Customer cars would hold back F1

11/07/2015
NEWS STORY

With no realistic means of reducing spending in sight, thereby leaving a number of teams in financial peril, talk of customer cars is once again on the agenda.

Whilst the purchase of 'off the shelf' packages was the backbone of the sport and the means by which several of today's teams were founded, many believe a return to the concept would be retrograde for the sport.

The latest to add their voices to the chorus of disapproval are Manor president Graeme Lowdon and team principal, John Booth.

"At the moment we fight for two championships, a drivers' championship and a constructors' championship," says Lowdon in an interview with the official F1 website. "In the same way you wouldn't want to see us doing radio-controlled cars with no driver, I think our expertise as a company is on manufacturing, designing and building racing cars.

"I think that is very much where the sport has moved to and found a real niche," he continued. "People say it's the pinnacle of world motorsport and I think one of the reasons for that is because you've got ten very specialist manufacturing companies solving problems against a very prescribed formula. And so for me that's inherent to the sport."

"Our team was back up to numbers of 220 within a number of months, and 70 percent of those people are employed to build and develop our car," added Booth. "So if you remove that necessity we'll lose more than half of what we're all about. Most of what we do on track is then fine tuning that product.

"A big hole would be left if we weren't building and developing our own cars. A big hole.

"You have to ask what would be the reason for making that change," said Lowdon. "If you're not a manufacturer I can see why you would want it, but if you are I really can't. There are lots of ways the industry could move forward, and I don't see making that change as being the crucial factor to allowing the industry to grow."

Ironically, as a result of its demise and subsequent re-birth, Marussia is, in some ways running as customer car already, the team using a 2014 car, albeit to 2015 regs, built by its predecessor.

"We're not building from zero again, but we're pretty low down there," admits Booth. "We lost a lot of our infrastructure over the winter, particularly factory-based infrastructure - we have to build another factory for instance. So we're not starting from zero, but we're starting from a long way down. So consolidation is probably exactly the right word.

"It's important to see that we fought really, really hard to make sure the team stays in this championship," adds Lowdon. "As I said, we have a lot of respect for the championship and it's a championship we want to be in.

"At a time when you read all these stories about people threatening to leave the championship, I think it's nice to see a story where people are really putting in huge effort because they see the benefit of being in the championship. It's not easy - it's a super hard business - but it's hard because you're directly competing with really top class organisations. That's where we wanted to be and we knew we wouldn't be able to continue the trajectory of development considering we've had to consolidate and do a lot of rebuilding. But it's funny how normal everything feels at every race that we go to, and we're starting to see updates on the car and the wind tunnel programme is back on track.

"Financially we're on a much stronger footing," he continues. "The problem that we had last year is the same sort of problem that faces lots of other companies - it's not a unique one to F1 in any way at all. It's something that we as a management team and as directors of the company dealt with in the right way using all the right methods. We took our responsibilities very seriously and we did what a lot of other people do in the same position and protected the team and did the best job for the creditors. But in terms of the organisation of the team, John's probably better placed to comment.

"The structures and procedures are very similar to last year," says Booth. "Some of the trackside engineering team have changed, so there are a few procedures that have changed there. But the overall structure is the same."

Despite the fact the team was saved at the eleventh hour, Manor remains one of those teams on the 'danger list'. Furthermore, not being one of the leading six team it does not have a place - or a voice - in terms of the infamous Strategy Group.

"In the past a lot of teams were tiny, like microbusinesses, and now a typical F1 team is a large entity, a large employer," says Lowdon. "We have responsibilities to employees, a corporate-social responsibility and a big supply chain. So things have changed, and I think a balanced governance system would take into account the thoughts and considerations of the participants because we are such big entities now.

"To completely ignore the participants wouldn't seem to make a lot of sense, but equally teams have very divergent goals and objectives, so I think as a lot of people have commented, it's difficult for the teams to try to set the rules and they shouldn't have to. But whoever is doing that task should at least have the ability to confer and discuss things in a suitable forum with the teams."

Though they haven't had any input, both men are asked their thoughts on some of the proposals being put forward for 2017.

"The 2017 proposals are quite interesting," says Booth. "That would be a chance to do something dramatic with the sport. The other things are quite hard to comment on really because we don't know the details of them.

"I think what the fans want to see is close racing and a degree of unpredictability," adds Lowdon. “But equally I'm fairly sure what they want to see is skill being rewarded. I don't subscribe to this idea that if the rules all changed then the skilful, successful teams won't be winning. There are some fabulous teams up and down the pit lane with incredible ability and I don't think they should be too worried about their ability to compete.

"The important thing is to always consider not just the sporting side, but the technical side and also the financial side. Some decisions can be made but they may not necessarily fit with the bigger financial picture about where is the best place for the sport to be. As we've said all along, this is not an easy task for the people who are trying to create the rules and environment - it's not a straightforward job."

With all the will in the world, Manor is never going to have the sort of budget available to Mercedes or Ferrari, so how does a small team make progress?

"The sport has changed immeasurably over 60 years, and over that time the influence of finances has been greater or lesser depending upon where things are at," says Lowdon. "The landscape changes, but if you're not here and not in the championship, it doesn't matter how much money you have or how little you've got, you're not going to be in any position to take advantage and compete. So it's difficult for us at the moment, but you see other teams are having difficulties because of other factors. We firmly believe we can build a successful and sustainable team in F1."

"I think now we've got a fairly senior technical management team in place and I think it's under consideration as to which is the best way forward," adds Booth. "The end goal is to have the best possible result at the end of 2016 and into 2017. So we need to establish what's going to be the best way of achieving that.

"Amazingly every single race we've closed the gap to the front," he continues, "and considering how hard they are pushing at the front it's amazing! So far it's been done on good, sound engineering principles."

And looking ahead...

"It's so difficult trying to articulate targets," says Lowdon. "You would never go about trying to plan a season like we have this season, so equally the aims and objectives are never ones you'd plan either. Every race weekend we look to see what would have been the best result we could achieve with the current package we've got. In other words, we've got to make sure that whenever we get speed into the car or a new car or whatever, we're there ready to take advantage of it. How are we doing on pit stops? How are we doing on race strategy? We've got to make sure that the team is really on it. If you look at this year we're improving every race in terms of race team performance, but you can't necessarily see it on the result sheet or the time sheet. So a lot of our objectives mean something to us but not necessarily to the outside world."

"I think our off-track objectives are a bit easier to quantify," adds Booth. "The major one was getting back in the wind tunnel, which we've now achieved. The next one will be moving into our new factory. That should be sometime in September. At the moment we're operating from three different homes which is not ideal. When we get settled in there and we're all back under one roof it will be a big step forward for us."

"We're still closing the gap to the cars in front and, as John alluded to," says Lowdon, "you could argue we shouldn't be anywhere near where we are at the moment. We're typically running last in terms of lap time at the moment - we recognise that - but considering the hurdles we've had to overcome and the compromises we've had to accept, then the gap's actually not as big as you'd expect. Nobody's slowing down to let us catch up!"

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Published: 11/07/2015
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