Backmarkers’ tightrope walk in F1

The rule changes in Formula One have to be well thought-out and researched. Importantly, the changes should not unleash unhealthy competition that hurts the independent teams.

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson gets a pit service during a practice session ahead of the Russian Grand Prix. With new rule changes for 2017, Sauber decided early last year to use the 2016-specification Ferrari engines instead of the latest power units owing to the cost factor.   -  AP

Motorsport is unique for the fact that apart from a skeletal set of sporting rules, it does not have proper codified rules and regulations concerning the main component — the machines. These regulations are often changed for reasons ranging from safety, aesthetics and performance to relevance to the automotive industry.

So, whenever there are new rule changes, they bring with them the potential to shake up the pecking order. In the last 20 years, teams have made big jumps immediately following major rule changes — be it McLaren after new rules came into force in 1998, or Brawn GP that sprang from the ashes of the Honda team in 2009 to win both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships that year, or Mercedes’ current dominance following the introduction of the new hybrid rules from 2014.

Great stories as they are, a common strand that runs through them is the fact that these are teams generally blessed with resources and funding. Even Brawn GP owed its success to the funding it received from Honda in 2008.

However, these regulation changes also take a toll on independent and mid-field teams such as Sauber, Force India and Williams. These teams are often caught in a predicament, trying to strike the right balance between concentrating on the current car and focussing on the new rules set to come into force the following year.

The new power unit regulations introduced in 2014 were always viewed with suspicion with regard to what they could do to the fortunes of the independent back-markers. The move to hybrid systems, from the naturally aspirated V8 engines, doubled the cost of power units. Since then, the sport lost Caterham in 2014 and Marussia/Manor after 2016. Sauber almost died midway through last season before it received a lifeline in the form of new ownership with Longbow Finance taking over the team.

These teams have particularly not been helped by the grotesquely unequal distribution of revenues. Majority of the revenues go to three or four teams irrespective of where they finish.

Sauber’s boss Monisha Kaltenborn, speaking to Sportstar during the Singapore Grand Prix last year, said: “The midfield teams are the backbone of the sport. This is our core competence. We evolve technology and apply it in third-party business, but motorsport is our main focus.

“We have been here during the good times (when) the sport was growing and the bad times. Without teams like us and Williams — the independent teams — the sport won’t be what it is.”

With new rule changes for 2017, Sauber decided early last year to use the 2016-specification Ferrari engines instead of the latest power units owing to the cost. The old engines, apart from being cheaper, were also convenient for the team, as it knew their dimensions well and could start developing the chassis around them rather than wait for Ferrari to provide the specifications for the 2017 unit.

Manor Racing, similarly, used the 2014 Ferrari engines during the 2015 season. Even the chassis of Manor’s cars that year was a modified version of the team’s 2014 car.

Manor Racing scored one point last year in Austria, with Pascal Wehrlein finishing 10th. However, Sauber pipped it to the 10th spot in the Constructors’ standings after Felipe Nasr scored two points, courtesy a ninth-place finish in Brazil. This cost Manor more than $10 million in prize money and the outfit went into administration this year.

The season so far has been very good with little to choose between Mercedes and Ferrari. However, the field is spread wide with the next best team, Red Bull Racing, still significantly slower than the top two, while Williams seems to have the slight edge over others in the midfield battle.

Sauber was more than three seconds slower than Mercedes in qualifying in Abu Dhabi last year, while the gap between pole position and the fastest Sauber in qualifying was four seconds. (McLaren’s times not considered.) With its decision to use a year old engine, Sauber could slip further as the big teams bring in upgrades in Barcelona.

Sauber has now signed a new technological partnership with Honda and will use its power units in 2018. The deal is, reportedly, to help Honda with more data, and its engines would be cheaper than that of Ferrari.

The beleaguered Japanese auto giant’s unreliable and slow power unit has put McLaren in a peculiar spot where it is fighting for scraps at the bottom of the table.

A financially healthy team, normally, would not opt for such a gamble, but Sauber will take any chance to either save or earn money. It remains to be seen if the financial benefits that Sauber could derive from the deal with Honda would outweigh the concerns of an engine that is both unreliable and inefficient.

It is generally accepted that the best way to close the competition between teams is to have a stable set of regulations over a period of time, with the law of diminishing returns levelling the playing field. But the peculiar nature of the sport means that it is impossible to stand still for long periods of time.

What could be done is to push through rule changes that have been well thought-out and researched and are not reactionary. Importantly, the changes should not unleash unhealthy competition that hurts the independent teams.