Bernie Ecclestone has revealed that Formula One's teams have signed contracts agreeing to help competitors which get into financial trouble by supplying a third car to them according to an article in the Mail on Sunday by Christian Sylt.
The controversial third car clause has been one of the biggest talking points of the season. It is written into the contracts which commit the teams to staying in F1 until the end of 2020 and it forces them to field a third car if the grid slips below a threshold of 20 cars. It was thought that the teams would have to run the third car themselves but Ecclestone says that in fact it would be supplied to ailing rivals to stop them from going under.
The situation is far from hypothetical as the article also reveals that Marussia notified London's High Court on 7 October that it intends to go into administration. It follows the collapse this week of Caterham. Eleventh hour talks are underway to save it and Ecclestone says another team may have to step in.
"They would supply a third car to someone else so if, for example, Sauber disappeared, a team could do a deal with Sauber. Ferrari could say, 'we will give you a car, all that goes with it, and we want you to put this sponsor on it. You have your own sponsors but we want you to include this one as well and we want you to take this driver'. The team wouldn't have to go under then would they? If Red Bull decided they would give a car to Caterham for example that could solve their problem."
If several teams go under it would trigger the need for the remaining ones to supply third cars to them. Last month Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff said "there's a regulation which says if the grid drops below 20 cars, so 19 cars, then there is a certain mechanism which would trigger certain teams to fill in." The reason for this is contained in the contracts with race promoters which state that F1 "shall use its reasonable endeavours to ensure... that at least sixteen cars participate in the Event ."
If it slips below that F1 could breach its contracts and risk losing the £300m in fees paid by race organisers. Setting the threshold at 20 cars gives Ecclestone a buffer and he may need it.
Annual F1 team budgets are now around £140m on average and although Red Bull has one of the biggest, smaller outfits are struggling to keep up.
Marussia lies in ninth place with just two points and has made combined net losses of £140.6 million since joining F1 in 2010. Ecclestone said on Saturday that he expects Marussia and Caterham will miss next weekend's United States Grand Prix. It will put the grid at 18 cars but Ecclestone added that this won't trigger the third car clause because the teams' F1 contracts allow them to miss two races each year.
"We don't have to introduce a third car at this stage because they can miss a couple of races. They lose any money they would have got for those races but they don't lose their position in the championship. I have no idea if Marussia are going to make it in the long run. It's better if they didn't have to go into administration."
It is too late to prevent that happening to Caterham. Earlier this month bailiffs seized equipment from its factory in Oxfordshire and the team's 220 staff have been locked out of the building by the administrator since Thursday.
It languishes in 11th place, one behind Sauber which has failed to score any points this year despite having backing from sponsors owned by the world's richest man, Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim.
If a team received a rival's car it would not need to spend money on research and development, manufacturing or buying engines. These are the three biggest costs for F1 teams, far exceeding spending on staff and drivers which would continue to be covered by the outfit which receives the third car.
Marussia's latest company accounts are for 2012 and show that it spent £32m on research and development which alone comes to 42% of its total £76.1m costs. Manufacturing and engine expenses are estimated at a further £23m. Wiping out these costs would transform bankrupt outfits into profitable ones which could attract investment and ultimately stand on their own two feet.
"Who knows if it is likely," says Ecclestone adding "they will only run three cars if they haven't got enough teams because three of them stop. I don't check their books so I don't know if it's likely. I think a lot of them cry. I spoke to Carlos Slim and told him about Sauber saying that if they don't get money they won't go to the next race. He said, 'I've been listening to that for the last three years.'"
Talk of third cars was prompted by a Tweet from former Williams chief executive Adam Parr after the Italian Grand Prix in September. He wrote: "This is the last year of F1 as we know it. In 2015 eight teams will contest the championship, with several teams entering three cars."
McLaren racing director Eric Boullier was quick to criticise Parr saying that "the chassis and third car logistics and people around, we would need at least six months' notice." It would not leave enough time to introduce them next year though this seems to stand in conflict with the teams' obligations under their F1 contracts.