More signs that manufacturers are starting to favour specification racing

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Audi is drastically cutting back its sports car programme

While Honda joins Audi and Seat in scaling back its motor racing programmes for 2009, Porsche is doing the opposite.

But the German premium marque isn’t joining rivals BMW and Mercedes in Formula 1 – it’s chosen the American Grand-Am sports car championship. What, if anything, does this tell us about F1’s appeal to car manufacturers?

Innovation versus specification

The differences between Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series – both American-based sports car championships – were explained by Gary Watkins in an article for MotorSport in March:

In the ALMS, the cars are the stars. High-technology is the name of the game in a series where prototype classes, LMP1 and LMP2, are dominated by factory teams fielded by major car manufacturers…[ALMS boss Scott] Atherton describes Grand-Am as ‘NASCAR goes road racing’. In fact, a series that was started by the NASCAR-owning France family has blazed a trail now followed in other parts of its empire. Its Daytona Prototype, introduced in 2003, could be regarded as a forerunner to NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow concept. Strict rules, both in terms of dimensions and materials, mean that the bodywork of any DP should fit, more or less, onto the chassis of any rival.

It’s clear how this relates to the debate over the future F1 technical rules. Should Formula 1 be a no-cost-spared technological free-for-all closer to the ALMS philosophy, or must it impose ever tighter restrictions on innovation to keep costs down?

F1’s choice

Could F1 turn into another DTM, with just two manufacturers involved?

In the wake of Honda’s withdrawal from F1 this discussion is centred around which philosophy will keep the manufacturers in the sport. Some manufacturers demand freedom in the regulations to spend what they want – like Ferrari and Toyota who threatened to quit F1 over Max Mosley’s desire to introduced standard engines. The problem is, Honda was another one of those manufacturers who demanded they be allowed to build their own engines – and they ended up pricing themselves out of the game.

Now it seems some manufacturers are changing their minds about how free a technological contest F1 should be. Mercedes’ Norbert Haug argued that KERS should be abandoned to save money. Autosport claims Renault is prepared to support fixed-specification standard engines. (Though one might argue this is just a matter of expedience because their RS28 has fallen behind in the power stakes).

F1 needs to decide two things: first, what it wants to be; second, which of these competiting philosophies of motor sport it should adopt to achieve its aims.

If it wants to be the pinnacle of motor racing technology it can be. But it will probably have to accept a scenario where only a small number of the richest manufacturers stay in and the independent teams go to the wall. The rest of the grid would be filled by B- and C-grade outfits running older versions of the manufacturers’ chassis and engines and the drivers from their development programme. This situation, similar in concept to McLaren’s arrangement with Force India, could see F1 ending up like the DTM with as few as two manufacturer teams.

It it wants to be the premiere international motor racing championship for car manufacturers it can be. But it will have to savagely slash costs and take the risk of the likes of Ferrari and Toyota quitting on principle. It will have to hope that more manufacturers are attracted to competing by the vastly reduced budgets.

Max Mosley’s increasingly vocal demands for cost cutting suggests he believes in the latter option. He said last week:

I think there are at least two manufacturers who would have been in F1 some time ago were it not for the outrageous costs.

What do the manufacturers really want?

Porsche has had a supporting presence in F1 for many years through its Porsche Pirelli Supercup races. But it hasn’t competed in a Grand Prix Michele Alboreto qualified a Footwork-Porsche in last place at Monaco in 1991.

While it moves into Grand-Am, Audi is doing the opposite in the LMS and ALMS. It won the Le Mans 24 Hours last year along with the (European) Le Mans Series and the American Le Mans Series. So what is it doing for 2009? Cutting its LMS and ALMS programmes – it will only appear at the Sebring 12 Hours and Le Mans 24 Hours.

Are manufacturers increasingly favouring fixed-specification motor racing? Is this just an American phenomenon? And which philosophy should F1 adopt in the future? Have your say in the comments.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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17 comments on “More signs that manufacturers are starting to favour specification racing”

  1. Sgt. Basecamper
    10th December 2008, 8:07

    I think Porsche is doing this to target a specific market. Remember, F1 has just abandoned North America but it is still an important market. So it is probably well placed money.

  2. Indianapolis Star sportswriter Curt Cavin just said that Indy Cars was trying to convince manufacturers to have common engine platforms across different leagues.

    I think it makes a lot of sense to have one common engine platform across F-1, Indy car and sports cars, and it’s what the IRL has been pushing for in its meetings with the manufacturers. Imagination the savings and the cross-division participation of those companies.

    It really is a radical idea, and I had no idea that the IRL was trying to do something like this. I don’t think I like it, but it is an intriguing concept.

  3. Don’t forget that both Audi and SEAT are owned by granny VW Group, who will be shaking in her boots at the lack of car sales in a similar way to Honda. And I’ve just remembered that Porsche own a large stake of VW now, so maybe the rise of one and the fall of the other are related?
    Porsche certainly will be looking to increase its profile in America, whereas both Audi and SEAT have already won everything they have entered. What about Lamborgini and Bentley? They will be for the chop too, I am sure.
    I have always seen ALMS as a way to get the Le Mans Prototypes more track time and in front of the fans before the big race – certainly Peugeot use the ALMS races for testing purposes, so other teams must do it as well.

  4. Am I right in thinking that in the 70’s most teams went racing with a March chassis and a Cosworth engine? It’s not like F1 hasn’t been there before to some degree.

  5. Rob – The Cosworth DFV and Hewland gearboxes were almost universal in the 1970s (mainly because they were so much better than anything else on offer at the time) but March chassis much less so.

