The DTM’s dilemma has a lesson for F1: Beware customer cars

2020 F1 season

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Whenever the need to cut costs in Formula 1 has been raised, the possibility of reintroducing customer cars has invariably been floated by someone.

Sure enough, in recent weeks Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has restated his support for the proposal, and his Ferrari counterpart Mattia Binotto has also spoken in favour of them.

Introducing customer cars would be a drastic change for F1. Today’s rules require teams to build the majority of their cars, although some parts, such as power units, gearboxes and some other components, may be sourced from suppliers including rival teams.

But the manner in which some teams have exploited these rules to the limit show there is a clear business case for them to minimise development by purchasing parts where possible. Allowing ‘customer cars’ would take the concept a significant step further and permit teams to buy entire chassis, as they were once allowed to do.

There is undoubtedly a compelling logic to the idea. Permitting teams to use chassis purchased from other teams would create an opportunity for them to participate without burning through hundreds of millions of pounds per year.

Mattia Binotto, Ferrari, Circuit de Catalunya, 2020
Ferrari have proposed legalising customer cars
But it is an idea some smaller teams fiercely resist. They want to be part of an engineering competition and know they would be vulnerable to being beaten by rivals spending much less money to buy, for example, ex-Mercedes/Red Bull/Ferrari chassis.

This isn’t necessarily a matter of fearing healthy competition. Customer cars would represent an existential threat to teams which build their own cars.

Should F1 consider the idea anyway? Instead of having 10 teams building their own cars (largely), would it be better off with a handful of manufacturer teams each supplying a number of customer off-shoots?

The plight of Germany’s foremost touring car championship, the DTM, suggests not.

The series was in spectacular health until comparatively recently. BMW’s arrival in the championship eight years ago completed the trio of premium German car manufacturers along with Audi and Mercedes. The DTM had little difficulty packing grids with top-flight talents including ex- and future F1 drivers.

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What the DTM lacked, and still does, is independent teams running their own cars. This vulnerability was exposed when Mercedes announced its departure from the championship at the end of 2018. Nonetheless, with Aston Martin arriving for 2019 grid sizes were, by and large, sustained.

This year the DTM has suffered a double blow. Aston Martin canned its programme in January after a single, uncompetitive season. Then on Monday Audi declared it would shelve its DTM squad at the end of the season.

That leaves BMW the last team standing. Out of 18 regular entries in 2019, four cars have gone this year and eight more will be lost next season. The championship is surely going to have to contemplate major changes to achieve respectable grid numbers in 2021.

The lesson here for F1 should be obvious. Manufacturer teams may spend big, but they can leave in a hurry. Any championship relying on them for all or most of its entry is taking a significant risk.

Allowing customer cars would expose F1 the same dilemma as the DTM. To an extent it already is. The introduction of sophisticated and expensive V6 hybrid turbo power units in 2014 spelled an end for independent engine builders in F1. Now the whole grid is dependent on just four engine manufacturers.

Risking the same scenario with chassis constructors, and failing to learn the clear lesson from the DTM’s experience, would be extremely unwise.

It says a lot that the team principal of one outfit which has pushed the current parts supply regulations to the limit – Haas – is not in favour of legalising customer cars. Speaking exclusively to RaceFans, Guenther Steiner also pointed out that some of the teams now publicly calling for customer cars previously opposed them, and questioned their motives.

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“The people who now say we should be doing it, at the time they were completely against it,” said Steiner. “So I do not understand that, really.

Kevin Magnussen, Gene Haas, Guenther Steiner, Romain Grosjean, Haas VF-20, 2020
Steiner is against the introduction of customer cars
“The only thing I really understand is that if you [have] customer cars that’s another way to control smaller teams. That is the issue there.

“Right now I don’t think F1 needs something drastic like customer cars because I think that we should be making it more competitive, not less.”

Steiner fears customer cars would jeopardise the economic model of the smaller teams. “Now we have got 10 teams, which are all somehow possible to survive, and they are all pretty good teams, I would say.

“So you should try to give the smaller teams a bigger chance to compete instead of giving them customer cars to be competitive. Even if it is cheap, it will still cost a lot of money, and people which invest in these F1 teams, either they run out of money – which happened before – or they run out of passion because they cannot compete.

