STRAW: Is F1 ready for new teams?

Jerry Andre/Motorsport Images

STRAW: Is F1 ready for new teams?

Insights & Analysis

STRAW: Is F1 ready for new teams?

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If you want to come in as a full-blown team, then you need vastly more staff and money. You will need to invest heavily in equipment to be able to design, develop, test and manufacture the cars. So as well as needing the annual budget of $145m — realistically, the figure is higher as there’s all sorts of spending on top that is not included — you’ll need to make significant capital investments to set up the team and equip it. And even then, you will be playing catch up for years against teams that have endless amounts of historical data, design work and expertise already built up.

Drawing interest from new teams was one of the objectives of the new rules. As F1 CEO Chase Carey said ahead of last season, “It is one of our strategic goals — we want to make the sport more attractive to potential new entrants.” But as always things are not quite so straightforward. While a simplified, cost-capped F1 certainly makes it easier, that’s only a comparative term. Make the impossible slightly easier, and you are still only just within the realms of what’s possible.

But it’s worth asking how keen F1 really is on new teams. It definitely doesn’t want a return to the situation grand prix racing was in at the end of the 1980s and start of the ’90s, when it was oversubscribed and some teams well short of the desired standard were attempting — often very unsuccessfully — to qualify for races. That’s a bad look and just creates problems, negative news stories and questionable associations for the brand.

Insufficiently resourced efforts like Simtek, seen here in its final appearance at Monaco in 1995, offer a cautionary tale about what prospective entrants are up against. Image by Motorsport Images.

This doesn’t mean F1 can afford to cut itself off, though, and the risk is that this is effectively still the case. During discussions for the new commercial agreements that will govern F1 from 2021 onwards, the question of new teams was a thorny one. After all, the existing 10 teams are all part of the club and the majority of their income stems from the chunk of F1’s revenue that they share. If you try and share the same pie out between 13, you’re going to be getting a smaller cut than if you’re one of 10. F1 teams won’t see it as being in their short-term interest to let others into the club.

F1’s priority should be to ensure the ongoing participation and health of the 10 existing teams. They are the only 10 organizations capable of designing, building and running an F1 car in the world so form the core of F1. But they must also be protected from their own instincts for self-preservation, as there’s no question that a little fresh blood will one day be needed to ensure numbers remain high. And if a genuinely strong team emerged as a title contender, that could help to grow F1’s appeal. Increase the revenue and teams might be getting a slightly smaller share of a pie that’s worth significantly more.

That’s why F1 does need to do more to make it realistic for a new team to aspire to come onto the grid. There’s a marked difference between the look of a 20-car grid and one with 24-26 cars on television, it will allow more opportunity for drivers to break into grand prix racing, create more action, new stories and give new characters to help draw people into being interested in F1. As the Drive to Survive series on Netflix has proved, people are keen to engage with the personalities when presented in the right way.

There is a balance to be struck here. What perhaps will be more telling is what happens as the cost cap continues to glide below the $145m mark — if, indeed, it does as there’s strenuous opposition in some quarters, including from Ferrari. And that’s not just what might be called typical Ferrari intransigence, as there are genuine concerns about F1 forcing job losses by regulation. That’s something that should be avoided given the impact it will have on real people trying to make a living.

Surveys suggest that while fans want more competition, they also want innovation and car differentiation. Image by Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

But lowering the cost cap should also ensure teams are more sustainable, and even raise the possibility of freeing up the regulations again to encourage more innovation and, potentially, variety. There will still be big teams and smaller teams, but given technical innovation always emerges as an important part of the appeal of F1 in surveys (and we can take that to mean innovation that can be clearly seen and, at its basic level, understood), this could also help F1 and the potential for new teams to come in and shake things up.

If the costs continue to come down, the on-track action becomes ever-more sellable (and we should remember that, despite the doom and gloom, F1 does remain hugely popular among fans who consume it across multiple platforms), then it will become that little bit more possible for new teams to come in.

This is what F1 should be aiming for. Retain the current selectiveness to ensure only worthy, credible, stable teams can get an entry but ensure that F1 is so successful that it has the pick of multiple serious applicants — and for the same reasons also the engine suppliers to propel them. That can only be good for F1, which would be bigger and better than ever before — for those watching and participating.

F1 should be in a position where successful team owners from other branches of motorsport can aspire to compete. Right now, the boss of a strong F2 or IndyCar team would justifiably laugh at the idea — it would be a hugely risky and overly-ambitious objective. Unless, of course, they have infinite money burning a hole in their pockets.

A strong and stable 20-car F1 is a good thing. But 24-26 cars would be even better.

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