GO BACK HALF-A-DOZEN years and Formula One had no less than six manufacturer-backed engine suppliers – Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Ferrari, Honda, Toyota and BMW – with Cosworth in the mix until end-2006. Then, in quick succession, they left, leaving just Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari to power the sharp end, although Cosworth made an FIA-supported return at the back of the grid from 2010 as supplier to the likes of Marussia and HRT. Said motor companies also had stakes in teams, with the operations of Renault, Honda, Toyota and, of course, Ferrari, being wholly-owned subsidiaries, whereas Mercedes and BMW held substantial shareholdings in McLaren and Sauber respectively.
However, since 2009 that landscape has changed substantially with first Honda, then Toyota and BMW departing the scene totally – the last-named handing back team ownership to privateers Sauber, which immediately switched to Ferrari power. Renault divested itself of its team in tranches, initially selling a 50% slice to Genii Capital, then transferring the balance to the investment fund a year later – but retained the engine operation. Mercedes sold its 40% shareholding in McLaren, using the proceeds to purchase Brawn GP (ex-Honda, formerly BAR, née Tyrrell) in partnership with an Abu Dhabi entity.
At the time, the motor companies blamed the global economic crisis for their hasty exits, yet on closer examination a case could be made that the GEC was none other than an extremely convenient ploy, enabling them to depart the sport without alienating a world-wide fan base running to tens of millions. Yes, car sales were down, yes the outlook was uncertain – but F1 formed part of the manufacturers’ respective marketing mixes, and they did not simultaneously cease other promotional activities.
In fact, exiting F1 collectively cost them a pretty packet, for Honda donated its entire operation to management plus provided sufficient funding for the team to win both 2009 championship titles as Brawn, while Toyota’s redundancy and plant mothballing costs could have funded the team for at least another season. BMW sold its shares back to Peter Sauber at a favourable rate, and Renault not only lent Genii the required capital, but provides engines at favourable pricing.
All this smacks of companies desperate to leave F1 – and not for economic reasons, either, as evidenced by their embracing of alternate categories such as DTM (BMW), World Rally (BMW’s Mini brand), Indycar and IMSA (Honda) and Le Mans (Toyota). They are not alone in shunning F1: Audi is super-successful at Le Mans, having won the 24 Hour classic 11 times this century, while VW spends its motor sport millions in the WRC. It follows that these categories offer manufacturers greater bangs for their bucks than did F1 or pursuits such as golf, tennis or even the arts.
Audi’s crushing Le Mans victory run ranks amongst the most cost-effective dominations in motor sport history – even at an estimated cost of well over a billion rand per campaign – but there is a story behind Audi’s (and Toyota’s) reasoning: sports car rules provide levels of road car relevance of which Formula One, with its archaic V8 engines and high profile tyres, can only dream.
Peter Sauber, whose silver cars won Le Mans in 1989 before he took his team upmarket into F1 in the early 1990s at the behest of Mercedes, believes sports racers are inherently more challenging to engineer than single-seaters. ‘There are so many additional components in sports cars, all of which can lose the race,’ the Swiss told me. ‘Seat adjusters, headlamps, wipers, demisting and ventilation systems – all need to be engineered properly. One never even thinks of such items in F1,’ added the man whose Sauber-Mercedes’ took countless sports car victories.
Consider the monster Audi R18 TDI e-tron’s specification: Quattro all-wheel drive, flywheel hybrid systems, high-pressure direct-injection 3.7-litre V6 turbodiesel producing over 400 kW, LED lighting able to turn night into day at 330kph, 18-inch rims, six automatic drive modes to control everything from traction to wet weather settings, and futuristic bodywork. The R18s had the 250000-strong 2012 Le Mans audience – many of whom saw over 5000 kilometres of competitive driving for under R2000 and enjoyed access to most areas – drooling as the cars took a comfortable one-two in mid-June.
Toyota’s TS030s were no less sophisticated, having 3.4-litre petrol power augmented by electronic hybrid systems based around super-capacitor storage devices. Despite this being the Japanese giant’s first year back at the Sarthe, a TS030 led briefly before being eliminated in a high-speed shunt caused by an amateur backmarker.
Compare this situation with F1’s lack of appetite for low-profile rubber – tyres fitted to team trucks are of a lower profile ratio than F1’s specified 13-inch, 65-aspect ratio – bans on driver aids, dumbed-down hybrid systems, enforced pit stops to spice the show, total dearth of racing in anything other than bone dry conditions, tightly-controlled access, plummeting spectator numbers, astronomical ticket prices and the sport’s dogged refusal to accept anything other than the V8s that have their roots in the last millennium.
Despite a little over a year remaining before F1’s green 1.6-litre hybrid engine regulations – which Le Mans is willingly embracing – come into play, moves remain afoot behind the scenes to retain the old dinosaurs with their ungainly wings, gawky tyres, stepped noses and specification V8s on cost grounds while watching on as Bernie Ecclestone and Co syphon off billions.
Any wonder shareholders in Mercedes – the only major manufacturer still in F1 as an entrant – increasingly question the company’s involvement?