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.

No comments:

Post a Comment