Why customer cars are not against F1’s DNA
What is F1?
It may seem a pointless question. Perhaps even a silly one.
It may also seem a no brainer. Certainly it’s a question that many seem to think they know the answer to, judging by the number of apparently convinced claims on ‘what F1 is’ that are out there. And their regularity has been especially rapid lately given the often furious recent whirlwind debates about where F1 has got to and where it should be. Throughout these you don’t have to wade long before you encounter an assertion of ‘such-and-such is F1’, or ‘such-and-such isn’t’.
But I cannot see how F1’s identity can be affirmed with any sort of certainty to much extent at all. The sport’s thread of history going back 65 years is much more a wild and wacky rollercoaster (with a few interruptions in the rails) than a coherent straight road. Moreover in this game much less than you think is entirely new.
Even DRS – that most wrestled-over of modern contraptions – has a forerunner of sorts in F1 cars’ moveable rear wings in 1968 (though perhaps crucially they existed to get a best of both worlds of low drag on straights and downforce in the corners rather than as an overtaking aid).
As for our original question of what is F1? Well with the considerations above about the only thing we can say that F1 has always been is that it is motorised vehicles seeking to get between the start and the end of a race quicker than the other motorised vehicles, doing so within whatever rules (or more pertinently without getting caught breaking them) and conditions prevailed at the time.
We can’t expand much further than that without falling foul of an exception. We can’t say the cars have four wheels as the Tyrrell P34 had six of them. Open wheels? Nope, the Mercedes W196 of 1954 and 1955 in its “Type Monza” streamlined bodywork had no such thing. We can’t say the cars have internal combustion engines as Lotus experimented with a gas turbine in the early 1970s. The day that F1 abandons internal combustion altogether may indeed not be that far in the future.
And this matter of ‘what F1 is’ has been recently come into renewed focus with the possibility raised of customer cars – i.e. when F1 teams buy a chassis from another outfit rather than design and build their own – being part of the sport’s future. It was thought that this was to be the thing we’d all be talking about following the recent Strategy Group meeting. In the event it was rather trumped by, um, bigger news plus the resultant press release outlining the group’s proposals didn’t mention customer cars explicitly. But it became clear that its plan referenced in vague terms to help the sport’s sustainability does indeed include customer cars, going by the words afterwards from two present in the discussions, Mercedes’s Toto Wolff and Force India’s Bob Fernley.
“The Strategy Group teams are prepared to offer a works-spec car to the other teams or potential new entrants” said Wolff.
“Fundamentally, what is absolutely clear from it all is that the grey areas have been removed, that there will be no cost control initiatives brought in” said Fernley. “The default for going forward in terms of a team failing will be as per contract, which will be third cars, and in the meantime they will evaluate the customer car programme”.
Allowing customer cars has been Bernie Ecclestone’s ‘solution’ to the sport’s cost crisis for years, and rather like Freddy Krueger the idea has refused to desist from leaping back into the picture however many times you think it’s finally dead.
Many state that it is part of F1’s core, its DNA if you will, for all competing teams to design and build their own cars. Hence that we have a constructors’ championship rather than merely a teams’ one. Again, customer cars are ‘not F1’.
Journalist Kate Walker writing on the subject implied that customer teams would lose their “raison d’etre in Formula 1” and that “F1 must retain its association with engineering, technology, and automotive development while producing good racing that ensures it remains attractive to both fans and sponsors.”
Gary Anderson in a similar vein said: “I believe every (F1) team needs its own identity within its own design”.
All of this is valid of course. But in terms of F1’s fundamentals it’s only true up to a point. It can’t be said that customer cars are ‘not F1’; not always anyway. They were in fact a frequent feature for much of the sport’s history. Only the 1981 Concorde Agreement did away with them.
Even with this more recently there have been cases not too far off the customer car model. Prior to 2009 the extent that Toro Rosso chassis were at least to some extent Red Bull hand-me-downs while the relationship between Super Aguri and its ‘parent’ Honda team at around the same time was not too dissimilar. The 2004 Sauber had a remarkable similarity to the Ferrari of the previous year. Various technical tie-ups between teams such as the sometime one between McLaren and Force India have been known too.
And back when customer cars were kosher it was the route via which some of the sport’s most famous teams and names first entered F1. Frank Williams is the most glaring example, as when Frank Williams Racing Cars made its F1 bow in 1969 it was with a privately-entered Brabham that he’d bought (and the team managed a couple of second place finishes that season). Indeed, and while there were some adventures between times, by 1977 he still was racing with a private March (ironic that the Williams team is now one of the most trenchant opponents of customer cars). Tyrrell’s early success came with a chassis from elsewhere, from Matra, and then briefly with a March, before its first car designed and built in-house was debuted late in 1970. The popular Hesketh outfit of the 1970s competed in F1 originally with a purchased March too. Heck, even Enzo Ferrari started out with Alfa Romeos (though as history buffs will point out it wasn’t strictly a customer arrangement).
