Start, Silverstone, 1990

Where have all the single-seater race car builders gone?

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Back in 1990 David Hodges, a prolific author with numerous motoring titles to his name, published the A-Z of Formula Racing Cars 1945-1990. The dates are telling for the last decade of the last century saw the decimation of a once-flourishing single-seater race car industry on both sides of the Atlantic, plus various off-shoots in other regions.

The book lists almost 1,000 different chassis makes. Not all makes were successful – commercially or on-track. And not all were proprietary brands, with some being home-made one-offs, usually named after their intrepid builders or wives or daughters thereof.

Some of their names were simply amalgams of various initials, while some Germanic contraptions were listed as ‘Eigenbau’, meaning ‘self-built’.

A handful of the constructors passed into history: BRM, Cooper, Brabham, Lola, Lotus, March and Matra. Others – like Eifelland, Maki or Politoys – are largely forgotten, despite having competed at the highest level.

The book lists not only F1 makes, but constructors who participated in other single-seater series, wherever. If just 30 per cent were genuine contenders in their various categories, that still makes for 300 over the years in various categories. An appendix details the international categories they contested – seven ‘Formulas’: 1, 2, 3, 3000, 5000, Junior and Intercontinental – and CART/IndyCar adding an eighth.

Many started as self-build projects and, as they scored successes on-track, so orders for replicas flowed in. Colin Chapman (Lotus), Eric Broadley (Lola) and the father-son team of Charles and John Cooper started thus, as did Peter Sauber in Switzerland and many others. As their businesses grew, so did their ambitions, and eventually they reached F1.

But such career paths are now all fundamentally closed to budding team owners.

Fast forward thirty years, and the number of proprietary chassis manufacturers can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Dallara, Mygale, Tatuus, Dome and Crawford. Add to that the 10 F1 constructors and in 30 years the 300 has dwindled to 15, with most disappearing during the nineties.

IndyCar, Sonoma, 2006
Sonoma 2006: IndyCar’s last race with multiple chassis makes
Tellingly there are, though, still around eight international categories: F1, F2, IndyCar, Super Formula, various F3 iterations and numerous F4 series – all of which points to big business for three proprietary chassis manufacturers.

The largest is Dallara, which produces up to 150 single-seater chassis per year. By some estimates every weekend some 300 Dallara chassis compete somewhere across world. The company employs 750 heads at its factory outside Parma, its newest recruit being former Mercedes designer Aldo Costa. Dallara holds about 50 per cent of the customer race car market, with the balance spread across four main competitors, who mostly produce lower-end feeder-series cars.

Dallara virtually has the top end – F2, F3 and IndyCar, plus sports cars – to itself, producing cars or kits in Italy, USA and Japan. It is, though, a cyclical market, depending on the maturity of various categories, being crucially dependent upon contracts to supply single specification chassis for the FIA’s various single-seater categories.

Gain a tender and production flows, then slows as teams no longer update each year due to the nature of the beast.

All this has, though, impacted massively on the current state of Formula 1, for junior teams are no longer engineering operations but assemblers of proprietary kit. True, race craft is still involved, but the days of honing race cars to pitch perfection are over, for F2 and F3 regulations now demand that teams run what is supplied. Substitute something as mundane as a washer for a non-proprietary item, even one of the same dimensions, and a costly exclusion follows.

Adrian Newey, Monza, Red Bull, 2019
Newey arrived in F1 via IndyCar with March
Equally, renowned F1 engineers such as Gordon Murray, Rory Byrne, John Barnard and Adrian Newey came up through the ranks to F1 via feeder (or other) categories, while current F1 boss Ross Brawn began his career as a milling machine operator before joining the March F3 team as mechanic and F1 Technical Director Pat Symonds learned the ropes at Royale, designing Formula Fords and suchlike.