    March aimed to become a supplier of customer chassis for virtually all single seater formulas – F1, F2, F3, FAtlantic, etc. It did offer off the shelf cars but they never made up anything like the majority of the GP grid. Although they were sometimes quite reasonable little cars and won a few GPs, they were rarely a significantly better for the “garagistes” than building their own. Other models were downright awful.

    But even with a virtually standard engine in the DFV the 1970s was nothing like a spec series. In fact it was one of the most diverse periods in F1 history, with cars of all shapes and sizes, some utterly beautiful like the Lotus 79 and others rather less so…

  6. Unfortunately, the current economic slump asks teams to favor cost cutting and thus the specification racing! But, it certainly is not a good sign for technical fans of F1. Of course, it can still be the best of the specification series… but, just as good as a running race, with the drivers in place of athletes and their cars replacing the athletes’ boots :)

  7. well back as far as the late 60’s to maybe even the early 90’s u could buy a customer Cosworth engine and be competitve!
    here in OZ the V8 Supercars series is 2 makes and the racing doesnt suffer!
    sadly i feel that F1 as we knew it is no longer sustainable in this current financial climate!
    the Manufactorers may not like/want the idea of spec parts but it could well be the only way they can stay afloat in F1?

  8. It’s worthy to point out that the Grand-Am series is as visible or more in US as ALMS and much cheaper.

  9. The main four issues seem to be these.
    Marketing (for manufacturers/sales and marketers (sponsors))
    Fun (the drivers/fans)
    Costs (affect manufacturers)
    Technology development (manufacturers again) (and to a lesser degreefans)
    Finally, the Thrill of competition (fans, drivers, manufacturers)

    Since the manufacturers show up so much (shouldering most of the burden) why not let them participate in the discussion for rules (Bernie and Max I’m looking at you).

    Places they can willingly spend are areas that benefit their bottom line. By spending on technology (focused in products that they can actually bring to market and sell) manufacturers in many formulas would/should be more than willing to develop vehicles and systems to improve the racing experience at all levels of racing.

    1 spec motor isn’t helping any of those sharing the load to earn more and subsidize more racing. Let them compete in specs that help them develop engineering talent, new technologies, and spend wisely (both in natural resources and dollars)

    There are ways to make F1/Lemans, and all the way down to karting fun (note the word fun please) that still benefit manufacturers.

    You want to maintain a 2.0 liter multicylinder formula,, fine,, then you get a tank that’s 10 gallons, but you can do whatever you want to develop additional technologies to conserve fuel, because there will be no refueling, you want to eliminate tire changes, fine, you get only 1 tire per race, but then tire development is unlimited, you want to see some innovation, break out some innovative rules. We can all benefit from improving vehicular technology in many different ways, the manufacturers shouldn’t simply be burdened for the sake of racing, give them rules that they can improve their situation with,,, rather than bailing out a system that fails to give itself a way to get out of it’s own way.

  10. But it will have to savagely slash costs and take the risk of the likes of Ferrari and Toyota quitting on principle. It will have to hope that more manufacturers are attracted to competing by the vastly reduced budgets.

    F1 without Ferrari is not F1, no matter who is brought in to replace them.

    I agree that there needs to be a reduction in costs and that various parts of the car could be standardised without taking anything away from the sport but there are limits.

    Making it more relevant to production technology would make R&D far more attractive to manufacturers & would also mean that being in F1 would have some direct benefit to the core business.

    We can all benefit from improving vehicular technology in many different ways, the manufacturers shouldn’t simply be burdened for the sake of racing, give them rules that they can improve their situation with

    Spot on Fred.

  11. This is a really frustrating time to be a motorsports fan. The innovation in F1 and many sportscar series adds another dimension and makes the marque at least as meaningful as the driver. Now that my favorite team has left F1 due to costs obviously I support something being done.

    My question is why must cost cutting be undertaken by complicated technical regulations? Why can’t the FIA and FOTA just agree to a spending cap and beyond safety regulations just let them innovate on a budget? Maybe I haven’t thought this through or have ignored important political angles but it seems better than having regulations that increasingly make F1 like Indycar.

  12. DC – Actually I wrote an article about F1 and other series sharing the same engines in June: Engine rules and the F1 monopoly
    John –

    Why can’t the FIA and FOTA just agree to a spending cap

    The same point just came up on another article. I don’t believe a budget cap could be enforced.

  13. Should Formula 1 be a no-cost-spared technological free-for-all closer to the ALMS philosophy, or must it impose ever tighter restrictions on innovation to keep costs down?

    I’m not sure tightening restrictions will keep the costs down. F1 has been doing that for years, banning everything innovative. It didnt keep the costs down, did it?

  14. HounslowBusGarage
    11th December 2008, 9:28

    Dead right, Mahir.
    The tighter the FIA write the rules, the more effort (and money) the designers will put into getting around them.
    It’s what they’re for.

  15. michael counsell
    11th December 2008, 17:45

    We need smaller teams to join using Cosworths, Mugens or Mecachromes. 1999 wasn’t that long ago you know…

    The only 4 manufacturers officially involved were Ferrari, Mercedes (McLaren), Ford (Stewart) and Peugoet (Prost). Of these only two still is stilll in F1.

    Meanwhile Williams, Benneton and BAR use Supertecs, Sauber used an old spec Ferrari engine, Arrows used their own engiens after buying Hart, while Minardi used old spec Cosworths.

  16. Weren’t both the Supertec and Mecachromes rebadged Renault engines?

  17. DC, it looks like Porsche is throwing their weight behind a common engine spec across all leagues:

    This might take me a while to get used to, but I agree, it really is a radical idea.

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