Why F1 needs a feeder series for teams

Lucas di Grassi, Virgin, Hungaroring, 2010

New drivers can demonstrate their potential in GP2, but Duncan Stephen wants to know where the next generation of F1 teams is going to come from.

In the coming weeks the FIA is expected to announce the identity of Formula 1’s 13th team for 2011 – if indeed there is going to be one.

This outfit should join the three new teams that joined the grid this year. But the drive to bring new teams into Formula 1 for the first time since Toyota’s entry in 2002 has revealed a problem with the motor sport hierarchy – there is no way for potential constructors to prove that they belong in F1.

There is a well-established ladder that allows drivers to showcase their talents before reaching F1. You might even say the ladder is too congested, with series such as GP2, GP3, Formula Two, World Series by Renault and multiple Formula 3 series among others. They provide a proving ground for those looking to step up to F1.

The major problem is that almost all of these are single-spec series (the exception being Formula 3, which is dominated by Dallara and a handful of other suppliers). This is a relatively cost-effective way of going racing.

It works well for drivers as reduced costs means that these series are not just open to the cash-heavy but talent-light Sakon Yamamotos of tomorrow.

But there is no real way for potential F1 constructors to demonstrate that they have what it takes to step up to F1. While the the likes of Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Nico H???lkenberg wowed the crowds and the F1 bosses when they raced in GP2, the evidence backing potential new constructors is a great deal more opaque.

Many were left scratching their heads last year when established operations like Lola and Prodrive were rebuffed by the FIA during the selection process for this season’s new teams. Meanwhile, USF1 were granted an entry – apparently on the basis of an impressive presentation but not a lot else.

The trouble with the new teams

It’s been painful watching the new teams make their faltering first steps into F1. No new team has tried to enter F1 since Toyota eight years ago. Lotus (in their new incarnation), Virgin and Hispania have all taken on a challenge that few have even attempted.

In this context, the new teams have done a fairly impressive job. While we have become accustomed to watching increasingly professional teams and tighter grids, in the context of the bigger pictures the new teams are actually doing well.

This has not stopped the jibes from some who suggest that they do not belong in F1. We have heard David Coulthard talking about “A class” and “B class” teams. Bernie Ecclestone recently said, “there are a couple of teams who really shouldn’t be there. They are a bit out of their depth at the moment.”

The problem is not a lack of ability on the part of the new teams. It is a lack of credentials. Yet on paper, all have the hallmarks of an experienced motor racing team.

Lotus is headed up by experienced technical director Mike Gascoyne, and emerged from the (admittedly embryonic) Litespeed F3 team. Virgin is run by Manor Motorsport, a well-established team that has achieved great success in lower formulae.

HRT was originally run by Adri??n Campos, who had been successful as a team owner in GP2, and is now headed up by ex-Jordan/Midland/Spyker/Force India man Colin Kolles.

But none of these teams had demonstrated their ability as a potential top-level constructor. As motor racing teams, they looked great on paper. As constructors, they lacked the hard evidence.

In the end, we must assume that the FIA had to look at what the potential teams had to say for themselves in their presentations and were left to guess which of the entries would be suitable for F1. Perhaps that is why USF1 fell by the wayside, and Campos had to be rescued at the last minute.

New teams driven by business, not sport

It would be useful if there could be some kind of feeder series for constructors, just as there are for drivers. Gone are the days when new teams could enter F1 relatively easily. F1 had effectively become a franchise system, with ten franchises. New teams did not emerge. Instead, existing teams changed hands from one rich businessman to another.

Red Bull may have first entered F1 in 2005, but its roots can be traced back to Stewart Grand Prix in 1997, via Jaguar. A team may only have been called Force India since 2008, but it has run as Jordan, Midland and Spyker since 1991.

Mercedes may have officially entered their first Formula 1 season since 1955 this year, but the team it bought can in fact be traced back to the 1960s via Brawn, Honda, BAR and Tyrrell.

So it goes for every “new” team that has entered F1 this past decade, with the exception of Toyota. The chief reason for this is cost. For anyone looking to enter F1, it is simply easier to buy an existing team than go through the pain of building one from scratch.

As such, F1 was running the risk of becoming stale. The decision for a new team to enter motorsport’s top level was always about cold business, not sporting success. While the FIA’s attempts to bring fresh blood into the sport should be applauded, the way they have gone about it has done little to improve the situation.

No matter how well this year’s new teams have done, there will always be scepticism. The question can always be asked: why USF1, but not Lola? Why HRT, but not Prodrive? Why Virgin, but not Epsilon Euskadi?

