Fat Hippo’s Rant: Why #F1 needs customer cars

Preamble

A lot has been said and written recently about the state Formula 1 finds itself in. Brutally milked by Ecclestone and his cronies, utterly dominated by just three or four teams with the rest in financial dire straights, the Powers That Be felt they have to add more useless gimmicks to stop people from switching over to Strictly Come Dancing or whatever other mind-numbingly stupid stuff is shown on your respective national TV. Except that it isn’t going to work. They might convince some of the casual viewers, who think an all-or-nothing race at the end of the season is the way to go, but they’ll lose the hardcore viewers.

The simplest solution, which has been mentioned often enough, are customer cars. Why is it that so many people say it goes against everything F1 stands for, when in the olden days customer cars were the norm? From the early days it was normal that a privateer team could buy a slightly used Maserati and get on with the job. In the seventies a myriad of small teams showed up on the track in a bought March chassis – usually with a Cosworth DFV bolted to it – and went racing with various degrees of success.

The last ones to run some sort of customer car were Scuderia Toro Rosso. In their early days, until and including the 2008 season, their chassis was mainly designed by Red Bull Technology, the same company that employs Adrian Newey and to this day still builds the highly successful Red Bull cars for the main team. And the exercise was a classical example, why customer cars work just fine. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out, that the 2008 STR chassis was not quite as advanced as the Red Bull one. Not that RBT delivered an inferior product, but one can imagine that they left some of the more advanced bells ‘n whistles exclusively for the chassis of the main team. Yet they were comprehensively outscored by their customer team.


The last customer car in F1 - the Toro Rosso STR3

The last customer car in F1 – the Toro Rosso STR3


That neatly showed, why all the Cassandra cries about customer cars are just wrong. The two Toro Rosso’s weren’t just two more Red Bulls in drag. First of all, they ran Ferrari engines as opposed to the Renaults in the main team and they had the decisive advantage in being the ones with Vettel on their payroll. And that is the beauty of customer cars – we get to see chassis running with different engines and teams that no longer need to blow their frankly modest financial resources on the design of an own chassis, might be left with enough currency to hire a young promising driver instead of a journeyman with a fat wallet.

How does it work

On first glance it might not look like a workable solution, with all teams but the big four – Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes and McLaren – barely able to pay for their own chassis development, let alone supplying a customer. But take Williams for instance. They know how to build cars and if they designed a chassis and then built four instead of two cars, the financial overhead would not exactly be astronomical, yet they could recuperate quite a bit of the development costs by selling the spare cars to – let’s say Marussia. If the Russians were to pay something like 10 to 12 million for customer Williams chassis, they’d not only be better off financially, they would undoubtedly end up with a better car than what they can design with their modest wealth. They could then invest the saved money into decent drivers and maybe some mild development of the base chassis they purchased from Frank’s team.

Why in the wide world of sport would someone think that’s a bad thing? I’d prefer to see four Williams chassis on the grid. Two at the hands of the main team using Mercedes engines, while two more are run by Marussia using Ferrari power trains. Is that really so much worse than Marussia running their own chassis, knowing it will be two seconds slower than a Williams, because that’s all they can come up with for the few coins they found in the back of the sofa? Where’s the bloody logic in that? And it wouldn’t turn F1 into a spec series as is sometimes Nostradamus’ed by purist F1 Catholiban. We’d still have different chassis designs, just not as many different ones as we have teams. Is that such a bad thing? We are perfectly OK with just three different engines in 2014. Why would it be a bad thing if we have only five or six different chassis on the grid. Especially as they wouldn’t all be the same, as a Williams chassis run by Williams would certainly get more or at least different upgrades than the one they sold to Marussia.

What would change?

First of all, if FIA were to allow customer cars they’d immediately attract quality teams. In a recent interview 1978 F1 world champion and customer car advocate Mario Andretti revealed that his son Michael’s team – Andretti Autosport – would not hesitate for a minute to try entering F1 if he was able to buy cars from McLaren or Ferrari. And Andretti Autosport is a household name by now. They run four highly competitive cars in the Indycar series and their 2014 entry in Formula E shows, that Michael and his team are not shy of trying new things. If I had to choose between watching Andretti F1 with customer McLaren cars or Caterham with an own chassis cobbled together on a shoe-string budget, well that’s not exactly a hard decision to make.

