Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Customer Service

Every other year, it seems, come the first race, there is a dispute over some aspect of the season's new rules that threatens to derail the Grand Prix circus and leave the sport in a quagmire of court battles.

A while back, there was the threat of arbitration over the 2.4 litre engine rules that hovered over 2005. For those who can't recall the tedious details of this dispute, a couple of the manufacturers who had produced the best 3 litre V10s questioned whether the FIA had the power to change the engine regulations before the end of 2007 under the rules stability agreement signed by the teams. The FIA more or less claimed that they had the power to do anything that was deemed necessary on the grounds of safety - which rather leaves one wondering what the point of rules stability agreements are in the first place.

The same went with the rather more vexed question of the special dispensation to Squadro Toro Rosso to run rev-restricted V10s last year. All the more so because the right to run such engines was being decided on a case-by-case basis - i.e. the rules were not the same for all teams. In the event, the cars wee so uncompetitive that all bar Midland, who were rather preoccupied with their own survival, didn't really care. Going back a bit, there were the rows over Mclaren's trick braking systems, the detailed workings of the whole-race tyre rule and the question of what to do about the deliberate retiring of healthy cars to get around the two race engine rules. Back in 1982, there was even a strike over new driver contracts, led by none other than Niki Lauda. Not a natural comrade of Arthur Scargill, one wouldn't have thought.

These things tend rapidly to blow over, but this year, the arguments are over something rather more fundamental - the question of whether teams are required to run cars that they themselves have designed. And because of the implications it has for the survival of some of the lesse teams, it may all take a rather longer to sort out.

On the face of it, there is little to dispute. The rules state that teams cannot run a car bought from any other team. They must own the Intellectual Property rights to their own car - end of debate. This, of course, the two teams around whom the debate is centred - Super Aguri and Toro Rosso, claim to do. Nonetheless, few expect the Toro Rosso to look radically different from the new Red Bull RB3, or the Super Aguri to depart significantly from last year's Honda. Understandably, this is something which pleases Spyker, in particular, not one bit. Without a similarly close relationship with any of the major teams, they are going to struggle to produce anything which can outpace a late-model Honda or a rebadged Red Bull, especially with guys like Sato and Liuzzi at the wheel.

If, in their view, the new Super Aguris and Toro Rossos (which are being kept carefully under wraps at present) are 'customer cars', they intend to take the matter to court. What, realistically, though, are their chances of success? The actual Concorde Agreement rules are confidential, but reports suggest that the key question is over who owns the Intellectual Property rights to the car. It may be that there are provisions to prevent one team selling IP rights to a previous year's car to another team, but even if that is the case, then it may well be that only the most minor modifications to the old car would be needed to make the case that it is, in fact, a new car altogether.

After all, there have been a number of cars that have looked rather, how shall we say, similar down the years, and the FIA has declared each of them legal. Who honestly believes that the previous Toro Rosso was anything more than a 2005 Red Bull RB1? And what of Sauber's 2004 'Blue Ferrari'? Going back a few years, the similarities between the Briatore-owned 1995 Benetton and the Briatore-owned 1995 Ligier are rather striking. To my knowledge, the only entries that have ever been refused under the 'no customer cars' rules were the 1992 Andrea Moda (a reworked Coloni - they quickly reappeared with a Simtek/BMW cast-off) and Middlebridge Racing's attempt to run a rather striking looking year-old Benetton for Emmanuele Pirro in 1987.

If the FIA are inclined to accept a car's entry, then there is clearly little that any other team can do, short of going to arbitration against the FIA itself - something which risks leaving the team with a very powerful enemy, even if they are successful. And given the FIA's stated position on the legality of customer cars in 2008, it is pretty clear what Max Mosley's attitude towards the matter is.

So if it is going to happen anyway, does it matter? I'm agnostic on the point. After all, customer cars would not represent some absolute break with previous tradition. Such efforts were common enough until the major teams, under Bernie Ecclestone's FOCA umbrella, got them outlawed in the early 1980s. At that time, they were little missed. Customer cars were usually run at selected races by bit-part players, running rent-a-drivers in old Marches, etc. In earlier times, though, there had been some pretty serious non-works efforts in Formula One. Lotus, for instance, took their first win not with the factory team, but with the rather better prepared Rob Walker Racing team, who ran a Lotus 18 for Stirling Moss. For a year or two at the end of the 1960s, Frank Williams ran a pretty effective operation with a customer Brabham, and all kinds of people ran non-works Coopers through that decade. The aforementioned Walker even had plans to run a customer Ferrari for Moss in 1962, before his career-ending shunt at Goodwood put a stop to that plan.

Nonetheless, I'm far from sure that the experience with customer chassis elsewhere in top-line single seater racing has been entirely positive. Take Champ Car, for example. They have always allowed customer chassis, and back in the early 1980s, there was a wealth of different manufacturers, and plenty variety on the grid. Gradually, though, the biggest players - namely Reynard and Lola, became so dominant as to wipe the smaller players off the grid entirely. They made clearly better cars than any other manufacturer, and economies of scale were such that they were able to build them ever more cheaply than their competitors to boot. When Reynard's 2001 chassis proved less than entirely wonderful, everyone migrated over to the Lola chassis, and the series became a de-facto one-make championship. In the end, it didn't even do Lola any favours, as, faced with a de-facto one-make series, series bosses introduced a de-jure spec-formula, and gave the contract to make the cars to Panoz, as exchange rates meant they could do the job more cheaply.

