29,000 feet going up; freefall coming down Scaling the nursery slopes of the Everest of F1 is the most arduous task new teams can face, but getting even that far is no guarantee of further progress or a safe downward journey
If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, so the old expression has it. But how do you get into the kitchen in the first place, especially when it’s the one cooking up Formula One menus?
This year, by grace of God, Nick Wirth will steer Simtek Grand Prix into the F1 arena, and so will Keith Wiggins with his Pacific Grand Prix team. The former is a specialist design consultancy which may or may not still have links with FIA President Max Mosley. It’s proceeded in a sensible manner, building up gently and slowly and taking the right sort of steps to reach its goal. It has no racing background per se, although its previous chassis did service of sorts with Andrea Sassetti’s ludicrously managed Andrea Moda set-up in 1992. The way the team was run was no reflection on Simtek.
Pacific encapsulates how hard it is to get into F1. Wiggins, a man some see as a nascent Ron Dennis Mk II, is one of the sport’s great triers. He’s been a racer behind the wheel, and since quitting the driving side has put all his considerable energies into managing his own team. Pacific has now won major championship titles in Formula Ford 1600, Formula Three and, hardest of the three, Formula 3000. On paper, his should be precisely the sort of effort the FIA would welcome into the upper echelons, where there have been the odd frights in recent years as AGS, Zakspeed, Coloni, EuroBrun, Life, Osella/Fondmetal, Brabham, Leyton House March, Scuderia Italia and the like have fallen by the wayside. Granted none of them were star names by that stage of their careers, but they were entries nonetheless. Such grievous loss and its long-term effects do not seem to disturb the governing body unduly as Wiggie and his ilk struggle to make the financial grade to graduate.
Mike Earle knows what Wiggins and Wirth face, having been through it all back in 1989. At that time Onyx Race Engineering was a high flier in F3000. Indeed, ‘Earlie Bird’ had secured the 1987 Championship with March and Stefano Modena, and planned to go F1 in 1988 until the dreaded financial shortcoming delayed him a year.
Initially, it was almost a fairy tale, by F1 standards. Onyx GP fought its way out of pre-qualifying after the first half of the year had yielded fifth place to Stefan Johansson in the French GP, and in Estoril the Swede took a rousing third behind Berger and Prost. Within six months, however, Earle and partner Joe Chamberlain had lost control of their team to sponsor turned major shareholder Jean-Pierre van Rossem, a colourful (some say tasteless) Belgian entrepreneur whose Moneytron financial system was advertised on the cars. When van Rossem finally faded away amid much bombast, along came the unappetising Swiss specialist car builder/collector Peter Monteverdi as owner. His crass and autocratic style led the team to oblivion and a stack of unpaid debts.
Earle, as those who know and like him would expect, has taken such disappointment in his stride, and today remains unembittered by the vagaries of fortune as he and partner Steve Foster run Raceprep from their old site in Littlehampton, and plan to take Onyx back into the F3000 arena.
“Looking back now,” he reflects, “we thought it was tough when we did it, but we were at least at the back end of a fairly good period. We had the benefit of being in a situation where some people still believed that the world’s economy was in boom. So it wasn’t too bad. But also the other thing is that our entry fee was $50,000. Now the ante has gone up so much more, and it costs $500,000!
“I think our budget was quite good back then. We spent in the region of £10M, £15M, for the whole season in 1989.”
£1.6M per Championship point won. It makes you think.
“Probably we spent £1.4, £1.5M to build the car,” Earle continues, “but we were horrendously wasteful. One thing that spreading the build programme over two years,” as Earle had to do in 1987/88 and Wiggins has done in 1992/93 “is that it makes it expensive. You’ve got a design team still working, and any good designer will get a new idea every week. He’s changing the design all the time. If there wasn’t a start race to the season, if they just said let’s start when everybody’s got their car ready, you’d never race!
“If you look now at what Wiggie and Simtek have got to do, it’s very tough. Very, very hard.”
Simtek has one great advantage, as Earle sees it. “In all these things, the overall budget is controlled by the design. Because when people talk about designers being expensive, it’s not what you pay them as a salary, it’s the way they design the car. With Nick Wirth being the designer and the boss, he doesn’t waste money in that area. But I would have thought, at the end of the day, that they’ve ended up spending a million dollars to get where they are today.”
So far neither of the new teams has managed much testing, ostensibly due to delays with the rights parts. Earle understands that line. “No matter what you think, most of that comes back to the fact that there is a problem with finance because the one thing you want to do is get running. For every pound you spend now on testing, before the season starts, it’s worth three pounds once the season does start. That’s what it’ll cost you.
“It costs more once the season starts, because basically before it does you can pick and choose your time. You can say, ‘Right, we’re going to run on Tuesday at Silverstone.’ You can get yourself set up and do the programme, and it’s all mapped out. In the season you might start with the best will in the world saying, ‘We’ll test on Tuesday at Silverstone, it’s an important test,’ but you go off to a race, knock four corners off the car and a few bits and pieces, and it’s all-nighters to try and get there for Wednesday. And you pay more money to get bits made and it just accelerates. You might find you end up having to hire the circuit exclusively. Or you might find that Silverstone is not available, but you’ve still got to do the test, so you might end up going to Ricard. The cost just escalates the whole time. The one thing that’s expensive in the business, that’s time. It doesn’t matter which way you look at it.
