In the modern era the engineering challenge in Formula 1 is to micro-engineer racing cars over and over again. The sport used to be about making the fastest car without any major restrictions but since the widespread application of ground-effect aerodynamics to F1 cars in the early 1980s, the art of design has been continually frustrated by the rules, which are designed to slow the cars down.
“I suppose it probably started at the end of 1982,” Patrick Head said to me about 10 years. “If we were running unrestricted rules, we would probably have to spend two hours getting the driver into his G-suit or something before qualifying. So I don’t find it surprising. The only thing is the point at which it is felt the cars get excessively emasculated in order to maintain lap times.”
If you give engineers money they will find ways to spend that money. And they will ask for more. It is in their nature to do so. Even if innovation is nigh on impossible, it is winning that is important. Having said that, the smart F1 engineers still argue for cost-control.
“Engineering is all about resource management,” says Geoff Willis, with the Mercedes AMG Petronas. “If you remember the old definition of an engineer: he is the person who can do for a pound what any fool can do for 10. We have always had resource limitations, whether it is money, time, material properties, whatever. So it doesn’t really matter what the regulations are, there is still an engineering challenge. You are competing against others in an arbitrary set of regulations. So I don’t really mind what regulations we have. We have got to get the balance between technological interest and competition and television spectacle. The only problem we have is trying to come up with a set of technical regulations that avoids typecasting the cars. If you painted all the cars exactly the same colour and you all asked yourselves, honestly, could you actually recognise which car was which?”
Some argue that a budget cap is the answer. Some say that F1 should move to standard chassis; others that a standard rear wings would be a good halfway house. But such things will never be decided upon because teams are always looking to gain an advantage if they have more money than the others.You can argue that it is crazy to waste huge sums of money on research and development programmes which deliver a tenth of a second per lap but have no relevance to the real world outside racing – but no-one listens. The big teams spend, the small teams complain that they cannot spend. Usually it is the automobile manufacturers who outspend everyone else, but in this day and age even they are baulking at the costs and the spending spree is being led by Red Bull. The involvement of the automobile manufacturers in motorsport has always been a balancing act between the need for the car manufacturers to achieve clearly-defined marketing objectives and what is best for the sport. The most successful forms of racing involving manufacturers have been when there are very tight controls, such as NASCAR-style rule-making or homologation quotas that have to be met. The problem with this is that an escalation of costs or domination of one or two manufacturers drives out the smaller operations. Inevitably this leads to the collapse of a series when the last manufacturers withdraw. The result is that in many series where big spenders are involved there tend to be clear boom and bust cycles.
In the early years France dominated the industry but the spending quickly got out of control and in 1909 Grand Prix racing actually stopped because there were not enough competitors left. It did not revive until a new wave of car builders emerged in voiturette racing. By the mid-1920s the manufacturers were back in the sport but there was then a good illustration of the danger of relying on them when Alfa Romeo, Delage and Talbot all withdrew because of the economic climate leaving only Bugatti and a few Maserati customers. Ettore Bugatti for a while abandoned running his own teams and let his customers do the racing and the sport recovered.
The manufacturers returned in the 1930s but very quickly there developed utter domination from the German government-funded Mercedes-Benz and AutoUnion teams which pushed all other competitors out of the sport. Alfa Romeo survived the longest but Bugatti gave up the fight and smaller firms like ERA never had a chance.
The war ended that phase but only Alfa Romeo was left in the immediate post-war period until Ferrari got up to speed, at which point Alfa Romeo quit. The result was that the World Championship collapsed and had to be held for Formula 2 cars. That led to the growth of the British teams and the successes of the 1960s and 1970s and the status quo remained fundamentally unchanged until the turbocharged era of the 1980s although other manufacturers came and went without much success: notably Aston Martin, Porsche, Honda and Matra.
The turbo boom of the 1980s allowed small teams to invest and grow but as costs increased so the manufacturers began to drop out again. As development costs increased so those without engine deals fell by the wayside. The response of the FIA was a change of rules to normally-aspirated engines and this opened the way for new engine manufacturers, new specialist engine-builders and more new teams, but gradually the costs increased as the competition became more and more intense and manufacturers began to buy into teams to protect their investments in the sport. They then upped and left in 2009 when the global economy went wrong.
Cost control is at least in its infancy but it needs to be extended not just to save the small teams, but also to make sure the manufacturers come back again.
Action is required to stop the next bust cycle. If only Red Bull is standing in the way of such a change then the sport must accept that Red Bull must go, although that is not likely as it could still gain just as much exposure from the sport at a much lower price.
It is just a question of resource management…