For the past few years the F1 grid has stabilised at 10 team franchises providing 20 cars on the grid. Of these 10, it is arguable that 8 are, on their day, capable of scoring a podium finish. But does this represent quality over quantity or the death of the entreprenuerial spirit in F1?
Short of several rival teams boycotting a race it is impossible to see Minardi and Jordan finishing on the podium (yes I know it happened). The pace of F1 development seems to have left Minardi and Jordan languishing at the bottom of the grid, where they are destined to remain, short of investment on the level that could cancel global debt. Yet, rewind the clock 15 years and F1 was a different place, 26 car grids, 30 car qualifying and Friday morning pre-qualifying.
It is easy to look back at those days with rose tinted spectacles, especially when watching a solo timed lap from Robert Doornbos, but please bear two things in mind. Firstly 40 car entries did not make F1 more exciting, McLaren won 15/16 races in 1988 after all (although there were way more accidents and midfield scraps).
Secondly most of the pre-qualifying specials were utterly useless, slower than the front running F3000 cars of the day (indeed Footwork did use their F3000 car in its early F1 days), many of them rented out to wealthy Europeans with less driving experience than most 16 year olds.
However, I’m still a fan, because these teams gave F1 character, they gave some personality to the paddock and were the antithesis of the ultra-professional sterilised teams of today. It is time that these unsung failures had their moment in the spotlight and here at F1 Fanatic we are able to do this – although for more information please visit the F1rejects website.
It will come to no surprise that the vast majority of these teams were Italian, or Swiss registered, run by Italians. This is, after all, a country where every person stands a 1 in 3 chance of becoming Prime Minster. Therefore it is no surprise that from 1988 – 1992 it seemed as if every Italian citizen owned or drove for an F1 or F3000 team.
Of course there were others from elsewhere – the Rial team, who running on a tight budget for its first season signed Andrea De Cesaris. A decision akin to making Nick Leeson Chancellor of the Exchequer. Likewise, although from an earlier era, the Zakspeed team was impressive in its continued failure season upon season.
However the team obviously could talk a good game, after convincing the ultra-intelligent Dr Jonathan Palmer to sign for them in 1986. Despite this it has become immortalised to many for an incident in 1988 (?) when its drivers managed to collide in pre-qualifying – an accident that has subsequently become inspirational for Channoch Nissany.
Yet, it was the Italian teams that dominated the bottom end of the paddock. When Coloni was the best of the lot, you begin to get an idea of just how bad these teams were. To be fair finance was a major issue, and nobody should ever accuse the Coloni set-up of being unprofessional – their continued success in F3000 and GP2 is testament to this. But before we get too sympathetic remember that this team ran Subaru engines in 1990. And the car was painted bright yellow.
Finance problems forced many teams to close, several after the team principles had looked into some novel solutions to their problems – namely fraud. There are still accountants trying to figure out exactly who authorised Andrea Sasseti with the credit to launch the Andrea Moda team in 1992.
Sasseti was famously arrested at the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix regarding financial irregularities. Andrea Moda as a team has been immortalised by Perry McCarthy in ‘Flat Out, Flat Broke’, but let us remember that the team did start a race (Monaco 1992), although this owes more to Roberto Moreno’s driving than any attributes of the car.
Perhaps the most hopeless team from this era is the Life team from 1990, whose car was piloted by Gary Brabham and Bruno Giacomelli throughout that year, failing to pre-qualify at the 14 rounds the team entered. It is hardly surprising that the team withdrew by the end of the season never to return.
Of course other tail enders were more persistent. The Osella team was a regular F1 fixture throughout the 1980’s despite never being remotely close to success. Whilst the team was not a frontrunner it did introduce drivers such as Nicola Larini and Eddie Cheever to F1.
It is sad that modern F1 (or indeed GP2 and F3) is so prohibitively expensive that enthusiasts rather than multinational manufacturers can take their teams to the top. These teams served a vital function in bringing new design and team management talent into the top class. The case for drivers is more ambiguous.
As today, the really vaunted talents jumped into relatively competitive seats with established teams, whilst the real tail end outfits relied upon funded rather than talents peddlers. Gregor Foitek, Claudio Langes, Enrico Bertaggia the list is endless.
Ultimately the pre-qualifying era of F1 will be consigned to history as little more than a footnote set against the giants of Prost, Senna, Mansell and Piquet. This is totally understandable, but in an era where a 16 car grid is likely, those in power should perhaps look at a time when oversubscribed grids were the norm, and when (weather permitting) these start line specials could spring a few surprises.
Yes, the low rank teams stood as much chance of winning as Jordan do this weekend, but they gave F1 a depth of character that is sorely lacking today.