The last few days have been particularly difficult for Caterham F1 Team. As both sides in the ownership dispute claim to have been done wrong by, the staff and workers at Leafield have been caught in the middle of the mess.
Locked out of the factory, and just weeks away from the holiday season, many are facing the prospect of being out of a job as the team staggers on its last legs. It may not even make the next race of the year in Austin, Texas.
What’s even sadder is that it isn’t the first time this has happened at Leafield. Nor is it even the second time. Should Caterham fold before the end of the year, it would in fact mark the third occasion that a team based at the site in Oxfordshire has collapsed mid-way through the season.
Leafield Technical Centre first played host to a Formula 1 operation in the late 1990s when Tom Walkinshaw bought Arrows Grand Prix. The British businessman leased the site to run Arrows from, with the plucky backmarkers managing to survive through thick and thin.
However, its on-track success was never noteworthy. Walkinshaw pulled off a coup to sign defending world champion Damon Hill for 1997, and although he came close to winning the Hungarian Grand Prix of that year, he soon departed at the end of the season when a seat with Jordan became available.
Come 2002, the money had dried up and Arrows was on its last legs. Drivers Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Enrique Bernoldi were even told to deliberately not qualify for the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours as the team simply could not afford to race. By the time of the Hungarian Grand Prix in August 2002, the grid was one team lighter – Arrows was no more, five races shy of the end of the season.
However, some embers did still burn when the site at Leafield was taken over by Super Aguri (pictured) for the 2006 season. The new team was intended to work as a B-team to Honda, and was run by former F1 driver Aguri Suzuki.
The original car was based on the Arrows A23 from the 2002 season, but the outfit soon found its own feet, scoring four points in 2007 courtesy of Takuma Sato. The team’s best ever result came at that year’s Canadian Grand Prix where Sato finished sixth after famously passing McLaren’s Fernando Alonso for position. Teammate Anthony Davidson was also due points, but dropped to 11th after hitting a groundhog.
Come 2008 though, the alarm bells were ringing at Leafield once again. As the team began to limp, it could take part in just four races before folding after the Spanish Grand Prix.
And so we come to Caterham. After debuting in 2010 at Lotus Racing, the team moved to Leafield in 2012 upon becoming Caterham F1 Team, and was the ‘lead backmarker’ then ahead of Marussia and HRT. It stayed in that position until 2013, when Marussia moved ahead thanks to Jules Bianchi’s efforts and talent, and in 2014, Caterham has slipped to the very back of the grid.
It’s a very sorry state of affairs, as summed up in administrator Finnbarr O’Connell’s chat with the Press Association here. Both Fernandes and Engavest are embroiled in a petty war of words when, in the real world, hundreds of jobs are at stake. This isn’t just business: it’s affecting real lives.
HRT was the last team to withdraw from Formula 1. The Spanish team had always been the one at the very back of the F1 field, so its demise and exit at the end of 2012 hardly came as a surprise. However, it was clean – everyone knew it was going to happen, including the team itself.
Although there is the same sense of inevitability with Caterham, those at the top keep saying “keep calm and carry on” before pointing the finger at the other side. It is very undignified.
Let us hope that when future teams arrive in F1, lessons are learned from this blueprint of how not to do it. The word “farcical” springs to mind.