In the last two months or so F1 fans have watched in horror as story after story emerged about the car makers varying degrees of commitment to the sport. Max Mosley is today reported to doubt the future of F1 without further cost cuts. But F1 s problems started when Honda left F1 in December, making many realise that the global economic crisis might not only mean tabloid hyperbole and a lot of Robert Peston.
Like dominoes, the armageddon theory goes, they will fall. Toyota don t need F1 and especially don t need F1 without Honda. European car makers Renault and Fiat are suffering and receiving bail-outs. American car makers are dead in the water, affecting the world market. Others are allegedly taking boardroom votes whether to stay in motorsport. Even the healthy ones are privately struggling too, or at least will be in the coming months. Some analysts believe the world is not only seeing unprofitable businesses succumb to the market, but the collapse of the global car industry as we know it. Others, specifically environmentalists, make the justifiable case for governments to intervene, blackmailing the car makers into building green or dying.
So where does this leave F1? In a very healthy state, thank you very much. Should all the aforementioned happen, it does not mean the end of the sport by a long shot. People have very short memories. Prior to the 1990s, the sport was privateer-dominated. On the grid in 1989 stood 20 teams of which only one or two could claim to be manufacturer-led in the way we understand today.
Moreover it is only since the 2000s, and BMW s ill-fated alliance with Williams, that manufacturer dominance has become the norm. That collaboration ended ostensibly because BMW wanted entire control of the team, and Frank Williams and Patrick Head would not let them. However, Williams and Head became something archaic and heroic in so doing. They were the last true privateers in an era where private team after private team disappeared with financial problems relating to a fundamental lack of investment, in a costly era.
Only die-hard fans complained; most thought that if the racing survived, it didn t really matter. And in 2009 everybody reached a point where Ron Dennis, he of the McLaren brand with the Mercedes money, said that he didn t believe a team could exist without a manufacturer behind it.
If what Dennis says is true, then the cost cuts can t come soon enough. Of course competing at the pinnacle of motorsport will always be expensive, but when it has become so expensive that it s completely out of the reach of private teams, the sport s foundations become a bit shaky. Red Bull is of course a bizarre exception to all this two private teams owned by a massive drinks company which probably will go from strength to strength in the next years.
One of the possible outcomes of the present situation is that everything will go back to normal (as in, similar to how it s been in the last ten years). The other is that manufacturers will stop pouring millions into the sport, and instead go back to making cars. Max Mosley today says that this could happen as soon as 2010. Presumably in such a scenario the car makers would still sell engines to teams, much in the way they did on that grid of 1989, and by association benefit from the team s success.
This is an outcome no F1 fan should fear, because it would mean a return to cars made by teams rather than brands. Yes, there would be less money in the sport; yes, there would be less glam; yes, there would be less technology. But the world is changing and for once F1 is being forced to change with it.
The advent of more privateer F1 teams is very possible. The USF1 story broke in the week, and David Richards is itching to get into the sport. Cost cuts are making that a realistic idea, and after a year or two more of financial agony for the car makers, it may well come to pass. When the financial crisis is over, there will still be F1. It may be a little different, but it might well be better.