Simtek: F1's latest Catch 22 victim

Simtek’s withdrawal from the Canadian Grand Prix was the precursor to its swift decline into receivership.

Led by promising designer Nick Wirth, Simtek entered Formula One at the same time as Pacific Grand Prix, the team for which Bertrand Gachot drives. Its demise, following hot on the heels of those of Lotus and Larrousse, prompted the Belgian to reflect: “It’s very sad to see a team that was doing so well, but that just didn’t have enough oxygen. It’s extremely difficult for small teams to survive, and this is something of a fundamental issue in the sport at the moment. Everybody thinks there will be a miracle, something will happen, they’ll get out of it, but one day, when the numbers just don’t add up, you can’t do it.”

Simtek is but the latest privateer to be dragged under in what Ron Dennis refers to as ‘The Piranha Club’. As head of the Formula One Constructors’ Association, Bernie Ecclestone is the proprietor of that club, but he sheds no tears at Nick Wirth’s loss.

“He’s done a good job and it’s a pity he hasn’t managed to get all the finance together,” admits Ecclestone. “But I think he hung it out a bit and went into battle without making sure the guns were there ready. It’s a bit of an enthusiast’s approach.”

The phrase ‘enthusiast’ is offered, almost apologetically, with a hint of derision. Wirth himself would probably find little shame in the term.

“To me Formula One isn’t life and death,” he said at Monte Carlo, where the backdrop of the Beautiful People reclining on sponsors’ yachts threw his team’s struggle into sharp relief. “I could do the dirty on people and manipulate things to struggle through, but I’m not prepared to limp on like some wounded animal from Grand Prix to Grand Prix, borrowing brakes and bits here, not paying bills there.

“We don’t want Lear jets and helicopters, we just want the chance to do well.”

Sadly, it would appear that there is little room for idealism at such a rarefied altitude of the sport. “This is a very tough business,” intones Ron Dennis. “It is a struggle, it’s survival of the fittest, but that is not unique to motor racing. You’ve got to be honest they (Simtek) didn’t perform. You can’t retain investment if you don’t get the results. This is, unfortunately, a business and a sport: if you don’t perform, you die.”

So how do you perform?

tone “Performance is money,” says Ecclestone. “In general, the more money you’ve got, the more chance you have of doing well. They didn’t have the money to get the job done…”

So the only chance of getting money is by finishing well, and to finish well you first need money. Right. Catch 22.

When he indicates that performance is money, Ecclestone is talking literally. Only a finish amongst the top 10 teams earns F1 outfits the FOCA-subsidised freight deal for the following season. Finish in the very top runners and you get free Goodyear tyres, too. Inevitably then, the big teams those which can afford to pay their own freight cost, get the best deals. And they get their engines supplied free by manufacturers. By contrast, the basement outfits pay for customer engines, and that can often take up as much as 70 per cent of a team’s annual budget. The odds are further stacked against them by the increasingly large number of manufacturers (Renault, Ford, Ferrari, Mercedes, Peugeot, Honda and Yamaha) against which they must battle.

It is for a combination of these reasons that Giancarlo Minardi, whose team has already absorbed the financially-straitened Scuderia Italia, threatens to quit F1 at the year’s end. “It’s hard to sit in heaven when the saints don’t want you.” he suggests.

“You know I said we didn’t have enough money to do the whole of last season,” laughed Pacific MD Keith Wiggins a couple of months ago. “I lied.”

“You did?”

“Yeah. We didn’t even have enough to do the first race!”

He wasn’t joking. The fledgling team’s cars were impounded at Heathrow after last year’s GP at Aida, Japan. They were only released after Pacific raised the funds by promising its cars to a collector at the season’s end. At this point the season was just two races old…

A pragmatic approach has seen Wiggins’ team survive against the odds. “We have no complaint about the structures which exist within Formula One,” he stresses. “We knew we were coming into the risk business.” And, even as Simtek’s chapter closed, Wiggins entreated the media to regard teams such as his own as a “new chapter” in Fl.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the grid. McLaren is struggling to satisfy Marlboro and Mercedes. “We feel the squeeze too,” insists Dennis. “I know the consequences of not achieving we measure it all the time. There’s no point in walking around saying, ‘Oh gosh, it’s terrible, give me a free handout.’

“The start-up costs for a Grand Prix team are horrendous. I wouldn’t even like to think of a birth of a team which has less than 10 million dollars. Operational costs are somewhere in that vicinity again. That is a huge sum of money. But if you are good enough, you can put yourself somewhere between 12th and 18th. If you are good enough, you will creep in to that back-end of the grid just as Jordan did when he first started in Formula One.”

Ironically, though their teams are poles apart, the one thing Dennis and Wiggins have in common is their citing of Jordan as the shining example of how a new team can make good.

What both overlook is that Eddie Jordan gambled all on performance. By putting his faith, and his finance, into Ford’s HB engines, he gained results, admiration… and an overdraft of such magnitude that he too would have gone the way of Simtek had he not picked up his Yamaha deal and Sasol sponsorship.

The Sasol deal, which required title sponsorship, was actually handed down to Jordan by a team unable to accept the terms of Sasol’s approach.