A similar process led to a one-make series emerging in F3000 (Lola, before Dallara won the GP2 contract, there's nothing new under the sun) and IRL is already heading in the same direction, with everyone running Dallaras. Formula 3 isn't quite so clear cut, but its been a long time since anything other than a Dallara won a championship of any standing.

Could it happen in Formula 1? It might seem far-fetched, but given enough time, I think it could. Imagine that Mclaren, for example, make a couple of their cars available to a satellite team. Those customer cars don't win anything, but they do enough to wipe out any real opportunities for say, Red Bull and WIlliams to score points. A couple of years later, Red Bull find themselves wondering why they are spending so much money on designing their cars when they could spend considerably less on getting hold of some customer Mclarens. For Williams, pride is at stake, but in the end, in the face of extinction, Frank swallows his pride and buys some Mclarens too. The money coming in from Williams, Red Bull and the original satellite team enables Mclaren to invest still more in their design for the following season, and up their production facilities. Increasingly, the workds Renault, Toyota and BMW teams, or rather the shareholders in the parent companies, wonder why they are spending so much money finishing 10th behind a pack of Mclarens every other weekend. Uninterested in running Mclarens, they sell their factories to the leading GP2 teams, who are more than happy to buy customer cars - its what they've done all their lives, after all. A decade down the line from the rule change, F1 has become a spec-formula (and Ron Dennis richer than Croesus).

Would it really happen that way? Maybe not. Maybe F1 is different, maybe the sheer level of technical know-how involved would get in the way of the kind of volume-car manufacture undertaken by Lola or Dallara. But that does rather tend to be the way it works out (although the F1 engine market provides an intriguing counter-example).

So what reason could there be for allowing customer cars? Well, there was a reason. Jaguar pulled out of F1 a couple of years ago, and other manufacturer teams could follow (watch Toyota....) There won't be a soft-drinks billionaire around to buy all of them. The cost of establishing a Formula 1 team from scratch. In the last 10 years, only Toyota and BAR have done so, and only then with the resources of the world's second largest car manufacturer and a tobacco conglomerate, respectively. And look how wrong they got it, initially!

If new teams are to come in, there's a strong argument that it will only be possible by allowing them to run cars bought from other teams. Could Super Aguri have come into being in 100 days if they hadn't owned the rights to the old Arrows A23s? What chance would Prodrive have of building its own cars in time for 2008?

So what is the compromise solution? A championship for drivers, open to everyone, and a manufacturers championship open only to those who design and build their own cars? Perhaps, but as Joe Saward pointed out recently, the risk is that Mclaren, Ferrari and Toyota (who probably have the resources to do it) would run satellite teams, purely to take points off their rivals, and soon half the grid would be made up of teams running under orders not to race the 'A teams'.

No, to me, the best solution is simpler. New teams should be allowed to purchase year-old cars from rival operations (To my mind, though, they should not be able to buy from any team which finished in the top 5 in the constructors championship - this would provide a useful revenue stream to a team like Williams, for example, and prevent the big teams running strategic satellite teams). They should be allowed to continue doing this for up to 3 years, while they build up their operation. At the end of the 3 year period, though, they should be required either to enter their own car, or continue running with a 2 year old design (perhaps modified by the new team itself). The three year period coincides neatly with the period that any new team is required to be in existence for before becoming entitled to any FOM money - neatly solving two problems at once. That way, there is a route for equipes wishing to move up from GP2 or suchlike, but at the same time, no risk is run of heading down the Champ Car/IRL road. A perfect solution? Well, has anyone got any better ideas?

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Anonymous Don Speekingleesh said...

The Concorde Agreement is a legal agreement that the teams and the FIA signed. So the FIA can't rule on whether any party is breaching the agreement - that's a job for the courts. (Of course if anyone goes down this route Max and the FIA will attempt to throw their weight around and act like bullying little shits who need to get slapped.)

Minor changes to the car only makes it different in FIAland (where laws and logic never collide), in the real courts it's more likely a judge would understand that the cars are the same.

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Clive said...

I'm for less legislation, not more. Let anyone have a go if they can prove they're serious and have reasonable financial backing. And, if that makes a nonsense of the constructors' championship, with lots of teams buying in chassis, let's just call it the teams' championship instead.

I think people are getting their knickers in a twist over nothing really. When was the last time a customer car won the championship? It doesn't happen because the works team is invarably better (Moss won in a Lotus because he was Moss). And, if you're a constructor being beaten by customer cars, well, best get your act together or get out of the kitchen.

The scenario of F1 becoming a one-make series doesn't hold together, in my view. Several manufacturers are involved now and they need to win - that's why they're there (and also why they'll all disappear sooner or later). By allowing customer cars, you're ensuring that F1 doesn't disappear through lack of competitors should the manufacturers decide to take their ball back. And, if the manufacturers all clear off leaving a host of little teams with, say, McLaren chassis, you encourage them to build their own by banning the use of carbon fibre. :D

8:54 AM  
Blogger Rob Jones said...

In terms of the regulations in this regard, I'm all for as few as possible, like Clive. Let teams buy whatever components from whomever they choose. Where there needs to be regulation is to prevent position fixing: any hint of team (or more correctly "manufacturer") orders would have to be very strongly discouraged.
I've said elsewhere, customer bikes in MotoGP work very well - the manufacturers simply won't sell the latest and greatest to the customer teams, as they wish to win to prove their technical superiority. It's true that it's much easier to pass in MotoGP than F1 and so near impossible to engineer a result, but customer cars worked before and can work again. Ulitmately I'd rather have more teams competing than five constructors running three or even four cars.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Nicebloke said...

I'm sending something fun to your email address. Not sure if it will answer any questions for you...

4:27 PM  

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