Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone believes that the F1 grid is due for additional shrinkage. Over the past couple of years, several manufacturers have dropped out of the sport, including BMW, Toyota and Honda. This helped pave the way for such newbie teams as HRT, Virgin and Lotus to enter the picture. Former FIA president Max Mosley was a big proponent of relaxing requirements to entrance into the sport to help fill the gap created by departing heavyweights.
But Formula 1, event with a movement towards reduced budgets, is a horribly expensive proposition, and the newbie teams have been struggling. One of the fledgling outfits, USF1, never even got off the ground. While they designed and partially built a car, funding ran out and the car was ultimately still born.
The other aforementioned new teams were able to field flesh and blood teams, but they’ve been struggling with limited budgets, and their performance levels, on the whole, represent a different class of racing car. At the beginning of the season, they were on a par with GP2 cars.
Several teams are in the running for the slopt vacated by USF1, and if it’s awarded to one of them, it would raise the number of cars on the grid to 26. However, Uncle Bernie reckons that this is an unlikely outcome. Ecclestone has offered the opinion that perhaps two of the current teams won’t see out the current season.
He recently told The Daily Telegraph, “I would not be surprised if one or two of them did not make the end of the season. I think there are a couple of teams in Formula 1 who really shouldn’t be there. They are a bit out of their depth at the moment.”
Moreover, he’s quite frank about the idea that the current grid might actually be overpopulated. “All we ever want is 10 teams,” he said. “Lotus is a good name. I wouldn’t want to lose them. But in general this year has been a bit of a nuisance because it has cost money to keep these [struggling] teams in. It has cost a lot of money to pay for them to compete. The bottom line is they haven’t really and truly given us value for being there. If suddenly these teams don’t turn up at races then I don’t think the crowds will get any smaller, or the TV sets will turn off, or the newspapers will stop writing, will they?”
Max Mosley supported lowering the bar for entrance to the sport because he feared that with manufacturers bailing out, the grid would fail to have the requisite number of cars. By contractual arrangement, F1 must guarantee to race promoters a minimum of 10 teams for each race. Contingency plans have been considered, allowing some teams a third car, should the magic number be imperiled.
As far as Mosley was concerned, the more the merrier. But Ecclestone heads up the commercial side of the sport. The greater the humber of teams, the greater the payout each year from the TV rights pool. Or the greater the dilution per team. Clearly, not everyone shares Mosley’s enthusiasm for a larger grid.
And which teams would be most likely to hit the skids? Judging from Ecclestone’s remarks, he has the newbie teams in mind, and considering his sentimental exception for Lotus, one would assume that he’s thinking of HRT and Virgin. HRT would seem to be an obvious choise. They have no obvious major sponsorship, and their current car, the design of which was outsourced to Dallara, is slower than a GP2 car.
Virgin, however, while they have had their troubles, have always signaled that they’ve had adequate funding in place, and they also have Sir Richard Branson attached to the project. Even if his contribution has more to do with his brand, and his marketing organization, rather than real budget, he still is unlikely to let the whole effort implode after less than a full season.
Another team to consider for the endangered species list is Sauber. In the recent off-season, Peter Sauber reacquired the team he’d sold to BMW several years ago, and the 2010 Saubers looked promising in pre-season testing. But the Saubers are conspicuously shy of any sponsorship branding, which is never a good sign (unless you’re Ferrari, a team which sports invisible Philip Morris/Marlboro branding), and which likely means that Peter Sauber is funding the team partly out of pocket. No one has pockets that deep. If Sauber can’t secure a decent marquee sponsor, it would seem that their life span is at least as threatened as that of Virgin.