There have been a number of car manufacturers that have competed in Formula 1 in recent years, all with differing fortunes. 2012 will see only two teams being fully run by a car manufacturer, Ferrari and Mercedes.
So what of the other manufacturers? What caused the likes of Honda, Toyota & BMW to leave the sport in recent years, and why do we only see two car companies competing in Formula 1, the pinnacle of motorsport?
Only the board of these car companies can know the real reasons why they do not race in Formula 1, and despite the recent departure of these manufacturers, the legacy of their involvement is still being felt today.
There have always been teams that have come and gone through the years, but it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the recent manufacturer involvement took off, with Ford taking over Jackie Stewart’s team under the Jaguar banner, BMW partnering with Williams, Mercedes buying a stake in McLaren & Toyota joining the grid with a full factory effort, building the chassis and engines out of their Cologne Motorsport base.
With the involvement of these manufacturers came significant investment with millions being pumped in to push development in order to get to the front of the grid and compete with the like of Ferrari and McLaren. In the time that BMW, Toyota & Honda competed with their works efforts in Formula 1, the World Championship was only won by the Ferrari, McLaren or Renault teams.
Most of these manufacturers saw Formula 1 as a marketing exercise. Pushing their brand at a time where Formula 1 ventured to new territories with the likes of Singapore & China in order to sell more road cars. Formula 1 is not about selling cars, it is about racing in the highest level of world motorsport. Enzo Ferrari famously started making and selling road cars in order to fund his racing operations. The recent influx of manufacturers essentially took the opposite stance, competing in Formula 1 in order to sell road cars.
So how has this affected Formula 1 & the teams we see today? Firstly we have the money. The millions pumped in by the manufacturers & the sponsorship they were able to bring in to their teams meant the massive increase in budgets for all the teams in the paddock in order to keep up with these manufacturers. Within the last decade this caused a number of smaller teams to cease operations as they did not have the money or the resources of a car manufacturer backing them. No longer do we see the likes of Prost, Arrows, Jordan or Minardi competing, with these teams either being shut down or bought out.
With the increased manufacturer presence also came the increase in the politics between the teams and the FIA & FOM, as the manufacturers combined to form the Grand Prix Manufacturers Association (the GPMA, which was a precursor to the current FOTA body) to negotiate with the FIA to want more revenue and control over the sport, with threats to break away from Formula 1 and form the Grand Prix World Championship.
The departure of these manufacturers has also meant that the teams they backed suffered with the massive reductions in budgets after losing the backing of a car company as well as the sponsorship that would have been gained with the added attachment of a car manufacturer. Williams have struggled since they lost their partnership with BMW, not having a race win since 2004. The departure of Honda & subsequent change to the Brawn team caused huge reductions in the workforce and was a team devoid of any significant sponsorship through the 2009 season (despite being one of the fastest cars on the grid & eventual World Champions). This team however was purchased by Mercedes Grand Prix who used this basis as the set up for their fully works effort. BMW’s sale of the Sauber team has been a similar situation to Brawn and Honda. Peter Sauber bought back his team from BMW and turned his team back into a privateer. This was also a car devoid of sponsorship during the 2010 season.
The 2011 season however did see the return of the Lotus name (albeit in two different forms with different ownership, the details of which have been well documented) & 2012 sees the Renault team name disappear to be taken over by Lotus. Renault have returned to solely being an engine supplier, something they did to great success in the 1990s (and in recent years with Red Bull Racing), but for the past two seasons, the team formerly known as Renault was not being run by the French car manufacturer at all, the team was sold to Genii Capital but for the prize funds the former World Championship winning team were entitled to, the name of the constructor was kept as Renault.
Lotus Cars joined this team as a title sponsor & in 2012 takes over the constructors name for the team, using the previous ownerships Enstone base and facilities, as with the current Mercedes AMG F1 team, this is not quite a complete start up of an F1 team by a car manufacturer, seeing as the personnel & facilities have all been in place under previous team ownership.
Another manufacturer also joins Formula 1 in 2012, with Caterham F1 Team taking over from last year’s Team Lotus, having been bought out by Tony Fernandes & sponsoring his existing team in 2011. This is a slightly different situation to the other Lotus outfit. With Tony Fernandes having to surrender the Team Lotus identity, this team transfers to another one of his acquisitions in Caterham. This team was founded from scratch for the 2010 season without any manufacturer support & the Caterham link is essentially by name only, as the team continues on the foundations laid out by the former Team Lotus in 2011. Under the leadership of Tony Fernandes, Caterham have set up a number of subsidiaries to tie the Formula 1 (& GP2) operations with the sports car manufacturer, so this tie up will be quite an interesting development between Formula 1 and the automotive industry as it is a different path for a tie up between Formula 1 team and car manufacturer.
It is hard to say whether Formula 1 needs car manufacturers, Ferrari has be synonymous with the sport since its inception and I am sure will continue to do so (despite the constant threats of walking away), but other than the Italian marque, which other manufacturers would take a keen interest in competing in Formula 1 every year regardless of whether they were winning? Mercedes do have their own team for now, but only time and success will tell how long they decide to keep this current operation going under their own banner.
If a scenario occurred which meant Renault or Mercedes decided to pull out of Formula 1, that would mean a number of teams losing engine supply, Ferrari will still have that presence in Formula 1, which would leave themselves, Cosworth and the recently announced PURE (Propulsion Universelle et Recuperation d’Energie) founded by Craig Pollock to pick up the pieces. If that happens, Formula 1 would move back to the time when teams were responsible for building a chassis and engine supply was provided by a small handful of engine builders (for example, during the era of the Cosworth DFV in the late 1960s and early 1970s).
However, the car manufacturers need Formula 1, mainly to promote their brand on a world stage. Some of these manufacturers have proven that they are out to win, but the majority have left at the first sign of losing interest with a bad car. The world economy in recent years has not helped, and this has been cited as a reason to depart from Formula 1.
Will any manufacturers return to Formula 1? If they do, how many would want to endure the hard times of working their way up the grid? Or will we end up seeing a repeat of the time the likes of BMW and Honda came and went?
The problem is not the actual involvement by these manufacturers in Formula 1, it is the lasting legacy that their brief participation has caused, and it is one that the sport is still slowly recovering from. Right now the sport is finely balanced, whether a new manufacturer can come in, even as an engine supplier, and be successful will naturally take time, and then which of the current Formula 1 teams would want to take that leap in signing with a new partner, especially considering the change in engine regulations due in 2014? On the other hand, if any of the current engine suppliers depart, where would that leave those teams that use that particular manufacturers engines? Would the remaining suppliers have the resources to add additional teams to their supply
The future of Formula 1 depends on the presence of independent teams, without these the sport loses these teams which exist to race, if car manufacturers come in and push the independents out, there is a risk that the sport will be left in the position similar to 2009, where we almost saw a breakaway series by FOTA members being launched for 2010. That is not to say that all manufacturers should not compete in Formula 1, but there needs to be the right balance between independent and manufacturer teams. Right now that balance is present, but if that changes, then Formula 1 could find itself in bigger problems again.