The problem: costs of course

Some kind of system where potential constructors can flex their muscles in a lower formula would help sort out the wheat from the chaff, just as GP2 does for drivers. Of course, the costs of such a series would be astronomical. In the past, Formula 2 and F3000 provided great scope for competition between chassis manufacturers. But in these cost-conscious times, GP2 is viewed as being more viable.

Moreover, this structure could be harming upcoming drivers as much it harms potential constructors. Lucas Di Grassi has complained that GP2 provided little scope for him to develop the skills needed for him to carry out development work.

Nonetheless, the current system of feeder series is rightly regarded as doing an excellent job of developing the F1 drivers of tomorrow. Unfortunately for wannabe constructors, the motorsport hierarchy has probably never been less effective at helping new teams make the step up to F1.

F1’s new teams

Image (C) Virgin Racing

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72 comments on Why F1 needs a feeder series for teams

  1. HounslowBusGarage said on 12th August 2010, 18:47

    Back in the 1960’s heydays of the ‘Garagistas’ as I understand it, it was possible for an entrant to buy a car from another team and enter it from their own team (eg Rob Walker’s Lotus).
    Indeed some of the major teams of the following decades got started this way (Williams started by buying and entering March cars).
    It was a low(er) cost entry method; single car entry and lesser development costs.

    So how about reviving that facility and allowing – instead of a three car team – a third Maranello machine to be entered as Team Arbarth, Maserati or Alfa Romeo. Perhaps a revised version of last year’s Maclaren could be entered as Noble or – dare I say it – Prodrive!
    I know we are back to the customer car concept, but I never understood what was wrong with the idea then, and I don’t now.
    Customer cars cut development costs (which seem to be the principal barrier to new teams) and they get new teams to the grid with a better chance of points, or even podiums with the right car/driver combination.
    What would be the problem if Red Bull decided to sell last years cars at $200 each or 20 Cents each? They would still need to be developed, managed and run by the new team, and good luck to them.
    I don’t really want F1 as a spec series with everyone driving identical cars, or even cars with different aero packages à la Indy. I want a top-speed racing series where the cars look, sound and behave differently from each other, and where driver skill is more evident from the mangement of power than the management of fuel-economy and PR.
    I know what you’re going to say; I want 1964.

    • Jim N said on 13th August 2010, 0:05

      I couldn’t agree more. Why can’t the feeder series to F1 be F1.

      Why the restriction on number of teams and why not one car teams, or customer cars? There didn’t used to be and there were few complaints, teams that started as jokes such as Williams developed into great teams… and some very substantial teams withered into obscurity such as the old Lotus……. That last point I think is what the Teams and Bernie are afraid of. With the current system an established team is almost guaranteed a reasonable income with the option to sell up if things go very bad. Before if things went bad they just folded.

      Given the enormous handicaps placed on the new teams they have done amazingly well and I’m sure quite a few of the rejected contenders could have done as well. One of them I’m sure will be high mid field within a couple of years. Just open up the entry and let the teams do the rest.

    • beneboy (@beneboy) said on 13th August 2010, 19:18

      I’m with you on this one HBG.

      I’d have no problem with the smaller teams running used chassis’ that the established teams have finished with and I’ve never really understood the objection to customer teams.

      If they can buy engines from other teams then why not chassis ?

      As you say, there are plenty of other teams that started out that way in the good/bad old days and more recently I can remember Sauber turning up at the start of a season with a car that looked like a resprayed year old Ferrari.

      Nothing compares to F1, even other elite series like Le Mans and motoGP get nowhere near to the level required while GP2 and Formula 2 are amateurish by comparison (no offence meant, I do appreciate how professional those guys are). So for me the best way to get more teams into F1 is to give them the opportunity to start off as customer teams while they get up to speed and build up the resources needed to design a car themselves.

      I’d still welcome any new team who wanted to design and build their own cars and there could be an argument for giving them preference if grid slots are limited but until the grid is full I would welcome any new team that was able to fund a full season, even if they’re doing it on the cheap as a customer team.

    • theRoswellite said on 13th August 2010, 21:52

      Actually any year in the 60’s would be OK with me.

  2. Dougal said on 12th August 2010, 18:53

    Unless you go for an F2 series where teams can be promoted into F1 by winning the Championship, or relegated into it for finishing last in F1, then there is no silver bullet answer given each series runs to such a different level of technological development and cost restrictions.

    And even that would require the feeder series running on virtually identical technical specifications so that car development for the forthcoming season means a season starting baseline car suitable for both Championships so no team prooted or regulated is wasting months of work, meaning more of an “F1 Series A” and “F1 Series B”.

