To the eye of an unsuspecting student, Formula One is a sport that — with its glitz and glamour — is the very epitome of wealth and excess. Take more than a cursory glance though, and the picture becomes far murkier. In the last month two teams, Marussia and Caterham, have found themselves unable to fund the travel and the high-tech engineering that characterizes the pursuit, whilst the future is uncertain for several more teams, including Force India and Lotus. This turmoil of course comes on the back of what was perhaps F1’s darkest moment in 20 years — Jules Bianchi’s life-threatening crash in Japan — and this reminder of the sport’s proximity to mortality couldn’t have come at a worse time. If teams are bankrupting themselves to risk their lives in a sport that can barely call itself competitive any more, can we really support it continuing in its current form?
Thinking about the ownership structure of the two teams in dire straits is also illustrative of the structural issues which plague the so-called “pinnacle of motorsport”: Caterham were, until last summer, owned by the Malaysian tycoon Tony Fernandes; whilst Marussia were similarly beholden to the now-defunct Russian carmaker of the same name. Both teams attempted to use top level auto-racing as a marketing tool for a supposedly growing car manufacturer, and both teams came up short. F1 is no longer a profitable or successful tool unless you are able to pump hundreds of millions of pounds into your team as the likes of Ferrari, Red Bull, and Mercedes do.
The reality is simple: the competition has been distorted irretrievably by money. This year’s title race has been a problematic example of the fact that unlimited spending is not a guarantee of a competitive championship. Although Lewis Hamilton and his German teammate Nico Rosberg have been relatively closely matched, the Mercedes car they share has been head and shoulders above the competition.
Whilst their Mercedes is no doubt a technical marvel, this season has hammered home the fact that unparalleled technical excellence alone is not enough to make a sport compelling. (Although, arbitrary ‘entertainment- focused’ rules such as awarding double points to the victor of the year’s final race leave a sour taste in the mouth, too.)
Where now? As this season draws to a close there is a very real danger of there being less than 16 cars on the starting line come March 2015. If this were to be the case, the contracts between the FIA, Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Management, the remaining teams, and the circuits would start to creak. Three car teams are a very real possibility, but it seems as though that would only exacerbate the funding chasms at the top table of F1, as only the richest teams able to run a third car and to reap the benefits that would bring.
As it stands then, the now long-deposed Max Mosley — the former head of the FIA who attempted to bring in massive cost-saving measures including a budget cap — might be forgiven for feeling a little smug. This sport, the purest form of sporting capitalism, is out of control, and has further to fall.
A year that started promisingly with new eco-conscious regulations and the announcement that Japanese behemoth Honda would restart its involve- ment has turned into something of an annus horriblis. The only real option requires the likes of Ecclestone, and Mosley’s successor Jean Todt to take decisive action: costs need to come down and stay down; double points style gimmicks need to be eliminated; and starting from the bottom — whether as a team, driver, or even a mechanic — needs to become possible once more. And, it goes without saying, the Jules Bianchi crash needs to prompt some serious soul-searching.