the same level as the big teams. Which you have to, if you want a chance at winning.

So it is that two of Formula 1's backmarker teams have bitten the dust - Marussia and Caterham. Both arrived on the grid in 2010, born out of then-FIA president Max Mosely's idea to force a 30 million spending cap on the teams. Four teams thought that sounded pretty workable: Campos Meta (which became the Hispania Racing Team); Manor Grand Prix (which ultimately became Marussia); Lotus Racing (which became Caterham); and USF1 (which became a hellish mess). All of them were counting on Mosely's budget cap idea to remain in business, so of course, the established teams shot it down in flames. Mosely lost his job as FIA president, the budget cap idea was dropped, the hovering threat of a breakaway series vanished and the new boys weren't needed as insurance anymore. They found themselves diving into the familiar F1 shark tank - without Mosely's steel cage.

HRT hit a financial brick wall before they even got to the grid, and Spanish squillionaire José Ramón Carabante was forced to buy the team to protect his initial investment, naming it after his Hispania Group. He called in Colin Kolles (then running Audis at Le Mans but with plenty of hands-on experience running several F1 teams), who put together a real Frankenstein monster of a team: Italian cars ("Dallara," said technical chief Geoff Willis, "thought the car would be a super-duper GP2 car, maybe 30% better, but it needed to be ten times better"), Spanish finance, British mechanics with DTM, Le Mans and Formula 3 backgrounds, but not much actual F1 experience, mechanics trying to convey information in Spanish, Italian, German and English... a real dog's breakfast. HRT first hit the track, not in practice for the Bahrain GP, but in qualifying: Karun Chandhok felt them bolt the floor onto the car under his backside when Q1 had already started.

The first time this car ever had an engine in it.

So nobody was too surprised to say adios to HRT in 2012; by then they weren't trying to become a proper F1 team, they just wanted someone to buy them and take the financial loss, the Greater Fool theory in its practical application. They were even still running the same Dallara cars, never having had the money for new ones.

Marussia was better, but not by much. At its core was a crew of Formula 3 stalwarts, Manor Motorsport from Sheffield, with a commercial office in London and R&D from Wirth Research in Bicester. The Wirth connection was the biggest clue - in those days Nick Wirth was championing the idea that CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) would soon make windtunnels obsolete; that the digital windtunnel would soon be giving better results than the real thing. That was Manor's great flaw, trying to go Grand Prix racing without a windtunnel. Cutting one of the most basic corners in the game was a bold gamble, one that attracted Sir Richard Branson's attention and made them Virgin Racing for their first couple of seasons, but in the long run it backfired badly. It turned out CFD couldn't do the job alone (or just couldn't do it alone yet, depending on who you asked), and Wirth was given the flick. From there they were on borrowed time: Beardy Branson got out while he could and sold his stock to Nikolai Fomenko, whose Marussia sports car company gave the team its new name. Then in April this year the Marussia company itself shut down, and it was just a matter of time until we said Пока! to the F1 team.

So the loss of HRT and Marussia was no real shock; the real surprise was Caterham. If any of the Class of 2010 looked promising, it was Caterham. The team started as a Malaysian pride project, partly owned by the Malaysian government, but the frontman was billionaire AirAsia owner Tony Fernandes, with support coming from Proton who gave permission for the team to be named Lotus. The new Lotus was started from scratch ("At the middle of September ['09] we had three staff and an empty factory near Hingham," said Fernandes, although sign of the times, the first room completed was the prayer room for the team's Moslem employees). But the real mover and shaker was Mike Gascoyne, the man who'd moved Renault to the front of the grid in the early Noughties and almost managed the same with Toyota. Gascoyne wisely built a relatively heavy, conservative car that did what none of the other teams could do, finish races, and so ended the year best of the bottom four (which, because of a bet, resulted in Sir Richard Branson serving as a flight attendant on an AirAsia flight).

He rose like a phoenix to the occasion.

But then the ex-Renault factory team changed their name to Lotus, kicking off a huge legal row that ended with Fernandes buying the Caterham company, makers of the Caterham Seven kit car, just for the rights to the name (why they didn't just call the team Proton, a name easy for Westerners to pronounce and sizzling with Rise-of-the-Third-World cool, is beyond me). Yet this year Fernandes seems to have lost interest: in Monaco the team set a record for the most races without scoring a single point (just to rub in salt, the same weekend Jules Bianchi gave Marussia their first points); then 40 staff took him to court for wrongful dismissal (a sure sign the budget butchers were at work). Now they've entered administration, and although next year's entry list still shows a Caterham entry, it seems pretty unlikely.

