There are stories kicking around that Andretti Autosport would be happy to get involved in Formula 1 if the sport allowed customer cars. This is a neat bit of publicity for those who propose the idea, suggesting that F1 could get some American involvement.
However, the gloss is just skin deep and the argument is fundamentally flawed. Formula 1 is all about excellence. It is about being the best in the world, against the best in the world. If one can buy the most successful car then the competition is devalued – and has less interest for the public. To be the best of the best, you need to earn that status and allowing new teams who have access to cash to usurp teams that have battled for decades to be successful is simply unfair, whether it helps the marketing of the sport or not.
Imagine the situation if the top four teams were allowed to sell two cars to customers. Any more than that and the disaster would happen even more quickly. IndyCar has already been down this path and failed as a result. Once the CART series featured all manner of competing chassis: Chaparral, Penske, Longhorn, Wildcat, Coyote, McLaren, Eagle, March and Lola. Within a few years of open competition the car supply had reduced to just two chassis because the small guys could not compete with the big operations and, in the end, the series ended up with a single supplier.
Formula 1 has always been about constructors – it is what makes it different – and opening the field to customer cars would mean that the back half of the grid would have to make a decision whether to continue to try to climb the ladder, or simply give in and buy success. By doing so they would become dependent on the big teams at the front. There would be little choice because if Johnny-come-Latelys like Andretti turned up, the smaller teams would be displaced. With four teams providing four others with the best chassis, the effect would be that the fifth placed team, which currently competes for top 10 points, would suddenly become the ninth best team, fighting for 17th place at best. This would impact on the team’s ability to score points, and thus its ability to make money.
In reality, it would be worse than that because the top teams would always be keen to protect their brands and so as to ensure that their customers did as well as possible they would become more and more involved so that the eight two-car teams would very rapidly become four four-car teams. This would have two serious effects: it would increase the power of the big teams – which would be dangerous for the promoters and regulators – and it would wipe out the smaller teams. At the same time it would also destroy the manufacturing base of F1 so that if one day a couple of the big teams had to close down, the sport would instantly lose eight cars.
It is much healthier for the sport to have 11 teams who are independent of one another. Not all may be competitive, but all have ambition to succeed, rather than settling for customer status. The best way to strengthen the F1 grid is to find a way to restrict ridiculous spending on irrelevant parts and at the same time try to ensure that the money that the sport generates remains in the sport, rather than going off to faceless financiers who do not know nor care about the business, as is currently the case.
F1 has always been tough and if Andretti Autosport wants to get involved then the team must be willing to go down the path that others have trod and earn its place in the sport by proving that it is capable of competing with the best.