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GP Week : Issue 11
T HE death of the Super Aguri F1 Team has left a dark cloud hanging over Formula 1. Theoretically the team had everything it needed to make a success of F1: backing from a major manufacturer, massive coverage and a huge fan base via the support of the team principal and lead driver, theoretical attractiveness to Japanese sponsors, legality of customer cars for 2008 and 2009 … and yet the team is no more. With Toro Rosso up for sale, and Prodrive’s recent failure to take up their 2008 grid slot, is it possible, in today’s political and economic climate, for an independent, privateer team to survive in Formula 1? Look back a decade and the F1 landscape appeared very different. The norm was the privateer team, with the big manufacturers existing as engine suppliers first and foremost. But today, just three teams exist in the sport in the same guise as they did a decade ago: Ferrari, McLaren and Williams. The others: Benetton, Jordan, Prost, Sauber, Arrows, Stewart, Tyrrell and Minardi, have all either been sold or have folded. Today, of the private teams in Formula 1, two are owned by a fizzy drinks company, one by a billionaire benefactor and one, Williams, exists by its seeming modus operandi of continually confounding the limits of expectation. “If a privateer was trying to enter, financially you would find it very difficult right now – assuming you read the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times etc, – to raise money, to raise capital,” Sir Frank Williams said at the Turkish Grand Prix. Williams is one of the wisest men in the paddock. He’s been through more motorsport upheavals from a political and financial point of view, than the rest of his fellow team- bosses combined (with the possible exception of his old sparring partner Ron Dennis). He knows well the difficulties of establishing a successful and stable Formula 1 team as an independent entity. And yet it was his voice, above most others, which sounded the loudest criticism over proposed customer car regulations. Sure, he was only defending his interests and the team he had worked so hard to build up … but Williams himself had started off by buying chassis and engines which he hadn’t made himself, before developing his own cars in later years. Has the sport changed so much, that such a possibility could and should never be entertained? The customer car issue is certainly part of the reason that Aguri struggled to find an investor. With arbitration hanging over its head for alleged use of customer cars during their illegality in 2006 and 2007, it gave the team an unattractive piece of baggage. The issue also did so for Prodrive’s much vaunted entry to F1 in 2008. By now, David Richards should have been racing in F1 using year old McLaren Mercedes cars. As it is, he’s concentrating on his Subaru WRC team’s new Impreza, and preparing Aston Martin for Le Mans. Richards himself said last year that “the system we have today clearly doesn’t work. We don’t have a full grid of competitive cars, and we have teams that are not financially viable at the back of the grid. It is a problem, and how do you go about solving that? “The FIA’s solution was very sensible and logical. There are the purists who say they don’t believe that’s the right solution, and I acknowledge and respect their views on that. But I don’t hear from them any alternative solution – we can try and drive costs down in other ways, but that’s a long-term process and, to date, it hasn’t been successful either.” BMW’s Mario Theissen agreed with Richards’ views when discussing the topic of independent teams in Turkey. 24