They come and they go…

So now the deal is done. Lotus is officially out and Renault is officially in (again). I am saddened that Lotus, a name synonymous with F1, whose founder Colin Chapman was a brilliant car designer and visionary, is no more. Although to be quite honest I did not ever really think the name Lotus was going to stick around for too long anyway. Why?

It happens all the time. If you watch F1 regularly you see them come and go. Not only that, if you watch F1 long enough you become very adept at seeing from a mile away the ones that will not make it and I mean everyone from team owner to drivers to financiers. Team owners stick around right up to the point that F1 is not sexy/exciting to them anymore or it ceases to serve their purpose. No matter how sexy it is, or how much it helps their brand, I’m pretty sure that at some point they feel like it just costs too damn much.

F1 has never been for the faint of heart and that applies to every single thing about it. If you want a career as a race car driver with F1 as your ultimate goal, well, good luck. The chances of you actually making it are slim and none and that takes into account that you might have been the fastest in your class.

If you want to be a designer in F1, I wish you well. Not only do you have to be completely super off the charts brilliant, there are only so many job openings available and they are already filled with other completely super off the charts brilliant people who are in no hurry to leave the most desirable designer job in the world just to make room for you.

Yeah, and the “lads” that Steve Matchett refers to during the races, the pit crew, those guys and gals that set up the garage Thursday, service the car during Friday practice and Saturday qualifying, come up with faster-than-fast tire changes and wing adjustments on Sunday, then break everything down and pack it up, my guess is that fraternity is harder to get into than Yale’s secret Skull and Bones Society.

To become a team owner looks relatively easy on the other hand, assuming you has gobs of money and a shrewd business sense. You have been successfully running multi-million dollar companies, what could be so different? Unfortunately since you do have gobs of money you are most likely motorsport naive unless you came up in a racing family. You would have better luck buying and running NASA. You will have ultimate responsibility for the building and running of one of the most complex vehicles man can dream up, with tolerances so minute that the DNA of rocket ships and space shuttles does come to mind. And no one expects NASA to show a profit, by the way.

When NASA sends a rocket ship into space, the failure of one little doohicky, thing-a-ma-jigger, bolt, screw or fragile wire can be catastrophic. It’s outer space after all, and in space there is no room for error. And while it may seem a bit safer on the ground instead of several miles above the earth’s curvature, at 200 plus miles an hour (or even lesser speeds) with barriers or cars on either side of you inches away, your car’s build quality is also a matter of life and death.

But lets just say that by some miracle you manage to build a car that actually works and is competitively fast (assuming you accomplished the first miracle of raising the funding and sponsorship to support a budget of $100 million per year), and you also figured out how to run a team and find and hire two of the approximately 50 drivers in the world that are good enough to drive an F1 car. There is still nowhere near a guarantee that you will win even just one race. That’s really a whole lot of money to spend without any return or any sexy winner’s circle activity.

I think you get the point — owning and running a modern day Formula 1 team is an extreme endeavor, one that requires much more than just a strong will and a lot of zero’s on your bank statement. Gone are the days when a Duke or an Earl could hire a few mechanics, build a car in the west wing of the abbey, hire a fast if not slightly crazy driver and go racing ala Hesketh and Hunt. And even they started in a lower formula before moving up to F1.

Let’s look at some current-era team owners that have had success and staying power. Ron Dennis started as a mechanic. Colin Chapman started as an engineer. Giancarlo Minardi started off racing Fiat 500’s, won a championship in Formula Italia, then had a lot of success in Formula 2 before finally moving up to F1. How about Ken Tyrrel? He raced mini coopers first with some success, then ran a works cooper for a Formula Junior team. He had a hand in discovering Jackie Stewart in his early days, the list goes on.

Let’s also think about Peter Sauber, Frank Williams, Marko Helmet, these guys care about what happens on track, not off in the luxury suites. In fact I get the impression that these guys think the glamour/celebrity aspect is a bit of a distraction to what has brought them to F1 in the first place. THE RACING. The pursuit of simply building and racing cars with perfection as their goal; a goal which has inspired many racing faithful over the years to be involved in motor sport at every level. They enter wherever their talent will let them – mechanic, driver, strategist, designer, and perhaps someday they work their way up to team manager or owner.

