When Tony Fernandes closed his Twitter account earlier this week with the message “F1 hasn’t worked”, he managed to sum up the sorry state of the sport’s cost crusade in less than 140 characters.
Caterham’s demise has been hard to watch. The team has fought tooth and nail to stay ahead of Marussia, and has been the leading backmarker team for most of its five years in the sport. Last year, it was behind the Anglo-Russian team for just four races – sadly for Caterham, it was enough time for Jules Bianchi to rack up a 13th place finish that would secure Marussia P10 in the constructors’.
For 2014 though, there was renewed hope. In Kamui Kobayashi, the team had secured a very popular and talented driver; you can expect the Suzuka grandstands to be a sea of green in October. The stars seemed to be aligning for the minnows to make the step forwards and perhaps even score some points.
So when one of the new teams did score points, it was something of a surprise that Marussia had that honor. The teams had been largely neck and neck, but some more brilliance from Bianchi meant that he finished ninth. On the same day, Marcus Ericsson matched Caterham’s best ever result in 11th, but few smiles were raised.
The future for the team is not clear, but buyers are lining up to take over from Fernandes, meaning that it should at least run to the end of the season before perhaps being rebranded.
“F1 hasn’t worked” – for Fernandes, no, it has not. Formula 1 on a budget is always difficult, if not impossible.
But Fernandes did not come into the same sport that we have now. Following the withdrawals of Honda (2008), BMW and Toyota (both 2009), new teams were needed to take the grid back up to a healthy number. After receiving a number of entries, berths were given to Lotus Racing (now Caterham), Virgin (now Marussia) and Campos Meta (then HRT, now defunct).
For all three entrants, the big condition for them joining the party was that a cost cap would come into force, allowing them to run on a budget of around $50m per season. Toyota was spending close to nine times that figure during its time in F1.
At the time, it seemed to be the only way to save F1 from itself. Red Bull’s Christian Horner was enthusiastic, saying: “I think Formula 1 has reacted responsibly. It’s positive to see new teams entered for next year which would have been impossible, I think, without the resource restrictions that will be introduced.”
So when the cost cutting measures were not enforced as strictly as planned, it hit the new teams hard. The fact that they managed to keep gradually cutting the gap to the leading teams despite running on far smaller budgets is highly commendable.
F1’s outlook has changed. At the time of Caterham’s entry, it had the feeling of an “all for one, one for all” club. FOTA, the teams’ association, was doing some great work. However, it sadly became impotent as a political body, and eventually folded earlier this year. The voice for the teams now is the F1 Strategy Group, which only includes the bigger players in the sport. Caterham and company have little to no say in the future of F1 at the moment. The big boys have formed their own club now.
The sport needs to learn from Caterham’s story, but it is unlikely that it will. Teams have come and gone in the past (Super Aguri, Prost, Arrows etc), but that was in a different time when it was a case of spending what you want to be successful. Caterham came in on the provision that things would change, but it has not.
We’re back to 2010. Cost cutting talks continue, but little is actually done. The sport plays host to some of the finest minds in the world, yet they continue to squabble like children and come to few actual solutions. Tony Fernandes’ views and approach was refreshing, just as Monisha Kaltenborn and Bob Fernley are at Sauber and Force India. They are voices of reason.
F1 has managed to reduce five years of struggling and fighting the good fight to less than 140 characters. It is likely that the stories and fall-out from the impending sale of the team will be a bit more drawn out.