F1 In Crisis – 2015 Season Preview

2015 Red Bull RB11 cars.

2015 Red Bull RB11 race car ready for testing…

Let’s not beat around the bush. Formula 1 is in crisis. One reason this season preview is so last minute is because there are so many stories of ongoing problems. I wanted to capture as much of it as possible.

F1 is becoming a less attractive business proposition for sponsors because they are not getting the ROI that they expect. Simply put the exposure F1 provides is declining while the costs continue to rise (alarmingly).

Not only are costs continuing to spiral out of control, the audience is decreasing. Part of the reason is because of pay TV. If people have to pay to watch it on television there will be fewer watching than if it were free. Since branding and exposure is the name of the game for sponsors, this is a worrying trend.

As a result we have more and more crises as more teams struggle to survive and have to take on pay drivers able to bring ridiculous amounts of money. There may be more driver contract disputes now than cars on the grid. Moreover the caliber of skill is not as high as it could be, with many underfunded yet exceptionally talented drivers not getting a shot at the sport. It’s sad.

The grid is also made up of less reliable, ugly, poor sounding cars. And they are slower than before. I believe this is all the result of greenwashing with hybrid technology and it has done nothing to improve the sport. Plus the environmental benefits are questionable at best.

There is no reason for any team to need more than a $100 million budget other than rival teams that have budgets of even larger amounts. It is this uncontrolled spending that has driven the sport into the state that it’s in, and the sport’s management are responsible for not keeping things in check. The rules do not allow for good racing. The FIA should do away with DRS, fuel consumption metrics, and the tire rules that mandate different compounds to be used in each race (but only if it doesn’t rain).

The Good

What are the positives? You’ve got a very interesting story in Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr., rookie teammates at Toro Rosso. Verstappen, son of former F1 driver Jos, is the youngest driver ever at the age of 17. Some people think that he is much too young to be in F1, while others have high hopes that we will find in him the next racing prodigy. Time will tell but it will be interesting to watch.

Of course his teammate is also a second generation race car driver with a big name. It will be just as interesting to watch his progress.

And of course it looks like Mercedes will dominate this season, the only question being which of their two drivers will take the title. Hamilton is my guess.

That’s the bulk of the good news. Now for the downers.

The Bad and Everything Else

The big story of course is Fernando Alonso’s mysterious crash during preseason testing at Silverstone. He had to be airlifted to the hospital and stay there for three days. All parties involved seem to be strangely tongue tied and the the FIA is still investigating the cause of the crash. In due time we are likely to get a report that, shall we say, reeks of having originated from the town of Coverupville.

One rumor is that Alonso had a medical problem prior to crashing. Another is that the KERS system discharged electricity and shocked him, causing the crash. Your guess is as good as mine. However we do know he will miss the Australian Grand Prix and possibly Malaysia.

There’s was also the threat of a boycott by other teams and drivers over the lack of transparency of the cause of Alonso’s crash. The threat of boycott is an increasingly ineffective scare tactic. A real one hasn’t happened in f1 since about 1982.

McLaren looks like a team in all sorts of trouble with preseason testing not going well. Honda has come back to the sport and they are increasingly looking lost. It is not the same company that left F1 in 2008. And that Honda company was not the same as the one that left F1 at the end of 1992, the last time it teamed with the Woking-based team. McLaren has the ability to improve and develop the car throughout the season but is starting from a particularly low point. Don’t expect much, especially in the early part of the year.

Ferrari and Williams are the teams with reasonable prospects for “best of the rest” honors. Both teams have shown decent pace in preseason testing but are still behind Mercedes in terms of raw speed.

It appears Red Bull is having a spat with engine supplier Renault. As the rocky relationship drags on it would appear that they won’t be in a position to challenge for championships anytime soon.

Next we have the troubled tier of teams. They include Lotus, Sauber and Force India. These teams are financially troubled, with rumors constantly swirling about their tardiness in paying suppliers and cries of budget shortfalls. Whenever a team finds a new “investor” it just smacks of a euphemism for the latest sucker to blow huge sums of money on a glamor show at the back of the grid.

Somehow Manor Marussia managed to come back from bankruptcy but was not able to run in practice at the Australian GP because of software issues with the Ferrari power units (unpaid bills perhaps?). It’s a miracle that this team has come back at all, and their budget is a reputed $92m dollars.

It is silly to piss away that much for back of the grid status. They have two rookie drivers and an updated 2014 car that has passed crash testing. They have the distraction of emerging from bankruptcy and restarting operations. This year will be an immense struggle. While a valiant effort indeed, I don’t expect that they will make it to season’s end.

Several teams are rumored to be behind on payments to suppliers including tire supplier Pirelli. It will be a miracle if all of these teams made it through the season without additional funding from Uncle Bernie.

Then we have the curious case of Giedo van der Garde. He has been in court with the Sauber team over the right to race one of their cars in a grand prix. However it appears that the situation hasn’t been handled well by the team, signing more pay drivers than they had seats available, and if I were him I would not want to drive a car with a team that does not want him in their car.

Of course having deposited a reported $8m of his sponsors’ money with the team some months ago, I don’t blame him for wanting to be on the grid and expecting a contract to be honored. But we’ll probably never really know what goes on behind closed doors with all of these maneuverings. It remains to be seen if he will drive with them in Melbourne or Malaysia, if at all.

And let’s not forget that Jules Bianchi is still in a coma in a hospital in France as a result of his violent crash in the Japanese GP last year.

The sport is in a state of turmoil we haven’t seen in a long time. This year is shaping up to what kind of a bummer. Mercedes are the overwhelming favorites. All in all 2015 is likely to be a season that is dominated by two cars from one team. If I had the guess it will be Hamilton that comes out on top again. My hope at this point is that, other than having a solid grid of at least 22 cars for each race, there is more than a one team battle for the driver’s title.

F1 is a bad deal from a business perspective, but I still love to watch it on the whole. Here’s to the start of another year.

 

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