By their very nature even the most rudimentary forms of motorsport cannot be cheap. It is a fact that a round leather object – as required by the world’s most popular sport, football – costs a fraction of even the most basic kart. Tellingly, motorsport does not feature amongst the world’s top 10 sports, which require little more than a ball and possibly a bat.
A child will probably race for four seasons before moving to cars – a million bucks when contingency costs are factored into the equation. That was six years ago, and costs have probably increased by at least 10% per annum.
A six-year karting career therefore could cost a family anywhere up to $2m – and that is before wannabe F1 champions move to cars, usually Formula 4 which, depending on team, country and series, requires budgets of between £250,000 and up to double that. By the time a race driver hits Formula 1 at least $7m will, in most cases, been blown on getting there – if the driver at all makes the final step, which does not depend upon talent alone.
The split is approximately: $2m on karting, $500,000 per season in F4, another $1m on F3 and $3m plus on F2 – without contingencies. Not all of that may come from parents’ pockets, but seven million bucks is still a massive pile, particularly given there are no guarantees of an F1 seat at the end of it.
Indeed, the drop-out rate from F2 to F1 is around 90%… unless someone coughs up for a pay seat at motor racing’s top table.
Any wonder motor racing – F1 in particular – was recently dubbed a “Billionaire Boys’ Club” by reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton. Three of the most recent F1 entrants – Nicholas Latifi, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin – come from privileged backgrounds. Add in that Lance Stroll’s multi-billionaire father Lawrence is the fashion mogul-turned Aston Martin owner and Lando Norris’ father Adam is listed amongst the UK’s richest 500, and the perception endures.
That said, the flipside is that – with a single exception – every F1 world champion this millennium came from a modest background. Whether Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel or Hamilton – it applies to all. The exception is Nico Rosberg, who emulated his father’s title-winning feat in 2016. Similar statistics apply all the way back to 1950.
Said drivers were fortunate to attract support from benefactors who had the wherewithal to take them from karting through junior and secondary series to the big time. Each had their own reasons for doing so – some through sheer passion, others as business propositions and still others as part of driver academies – but the fact remains it cost up to $7m to get there. By comparison footballs cost peanuts, and teams have more berths.
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Mercedes Motorsport CEO Toto Wolff recently described the costs of junior competition as “totally absurd”, calling for F1 and its teams to identify and support budding talents. “It needs to stop, because we want to have access. I think we need to give access to kids that are interested in go-karting, the opportunity to race for much more affordable budgets.”
A number of champions, notably Hamilton and Vettel, have also spoken out against the costs of junior series. The former, who came from a working-class background, told the BBC’s Graham Norton Show in 2019, “My dad spent something like £20,000 and re-mortgaged the house several times in the first years. But today it’s just got so expensive.
“A friend of mine who was nearly in Formula 1 got leapfrogged by a wealthy kid and then his opportunity was gone,” added Hamilton, whose family funded his karting career until he gained the backing of former McLaren boss Ron Dennis.
Vettel, who says the costs of junior motorsport have “gone wild in the last years”, considers himself fortunate to have had “Mr Gerhard Noack looking after me [as benefactor], who was the same man who looked after Michael Schumacher when he started, probably 20 years before me as a young child.
“It was already very, very expensive back then, so I think Michael was in need of help, and I was in need, because I couldn’t afford it. I think the first season we did in very junior go karts, we managed sort of half on our own and then we started to be very lucky to find people that supported and helped us.”
More recently Hamilton told Spanish outlet AS, “If I were to start over from a working-class family, it would be impossible for me to be here today because the other boys would have a lot more money. We have to work to change that and make this an accessible sport, for the rich and for people with more humble origins.”
I put these points and numbers to Bruno Michel, CEO of Liberty Media’s F2 series – which also controls F3 in line with a deal struck with the FIA – in particular the costs I’d been given for a season of F3 and F2. To recap: a season of F2 is variously punted as costing up to $2.5m, with F3 around half that.
Michel has been in motorsport for almost 30 years, having started with the (now defunct) Ligier F1 team in 1993 before moving into driver management with F1 entrepreneur Flavio Briatore, overseeing the careers of grand prix winners such as Giancarlo Fisichella and Mark Webber. In 2005 he and Briatore founded GP2, the forerunner of F2, so Michel knows of what he speaks.
He is also politically astute, having survived fall-out from Briatore’s (alleged) role in Renault’s ‘Crashgate’ scandal and the exit from F1 of Bernie Ecclestone in the wake of Liberty’s acquisition of F1’s commercial rights. Ecclestone was close to Briatore – and, by extension, Michel – and supported the founding of GP2 in the face of some hefty opposition from the FIA, so Michel’s abilities are clearly valued by Liberty.
“I cannot really agree with the figures because they can vary,” the Swiss-domiciled Frenchman argues. “Number one [they] are changing from one team to another, all teams are not having the same cost. And number two, where we have to be quite careful is the difference between the costs that the teams are really incurring, and then how much they’re charging the drivers, which might be two different amounts.”
Michel is adamant that comparatively speaking costs have hardly risen – if at all – since he placed drivers in Formula 3000 – F2 and GP2’s forerunner – well over a decade ago.
