The race to enter F1 continues – unfortunately

After the USF1 debacle, the FIA had opened up the final grid slot again for 2011. Although judging by what has happened (or rather, what hasn’t happened) they may have forgotten they were supposed to award the final entry to someone.

ART, arguable the kings of the junior formulae, were one of the main protagonists in the selection process – their GP2 and F3 credentials backed up with substantial links to Ferrari making them a prime candidate for selection this season. However they backed out of the entry process yeseterday, due to ‘unfavourable economic conditions’.

In other words, they weren’t able to get enough sponsors to commit to their program to secure the long-term finance to make sure the team would stay afloat long enough to last a whole season. And it’s not a surprise either – every start-up team looking to make it into the sport is stuck in a paradox when it comes to finance.

Potential backers want assurances that the team they are investing in will be guaranteed a place on the grid – and the FIA want assurances potential entrants already have the financial backing to make a proper effort in the championship from the off. It’s a paradox nobody has been able to solve so far.

There may be 3 new teams on the grid this year, but two of them aren’t in the same predicament the current crop of wannabe F1 teams are – instead they have the financial security of their team bosses.

Lotus gets most of their sponsorship from the Tune Group – a.k.a. the umbrella over every company team principal Tony Fernandes owns. And, of course, Virgin Racing is connected to the Virgin Group, owned by one Richard Branson.

As for HRTBruno Senna‘s replacement by pay-driver Sakon Yamamoto proves they’re on the brink of financial ruin – the last two teams he drove for eventually folded or were sold on.

With ART out, there aren’t any big names left in the chase for the final grid slot – except perhaps Epsilon Euskadi.

The sportscar manufacturer has its own factory and has built its own Le Mans prototypes in the past – so theoretically at least they would be able to build their own car in house and avoid the problems that have plagued both Virgin and HRT this year. They also have the backing of Carlos Gracia, President of the Spanish Automobile Federation and some experienced F1 figureheads spearheading the latest Spanish F1 effort.

Team boss Joan Villadelprat is a former race engineer who has won Formula One world titles before while at Benetton, while chief engineer Sergio Rinland also has plenty of Formula One experience to bank on.

“They have already demonstrated, both from a technical and professional side, that they could have made a car for Le Mans but unfortunately they were only unable to continue due to financial problems,” says Gracia. “If they’ve been able to make that car, they are able to design a Formula 1 chassis and become a reputable team – I think there’s many possibilities.”

Epsilon are undoubtedly odds-on favourites at this point, but there are a couple of others to watch out for in the race to Formula One.

The Cypher Group is essentially half of a USF1 spin-off – many of the employees from the farcical entry that caused the grid slot to be open in the first place have moved over to the new organisation, and the team has already acquired a driver for its possible 2011 campaign – American Indy Lights driver Jonathan Summerton.

“At the moment [Cypher] are working hard towards everything,” said Summerton. “They are a determined group of guys! They are doing very good and things are coming along, but I can’t say much right now – we are just trying to be low key at the moment”

The other half of the USF1 split is barely worth mentioning – after the USF1 debacle Ken Anderson may as well be dead to the FIA, thus making his Anderson F1 project as likely to be accepted to F1 as a monkey would be to Oxford.

Moving on, there is yet another USF1 faction looking to enter F1 – though primary investor in the failed project Chad Hurley is looking to buy into an existing team instead.

The further we look through the confirmed entrants, the crazier they seem to get. Durango are a familiar name in junior formulae – or rather they were. Their GP2 program was canned through lack of finances, which begs the question – why the hell would they think entering Formula One would be a great idea?

Give them credit where it’s due – buying the Toyota TF110 will certainly mean they will not be anywhere near the front of the field next year, but then again, they may well be doing much better than HRT or Virgin with a solid base to work from.

Speaking of the Toytoa TF110, Stefan GP tried to enter F1 with it last season but were denied the chance to enter, USF1’s place instead being used to start the whole battle over again for the following season. Team principal Zoran Stefanovic almost seems like he’s out of an F1-themed cartoon strip, after having the zany and somewhat insane idea to buy the Lola T97/30 project from 1997 to run it the year after (for those who don’t know, Lola turned up to Melbourne that year, failed to qualify, then called it a day before the next round of the season). You can imagine that with history like that it would be harder to take his efforts as seriously as the rest – though the Toyota involvement took his credibility up a notch.

However they are back for another crack at F1, this time without the Toyota chassis to rely on. The Serbian businessman has ambitious plans for his team – including building a ‘Stefan Technology Park’ on the outskirts of Stara Pazova near Belgrade, which would not only house the SGP Headquarters, but also a purpose built racetrack. Since then there’s barely been a peep out of Stefan GP, taking a surprising low profile approach to this year’s selection process, compared to last year when they tried to sue the FIA.

