F1 – customer cars…maybe?

The four “big” teams (Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull and McLaren) met prior to the Canadian Grand Prix to discuss design and regulation changes for 2017. Included in discussions was the issue of how to allow for customer cars.

Most of the regulation changes being floated about (including refuelling and a move to 13 inch rims) appear to be unpopular with the teams due to a combination of cost and workload. So it seems like the only major agreements were to “turn up the wick” on the existing power units to make them more powerful, and to look at wider tyres. There was lots of talk about making the cars look “sexier”, but form follows function, and right now, with aerodynamics being the most important factor, the car looks are not going to change.

It appears that there was little discussion of what is really needed – a total binning of the current aero rules in favour of limited front and rear wings, and a return to a level of underbody downforce generation. That, plus wider tyres, would make it easier for cars to run nose to tail, and would increase the importance of mechanical grip in car set-up at slow circuits..

The two major agreements that they reached on the topic of customer cars appear to be:

1. An entire package of cars and engines will be offered to a team for EUR 50m.

2. Each major constructor can only supply one other team with a customer car package.

As this article from James Allen makes clear, the EUR 50m figure is only a starting point. It does not include spare parts for example.

(2) is essential, as without it, Mercedes would probably supply at least 4 teams with chassis and engines in 2017, and the other major constructors would not have any customers since their power units are currently uncompetitive.

Right now, the big teams are seemingly in the driving seat. However, that unity is tenuous. Red Bull keeps making noises about leaving. Renault is not a lock to continue (yes, they are supposed to be buying a team but they still have an unreliable and poorly developed power unit, and they seem to be trying to do F1 on a budget, which is not how Mercedes approached it).

Bernie Ecclestone keeps reminding people of his alternative plan to provide smaller teams with 2013 Red Bull chassis equipped with Renault V8 engines serviced by Mecachrome, which might only cost teams around $30m a season for chassis and engines. That plan, however, would never pass a Strategy Group vote, which explains why it does not have any traction in 2017 discussions at present.

The unknown in all of this is whether F1 will find itself the subject of a complaint to the EU over the governance of the sport. If a complaint is lodged, it is unlikely that the current structure of F1 can continue. The sport’s current broken governance system will almost certainly be declared in violation of EU competition rules.

I remain skeptical that the franchise car system will ever be implemented. Right now, F1 is in such a mess strategically that anything could happen in the next 18 months, and I am sure that what everybody is publicly saying is likely to happen is nothing like what will actually happen.

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