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JUNE 15, 2015

Customer Cars - a bad solution


Will Stevens, Bahrain GP 2015
© Active Pictures

The complete lack of strategy from the Formula One Strategic Group has been overtly exposed recently. I honestly suspect the reason the FIA decided to publish the conclusions of the Group's meeting before the Monaco Grand Prix was to finally show to the world that having six teams sitting in the same room in the hope they'll come up with a logical new set of rules is useless, because they either fail to agree on anything or approve measures that are not possible to introduce.

That became painfully obvious when one of the only two definitive decision that came out of the Strategic Group - to reintroduce refuelling from 2017 - was scrapped when the Team Managers of the ten teams got together in Montreal on Thursday and unanimously voted against that measure! A overwhelming decision that proves the Team Principals have no idea of what they're talking about - costs, logistics, quality of the show, etc. - and also left us with not a single measure to change the rule set in stone as we're just 18 months away from the crucial 2017 season.

Now one of the ideas that has been very much bandied around by Bernie Ecclestone and the leaders of the richer teams is to allow the return of customer cars to Formula One, although the new trend is to call them franchise cars, like a new name is going to change anything. Forty years ago you could buy a McLaren, Brabham, Tyrrell, March or Lotus, a couple of engines from Cosworth and two gearboxes from Hewland and go racing on a limited budget, but by 1982 the teams had decided only constructors could race in Formula One and for nearly 25 years that was the status quo in Grand Prix racing. Then, as the field was shrinking, customer cars were allowed and both Toro Rosso (using Red Bull chassis) and Super Aguri (using Honda cars) took to that route, but once Sebastian Vettel won the 2008 Italian Grand Prix using a customer car the big teams changed the rules and customer cars were banned again.

Now, with Lotus, Force India, Sauber and Manor struggling to make ends meet, the four big teams - Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull - have resurrected the idea of selling their cars to smaller teams, "to make sure we keep a good field of ten to 12 teams", as Toto Wolff told us in Monaco. For Christian Horner, "the smaller teams could save a huge amount of money by buying one-year old chassis that were competitive, completely sorted out, reliable and easy to maintain and cut their current costs by an important margin. That would help them stay in the sport and would give us a more compact field than what we have now."

Franz Tost, though, disagrees with the Team Principals from the main teams, as he insists Toro Rosso is better off designing and building its own cars: "I think the people who run the top teams have no idea of what we do in the other end of the field. Of course they spend so much money, they have staff in excess of 1200 people, that running a customer car would be a lot cheaper for them. But I've run customer cars in the past and I know the real costs ‘‚    ‚  ‚ ¡‘‚     ‚ ‘‚    ‘‚   °‘‚    ‚‘  ‚ ¡‘‚     ‚‘‚    ‚‘  ‚ ¡®® º it would be roughly the same we spend these days designing and building our own car, I can tell you that! Buying a customer car is not just going to Red Bull, for example, and bringing two chassis. You'd need to buy a lot of spare parts during the year, because all parts have a very limited life and you also have to be prepared to use new parts when there's an accident, so the cost keeps rising and the final result is roughly the same as we end up spending more or less the same amount of money."

But there are other reasons against this idea, as Force India's Robert Fearnley explained: "What are we going to do with all our staff in the design office, all our composites personnel, all the mechanics in the production department? Are we going to fire 80 per cent of the staff? And what will we do with our wind tunnel? Shut it after spending so much money building it and upgrading it? It doesn't make any sense to go this route as it only helps the bigger teams to make a lot more money and make sure we'll never be in a position to beat them as we'll always be one year behind in terms of development. They're only pushing forward with this idea to get control of the smaller teams, have all the power and share all the money between them."

The final point against the return of customer cars is brought home by Sauber's Monisha Kaltenborn: "Imagine we go down that route, we cut our staff drastically and we buy chassis from a manufacturer for a few years. Then, as they do on a regular basis, that manufacturer decides he doesn't want to be in Formula One anymore and shuts down its operation. We'll have to stop racing too because we won't have the people, the tools, the ability to design and produce a brand new car at very short notice, so the risks for the smaller teams would be much bigger than they are now."

Customer cars would only make sense for brand new teams as only as a stop-gap solution to go racing while building their own infrastructure. Once you'd have the people and the tools to design and build your own car you'd be much better served producing your own chassis, to make sure you could progress during the season and you wouldn't put your fate in the hands of another team.