Ecclestone: ‘Everyone needs to agree’ to customer cars

With news of Honda’s return to Formula One as an engine supplier, it prompts thoughts of even more engine suppliers in the series with the 2014 regulation V6 turbo format. Who would be the logical next engine supplier for F1? Would Mazda, Toyota, Nissan or even Chevrolet and Ford be an option?

Ford is no stranger to providing F1 shove but that was in an era where Cosworth was a partner dominant player and as of 2013, they supply only one team and have chosen not to continue in 2014 when the regulations are set to change.

While pondering the thought of having more engine suppliers in F1, it raises the question of having more teams in the sport as well. The last time a new team entered F1 was in 2010 when former FIA president Max Mosley set about luring small teams to the sport with the promise of limited budgets. Caterham, Marussia and HRT joined the fray with the latter leaving the series at the end of the 2012 season. With the escalating costs of F1, it is no wonder these small teams have little chance of winning races and worse yet, staying in the sport at all.

Back in 1969 Max Mosley, Alan Rees, Graham Coaker and Robin Herd started a company called March Engineering. The intent was to build reliable cars for customers at a profit. They succeeded.

The first offering in F1 was the 701 chassis and it came at the right time as Tyrrell needed a car—having lost use of the Matra’s—as they hadn’t completed their own chassis yet. Sir Jackie Stewart was the benefactor that year along with Jo Siffert and Mario Andretti.

By 1971, March had developed the 711 chassis designed by Frank Costin. It didn’t win any races but finished 2nd four time in the hands of Ronnie Peterson making him the runner-up in the world championship that year.

The success of the 711 was not to be matched by the 721 and 721x models. Niki Lauda wasn’t able to squeeze the performance he had hoped from the 721x but there was a man who began a career running 711 and 721 chassis for Henri Pescarolo and Carlos Pace. That man was none other than Sir Frank Williams. This is an important factor so keep it in mind.

March was not only a manufacturer of cars but also an actual Formula 1 team. The issue may have been the drain on resources to actually compete in F1 instead of simply making cars for customers. The concept of the customer car was born in full production form with March and while other eras had customers buying cars from other companies, March was the first to do it on a grand scale. Even with their success, March wound down its operations in the late 70’s.

With the arrival of the 80’s, March made a meager effort at re-entering the F1 world building cars for RAM Racing. Eliseo Salazar originally drove the car but later Derek Daly stepped in. March also had an engine department and were trying very hard to break into the Indycar with the Orbitor.
Through the years, March Engineering has been bought and sold a few times and has had several names. The 1990’s saw a Japanese ownership in Akira Akagi and when he was implicated in the Fuji Bank scandal, he sold to Ken Marrable running as Leyton House Racing. That name may be familiar to you as a very young Adrian Newey got his start there.

Perhaps more surprising was the 2009 application to join Formula 1 in 2010 with the aforementioned efforts of Mr. Mosley to lure small teams to the sport. March Racing Organization, as it was now called, made application but failed to meet the due diligence criteria of the FIA for inclusion.

Why is all of this important? Why skim the history of March Engineering? With the entrance of Honda as a customer engine, why is F1 not looking at customer cars again? Would Marussia be better off driving a McLaren or Red Bull chassis?

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone feels it’s time for customer cars to return to the sport saying:

“I believe that customer cars will be a good thing. Everybody needs to agree to that but Frank Williams is the one who is against it.”

The key here is Frank Williams. A man who would not be in F1 if it were not for March Engineering. Williams purchased a Brabham chassis in 1969 and raced Piers Courage finishing in 2nd place twice that year. He then purchased a March chassis in 1971.

It wasn’t until the Williams FW07 that Sir Frank found his “constructor” gene at the hands of Patrick Head (his partner) and while he could accurately claim he was no a bona fide constructor, it was effectively a re-engineered Lotus 79 car and was developed in the same wind tunnel at Imperial College London.

One man, who rightfully feels a constructor should be an actual constructor, got his start buying March cars and it makes one wonder if it isn’t time for customer cars to return to F1 in order to keep the costs down and innovation high.

In order for a team to enter as a constructor, Christian Sylt says they will spend an average of $60 million in R&D alone. The expense could be radically cut for a team like Marussia who might spend a fraction of that acquiring a Ferrari chassis and engine from Honda, Mercedes, Renault or even Ferrari.

Should F1 look to customer cars as an alternative to seeking teams like Caterham, Marussia and HRT? Having little resources in F1 means having little hope of success. Little success bring few sponsors and it is a death spiral for many teams. If Marussia were running mid-field and battling Williams, Toro Rosso or Sauber, perhaps things may get a little more exciting and we’d “spice up the show”?

Let us know what you think? Should F1 seek a customer car solution or is Sir Frank right in his trenchant view on the subject?

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