Tough times for F1’s squeezed mid­dle

“Strat­egy Group teams would do well to re­mem­ber that they were once mid-field­ers”


pre­mi­ums to buy per­for­mance through bet­ter fa­cil­i­ties and more man­power, and now they use the money to dis­count the rates. So we’re dou­ble-fucked…”

The crux of his com­plaint was that the cur­rent rev­enue struc­ture re­wards big teams such that they could un­der­cut a deal by £30m and still be bet­ter off by the same amount than, say, a Force In­dia – even given iden­ti­cal re­sults over a sea­son.

Of course it can be ar­gued that hard bar­gain­ing has fea­tured in spon­sor ne­go­ti­a­tion for as long as the mar­ket­ing dis­ci­pline has ex­isted in F1 (since 1968). As for poach­ing, you need only track spon­sor mi­gra­tion over the years to re­alise that com­pa­nies chop and change de­pend­ing upon mar­ket­ing ob­jec­tives and deals on of­fer. It was dog-eat-dog, but teams went to ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­bles se­cure in the knowl­edge that they earned the same for any given set of re­sults, and that the ma­jor teams charged pre­mi­ums for what­ever benets were of­fered, from ac­cess through logo place­ment to tech­ni­cal part­ner­ships, or what­ever com­bi­na­tion of menu items best suited the prospect.

So mid-grid­ders, with lower over­heads and op­er­at­ing costs, pitched ac­cord­ingly, but ar­gued they of­fered in­cre­men­tal value through in­her­ent ex­i­bil­ity. Their en­tre­pre­neur­ial ap­proaches gen­er­ally proved more cre­ative – Ron Den­nis ver­sus Ed­die Jor­dan any­one? – while strate­gic op­por­tunism pro­vided su­perb re­turns on in­vest­ment on uky Sun­days.

Now, though, Safety Cars are stan­dard fare; bul­let­proof en­gines and trans­mis­sions en­sure as­ton­ish­ing re­li­a­bil­ity; and pre­scrip­tion tyres re­duce the gambling that was once the norm for bat­tlers, whose fate of­ten hinged more on ex­ter­nal fac­tors than bud­gets. A decade ago Sauber could start 15th and end up in third cour­tesy of strate­gic and re­li­a­bil­ity fac­tors; now they too of­ten nish where they start.

Test re­stric­tions have re­duced hos­pi­tal­ity op­por­tu­ni­ties, fur­ther af­fect­ing the spon­sor menu. While the reg­u­la­tions ap­ply to all, B-list teams are most dis­ad­van­taged. The ush teams have re­placed track test­ing with (ex­pen­sive) sim­u­la­tion tools, be they wind­tun­nels or CFD in­stal­la­tions, while smaller outts re­sort to rented fa­cil­i­ties – which don’t, of course, pro­vide the same level of brag­ging rights.

“In­vite your cor­po­rate guests for a fac­tory tour that in­cludes a peek at our 200mph wind­tun­nel CFD fa­cil­ity,” surely has a bet­ter ring than “Our rented wind­tun­nel at XYZ Univer­sity is out of bounds” or “Our en­gi­neers work from home us­ing Drop­box.”

The plight of the mideld has al­ways been des­per­ate, but never has it been more pre­car­i­ous. Ev­ery in­gre­di­ent, whether sport­ing, tech­ni­cal or com­mer­cial, is stacked against them, counter to ev­ery sport­ing con­ven­tion.

Strat­egy Group teams would do well to re­mem­ber they were once mid-el­ders: Red Bull started as Ste­wart GP, scor­ing just six points in their de­but sea­son in 1997; Bruce McLaren towed his M2B about be­hind a Ford Galaxy, his team net­ting three points in 1966. Now the team cur­rently lies a sliver ahead of Force In­dia in the ti­tle hunt.

Lo­tus were once Tole­man, fail­ing to score in their rst two sea­sons, while Sir Frank Wil­liams was for­merly on rst-name terms with Slough’s bailiffs. Mercedes? They were once Tyrrell, also en­dur­ing fraught sea­sons. As for Fer­rari – this year, the less said the bet­ter.

Those teams ar­gue they pulled them­selves up by their seats belts. But they can’t deny that a level play­ing eld let them do so.

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