“So, I think customer cars in the moment is not a best idea.”

What the DTM is going through now only makes Steiner’s assessment even more persuasive.

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Author information

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...
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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  • 20 comments on “The DTM’s dilemma has a lesson for F1: Beware customer cars”

    1. I’m trying to think back to the last customer cars I know of. The blue Benettons of 1995? A world championship winning customer car that did really nothing in the hands of anyone but Schumacher. I think customer cars are a good idea. If you want to build a car build one and if you want a kit car then do that. I don’t think another team other than one of the top three could take a Merc chassis and even win races let alone a championship. If Williams doesn’t like it then too bad. They have been garbage for 20 years or more now. Let them die or get a customer car.

      1. Joss (@racerjoss)
        1st May 2020, 9:04

        Not sure what you mean. Benetton in 1995 were an independant team who made their own car.
        They did have a customer engine if that’s what you mean, but in that case Brawn GP (09) and Red Bull (2010) were the last winners of the title.

        I guess what is being said here is – customer cars place even more reliance on the manufacturer teams, giving them huge leverage in future rulebook and over other their customer teams. They will pump a lot of money into their team and employ a lot of people, but will also ensure that there is a healthy gap from themselves and the rest.

        If that’s how it goes, let’s hope they are commited to the sport for the long term…

        1. Derek Edwards
          1st May 2020, 10:31

          @racerjoss The blue Benetton to which @darryn refers was the Ligier JS41…

      2. Last customer car was the STR5 I believe. Other teams that used cars made by someone else were Super Aguri using Honda’s car in 2006-2008, and the Arrows A23 in either 05 or 06. Minardi also tried to use the Arrows A23 as well.

        There are always rumors that the 04 Sauber was simply a 03 Ferrari of course.

    2. If you reduce costs, the incentive to go toward customer teams disappears. If the sport is easier to enter and cheaper to compete you will have teams in it regardless.

      I see little point for this other than to simplifiy business for Red Bull and their marketing department (I’m sure there are other Alpha Tauri like brands they could field if all it took was buying a couple of cars from Red Bull)

    3. One way to increase the competitiveness of the smaller teams would be to allow them more testing. Also perhaps it’s time to dump the hybrid engines as the manufacturers are not going to go much further with them anyway. Their is still a bit of life left in ICE power units as far as improving economy and reducing emissions and they are relatively cheap to design and produce.
      If the budget cap is reduced to something less than 100million on top of these ideas it may draw teams from some of the small super/hypercar manufactures.
      But one thing, F1 would have to back off on the strict development regs they currently have.

    4. I somewhat disagree with this. If a sufficient customer car programme or privateer support system in is place then a manufacturer shouldn’t have to completely withdraw all of it entrants if it decides to pull a work team out. For the DTM, if the independent teams are capable of running the cars off the back of their own finances, then all the manufacturers need to is make parts available as and when which would be a lot cheaper and enable them to still maintain a presence in whatever series they’re racing in.

      The BTCC for example has plenty of different manufacturers represented by teams that don’t have ‘works’ entries status.

      At this rate we’ll be seeing DTM, Super GT AND V8 Supercars merging …

      1. At this rate we’ll be seeing DTM, Super GT AND V8 Supercars merging …

        I’d like to see that happen, but I don’t think it would be last long..

        1. @ernietheracefan a merger between DTM and Super GT is something that DTM had been working towards for a long time.

          There has already been significant technical convergence between DTM and Super GT – the cars use the same transmission, survival cell, front splitter, floor, rear diffuser and rear wing, and I believe that the driveshafts, uprights and brakes are also shared as well.

          Back in 2018, there was a formal announcement that DTM and the GT500 class of the Super GT series would have a unified set of “Class One” regulations, with convergence in the engine regulations as well. That is why Super GT and DTM were able to hold joint races back in 2019 – because they’ve been deliberately trying to merge the two series, and the cars are near interchangeable between the two series.

          It’s also part of the reason why I feel that this article misjudges the situation and comes to the wrong conclusion about DTM in the effort to make a political point about F1.

