News that the Manor F1 team has gone into administration and is on the brink of financial collapse once more raises serious questions about how small teams can survive in F1.
In recent years the F1 off season news has focused on which teams are in financial trouble as much as driver rumours and new car launches. But with the successful arrival of Haas F1 as a Ferrari ‘customer team’ in all but name, is it time for F1 to accept that customer cars are the future?
Customer cars: an anathema to F1?
F1’s engineering purists regard customer cars as an anathema to the sport. F1 is about technological advances, innovation and testing future road car technology on the track they say. Fans used to accept those justifications as gospel but the harsh realities of F1 in 2017 cast them in a different light.
Firstly, the economics of entering F1 as a new team – or simply surviving as a small team – make customer cars the only viable option. Unless you are a major car manufacturer the initial costs to build from the ground up in F1 are crippling. This is perfectly demonstrated by the approach Gene Haas has taken.
The economics of F1
Though the team deny they are a customer outfit, by sourcing their power unit, gearbox, hybrid technology, cooling, aerodynamics, chassis design and more from other suppliers – chiefly Ferrari and Dallara – they are only a couple of bolts away from being a customer package.
Haas – a shrewd businessman – could see that the massive start up costs involved in a full F1 design and build would ruin a team before it could even establish itself. Thus by taking advantage of loopholes in the rules to build a car in a modular way, the American has avoided these significant barriers to entry.
It is hard to imagine the Haas F1 Team becoming a reality if F1 stipulated a team must design and manufacture all aspects of chassis, gearbox and more from the ground up. From an economics perspective either the sport embraces customer cars or we continue to watch teams teetering on the brink of collapse. And keep our fingers crossed for a Toyota or General Motors to dip their toe in the F1 water.
F1 and road car technology
The second uncomfortable truth is that the connection between F1 and road car technology is diminishing rapidly. In general F1’s relevance to road car technology is falling away – particularly as manufacturers embrace all-electric technology on the road.
Even F1’s resident design genius Adrian Newey doubts the relevance of some key aspects of the sport. The Red Bull design chief was quoted recently as saying that F1’s hybrid power unit adventure is nothing but marketing hype in terms of road car technology relevance.
Road car relevance has been used as a means to defend against customer cars in F1. The argument goes that without that innovation on the track they lose relevance and the ultimate reason for competing in F1. Peddled by car manufacturers it is nonsense – F1 is a marketing tool – and is meaningless for the likes of Sauber or Manor.
Moving from customer components to customer cars
Much of the ground work for customer cars is already complete. F1’s minnows typically buy in components, gearboxes, electronics and similar from the larger ‘F1-only’ teams like Williams.
Teams are free to source many components from rival teams/external suppliers within the existing regulations. In short, acceptance of the underlying principle of customer cars has been tacitly given by teams and the FIA.
Offering the option to source a complete chassis from Williams for example could provide a lifeline to small teams. Similarly for a debut team, a previous season Ferrari or Red Bull chassis would almost certainly be more reliable and quicker than a new car designed from the ground up.
Customer cars will lose F1 its technological edge
Often the F1 engineering purists will trot out the familiar line that customer cars would compromise the engineering standards and quality of new teams. This might have been true in the 1970s but not in 2017.
The advanced technology featured in the cars and their hybrid power units demand only the best can enter F1. Haas is a great example of a highly skilled team with motor sport pedigree entering the sport because they have the engineering skills to do so. Customer cars would not diminish the high standards of innovation and engineering F1 is recognised for. In fact they could actually provide more opportunities for up and coming engineering talent by growing the F1 grid.
The alternative is of course to retain the status quo. Resigning the sport to watching back of the grid teams struggle to compete because what budget they have is wiped out by designing and building their own cars. Their ultimate end product not particularly good and sponsorship consequently harder to find. Thus landing us back wondering which teams will survive the winter break.