Formula 1 is in a deep crisis. With two teams collapsing and the midfielders threatening to boycott the series, the grid is left with just 18 cars at the end of the 2014 season. A sad record for a sport that needs the small teams for its survival more than some would like to think.
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The back of the grid is usually rather calm when it comes to media noise, but last month has shaken Formula 1 with unsettling news around the teams at the end of the sport’s food chain.
After confusing messages from the Caterham F1 team, which finds itself stuck in the middle of a very obscure conflict between the former and new team owners that is being argued out quite publicly, the Marussia team – already struck by Jules Bianchi’s terrible accident in Suzuka – is now also forced into administration. While 200 employees at Marussia have already been made redundant, the 200 souls in Leafield are still hoping for a miracle. 200 people that have been fighting for the team’s survival for more than four years since it was established by Fernandes as the formerly called Lotus Racing team. A lot of these people have come from the factories at Toyota and Honda, two of the manufacturers that have pulled out of Formula 1 in 2009 at the height of the global recession. They have given up on their homes, accepted pay-cuts, late night and weekend shifts, technical rebounds and economic setbacks, and overall very little private time as they continued to travel the world with the Formula 1 circus for the last five seasons.
Five seasons that didn’t grant them a single point. Not one. And now, as they are awaiting decisions about a very uncertain future, feeling hopeless and rather disillusioned while they explore new professional options, their own realities might be very different from what we read in the news. A lot of my friends are working in Leafield, and not a few of them have been in this unsettling situation before. Amongst them is Kamui Kobayashi. I remember the day when Toyota declared that they will quit Formula 1 after seven years without a single victory. On the day of the announcement by Akio Toyoda in Japan, we were all asked to join the president in a big hangar on the grounds of the Toyota Motorsport facilities in Cologne. We got the news at the precise time of the press conference in Tokyo so that we wouldn’t have to read it in the news. The quiet was remarkable as roughly a thousand employees stood there in silence listening to the devastating statement that put an end to many a career in F1. Although probably foreseeable, few of us had actually expected the end of something that we had lived and breathed for as much as ten years. We all believed until the end – 36 nations from around the world sharing a common dream. Not one of us was ready to give it all up.
At the heart of what some call the most substantial crisis in the history of Formula 1, isn’t this precisely what we need?
And now the very same people might have to experience a tragic déjà vu. Some of my former colleagues who were passionate and ambitious enough to further pursue a career in Formula 1, even for the sake of sacrificing their personal lives to join a smaller team with less budget, lower salaries and even fewer chances to win, joined Virgin (now Marussia), HRT or Lotus Racing (now Caterham F1) at the time. The three newcomers had entered the series in 2010 following desperate efforts by the rights holders and governing bodies to cut costs and save the sport’s future after BMW, Honda and Toyota had all withdrawn their outfits. In order to commit the remaining manufacturers and accommodate the requirements of new squads, a new Concorde Agreement was negotiated and Bernie Ecclestone even agreed to offer participation fees and expenses to the smaller teams “for the good of the sport“. Perhaps just a kneejerk reaction to the threatening collapse of his own empire but it resulted in the participation of HRT, Marussia and Caterham, one of which pulled out after just three years and the other two with a very shaky grip on survival. With only nine teams competing in the final races of the 2014 season the future of the independent teams Sauber, Lotus and Force India looks equally bleak.