Three Empty Spaces: Who Should Join F1 In 2010?
Budget caps and cheaper components have been controversial in F1 recently, but there's no denying that the promise of an affordable championship for next season have attracted some new names to the table, in the hope of securing a spot on the Grand Prix grid for 2010.
In anticipation of a flurry of new entries for next season, the FIA World Motor Sport Council voted last month to increase the number of cars permitted in F1 from 24 to 26. That means that—assuming all the current teams decide to remain in the sport—there are spaces for three new constructors next year.
Already, five parties have expressed an interest in signing up to the series under the FIA's proposed budget cap.
The first is the team formerly known as USF1, who are apparently shortly to be renamed from their current, somewhat cumbersome placeholder title of "US Grand Prix Engineering." Respected motorsports journalist and ex-Williams employee Peter Windsor, as well as long-time motorsport participant Ken Anderson, are spearheading this effort.
The second is Prodrive, the aborted 2008 entrants led by former Benetton and BAR team principal David Richards.
The third are Aston Martin, a manufacturer with no previous F1 history but a fine pedigree elsewhere in the motoring world. Formula One has already proven a successful marketing tool for the likes of Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Toyota, so Aston Martin will be keen to increase their brand exposure in this way.
The fourth are Lola, famed for their experience in chassis manufacture. In F1 they are infamous for the "MasterCard Lola" debacle, a team that ran embarrassingly slowly for a single qualifying session in 1997 before quickly folding.
The fifth are iSport, currently participating in GP2, who helped Timo Glock to his title in the category in 2007 and secured the runner-up spot with Bruno Senna last year.
It is being rumoured that other GP2 teams are considering an F1 entry as well, and with plenty of racing experience and a reasonable workforce already, it is easy to see why an affordable F1 would be an attractive option for these teams.
But with only three spaces left on the grid, something has to give. Who, then, should step aside?
The first and most obvious candidates whose application should be rejected out of hand are Prodrive. The last time the FIA invited teams to apply for a spot on the F1 grid, in 2006, Prodrive fought off the competition to secure the coveted position as F1's twelfth team for 2008.
Ultimately, the outfit never materialised. Richards had no intention of building his own car for the championship, instead hoping to purchase a chassis as Super Aguri and Scuderia Toro Rosso were doing at the time.
The legality of the "customer cars" used by these two teams was questionable at the time, and there was no guarantee that they would be made legal for 2008, given the opposition to the concept by other F1 teams, particularly Williams and Midland (later Spyker).
It would therefore have been prudent for Richards—backed by a significant Prodrive infrastructure, which was one of the reasons he had won the entry in the first place—to have constructed his own car rather than cavalierly assuming he would be able to simply buy one.
The affair ended with Richards withdrawing his entry early in 2008, far too late for a new team to fill his spot and with no promised twelfth team.
In short, Prodrive had their shot at F1 a couple of years ago, and their effort failed to materialise on the grid. Far better, then, to offer the opportunity to a team without a proven track record of failure.
That probably rules out Lola too. Times have changed since 1997; with today's technology and resources it would require a special effort to construct a car that was as significantly overweight as the 1997 MasterCard Lola was, but the team faltered on other aspects too.
Their "title sponsorship" deal with MasterCard was filled with so many loopholes that they never actually received any money from the credit card company. And folding after just one race is hardly a healthy business model to aspire to.
Commercially naive and equipped with neither wealth nor expertise, Lola were doomed to failure from the start. It is difficult to imagine the company arriving in F1 quite as disastrously as they did the first time round, but nonetheless their application can and should be discounted in favour of brand new entries.
Of the remaining applicants, we have heard the most from USF1, and what we know already sounds promising. Establishing their base in NASCAR's equivalent of Silicon Valley in North Carolina, they will not be short of a skilled workforce with which to produce a competitive F1 outfit.
Get rid of the jingoism and there might be a workable formula in there somewhere.
iSport have shown themselves to be up there among the best-run and shrewdest teams in GP2, and in a cost-capped F1 world could stand to do very well indeed. And the mutual benefit to F1 and Aston Martin of having an extra manufacturer on the grid cannot be ignored.
Things will become clearer as entries are submitted and the May 29 deadline approaches, but as things stand these three would be the best candidates for F1 in 2010.
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