Should Formula 1 Adopt Three-Car Teams?
Bernie Ecclestone has rumoured at three-car teams in Formula 1 before, but Bernie has rumoured a lot of things, independently-timed sprinklers, medals for the top three finishers, drivers being allocated cars at the start of each race, a Grand Prix on the shores of the Hudson, it’s understandable that few took him seriously when it was first mentioned.
Instead, it was a tweet from former Williams F1 CEO Adam Parr, on the eve of the Italian Grand Prix this year, that appeared to give legitimacy to the possibility that three-car teams could be introduced into Formula 1 as early as next year. Perhaps the greatest concern aroused by the comment was not that three-car teams may be considered, but that three teams on the current Formula 1 grid may not have the financial means with which to survive another season. At present, those three teams under the greatest financial strain would appear to be Sauber, Marussia and Caterham and you don’t need to go far to see why.
With the Japanese Grand Prix this weekend, and with management changing by the day, it is Caterham that looks to be under the greatest stress. New team manager Manfredi Ravetto revealed in the team press conference ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix that the team were lucky to have contested the British Grand Prix. With that in mind, it is highly doubtful that the team will be on the grid in 2015. Added to this, a recent post from Joe Sayward on his blog stated that both Sauber and Marussia are behind in their engine payments to Ferrari. The recent driver changes at both Marussia and Caterham over the last few rounds a strong indication of financial turmoil. What appears clear from all three teams is that they are all for sale, the only question is, how long can they survive while waiting for a buyer?
With the Formula 1 field facing armageddon, what role should the sports stakeholders take and would three-car teams be good for the sport?
Logistically, if teams are to be believed, it would appear that the eight strongest teams on the current Formula 1 grid are capable of fielding a third car if required. Three-car teams are certainly not foreign to Formula 1 but it has been a while since they occurred. The last team to field three cars for a Grand Prix was Candy Tyrrell back at the 1980 Canadian Grand Prix for Jean-Pierre Jarrier, Derek Daly and Mike Thackwell. Three car teams are certainly not foreign in other motor racing categories. For years both Indycar and NASCAR, have embraced teams entering more than two cars, however unlike Formula 1, teams are not required to race with identical liveries across all their cars competing, enabling more sponsors to enter the sport and disguising the dominance of team owners to the casual observer. One of the more famous three-car teams was that of Team Penske in the 1994 Indycar World Series with cars for Al Unser Jnr, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Paul Tracy all racing identical Marlboro liveries.
Perhaps here is where the concerns over three-car teams commences, because in 1994 Penske took the top three spots in the drivers championship and locked out the podium places at five races. Some may well argue that the only thing worse than seeing two dominant cars out in front is three. Many would argue however, that by enabling teams to have three drivers, you would enable more drivers to fight for victories. As Mercedes have shown throughout this season, allow your drivers to race each other and two dominant cars can create some of the greatest racing the sport has ever seen. Surely if Fernando Alonso had been given a Mercedes drive the racing would only get better? Even if the biggest teams in Formula 1 were not to poach an Alonso or Vettel for their third car, surely they would recruit the best young drivers on purely talent alone, much in the way that Toro Rosso has on behalf of Red Bull? As Lewis Hamilton displayed in 2007 at McLaren, fresh young talent in a top line team excites crowds, generates new fans, and puts the sport back in the headlines.
The argument against the three-car teams would be that with more competitive machinery on the grid, the newly promoted ‘back of the grid’ teams would simply start to have the very same problems that had seen the demise of their former opposition, only now they would need three cars to incur problems on race day in order to reap the spoils of good fortune. The spiralling demise of a Formula 1 team can best be summarised as follows: Bottom teams, lesser positions, lesser points, less television exposure, less sponsorship revenue, less car development, poor performances, less prize money, paid drivers, worse results, four-car teams in Formula 1. While it seems like a long process, don’t be fooled, you need only look at the five-year decline of Jordan from heavily-funded championship contenders in 1999 to seeking a buyer in 2004, to appreciate that the sports competitors are susceptible to failure.
Formula 1 differs greatly from fifteen years ago in that people are not beating down the doors of FOM to start up new Formula 1 teams, and with the greatest respect to some of those that are, the credibility of their applications are highly sceptical. Teams continue to fight within financial parameters that were set during a time when car manufacturers like Honda, BMW, Toyota, Renault, Ferrari and Mercedes threw an open cheque book at their Formula 1 campaigns. Those that have survived those years are formidable operations as emphatically displayed by Marussia, Caterham and HRT. Formula 1 should look to the dilemma faced by the America’s Cup, which for years was seen by many to be a a competition that’s prestige, no matter how great, could do nothing to justify its enormous expense for limited exposure. Formula 1 risks heading in that direction if the current teams eager to be involved in the sport are not protected and the resources required to enter the sport are not reduced. At present Formula 1 teams are like human rights in that once you give them up, they are very hard to get back. As the America’s Cup have done so successfully, Formula 1 needs to change its parameters in order to allow for genuine entrants to emerge. It is an argument for another post, but if Formula 1 is not to assist those teams struggling to compete, then it at least needs to provide a format that encourages other teams to take their place.
If the current grid were to diminish to eight teams there is an argument that suggests that even if financially capable, not all teams would agree to field a third car. As it stands, the current owners of Formula 1 are contractually bound to provide promoters with a field of at least twenty cars. In the event they fail to do so, the terms of the 100-year ownership of the sports rights would be violated and they would revert back to the FIA, a scenario that would be welcomed by those teams that were unable to cut a deal with the FOM for the distribution of the sports income. While the debate over the fairness of those arrangements, and their impact upon the future survival of the sport are for a further post, the need for teams other than Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari to provide three-car teams may well see such requests fall on deaf ears
At present the sport needs to protect its participants, but it also needs to lay down the foundation for a championship that encourages other racing teams to enter. Formula 1 thrives on close battle amidst great variety. Allow three-car teams and you dilute that variety. At the end of the day every sport needs its underdog, and even if in the case of Formula 1 that dog is yet to have its day, every one knows that when it does, the sport will be all the better for it.