F1 teams cautious about customer cars

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Japan, Circuit Suzukajp

The debate on customer cars has been reopened for a while now, and while discussions remain ongoing, a concensus appears to be difficult to reach. A few technical directors were asked of their opinions at Suzuka.

The issue has been on the agenda numerous times, with previously having customer cars allowed, then banned, than allowed with Toro Rosso virtually running a Red Bull chassis, followed by another ban, forcing Toro Rosso to create its own proper technical team.

The discussions have reopened because some smaller teams could benefit from buying parts, instead of having to develop them themselves, while bigger teams who are willing to do so could hereby increase their return on investment. The proposal was unsurprisingly brought forward by Ferrari's Luca Di Montezemolo, knowing that Ferrari has had a tradition of supplying parts and race ready cars, such as for the A1GP series until it collapsed.

Jonathan Neale, managing director at McLaren explains: "I think that on the one hand Formula One still has to be the pinnacle of motor sport and there is a certain sense of technical endeavour in that, providing that we moderate that from a financial point of view. Customer cars is a game-changer, certainly for the independent teams; it fundamentally changes that business model and I think before Formula One goes about that, I think it needs to look at the economic sustainability of the various business models that exist. Whether you’re premium brand, whether you’re independent or whether you’re an entrant into it, then in any market sense, you make sure that you’ve got something that works holistically.

"Technically, for us, it’s not as big a deal. I think commercially it’s a much bigger issue but I don’t think the technical guys will say it’s too much of a challenge. But it would fundamentally change for me what Formula One is and I think Formula One is about the pinnacle of motor sport and that technical element is very important to it, and I believe that the independent teams would say the same thing.

Pat Fry, Ferrari's director of engineering redirected the question to the team principals, judging it's more of a commercial issue.

"Well, I suppose in reality it’s more a question for the team principals than engineers really.", Fry noted. "From an engineering point of view, I’m sure it would be relatively easy to put something in place but it’s more, as Jonathan was saying, about which way do we want to see the sport going."

Paul Monaghan of Red Bull Racing pointed out that customer cars would virtually make the constructor's championship useless, as some teams would have nothing more to construct.

"From a purely technical point of view, Formula One is the constructors’ championship – there’s a drivers’ championship and a constructors’ championship and therefore, solely from that point of view, then we ought to compete against one another", he said. "However, we currently sell parts to other teams as we’re permitted to do so, so an amount of part-sharing, to ease the burden on other teams that wish to buy certain components from us, then I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do. If that expands a little bit and all the teams agree, then it’s probably a helpful thing for the sport."

Dave Greenwood of Marussia and Tom McCullough of Sauber also said their teams see little in extending customer deals, agreeing that the amount of parts sharing (with drivetrain parts) is sufficient.

"Personally, I think we’ve got the balance about right at the minute," Greenwood said. "What you can and can’t buy from someone else is probably about the right place and still gives us the ability to be engineers and go off and design things and not just take wholesale someone else’s parts. I think in effect it allows us to buy the really complicated bits – gearboxes, hydraulics etc – and then lets us go off and concentrate on the other parts."

James Key, the technical director of Toro Rosso finally pointed out that STR would not support such extension after his team invested quite a lot in extending its design department.

"We've invested quite a lot (on our technical assets)", Key said. "It’s often maybe misunderstood but Toro Rosso’s very much a team in its own right. We work well with Red Bull where we can, for example the same engine for next year and so on but yes, we have invested. I think, certainly, there’s a commercial side which is not within the remit of technical directors to comment on but technically it’s not difficult but there’s a big emotional thing there because we are all competitive people who want to go and beat the other guy and a big part of that is making your own car so it’s quite a big topic on a number of levels, I think.

In essence, the debate is reduced to the commercial side of the sport, but it doesn't seem to attract much interest of many teams. Adam Parr for instance, the former CEO and chairman of Williams F1 went on record in June 2013, saying that allowing customer cars would effectively mean the beginning of the end of Formula One.