Such formative experiences are now closed to budding race car designers. It’s little wonder that few real ‘name’ designers have emerged over the last decade or two. Indeed, Rory Byrne still provides input to Ferrari despite having officially retired over a decade ago, while Newey delivers the class of the grid almost 30 years after formulating his ground-breaking Williams FW14B.

True, today’s budding F1 engineers could join a Dallara or Dome, but their customer chassis are built to price not performance and lack cutting-edge technologies, for the overriding criterion in their design is that drivers have equal kit. Testing is no longer the development exercise it once was for engineers, but a driving test.

That is not to denigrate engineers in such operations, for producing a car to a price is as challenging as delivering peak performance – the skill sets are merely channelled in different directions – but should the engineer ever make it to F1, the priorities are suddenly up-ended.

Equally, youngsters could join an F1 team, but so specialised are design activities now that they could spend year-in, year-out perfecting a single aspect of a car rather than designing a total car.

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As Jody Scheckter related in his exclusive interview published here last week, in 1977 start-up Wolf had a total staff complement of 20 to design, develop, build and race its WR01, yet the team won its first race; today, outfits such as Mercedes and Ferrari employ over 400 engineers on design alone.

Recently I spoke to a design engineer who left F1 to work for a customer chassis operation, and he soon became disillusioned and returned to F1, for he dearly missed the intense challenge of technical competition.

Start, Red Bull Ring, 2019
F1 had 19 teams in 1990, but just 10 today
“Not only that, but in the year I was away I lost touch with the latest developments,” he explained, “and I realised I had become professionally stagnant. The longer I stayed away, the more I stood to lose in the long run,” adding that the advances in composite technologies during his gap year were “simply staggering.”

Equally, current F2 teams have no need to visit wind tunnels or simulators, let alone rent or acquire them, as was once the case. Nor do they need to accumulate banks of CNC machines or clean room equipment and composite ovens for manufacturing purposes, for their race shops are just that – preparation bays, with most assembly work undertaken at the circuit.

Thus, the leap to F1 is of quantum proportions, facilities-wise and financially, and that is even before manpower is factored into the equation. When Eddie Jordan made the move his gearbox technician Andy Stevenson went along for the journey. Almost three decades and four changes of team name later, Stevenson is sporting director at Racing Point.

The last GP2 outfit to attempt the move – under subsequently-aborted plans for a $40m budget cap regulation, at that – was Campos, which collapsed in a pile of difficulties even before reaching the F1 grid. Once bailed out by wealthy investors it lasted all of three years (as HRT) without scoring a point.

Even the smallest F1 teams may employ more engineers than all the F2 teams combined. This is a worry for the future for, with doors increasingly closing to junior race engineers, the sport may find a dearth of them in future. Formula E, too, relies on specification chassis, and while the challenge is on for electrical boffins, the chassis side is all but closed to development. Again, Dallara has that contract.

It is hardly coincidental that specification chassis began flourishing at the start of the ‘commercial rights era’ – no sooner had Bernie Ecclestone and his merry co-team owners wrestled commercial control of F1 away from the FIA during the early eighties, than they devised F3000 as an outlet for their unused Cosworth 3.0 DFVs, made redundant by the switch to turbo engines.

As time progressed, so the commercial rights holder grasped the revenue opportunities presented by a monopoly on specification series cars, with the aftermarket proving even more lucrative. Not even those washers are free…

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Originally, chassis and tyres were open to competition. March, AGS, Reynard, Lola, Dome and Footwork all competed to greater or lesser extent and, saliently, all had F1 projects at some stage. Team owners Pacific and Jordan both entered F1 in their own rights.

Stewart provides another example of a team incrementally moving up the ladder: between 1988 and 1996 the team raced in junior categories including F3 and F3000, winning 12 titles and 119 races. In the process the team run by Sir Jackie and son Paul acquired the necessary infrastructure and expertise for an F1 entry in 1997, landing on the podium within five races and scoring a grand prix win in 1999. The team is now Red Bull Racing, so we can hardly fault the quality of the foundations they built.

