I think it is fair to say that we have established over the last few years that money has done a lot of weird things to sports – some positive, but most negative. The idea of “playing the game” and ” being a good sport” have gone out of the window, with the attitude now being that finishing second is being “the first loser”.
Attitudes have been changed largely by commercial interests. It is inevitable because people like sport but they like money more. In some sports the competitors take things to insane places, taking drugs because they want fame and fortune and not caring if they die young as a result of messing up their bodies. It will always happen to someone else, won’t it?
Motor racing has always been a bit like that because of the inherent risks involved but, oddly, the increase in money has also led to better safety…
Sebastian Vettel said recently that the sport needs to “be careful not to lose the roots of motor racing” because it is focussing too much on technological details. Vettel is unusual in that he is into the history of the sport, but does he really know what the roots of the sport are? It was always about money and technology.
The first motor races were all commercially-driven, initially by newspapers which funded prizes in the hope that they would sell more copies. The racers were rich aristocrats who could afford to fund bonkers engineers with new ideas. Very quickly manufacturing companies appeared and it was not long before the manufacturers began to use the sport to sell their cars. We’re talking 1906 and onwards here. These are the roots of the sport and the concepts are not dissimilar to what we have today apart from the fact that in recent decades F1 has become a way for a central promoter to make a pile of money.
The excessive demands and profit-taking of this said promoter have gradually led the manufacturers to push back and demand more. And that is where we are now, with the manufacturers having grabbed sufficient power to be able to start dictating things. If they are smart, the first thing they will do after reducing the power of the central promoter is to share the revenues in a fair and equitable manner and then impose cost caps so that they can all make money from the sport and not have to spend all of it. Money should not be what matters most, but it seems always to be the case and F1 is not unique in this respect.
Take NASCAR, for example, from one weekend to the next the cars completely change appearance and if you do not know that Dale Jr drives the 88 car you will be completely lost. It makes sense for the big teams to have different primary sponsors at each race, because that means they make more money. But is it good for the sport? It’s confusing, but the sponsors that cannot afford to pay the kind of dollars a big team wants for a season do get a good chance for exposure. True, but this means that smaller teams cannot find any mid-sized sponsorship deals because the big teams have snuffled them all…
Now, we have rumours that Manor is thinking of having a car shared between three different drivers, because it is the best way to collect the maximum money. From what I’m hearing it is not a serious story and I believe the negotiations are now down to just two drivers.
Anyway, before we look at that, it is worth looking at shared cars. Have there been any occasions in the modern era in F1 when two drivers have shared the same car? I can think of one and it was a disaster. Perhaps there was another. I seem to recall Bernie Ecclestone doing some kind of deal that involved both the Fabi Brothers driving for Brabham one season, because Teo had some date clashes with other events.
The only other one I can recall was when Red Bull Racing decided to try to squeeze Christian Klien and Tonio Liuzzi into the same seat. It was utterly dumb and the team quickly realised its mistake and blundered on to make a second error by dropping the wrong driver, on the basis that one was Austrian and the other was not.
Sharing a drive makes little real sense, particularly for the drivers involved, because without time in the car they will compare badly to their team-mate and will effectively write off their careers.
The sad truth is that money will probably decide the story and the Manor drive will go to Rio Haryanto, who has a lot of cash from Indonesia, government and private. Haryanto is not a bad driver, but he has not done much to convince that he is special. If he gets an F1 drive right now, it will clearly be because of money rather than talent. Is that important? No, probably not. It means that Manor will still be seen as a team needing cash from its drivers, but does that ultimately matter?
It might help F1 to open up the Indonesian market, which is huge – around 250 million people. But they are not buying Rolexes and banking with UBS. Nor are they buying Mercedes Benzes. Last year around 3,500 Mercs were sold in Indonesia, compared to 380,000 in the United States, where there is more money available.
Logically, F1 would be better off in the US for at least another 20 years. If Haryanto does get the drive, the only American driver who is ready for F1 – Alexander Rossi – will be out of work and his choices are limited. He can hang around and hope to get a break as a reserve driver with Manor (been there, done that) or maybe with the new Haas team, or he can go home to the US and probably make money, as Conor Daly has recently done and as Scott Speed did before him. It is nice that these guys had ambitions to make it in F1, but it underlines the fact that F1 needs the US More than the US needs F1.
But F1 doesn’t seem to care, because the only real strategy that the sport seems to have is to fight itself. If it was structured better, better choices could be made…