HRT-McLaren or Marussia-Red Bull?

By on Sunday, March 11, 2012

© Marussia F1 Team

Arguably the single most influential person responsible for transforming Formula 1 into a multi-billion dollar motorsport, Bernie Ecclestone has also had some interesting - if not controversial - ideas on how to run the races and how to advertise the sport. One could argue that these ideas could also be used to promote the sport, which is after all what Bernie does well. From the idea of a medal-deciding drivers’ championship to the proposal of F1 tracks with shortcuts, or a sprinkler system that would artificially create wet races, Bernie now has another one up his sleeve:

“What I've been proposing is, perhaps, some of the teams at the bottom end of the grid should be able to run last year's constructor's car. So one of the other teams that you mentioned (HRT and Marussia) could run last year's McLaren, or last year's Red Bull, for three years until they get themselves together and then they have to go back to be a constructor.”

This suggestion, which can be called “temporary customer cars”, is a resurrected concept of “customer cars”, which was in place until the 2010 season. Constructors like Williams and Force India were highly outspoken against the customer cars because they believed they were at a disadvantage compared to the teams who “cash-and-carry” their car like Toro Rosso and Super Aguri - the then-customers of Red Bull and Honda, respectively. However, that concept is no longer in place with Super Aguri now dead and with Toro Rosso designing and building their own car since 2010 (I know there are some cynics among you who claim that Toro Rosso’s car is way too similar to that of Red Bull. No, please).

As things stand, what are Bernie’s motives for bringing forth such a radical idea? Was he sincere in his suggestion about helping smaller teams? Even if that is the case, I don’t how this idea could possibly help the smaller teams and Formula 1 as a whole. Let’s assume HRT or Marussia are allowed to use old-spec cars from the bigger teams, say McLaren and Red Bull. Are we certain that McLaren and Red Bull would even agree to that? Would they be willing to share vital information such as drawings, downforce numbers, design concepts of their cars, albeit the old-spec cars with those smaller teams? Wouldn’t HRT or Marussia develop the car throughout the season? For that to happen, wouldn’t they need the aerodynamic data of the car?

What about the other big teams? Would Ferrari and Mercedes be willing to allow their rivals to collect additional information and data from these extra cars? How can they prevent their rivals from testing a HRT car? What if an old Red Bull-powered HRT makes it tough to be lapped by a Ferrari or McLaren? Not only that, why would other smaller teams who design and manufacture their car themselves give their blessing to this idea? Surely a Red Bull, although an old-spec version, would be racing with Force India, Williams and Sauber, thus making HRT or Marussia an artificial midfield team which could possibly collect points at every race. What would happen then? The other teams would receive less money from FOM, getting smaller and smaller with each passing year, while HRT and Marussia would thrive in the process by collecting points with a Red Bull car! If that isn’t unfair, I don’t know what would be!

Furthermore, who can guarantee that the new-spec Red Bull will be faster than the old-spec one? Wouldn’t there be a possibility that the factory teams could be leapfrogged by the smaller teams using their old-spec efforts? What a scenario that would be.

Bernie’s proposal is nothing but a load of codswallop as far as the sporting side concerned. However now taken with a pinch of salt, I don’t think this proposal is solely related to helping and a “sharing is caring” attitude. I sense that Bernie could be seeking a way to make peace with Ferrari by indirectly supporting their third car proposal. That way, Ferrari could well run a third, or even fourth car on the grid thus having an opportunity to test two times more than the others. It is known that Ferrari have been suffering more than any other team from lack of testing. Teams attended 92 test sessions in 2004 and 2005 seasons each, in stark contrast to 4 test sessions this season. Ferrari have been notoriously dependent in the part on track testing and data collection to fine tune their cars, but lack of testing meant that they have had to rely on CFD and wind-tunnel modeling, which is not Ferrari’s strong suit. McLaren and Red Bull are known to have more, if not the most, advanced simulation and software* technologies. With Ferrari having correlation issues last year and some issues also this year, the Maranello squad is dearly missing the good old testing days. So giving their old-spec cars to one of smaller teams wouldn’t be a problem for Ferrari, instead they could very well be eager to do that, thank you very much.

Bernie might be winking at Ferrari with this proposal, which could prove to be very beneficial for the upcoming negotiations for the new Concorde Agreement. Given that FOTA is now split, with teams Ferrari and Red Bull out of the FOTA equation, Bernie’s divide and conquer tactic could be reignited. Having Ferrari on your side is always a positive, so that should play into Bernie’s hands if he and Ferrari could meet in the middle on common ground. Ferrari are known to be outspoken about the increasing of teams’ share from 50 percent to 70 percent. If that does not happen, then they claim they could well start their own series, which is a threat Luca di Montezemolo is always happy to reiterate. We also know that Montezemolo wants to reinstate in-season testing. So, there is common ground between those proposals and threats.

We are about to begin a season where the on-track action will presumably be spectacular. One can argue that we won’t be lacking in off-track action either. Tense times are about to start. Five lights are all red!
* You can read more about the Immersed Boundary Methods that Red Bull have been using for aerodynamic refinement.

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