By on September 10, 2006

raikkonen-pole-2-600222.jpg Once again, the queen of motor sports is in transition. Big, well-funded manufacturer teams– Ferrari, Mercedes, BMW, Renault and (yes) Toyota, etc.– are doing a Reagan: spending their less well-funded opponents into oblivion. To wit: Jordan, Minardi and (yes) Jaguar are no more. This creeping consolidation will certainly fuel the anger of those fans who’ve long claimed that big business is killing F1’s spirit. While it’s sad to see the privateers leave the circus after decades of noble competition, F1’s commercialization is actually good news. It will lead to a more engaging and closer battle between the teams.

The manufacturers’ motivation is stronger than the smaller independent teams’. A Mercedes racecar that suffers constant reliability problems will negatively reinforce the connection to the brand— an association that Mercedes doesn’t need and can’t afford. A Renault that can beat a Ferrari adds luster to the French brand, stimulating the patriotism upon which the automaker depends. The stakes are higher than mere trophies on a shelf, as F-1 becomes a showcase of a brand's image, for good or worse.

Toyota, who made their team from scratch (as is their style in such things), is throwing billions of dollars into the game, looking for a championship to burnish their reputation for quality and reliability. BMW, who bought Sauber when Williams couldn’t get the job done, want to have the ultimate driving machine in the ultimate sporting arena. Honda, although it has a very successful past in F-1 with McLaren and BAR, now needs to prove that a Honda can earn the ultimate accolade. Again, Mercedes purchase of the McLaren team shows their full-on commitment to set a world standard on a world stage.

In recent years, Ferrari has dominated F1. Their excellent engineers, drivers and teamwork have brought the marque well-deserved glory. But anyone who follows the sport closely knows that Ferrari also has a strong hand behind-the-scenes. This year’s FIA ban on the Renault cars’ active dampers resembles the ban on mechanical differential brakes in the Mclaren-Mercedes cars. Some say Ferrari had a hand in both decisions. I’m not saying Ferrari is manipulating the rules to secure a competitive advantage, but I’m not saying they’re not either. Changing the rules mid-season is not only confusing and detrimental to the long-term planning for engineers but also upsets the naturally evolving battle for technical supremacy.

The need to keep Ferrari (and the money derived from Ferrari) in the sport is quickly becoming less important than the money pouring into the game by the other manufacturer teams. Ferrari still has some cards to play both on and off the track, but time is running out. The years ahead will certainly see many more Ferrari victories, and the strong likelihood of a world champion in the person of Kimmi Räikonnen, but the team will eventually face a more competitive battle for F1 supremacy.

The new manufacturers’ teams have more money and resources than the Italians. As a result, we’re already seeing a better grid; the qualifying grid at Monza was closer than we’ve seen in a long time. Finishing positions are also in flux. Jenson Button’s recent win and the podium for Kubica in Monza show that new names are making the grade. Look for these trends to continue—to the benefit of both F1 race fans and the teams themselves.

There is a bump in the road: recent changes in the rules of the F1 game banning engine development and selecting only one tire manufacturer. These changes will slow down the pace of development. Short term, they will help Ferrari, Red Bull and Cosworth. In the longer term, the rules will favor the strongly committed factory teams. But if history is any indication, no rules can really stop the engineers from getting around them and making better cars.

The change in teams is being accompanied by a radical change in F1’s commercial sponsorship. There has been an momentous shift away from the traditional tobacco sponsors (that used to be so important to be included in team names) to more high-tech sponsors such as HP, AMD and Intel. Teams using Intel chips in their trackside computers or engineering mainframes connect the chipmaker’s brand name to the team's success. Despite Ford’s withdrawal from the sport, the automotive industry is still investing heavily in the sport. In fact, Formula One is sealing its reputation as a top showcase for brands and manufacturers– for what they stand for and what we associate them with. And that’s why the sport’s remains vibrant.

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12 Comments on “F1: The End of an Era...”


  • avatar
    pogi

    This year’s FIA ban on the Renault cars’ active dampers resembles the ban on mechanical differential brakes in the Mclaren-Mercedes cars. Some say Ferrari had a hand in both decisions.

    1) The illegality of the mass damper system was proposed to the FIA by McLaren, not Ferrari. Ferrari also ran tunable mass dampers and also had to remove them following the rules clarification.

    2) It’s a passive component, not an active one. It’s merely a sprung, movable mass and not one that reacts actively to inputs from sensors or other data sources.

    … it’s sad to see the privateers leave the circus after decades of noble competition

    1) 50% of the teams on the grid will be privateers:
    Spyker, Prodrive, Super Aguri, Williams, Red Bull, Scuderia Toro Rosso

    2) Car manufacturers come and go as they please in F1. This is the 2nd foray into F1 for BMW, Honda, and Mercedes-Benz, 3rd for Renault. Ford, Porsche, Lamborghini were in F1 once. Now they’re not.

  • avatar
    TexasAg03

    This year’s FIA ban on the Renault cars’ active dampers resembles the ban on mechanical differential brakes in the Mclaren-Mercedes cars. Some say Ferrari had a hand in both decisions.

