Bob McMurray: Tough at the bottom of F1 food chain
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As I write this column the Manor Racing Formula 1 team’s future balances on a knife-edge, as do the jobs of hundreds of its staff.
By the time this column is published, the team might have secured funding to at least start the season or might — after years of barely surviving — gone the way of so many teams before it and collapsed into obscurity.
The team’s parent company is already in administration but the F1 racing team is still active and hoping some funding will appear to enable it to continue.
That funding must appear by the end of this month or what is already an uphill battle for survival will become an impossible war.
Manor Racing is not the first team to suffer from under-funding and trying to exist as would a guppy in a tank of ravenous sharks.
Under the administration of the past several years, the sport has prospered like no other, making millionaires from ordinary men but, as it has grown, so it has reflected society in making those at the top of the food chain richer while those at the bottom have watched the gap to the top grow into a chasm.
Perhaps that situation will ease with the new owner of the sport, Liberty Media, indicating a change in the way profits are shared and with the further news that the almost unthinkable has happened and Bernie Ecclestone has been ousted.
In his own, inimitable way Bernie said “I was deposed today, I am simply gone. It’s official, I am no longer the leader of the company, my position has been taken by Chase Carey. My new position is one of those American terms, I’m now like an honorary president, I don’t even know what it means.”
Ross Brawn — an experienced engineer, responsible in part for 18 world titles with the Ferrari, Williams and Benetton teams and the person who laid the cornerstones for Mercedes’ domination of the sport — has also been appointed managing director (motorsport) of the new organisation, so it is to be hoped that, with a fresh approach the old order will change.
Liberty Media has said it wants to “grow the sport” but that would be impossible without the teams taking part, so it is not inconceivable that Liberty Media will be part of a “white knight” rescue for Manor F1.
The sport needs the smaller teams if for no other reason than to breed talent for the larger teams.
Take a look at some drivers who managed to get a drive with a “minnow” team then went on to fame and fortune.
Minardi F1 Team, a quintessentially Italian team run almost exclusively by Giancarlo Minardi for many years, was the most fertile nursery for young drivers coming out of Italy.
The team changed names a few times but some who were to become famous F1 drivers, such as Michele Alboreto, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso, are alumni of this tiny team.
The team was sold to the Red Bull organisation and became “Scuderia Torro Rosso” where Sebastian Vettel had his first F1 win.
Michael Schumacher first raced with the eponymous Jordan F1 team before being enticed to join Benetton F1.
The Toleman F1 team gave a young Ayrton Senna his break, although he was courted by many big teams.
Kimi Raikkonen started with the Sauber team — which is another outfit that seems to specialise in knife-edge survival skills — as did Nico Hulkenberg.
The list continues with a long catalogue of smaller, now defunct, Formula 1 teams that have acted as a training ground and provided something of a conveyor belt of young stars for feeding into the hungry mouths of the conglomerates at the fancy end of the paddock — Ensign, Coloni, Surtees and more teams with names long forgotten.
By my count, 171 teams have competed in F1 since 1950.
The vast majority were small operations, some were never competitive and some should not have been there in the first place. But the important thing is they provided an avenue, a means of showcasing a young driver’s talent, or lack of it.
So without these small teams, what of the new young breed of drivers?
The trend was possibly set by McLaren some years ago when Ron Dennis took under the McLaren collective wing a young Lewis Hamilton, at 13 years of age.
It seems that these days any F1 team worth its salt is scouring the international karting paddocks of the world looking for ever younger drivers to sign up, often simply to keep them out of the clutches of other cruising talent scouts working for rival teams.
If those young drivers do not perform as expected in the junior formulae they are abandoned with the consequent and often fatal damage to their reputation, career and prospects, without getting the opportunity to drive or race a Formula 1 car.
Put simply, the sport needs to look after its own and ensure that profits are shared in a much more even fashion and not to an exclusive club at the top table with the crumbs spilling on to the floor for the rest.
It is a tough world to be in, possibly the toughest sport from a team perspective.
I hope that a way is found for the Manor Formula 1 team to survive, not only for its own good but for the good of Formula 1.