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.
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.
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.
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.
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.