With The Team Formerly Known As Honda looking increasingly unlikely to appear at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix, the 2009 F1 season could begin with the fewest starters in more than three decades.
The graph above shows how many drivers were entered for the first race of each F1 season from 1980 to 2009. Drivers who were entered only to participate in Friday practice (from 2004-2006) are not included.
Quantity over quality
From an average of 25 in the mid-eighties entry numbers rocketed up in the late ’80s/early ’90s. These were the days when anyone who could afford a Cosworth engine and find a pay driver with some Marlboro backing could get a team together.
The recession of 1991-1993 drove some of these teams to the wall, and Max Mosley’s insistence that teams lodged a $40m bond with the FIA in order to compete acted to prevent small teams from joining. This was part of a drive for quality rather than quantity among F1 entries. Another rule with a similar intention prevented drivers from competing if they did not qualify within 107% of the pole sitter’s time.
Looking at the 39-car entries of 1989 (a record), one-third of which would not make it to the 26-car grid, refining entry numbers was the correct thing to do. But it clearly went too far and by 1996 grids had slumped to a pitiful 22 cars – four fewer than were able to make up the grid. But even in the mid-90s to mid-00s, when new teams might have been found more easily than they could be today, the few new teams that did arrive tended to replace old ones, often by buying what was left of them.
A further fall
At the beginning of 2008, with Honda and Super Aguri still on the grid and Prodrive planning to join using customer cars, the grid was supposed to increase to 24 cars. That would have been its highest level since 1997 (and even in that year there were only 24 cars at the first round before the Lola team went bust).
But when the FIA failed to gain support for its plans to allow teams to use customer cars the Prodrive entry was withdrawn. The loss of Super Aguri and potentially now Honda as well leaves F1 faced with a tiny 18-car entry. Even the beleaguered Indy Racing League looks likely to have more than 20 cars this year.
Mosley expects team numbers to recover in 2010 and claims that if the teams support his radical cost-cutting measures we will see 24 cars on the grid next year. It seems to me the moment to start trying to increase team numbers was in 1996, when they first fell below the maximum number of cars on the grid. Given the state of the car industry today it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see entry numbers fall even further before they start to recover.
Mosley may well be doing the right thing now in pushing for huge cost reductions to bring more teams into the sport, but his policies are at least partly to blame for the state F1 is in to begin with.