          To me, what the current situation in DTM point towards is very different – about ITR, the organisers of DTM, having unrealistically high ambitions for a global racing series that ignored the economic realities of the series and, in pushing for the merger with the Super GT series, ended up taking the series down a route of silhouette racing cars that were unsustainably expensive for what is a small regional series.

          When you look at the conceptual plans that Berger was touting for DTM last year – a vision of a 1000bhp car fuelled by hydrogen or electrical power, intended to be advanced prototypes where industrial robots would automatically carry out all maintenance operations during a pit stop – you get the impression of a series that has wildly unrealistic plans for expansion that were utterly fantastical.

          DTM’s collapsing grids aren’t about customer cars – it’s a story of years of vainglorious mismanagement, of what Ian Hislop terms “humbug, folly and incompetence”. It’s a case of unrealistic ambitions of a global series that vastly outstripped the resources and interest of those who supported it, and which had been struggling for popularity and relevance in an era where nobody really knew what the point of DTM was these days.

          It is a series that has lost its rationale and its audience, a series where many had been warning that the organisers seemed to have learned nothing from the disaster of the International Touring Car Championship, which ITR mismanaged into imploding in 1995 and seemed to be repeating so many of those same errors that sank the championship (overly ambitious international pretensions and major cost inflation that resulted in competitors complaining that the cost of competing vastly outstripped the potential rewards, whilst being too preoccupied with its own self-importance to notice the threats it faced from the increasing popularity of other series and the waning popularity of its own product). To focus on customer cars, to me, is to focus on something entirely misleading.

          1. Is there even a concept there that isn’t obviously contradictory? Take a format that’s fun, cheap, relatively low tech and affordable, and in which the racing isn’t as absolutely serious as at the very top level, and try and turn it into an F1 rival? Yeah, that’ll work…

    5. Testing is key. Give more testing to the teams behind, and they can develop parts which the big teams will buy from them.

      At the end of the day, though, does F1 have a problem with the structure, or have smaller teams simply failed recently to take advantage of their opportunities?

      Renault should be competing for wins, but are consistently rubbish. Haas, McLaren, and Williams have all thrown away at least one season lately. Force India/Racing Point managed to do the same off track.

      It’s all very well saying we have to give smaller teams guns if we want them to be in the hunt, but what if the first thing they do with them is shoot themselves in the foot?

    6. Fundamentally, constructor teams are what makes Formula 1 unique and great…period. Maybe there could be some scenario where few customer teams may make sense, but realistically, there is no way. Today, any customer team would inevitably be a B or even C team (we already see that with engine suppliers). Anybody buying a chassis from certain constructor is automatically locked into an engine deal…right down to fuel and lubricant supply. Can anyone imagine team Haas running Ferrari chassis with Honda engine, for example? Yet, it is precisely what Ken Tyrrell did when he insisted that his Matras would use Cosworths…in defiance of the factory Matra team. But is was a very different world then…

      1. @gpfacts Tyrrell didn’t really “defy” the factory Matra team though – he himself has said that, back in 1968, Matra didn’t actually object to the idea of using the DFV because they didn’t really have an engine that was fit for F1. As Tyrrell already had a contract with Ford, they were pretty happy to use the DFV engine – it was more of a joint decision between Matra and Tyrrell in practise.

        They had been working on a V12 engine, but they’d been forced to scrap their original partnership with BRM on political grounds. They did use a prototype version of that engine in 1968, but the MS11 was really more of a rolling test bed.

        In the short term, they took the pragmatic view that it would be far more useful to run a chassis with a DFV engine so they could learn how to design a Formula 1 spec chassis and to gain time whilst they developed their own engine (they couldn’t really insist on Tyrrell using an engine that was effectively only half finished at the time). It’s only really when Matra started insisting that Tyrrell would have to use their engine for the 1970 season that problems arose – which is the point at which Tyrrell and Matra parted ways.

    7. “Customer cars are bad” is the lesson you got from DTM’s problems?!

    8. The problem with the DTM was that all manufacturers designated one of their drivers as their championship challenger and then used the remaining drivers to assist/protect him. It made for very boring processional races and undeserved victories and champions. The real fans soon caught on and the series went on to die a slow death over the past 10+ years as crowds dwindled.

      In F1 we have already seen junior teams roll over when their big brothers show up in their rear-view mirrors. With full-on customer teams this trend will only continue as the manufacturers assert their dominance.

