Realistically I can’t see a major manufacturer joining F1 in the current climate. This is due to a few different things, but is mainly down to two major factors. Money and the potential to be competitive. The money factor is, I think, fairly clear, but in essence it’s a hugely expensive sport to take part in and the returns in terms of brand exposure are minimal.
The competitiveness problem I think deserves a little more explanation. As an example, look at Caterham. They’ve got major financial backing, a decent facility, two reasonable drivers, and plenty of engineering talent in the team. If you looked at Caterham you’d assume they’d be on the level of teams like Toro Rosso or Force India. But they aren’t. Mostly because of inexperience. An established team has a wealth of experience to draw upon when designing their cars. They have a degree of engineering maturity in how they approach the aero concepts on the cars. A new team starts without the benefit of this wealth of knowledge, and is at a huge disadvantage because of it. This shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem, except for the fact that testing is effectively banned. Time was, a new team could take their car to a test track and spend a week or two pumping in thousands of laps, testing all sorts of components. They could build up that database very effectively and then take their results to the track for races. It removes the ability of a new team to ever build sufficient data to gain ground on established teams.
This means that the only viable route into F1 for a major car manufacturer is through purchasing an established outfit. This is what Force India did, and it’s what Red Bull have done. Both are now competitive teams who are firmly established in the sport. It’s the route that Lotus have (eventually!) taken and it seems to be giving them a fair bit of brand exposure as a result. Mercedes are also trying this out, although their history of involvement in the sport is rather more complicated. However this isn’t likely to be attractive for most car manufacturers, who want to see their own cars winning races rather than just putting their badges on someone else’s work. The history of the Mercedes team and their lack of competitiveness is also likely to put people off buying into an existing team; none of the good teams are for sale, and it seems that these days F1 isn’t a problem which can be solved simply by throwing money at it.
Compare this to Toyota; spent years in F1 with something amounting to a blank chequebook, able to pour almost unlimited resource into their programme and even then they weren’t able to challenge for a title. They have now taken that expertise and channelled it into sportscar racing, and this weekend they managed to put in a commanding win over Audi who have for a very long time been the benchmark, in only their third race. If I was the head of motorsport for a large auto manufacturer I’d look at Mercedes and Caterham in F1, and then I’d look at Toyota in LMP1. To me, the smart money is spent in sportscar racing, where there’s still room for genuine innovation and you get a much much better return for your investment.
For this reason, I find it extremely unlikely that we will see a major car manufacturer join with a brand new team. As for filling the 13th garage with privateers, well honestly I couldn’t be any less interested in the idea. We don’t need another HRT or Marussia, there are enough rolling chicanes in F1 without adding more dead weight to the sport.