Rubens Barrichello, David Coulthard, Formula 3000, Spa, 1992
F3000 was open to different chassis until the mid-nineties…
However just over a decade after F3000’s 1985 inception the category switched to regulation Lola chassis. Not one of the subsequent six championship-winning teams making the switch to F1. Not so coincidentally Ecclestone was negotiating F1’s commercial rights for his own account, and F3000 joined the support race bill.

West Competition – champions in 1999, and operated by McLaren – was obviously a feeder category for the big time, while Christian Horner cut his team boss teeth with Arden before moving to Red Bull Racing, as did RSM owner Helmut Marko.

In 2005 the series transformed into GP2 – with even more stringent standardisation – and was eventually acquired by F1’s commercial rights holder, where it resides today.

More recently Frédéric Vasseur, owner of ART – which won the 2005/06 GP2 title – moved up to F1 with Renault before transferring to Sauber, while former Lotus/McLaren racing boss Eric Boullier headed to F1 from DAMS in GP2. Crucially, though, their respective junior teams did not follow them.

F1 therefore faces a dual conundrum: A lack of incoming junior teams either to expand its thin grid or fill any breach created by teams which may depart; and limited opportunities in the junior categories for budding engineers. How to solve this?

During a recent visit to Lamborghini, where I was hosted by CEO Stefano Domenicali (ex-Ferrari team principal), I put the question to the personable and highly capable Italian, who doubles as president of the FIA’s Single-seater Commission.

While being acutely aware of the challenge, he believes F1’s pending budget cap regulations could provide the solution by freeing up cash, human resources and facilities which would otherwise be lost to the sport. These could then be invested in junior categories, where talents could be grown.

Start, GP2, Imola, 2005
…successor GP2, now F2, has always used Dallaras
“I think that now with the new constraint, the new situation, we can address that in the other way around, so moving from the top down,” he explained.

“I believe that with the idea of having this budget cap approach we can now have resources that a [F1] team can dedicate to a smaller series, the possibly for [junior] drivers to be followed, for mechanics to be trained, for management to be trained, and engineers to be trained.

“So, I can see that as a potential [method] to keep the ladder and to integrate the whole system by turning the current system upside down.”

Still, ‘turning the system upside down’ would not solve the fundamental issue of attracting incoming F1 teams, for the team owners would be moving down-stream, not up the ladder, as did Stewart and Jordan and others.

So, while Domenicali’s concept certainly addresses some of the short comings of the current system, it is of little consolation to the Colin Chapmans and Gordon Murrays of the future, who would still find their creativity stifled by specification series. Ironically, for an antidote they would need to turn to the bottom rung of single-seater racing, namely Formula Student…

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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  • 35 comments on “Where have all the single-seater race car builders gone?”

    1. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
      18th September 2019, 12:45

      I’ve always been an advocate for feeder series being spec series as this helps in finding the best drivers to progress.

      I guess this is the downside.

    2. Once again, an interesting and thought-provoking column @dieterrencken, great read.

      Now that these car-builders are largely gone, their expertise and structures lost, there is no easy way to get them back, even if there were to open up an opportunity/market for them somewhere.

      I suppose that if we’d start with Domenicali’s plan, that in turn might lead to a non-spec feeder series showing up, which might grab headlines and interest sufficient that the teams that are in it, with time, might acquire the breadth needed to start looking at the now (well, then) franchised F1, and contemplate the move. But that is all quite long term.

      1. @bosyber, the problem is, even before those series did make a formal switch to becoming single chassis suppliers, quite a few of those series were virtually a single make championship anyway due to a single manufacturer coming to dominate that championship.

        In the case of Formula 3000, which Dieter cites, the manufacturer Reynard came to dominate that series so effectively that they were virtually the only supplier – indeed, in 1993 they were the only chassis supplier to the series, even though it was officially still an open series, because it was almost impossible to compete with them.

