It bares repeating that Formula One is in the midst of a crisis. And it hasn’t happened overnight either. Financial issues have plagued the sport and its smaller teams for decades and now it is capitulating to farcical proportions.
With the demise last year of both Marussia and Caterham, along with the monumental drop of 30 million television viewers worldwide, things seem irreparable as we enter the new season. And that’s not the end of the despair.
When a team run by a man once ranked the 84th richest man in India, owner of Kingfisher Vijay Mallya is rumoured to be facing an ‘impossible task’ to make the Australian Grand Prix grid, you know something is wrong with the sport. However, as is often the case with Formula One, “the show must go on”. What those in charge (FOM, CBC) fail to acknowledge publically, is that in not addressing this crisis, there will scarcely be a show to put on.
While Mallya has been referred to in India as a “willful defaulter” due to amassing huge debts on Kingfisher Airlines, one has to sympathise with his Formula One team who are, according to German journalist Ralf Bach (Sport Bild und TZ Munchen), being crippled by the increasing costs of competing and debts of $50 million ‘because of bills not paid’.
These bills it is claimed, include engine supplier Mercedes and tyre company Pirelli. It is alleged that this debt has also restricted the build of the 2015 chassis, with suppliers EOM not having received payment. Whether this is the prime reason or mere rumour as to why the team elected to miss the opening 2015 test at Jerez remains to be seen; it doesn’t bode well in any case.
It may be early days but one feels that it is already too late. At present, the Formula One grid for 2015 is a maximum of 18 cars, while it is still possible that only 16 will turn up in Melbourne.
But while the rumours continue to circulate and Marussia and Caterham look less and less likely to make the grid (they are all but certain to miss the first half of the season), very few in the sport have done much to ensure they are saved. Words rather than actions do not help anyone.
There has been plenty discussion about teams being able to develop their engines throughout the 2015 season as well as the possibility of 1000bhp power units, again to ‘improve the show’. As Williams technical director Pat Symonds rightly points out, the show must be put on hold in order to save the small teams.
Symonds said: “I like the idea of 1000bhp engines, I like the idea of spectacular cars.”
“I also like the idea of having a lot more cars on the grid, that’s what should be our prime concern at the moment.”
“There’s a lot we can do within the framework that we have, and particularly to improve our engagement with the public”, Symonds said.
Last week, the former Marussia F1 team (entered under the name Manor F1 on the 2015 Formula One entry list) issued a press release stating their intention to exit administration by the end of February, with the ultimate goal of reaching the opening round in Melbourne.
The journey to Australia remains just as far for the struggling minnows, despite a move in the right direction. After falling into administration last autumn, Marussia shed 200 jobs and had their assets auctioned in November.
In addition to having to replace innumerable staff members – who have either joined other teams or left the sport – Manor face more pressing issues if they are to make it to Oz. Testament to how far behind they are, they need two drivers and help from the governing body FIA and teams to allow them to use their 2014 chassis – having neither the resources or time to fully develop their 2015 version.
Of the driver choices, a shoe-in for the first seat is Max Chilton. If Manor are to use Marussia’s 2014 chassis, Chilton has first hand experience plus the Brit from Reigate brings substantial sponsorship money.
Which the team may well need to pay their $60 million debt to engine suppliers Ferrari. Speculation of the team becoming a McLaren B team seem to be quashed by the year-old chassis – valves, engine couplings complete with engine cover fitting the Ferrari engine only.
Difficult, but plausible.
But of course, Formula One is collective in its hypocrisy. Putting the brakes on a surprise comeback last week was the latest meeting of the F1 Strategy Group, during which the teams failed to reach a unanimous decision as to whether Manor would be able to use last year’s Marussia chassis.
The reason for this? Money. Of course. While the bigger teams are relatively secure financially, the “smaller outfits were not so happy with the plan that would make them miss out on receiving a share of Marussia’s commercial rights income.”
The team behind this veto, Force India were quick to backtrack, stating that Marussia/Manor entering the 2015 championship without adhering to the F1 Commission’s protocol i.e. ensuring a buyer for the team was communicated as well as being financially sustainable and providing a “safe and compliant car running the 2014 chassis”, were the main driving factors behind the decision.
Of course, Force India have their own problems, notably not having a car that is ready for testing let alone the opening race. Financial issues have stumped a team with considerable Indian backing, so much so that they will likely compete at the rear of the field for the first half of the season.
But it is not hard to escape from the fact that if Manor do field a car of any sort – 2014 or otherwise – the share of money to fellow small teams becomes ever more scarce – which may implicitly sway a decision.
It is another episode in the farcical series that is disparity in Formula One. But having endured years of burying heads in the sand, it seems most teams are left with few ideas on how to fix it.