The FIA must solve the customer car problem

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Once again the Super Aguri transporters have departed a testing session with the teams’ F1 cars not even having turned a wheel. The teams presence in the 2008 championship looks less likely with every passing day.

They could be the second team to announce their non-participation in F1 this year, following Prodrive who were originally supposed to increase the grid size to 24. It could end up being as little as 20.

And unless something is done to allow more teams into Formula 1 grid sizes could become smaller still.

When the FIA announced plans to allow teams to buy and run customer chassis in the 2008 championship there was outcry from some of the smaller teams, not least of which Williams. The team along with Spyker launched an arbitration case against the FIA, but it now seems the purpose of that case is to stall the legalisation of customer cars as long as possible.

That has already forced Prodrive to abandon their plans to race in F1 this year. Team boss David Richards has since used the FIA’s discussions about budget capping to launch a thinly-veiled attack on the governing body, calling budget capping an “excuse for poor technical regulations”:

I don’t believe [budget capping] is going to work. I don’t think it is a viable proposition. I have seen it in Australia where it has been abandoned. I think budget capping is an excuse for poor technical regulations. With proper technical controls, you should be able to manage the costs of F1. It is also about sporting regulations as well.

I haven’t got the time to spend or the finances to invest in a start-up. A start-up will take five years to get right and get competitive, and that is not even winning Grands Prix. I don’t believe that is viable. There might be a possibility of acquiring one of the teams in the future and coming in at that level, but the solution we came to of acquiring a complete package from a team was the only viable solution.

What I find frustrating as a fan is that there is clearly a growing number of teams at sub-F1 level that could make the step up to the sport if they were able to use customer chassis, even if only for the first few years. Many of them applied to be the 12th team in 2008 alongside Prodrive.

GP2 teams like FMS International (Giancarlo Fisichella’s team) and DAMS (co-founded by ex-F1 driver Rene Arnoux) are expanding their F1 connections this year by running teams in the new Formula BMW Europe series which will support F1 at several European rounds.

Others such as ART (run by Felipe Massa’s manager Nicolas Todt, son of Ferrari’s Jean Todt) run Formula Three and GP2 teams and have propelled the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg into Formula 1.

In GP2 and Formula BMW Europe F1 has a ladder for young drivers to make their way into the sport while racing at the same venues as the F1 teams. The next step is to get the teams that are running in these championships into Formula 1. But without customer cars, or some more imaginative technical regulations than the crude tool of budget capping, I can’t see that happening.

Photo copyright: Red Bull / GEPA

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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19 comments on “The FIA must solve the customer car problem”

  1. it’s a sad fact but i think u r correct

  2. Yeah Nathan your right.

    what happened to the days when teams like Hesketh and Tyrrell could just make the leap into f1 and not disappear under the waves within the next few years. f1 is a global sport and we want to see teams that could mix it up with the big boys and nowadays we jsut dont see that anymore. Remember how fun F1 was when the likes of independant owners such as good old Eddie Jordan was around? we need to allow for this to happen again!

  3. I really, really hope we do not see a return of customer cars. Their entire idea goes against the premise of modern-day F1 in my opinion (and I am very opinionated ;)).

  4. I think the whole customer car thing was bad idea to begin with, half cooked proposal that could not work and it did not…

    I do not want to see identical cars running around the track. If that is to be, why simply do not allow every manufacturer team to run 4 cars … That is what would happen eventually, only each pair would have different livery …

    In the past it was much easier to make the step up to F1, but that was the time when privateers were competing with privateers with an exepmtion here and there … Now anybody who enters F1 has to take on the mighty car manufacturers and that is not easy. It requires someone who has bottomless wallet to enter plus someone who has passion for motoracing to succeed.

    I am totally oposed to the idea of customer cars as a solution to problems. But some discussion may bring some compromises. Clearly to make the step up any GP2 or F3 or FBMW team needs a F1 car. To build one from scratch is way too difficult. These days perhaps even impossible unless there is some base to build on. OK, why not allow them to buy older chassis from other teams and start building on that. But make it at least 2 year old chassis and only allow them to do it once and then keep developing that and eventually become proper constructor…

  5. I know the customer cars question divides F1 fans – 50% were in favour and 46% against when there was a poll on it here a recently. But at least it was an attempt to get more teams into the sport which F1 badly needs. A 22-car line-up looks thin to begin with – and 20 will look awful.

  6. Yes, it was an attempt that FIA did not discuss with the teams, had no agreement on that but invited new teams to apply promising them customer cars possibility.

    If you all remember, this happened towards the end of the GPMA existence. The original purppose of the application deadline was not to get new entrants, but to force the existing teams to confirm their commitments to F1. There was a very short deadline that tyime, only around 2 weeks if I remember well. Anybody could apply to be one of the 12 teams. That left 1 spot for new entry.

