I had intended not to post anymore early thoughts this season. However, given the significant occurrences recently, and the slightly lengthy three week gap, I thought it’d be better to have a place to discuss such things ahead of the race weekend, rather than making the pre-qualifying piece bloody enormous.
The back of the grid is not so much in serious turmoil as missing, fallen from the heavens of F1 to plunge into the Bermuda Triangle of financial woe. For years, many have complained that the way the money flows in F1 is nuts and, worse, unsustainable. Now we have proof, were it needed. Two non-team examples of this are that Monaco (dreariest circuit on the calendar, possibly excepting Singapore) pays no race fee, whereas fantastic Spa is at risk of folding because it can’t afford the race fees. Even more bonkers, mega-rich Ferrari get more cash (before points are totted up) than any other team, for ‘historical’ reasons.
Anyway, to the current quagmire of woe and doom. I’ll probably be vague, as the situation for Caterham is complicated, I’m not a financial expert, and I don’t want to accidentally libel anyone.
Tony Fernandes was the first owner of Caterham (originally Lotus) and has been looking to sell for a little while. This year he did, to a then unknown (and deliberately anonymous) consortium of Middle Eastern and Swiss investors. It seemed good for everyone. He got out of a game he had tired of playing, Caterham got a shiny future, and the team was injected with some delicious money.
It didn’t take long for the wheels to fall off. A number of employees were axed, and are in the process of taking legal action against the firm (which I believe is counter-suing). The seat was effectively sold to the highest bidder at one race, and Kobayashi expressed concerns on Facebook about racing with suspension in which he did not have full confidence.
But the weirdest, murkiest and most serious developments have happened in the last couple of weeks. It’s very tangled so I’ll only use the broadest of brushes to paint the picture. The new owners may not own the team. Despite signing a contract and paying the running costs. Fernandes, despite not wanting to own the team, may. It has emerged, and is a rare point of agreement between the two sides, that he still possesses the relevant shares. Their transfer was contingent upon a number of conditions being met. Fernandes says they have not been met, the new owners disagree vehemently. It’s not the most dignified way to conduct business, and whilst the money men bicker the engineers, support staff and drivers are left high and dry.
Marussia’s case seems more simple. They’ve run out of money. This may be related to lacking a second driver currently, following Bianchi’s crash and ongoing intensive car, or may just be because lots of people have warned the flow of money was unfair and unsustainable and it’s just come to a head. On the plus side for Marussia, there isn’t the legal wibbling that we’ve seen at Caterham, and unless Sauber scores soon the team will end up 9th in the Constructors’, which reportedly will get them £60m or so for next year.
Unfortunately, this may not be the end of the story. A number of other teams are in some degree of financial trouble. Caterham and Marussia going into administration will mean (unless both situations are resolved swiftly, which seems unlikely) that suppliers will find themselves having to tighten their belts and get quicker payment from the remaining nine teams. This in turn may worsen the financial state of other teams teetering on the brink. We’re very near the end of the season (three races to go), so hopefully they’ll all be alright for now, but we really do need some more teams.
Of course, there is a solution. Stop giving Ferrari, Red Bull and some other teams preferential financial treatment. Why should a team owned by a billionaire get a cushier financial deal than a plucky new team? Give every team a small percentage of F1’s income so that nobody ends up flat on their back or scrabbling to survive. By all means let points win prizes, but as extra cash on top of a basic minimum.
The greed at the top and short-sighted Scrooge McDuck approach has seen two out of 11 teams enter administration. Sadly, I think any changes in this field will be marginal. Too many bean counters, not enough racers.
Oh, and we have a race this weekend. America’s a great circuit, but there will only be 18 cars on the grid. More drivers will score points than won’t, which is faintly ridiculous.