It could also see the return of companies, who only build chassis without running them in an own team. Why should it not be possible for Caterham or Marussia to order an F1 chassis at Dallara or Panoz? Sure that’s still cheaper than running an own factory and most likely more competitive, too.


One of the last 'true' customer cars. Dallara didn't run an F1 team, but supplied the chassis for the BMS Scuderia Italia in the early 90s

One of the last ‘true’ customer cars. Dallara didn’t run an F1 team, but supplied the chassis for the BMS Scuderia Italia in the early 90s


The mid-90s PPG Indycar series – before it was killed off by Tony George and his henchmen – proved that the concept works just fine. Reynard and Lola supplied most teams with chassis, while Penske and Dan Gurney’s Eagle team built their own chassis. Honda, Mercedes, Ford and Toyota supplied the engines and in comparison to Formula One it was the vastly superior product as the racing was much closer than we’ve ever seen in F1 and yet it wasn’t a spec series.


The iconic red/white livery survived a few years longer than in F1 on Roger Penske's Indy cars

The iconic red/white livery survived a few years longer than in F1 on Roger Penske’s Indy cars

Won’t they all end up running the best chassis anyway?

One of the things that always annoyed me back in the day when there were still F1 Management video games was that after two or three years Ferrari delivered engines to Sauber and Williams and were running Mercedes engines themselves. That of course is a stupid idea and thankfully wouldn’t happen in reality neither in terms of chassis or engine use. But how do you make sure that not everyone ends up running Dallara chassis?

There are several measures to make sure that this doesn’t happen. First of all, teams that develop own chassis could get an extra share of TV money. This would also motivate customer teams to return to own development once they feel financially sound enough to do it. For every customer they supply a team would get another extra share of TV money, but the number of customers is limited to two, which means there cannot be more than 6 Ferrari chassis on the grid. Realistically I think we would end up with 6 or maybe 7 different chassis on the grid, but we could easily have 13 or 14 teams, all of which more financially sound than what we have today.

What about the political implications?

When Sebastian Vettel had to work his way through the field after piling into Senna at last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix, he made short work of most of his opposition despite a badly dented car and that was possible in part, because no other cars were as easy to overtake as the Toro Rosso’s. It was obvious that they weren’t willing to get in the way of the sister team. Do we have to fear that such things become the norm. Will Marussia’s with customer Williams chassis jump out of the way, whenever a Williams is in their mirrors?

The answer is a definitive ‘maybe’. Such things have happened in the past and will probably happen again. Ever since Sauber started buying their engines from Ferrari, the opinions in team decisions have been remarkably similar at Maranello and Hinwil. Since nothing would really change in that regard, all we would need are Stewards that have a look that no blatant rigging is going on. That a customer car might be somewhat easier to pass for a supplier is bad for the purist, but it is a fact of life and will most likely only happen in the hot phase of a championship anyway. The fun stops, if the customer cars start blatantly blocking the opposition, but that’s what we have race stewards for.

The Contra’s

I’ve thought long and hard, trying to find reasons for not introducing customer cars, but I’m drawing a blank every time. The only reason I could think of would be, if you’re hell-bent on every team running an own chassis, but we’ve already covered that. If we keep enforcing that, we’ll have to live with widely disparate chassis performances. The 2013 Red Bull could slap the opposition from left to right, because nobody else got their job done properly and Toro Rosso had to cobble together an own chassis instead of buying a vastly better base RB9. Vettel would still have steamrolled it, probably, but there could have been one or two Toro Rosso’s and may be another customer chassis in Sauber services in contention. But that’s of course just theory as the whole thing makes just way too much sense for FIA to implement it, unlike let’s say, double points at Abu Dhabi.

