The new 2014 F1 engine regulations will introduce new technologies that will make the sport more relevant to automotive manufacturers – but could it come at the cost of the core independent teams?
The existing V8 units, which have been running for years, will be replaced next season by small capacity turbo engines coupled with an enhanced KERS unit and complex new turbo energy recovery systems – and it has long been debated whether it was the right move.
There are just three engine manufacturers who have committed to this new design for its first year – Renault, Mercedes and Ferrari - while Honda has also committed to introduce a new unit in 2015.
The fact that Honda has been drawn back by the new regulations could be seen as vindication of the investment in emerging technologies. So too could the fact that Formula E, the new all-electric series starting in 2014, is gathering momentum, meaning F1 must do something to maintain manufacturer relevance as it is they who have helped raise its rate card and turn itself into one of the biggest sporting shows around.
But this investment comes at a price – and it is not the big manufacturers who are shouldering all of the costs.
The purchase price of a new F1 powerplant (which is what they are now called) has doubled for next season, and with existing engine costs already a significant percentage of the budget for the smaller teams, this could have a very serious impact.
So is the new formula steering F1 towards another cash crisis?
Claire Williams, who is now running her father Frank’s team on a day-to-day basis, is concerned.
Speaking last month she admitted: “We're an independent team and we rely on sponsorships to go racing, so the escalation in costs for next year across various different elements of what is involved in going racing aren't great for us.
“We have to just push and push to try to get the budget in for next year. Unless you have a seismic change in the future, then I imagine it will remain this way.”
The problem is sponsors are now faced with increasingly varied options from other sports and big company bosses are also under pressure to deliver highly relevant and cost-effective campaigns, so the money pots of big name brands are no longer as flowing as they once were.
But it’s not just the engines that are causing the problem – the fact that limited testing will be introduced next year is a classic case in point showing that opportunities to save costs are being missed. The constant concerns over whether the Resource Restriction Agreement is being adhered to also show that some teams only have half an eye on the collective health of the sport.
“I think there's something fundamentally wrong,” said Caterham boss Tony Fernandes last month. He, like many, believes the inability for the teams to work collectively has led to missed opportunities both to control costs and to fight for a bigger slice of the sport’s revenues.
“I think self-interest overrode the sport and we are as much to blame for this problem as an engine,” he admitted. “We screwed it up, it's as simple as that.”
In the long run that ‘screw-up’ could cost the sport its soul. Teams like Williams and Caterham are its lifeblood, they are what it’s all about. Minnows who could one day come good.
Sure, it’s not like it was in the old days, when teams would come and go and newcomers could achieve success within a few races, or even straight out the box. Now it’s much more long-term – but the battle between big teams and minnows is still a vital part of F1’s appeal.
On the flip side, the key other element of F1 is its position as the pinnacle of motorsport. With Formula E planning to offer open rules that encourage technological exploration, F1 must maintain its position as the place for manufacturers to test and develop at the cutting edge.
Red Bull boss Christian Horner claims F1 was wrong to welcome the new regulations but that is surely not the case.
F1 is right to bring in the new regulations, as it needs to stay relevant - but to counter the cost it needs the FIA to urgently step in and control spending to keep its privateers filling the grids.
“We should be fighting for their survival and making sure that they've got sustainable business models,” warned McLaren’s boss Martin Whitmarsh.
“If we don't, at some point there will be a crisis. We act sometimes better under crisis, but generally it's better to avert the crisis and work together beforehand...”