Three-car teams must be a last resort for Formula 1

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Following comments from Bernie Ecclestone in Singapore suggesting Formula 1 could drop to just eight teams fielding three cars each in 2015, a number of leading figures have come out and made clear that this is only a last resort for the sport – and not an active plan that is being pursued.

The first concerns about the grid dropping to just eight teams in 2015 were raised by former Williams chairman Adam Parr, who last worked in Formula 1 back in 2012.

Following the Italian Grand Prix, he took to Twitter to make his concern clear, saying: “This is the last year of F1 as we know it. In 2015 eight teams will contest the championship, with several teams entering three cars.”

Although his comments were dismissed at the time, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone was supportive of the idea when asked about it by The Guardian.

“I think we should do it anyway,” he is quoted as saying. “I would rather see Ferrari with three cars, or any of the other top teams with three cars than having teams that are struggling.”

The teams thought to be at the greatest risk of dropping out of Formula 1 are Caterham, Lotus and Sauber, whilst Marussia’s future is also in question.

Since being sold by Tony Fernandes, Caterham has been in a particularly precarious position, with the situation not being aided by the resignation of team principal Christijan Albers after just two months in charge. His replacement, Manfredi Ravetto, spoke to the media for the first time in Singapore yesterday, and he said that stablizing the team and getting it on the grid for 2015 is his priority.

“Everybody knows the situation in which we found this team, in which state it was and, well, we are just trying to keep it alive to improve and we are working, as I said before, also providing you with some details on the programme for next year,” he said.

“This is what we are targeting. Of course we want to be on the grid in Melbourne next year – that is definitely our goal.”

However, the ongoing flux at Caterham is very reminiscent of the last F1 team to fold: HRT at the end of 2012.

The situation at Sauber and Lotus is a little less clear. Sauber was facing collapse midway through last season before fresh investment saved the team, and as a racing outfit with over two decades of history in F1, the Swiss team is perhaps the least likely to fold. Lotus’ struggles in 2014 have also been well-documented, but with plenty of finance coming into Enstone courtesy of Pastor Maldonado, it too looks stable enough to survive, even if it does not flourish.

Concerns about Marussia came about following the team’s u-turn over Alexander Rossi’s planned F1 debut at Spa. Originally, Max Chilton said that he stepped aside to allow the team to sell the seat and raise funds, only for the Briton to be reinstated the next morning. Do funds need to be raised? Some in the paddock believe that simply getting to the end of the season would be an achievement for Marussia, although finishing ninth in the constructors’ championship, and the prize money it brings, may go a long way to helping the Anglo-Russian team.

A 10-team grid is perhaps the most probable situation we’re left with in 2015, which would then be boosted to 11 with the arrival of Haas F1 Team in 2016.

Let’s play devil’s advocate and say that we do indeed have eight teams on the grid. Due to the commercial contract of the sport, it is likely that some of the bigger teams – Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull – would be interested in running a third car. Eight teams, three cars each, 24 car field – which is what we had in 2012 with 12 teams.

Speaking in yesterday’s FIA press conference though, it was made clear that three-car teams were a last resort, contrary to Bernie Ecclestone’s comments.

“I’m a firm believer, as I’ve always said, that every effort should be made to make sure all teams, big and small, survive and race,” Force India owner Vijay Mallya said. “That’s part of the DNA of Formula 1.

“But the regulations and the agreements do provide that, if the grid is less than 20 cars, then participating teams will race a third car. That’s something everybody signed up to as well. I hope it never comes to that.”

Given that Mallya has brought Force India up from the back of the grid towards the front of the field, he is in a good position to pass comment on the situation. However, even Eric Boullier of McLaren – at team that could easily run a third car – feels that it is not something the sport must pursue.

“We obviously all look for what will keep all the teams onboard,” Boullier said. “That’s the first priority.

“There are some mechanisms that, effectively, if some teams were not on the grid, we would maybe run three cars to keep the grid at a decent number. But I don’t think we are there yet, as I said before.”

It is well-known that there is a cost problem in Formula 1, and Claire Williams said that the fact that such ideas are being floated act as evidence of how grave the issues are.

“I think that to be having this conversation now shows where we are as a sport,” she said. “We need to be working harder to ensure that we protect the teams that we have on our grid to ensure that competition that I don’t necessarily think having three-car teams brings.

“I think we want to have a healthy grid of ten teams all fielding two cars. Not four teams fielding three cars. For Williams, that’s not the DNA of our sport.”

Of course, the cost crisis in Formula 1 is not a new thing, but the continual refusal of the bigger teams in F1 play ball and sacrifice their own interests to aid the smaller teams at the bottom has created something of an impasse.

Three-car teams would, as Adam Parr boldly said, change the very nature of F1. Although it is an idea that some support, it must be treated as a last resort and nothing more – let us hope that it never comes to that.