      Perhaps the answer is for an outsider like Dallara to produce an off-the-shelf customer car with a $200m budget (provided by their customers) while all constructors in F1 are limited to $150m.
      That would really shake up things…..

    9. The issue, as with most things in F1 is cost and ability to compete.

      If we assume the lesson is that you need independent teams with independent designs to protect against a single manufacturer (or even 2) leaving and killing the grid, then F1 has to make competing a reasonable proposition.

      I’m not saying the upcoming spending cap is too low or too high, but $175m or $145m is a lot of money to spend to just be on the grid. (And before someone says, that is the maximum, not the minimum, I understand. But spending $50m-100m is still a big ask just to show up and be even less competitive.) On top of that the big design talents are paid by the manufacturers more than the small teams can afford. So catching up becomes finding the next Newey; no small feat.

      You have some independent teams, but they do not have the resources to compete, cannot win, can almost never podium. What is the incentive for them to stay and provide this protection against manufacturers leaving? Some people have said more testing for small teams, fine, if they can afford it. Have testing be largely free for the smaller teams and it makes a little more useful.

      Maybe the lesson is, instead of focusing on trying to keep independent teams in a manufacturer-led sport, you focus on making it an independent-team sport that allows manufacturers to play as well. There are ways to achieve this, and I’m sure the following possible ideas have problems, but all they are is ideas.
      —Lower the cap further so that small teams can compete.
      —Open the design space and allow ingenuity within broader boxes. By that I mean, set NTE limits for downforce or power or torque or whatever, and have proper testing to ensure those limits are not exceeded, but allow teams to find solutions.
      —Along those lines, mandate things like aero drag that impact close racing, and open up things that do not impact the following cars (engine type, fuel tank size).
      —Have an actual F1-funded reference engine/gearbox that is competitive so that teams are not beholden to manufacturers to race or vote in blocs. Or, force manufacturers to sell the PUs to F1 with full tech specs and software and guidance, where teams can buy them from F1.

      I’m sure there are other/better ideas, but those are just ones I’ve come up with sitting here thinking about it. But if you want independent teams, then you have to give them the ability to compete on a levelish playing field. Otherwise it makes no sense.

    10. I don’t entirely get the point of this article.
      There are no customer cars in F1, but if Mercedes decided to completely quit, we’d be two cars down and we’d have another 6 (Racing Point, McLaren and Williams) looking for engines.
      Isn’t the problem more about
      # constructors involved – if you only have very few, and “1/n” quits, that’s going to be a large chunk (e.g. DTM , half of the constructors just quit)
      # teams involved – e.g. if one day Andretti quits Indycar, that’s a big problem because they run 4-5 cars. If you have a lot of teams and assuming they can source an engine somewhere, they’d be fine

      1. jmlabareda – 1) The article mentions that some teams are pushing for customer cars, so this article is a reaction to that push. If F1 were to allow customer cars, then the DTM example becomes instructive or a warning.

        2) There sort of are customer teams, or teams that rely heavily on a manufacturer/main team.
        –If Ferrari left, you’d lose 2 Ferraris, very possibly 2 Haas, and possibly 2 Saubers (Alfa Romeos) though the last team may be still independent enough.
        –If RBR left, you’d lose 2 RBRs, 2 Toro Rossos (AT).
        –If Merc left, you’d lose 2 Mercs and it would be a blow to Racing Point.

        And as you note any of those losses would leave any remaining teams using their engines to have to find new supplies, as well as have to change their designs significantly.

    11. I don’t disagree with your points about F1 and the risks of one manufacturer leaving, but think the connection with the DTM situation is tenuous. The problem of the DTM wasn’t customer cars, but more so the fact that there only two manufacturers after Mercedes left. If one decides to leave then half the field is gone, because there is no decoupling of chassi and power unit provision (another reason why I don’t like the comparison). Plus, the DTM was already struggling to be relevant for manufacturers. I think it’s again a very different situation to F1 where the manufacturer investment can more easily fit into hybrid R&D

      1. @Jmlabareda The connection is that customer cars increase dependence on manufacturers, and F1 is arguably dangerously dependent on manufacturers already – for reasons that the DTM just demonstrated.

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