32 responses to “Fat Hippo’s Rant: Why #F1 needs customer cars

  1. I think there is another result of Customer Cars. A consolidation of Car design talent. I don’t know whether this would be beneficial or a detriment, but it may raise the barrier to entry for new technical and engineering talent to get into F1, since only 4-6 teams would need a full design and engineering studio to produce the cars. (Versus 12 full engineering departments now).

    Obviously, this wouldn’t affect track side operations or data monitoring Mission Control like facilities. But if every team has 100-200 engineers back at home working on future car designs, that could be potentially 1200 high grade engineers left out in the cold as the 6 teams that produce chassis cherry-pick the best talent.

    • Make no mistake though, I am all for Customer cars. And I think the merits of the argument are spot on.

  2. As you say, there seems to be a doomsday scenario painted by some over customer cars. But this IS how many teams started and it WAS normal just a little while ago.

    Perhaps the worst aspect is that there would, presumably, be a large scale loss of design and/or engineering personnel within F1 as a whole which is certainly something to be considered…

    However, that’s not the main point and, like you and EightM, I think it’s a totally reasonable argument to say that customer cars are the saving rather than the destruction of the sport/industry.

  3. Gah!!! Customer Cars?! Noooo!

    Not only does the customer car idea go totally against F1’s DNA, but its implementation would result in one team disappearing and five others being forced to totally downgrade their facilities to little more than repair shops.

    In the process they would be obliged to close windtunnels, CFD departments and production/fabrication divisions, collectively laying off thousands of highly qualified engineers and other professionals.
    Not only is such drastic action utterly immoral, but certainly no way to treat loyal and dedicated staff members, many of whom sacrificed personal lives to serve the sport they love.

    The reasons advanced for the customer car plan are manifold, ranging from sustainability and affordability, on the basis that development and manufacturing costs can be spread over two teams rather than a single entity, to suggestions that the quality of grids would increase by featuring four front-running cars rather than, say, two Red Bulls and two Caterhams.

    The pro faction overlooks, of course, that an exit by any major team would immediately reduce the grid by four cars, leading to dangers of a one-two-three-four by a single design, while ‘B’ teams fear they would be reduced to tyre-testing and rookie-filled lackeys dictated by their suppliers. “Do as we say, or no deal for our SuperDuper F1 chassis/engine…” is how one team boss described the danger.

    Finally, customer teams are concerned they would have no unique selling point for sponsors through being relegated to little more than customers – factories are a major sponsor draw – compounded by scoring no constructors’ championship points to brag of.

    Plus, of course, some or other customer team would be forced to accept the fifth-best car, for each major would supply only one customer…
    Thus the customer proposal faces much opposition across the board including, allegedly, tacit threats that complaints could be registered with the EU Commission for abuse of monopolistic power.

    So an alternative has been sought, with ‘CCC’ replaced by ‘Eight-3’, an equally radical concept that sees F1’s entry list culled to eight teams, each entering three cars.

    THE REAL REASON F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone and his Strategy Group pushed so hard for the customer-car plan is none other than MONEY MONEY MONEY!!!! Gah! His pet majors would enjoy additional income streams, while the pesky independents would have lower operating costs (plus be easier to replace, should one or more disappear, due to lowered costs of entry), with racing (in theory) being closer due to reduced performance spread.

    This would, in turn, allow commercial rights holder Formula One Management – headed by Ecclestone and a subsidiary of CVC Capital Partners, the venture fund which acquired majority shares in 2005 under a contentious transaction – to reduce payouts to teams, bolstering the fund’s profits even further…

    Sounds like: “Three-car teams back on F1’s agenda”

    ‘As teams resist a push for customer cars, could a grid of eight three-car squads be the solution? DIETER RENCKEN reveals the new proposal being considered…’

    • I’ll come back to this Joe, suffice to say I don’t fully agree with you.

      I just can’t do so now. Agreeing, wholeheartedly, with Danilo has given me a fit of the vapours πŸ˜‰

      • Me too… πŸ™‚
        Why can’t the ‘wide-mouthed-frog’ always write like this… πŸ˜‰

    • Whilst I certainly don’t disagree with your points about Bernie and the potential loss of jobs for current engineers (as noted in my post, above) I think that many of these arguments have an equally valid alternative.