    There are “regulations” which could govern the difference, including reducing RPM for reduced power (you’d need to run an equal sized engine in both series for the above mentioned technical reasons), enforced budget caps to keep costs down, and so on. It could even follow F1 around the world and race on the same tracks as a support race.

    It could even be a drivers’ feeder series as well with a season in it being compulsary before being eligible for the top flight, and even a minimum level of performance to prevent drivers like Yamamoto buying an undeserved seat.

    None of this is ideal, I realise that, but there is no other way to truly prove your worth for F1 unless you can prove your worth in an F1-esque series. And right now, there isn’t one.

  3. Sport is driven by money and fame

    wish I could turn the clock back and start driving at a young age

  4. Tom M in Australia said on 13th August 2010, 3:57

    Look at the Premiership, or other similar championship. The bottom of the table is kept interesting by relegation. Indeed, the end of season relegation battle is just as exciting as the fight to win the championship (well is *was*, this coming from a Coventry City fan!).

    The bottom of the F1 table is not interesting because there is no consequence for poor performance. If Lotus, HRT and Virgin were locked in a relegation battle it would be epically exciting if one of them got near the points.

    Bring in relegation I say.

  5. In my opinion is the answer is the introduction of Formula 1 regional series, in addition to the current World Championship series.

    The way it would work, is there would be three series; The Americas, covering North and South America, Asia, covering, Asia plus Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Islands, and Europe, covering the European countries.

    The regional series would compete with the exact same rules as the World Championship series, the only addition being a budget cap.

    Each regional series would have a full 20 race calendar racing at different circuits their region on weekends when there is no world championship grand prix.

    At the end of each season, the winning team from each region gets promoted to the world championship, and lowest three teams in the world championship get to demoted to the regional championships.

    The benefits are:
    1) Gives new teams a testing ground to work out how to be a team / build car etc.
    2) It means more F1 races for fans, in more time zones, more often, resulting in more fans
    3) It gives upcoming drivers more opportunity to drive, and hence “be discovered”. Similar for other team members, more employment opportunites
    4) Gives organisations that might otherwise be limited to touring cars an opportunity to get into open wheel racing.
    5) Gives more opportunity for smaller companies to sponsor the regional teams. They might not be able to afford to sponsor Ferrari or McLaren, but sponsoring a regional team might be more possible, and
    6) Gives the FIA / FOM a plentiful supply of up and coming teams.

  6. cheers said on 13th August 2010, 4:10

    There has to be many different types of feeder series in this now globalised world. If not you won’t draw the diversity in the sponsorship base and the drivers. A “B” class gobal hero is worth alot less than and A class local or regional hero in sponsorship dollar terms.

    A boost and funneling toward a single higher level global feeder series is just another attempt at monopolisation of the supply chain. The Brits and especially Bernie’s CVC have to watch their backs. They got themselves into this mess by paying Bernie too much but they risk the big crash and burn

  7. gideon said on 13th August 2010, 7:54

    we need better f1 cars not this like today

  8. If there is a feeder series could be single make engine, gearbox and drive train, standard electronics and a budget cap for the rest working to F1 regs.

  9. DavidS said on 13th August 2010, 12:25

    The only way a team can really secure enough funding to operate in F1 is to be in F1. A team in a lower formula is not going to attract anywhere near as much interest as an F1 team.

    How about completely opening the process by which teams can enter F1 so that anyone can enter if they want – ie no more under the table envelope passing with Bernie. However, on Fridays have all the cars set a benchmark time. Top 15 times are automatically through to Saturday, while the remaining teams line up for a Sprint race (100km distance for example) to be run before qualifying. Podium finishers for that sprint race get a GP slot respective to their finishing position).

    It’ll make sure practice is much more important (maybe even throwing up a few surprises if a leaders car fails), all teams get a run. International exposure for struggling teams (if the event is run straight before qualifying), more rubber on the track for qualifying. A varied grid for the GP.

    A completely separate feeder series destroys the point of GP2.

  10. Shimks said on 13th August 2010, 12:36

    Very interesting article. Many thanks, Keith.

  11. antonyob said on 13th August 2010, 13:02

    maybe puts toyotas performance into some kind of perspective as well, despite their budget. they were competitive straight away but we all saw the budget and shook our heads. Im no Toyota fan and their last boss was as distasteful a man as you could meet but with the perspective of the B teams they did ok.

  12. Martin_B said on 14th August 2010, 14:56

    I’d love to see some sort of promotion/relegation process, but I have no idea how it would be organised or funded.

    Some very thought-provoking comments here.

  13. daykind said on 19th August 2010, 12:13

    Great analysis as always, and very interesting subject.

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