Then we have the inimitable case of Rob Walker, almost undoubtedly the king of F1’s private entrants. In the late 1950s and the entirety of the 1960s the dark blue liveried cars with the white noseband from the R.R.C. Walker Racing Team entry were a fixture. Walker had been entering cars in various events for much of the 1950s but come 1958 he concentrated on international events including F1. And he just so happened that year to win the first two World Championship Grands Prix of the season. In the first one in Argentina the Vanwall team was unable to adapt its cars to new fuel rules in time so Stirling Moss, suddenly without a drive, gave Walker a call. Stirling therefore competed in Walker’s privately-entered Cooper, and won the thing. Then as if to prove it wasn’t a total fluke come round two in Monaco with Maurice Trintignant behind the wheel Walker’s car won again. Both wins owed something to clever tactics and luck rather than pace – in Argentina Moss sold everyone a dummy by being able to go the distance without a tyre stop while in Monaco Trintignant benefitted from attrition as well as his precise and safe style well-suited to the Principality races. But still it was not all to be sniffed at. Neither was that the first Grand Prix wins for a Cooper and indeed for a Lotus were achieved not by the factory teams but by Walker; in the latter case getting there eighteen months before.
Come the end of 1958 with Vanwall now pulled out and Stirling having by now resolved to only drive for British teams he joined up with Walker full time. And now for Walker’s team things really got serious, as Rob later noted: “With Stirling anything had been possible, because he was so much better than anyone else”.
Sure enough many wins followed, particularly on days when the driver made the difference, and Moss’s victories in Monaco and the Nurburgring in 1961 in a Lotus entered by Walker have gone into folklore. In 1959 Moss and Walker indeed were title contenders and might have won it without a transmission failure in the final round.
After Moss’s F1 career-ending accident at Goodwood in early 1962 things were never quite as good for Walker’s team again. But there was one remaining day of glory. For 1968 Walker had managed to convince Colin Chapman to sell him a Lotus 49 with its astonishing new Ford Cosworth DFV engine in the back. In the British Grand Prix it was clear it was the thing to have, and when the two works cars dropped out it was Jo Siffert in Walker’s private Lotus that took over the lead, and he won out after a race long battle with Chris Amon’s Ferrari. Walker said that this was his favourite F1 triumph, and not just because it was at home. While most of the previous victories had been considered Stirling’s as Walker noted this was very much one for the whole team.
And the attraction of being a customer car entrant was summed up by Moss: “I loved going racing with Rob” he said. “A small team, very relaxed, yet very professional. It was always a matter of buying cars from another company, of course, but that aspect really appealed to me – trying to beat the factories. And quite a few times we did.”
So therefore while many others have treated the concept of customer cars in F1 as sacrilegious I view them as not the worst idea, not when considered in isolation at any stretch. Indeed to try to frame a modern equivalent of the Rob Walker story, imagine if Fernando Alonso after leaving Ferrari had decided instead of returning to McLaren to throw his lot in with a trim, highly motivated private outfit running this year’s Mercedes? Rather tantalising isn’t it?
To a large extent I can see the objectors’ point however. If F1 is on the sick bed then customer cars represent adapting to the symptoms (by hacking a limb off) rather than administering the known cure. This move to the end of rescuing a full grid is unnecessary also; F1 generates easily enough revenue to sustain ten or eleven teams which design and build their own chassis.
Controlling costs – possibly via a cap as well as restricting how much manufacturers can sell their units for – and distributing the revenues more equitably among the teams would achieve the end without anything like the same shifting of the sport’s plates.
At the very least it would be preferable if F1 was considering the return of customer teams from a position of strength, with a positive view of adding to the sport’s variation as well as aiding its accessibility for new entrant teams and the like, rather than resorting to it as an act of survival.
There are practical considerations too. As Adam Parr cautioned in early 2012 as recorded in his book The Art of War: “First of all, if we (Williams) had last year’s Red Bull this year, we would clean up – the rules are tighter this year and the cars are slower…and what do we do in 2014 when there is a new engine formula?”
Then as Parr went on there is that the teams’ money from Bernie is based on constructors’ placing, and customer teams aren’t constructors: “Would a customer team get constructor money from the prize fund? There are just so many practical problems with changing the basic character of Formula One like this…”
Indeed, while chassis rules hardly changed in Walker’s day (maximum chassis dimensions weren’t even stipulated until 1976) now they hardly fail to change between seasons. Of course right now we have Manor competing with a 2014 car adapted to the 2015 regs, but that was done in peculiar circumstances as well as between two campaigns in which chassis changes were relatively few, and achieving that still had to clear a hurdle or two. Presumably customer cars if they were to return would have to be from that season only.
There also would no doubt be rumblings over whether the customers actually were getting the latest kit. But then again that’s nothing new. Indeed in the March chassis used by Williams in 1977 mentioned, the March proprietor (a certain M. Mosley) sold it to Frank saying it was that used in 1976; Frank discovered later it was in fact the 1975 one… We see it in the modern day too with engines, with the odd grumble audible from Merc customers as to the extent that they’re getting the same grunt as the big team.
There’s also the question of whether being a customer team will save that much money anyway. Anderson reckons it’ll be worse than useless indeed: “it will cost at least 50 per cent more, if not a lot more than that” he claims. Kate Walker meanwhile reported that a McKinsey & Company report on the subject of potential F1 cost savings that was circulated pre-season did indicate that a standardised single spec chassis and bodywork for sale (not precisely the customer car model described, note) could save each team something like £32-38m per annum, exactly the sort of savings that have been sought. But the report warned too that customer teams could find it harder to attract sponsors and fans, and their very existence might have a negative impact on the sport’s wider following too. The matter of constructors’ pot money and how much of it they’d get we’ve mentioned.
So as Adam Parr noted there is plenty to be resolved before any re-introduction of customer cars. The objections to them are honourable too. But as a concept they’re not all bad. And whatever is the case don’t let anyone tell you they’re ‘not F1’.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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