When news broke that the Caterham Formula 1 team had been placed in administration, I couldn’t help but reflect on a few choice cuts from Mark Hughes’ Motor Sport magazine columns this year. They sprang to mind again when Marussia announced its own decline into administration a few days later.
Back in our 90th anniversary edition (dated July), Mark wrote about the Biggin Hill meeting on May 1 between the teams and Bernie Ecclestone. He reported it was ill-tempered as the so-called ‘big teams’ – Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes – baulked attempts by the smaller teams to introduce a meaningful cost cap for 2015.
“The big teams insisted they retain the right to spend as much as they see fit,” our Grand Prix editor wrote. “If that ends up sending some of the smaller teams bankrupt in trying to compete, so be it.”
In this issue
JW Automotive retrospective by Simon Arron
Lunch with Alastair Caldwell by Simon Taylor
Stefano Modena interview by Rob Widdows
Gooda Bentley track test by Richard Heseltine
Caldwell on the 1000 Mile Trial by Rob Widdows
John Hogan interview by Damien Smith
Lister-Jaguar track test by Paul Parker
Cost limits are one thing, and they’re always a contentious subject. Income distribution, which is skewed heavily in favour of the F1 promoter first and the big teams second, leaving the rest with the relative crumbs, is another matter again. Change here would require a governing body with backbone to challenge the highly questionable financial structure that has existed since Ecclestone and Max Mosley’s infamous ‘100-year deal’ of 2000. But as Mark’s interview with Jean Todt for the August issue highlighted, there is no appetite for a battle within the current FIA president.
Mark stated in that 90th anniversary issue, produced six months ago, that “at least three, maybe as many as five, teams are struggling to survive. In a sport that generates such vast revenues, that’s wrong.” He knew this was coming. But what’s really damning is so did everyone else in F1, including the promoter, its employee who has run the sport for more than 30 years, the been-there-and-done-it-all president in Paris and the teams higher up the chain. None of them appear to give a damn.
The teams are competitive entities and can never be trusted to consider the greater good. “Instead of spreading the pot so that even the smallest teams can have a viable business, the big teams would prefer to be rid of the smaller fry, thereby taking their meagre income and directing it at propping up facilities that are just too big, too costly,” stated Mark in the August issue, looking directly at a certain Bond-like lair near Woking.
“F1 heads on with a few more restrictions on wind tunnel and simulation time, but essentially on a path that spells extinction for some of the smaller teams,” he added.
Now, a few months later, that greed and self-interest has led the sport to this point of crisis, just as he predicted.
In our latest podcast recorded this week, I asked Jonathan Palmer if it’s telling that a man with a solid career as a driver behind him, plus years of business experience creating and running his own race series, not to mention successfully managing four of Britain’s best race tracks, has never been tempted to run his own F1 team.
“Well, it probably is, yes,” he said. “[Since] getting involved in the business side of motor sport after my racing career, I’ve always tended towards asset-backed businesses, and to have the freehold to these circuits is quite comforting when you’re looking at getting funding for acquisitions – when you’ve got an asset for the whole business. But with many businesses, and with F1 teams, one doesn’t have that.
“Listen, I’d love to get involved in F1 if I thought there was a viable business there. Certainly at the moment I’m not clever enough to work out how to make a viable business out of F1 for me!”
He’s not alone.
For Caterham and Marussia, the story isn’t necessarily over – if new buyers can be found to plunge more millions into these flagging companies. But if you had the money, would you do it? Can F1 really be justified beyond the status of a blatant vanity project?
Somewhere in North Carolina, Gene Haas must be wondering what he’s letting himself in for.
Britain’s greatest sports car team
The December issue, officially the last of our 90th anniversary year, is out this week, and in the midst of this F1 gloom I hope there are a few diversions to cheer us all up. Simon Arron’s fresh interview with John Horsman should help for starters.
We proclaim JW Automotive Engineering as ‘Britain’s greatest sports car team’ and so it remains, nearly 40 years since it closed its doors. Johns Wyer, Horsman and Willment, in partnership with Grady Davis and his Gulf Oil colours, created a team that would win Le Mans twice with Ford GT40s, dominate the World Sportscar Championship with the glorious Porsche 917 (even if it did miss out on victory at the ‘big one’, whatever Steve McQueen’s film might claim), and then bow out with another victory in France with its own Mirage.
Add in Wyer’s key role in Aston Martin’s glory years with the DBR1 and his part in the development of the GT40 under the guise of Ford Advanced Vehicles, and you have a story of rich depth that deserves to be revisited. Horsman was his loyal partner from the early 1960s and on a rare trip back to Britain, Simon met up with the octogenarian to reminisce. Meanwhile, Gordon Cruickshank adds detail in his interview with JW purchasing manager Maitland Cook. Primary sources both, of a golden age in endurance racing.
Elsewhere, Rob Widdows tracks down Stefano Modena for a rare interview, getting to know a man who was apparently a tricky customer during his all-too-brief F1 career. He’s reflective now and admits to a little regret. It could have been so much more…
Alastair Caldwell was another tricky customer according to those who worked the F1 paddocks of the 1970s. The caustic team manager of McLaren put everything on the line to establish his career in motor racing, then witnessed awful tragedy – the death of founder Bruce – and persevered to help shape unforgettable memories –James Hunt, 1976 and all that. As Simon Taylor discovered over lunch, Caldwell hasn’t lost his edge all these years later, as he makes a few cheeky claims about his scope of influence during the sport’s most colourful decade.
I’d also urge you to read Mat Oxley’s column, among the other gems in the new issue. Australian Anthony Gobert is a figure I knew little about beyond his rather ‘slow’ name. ‘The Go Show’ was anything but, of course. In fact he makes Eddie Irvine sound like a choir boy in comparison.