A better way to help F1’s small teams

News emerged today that Marussia’s attempt to re-enter F1 has been rejected. Despite the depth of feeling regarding F1’s pluckiest team, it is a good thing for the sport. It would have been just another ‘band-aid’ approach to one of the sport’s core issues. The best solution however for the sport’s minnows will not be found in missing races, folding and re-entering later. The solution is customer cars.

I originally wrote a similar piece back in September 2014 when things were looking grim for Caterham and Marussia. Both are now bust and the financial woes have migrated to the likes of Sauber and Force India. Now, as it was then, the simple fact remains that the financial realities of F1 are damaging it from the inside and customer cars is the best way to actively counter-attack.

‘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, quicker and cheaper 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.

Purists say F1 is really about innovation and technology and that is why customer cars cannot be allowed. The biggest and best funded teams will still innovate – even under the ever tightening current rules – with or without the tail-enders.

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