Why Formula 1 needs its backmarkers back
Formula 1 history is littered with teams that operated on a wing and a prayer, had more than their fair share of entertaining stories, but whom no longer exist. It also provides an unwanted eye-opener for the current grid, leading to a situation that is unlikely to change any time soon.
This year marks a decade since the FIA opened an extensive tender for new teams to join Formula 1, fuelled by the financial crisis that led to the loss of several manufacturers in a short spell. There was an array of applicants – some more serious and credible than others – and ultimately four were chosen, of which three made it.
Virgin Racing, Lotus Racing and Hispania Racing made it onto the grid for the 2010 Formula 1 season albeit their paths already doomed, having been enticed by a planned budget cap and a long-term commitment to control excess spending that never remotely arrived.
Hispania, later called HRT, just about carried on year by year, did not qualify on occasion, and eventually collapsed at the end of 2012 when its ownership group realised that the scale of the proposed 2014 regulations was a financially insurmountable challenge, having already been skewered by the economic strife in its native Spain.
Lotus Racing morphed into Team Lotus and, after a legal fight, ultimately changed name to Caterham, reflecting its owner’s acquisition of that road car brand. Following a protracted sale mid-2014 it too collapsed at the end of the campaign, via some ignominious public mud-flinging, unable to secure the necessary backing to survive, let alone thrive.
Virgin soon tired of its involvement in the Manor-run team and furtive road car manufacturer Marussia stepped in, but it too collapsed towards the end of 2014, though was granted a two-year stay of execution when a new owner stepped in. Marussia, and the-renamed Manor operation, at least scored a couple of points but it too ostensibly existed as a backmarker.
Those three teams gave Formula 1 opportunities to many drivers – a few of them potential young stars – and provided jobs to hundreds of proper racers, many of whom were hard-working, diligent and capable, going on to flourish elsewhere, having previously been limited by budget. The teams also provided storylines as well as their own intriguing battles, while one crucial element was maintaining the notion of the underdog. Every sporting fan loves an underdog story. There needs to be a regular pecking order for the underdog to have its day, and Formula 1 history is the better for the plucky (sorry, it’s an oft used word) teams that have had their day in the sun. Lotus/Virgin/Hispania were preceded by the likes of Super Aguri, Simtek, Pacific, Forti and perennial fan favourites Minardi. Think of Mark Webber’s run to fifth in Australia in 2002, Takuma Sato propelling his Super Aguri past Fernando Alonso in Canada in 2007, and Jules Bianchi’s battling drive to ninth for Marussia in Monaco in 2014. No-one wants a return to the days of unstable joke operations that could barely string together a pre-qualifying lap, spluttering and chuntering along with absolutely zero hope.
But those aforementioned backmarkers did perform one other obligation.
They ensured that someone was at the back, keeping up the numbers, performing a duty, of sorts. Now that they are no longer present it falls to one of the very established and very high-profile teams to finish at the rear of the field – and that is not a good look.
For much of 2017 that moniker fell to Sauber, but there were mitigating circumstances, as it was in the first phase of financial rehabilitation, a massive recruitment drive, while suffering from a woeful car powered by a year-old engine. Still, it scored five points. None too shabby considering.
In 2018 Sauber’s rejuvenation meant that it was no longer taking the mantle of wooden spoon. That ignominious honour fell to Williams: one of Formula 1’s most successful teams, a race-winner as recently as 2012 and a podium-scorer in 2017. At times last year the slowest team was McLaren, its papaya-liveried machines squabbling at the back of the field, even with the driving talent of Fernando Alonso at the wheel. For both teams such disappointment was of course an eye-opener and hopefully they will be healthier operations for it, but it was embarrassing. Naturally, such displays would have been underwhelming even with two or three teams further back, but the humiliation would not have been quite so complete. Williams scored fewer points in 2013 than 2018 – but on that occasion it had Caterham and Marussia protecting it from the bottom of the pile. Even in McLaren’s terrible 2015 campaign with Honda it had the Manor Marussia squad in its mirrors. It tweaks the image, especially for the wider world. Formula 1’s ‘bottom’ teams are not fundamentally bad, for they are now enormously expensive and multi-layered operations, but someone has to come last. It would be like the Premier League without a relegation battle, or Tennis matches without the qualifiers and initial knockout rounds, where you need the lesser-talented participants in order to appreciate the greats. Formula 1 has only 10 teams, the slowest of which typically operates within three per cent of the champions. There remain only elites.
And herein lines a problem. One of the current teams will finish last in this year’s Constructors’ Championship. That we cannot accurately predict which one is at least encouraging – it means there is trust in the potential of the lower teams – but when they return to board members and the accountants at the end of the year they will need to explain why an investment of upwards of $100m has resulted in, well, finishing last of the pile. And if there are budget cutbacks as a result (after all, why spend lots just to get the same classified result?) then it would begin a problematic spiral for said team. And that loose, rather conservative, figure is at the root of the problem. Formula 1 is, as has been well-documented, now monstrously expensive. And it is at the point where it cannot afford to lose a team. A grid of 20 cars is already on the thinner side of matters. It has a capacity of 26 cars. No-one, Haas aside, has registered a credible interest in joining, fluttering of eyebrows from the Volkswagen Group aside.
The consequent problem is two-fold. Manufacturers are justifiably unwilling to pour a huge budget into a Formula 1 programme at this stage, particularly given the complexity of the power units and the long-term uncertainty of the regulations. Even attracting a new manufacturer, let alone a new manufacturer team, for 2021, is appearing increasingly unlikely with each passing month. Retaining the current four is not a negative, but depending on your glass half full/empty perspective stability can also be interpreted as stagnation.
As for a new independent team? A healthy portion of the current grid can trace their history back to competing in junior championships. Some of them have existed under several different names, getting a foot in the door before becoming more established. Red Bull Racing is perhaps the prime example of such a path. But for the next generation it appears impossible. The chasm between junior categories and Formula 1 is now unsustainably large that no rational team would even attempt to make the breach without risking ruin. They would not be able to find the finance to even make it as a distant backmarker, while the jump in infrastructure from any series to Formula 1 is also enormous. Carlin made a successful venture into IndyCar, DAMS into Formula E – along with, ironically, original Hispania owner Campos – while ART Grand Prix’s boss Frederic Vasseur has business ventures elsewhere, with no need, or desire, to ever take his French squad into Formula 1.
Formula 1 does not want to open its doors to no-hopers and utter failures, and nor does any competent organisation or businessperson enter a championship with the intention of merely making up the numbers. But not only is a little bit of magic and intrigue missing without the backmarkers, it’s ongoing bad news for big teams that now have to accept their new positions…