And then there are the owners that essentially buy their way in. Why do I get the feeling that in the case of Lopez (and others) it was more about the ‘F1 Circus” instead of the racing. The owners that have racing as their short-term mistress, not their lifelong love. They have one or two (or several) super cars, they’ve been to a few races (hanging in the garage since they’re rich), they think it can’t be too difficult to successfully run an F1 team. After all, they made their fortune turning around multi-million dollar companies, how much harder can it be?

Now it is also true that F1 is a great vehicle (no pun intended) to advance one’s company or the presence of that company on the global stage. One could easily argue Lopez saw the financial benefit (when do businessman do anything for any other reason?) for his company Genni and wanted his company’s image and stock to rise via the cool factor of F1 and if there are a few parties and some fashion models along the way so be it. But then why leave F1 after only a few years if that was a real benefit?

There are also teams/individuals who just may be in it for the racing but don’t have the gumption and/or resources to stick it out and make it work. Remember Spyker? Barely? I’m with you on that one. How about HRT? Gone in three seasons. You can put Super Aguri into this category as well. Only two season and called it quits.

Going back a few years how about USF1, the project with Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson? Great pedigree but … kaput. That was such a debacle I’m not even sure who to blame. They secured a spot on the grid (not the easiest thing to come by), engineers and designers were hired, title sponsors were presumably on board and then all of a sudden from out of the blue the team and the project just folded. Gone before it had even started really.

Now that I think about it you don’t have to be a wealthy individual to be drawn to the F1 siren’s song only to experience multiple failures and a yawning money pit. What about BMW, Toyota, and Jaguar or Honda just to name a few? Huge auto manufacturers are not immune from F1’s take, take, take and give nothing in return modus operandi either.

Seems you can even have unlimited amounts of resources, money, personnel plus a racing pedigree and still become disillusioned with F1 and its velociraptor type appetite for those resources. I wonder how many higher ups at those car companies saw their Christmas bonuses disappear into just a footnote at year’s end?

Then there have been those who have come into the sport and not necessarily set it on fire but were happy to stick it out until the writing on the carbon fiber wall was just too painfully clear. Tony Fernandes and Caterham come to mind. If any of the examples I have put forth are a cautionary tale regarding how F1 can chew you up and spit you out it is this one.

Fernandez was one of the few newbies to the sport that I actually thought was going to make it, He was what I thought the sport needed–an honest, pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of guy. Ran successful companies that actually turned a profit, did us the service of bringing back the Lotus name until all of the legal wrangling saw it move to another team, and then rebranded the team with the beloved Caterham livery and logo.

But due to the way the sport shares it revenue and prize money, Fernandes and Caterham were destined to languish at the back of the grid with no real hope of moving up. It’s an old conundrum; to win you need sponsorships, but to sign up sponsorships you need to win. Sponsorship and finances, or lack thereof (yet again), claimed another victim, I mean, constructor. Fernandez might even have pulled the plug on the operation sooner except he was holding out hope for implementation of a meaningful cost reduction/cost cap idea F1 has been kicking around for years now. It just did not come in time. But let’s get back to the happier stories.

Ron Dennis, Sir Frank Williams, one would assume Frank’s daughter Claire, are all true racers at heart. The newly installed Maurizio Arrivabene, the aforementioned Peter Sauber, Toto Wolff, all are the genuine article, and of course many more that are not team principals or owners. All of these individuals have one thing in common. If there were not millions of fans, if the glamour disappeared and the celebrities found another playground, if the billion dollar a year “Circus” of F1 did not exist, these men and women would still be racing for that is what truly seems to drive them. (Pun intended.)

The Kolles, and Lopezes, even Tony Fernandes and all the others who might possibly have the most genuine of intentions (if I’m being generous), they’re not cut from the same cloth. Take all the non-racing elements out of the sport and my guess is that they are not so interested.

Look, I get it. The competition in F1 is hugely intense and extremely intoxicating to watch and be involved in. I should know, a day does not go by when I don’t read, watch, or write something about F1, all day, throughout the day and did I happen to say everyday? At times this sport and all of its stimulation can be like a contagion and it is this part of the sport’s character which is so extremely inviting. Is it any wonder so many people want to be next to one of the sexiest things on the planet? Who does not want to hold the world’s most perfect diamond? Who does not want to meet the man that painted the Mona Lisa, who does not want to meet Mona Lisa, who on earth would not give anything to be so completely and utterly seduced?