        Formula 3 is similar, in the sense that most series never mandated the use of a chassis by Dallara – it was just the case that, over time, Dallara simply outcompeted everybody to the point where most other chassis manufacturers were eventually driven out as they could not compete with Dallara.

        Artline Engineering did actually design and enter their own Formula 3 car in the 2015 European Formula 3 championship, which demonstrates it is technically feasible to do just that – the problem was that the car was uncompetitive and the team abandoned their efforts after the single round it took part in.

        In many ways, you have exactly the same problem in those junior series – how do you stop a single manufacturer from dominating the series and turning it into a single make series by default?

        1. I guess my question would be “why” did those series end up being dominated by a single manufacturer?
          Was it because that manufacturer invested the most in producing the best product, or were regulations changed/framed to make it almost impossible for competitors to challenge their superiority.
          If it was the former, then its the competotor’s issue for not investing/producing the goods. If its the latter then it once again strengthens the argument that too much regulation is stifling the development of competitive cars.

    3. This just might be the best article you’ve written in a long time @RacingLines!

      1. @gpfacts Seconded! a great read.

    4. An interesting and well written article. I was really surprised by the F1 engineer who felt that his knowledge had stagnated after one year away. I wonder if with the proposed cost cap, knowledge will begin to be lost as certain aspects of car building become standardized or simply no longer subject to technological advancement.

    5. The lack of diversity in chassis is a disaster for the quality of the drivers. All the drivers today are used to Dallara and when they move to f1, they have zero idea on how develop a new chassis.

    6. Once again, we are afraid to say what the real problem is: Motorsports stupid obsession with environmentalism and “efficiency” is driving up costs which lead to spec-series and thus fewer chassis builders.

      1. That is the definition of a straw man argument right there ,@nige

    7. Thus, the leap to F1 is of quantum proportions, facilities-wise and financially

      This is part of my argument for an “F1B”.

      Currently, there are several routes into F1 for drivers. There are no feeders, though, for constructors.

      I would set up an F1B running alongside F1. They would take part in the same “races” as F1, but in their own championships (probably starting behind the F1 cars on the grid). The rules would be modified from F1, possibly using some spec components, and with rules designed to make it cheaper and simpler to take part. Possibly, partnerships with existing teams could be allowed. I’d also consider implementing a promotion/demotion situation for the top F1B and bottom F1 teams similar to football leagues, although this would need careful planning and may not be practical.

      This would have many positives:
      – New constructors would be able to hone their skills, taking part in most of the activities an F1 team needs, but at lower cost and complexity
      – There would be more cars on the track for the F1 audience to see (we could have 30+ cars on track again)
      – There would be more seats available for drivers, so more new talent could be recognised
      – There could be space for privateers in F1 again

    8. I think spec chassis does good job of bringing down the overall costs. One chassis will mean the sole chassis developer can make the chassis more cheaply which in theory should make it cheaper for almost everyone to participate in the series. But at the same time I think it does increase the costs at the back of the grid when you can no longer do f3 or f2 cheaply with old cars and engines and tires. You need the one chassis and the official spares to be able to take part. So while on the sharp end of the grid costs come down at the back end of the grid you are getting rid of the really small teams whose business plans is essentially eliminated by the introduction of spec chassis.

      1. Just wanted to add that the car design itself has made it a lot harder for really small teams to punch above their weight. Just the carbon fiber construction alone means that you can not effectively build your own tubeframe chassis car in a shed. Combined with modern safety requirements many way cheap (you could say dangerous) ways to enter various championships have been eliminated. In other sports like lower level tintop racing and rallying this is still very much possible though.

        1. I think it does increase the costs at the back of the grid when you can no longer do f3 or f2 cheaply with old cars and engines and tires

          .

          Just the carbon fiber construction alone means that you can not effectively build your own tubeframe chassis car in a shed. Combined with modern safety requirements many way cheap (you could say dangerous) ways to enter various championships have been eliminated.

