The FIA must solve the customer car problem

Sebastian Vettel, David Coulthard, 2008 pre-season | Red Bull / GEPAOnce again the Super Aguri transporters have departed a testing session with the teams’ F1 cars not even having turned a wheel. The teams presence in the 2008 championship looks less likely with every passing day.

They could be the second team to announce their non-participation in F1 this year, following Prodrive who were originally supposed to increase the grid size to 24. It could end up being as little as 20.

And unless something is done to allow more teams into Formula 1 grid sizes could become smaller still.

When the FIA announced plans to allow teams to buy and run customer chassis in the 2008 championship there was outcry from some of the smaller teams, not least of which Williams. The team along with Spyker launched an arbitration case against the FIA, but it now seems the purpose of that case is to stall the legalisation of customer cars as long as possible.

That has already forced Prodrive to abandon their plans to race in F1 this year. Team boss David Richards has since used the FIA’s discussions about budget capping to launch a thinly-veiled attack on the governing body, calling budget capping an “excuse for poor technical regulations”:

I don’t believe [budget capping] is going to work. I don’t think it is a viable proposition. I have seen it in Australia where it has been abandoned. I think budget capping is an excuse for poor technical regulations. With proper technical controls, you should be able to manage the costs of F1. It is also about sporting regulations as well.

I haven’t got the time to spend or the finances to invest in a start-up. A start-up will take five years to get right and get competitive, and that is not even winning Grands Prix. I don’t believe that is viable. There might be a possibility of acquiring one of the teams in the future and coming in at that level, but the solution we came to of acquiring a complete package from a team was the only viable solution.

What I find frustrating as a fan is that there is clearly a growing number of teams at sub-F1 level that could make the step up to the sport if they were able to use customer chassis, even if only for the first few years. Many of them applied to be the 12th team in 2008 alongside Prodrive.

GP2 teams like FMS International (Giancarlo Fisichella’s team) and DAMS (co-founded by ex-F1 driver Rene Arnoux) are expanding their F1 connections this year by running teams in the new Formula BMW Europe series which will support F1 at several European rounds.

Others such as ART (run by Felipe Massa’s manager Nicolas Todt, son of Ferrari’s Jean Todt) run Formula Three and GP2 teams and have propelled the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg into Formula 1.

In GP2 and Formula BMW Europe F1 has a ladder for young drivers to make their way into the sport while racing at the same venues as the F1 teams. The next step is to get the teams that are running in these championships into Formula 1. But without customer cars, or some more imaginative technical regulations than the crude tool of budget capping, I can’t see that happening.

Photo copyright: Red Bull / GEPA

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19 comments on The FIA must solve the customer car problem

  1. openwheelfan said on 28th February 2008, 2:57

    If Williams is so scared that a customer team may be faster then maybe he could become a customer—problem solved!!

    NO-NO that would be too easy!!

  2. Steven Roy said on 28th February 2008, 12:56

    It is only a matter of time before Toyota yields to the inevitable and exits stage left. Carlos Ghosn would have pulled Renault out had they been fined anything close to the obscene amount of money McLaren were fined. I believe the only reason he is still there is that he thinks he can sell the team at a profit to Carlos Slim Helu.

    Honda are an embarrassment to themselves but unless they do what Toyota did with Mike Gascoyne and let corporate culture get in the way of someone who actually knows about racing you have to assume that Ross Brawn will turn it around but it could take five years.

    Ford have already left because they discovered they hadn’t a clue how to go about running a racing team.

    If the manufacturers leave and history says the vast majority of them drop F1 like a hot rock the first time their balance sheet has a red number threatening to appear at the bottom of it customer cars must be allowed in.

    I can understand Williams’ position. They have invested a vast amount of money over the years and they don’t want someone to turn up having invested an insignificant fraction of that money and be able to get a fully sorted car/engine package. I understand and sympathise with their position but I don’t see another option. I would guess that now that his team is heading in the right direction again he is simply playing hardball and making sure he gets paid off for going along with the inevitable. I would not like to play poker with Frank. I am sure even Bernie wouldn’t relish that. Lest we forget Frank managed to get Jenson Button to pay him an absolute fortune not to drive for him and in the end probably used that money to keep Nico Rosberg in the car. Not many team principles in the history of the sport have managed to get one driver to pay another driver’s salary while at the same time forcing that driver’s currentl employer to pay him a ridiculous amount of money so that he could afford to do it. And bear in mind Frank achieved this while Button volunteered to go to a team that is unlikely to be a threat to Williams in the foreseeable future.

  3. The FIA cannot intervene on the matter until the Court of Arbitration in Lausanne has had its say on whether customer cars are legal – or Force India withdraws the case. To do otherwise would be to pervert the course of justice.

    Force India hasn’t really got a choice but to continue with the case, though. For all that it would be easier for teams to enter in the short term, the medium term will see small constructors drop out as Ferrari and one other manufacturer ends up dominating the series, using their customer team(s) to protect their works efforts and also to increase the resources available to them. It will make a mockery of any per-team restrictions made to F1, whether they are to the budget or to development tools. Force India will only ever be a small constructor, even if it becomes quick enough to win the championship. Therefore, it sees the customer car case as a matter of its long-term survival.

    I’m sure it doesn’t mind the prospect of having two easier-to-defeat rivals either, for all that Formula 1 needs large grids for long-term viability.

    The solution is not to put customer cars into the mix, but to allow more ways for cars to be quick, and design the rules so that no team can cover every base. This will not only mean that cars will be more varied, but that a team will be able to spend less money and still get a car that is quick some of the time. Since even the best cars will not be quick all the time, this should lead to closer, less costly racing and more viable teams. The problem is that such a method requires the rules to be freed up – and the FIA is bent on going the opposite direction at the moment.

  4. Regarding the suggestion that we could (and some say should) end up with 6 manufacturers fielding four cars each as two teams, I think this would be a sad day for the sport.

    Firstly, how would the selection process for the second teams work? I guess manufacturers would be free to strike their own deals with the smaller teams. But of course, all the smaller teams would be angling for a Ferrari or McLaren. So in effect, the top teams would be able to shape the face of the field, simply by choosing which teams will be more competitive by stepping up to using their cars. Seems unfair that someone like Force India could either struggle or flourish based on whether or not Ferrari deems them a suitable ally.

    Its these alliances, too, that will cause problems. If a manufacturer had both teams running in the top four positions in a GP, the drivers might get the old ‘hold station’ instruction and suddenly we have no action at the front for the rest of the afternoon.

    If the budget cap can work (and they free up the tech regs), I think its the way to go. I’m convinced we’ll see more manufacturer interest in the sport (namely VW Audi Group) and independents will have more opportunities for better results. If Max can get this right, I think we could have a 12 or even 13 team grid within five years, both manufacturers and privateers.

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