While Honda joins Audi and Seat in scaling back its motor racing programmes for 2009, Porsche is doing the opposite.
But the German premium marque isn’t joining rivals BMW and Mercedes in Formula 1 – it’s chosen the American Grand-Am sports car championship. What, if anything, does this tell us about F1’s appeal to car manufacturers?
Innovation versus specification
The differences between Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series – both American-based sports car championships – were explained by Gary Watkins in an article for MotorSport in March:
In the ALMS, the cars are the stars. High-technology is the name of the game in a series where prototype classes, LMP1 and LMP2, are dominated by factory teams fielded by major car manufacturers…[ALMS boss Scott] Atherton describes Grand-Am as ‘NASCAR goes road racing’. In fact, a series that was started by the NASCAR-owning France family has blazed a trail now followed in other parts of its empire. Its Daytona Prototype, introduced in 2003, could be regarded as a forerunner to NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow concept. Strict rules, both in terms of dimensions and materials, mean that the bodywork of any DP should fit, more or less, onto the chassis of any rival.
It’s clear how this relates to the debate over the future F1 technical rules. Should Formula 1 be a no-cost-spared technological free-for-all closer to the ALMS philosophy, or must it impose ever tighter restrictions on innovation to keep costs down?
In the wake of Honda’s withdrawal from F1 this discussion is centred around which philosophy will keep the manufacturers in the sport. Some manufacturers demand freedom in the regulations to spend what they want – like Ferrari and Toyota who threatened to quit F1 over Max Mosley’s desire to introduced standard engines. The problem is, Honda was another one of those manufacturers who demanded they be allowed to build their own engines – and they ended up pricing themselves out of the game.
Now it seems some manufacturers are changing their minds about how free a technological contest F1 should be. Mercedes’ Norbert Haug argued that KERS should be abandoned to save money. Autosport claims Renault is prepared to support fixed-specification standard engines. (Though one might argue this is just a matter of expedience because their RS28 has fallen behind in the power stakes).
F1 needs to decide two things: first, what it wants to be; second, which of these competiting philosophies of motor sport it should adopt to achieve its aims.
If it wants to be the pinnacle of motor racing technology it can be. But it will probably have to accept a scenario where only a small number of the richest manufacturers stay in and the independent teams go to the wall. The rest of the grid would be filled by B- and C-grade outfits running older versions of the manufacturers’ chassis and engines and the drivers from their development programme. This situation, similar in concept to McLaren’s arrangement with Force India, could see F1 ending up like the DTM with as few as two manufacturer teams.
It it wants to be the premiere international motor racing championship for car manufacturers it can be. But it will have to savagely slash costs and take the risk of the likes of Ferrari and Toyota quitting on principle. It will have to hope that more manufacturers are attracted to competing by the vastly reduced budgets.
Max Mosley’s increasingly vocal demands for cost cutting suggests he believes in the latter option. He said last week:
I think there are at least two manufacturers who would have been in F1 some time ago were it not for the outrageous costs.
What do the manufacturers really want?
Porsche has had a supporting presence in F1 for many years through its Porsche Pirelli Supercup races. But it hasn’t competed in a Grand Prix Michele Alboreto qualified a Footwork-Porsche in last place at Monaco in 1991.
While it moves into Grand-Am, Audi is doing the opposite in the LMS and ALMS. It won the Le Mans 24 Hours last year along with the (European) Le Mans Series and the American Le Mans Series. So what is it doing for 2009? Cutting its LMS and ALMS programmes – it will only appear at the Sebring 12 Hours and Le Mans 24 Hours.
Are manufacturers increasingly favouring fixed-specification motor racing? Is this just an American phenomenon? And which philosophy should F1 adopt in the future? Have your say in the comments.