          Very nice points there, @socksolid

        2. Just the carbon fiber construction alone means that you can not effectively build your own tubeframe chassis car in a shed.

          You can actually build composite parts in a shed just as easily as you can build a steel tube frame in a shed – it just takes expertise and a bit of money.

          1. @robinsonf1, and that is what happened back in the 1980s with the likes of Toleman and ATS, privateers who were able to build their own carbon fibre chassis with pretty modest production facilities.

    9. The move towards most non-F1 single seater categories becoming spec over the last 20ish years is something that i’m not really a fan of, Especially with Indycar.

      I’ve been watching a lot of older CART stuff recently (They usually put a classic race on Youtube each Thursday which i’ve compiled into a Youtube playlist since they don’t themselves) & seeing so many different looking cars from different chassis manufacturer’s with teams having more freedom in other areas was so much more interesting & exciting than having upto 33 identical looking cars as we’ve seen the last 10-15 years.

      Having Lola, Penske, Reynard, Eagle & Swift in the CART championship 20 years ago for instance with Mercedes, Ford, Honda & Toyota supplying engines & Good Year & Firestone in a tyre war with many other components of the car open to development made things so much more interesting from a technical level, Created a lot more variance, Made the series seem like a bigger deal than it is now & just looked more interesting with the different looking cars (The Reynard is still my favorite all time open wheel car).

      1. Recommendation, Go watch the 1995 Cleveland race. I remember watching that at the time, Fantastic race on a circuit that always produced good racing & which I would love to see return to Indycar.

        https://youtu.be/TXdl1t-ONqU

      2. There seems to be a popular idea that good racing results from putting the best drivers in identical – or near-identical – cars. This is reinforced by the huge disparities in overall performance that we see right now in the likes of F1. But, watching the Goodwood Revival at the weekend, I was reminded (as usual) that often the best racing results from pitting vastly different cars, with their own particular strengths and weaknesses, against each other. As long as they can produce roughly (and it really does only have to be roughly) the same laptimes, you’ll get hugely entertaining racing.

        Spec. series are great for discovering the best drivers, but we need to ask ourselves whether we want to watch racing drivers or motor races.

    10. As a lifelong Williams-o-phile I have to say the Politoys is gone but never forgotten and the Wolf WR01 was a Williams in a gaudy paintjob! :)

    11. This article is such a great read. Thank you!

    12. Capitalism is to blame, big name car manufacturers are an evil to motorsport. They are ruining motorsport competition, as most evident in F1. Money rules sadly, bloody capitalism.

      1. Pray tell me how a socialist motorsport system would work then.

        1. It wouldn’t work, but what does that have to do with kpcart’s statement? Sounds like a typical knee jerk reaction from someone that reads only headlines from Fox News or some such source. Having said that I don’t think there is any way back from the trend toward spec cars. Money and greed play too great a role in all of this and that won’t change. I was hoping FE would have had more open rules since speed is less and safety is not such a factor yet, but it really does come down to money in the end.

    13. I wonder if it would be difficult to maintain the current high level of safety measures if we still had so many small constructors in F1. Probably not an issue for Dallara, but all the crash testing and engineering behind that seems very intensive. People building race cars in garages or small companies don’t have as many resources.

      1. Given FIA’s role and expertise in automotive safety in motorsport and on the road, maybe they could offer a consultancy service on crash structures to teams that request it? i.e. so that you don’t find out your design is unsafe when you go to homologate a chassis at the start of a season, but earlier.

        Alternatively, if they could make the safety cell (tub, halo, etc.) a standardized part, plus with the option of buying spec crash structures from suppliers (or even other teams), that might allow smaller teams to focus on the “race” parts of their race car.

