The ultimate nightmare vision scenario for the smaller teams in F1 when the F1 Strategy Group was formed, effectively shutting them out of the regulatory process, was that it would ultimately lead to the five powerful teams plus the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone bringing in customer cars. They said as much at the time.
On one level it solves the sustainability problem for smaller teams (albeit taking away from them the right to be called ‘constructors’) so there’s a cost control piece, then it also provides income for the big teams as they can sell chassis to the smaller ones. So you can see why the big teams see it as desirable.
They have no intention of relinquishing their up front payments, such as Ferrari’s $97 million a year and Red Bull’s $74m. So budget is not an issue for them and cost control is of secondary importance to competitive advantage.
Hence the subject of customer cars as a solution for the ‘have nots’ like Lotus, Sauber and Force India, is back on the table after the Biggin Hill meeting yesterday, even if it was not included in the FIA’s brief summary of the proposals arising from the meeting.
This is a highly devisive measure, certain to split the teams and to cause a lot of soul searching.
Less well known, another more elegant way to approach the same problem is being developed by those in the sport who favour the idea of a co-constructor model. In this instance a smaller team works together with a larger team to share parts that are not especially performance differentiating and which are allowed to be shared under the rules, but there is a deeper collaboration on the chassis side. This would forge a close alliance so the smaller team would be effectively be a B team, but they would at least maintain an element of being a constructor.
The way Haas is building up to its F1 entry next year has quite a bit of the co-constructor model about it, in its work with Ferrari. They would go further if the rules would allow it and the model has the advantage that a team can benefit from learnings from the partner team and have a story to tell about their own technology, as they do today, rather than just race an off the shelf car, which isn’t very F1.
To make it truly effective and cost-efficient, the co-constructor model needs to be enshrined in the FIA’s technical and sporting regulations and some areas of Intellectual Property exclusivity need to be relaxed. Ir is certainly less divisive than customer cars in the F1 teams’ ecosystem. The F1 teams need to be united at this time, not divided.
It’s easy to argue that in a customer car world a smaller team can never win a race against a ‘works’ team, because they will always be downstream of the parent team. Any constructor can dream of one day winning a race, as Force India came close to doing at Spa in 2009 and Toro Rosso actually managed at Monza a year earlier. Williams won Spain in 2012 when it was the second team in Renault’s engine supply chain after Red Bull.
But practically speaking it’s a hell of a long shot, especially with the huge difference in budgets between the top teams and the rest. So the right next move is the one that maintains healthy grid numbers without destroying the soul of the smaller teams.
Williams, which sits on the F1 Strategy Group by right in an automatic place, is ideologically opposed to customer cars and will have been against it yesterday, along with Force India, but if customer cars were the norm, it would surely seek to be one of the teams whose technology others would want to use.
But we like the idea of co-constructors, it builds on work that has been going on in F1 in recent years since Force India began the model of buying the engine, gearbox and back end of the car from McLaren and Mercedes, but also it mirrors developments going on in the wider business world, where companies that compete against each other in other industries, also look to share back-room functions as a cost saving move, in areas which aren’t fundamental to how companies differentiate each other.