Customer cars in F1: time for a ‘new’ old idea?

F1’s leading teams may need to field 3 cars at some point in the near future. Caterham are teetering on the brink, Marussia run pretty much sponsor-free regularly and Sauber are in real danger of missing out on transportation money for 2015. Gene Haas’ new US-based F1 team could soften the blow, but that will only paper over the cracks if 2-3 teams fold and the 20 cars limited is breached. As has long been the case for F1, the financial realities of the sport are damaging it from the inside. There is of course a solution (an old one) for both the current worries over a shrinking grid and the longer-term financial instability of the sport: customer cars.

It is a taboo subject at times – many F1 purists stick their fingers in their ears at its very mention as if it is a dagger to the heart of the sport – however it will be to the detriment of the sport if it is not seriously considered. And in practice, the move towards such a scenario is already well in motion.

‘Customer’ components

Smaller teams regularly utilise components, gearboxes, electronics and similar from the larger ‘F1-only’ teams like Williams and McLaren. Many components are items that teams are free to source from rival teams (as well as external suppliers) within the existing regulations. In the short-term, expanding that option could provide a lifeline to smaller teams and with the underlying principle (and acceptance of it) already in place, it is hard to understand why so many are so stubbornly against allowing it to run to a natural conclusion – customer cars. For the smallest teams, a 2015-spec Williams or Ferrari chassis run in 2016 would almost certainly be more reliable and quicker than a new chassis designed from the ground up.

We don’t want new teams!

Whilst currently there are no slots for new F1 teams, the sport cannot assume that will remain the case. The hideous costs of setting up the likes of wind-tunnels and simulators mean barriers to entry in to the sport are gargantuan. Customer cars could go a long way to resolving that issue without compromising the quality of the new teams. The complexity of the cars and hybrid power units themselves would dictate that only the best could enter. Irrespective of that, why would the sport not wish to allow good teams like Force India and Lotus to take the fight more regularly to the top teams? Each year most struggle because so much of their budget and resource is sucked in to designing their own cars, and often the output is not that good anyway.

The fear of being embarrassed

F1’s leading teams – Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari – may recoil from customer cars perpetually for two reasons: firstly because F1 is not their core business and secondly, because they might get shown up by their customers. Of course a smaller team could marry up a better chassis/engine combo (imagine a Red Bull with Merc power) or engineer better solutions for a chassis, but realistically what are the chances? Fairly slim and at any rate, the top teams would likely dictate supply terms to customer teams to help reduce that risk. For example, contract that a Ferrari chassis must always be mated to a Ferrari power unit and so on.

F1 needs to adhere to the principles of advancing cutting edge technology and innovation but customer cars would not destroy it. The quicker F1’s purists accept that, and understand that F1 is now run commercially as entertainment first and sport second, the better.

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