One can see very easily how people male or female, young or old, from all over the world, wealthy or not, would want to be track side or on the pit wall, be right in the epicenter of it all, in the garage or back at the factory. From team owner down to the most minuscule job that could be had, getting in on the action must be irresistable. So if you are wealthy and have the ability to buy your way in, you are welcome to it as far as I’m concerned. Just know that coming in that way doesn’t automatically give you the true heart of a racer. Much like the Velveteen Rabbit, you’ll start off shiny and new but must spend many, many years in devoted and loving service, possibly losing some fur and stuffing along the way, before you can become real.

2016 will bring yet again the addition of a new team owner and his new team. Some, like myself, think this will be a perfect marriage for America and F1. F1 wants and needs to energize the American F1 racing fans, and that is going to require an American team.

Gene Haas and Haas F1 will be lining up on the grid this coming March and to say that expectations are high would be a gross understatement. With Ferrari backing, a long build cycle and a long history of failed first year teams to look at, the pressure will be immense for the first real American Formula 1 team to deliver results from day one. I am a bit nervous if I am to be completely honest. I just wrote several hundred words on why this will probably be a failure!

This will be a case study in the true sense of the term and will likely influence future [new] teams for years to come that want to participate in Formula 1. Quite a bit is riding on this new entrant from a country that gave up on F1 quite some time ago. If Haas and F1 can get this right, well then the sky is the limit.

Of course I am concerned about how long Haas will stay the course, even if results are good. BMW left after a pretty good results year when they were actually leading the championship at one point with Robert Kubica. Will Haas be compelled to stick it out in this very expensive form of motor racing? F1 is vastly different to NASCAR, which had its humble beginnings as stock car, meaning on the cheap.

Nowadays there is nothing stock about the cars that run in NASCAR. My research showed you are going to spend up around 20 million per year to compete in NASCAR. That is a lot, but a mere fraction of what it will take to compete on Formula 1’s expensive and excessive stage. The PU’s and their ancillary components alone are well over what Haas has been spending to race in America’s favorite racing discipline. I’m not sure if Haas is actually paying the full price of the year-old PU’s from Ferrari but I also doubt they are free.

Still, Mr. Haas is a racer, something that in my opinion is required if he is to make it in F1 and he does knows a thing or two about winning. Haas and driver Tony Stewart have two drivers’ championships under their belts, thirty odd wins in NASCAR plus many pole positions as well. He is a very successful businessman, which is also critical in running any racing team not just one in F1. Haas is the largest tool and die manufacturer in the U.S., one of the best in the market and used by several major industries.

Now that I think about it, the parallels between Haas and Ron Dennis are obvious. One could very easily call him the American version of Ron Dennis, in the respect that both are team owners, both have tasted success and both also sell a product other than racing, although I am pretty sure Dennis would not be all too keen on the comparison.

I have read a snippet or two revealing that the reason Haas is so eager to compete in F1 is simply to sell more equipment. Yep, that good ol’ motivation, let’s use F1 and it’s world stage as a platform to advance the company/stock price. If that is the case, it would be sad and I would not expect this perfect marriage of an American team and F1 to last too long.

If, on the other hand, Gene Haas really and truly wants to compete in the world’s most complex, high-tech and competitive form of motorsport because in his heart there is nothing more rewarding that going around the track faster then the next guy, I say great. If Haas is chomping at the bit to out-design and out-race the sport’s holy grail, Ferrari, or even the old guard McLaren and Williams, sign me up. If Haas can do what newcomers Red Bull did in just a measly nine years or what F1’s newest old kid on the block, Mercedes-Benz, did to kick off the new era of turbo-hybrids, well then I am all for it and will be one of his staunchest supporters.

Long live those crazy, wealthy, sometimes disillusioned dreamers or just the men and women with big egos that want to go motor racing for whatever their reasons are. I say bring it, let’s go racing and I love you all…

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Richard Piers

Hear, hear !