This week marked the start of Formula 1 winter testing, the equivalent of the first day back at school after the summer holidays. A variety of cars were paraded, different drivers took to the track and a range of times were set according to various configurations of fuel and tyres. People have a tendency to get a bit over-excited about who’s going fastest, but it’s impossible to tell what the teams are trying to achieve with each batch of tests and so the lap times are pretty much irrelevant (unless someone is going really, really slowly of course).
With that in mind I wasn’t too bothered about whether Alonso was top of the timesheets or if the Mercedes was any good or if Frank Williams had extended the budget to include hobnobs. I was much more interested in the rumblings coming from various media outlets about the goings-on at the bottom end of the field.
If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, here’s a brief overview. Last year, four new teams were granted places on the 2010 Formula 1 grid. Two of them – Virgin and Lotus – have already announced their driver line-ups and are in the process of launching their cars and starting pre-season testing. The other two – Campos and USF1 – have by contrast been conspicuously quiet, which has led a number of folk to question whether they’re going to be ready for the start of the season or not.
To further complicate matters, a mysterious Serbian outfit by the name of Stefan GP popped up in the latter part of last year and claimed it wanted to go racing in 2010. When Toyota pulled the plug on their racing operations, Stefan bought all the stuff and reiterated its desire to go racing. Now, you don’t just turn up at a Grand Prix with the cars on the trailers and start racing. There are all sorts of procedures to follow and agreements with other teams to enter into, none of which Stefan have done yet apart from getting their car crash-tested. Nonetheless, the bold Stefan have put a container of gear on a crate bound for the first race in Bahrain in the hope they will be granted an entry or that one of the other teams won’t make it.
What’s my point in being interested in all of this? It’s the number of potential outcomes and all the ifs and buts hanging over these teams, which gives the average fan with a laptop like me a fantastic insight into the weird and wonderful workings of Grand Prix racing. Firstly there is the issue of cars. The USF1 and Campos machines haven’t been seen in the public domain yet, and are reportedly still in the design and manufacture process. Bear in mind these are cars they started working on in the latter part of last year. Producing a ‘slow’ F1 car that’s three seconds a lap off the pace still takes a phenomenal amount of doing – even with the amount of knowledge, existing designs and expertise already in existence. Stefan, meanwhile, have the chassis and engines that Toyota started to build and have just passed their last crash tests. Yes, that’s right, F1 machines have to be homologated and crash tested. This reminded me just how incredibly, incredibly complex machines F1 cars are even in the most basic form.
Second is the question of entry. USF1 and Campos have a slot, Stefan doesn’t. USF1 and Campos allegedly aren’t ready, Stefan seemingly is. A deal is reputed to have been struck whereby the new teams are allowed to sit out three of the races in their first year, but no matter what happens Stefan won’t be allowed to race unless they are accepted into the mythical Concorde Agreement signed between all the teams. In other words, even if US or Campos don’t make it, Stefan can’t just jump in and take their place. There’s a right way to go about setting up an F1 team, and no matter how much money you have you can’t just pitch up and hope to be allowed to race in the way you might at a Scottish rally. As we see time and time again, then, it’s not just a sport – it’s so much more than that.
From a fan’s perspective, what would I like to see happen? In an ideal world, I’d like to see all three of the ‘maybe’ teams doing a full season, because that means six more cars on the grid and as such six more drivers getting a chance to prove themselves in the greatest racing series on the planet. I know Formula 1 is supposed to be exclusive and that you can’t just have anyone out there racing, but an extra six cars isn’t exactly flooding the market, is it? Motor sport is littered with could-have-beens who never had an opportunity to prove themselves at the highest level for whatever reason, and if three more teams means six more potential stars – plus all the team staff – getting an opportunity then it’s no bad thing.
More realistically, however, if the deal to miss three races means all of these teams can have a crack them I’m in favour…with one caveat. I would argue that if a team chooses to sit out three races in order to preserve funds, then it must use the money it saves to hire one driver who has not raced in F1 before and who brings no more than, say, £200,000 of sponsorship. That way, new teams can come out and new drivers can get almost a full season behind the wheel without having to queue up behind those who are well past it or who have plenty of cash. I’m looking directly at Stefan GP, reportedly in talks with Kazuki Nakajima and Ralf Schumacher (shudder), when I say that.
On the flip side, I can see a certain logic in saying that all teams must do a full season and have an adequate financial and logistical infrastructure in place. Having teams dipping in and out is arguably confusing for the public and somewhat uncertain for the employees involved – you only need to look at the World Rally Championship to see how allowing teams to do selected events can lead to depleted late-season entry lists or one-off efforts. Last year was also the first year for a while when there were no steaming turds on the grid. By that, I mean that virtually every car was on the pace at some point in the season and that every team came away at the end of the year with points. Ensuring every team is up to speed and on the ball leads to closer competition and therefore arguably more exciting racing.
No matter what happens, though, who really cares if three slow teams make the grid or not? Given that as I prepared to leave the house today I picked up my keys from next to my European Minardi model and pulled on my Super Aguri jacket, it’s safe to say I do. I always like stories about the smaller teams in F1, quite simply because you don’t get this kind of craziness going on with the more established outfits nowadays. There is something very intriguing and just a little bit exciting in trying to fathom out what’s actually going on behind the scenes – how much work they’ve actually done on the car, if they’ve been speaking to any drivers, whether they’ll get an entry, if they even have enough money to run their vehicles. It adds another bit of excitement to the otherwise dry spell when all the frontrunning cars have been unveiled and drivers signed up. And anyway, an F1 car is still an F1 car no matter who designed it and what engine it’s got in it. If it wasn’t for the forerunners of USF1, Campos and Stefan, who knows how many drivers wouldn’t have had the chance to go on to greater things?