The elephant in the roomLaurence Edmondson October 8, 2013
There's a nasty four-letter word doing the rounds in the paddock at the moment. It begins with 'c' and ends in 't', and is increasingly being used as a threat to the very future of the sport. The cost of Formula One after 2014 may not be as popular a talking point as the impact of Pirelli tyres on racing or Sebastian Vettel's dominant form in recent races, but it is the largest dagger hanging over the future of the sport.
Earlier this year Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost estimated costs would increase by €15-20 million next year with the introduction of new V6 turbo engines, new Energy Recovery Systems (ERS) and the overhaul in chassis design that goes with them. Added to that, the cost of an additional four in-season tests could be in the region of eight million, which Force India's Andy Stevenson believes will make at least one of those tests prohibitive for teams on tighter budgets. Far from easing the significant strains already on budgets, the changes for 2014 will significantly add to them.
The likes of Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes and McLaren will be able to absorb the hit in costs, even if it requires spending a little less elsewhere, but for the teams at the other end of the grid the increase could be crippling. McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh has warned it may be just 18 months before serious cracks start to appear in the sport's already patchy facade.
"We mustn't lose sight of the fact that we've got 11 teams here at the moment and we've got to keep at least ten, but hopefully all of them in the sport," Whitmarsh told Sky Sports in Korea. "I think every change that we've made, looking back some of them have been good changes, but we've made some mistakes with the introduction of the new powertrains and we didn't control costs enough. I think the sport may well pay the price for that in the next 18 months.
"We're not in a crisis yet, but we have to be very careful that we do not wait for a crisis. I don't believe we've done enough to control costs in the sport and we do need these other teams to be in the sport and to be competitive."
It's easy to see why concerns over the costs of the new engines are of such concern. The last time Formula One was faced with a funding crisis was in 2009 amid the global economic downturn. The sport reacted with cost saving measures, but couldn't stop BMW, Toyota, Honda and the Renault team (not engines) heading for the exit. Back then smaller teams and new investors filled the void by buying the debt-free teams cheap with the promise of lower costs to come. The concern this time is that it will be those very same small teams that will be forced out of the sport, with no-one able or willing to replace them.
There are several logical solutions to the problem, such as a budget cap or a fairer distribution of the revenues of the sport among all teams, but if they are to be a success they would require months, possibly years, of negotiations. In 2009 a solution only came after the problem had hit and, ultimately, it fell apart. The fear is that the issue surrounding costs will again be allowed to fester and result in a collective knee-jerk reaction. Rather worryingly for purists, that could come in the form of customer cars; an idea that has once again gained traction in the paddock and is supported strongly by key players Red Bull and Ferrari.
"Everything we've done for next year is costing more money; the powertrain is costing a lot more money, testing is going to cost a lot more money," Christian Horner said in Korea. "They are things that we could control but we don't because we are inefficient as a group and obviously we need strong leadership. FOTA [the Formula One Teams Association] worked in the beginning but fell apart because self interest was too strong amongst competitors. You've got to have strong leadership in that respect.
"For me, customer cars [make sense]. Not because we want to sell cars, but if the little teams want to survive and compete - rather than be five seconds off the pace - maybe we sell them the chassis without the bodywork. The cost of competing in Formula One at the moment is unimaginable and I can only imagine how difficult it must be at the other end of the pit lane."
But there's no need to imagine what it's like, the smaller teams are able to talk for themselves and the picture they are painting is a rather worrying one. Nevertheless, for teams like Williams and Sauber the customer car solution simply isn't an option. They are determined to continue as independent constructors', but if Marussia - for the sake of argument - was allowed to buy Ferrari chassis and Toro Rosso was allowed to run Red Bull's latest cars, Sauber and Williams would find themselves in a separate category at the back of the field. That would mean they are unable to score points and, as a result, unable to sustain a big enough budget.
"Formula One is not about customer cars and I think that is a very dangerous direction to go to because you are changing a lot," Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said. "If you have the kind of dominance that Red Bull has had this year and customer cars available, just imagine the situation with the current points system we have.
"There would be maybe four teams there with four cars and the first four positions will be taken by that [top] team and its customer cars, you would then have some more coming in and maybe one big name with zero points. Nobody can afford to without those kinds of big names [scoring points], so I just don't think it's doable."
But under the new Concorde Agreement, the big six teams are set to get a much bigger say in how things are run through the new F1 Strategy Group. One of those teams, Williams, is vehemently opposed to customer cars, but if that voice is drowned out by the other factions, the outfits in the second half of the grid could see those measures start to be forced upon them. Once the smaller teams are on their knees financially they will no longer be able to put up a fight and customer cars could become the only way to remain in the sport. For many inside F1 and for fans watching on TV, the idea of customer cars is completely against the spirit of the modern sport. But if no-one acts soon to enforce significant cost cutting measures, it may well be the future that is forced upon it.