Yet again this week Formula One pundits began to drive the nails into the coffin of yet another team and, at the same time, began singing the praises of new entries destined to be the next "championship winning hopes". Since the early eighties teams have been entering and leaving the starting grid faster than a F1 car through Eau Rouge. Although recent years have led to a massive decline in the number of competing teams, the situation does finally look like stabilising. But for how long?
At Brazil, Tom Walkinshaw finally severed his links with Ligier and at the same time withdrew most of the key staff with him to take up posts at the newly purchased Arrows team. Whilst this means that Arrows may finally become a name to be reckoned with, we should be cautious. Just because TWR racing are applying their vast knowledge and experience from years of sportscar and single seater racing doesn't mean they are going to instantly, or ever, eclipse Williams and Benetton. Even though Arrows provides ready made facilities such as design and engineering staff, a wind tunnel, and a talented driver in Jos Verstappen, can TWR produce cars of a winning quality?
The answer is probably yes, but not yet. Walkinshaw and his staff made little impact at Ligier. The financial budget is down $10m this year, many staff have been sacked, and the team so far seems to be continuing its reputation for being a mid-field runner. However, the Walkinshaw name will attract better and bigger sponsors to Arrows, and possibly transfer the much praised Mugen-Honda engine from Ligier as well. If Honda see fit to stay with Ligier then the team will still have the Hart engine contract which, if funded properly, could be a serious threat to some of the better known engine manufacturers.
Jackie Stewart also announced this year his intention to enter F1 in 1997. He also has access to the resources of an existing team, that of his son Paul's successful F3 / F3000 o utfit. Stewart is somewhat lucky in that he was able to prise talented designer Alan Jenkins away from Arrows. His close links with Ford managed to gain him an 5 year, exclusive deal to the new works V10 and access to £100m of support. The fact that the Sauber team are the first to use the engine means it will be reliable and optimised ready for Stewart Racing when they enter next year. But even readily available resources such as these do not guarantee an easy path to the top.
Both Stewart and TWR have access to teams that have run strongly in the F3 and F3000 championships, but is this necessarily a mark of instant success? The lower formulae consist of teams running cars designed by firms such as Lola, Dallara and Reynard. Whilst this means that teams with better engineers will be able to use these cars to their best advantage, they have little experience of actually designing their own. In Formula One, where milliseconds and millimetres are the difference between champions and also-rans, car design experience is essential. Many successful teams in these lower formulae have graduated to F1 with little initial success.
Jordan are perhaps the most positive example of a team making a graduation to F1. Their instant success was mainly due to Eddie Jordan's charismatic approach and a superb coup with a Ford deal and 7-up sponsorship. This instant cash source, and Ford support, saw some strong results in their first season in 1991. However, a subsequent change to Yamaha, and then two seasons of re-grouping with Hart engines, saw them plummet to near the back of the field. Now they are challenging the very front of the grid again, as could be seen at last weekends Brazilian GP. Jordan's current success probably hinges on the fact that it now has more in common with the top teams; a major cigarette sponsor, a works engine deal, and the ability to at last mount a long and extensive testing campaign.
Sauber had a fine reputation in sportscar racing, running the Mercedes junior team that made Schumacher, Frentzen, and Wendlinger so famous. They achieved a point in their first ever GP but during 1994 the accident that befell Wendlinger, a consequent succession of "rent-a-drivers", the loss of their major sponsor, and Mercedes transferring to McLaren for 1995 saw Sauber's fortunes slump and made their future look uncertain. They were saved by a works Ford deal in 1995 and the superb driving skills of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, but with Ford (and possibly Frentzen) leaving for Stewart Racing next year their future looks a bit uncertain once more.
Pacific were another highly prominent F3 and F3000 team who made the step up with confidence, but as team boss Keith Wiggins said, "We succeeded in completing two F1 seasons under very difficult conditions. However in the interests of everyone concerned it is better to withdraw from F1 and accept that you need the support of a motor manufacturer plus significant funding in order to survive and become truly competitive. We did have a number of sponsorship possibilities, but without the results we were unable to realise them. It's a vicious circle."
Forti were also highly successful in the lower formulae, but some say their ability to continually loiter around the back of the grid is mostly due to the massive coverage sponsors get every time the cars are lapped.
The success of Sauber and Jordan, and the comparative failure of Forti and Pacific, tends to suggest that a major sponsor and free engines is the biggest advantage a team could have, enabling the money to be directed towards other areas such as design or development. The inability of Tyrrell, Minardi and Arrows to break out of the mid-ranks also suggest that the ability to throw money at the car and mount an extensive testing programme are essentials in producing a competitive team, able to run regularly in the top six.
This takes the ability of a successful team from reputation, to that old Formula One bugbear, money. To mount a successful campaign the minimum requirement seems to be at least £15 - £25 million. A figure like this can only really be achieved through sponsorship and a free engine deal. Prominent teams can gain exclusive, and financially massive, deals that significantly boost the coffers and provide a guaranteed source of income for the length of the contract. The addition of smaller sponsors means that the top five or six teams are laughing.
Smaller teams do not have the reputation to attract these large sponsors, and the trend seems to be having many small sponsors which, with the combination of rent-a-drivers, means that if any sponsor does pull out there are still plenty remaining on the car. Any small company making a speculative entry into motorsport sponsorship would also be more prepared to fill that less expensive gap.
In the future it seems apparent that finances will be raised by cross-marketing ideas. The ability of sponsors to gain marketing through other sponsors was best proved by Simtek in 1994. The car carried large stickers advertising music channel MTV, yet MTV actually paid no money to Simtek. Simtek were given cheap advertising space on the MTV channel which they would then sell to other sponsors who would pay the advertising fee to the team. Pedro Diniz took a similar approach and raised money for his Forti drive by offering food companies more prominent displays in his fathers supermarket chain.
The Paul Stewart F3 team already uses the approach that sponsors should be linked be a similar market. The car carries Scottish Power, Irn-Bru, and Highland Spring sponsors, all obviously Scottish and therefore linked by a national identity with the team. Jackie Stewart looks set to continue this approach, and is reputedly attracting telecommunications giant BT. French lubricants company Elf supply lubricants to the two Renault powered teams maintaining a strong French identity. Renault adverts also extol the virtues of Elf lubricants, putting subliminal messages into the minds of fans of the sport and purchasers of Renault cars. I have, myself, put Elf fuel into my car with the slight thought that if it can survive the rigours of Formula One then it should be able to take my somewhat less aggressive approach to driving.
The 107% qualifying rule appears to be largely redundant now that Forti and Minardi appear to be able to match the times required, but will the bottom few teams be forced out by the new teams entering Formula One next season. If no teams retire at the end of the year, then there will be the 26 required by the rules to enter. If more enter the year after the ability to qualify will once again be the preoccupation of the struggling lower teams.
The arrival of Stewart and Walkinshaw as team owners suggests that there will be a more competitive field next year, but there will always be a gap between the "top five" and the "tail enders". In the harsh world that is Formula One, finding out who drops off the bottom next is only a matter of time.