Bernie Ecclestone initially appeared completely unimpressed by the turmoil and imminent consequences for the sport: “I think it’s better they go. I don’t want people going around with begging bowls”, he was quoted by a British newspaper, in relation to a potential withdrawal of the Leafield-based outfit just a few weeks ago. But with just 18 cars left on the grid in Austin and the midfield teams apparently threatening to boycott races as a reaction to the financial crisis, the 84-year-old suddenly sounded a little more humble as he realised that if Formula 1 fails, he could be the one made entirely responsible for it. “The problem is there is too much money probably being distributed badly – probably my fault,” he said in front of the press at Austin this year. And ironically, it is now him that is going around with begging bowls asking the big teams to contribute a share of their prize money towards a fund for the small outfits in order to save the sport and – perhaps more importantly – his empire. Regrettably, his remorse comes a little late.
Despite an annual turnover of over $1.5 billion and an excess of $800 million, which is handed back to the teams, the revenues were never distributed evenly amongst the competing squads. It is no secret that Ferrari’s slice of the cake is more than ten times as big as Marussia’s and it is also not a secret that charity was never at the heart of any of Ecclestone’s business decisions. If Formula 1 was a society, it wouldn’t be one that supports the idea of diversity or social welfare. In fact, it would be one that slowly and in an increasingly radical manner gets rid of all disturbing, regime-critical and underperforming suspects for the sake of having a homogeneously wealthy, successful and powerful elitist crowd ruling the grid ruthlessly in order to give the sport the spotless glamour surface that is supposed to win the hearts of racing fans. But does it?
With the independent teams disappearing, the future of the series depends ever more on the manufacturers and their will to commit themselves to a sport that costs roughly $400 million per year – maybe more, if teams are expected to run more than two cars next season. The three-car solution has been promoted by Ecclestone himself, who would prefer to see only big names on the grid and no borderline candidates at the rear. Undoubtedly, his solution would fill up the grid but it would also increase costs for the remaining outfits and put another massive strain on all those forced to travel the world from the beginning of March until the end of November.
We mustn’t forget that three drivers, apart from having to have an additional technical crew, also mean additional work on the logistical, PR and Marketing side of things, all tasks which will have to be handled by the same team, with the same budget and in the same amount of time – unless trackside activities will start on the Monday before the race weekend. Certainly an unattractive perspective for all concerned, especially the mid-field teams who – as a consequence of such new regulations – will be pushed to the back of the grid. The additional money must come from somewhere and since a third car in the same team will not allow a different and more diverse set of sponsors (unlike the existence of more teams does), it is likely that the leaders will have to support the remaining teams in some way. That being the case, why wouldn’t they support the small outfits instead?
The existence of smaller teams at the end of the grid takes a lot of pressure out of the front-runners and adds diversity not only to the media agenda but also to potential sponsors. Having small teams means that minor media outlets or even non-FOM accredited media can be in the fortunate position to secure an interview with a Formula 1 driver every once in a while, maybe even an exclusive story such like a factory visit or a technical insight. I remember Mike Gascoyne, former technical boss of Caterham F1, once posting an advance warning about an impending pitstop on Twitter and Germany’s Auto Motor and Sports writing: “Can you imagine such a thing from McLaren, Ferrari and Co.?“ The leading teams are understandably quite restrictive with regards to the information they provide and with regards to access to their main players and drivers in the team. Time is money and this is even more crucial the further you move up on the grid.
Despite an annual turnover of over $1.5 billion and an excess of $800 million, which is handed back to the teams, the revenues were never distributed evenly amongst the competing squads.
Another factor is sponsorship. A lot of sponsors are not able to afford being associated with Formula 1 if there isn’t an opportunity to strike a deal with a smaller team or a rookie driver. The difference between the sponsorship packages between top teams and the ones at the back of the grid can be several million dollars. Smaller teams offer such sponsors a chance to be involved without having to run a multi-million dollar business as a global brand. Except for that a lot of the big brands and manufacturers involved in Formula 1 are already tied to specific partners purely because they belong to the same group or consortium. The same applies for technology suppliers and partners of a smaller scale who are working with independent teams and play their part in driving the development of parts and solutions that are eventually also sold and used outside of Formula 1. Innovation is not just a question of big bowls, luckily. Last but not least, more teams at different locations also mean that more professionals and businesses can contribute to Formula 1 without having to move to Maranello, Woking or Stuttgart. Diversity in sponsors, partners, suppliers and employees is important for the health of Formula 1, not least because it results in a greater coverage via different channels and thus, the reach of a greater variety of fans. The fewer teams on the grid, the fewer brands and media outlets involved – the fewer chances to spread the word and add diversity to the follower landscape also. At the heart of what some call the most substantial crisis in the history of Formula 1, isn’t this precisely what we need?
When Toyota pulled out of Formula 1 and a few hundred people (including me) lost their jobs, I was wondering if the organising body and the governing people ruling the sport had done enough to prevent it. Marussia and Caterham F1 are not the first victims of Ecclestone’s politics and this is probably going to be the end of their path in the pinnacle of motorsport. The organisers might think they can make it without them. But in reality, Formula 1 can only build a sustainable future if it manages to reach new target groups.
While working for premium car brands I learned that it’s not so much about the product you sell, it’s about the dream you inspire. And I believe similar is true for motor racing and a sport that has inspired the dreams of many generations to date. But I am unsure of how a monolithic structure failing to support a variety of teams on the grid can inspire dreams when the future colours all three places on the podium identically? Will the world be divided into Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes fans waving blue, red and grey? Call me an idealist but I think Formula 1 fans expect more than that.
Formula 1, just like football and many other sports, has the potential to inspire the hopes and dreams of a lot of young people. And it is not just the stories of winners that inspire us. But also and especially the stories of all those who have the strength and courage to make huge sacrifices in order to contribute to something that they believe in, willingly accepting struggle and risk in the pursuit of success even when there is not much hope for victory. Caterham F1 and Marussia might be broke, but their people are still wealthier than the rest because they have not stopped believing and at the heart of all their efforts, they always managed to keep the dream alive. This is what racing is about.