Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Limitations of Formula One's Deep Pockets

With the 2013 season well underway and an established pattern of either winning or losing clear amongst the competitors, one thing that again becomes clear to the racing fan (or at least should) is that there are limitations to what dollars can do to secure a championship. This is not new and remains the truth in spite of the fact that Formula One teams have operating budgets that dwarf the yearly budgets of many of the world’s governments.

A look at two teams in recent history shows this. In 2008 the budget of what was the Toyota F1 team was in the order of 445.6 million dollars. That is more than the famed McLaren team’s budget by 12 million. The significance of this becomes real in that despite throwing what seemed like an unlimited amount of resources at this so desired championship. And with all that money they had not even won a race! McLaren on the other hand had been and is known for winning races, and historically if you threw your money at them, they could have a better than fighting chance at winning. The engineering prowess that those dollars could afford was huge. But that money couldn’t get it done at Toyota. The sub-par driver lineup that was, at least in the case of Ralf Schumacher, who although grossly overpaid was not even to blame though. But this fact is rather symptomatic of a problem with thinking more than anything else. So it seems almost paradoxical  in motorsports where generally speaking throwing money at your team and car is considered the way to do it. Quite jaded for sure.

What do the Mercedes F1 & Toyota F1 teams
have in common?
But while F1 is the pinnacle of motor sports, as well as much of the science of mechanical
The Mercedes driver lineup of Lewis Hamilton
and Nico Rosberg
engineering, money has its limitations. This lesson is perhaps lost even on the great team of Mercedes. Last year they hired away Lewis Hamilton who many said manifested disloyalty to Mclaren in his leaving the team. But in truth there was much baggage associated with his tenure there even though he won a championship. But at least in his mind the money, freedom and a fresh start warranted the switch. But what has it done for Mercedes? Does Mercedes still have a chance to win the championship this year? This would seem a stretch. There is no question they have capable drivers now. Rosberg has real skills and Hamilton is anything but Ralf Schumacher! Hami knows how to drive the wheels off the car. That is actually part of the problem for the Mercedes team. The wheels ie the tires don’t last for them. Debate as we could about Pirelli’s roll in this, it doesn’t change the fact that for instance, the Lotus team can milk the tires along AND win. They do so with a much lower budget than Mercedes and is in fact rumored to be struggling for dollars. 

Mercedes/Petronas takes the win at Monaco
It seems that the Mercedes car is relying too much on the tires for grip and is unable to exploit the proper suspension/aero relationship in a way that would allow for a sustainably competitive race pace. Now the naysayers to this obvious fact would love to site the recent win at Monaco. But the truth is that this is about the slowest circuit on the calendar and least abusive to the tires. Lots of shifting oh yeah but not much in the way of real g-force loading laterally on the rubber. It is in those situations where the Mercedes has historically fallen flat, after what usually is a great qualifying. And why not since qualifying is a quick, short load on the tires and then you are done. Yes done. Done is the enthusiasm of the Hamilton, Rosberg, Mercedes fans as they watch their guys get passed a third into the race if not sooner. All this even though the Mercedes team had access to this much talked about secret tire testing time!  

Now these facts should actually be sort of refreshing to us race fans. Why can this be said? Because it means that the engineers and other critical people from say Red Bull, Lotus, Ferrari, etc. can’t so easily be lured away from those teams to the dollar dangling eight hundred pound financial gorillas like Toyota was or perhaps Mercedes is. That means that even in this jaded sport there can be a real sense of team cohesiveness. So while Audi and in other years Porsche in sports car and Citroen and Peugeot in rally can almost will the winning of championships, that is not so easily done in Formula 1.