Formula 1’s regulations permit up to 26 cars to be entered for the world championship, yet we haven’t seen that many cars on the grid since the 1995 Monaco Grand Prix — the last for the ailing Simtek team before it went into liquidation. It has always been tough and expensive to run a grand prix team, as the mortality rate of those that try proves, but the challenge has become exponentially more difficult in recent years to the point where few even seriously attempt to.
Yet the world is full of accomplished racing teams with proven track records both for building and preparing race-winning cars and raising the significant funds needed to do so. There was a time when it would be a logical step for a strong team in the junior categories in Europe, yet the chasm between an F2 and F1 team today is so vast that its absurd to look at one as a bigger version of the other. In reality, they are completely different entities. Even a top IndyCar team such as Ganassi, Penske or Andretti would effectively be starting from scratch were they to take on F1.
F1 teams today are huge engineering undertakings. To design, develop and build the cars requires enormous resources before you even consider what it takes to run the cars. After all, each team is allowed 60 operational personnel (defined as those involved with the running of the cars) in the paddock and they all use their full allocation because they are required.
But with F1 changing rapidly thanks to the introduction of what is initially a $175 million cost cap in 2021 — with agreement close to lowering it to $145m in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and the simplification of the technical rules now due a year after, some hope this could bring new teams into F1.
The reality is a little more complicated. Despite the mooted Team Panthera Asia recently confirming it is still eyeing a place, possibly in 2022, it will remain ferociously difficult to make a new team work. After all, the bar for convincing F1 and the FIA that you are worth an entry is set extremely high and the public statements from them on aspiring entrants in recent times hasn’t been very encouraging.
F1 teams today are hugely complicated. Haas is the only organization to have created a start-up team this century that is still operating and, despite being held up as proof it is possible, it’s really only part of a team. Haas is entirely dependent on its technical partnership with Ferrari and the use of Dallara as chassis partner to be able to produce its cars.
While controversial among some rival teams, it’s a perfectly legitimate way to set up according to the rules and it has allowed Haas to perform credibly in its four years in F1. Even so, owner Gene Haas suggested at the start of the year that he would be re-evaluating his team’s ongoing participation because of how difficult it is to make the numbers add up even with this unique structure. If what is effectively F1’s ‘poster child’ is struggling to see light at the end of the tunnel, what does that say about the impossibility of breaking into F1?
While customer cars remain a bone of contention, with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner advocating them as a possible way to help tackle the current financial crisis in F1 (it would certainly be very convenient for the Red Bull-owned AlphaTauri team), they are not legal. The regulations require teams to design and own the intellectual property to key areas of the car — most significantly the aerodynamic surfaces. And aero is the key to performance, with development hugely costly.
This means the Haas model is workable, but only if you can be sure to get a close alliance with another team and can find a chassis design company capable, like Dallara is, of producing an F1 car. The fact is that there are very few of those around with the necessary experience and setup to do so. And even then, you need just over 250 employees and a significant budget just to run those cars.
On top of that, there is a natural ceiling to what you can achieve. When you are dependent on another team, it’s unrealistic to think you will be able to fight for titles. Only two teams in F1 history have ever threatened to do that — Rob Walker Racing with Stirling Moss and Tyrrell when it ran customer March machinery in 1970 for Jackie Stewart — and even then they fell short. So effectively, this model has to be seen as a way to, at best, get to the front of the midfield. Even with the hope the new rules will at least allow midfielders to nick the odd strong result, is that enough to justify the spend?