So what happens next? There's talk of the remaining teams being forced to each enter a third car in next year's championship - a sign things are in a bad way, but sadly, not an uncommon one. You only have to unwind the clock 11 years to find that sort of talk coming up again. And the lessons from that time will be the subject of my next blog.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

When Gricey Scalped the Greats

God, I love this.

So I'm most of the way through a great video providing good insight into the time the Holden Dealer Team went to Europe, when I'm distracted by a tale of outrageous theft. This is why racing is awesome, people.

Let's start at the beginning. It's 1986, a year that started on a high note as Peter Brock's long-delayed Commodore evo  finally arrives. The car - the VK Commodore SS Group A (a bit of a mouthful, better known as "Blue Meanie") - was well worth the wait, fast out of the box and responsive to good driving and careful preparation.

The first Australian Touring Car Championship for Group A cars had been won (by a BMW), as well as the first Group A Bathurst (by a Jaguar), leading some to decry this invasion from foreign cars as a misstep. Peter Brock, however, grabbed the stick from the other end - he realised the Commodore was now eligible to race in Europe. With a brand-new "World Touring Car Championship" having been announced for 1987 (which would visit Australasia thrice, including races at Calder Park, Wellington in East Bondi, and the big one at Bathurst), it would probably be a good idea to send a car to Europe and get a taste of the opposition. Ergo, a VK SS Group A was crated up and flown to Italy for the 500km race at Monza - Round 1 of the '86 European Touring Car Championship.


In those days the ETCC was as cutthroat as touring car racing got: a marathon 13 races, each 500km long, plus the prestigious 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps (these days it's a GT race for gran turismo cars, but back then it was for ordinary touring cars, or piccolo turismo, as I like to think of them). People who could make a living out of this were not to be trifled with, and 1986 saw more works teams on the grid than ever before (or since): BMW's Schnitzer Motorsport; reigning champions Eggenberger, who'd just signed on as the new Ford works team; the Volvo Motorsport Division, who after the breakup with Eggenberger were on the rebound with Belgian team RAS Sport; and Tom Walkinshaw Racing's ongoing stint as the Bastos Texaco Rover team.

To stand against that, Holden would have to field the very best – so Peter Brock got on the phone to his old rival Allan Moffat, who'd spent 1985 on the sidelines, unable to get a drive. Yes, do not adjust your screens, Moffat actually signed up to co-drive a Holden with Peter Brock! Despite their old rivalry, Moffat was the ideal man for the job, a driver with plenty of overseas experience and a wide range of international contacts, not to mention amazing mechanical sympathy. Moffat signed to do development work and the co-drive the famous #05, which the FIA sadly reduced to just #5 for the European events. More promisingly, as part of the global General Motors caliphate, Brock and the Mobil HDT were allowed to operate out of Opel's racing skunkworks in Germany. 


And funnily enough, Allan Grice made the trip too, showing once again was sort of the antimatter version of Brock. Grice's car was also a VK Group A, but unlike Brock's, it hadn't been prepared by the factory. Instead, it had been put together by Les Small's Roadways workshop in Melbourne, one of two VKs Les Small built for Gricey that year and widely considered the best two cars he ever built. One of them stayed in Australia and was raced locally, while the other was flown to Europe to contest the ETCC alongside Brock. It had almost no sponsorship (just frozen chicken magnate Graeme Bailey's Chickadee logo, plus some help from Yokohama as he outlines in the video), and the car was run not from a glossy manufacturer's factory, but from Aussie expat Alan Docking's Formula 3 workshop. It was the ultimate contrast of factory glitz and gritty privateer.

And amazingly, it was advantage Grice. At Monza Brock snapped an axle within six laps, a mechanical failure unthinkable back home, while Grice led the race for quite a distance and caused quite a stir among the Establishment. The race fell to Tom Walkinshaw, but the Volvo, BMW and Rover drivers still left the circuit muttering to themselves and staring disconsolately at calendars, checking the dates for their next round of factory upgrades. It's only been okay to say it since the announcement that Broadmeadows is closing, but it now seems it was true: Aussie cars were actually pretty good.


Oh yeah, and the theft? At Spa Gricey broke a seat, so he pinched one out of Tom Walkinshaw's unused display car. Not to be outdone, Win Percy confirms that yes he did, then goes on to describe cannibalising some poor bastard's brand new Mazda in the car park, because a Mazda team needed the parts! Tacitus once wrote, "Crime, once exposed, has no refuge but in audacity." The people in motor racing all got that memo.

Damn, I love this sport.