Formula 1 in 2019 is a sport in transition. The 2021 rules and regulations are being decided upon as we speak, with Liberty, the FIA and the teams in talks that will ultimately determine F1’s future.
Rumoured cost caps, redistribution of monies, standardised parts and simpler engines have all been mooted in order to create a Formula 1 that is sustainable, attractive to manufacturers new and existing and fair to all.
Something that Liberty are keen to address is the current trend of smaller F1 teams partnering with the big guns to share IP, data, parts and drivers effectively creating a ‘Class B’ within Formula 1, for the first time since the late eighties when half the field benefitted from turbo power, and those who didn’t competed for the Jim Clark cup – a championship within a championship.
These B-Teams – Alfa Romeo, Haas and Toro Rosso – can compete with a much smaller budget with the cost of development and manufacturing of much of the car sitting squarely at the door of its parent team.
This business model is much bemoaned by true independent teams such as Williams and McLaren who, without a big team to ‘buddy’ with, have within the space of a few short years, found themselves shuffled to the back of the grid, unable to compete with teams they’re more used to lapping than racing.
A lot of this has been attributed to them not being willing to sacrifice their autonomy by getting into bed with a ‘big’ team, and so with 2018 championship winners Mercedes’ rumoured spend of around $400m way out of reach (RBR and Ferrari had a similar budget), and the ‘Class B’ cars also benefitting from this investment propelling them towards the front of the grid, it’s simply not a climate in which an independent constructor can compete.
But there’s a flaw in this argument. And that flaw is Racing Point/Force India.
Racing Point aren’t a B-team. They have a customer deal with Mercedes in the same way that Williams do.
Racing Point/Force India’s budget for 2018 was $30m less than was Williams F1 ($120m vs $150m), and yes – they went into administration, but even if you take into account the $32m they owed creditors when they were bought by Lawrence Stroll in August 2018, that still puts their spending on a par with Williams.
Racing Point/Force India scored 111 points in 2018 (sixteen times that of Williams), which had their tally not been reset prior to the Belgian Grand Prix as a result of the administrators being called in, would have been good enough to give them fifth place in the F1 World Constructors Championship ahead of all three B-teams.
So why are Racing Point/Force India able to get more bang for their buck than Williams or McLaren?
Perhaps it’s because the team has experience of making a little go a long way, having operated on a tight budget since Jordan Grand Prix’s inception in 1991, happy to build cars that could fight towards the front of the midfield, with the odd podium every now and again.
Williams and McLaren on the other hand are far more adept at using a sizeable budget to develop race-winning cars, each with (until relatively recently) lucrative title sponsorship deals and works engine deals.
Vijay Mallya’s well documented legal problems aside, Force India/Racing Point have also enjoyed a period of stability in team-personnel, an engine deal with Mercedes that dates back to 2009 and a healthy string of long-term sponsors.
McLaren and Williams on the other hand have endured a prolonged period of upheaval in recent years, with changes in ownership and direction, the loss of a title sponsor and three engine suppliers in six years (including a failed experiment with a Honda works deal) for McLaren and an outrageously high turnover of key personnel at Williams (including Sir Frank Williams and Sir Patrick Head stepping back from the team in 2012).
And there’s another problem with the argument against B-teams being the root of all evil: Last year’s Williams couldn’t have beaten anything. It was so poor it’d have finished last irrespective of what the other teams were doing. And you can lump McLaren’s 2014 and 2015 cars in with it. Three complete turkeys.
There’s no escaping the fact that on these occasions, Williams and McLaren just didn’t build cars good enough to do justice to their illustrious names.
In conclusion, do I think the B-team model is good for F1? No, and it will be more tightly controlled come 2021 when the new regulations come into effect.
Will it help independent constructors compete with the midfield? Yes – B-teams are currently unfairly advantaged by the spending of other teams.
But is it all that needs to change for Williams to find themselves higher up the grid? Not by a long chalk.