The word from Bernie Ecclestone (by way of Reuters) is that neither Caterham nor Marussia will be in Austin next weekend, which means that the field will be reduced to just 18 cars. There is no time to cobble together any third car options, as it is believed that these require a minimum of 60 days to be actioned. That being the case, this season will be over before third cars are required to appear.
The crazy thing about the current situation is that the rules regarding third cars are not public and the people who know the answers are bound not to reveal the details by strict confidentiality agreements, so no-one outside the signatories know how they work and anyone revealing the details (including Ecclestone and the FIA) can get into trouble by doing so. In the modern day and age it is astonishing that a sport can have secret rules and one wonders how the International Olympic Committee and other international bodies that recognise the FIA agreed to allow the federation to be a member of their organisations when such things are still the case. One can understand the desire of some to keep the money out of the public domain, although if everyone is paying their taxes there really is no reason to hide this stuff and indeed prize money can be used as a promotional tool, as often happens in US racing.
In the meantime, the best that we can do is to guess the method by which the teams are chosen (with a little guidance perhaps) but without being able to read the full texts of the most recent agreements. It is believed that there is some kind of a ballot included in the rules, but there are no details of how this can and would be done. It is entirely possible that there are actually no rules regarding that. Whatever the case, these things cannot be changed without unanimous agreement. As I understand it, the third car rule is far less simple than some imagine. Teams cannot just turn up and run extra cars at all the races. In order to be fair (in a fashion) the teams should be given the same opportunities to run third cars because there will always be a strategic element in any additional car running. This means that the choice of these third cars has to be random. As we understand it, each ballot will exclude the team that ran a third car in the last race.
We do not know whether or not the third cars have to be run in the same livery as the two normal entries, or whether the space can be sold to different sponsors. That might help teams pay for these otherwise useless cars, but there may be rules that stop this happening, although there is nothing in the public domain that suggests that this is the case. The Sporting Regulations state that “both cars entered by a competitor must be presented in substantially the same livery at each event”, which does not really help as “both” does not take into account a third car.
The real question is not who turns up in Austin but rather whether there are sufficient cars for next season, or whether teams will be required to run third cars to make up the numbers. This is a disastrous situation for all concerned because it is clear that third cars do not score points (and therefore do not create prize money) but they do deprive others of income because their results are declared void and the others who finish behind them in a race do not move up the order. If, for example, a dominant team is running a third car, the team can score 43 points (for first and second) but the best a rival team can hope for is 22 points because third place will also likely go to the third car of the fastest team, leaving only fourth and fifth places (12 and 10 points) available. If the third car was not there, the second best team can score 27 points. Thus the midfield teams will be forced back in the F1 pecking order and will become less able to make money.
The FIA should get a good idea within a few days as to whether there will be 18 cars or 22 in 2015, as teams entering the World Championship have to lodge an entry by November 1. An entry fee is required. This is $516,128, plus $5,161 per point for the 2015 season.
The other key question that we do not know the answer to is what is in the 100-year agreement between the FIA and FOM regarding the number of entries that must appear at each race, and what allowances (if any) are made for breaches. If there are 18 cars only in Austin this could in theory be a breach of the 100-year deal, but we do not know. If it is a breach the FIA could cancel the agreement and claim the commercial rights as its own once again. That is probably not the the case, but as all of this is secret we can only guess.
One can hope that one or both of the teams will be able to revive in the weeks ahead but in both cases the problems lie with the owners. Caterham is a mess and is being led by an Administrator who knows next to nothing about the sport. His actions will largely depend on who gives him advice and he is barely qualified to choose who is the best consultant. It is going to be very much a question of luck. His efforts thus far have been described to me as “blundering”.
Marussia has a buyer waiting in the wings but the Russian owner, who cannot afford to pay for the team, appears to be asking for way too much money for the team to be taken seriously. Missing Austin may drive this point home to him: his team is worth nothing as long as there are 11 teams. If there are 10 it has a little more value, depending on the debts.
There is no official confirmation from Marussia that the team will not be in Austin and, to be honest, it is strange for the Commercial Rights Holder to have announced such a thing before the team has made any statement to that effect. It is dreadful publicity for Formula 1 and thus one must assume that either Ecclestone has done this deliberately, or he does not realise the impact that such a remark. Whatever the case, this brings down the sale value of the Formula One group. The current agreements that bind the FIA and FOM cover the period from 2013 to 2020 and an agreement to renew until 2030 on substantially the same terms, so it is a long-term problem.
No doubt, we will find answers to these questions in the weeks ahead.