Call it the credit crunch, call it the sub-prime crisis, whatever you call it, I call it trouble.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the consequences of the developing global economic downturn will be for Formula 1. But it’s hard to imagine them being good.
And to the pessimists it could look very bad indeed.
The car manufacturers
When I first began following Formula 1 in 1989 the only manufacturer-run team in the sport was Ferrari. Renault and Honda were both present as engine suppliers.
Today the car manufacturers account for six of the ten teams and supply all the engines. And much of that transformation has happened since the turn of the millennium. Consider when the each of the various manufacturer teams arrived in F1 in their current guises:
*As engine supplier to McLaren
The popularity of Formula 1 among the world’s car makers is undoubtedly part of the sport’s attraction. But however vast their budgets are, they are subject to the same financial forces as the rest of us.
The impact of the financial down turn on the car manufacturers is starting to become clear. Toyota, which has been gradually edging ahead of General Motors to become the world’s largest car manufacturer, revealed last week its profits in the first three months of the year were 28% down – substantially below expectations.
Only last winter we were hearing rumours that Toyota would can its F1 project if solid results didn’t materialise. All the manufacturers are in F1 to succeed – and they can’t all win the world championship. And, in the form of Max Mosley’s well-documented indiscretions, they all have the perfect excuse to leave.
Whatever slick and glossy marketing spin they use to market their involvement in Formula 1, let’s be clear about one thing: for them F1 only has value as a marketing exercise. Williams Grand Prix Engineering Limited are not using F1 to sell cars, they’re only in it purely to win it. Apart from Ferrari, who’ve been there since the start, you can’t say the same of the other manufacturers.
If F1 ceases to make sense financially, the manufacturers will simply up and leave. Renault did it in 1985 as a constructor and again in 1997 as an engine supplier. BMW did it in 1987 as an engine builder as did Honda in 1992. Others have left the sport and not returned, such as Ford and Peugeot, who currently feel other forms of motor sport (rallying and sports car racing respectively) fit their marketing needs better.
One might argue "yes, but most of them returned, which proves the enduring appeal of Formula 1." That may well be the case – but if several of them were to abandon F1 at short notice, where will all the cars come from in the meantime?
On leaving the manufacturers couldn’t sell their old chassis to GP2 teams to run in F1, because that’s not allowed. And besides which they may not wish to leave their intellectual property lying around for others to grab – when Opel left the DTM in 2005 it refused to let anyone use its old cars for exactly that reason.
In the 1990s F1 had independent constructors and engine builders to fall back on. Today they are increasingly marginalised in Formula 1 – no independent constructor has won an F1 race in four years, since Juan Palo Montoya’s last hurrah for Williams at Interlagos.
One manufacturer leaving could prompt others to do the same. If Toyota left would their fierce Japanese rivals Honda stay long? What about BMW without rival premium car builder Mercedes?
The loss of Super Aguri has left F1 with just 10 teams and 20 cars. This is believed to be the minimum number of entrants Ecclestone is required to bring to Grands Prix. If it fell below that, he may require two teams to each bring a third car.
And if that responsibility fell to regular points-scorers like Ferrari and McLaren the likes of Renault and Toyota could face the prospect of not scoring any points for the rest of the season while their rivals lock-out entire podiums. How well would that go down in their board meetings?
A recovery in the markets would not necessarily improve the situation in Formula 1 overnight.
As Ron Dennis has pointed out, because the most valuable F1 contracts tend to be long-term deals, sponsors and the like may be forced to remain in F1 as the economic going gets tough, and already be long gone as the wider economy begins to recover.
The engine freeze regulations might add another unwelcome complication for manufacturers returning to the series or new ones joining. Engine development is presently banned for F1 teams. But if a new team were to join they could spend as long as they liked covertly developing a 2.4-litre 19,000 rpm V8 and hand themselves a whopping advantage when they do join in. Which would not go down well with their rivals…
Admittedly this is a deliberately pessimistic outlook on the future. But I do think the sport is vulnerable as the economic forecasts continue to worsen.
More on car manufacturers in F1