I’m not the only one who has found the Formula 1 grid DNA a difficult situation to manage. Manufacturers bring lots of resources to invest in F1 while privateers have always been a part of the sport’s history and core. Names like McLaren, Williams, Tyrrell, Sauber, Jordan, Minardi, and many, many more all combine to make some of F1’s most memorable moments as well as drivers and team personnel.
In the old days, Enzo Ferrari called them “Garagistas” and then these teams from a garage started beating Ferrari and winning titles. As the sport grew, under the watchful eye of Bernie Ecclestone, sponsors came and money flowed—even to and within these privateers. Williams dominated, McLaren dominated and yes, even Red Bull dominated.
When F1 formed the F1 Strategy Group, it was to chart the course of the future for the series. While outgoing FIA president Max Mosely was keen to place cost-caps on the sport and brought three new privateer teams in under the guise of cheap racing, his successor, Jean Todt, was very adamant that the series should move completely in the direction of the sustainability component of the road car manufacturer in order to lure them back in the sport after their mass exodus in 2009.
Todt succeeded in getting Honda’s attention and one wonders if they now wish they had ignored the siren call of “road-relevant hybrid engines for all” given their current struggles. Toyota, BMW and VW resisted the appealing message sent by 2013’s F1 Strategy Group decree even though hybrid technology and sustainability were the reasons two of them offered as to why they left the series back in 2009.
The new hybrid power unit was the way forward as far as the F1 Strategy Group was concerned and they set out to champion what surely would be overwhelming embraced by F1 fans due to its high technology and strong message of sustainability and environmental responsibility which, it must have assumed, all humans agree and have high interest in. Except it didn’t quite go down that way.
The F1 Strategy Group were slightly perplexed as to why a majority of fans were not happy with the new engines or their sound. They weren’t happy with the much closer pace and weren’t all that concerned with moving the goal posts on fuel reduction given the context of what the sport is. It then became the cause célèbre for which F1 and the FIA quickly suggested it is the correct way forward, they just hadn’t done a very good job of telling their story. Never mind that telling stories is for cattle and loveplay while entertaining, visceral racing is for F1 fans. Tell THAT story and you have a listener.
The massive cost increase of R&D and development of the new hybrid engines led by the F1 Strategy Group effectively bankrupted the Mosley Three. HRT, Marussia and Caterham are gone having buckled and collapsed under the weight of engine supply contracts triple of what they used to be. There’s no doubt the power unit is amazing technology led by Mercedes, and Renault who both threatened to leave the sport should it not become more road relevant and sustainable. Ferrari walked toward the bright light of hybrid power units with some reservations and trepidation as none of their cars used a V6 turbo engine so this was hardly road relevant for the supercar maker.
If you’re lucky enough to have a seat at the round table, you’ll hear dialog from the F1 Strategy Group leaders about the future of the sport and engine format. If you’re a privateer at the table, you have a lot of weight on your shoulders and that’s exactly where Force India’s Bob Fernley finds himself.
“From a personal point of view it’s been a lot of hassle,” Fernley said..
“It’s our third year on the Strategy Group.
“I’ve taken a lot of flack over the past two-and-a-half to three years.
“From a moral responsibility point of view, we’re the only team representing the independent teams, and somebody’s got to stand up for what you think is right in Formula 1.”
Bob would know far better than I as to what extent he feels Red Bull is actually another privateer team at the table and technically speaking, they are representing the independent teams as well. So is McLaren and Williams but I suspect the key here is the terminology he’s used by applying the term “Independent”.
I get prickly when discussing the privateers in F1. I love them and feel they have as much reason to be in F1 as the manufacturers but finding the balance is, now more than ever, the most difficult task F1 has. How can we lure car makers and great technology into the sport where privateers can actually compete?
This question begs another question—at what level do we feel privateers should be able to compete? For wins? Championships? Some of them used to but man of them didn’t and they dried up and blew away. The small teams have always been there and always ran toward the back of the grid. That’s nothing new to F1 but is there a way to get 10 teams all capable of winning races and if so, is that what F1 really is? It never has been but does that make it a task unworthy of pursuit?
Cash is king and in Fernley’s case, it’s king and emperor. The F1 Strategy Group isn’t working and he’s not sure the smaller teams are being represented well but his team doesn’t have the cash to deliver title-winning cars yet and depending on what the group decides, his team could be set for competitive racing or out of business should the regulation changes for 2020 not take in to account the small teams.
“I just feel that as much as it’s an inconvenience and quite a headache for me personally, you have some responsibility to the team and your fellow competitors that aren’t represented there – and that to me is still something that’s totally wrong,” he said.
“I feel very strongly about it and I feel quite passionate about it as well.
“We do the things that we do and stand up and be counted, not just against the teams but obviously against the commercial rights holder and the FIA and whoever we feel is actually reducing the impact for the independent teams.”
Fernley is looking for comprehensive representation, not just a few of the top teams and with the on-boarding of Liberty Media’s Ross Brawn as technical advocate of the series, what might change? Certainly Brawn knows about privateers, he won two world championships with one. Will he take them into account and might we see the end of the F1 Strategy Group under crafty negotiations amongst the FIA, teams and Formula One Management?
Hat Tip: Autosport