While the majority of attention is focussed on the Mercedes drivers’ tooth-and-nail battle for the World Championship, there is a significant behind-the-scenes subplot to the 2014 Formula 1 season – and it could dramatically change the sport as we know it.
The controversial idea of three-car teams in F1 has been floated for many years but it now appears closer to reality than ever, with Bernie Ecclestone voicing his support at the Singapore Grand Prix
“We have a regulation that says if we lose three teams the other teams will run three cars,” Ecclestone told reporters at the Marina Bay circuit.
“I think we should do it anyway. I would rather see Ferrari with three cars, or any of the other top teams with three cars, than having teams that are struggling.”
Marussia, Sauber and Caterham are the trio perceived to be at risk of dropping out over the winter. Should they depart, it is likely that the four manufacturer-backed outfits – Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull-Renault and McLaren-Honda – would run third cars and bolster the grid to 20. The new American-based Haas team would then make it 22 when they enter in 2016.
The idea is not entirely without its merits. Aside from keeping the grid full, extra cars for the top teams would mean talented drivers who might otherwise be running at the back of the field, or perhaps even left on the sidelines, would get their chance in competitive machinery. It is easy to imagine Ferrari promoting Jules Bianchi to their third car, and surely the sport benefits from having the talented Frenchman fighting for podiums rather than 19th place. The careers of Romain Grosjean, Jean-Eric Vergne and Kamui Kobayashi could also be saved.
But that is a slender silver lining to what could be a very dark cloud. Three-car teams might well ensure that a handful of quick drivers remain employed, but it could also lead to a fundamental change that strikes at the very foundations of Formula 1.
Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario in which the four manufacturer squads field three cars each next season. Using 2014 form, we’d see a trio of Mercedes running away at the front. With the possible exception of Red Bull, no other team would have much hope of scoring podiums; the rest would be left scrapping for minor points.
Meanwhile Lotus would be cut adrift at the rear of the pack. That would affect their sponsorship prospects and their hopes of hanging on to Pastor Maldonado, whose funding has kept them afloat this year. It is easy to see them dropping out of the sport in this scenario.
The next victims would be privateer outfits Williams and Force India. Both teams have done superb jobs this season, despite operating on comparatively tight budgets.
The addition of extra cars at the manufacturer teams would harm their results and, by extension, their ability to attract sponsors. Williams currently sit ahead of both Ferrari and McLaren in the constructors’ standings, but in this scenario it becomes inevitable that the manufacturer-backed outfits will return to the front. They already possess much greater financial and R&D resources, while a third car would give them a 50% increase in data gathered over a weekend. Soon enough, the likes of Williams would be fighting to remain on the grid as well.
And it is at this stage that F1 would have a real problem. If the privateers were forced out, the sport would be left with just the manufacturer squads and Toro Rosso. The only answer would be to allow each big team to sell customer cars, with Toro Rosso running a Red Bull, Haas F1 an off-the-shelf Ferrari, and so forth.
That is fundamentally against the idea of Formula 1. The championship can lay claim to being the pinnacle of motorsport because every team builds its own car. What’s more, FIA rules dictate that a series must have at least four manufacturers if it is to hold the prestigious status of a ‘world championship’. It would thus take only one withdrawal to throw the sport into complete turmoil.
Three-car teams have been justified as a means of keeping the grid healthy – and no one can argue with that in principle. But, if implemented, the plan could have the opposite of its intended outcome. The sport’s decision-makers must be mindful of the long-term repercussions of the idea. Once they begin down this road, it will be very difficult to turn back.