    It is possible that if that time the whole thing was not rushed as it was, we could have the 12th team on the grid either by now, or the preparartions could have been on the way for new team to enter from 2009. FIA should have expected the negative reactions from teams like Williams or Midland/Spyker/Force India. Especially when Williams team at that time was one seriously wounded animal

  7. It was typical of Max’s political ineptness. He decided what he wanted and decided to ram it through regardless until he hit a barrier that wouldn’t move and the whole thin stalled. The whole business of how the 12th place was allocated is still shrouded in secrecy as there were never any selection criteria made public.

    I don’t think customer cars are a bad idea. I would rather have 4 McLarens, 4 Ferraris etc than watch Toyota blow a huge budget on achieving absolutely nothing. It would also open up the opportunity for young drivers to be given a decent car without huge risk to the major teams. The other thing to bear in mind is that no-one with a customer McLaren is going to beat McLaren. They can have all the data, budget etc but McLaren know how to go about winning.

    Given the possibility that the grid could be decimated by the departure of the manufacturers at any time there has to be a plan B.

    Dave Richards as usual is absolutely right about budget caps. There is no way they can work. The technical regs of F1 are way beyond a joke and it is time Max appointed someone competent to re-write them. How can you have a sport like F1 where no-one can write a method for measuring fuel temperature. A first year lab technician should be able to do that.

    Max would be far better spending money on sorting the tech regs than spending on it on his mate to bully the stewards into quick decisions.

  8. If the sport does not allow customer teams it is doomed to failure within the near future. No manufacturer today is going to spend the kind of money it takes to run a first rate team only to “not” be competetive for at least five years. Right now the only way to get the 12th team is by allowing it to buy chassis and engines from established manufacturers. I agree with Steven Roy in that no matter who they buy from the chance that they will be able to beat their parent team is slim. I also feel that the customer can choose who to buy from. They could but a McLaren chassis and a BMW engine. This allows for engineering by mechanics and aero at a diffent level. Someone may find that perfect combo for the car and be competitive. This is a sport that should be more competitive. I like McLaren, but I also like to see a good race and I am tired of the same 4 cars from P1-P4 in almost every race. For even the purists of you fans can remmember the independents of yesterday. Even if you dont agree with me you have to admit that the initial output of money needed by a manufacturer would be about triple of what it takes to run a team for a year. Saying that I see no one (manufacturer) on the horizon even taking baby steps to get in. VW Audi, who Max lead us to beleive was interested, came to understand that the cost far outways the benefit. The return on the investment is too far in the future or even non existant. I think that Super Aguri will only run a limited race schedule this year. If this happens I think the Concorde Agreements will be revisited. Some thing has to give or more teams are not going to be able to race come next year. Just my opinion!!

  9. I like the idea of allowing a new team to pickup a customer chassis, provided it’s not a current model (ie. they could use last year’s car), but that they could only do this once. For all subsequent years, chassis development would rely on them.

    I also like the idea of each team being allowed one “B” team… aka Super Aguri & Toro Roso. The “B” team would need to be essentially a customer team, mechanically identical to the “A” team, but with different drivers & liveries. If we limit each team to ONE customer team, we can avoid it from becoming a ‘spec’ series. It’s still something that makes me nervous though, as it’s a step in the wrong direction.

  10. William Wilgus
    27th February 2008, 17:35

    Well, customer ENGINES are certainly allowed . . . why not cars (chassis) as well?

  11. It’s hard to conceive that F1 can be really worth it to all of the manufacturers, especially the ones who aren’t winning. With the budgets required to win, you just can’t have a mix of manufacturers and privateers; it either needs to be all or nothing. If Super Aguri dies, or a car maker pulls out, it will be difficult to fill the grid. Max knows that he’s got to make the sport green, and relevant to the future of the industry. There are so many things they could do, and customer cars is the obvious one, especially, as stated above, limited to 4 cars per “constructor”. This spreads development costs across a wider field, adds new blood to a very closed series, and on and on. Why not allow one car entrants? I’ll bet Alonso would set up his own Spanish-funded solo Ferrari team if he could. It’s too bad the teams can’t agree on anything for the good of the sport.

  12. I think customer cars are a great idea for new teams but all the teams should design their cars in the medium – long term because this is what separates Formula One from other series. The only problem with letting new teams use customer cars is that people will come in, like Midland and buy a team for year and then sell it on.

  13. I would see no problem with a customer having the ability to mix and match engines with chassis – that’s what used to happen with virtually every team with the main exception of ferrari – I know there may have been more but in the sixties seventies – lotus/tyrrel/mclaren/etc used the same engine and we had new innovations – wheels/skirts/ ground hugging all coming into play and out?
    This was a great time for competitive racing – everybody copied – without being fined millions and we the fans saw motor racing as it should be – but those are rose coloured memories – we have to move forward and clear teams to come into F1 – I cant see why customer cars arent being allowed apart from one main point – that no one would buy a williams – they know that so they stop other teams getting started – drop williams from F1? – not nice but it’s an idea

  14. It’s a grey area because STR and Aguri aren’t true customer cars. Red Bull and Honda have created separate legal entities that “own” the designs of the respective cars and “sell” them to each team. It isn’t clear why this arrangement wasn’t followed with Richards and McLaren, but it’s a silly technicality. I fully support whatever will give real racers a chance to move up from other categories, but these legal loop-holes need to be clarified. The current Concord Agreement is simply the old one grandfathered in and no one wants to rock the boat, but it’s easy to see Williams point. It’s hard enough to compete against a top team without having to compete mid-field with their customer. There needs to be a consensus solution with the good of the sport being put up front, not the manufacturer’s commercial interests. Oh, and unicorns will have to roam the earth first.