      First, I’d argue that F1’s DNA is NOT against customer cars. DNA comes from ancestors and the sport’s history – this is largely made up of teams buying cars/chassis/engines/gearboxes etc. from other manufacturers or other teams. THAT is the true DNA of the sport – just not recently.

      With that in mind, what’s to stop the rise of a new March (especially with all the unemployed expertise that will be kicking around…)? Why do all teams have to be customers (or “B team”s) of F1 teams? That seems short-sighted to me.

      Similarly, sponsorship. Isn’t that going to be based more on success than whether anyone builds their own tub? As the wide-mouthed one says in the original post, STR actually beat the “senior” team with their “customer” car – that would seem to me to attract a great deal of sponsorship interest… And customer cars are more likely to be closer in speed to the leaders, even if they can’t actually match them, which again makes them potentially closer to the front and therefore more attractive to sponsors.

      Many new teams may be able to buy in to F1 if they don’t need to run a full constructor base. This could make it more, rather than less, likely that we have full grids. And some of them may go on to be full constructors over time. History tells us this, because that’s exactly what teams have done in the past (Williams, Tyrrell, etc.).

      Also, if the point about the constructors’ championship is that you can’t win points if you don’t build your own car, there was never a problem with “customer” teams winning constructor points in the past…

      I (personally) don’t know if customer cars are a good thing or not, but I’m not at all sure that the arguments against hold any more water than those in favour. πŸ™‚

    • ” Not only does the customer car idea go totally against F1β€²s DNA … ”

      Really Joe ?

      Shame that a CUSTOMER car won both the Drivers AND the Constructors Championships ……

      Sort of shows your argument to be totally invalid ?

      Oh – and I disagree with everything else you wrote too.

  4. Wow. Its finally happened, even though I never thought it would.

    I agree with every word you’ve written!

    I need to go for a lie down…….

      • He’s played a stormer alright Peter!

        Happy Christmas (or holidays, whatever is your thing) and hope your 2014 is brilliant. Been a pleasure conversing with you this year.

  5. As much as I agree with all the points above, I can’t help but think that what I really want are more manufacturer teams, rather than ‘supported’ independents. I am not sure how attractive the customer team idea would be to big teams, especially if they have a chance of being beat by one of their own designs.

  6. As one who can remember the days of the used Masers and March’s with DFV, that was a nice, thoughtful piece Hippo.
    Only proviso is if it were come to pass, don’t let Dallara near it. Too much of their crap on grids of the world now.

  7. What prevents a hypothetic new team called “Maranello Racing” to buy a Red Bull chassis and strip down all its engineering secrets and report back to Ferrari? This is the concern I have with customer cars. Ideally, teams would sell an old chassis to other teams to avoid such scenario, but unless there was a change on the regulations it could happen that a previous’ year car is faster/better than the current year

    • Something like that already happened in the past, when Ferrari docs ended up at McLaren. They paid a record-breaking fine for it and were excluded from the constructors championship.

      • Coming from another angle, wouldn’t a customer 2012 McLaren have caused a real shake up going against the 2013 Team version…

    • With a customer car it is the same as with customer engines, have a contract, some support crew to watch over the project, and some trust. I don’t think that STR did take apart a Ferrari engine to give the data to Renault. And whether trust is enough is something we will find out with the last year of Merc engines for McLaren.

  8. I support the customer chassis idea, as long as the top four teams are not allowed to sell chassis to customers. Of course, any run out of the mill team would love to use its sofa change to buy a Red Bull chassis and then blow past cars like Sauber or Williams even though those teams spend a ridiculous amount of money on chassis development. This would not be fair to midfield teams, and in the worst case, Sauber, Williams, and Force India could eventually be forced to abandon in-house chassis manufacturing or maybe F1 racing completely, and then we will end with just four factories that build a chassis.