Not the best way to butter up the people that decide your future is it?

The FIA is expected to make a decision on who will make the cut in early August – but it’s probably already too late. Nobody can commit any serious resources to their efforts to build a car and prepare for 2011 until they have confirmation they’ll have somewhere to race – and going from nothing to a fully built, race ready car in just over 6 months is an extremely tough ask of anyone willing to take up the challenge. For an existing team like McLaren or Ferrari it would be a walk in the park, but with the new teams, the FIA seems to think they can run before they learn to walk. I have a feeling of despair in the pit of my stomach for whichever (un)lucky wannabe makes the grade with FIA, as I fear they will not make it past 2011.

  • LN

    I agree with you that Epsilon Euskadi is a talented outfit with a solid application for the remaining F1 slot. Their facility outside Vitoria is fully equipped and the team has the talent and desire (they want that last F1 spot badly) to front a team worthy of the slot. But you are also right that the decision needed to come already – 6 months isn’t enough time to prepare no matter how much talent Epsilon might have and how badly they might want to get it right. People need to sleep.

    If the FIA thinks that Cypher is going to somehow ignite the sleeping giant of American interest in F1, they would be well-advised to have another think about that. Racing culture in the US is not like F1 culture. Motor sport in America is not high class; it’s proudly and obstinately low brow. [Granted, both F1 and Nascar seem to share an anachronistic acceptance of scantily clad women parading around like human trophies to be won. That’s an unfortunate similarity, but it isn’t enough to draw the attention of most of the American motor sport fan base. “Girls Gone Wild” was invented here – it appears we’re well-stocked with smiling, silicon-enhanced, clothing-deprived females.] Americans need to be properly introduced to F1, which is a tall order given the asymmetry between the high-class, exclusivity of F1 and the resolutely everyman attitude of American race culture.

    It is possible to draw the attention (and $$) of Americans, it’s just going to take more than a single American team in the race to make the real difference. Americans are either leery of what they would perceive to be the arrogance of F1 (the Nascar crowd) or they could possibly be attracted to F1’s exclusivity but worried that supporting F1 would be a vote on the wrong side of history (wealthy liberals who think F1 stinks when it comes to the environment). That is, if Americans paid any attention to F1 at all.

    Then there’s a current event problem.

    BP continues to vomit toxins into Gulf of Mexico suffocating already endangered species, local fishermen and the tourist industry alike. This has refocused the existing American environmental movement against internal combustion engines and drawn in working class southerners as new antagonists against wealthy multi-national corporations. These working class southerners include some of US motor sports biggest fans and the best place to look for F1 fans. It’s just that in this news climate F1 is likely to look a lot like a big wealthy multi-national ‘outfit’ deserving suspicion.

    In my opinion, this just isn’t the right year to choose an American F1 entrant if part of the rationale for choosing an American team is to pull in a large American fan/investor population.

  • Even without the BP crisis (which admittedly I know little about, it’s not such a big deal over here compared to the States) an American F1 team still makes little economic sense. NASCAR will give American investors way more bang for their buck than F1 ever will, on a national basis at least.

    If they think they can run an F1 team purely through American investment, then they are sorely mistaken. As much as Epsilon Euskadi would have been a good choice – it’s too late for them for 2011 – instead they should be awarded a guarenteed place for 2012.

  • The decision should definitely have been made already – 6 months is in no way enough time to build (and potentially design) and test a car. Whoever gets the slot is on a hiding to nothing.

    Epsilon should be the best placed to get the slot, but cynically I can see it going to Stefan (groan) or one of the American groups – simply for financial and business reasons.

  • Actually I wouldn’t rule out Durango yet – if they get lucky while searching around under the sofa and are able to scrape enough money together to buy the Toyota TF110, then the FIA may let them in simply because they would be the only team guaranteed to have a car to race come the opening round of next year. It would be a shame if they did, but the FIA don’t exactly have a track record for great decisions in this area…

    As for Stefan, he may attempt something crazy like buying HRT just to get onto the grid if they faill to get the 13th entry.

  • I agree with James, decisions should of been made by now, look at the new teams this year, It’s only now that we are half way through the year that things are progressing a little with them, 6 months is such a short time to design and build a car.

  • Did think about a team picking up the TF110 design. but how much work would there need to be to bring a 2010 chassis up to 2011 standards – especially with stuff like the moveable rear wings – that’s got to be a big consideration when it comes to rear aerodynamics, and so the design of the whole car.

    As for Durango if they can cobble the money together then wonders will never cease, they pulled out of GP2 at the end of last year becuase of budget problems.