The beginning of the new Formula 1 season usually heralds a fresh start for most in the sport. Whether they are drivers, engineers, mechanics or stewards, each and every person in Melbourne will be looking to make a fresh start when set foot in the paddock for the first time in 2015.
However, it appears that the cost crisis that blighted the tail-end of the 2014 season still lingers, with a heated dispute between Sauber and its former test driver Giedo van der Garde threatening to overshadow the Australian Grand Prix this weekend.
Many of the problems with F1’s financial structure were exposed when both Marussia and Caterham collapsed following last year’s Russian Grand Prix, leaving just 18 cars on the grid for the United States Grand Prix, one of the sport’s biggest events. Three further teams – Sauber, Lotus and Force India – considered boycotting that race in protest, demanding change to prevent further losses.
Five months later, and what has changed? Nothing.
Actually, one thing has changed. The grid is now back up to 20 cars following the incredible revival of Marussia F1 Team, now known as Manor Marussia. Fresh investment has got the team to Melbourne for this weekend’s race, and although it may stand little chance of being competitive, the very fact that it will be racing in 2015 is a small miracle in itself.
It is not thanks to a collective effort from the F1 community, though. Force India blocked Marussia’s bid to use its 2014 car this season, complicating the team’s comeback and earning itself a number of critics in the paddock. However, needs must: Force India is known to be in a spot of financial bother, as exemplified by the late debut of the VJM08 car in winter testing.
Force India’s case is an odd one. The team has been so competitive in the past two years, and with McLaren switching to Honda engines this year, many tipped (this writer included) Vijay Mallya’s team to finish in the top five in the constructors’ championship. Now though? The future is unclear. The situation does not appear to be quite as bad as it is for some of the other teams in F1, but Force India will know that 2015 is a year that could prove to be one of its most challenging yet.
What of Sauber and Lotus though? These two teams look poised to enjoy contrasting years on-track, whilst off-track, uncertainty remains.
Lotus’ situation is more positive. The team had its annus horribilis in 2014, scoring just eight points as it struggled to work with the Renault power unit and the E22 car. Since switching to Mercedes power for 2015 though, the noises coming out of Enstone are far more positive. Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado were far more upbeat throughout winter testing, suggesting that it could be a brighter year. The financial boat has been settled as well, it appears, and losing its F1 Strategy Group membership won’t give the team too many sleepless nights.
Sauber looks to be in a deeper mire, with the reality of its problems coming to the fore in Melbourne ahead of the race weekend. In order to ensure it stayed afloat last year, a number of drivers – Adrian Sutil, Esteban Gutierrez, Giedo van der Garde, Simona de Silvestro and Sergey Sirotkin – brought some kind of finance to the team. Van der Garde and Sutil both had firm contracts to race for the team in 2015, and both were surprised when Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr were announced as the firmed drivers last November.
Sutil was paid off by the team, but van der Garde has not gone quietly. Instead, he opted to take the case up with the Supreme Court in Melbourne, which yesterday said that Sauber must race him this weekend. Put simply, it has three drivers contracted and only two seats to race with.
Another court case is due tomorrow, just two hours ahead of FP1, meaning that it is likely the team will proceed with Ericsson and Nasr in its cars. However, the consequences of doing so are still unclear. Inevitably, some kind of contract will be breached.
It’s a total mess, but perhaps one that needed to be made for Sauber to survive. Needs must and all.
What does van der Garde stand to gain out of this though? A drive for a team that doesn’t want him? Will other teams look at him less favorably following this case? Again, the outlook is very unclear.
For F1’s small teams, 2015 will all be about survival, not revival. Even in Manor Marussia’s case, the war has only just begun. It has won the battle by getting on the grid, but must now fight to the end of the season and get back on its feet.
The F1 Strategy Group will continue to sit in its ivory tower and ignore the problems of the smaller teams. It will get nowhere once again in 2015, holding regular meetings where the big five – Mercedes, Red Bull (Toro Rosso included), Ferrari, Williams and McLaren – will call the shots. Force India’s membership has become worthless over the winter.
One can only hope that there are still ten teams left on the grid when Gene Haas rocks up in 2016 with Haas F1 Team. In all honesty, the chances right now look a lot less than 50/50.