“For F2 and F3,” he says, “what needs to be understood is that the cost, if I speak about F3 first, the costs are more or less the same that they were 20 years ago in European Formula 3. For F2, if you look at what the costs were in GP2 when we had two [series] – GP2 main division and GP2 Asia – which was about 15 years ago, the costs are the exact same as well.”
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“Why is that possible?” he asks. “Because we’ve done everything that we could over the last 15 or 20 years to keep the costs down. I can give you many examples of decisions we took to ensure that costs are not increasing. So, when I hear that the costs are getting crazy, I think it’s a completely unfair statement.”
As examples of cost savings he lists: “We’ve limited the number of staff for F2 and F3 [by designing] the car to ensure it can be operated with a limited number of people, 12 people per F2 team with two cars, 10 in F3 for three cars; we’ve completely limited testing, we extended the life of present cars for the next few years to ensure teams don’t have to spend more money.
“We are renegotiating permanently with our suppliers to make sure that costs are kept as low as possible. There are many, many other things that we’re doing all the time.”
“That’s the first part. [But] the real question is ‘How drivers can get funded to go to the next category and to get to Formula 1’, not the costs themselves, but how [drivers] get funded to race. We need to understand how this works.
“That’s why I want to be sure that people, when they say something, understand how it works. The most active academies are Alpine, Ferrari, Red Bull. They’re not putting full budgets for the drivers, but they’re helping. Williams also is helping some drivers; Sauber is helping some drivers.”
Others may have been funded on the way up by their families but motorsport has always been and will always be thus.
“I [also] want things to be fair towards drivers that are from wealthy families,” Michel says. “I’ve got a list of drivers that are from wealthy families in F2 and F3. That helped the whole team and the other drivers to finance their seasons. I only can thank people like (Artem) Markelov, people like (Nicholas) Latifi and others.”
But a million and half in any major currency is still a huge pile of money, I suggest, regardless of how it is financed.
“There can be a very simple way,” Michel argues, “and that is to take the F3 car and rename it F2, because F3 is more or less half of the price [of F2]. But the other problem is that our job is to prepare drivers for F1. If we don’t prepare drivers for F1, if we give them a car that is not really good enough for [the next step], then we’re not doing our job.
“We’ve seen in the last seasons, with Charles Leclerc, with George Russell, with Lando, with all the drivers that came from F2, we’ve seen them completely ready when they get to F1. If we want the smallest budgets [it can be much easier] but then what is our job? It is to prepare drivers.”
The stand-out Red Bull driver of recent years is Max Verstappen, who did not come through F2’s ranks, nor, for that matter, Michel’s version of F3, which was then known as GP3.
“He went directly to Formula 1,” Michel acknowledges with a chuckle. “He was young, they took a risk and they were right to do that. But I think now it is not possible to do that,” he adds, alluding to the introduction of F1’s superlicence points system which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to bypass F2 en route to a grand prix car..
F2 and F3 source rolling chassis from Dallara, then assemble the cars by adding power units supplied by precision engineering company Mecachrome – better known as primary sub-contractor to Renault’s F1 engine operation – and Hewland transmissions, plus electronics from Magneti Marelli. Complete cars are supplied to teams, with each being as identical as possible. Is this, though, the most efficient business model?
“Oh, yeah,” Michel shoots back. “We’ve been working with Dallara and Mecachrome for the past 20 years. I’ve been around in the market to try to find substitutions, and I can tell you they are in terms of quality and cost the best people we can work with.
“They know exactly what we want, they understand exactly our philosophy, which is to try to make a car which [performs] on track but is also easy to operate because that’s a very important part of our cost control system.”
The structure of F2’s calendar, too, has come under fire this season, particularly as only eight fixtures – admittedly comprising three races each – are listed, with am eight week gap between the first and second weekends. Then, of the eight legs, three are in Europe (Monaco, Britain, Italy), with the Middle East hosting three (Bahrain, Saudi and Abu Dhabi) and Azerbaijan and Russia one each. Is that truly cost-effective?
“That’s also to save costs,” he says, “because obviously there are less events.” He reckons logistics costs are cut by up to 30% while offering drivers the opportunity of participating during grand prix weekends – both for sponsor exposure and the overall experience. Drivers would, he says, obviously prefer more races; equally F1 feeds on as many support events as possible.
“It’s true that having only eight events in 10 months, it’s not ideal, I completely agree with you, but that’s the best balance we can find if we want to limit costs. We’re always trying to find the right balance between the number of events to ensure the championship is strong, and attractive for drivers. The same for testing: we limit testing but the drivers, of course, would like more.”
Indeed, so “not ideal” is the calendar that since the interview was conducted sources have suggested that the calendar structure may well change, but it is clear that whatever format is agreed upon needs to offer the same cost savings and regional spread.
Michel is adamant that F2 and its in-house F3 feeder series are doing their utmost to reduce costs of competing in the two rungs below F1 – which, incidentally, has capped budgets which are many, many multiples higher than those of F2 teams – while preparing its best drivers for F1. It seems strange that the most outspoken critics of junior category costs are those who benefit most from the largest F1 budgets…
The current F2/3 system may not be “ideal” but it has done a fair job of delivering qualified drivers to F1 within their overall cost structures, as Michel outlined. Can karting and F4 can claim the same?
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