  9. Joe Papp pretty much sums up my feelings on the customer car issue in F1. Not only is it a bad idea, unless you want F1 to look like IndyCar, it’s also unworkable.

    The article itself is a simple regurgitation of the pro-customer car side. Their nothing new in it.

    Currently there are four teams that will never be customer car teams. Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull. Sauber and Force India have both stated that they are against customer teams. Now we are at six I suspect Williams won’t become a customer car operator either. So we are at seven. If Genii hopes to sell Lotus and get some of their money back it will remain as a manufacturer. We’re now at eight. Caterham would have a major branding issue as they want to be seen as a world-class manufacturer of road cars. Becoming a customer team doesn’t fit Fernandez’s model. Nobody, other than Red Bull, will sell Toro Rosso a chassis as the specs will end up at Red Bull. So we are left with Marussia. Tthe main aspect for all teams is their value is because they are manufacturers.

    But the main reason customer cars won’t happen is – under the current Concord Agreement (which runs to 2020) only 11 constructor teams can theoretically share in the prize money. The key word here is constructor. A customer team is not a constructor. The reason they are not considered a constructor is that when the FIA crash tests and certifies a chassis, the certification belongs to the designer / manufacturer not the operator. Toro Rosso got around that by actually manufacturing Newey’s design, but Ferrari, Mercedes or McLaren are never going to give their designs to another team. So unless you actually design and manufacture and certify your own chassis you can’t get any prize money under the current Concorde Agreement. So they’ll be no rush of privateers into the sport.

    While its nice romanticizing about Rob Walker and the other privateers. Those days are long gone and aren’t going to return.

    • Mercedes would be glad to sell a chassis to Andretti racing or Penske. To get a foothold in the US market it would be good to partner with a well known American team.
      The midfield that oppose customer cars are not financial solid, so FOM just have to wait untill the midfield is bankrupt. The FOM/FIA can speed up the proces by introducing Financial Fair Play: if you don’t pay all your bills, then you’re excluded from the championship. So if you fail to pay your driver, no more F1 for your team. Bernie might come up with such an idea to get the F1 more financial solid.
      So if Bernie wants (American) privateers, the F1 will get privateers. The top teams will agree because then they can run sister teams cheaply or have a partnership with an US racing team.

      • “Mercedes would be glad to sell a chassis to Andretti racing or Penske. To get a foothold in the US market it would be good to partner with a well known American team.”

        How do you know that? Americans don’t go to Indycar races in any significant number and both Penske and Andretti compete in that series, and there would at most be two races in the US.

        “so FOM just have to wait untill the midfield is bankrupt.”

        So your solution to the financial mess F1 is in is to bankrupt half the teams.

        “So if Bernie wants (American) privateers, the F1 will get privateers.”

        Ecclestone doesn’t licence the teams that compete in F1 – the FIA does.

        • Bankrupt the midfield is not my solution to the financial mess in F1, but it wil be result if things don’t change.

          When it comes to the US, you’re right. However seeing the effort that FOM is putting on getting races in the US, you might conclude that they want to get more US involvement. At least that is how I observe it. It is not my opinion whether F1 in US is a good idea or not.

    • Force India is pretty much a McLaren.

      A constructor is pretty much the person who makes the chassis, is the tub.

      Its not a big reach to see a joint partnership to work on a tub between, for example, Force India and McLaren. McLarens wind tunnel could be used for aero. Mclarens CFD could be used. Force India could design parts and these could be fabricated by McLaren.

      I’m more of a ‘we can if’ type person rather than a ‘no because’ glass half empty it’ll never work type.

      Danilo is on the money on this post, and the level of racing we would see and increase in money into F1 would be excellent for the sport.

      Everything is possible……

  10. Mario andretti should shut his stupid ass and keep the hell out of f1.i get really irritated when indy car f**kers try to enter f1.i hate all sorts of american racing programmes,american’s suck at racing.and andretti should never talk about f1.

    • Drunk posting is not a good idea, samraj. We usually don’t engage in hate posts.