“Assume that everybody who runs a race team’s job is to relieve excuses, basically. If you give the designer the necessary finance and people and equipment to design he wants, that excuse is gone. If you give the mechanics good working environment, good salaries, all the equipment that they need to do their job; same with the truck driver, give him a truck that’s reliable and doesn’t break down, those excuses have gone too. That all goes through to the drivers. But the thing you can’t legislate for is if you get behind with the programme.
“The ideal time to build a Formula One car would be to start just about now. Because in June you could walk into a machine shop, a composite shop, which hasn’t got much on, and say, ‘Can you do me a set of uprights and some wishbones? How much? I don’t need need it for a fortnight, three weeks. And it’s that much money,” he pinches thumb and forefinger together. “But if you walk in tonight and say, ‘All six by Wednesday,’ yeah, they can do it, but it’s four times the price.”
Parts, manifestly, do not come cheap in F1. Outside the Big Four, monocoques can easily cost more than £300,000 for a season in which five will be employed. Undertrays can account for a quarter of a million pounds, wings £150,000. Even paint costs can be frighteningly close to £100,000 when materials and labour and the constant need to keep the cars looking presentable is taken into account. You suddenly begin to appreciate where if not necessarily why the money goes. And just what a rarefied atmosphere it can be even on the lower slopes for the small teams who set out to conquer the Everest that is F1.
For the Big Four, you can probably multiply those amounts by any figure of your choice from five to 10.
“On a scale of one to 10,” Earle continues, “it’s probably five times more difficult to get into F1 than it was when we did it last. And I think that the other thing that has happened is that the last guy who got it right, and was in a position to surprise the world with his competitiveness, was Eddie (Jordan). But since then you look for anybody that has come out of the top four teams, and they’re hard to find. And the biggest single denominator of that is that the quality of the teams has risen. When we were there the focus was very much on one car. Okay, if you looked at McLaren they finished both cars everywhere, but the rest of them . . . Now both cars of the top teams count. So you’ve got eight cars that are going to finish ahead of you.”
Earle also has depressing news for the aspirants. “In the old days you’d come in, and everyone would talk about getting established, then taking on the McLarens, the Williamses, the Ferraris and the Benettons of this world within three years. Well, I don’t think you can do that any more.
“I think you have to say that you’re selling to a niche market. And the niche market that’s open now is to say, ‘Right, let’s build a car, a nice looking car, neat, tidy, hung together.’ You can always turn up and qualify somewhere between 20th and 12th, and if you start 12th and moan around you’ll get in the top 10, maybe the top eight if you give it a bit of a go. But you’re catering for a market, for sponsors who either don’t want to, or can’t, pay the heavy money that’s required to be a top team, and you’re serving the apprenticeship role for drivers, team managers, designers, mechanics.”
For the sponsor who can’t ante up for meagre space on a top team’s cars, more space on a lesser team’s cars is often an attractive compromise. Earle is entirely pragmatic about the situation.
“You’ve got to forget about ego, and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’ve got to be there.’ You’ve got to be proud of what you’re doing, and be absolutely as good as anybody in the pit lane, do the best job you can, and maybe the time will come when somebody will come along and say, ‘There’s the big money.’
“But if someone walked in, say, to Simtek right now and said, ‘There’s the same money that Ferrari is spending,’ they’d have that money for five years and they still wouldn’t get anything because it’s the infrastructure and the experience and the time and all the rest of it that’s gone into it.” In F1, there’s no substitute for paying your dues.
Last year Sauber looked very good initially, mainly because it fielded a sound team and a car that it had tested thoroughly and was therefore totally familiar with. But as others caught up, so it slid back down the starting grids. But it still has dues to pay before it can challenge for regular podium places.
“I reckon that to get the last 10 percent of the performance,” Earle says, “you need 95 percent of your budget. And that’s a fact of life. When we really got out of control,” and fell prey to van Rossem’s ultimately disastrous takeover of a majority shareholding “was when we took that fifth at Ricard and actually started to believe that that was our rightful place. So then we started spending money. And then we got the third place a super result, and you can’t take it out of the record books or anything like that but in all reality Mansell and Senna took each other off and the two Williamses both dropped out on the same lap. So our real position was that seventh place, which you will get on a good day if you start 12th. Which is where we started that race.”
If this all makes depressing reading for Wirth and Wiggins and doubtless it will even if it merely strengthens their resolve we should offer sympathy. Nobody said anything worthwhile in life should be easy, and indeed nothing is ever won without sacrifice. But one just has the tiny suspicion these days that F1 might be pricing itself too high. Take it on another few years where it has wholly become polarised around the might of McLaren, Williams, Ferrari and Benetton, and there may not be that many ‘little’ enterprises vying for fifth place in their wake, nor too many coming up through the ranks to challenge for their own slice of Murray Walker commentary.
Imagine how Everest’s image would fade if nobody aspired to climb it, or if it was attacked time and again just by the same familiar faces. D J T