Monday, September 8, 2014

Should F1 go to three-car teams?

Yesterday there was an interesting tweet by Adam Parr:
"This is the last year of F1 as we know it. In 2015 eight teams will contest the championship, with several teams entering three cars."
There were also other tweets confirming this possibility. (link 1, link 2) Of course, I am not sure how credible that F1 Paddock Pass is but Adam Parr would feel pretty credible a source. I would say "no smoke without fire".

F1 going to three-car teams feels like a major change as there has been no three-car teams since the 80s, and since the 90s, there has been no one-car teams. Two-car teams have been the standard of F1 for about the last twenty years. The grid reducing to eight teams isn't completely out of question after this year. Caterham is stuck on the back of the grid and isn't doing financially well. The Caterham Group of the team founder Tony Fernandes sold the team earlier this year, and the future prospects of the team don't look good. Marussia is another of the new teams of 2010 and still stuck to the back of the grid, despite scoring two points this year and being ahead of Sauber in the constructors' standings. Besides, Marussia's road car business is now defunct so running an F1 team might not make so much sense for them. Sauber is a team that has struggled financially in the last years, yet the rumoured takeover by the Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll would secure the future of the team. Lotus have also had financial issues in the last years, so one cannot be sure about their future. And if F1 went to three-car teams, I am not so sure Red Bull would like to continue Toro Rosso as their main team would already have three cars.

Meanwhile, there are new team projects aiming to join F1 in 2016, so a plan to reduce the number of teams sounds surprising. Then again, I doubt those teams woud have a lot to give to F1. We saw in 2010 how difficult it is to come to F1 as a brand-new team. Caterham and Marussia have struggled throughout their entire existence, HRT went bust after three seasons, and the USF1 team never made the grid. It seems like to start from scratch and be competitive in F1, a team must have the resources of a big car manufacturer, Toyota as an example. Even they couldn't make it to the top during their eight-year stay in F1 but at least they were competitive. Still, most of the time they were competing in the midfield against teams with smaller budgets but more experience.

Entering F1 has got very difficult. It is hard to get the financing to have a competitive budget. Besides, the lack of other resources makes it hard for new teams to be competitive in F1. But how to make it easier to enter F1? Reducing the costs would make it easier to join the series as well as it would be easier for the midfield teams to challenge the top teams. A budget cap has sometimes been proposed but it would be difficult to police. Car manufacturer affiliated teams could have their R&D done in the road car division to hide it from the F1 team's budget. Restrictions like engine development freeze have been introduced to reduce costs. But even if engines didn't cost so much, teams can use the saved money to something else. With enough standardization in components, teams could save money but developing F1 towards a spec series would be bad for the series. The competition between constructors has always been a part of F1 so it must remain like that. Also, teams with better resources would oppose more standardization and might leave F1 because of it. Also, the richer teams might not even like to cut their budgets enabling financially less strong teams to challenge them more easily. That would be another reason for them to leave F1. And with big teams leaving F1, there might be a possibility of another series surpassing F1 as the most important series in car racing. Because of that risk, F1 couldn't afford losing its top teams.

So, I think there is little to be done to reduce the cost of new manufacturers entering F1. But is there then any way to help new teams entering F1 as well as to reduce the performance gap between the better and worse teams? Is going to less teams with more cars the only way to make the back of the grid more competitive?

To be honest, I think less manufacturers with more cars would make the competition tighter. The backmarker teams don't have the resources of the big teams and the big teams won't voluntarily give up their advantage over the smaller teams to make the competition tighter. But I wouldn't go to a grid of three-car teams. A three-car team withdrawing from F1 would be a bigger loss than a two-car team. Two three-car teams withdrawing would be disastrous for the series, there would be six cars less. Instead of three-car teams, I would allow buying components from other teams and even customer cars. Privateer constructors like Williams have opposed the idea of customer cars because a team with a customer car of a dominant team might beat them with a fraction of their budget. But customer cars could also be a way of financing the operations of privateer constructors by selling their cars to customer teams. To ensure more constructors having customers, each constructor could be allowed only one customer team. Of course, customer cars could enable some teams practically having four cars by entering the series as two teams. To prevent teams from having financial advantage by operating as two teams with the same car, teams with customer cars, or cars mostly consisting of customer components, could be excluded from the constructors' championship and thus from getting their share of the series' revenue. That would also protect constructor teams from losing to customer teams in the constructors' championship, being an incentive for the teams to have own cars. After all, I think allowing customer cars would make the competition tighter. But I also think F1 needs more constructors than only the top teams. In case of customer cars being allowed, F1 should ensure own cars being the preferred option for midfield teams.

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