    14. The lack creativity in engineering is a phenomena that is prevalent in general industry as well. In my 14 year career as an engineer, I’ve seen how big corporation have changed their approach. The benefit of starting your career in the mid 2000s was that a lot of the senior engineers who mentored you were from the 80s, who did things very efficiently, applied basic principles, creatively solved issues, as they weren’t necessarily bogged down by corporate bureaucracy. Even when I transitioned into a more senior position in the late 2000s, we were allowed quite a lot of freedom. That didn’t last long though.

      I now work for an engineering consultancy. What I can see is that Engineers in big corporations don’t engineer anything anymore (in fact you’re aren’t even allowed to!), all they are required to do is go to meetings and manage things. Consultants such as myself pick up a lot of the slack, and we generally just rely on OEMs, who aren’t very sharp these days either. So its all very sterile. Problems that could be solved in matter of hours drag on for days and months, in some cases years!

      I’m totally disillusioned. The enthusiasm I once had, when I was actively developing solutions to problems, and developing concepts and designs have long gone. Now I write documents that read like legal documents so much so that when my wife happened to come across one. she actually thought it was written by a lawyer….sad.

      1. Sums it up pretty well @jaymenon10. From the late 80’s onwards everything is cost driven, or more to the point accountant driven, leading to some curious and incredibly inefficient practices that look good on the corporate books but deliver average product.
        Give it another 10, or possibly less if the cost of implementation drops dramatically, and most of these sorts of roles will be handed over to AI driven machines that will turn out ordinary non spectacular designs based on an algorithm that allows no creativity at all.
        F1 and a few similar industries may be the last bastions of genuine skilled creativity but the ratio of jobs in them to total engineers will be incredibly low. Even F1 with its “standard parts” is chipping away at the values of the engineering roles.

        Gotta love writing up documentation though :)

        1. @dbradock

          I’m writing a proposal right now, to tell people what they already know….with costs of course.

    15. Competition is a key element to reduce costs. It’s very expensive to race even in F4, where both chassis and engines are very simple without any new technology.

    16. On this topic, I think Extreme-E: Veloce Racing, spearheaded by Newey and Vergne latest team entry a team which is related to the big Veloce Esports team/group, might be an interesting development.

      Okay, Extreme-E is still for a large part spec. sport, but this team had a different route to get there – at least the money has a clear background, not quite related to traditional motorsports, and the organisation is well established. It got there through the solid relation Formula E tried to build with sim racing via the pre-real-world-race sim-race event with a mixed grid of Formula-E pros and drivers from the public.

      It doesn’t give a complete answer to where the engineering staff might get experience, but it seems like it could be a part of an answer, I think.

    17. They will standardize F1 so much that eventually F2 teams will be able to move up.

    18. Formula Student is actually quite advanced. Composite tubs, aero development, vehicle dynamics – it’s all there. A few years in formula student is extremely educational.

      1. Texas Auto Spirts in Cresson, Texas is Launching a new single seat feeder series car, the Formula Mazda, this Fall I believe. A tube frame car loosely based on the very successful previous version, it looks to be an inexpensive and very low maintenance chassis and driveline. I believe it is the engine from the Mazda 3 series with a sequential gearbox. It’s been interesting watching them during the process. The previous version of the car has been very successful over the last 30 years so I’d expect the same from this car. Love of the sport.

    19. Thank you for such a great article. I question if the decreased number of single-seater race car builders is truly a problem, though. I believe it was Donald Norman in his book “The Design of Everyday Things” who suggested that the narrowing of options and varied solutions (in this case, the number of manufacturers) is an indication of a maturing sector or industry. The ones that are left are the ones who can do so to the level the market demands.

      I do, however, whole-heartedly agree with the concern for the impact this has on the quality of designers reaching Formula 1. I would like to know what people think of this potential solution: Open F2 regulations to not be a single-spec series, but put a significant budget cap in place. Then, keep F1 without a budget cap. While this might not be a perfect solve for all the ills in Formula 1, it would create a generation of car designers who are capable of creating new and varied solutions under tight budget restraints. Once they start to filter up to F1, then we could see a different approach to designing F1 cars and running teams.

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