      The man you’ve lambasted is one of the greatest racers in the world. Except for Le Mans the man has won pretty much everything. Indy 500, Daytona 500, Indycar championship, F1 championship. You name it, he’s won it. I can’t comprehend what he did to deserve that amount of hate. Did he shag your wife or something?

  11. I’d like to register a formal complaint with the management.

    That wasn’t a rant. It was the best argued case for customer cars I’ve seen in a long time, and I agree with it wholeheartedly.

    Who kidnapped the real hippo ?
    And do they want to hang on to him….
    :-b

  12. Two things:

    1- How much will these customer cars cost? It will have to make sense financially given how little F1 teams actually take from F1 total earnings. Given how advanced and fine tuned technology is now, I think it would create a two tier series with the top teams having the true bespoke prototype chassis and everyone else having less capable equipment.

    2- This just brings us one step closer to a spec formula. How many of these “little” steps like these have gotten us to this point? It has to stop now.

  13. I must admit you got me thinking.

    Shit.

    In modern F1 you’re probably right. But modern F1 – and especially the financial side is wrong.

    Modern F1 isn’t about solving problems, but about putting a liitle patch on them.

    Customer cars is just another patch on the same old money problem we have because some old fart sold F1 to another old fart for nothing. Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone can be admired for all kinds of things they achieved, but squeezing F1 out of FIA’s hands for almost nothing isn’t one of them.

    In the current F1 where only some hedgefunds and bankers earn the money instead of the teams who are stupid enough to be divided and conquered every single time, in this current F1 I think you’re right and Customer Cars might solve a lot of problems we’re facing. I’m not entirely sure if I agree that big differences between cars are a problem, but I would like it if cars were even closer than they are now.

    However, I do think that there are other ways. I still think F1 is too restricted. Especially on engines and regulations. F1 uses technique which is already obsolete in LeMans.

    F1 should be about total engineering freedom around 2 themes:
    – the fastest cars and drivers in the world
    – with the least amount of energy

    Got a nuclear powerplant suitable for a race car? Welcome to F1…
    Got an engine based on thorium? Welcome to F1…
    Got a car plastered with solarpanels next to an electric engine? Welcome to F1…

    …as long as you’re fast enough for F1.

    I’m not a tree hugger. – although I like to take a nice walk around the forrest with my kids)- but that’s not the pint. It’s another way of looking at the money problem. Manufacturors who get as close as possible to the law of conservation of energy will have a big asset to sell in the real world.

    Current F1 lacks really new innovative ideas. It’s design for laywers. It’s not about inventions like Chapman did in his day, it’s about restrictions and being clever with them.

    In current F1, if you’re a new team, it makes sense for you to comply to the rules first and work from there. Because if you’re too clever, you can’t even start and your sponsors won’t like it. Innovation is not endorsed.

    So yes, in current, flawed, stolen from the fans, sick F1 customer cars make sense.

    (first time I visited the site from a PC, instead of an Iphone. Still love the content, but whats with white fonts on black?’I’m 100% sure that if you change that tomorrow your bounce rate will fall)

    • Think its to help contributors and viewers with visual challenges.

      Rather decent, I feel. There’s a few tip top chaps throwing in their two cent(s) \ pence worth who have mentioned black on white is difficult to read.

    • ” F1 should be about total engineering freedom around 2 themes:
      – the fastest cars and drivers in the world
      – with the least amount of energy ”

      Keith Duckworth proposed pretty much the same thing way back in the 1970’s.

      And what was done about it …….. ?

  14. “… like Chapman did in his day…”
    Hi Verstappen – I agree with what you’re saying but wanted to add Chapman himself asserted that regulations were just a challenge to him rather than things to simply follow… But I agree it’s much worse now…

  15. Danilo, i missed this article before, but I have to say that I’m on the brink of bring a convert as you have given a very very credible and sound argument I’m favor. I would love to see mote teams but FOM will need to release more prize money as its not fair that 11th 12th and 13th would get zero funds apart from sponsor money. I really think it could work. It’s gotta be worth an email to jean todt.

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