    As opposed to the tire rule changes from a couple of years ago which clearly (heavy sarcasm alert) were not aimed at knocking Ferrari and Mr. Schumacher down a few notches.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    In the world of boat racing, unlimited hydroplanes remain as a sort of F1 on the water. When the Gold Cup was first created in the early 1950s, the competition was between Seattle WA and Detroit MI; and it provided something for both cities, most especially Seattle, which had no major league stick-and-ball sports at that time.
    But then came the late Bernie Little and the Budweiser team. If anyone almost singlehandedly ruined unlimited boat racing, it was he. That team dominated by dint of having the deepest pockets.
    Fortunately, the Budweider team is out of unlimited racing and Mr. Little is probably somewhere in the afterlife negotiating another. In Seattle, boat racing has become little more than a back-drop to the U.S.N. Blue Angels flight team, during SeaFair.
    There are parallels to F1. The cost to field a car is so enormous, the manufacturers – such as Toyota – want to become prime players (as was Bernie Little in that other realm). However, just as Seattle and Detroit fought for the Gold Cup, so too should the nationalistic element be left in F1.
    In today’s world of jingoistic nonsense, perpetrated as foreign policy, that may seem the wrong way to go. However, as no less an authority on racing than Brock Yates has pointed out, America could indeed benefit from having someone field a F! team, as Dan Gurney once did.
    So to those big buck Baby Boomers spending their dough on Hemi-powered ‘cudas and Challengers, is there anyone there willing to back a new American Eagle F1 team, just to show we can still get it right?

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Spelling correction to last post: it should be “Budweiser.” My apologies to the so-called “King of beers.”

  • avatar
    Andras Libal

    pogi: thanks for your comment and clarification. I do wish to add that Ferrari’s mass damper was developed after Renault already had the system in place (and was far from being that effective a Renault’s), and that removing it from both cars clearly favoured Ferrari and it is a big reason why Ferrari looks set to win both titles now. Flavio Briatore was fuming when the decision was made and he was right because the rules have been changed so late in the game. The controversy was not wheter it’s active or passive but wheter it only helps to keep the tires more on the road (which it did) or wheter does it also enhance the car’s aerodynamics. As for your second point: manufacturers did move in and out of Formula-1 but this time they’re in not just as engine suppliers but as whole teams and I think that changes the game.

    TexasAg03: no, really ? :)) (keeping to your healthy sarcasm) But at least they were not brought in mid-season.

  • avatar
    rm

    I had been under the impression that it was not so much a change in the rules, but how the rules were interpretted. Mass dampers became illegal because midseason they were reclassified as moveable aerodynamic devices, which are verboten in F1. I still don’t see the logic in that, but that’s the FIA for you.

  • avatar
    tom

    The interpretation of the rules seems to change in Ferraris favour every time. Mercedes’ mechanical differential brakes suddenly became 4 wheel steering which is illegal, while Ferrari had some aerodynamic element (some sort of flap behind the front wheels, I don’t know what they are called) that was clearly against the rules (I think it was too big or too close to the front wheels or something like that) and FIA decided that in this case, the rules are actually more like guidelines anyway and that there is some wiggle room.

  • avatar
    BigChiefMuffin

    I think that looking thru the above comments accurately summarizes what is wrong with F1 these days. The sport is totally dominated by politics, money and behind the scenes influence, which even those who have a deep in depth knowledge of the sport ( and most of the commentators above clearly do ) – even they are left to speculating as to what is really going on. The net result is a “spectacle” which is boring ( how many times this season has anyone actually physically overtaken anyone for the lead after the first few laps ? ) and leads to results the honesty of which are highly open to debate. For people who enjoy motor racing, look elsewhere…

  • avatar

    What’s wrong with F1? That comes down to one comment made by one of the commentators for the MotoGP race Sunday from Sepang – one heck of a 24 lap catfight between Valentino Rossi and Loris Caparossi. I quit counting after the lead changed hands five times in one lap.

    The comment? “There’s been more passing in one lap of this race than a season of F1.”

    ‘Nuff said.

    Syke
    Deranged Few M/C

  • avatar
    a_d_y_a

    sykerocker.

    what he said.

  • avatar
    spinjack

    Its not Ferrari, necessarily, with the influence. Its very likely Fiat, who owns a sizeable portion of Ferrari.

  • avatar
    Mitchell Yelverton

    The history of privateer teams in F1 has been a great one, but it is correct that they’re disappearing from the map. We’ve seen Brabham, McLaren, Jordan, the Gurney Eagle, etc… today, the role of the privateer teams is being replaced by the role of the manufacturer B-teams. Red Bull and STR, Toyota and Super Aguri, etc. While commercialization is nothing new to F1 (which started in earnest with Bernie’s assumption of the role of sole negotiator for the teams, in its current form the GPMA), the money poured into the sport by the manufacturers has led to some interesting developments. Most importantly, the level of restriction inherent in the technical regulations has made the perfertion of a concept more important than innovation in concept, a radical departure from the past. A simple case study – Lotus 49 and 72, lightweight and innovative in comparison to their peers, vs the current R25 and R26 Renaults, basically cookie cutter examples of the design forced onto designers by the regulations.

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