Bring back diversity

Why Formula 1’s sleek modern world is all the poorer for the absence of makeweight teams

Right now we are poised to see the first season of what is hopefully a very new kind of Formula 1 racing. Can’t say I’m optimistic, but perhaps engineering of the non-technical kind might emerge to plug the leaks in what some are convinced has been a sinking ship. Frankly, engineers of the technical kind have done quite enough to screw up competitiveness within the category for many years now, perhaps even as far back as the 1970s.

We are down to a diet of 20 starters – not quite as bad as the FIA World Championship’s nadir at the 1968 Spanish GP, when there were only 14 entries (one of those non-started) and only five survived until the finish. So don’t swallow all that “better back in our day” stuff without adequate perspective.

Note that I am charitably ignoring here the total fiasco of the 2005 US GP at Indianapolis, with its mere sextet of starters after safety fears for Michelin’s tyres persuaded most teams to opt out – and after a Toyota had qualified on pole too… That’s right – a jaw-dropping advertisement for Formula 1. At least Austin in recent years has worked real wonders in recovering America’s respect for F1.

My point is that Formula 1 racing sorely needs really full grids, and a fleet of more or less cannon-fodder backmarkers, purely to provide the backdrop against which the big teams and their genuinely star drivers can look really good. 

Given the vast commercial investments embodied within big teams today, the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Renault, Red Bull – yes, and even much-humbled McLaren – simply cannot afford the widely broadcast humiliation of downfield finishes, of finishing last, or fourth from last. They need the extras – the walk-ons, the humble spear carriers – just as much as a Shakespeare history play. 

When a new F1 was launched in 1954 the humble spear carriers included the likes of left-over F2 Cooper-Bristols, A-type Connaughts and rent-a-drive Gordinis. When the new formula of 1961 effectively made 1500cc F2 heavier, and welded roll-over bars on top, there were plenty of year-old F2 candidates to upgrade to world championship status. At least then such delicious independent efforts as Keith Greene’s Gilby-Climax, and Argentine-in-Italy-built de Tomasos with OSCA and Alfa Romeo engines could step up to the plate and have a go. But over the years there have been dozens of optimistic bit-player F1 teams until Mr E tightened the rules, shook out the chaff and took the whole activity supposedly ‘upmarket’ and so introduced the thin end of a charmless wedge. 

Something for which Liberty’s script writers might well end up yearning could well be future successors to the Cromard, the DB-Panhard, the Derrington-Francis-ATS, Elios, Emeryson, ENB-Maserati – all the long way through to the Pearce-Martin, Sacha-Gordine, Scarab, Scirocco, Stebro, and TecMec.

But then I’m a fan of private entrants, running customer or ex-works cars. They used to do us a favour, not least by just populating the set. We can but hope.