  15. Seems we all agree the current situation is not optimal, and something – although I don’t know what – has to be done. It is simply ridiculous that the matter has lain unresolved for so long. I am not fussed if there are customer cars or not, but clearly there needs to be a decision made one way or another and quickly.

    I would be very sorry indeed to see the loss of Super Aguri on this years grid.

  16. If Williams is so scared that a customer team may be faster then maybe he could become a customer—problem solved!!

    NO-NO that would be too easy!!

  17. It is only a matter of time before Toyota yields to the inevitable and exits stage left. Carlos Ghosn would have pulled Renault out had they been fined anything close to the obscene amount of money McLaren were fined. I believe the only reason he is still there is that he thinks he can sell the team at a profit to Carlos Slim Helu.

    Honda are an embarrassment to themselves but unless they do what Toyota did with Mike Gascoyne and let corporate culture get in the way of someone who actually knows about racing you have to assume that Ross Brawn will turn it around but it could take five years.

    Ford have already left because they discovered they hadn’t a clue how to go about running a racing team.

    If the manufacturers leave and history says the vast majority of them drop F1 like a hot rock the first time their balance sheet has a red number threatening to appear at the bottom of it customer cars must be allowed in.

    I can understand Williams’ position. They have invested a vast amount of money over the years and they don’t want someone to turn up having invested an insignificant fraction of that money and be able to get a fully sorted car/engine package. I understand and sympathise with their position but I don’t see another option. I would guess that now that his team is heading in the right direction again he is simply playing hardball and making sure he gets paid off for going along with the inevitable. I would not like to play poker with Frank. I am sure even Bernie wouldn’t relish that. Lest we forget Frank managed to get Jenson Button to pay him an absolute fortune not to drive for him and in the end probably used that money to keep Nico Rosberg in the car. Not many team principles in the history of the sport have managed to get one driver to pay another driver’s salary while at the same time forcing that driver’s currentl employer to pay him a ridiculous amount of money so that he could afford to do it. And bear in mind Frank achieved this while Button volunteered to go to a team that is unlikely to be a threat to Williams in the foreseeable future.

  18. The FIA cannot intervene on the matter until the Court of Arbitration in Lausanne has had its say on whether customer cars are legal – or Force India withdraws the case. To do otherwise would be to pervert the course of justice.

    Force India hasn’t really got a choice but to continue with the case, though. For all that it would be easier for teams to enter in the short term, the medium term will see small constructors drop out as Ferrari and one other manufacturer ends up dominating the series, using their customer team(s) to protect their works efforts and also to increase the resources available to them. It will make a mockery of any per-team restrictions made to F1, whether they are to the budget or to development tools. Force India will only ever be a small constructor, even if it becomes quick enough to win the championship. Therefore, it sees the customer car case as a matter of its long-term survival.

    I’m sure it doesn’t mind the prospect of having two easier-to-defeat rivals either, for all that Formula 1 needs large grids for long-term viability.

    The solution is not to put customer cars into the mix, but to allow more ways for cars to be quick, and design the rules so that no team can cover every base. This will not only mean that cars will be more varied, but that a team will be able to spend less money and still get a car that is quick some of the time. Since even the best cars will not be quick all the time, this should lead to closer, less costly racing and more viable teams. The problem is that such a method requires the rules to be freed up – and the FIA is bent on going the opposite direction at the moment.

  19. Regarding the suggestion that we could (and some say should) end up with 6 manufacturers fielding four cars each as two teams, I think this would be a sad day for the sport.

    Firstly, how would the selection process for the second teams work? I guess manufacturers would be free to strike their own deals with the smaller teams. But of course, all the smaller teams would be angling for a Ferrari or McLaren. So in effect, the top teams would be able to shape the face of the field, simply by choosing which teams will be more competitive by stepping up to using their cars. Seems unfair that someone like Force India could either struggle or flourish based on whether or not Ferrari deems them a suitable ally.

    Its these alliances, too, that will cause problems. If a manufacturer had both teams running in the top four positions in a GP, the drivers might get the old ‘hold station’ instruction and suddenly we have no action at the front for the rest of the afternoon.

    If the budget cap can work (and they free up the tech regs), I think its the way to go. I’m convinced we’ll see more manufacturer interest in the sport (namely VW Audi Group) and independents will have more opportunities for better results. If Max can get this right, I think we could have a 12 or even 13 team grid within five years, both manufacturers and privateers.

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