Manufacturer misfortunes

Why Formula One is currently a tough enviroment for car manufacturers looking to compete, even with large lumps of cash at their disposal.
Thursday, September 27, 2012

Jonny Rockliff. A life-long Motorsport fan writing for GP Focus and regularly giving his thoughts on its podcast, often enjoying making references to Formula One from "back in the day". Follow him on Twitter at @SilkCutJag1985

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September 27th, 2012 (F1plus / Jonny Rockcliff).- Turn the clock back six years and Formula One at this point was increasingly becoming comprised of manufacturer owned teams. BMW, Honda, Renault and Toyota all had teams and since then have all dropped out of the sport with Renault remaining as engine suppliers to World Champions Red Bull, Williams, Caterham and Lotus, formerly the Renault works team that won the 2005 and 2006 Championships.

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In the case of BMW, Honda and Toyota they failed to live up to the big expectations that many had given the large budgets, facilities and personnel they had at their disposal. The primary cause for their drop-outs was the global recession and lack of on track successes despite occasional flurries of promise, BMW (as the BMW Sauber team) and Honda picked up a single pole position and a single win each whilst Toyota achieved two pole positions but no wins.

The only manufacturer owned team aside from Ferrari currently competing in the sport is Mercedes-Benz’s Brackley-based outfit that was previously Honda. Although they have enjoyed some great successes as technical partner and engine supplier to McLaren since 1995 the German marque and the Woking-based team’s ties appear to be severing. The engine for the MP4-12C road car was built in-house at Woking and not by Mercedes, Daimler’s 40% share-holding in McLaren has been handed back and the fact remains to this day that McLaren has only won a single Constructors Championship with Mercedes which was nearly fourteen years ago in 1998.

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Mercedes is keen to win Championships on its own, hence their acquisition of the former Honda team that ran successfully as Brawn in 2009 using a Mercedes customer engine, but once again despite a few encouraging results and the team’s first victory at the Chinese Grand Prix back in April, and the first for driver Nico Rosberg, the team has failed to deliver on the “hot air” they have made prior to each of the past three seasons.

To compound matters McLaren are continuing to rack up wins and even put their drivers into contention for Championships whilst the Brackley-based team are increasingly forced to fight for scraps. This goes to show that money cannot buy you success in Formula One, it can buy you the top-of-the-range facilities, equipment and technology to build a good car, however the team and its processes have to be organised correctly, in other words you need to get the basics right.

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Mercedes for example recruited seven former Technical Directors last winter and devised the clever “Super DRS” system, that stalls the front-wing, however the car has a very narrow operating window, doesn’t perform well on tracks with long corners and doesn’t look after the tyres well. Surely with these seven Technical Directors they could have built a better car, especially with Ross Brawn as Team Principal.

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Robert Kubica druing the only BMW victory at Canada in 2008 (BMW amg)

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For manufacturer-owned teams the decision makers will often be the marque’s board of directors, in the case of BMW it was these decisions which hampered their competitiveness in Formula One. After the acquisition and and re-branding of the Sauber team BMW saw a good upturn in performance which saw them take their only victory, a 1-2 finish, at the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix courtesy of Robert Kubica. After the race BMW announced they would stop work on the team’s F1.08 to concentrate on the 2009 car, in lieu of the upcoming radical changes to the technical regulations.

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In hindsight BMW had shot themselves in the foot with this decision, Kubica kept himself in the title fight until the last few races, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa were constantly taking points off each other, but no longer had the car to compete near the front like he had earlier in the season. To make things worse the F1.09 turned out ugly and uncompetitive, making the team one of the biggest disappointments of the 2009 season which lead to BMW pulling the plug and selling the team back to Peter Sauber. BMW’s boardroom had cost its team a chance of great success, even their time as engine supplier to Williams yielded far greater success.

Road car technology has traditionally originated from Formula One, however in recent years, due to the ban on electronic aids such as engine-braking and traction control, ever-constricting technical regulations and a freeze on development of the current 2.4 litre V8′s, the sport has become less relevant in terms of links to road car technology, aside from KERS development.

This will have made it harder for the manufacturers to have any impact in terms of engine development. With an increased emphasis on the need for road cars with good fuel economy and alternative forms of propulsion Sports Cars and Endurance racing is becoming increasingly attractive to car manufacturers. Despite Peugeot unexpectedly withdrawing its Sports Car programme we have seen Toyota enter with their own hybrid car and take the fight to Audi, despite it being a petrol car too. A whole host of car manufacturers are queuing up to enter the FIA World Endurance Championship including the likes of Porsche and Jaguar.

There is a hope that when the new V6 turbo engines are introduced in 2014 they will appeal more to manufacturers due to the various recovery systems being introduced.

Formula One needs car manufacturer involvement just as much as privateers, history also dictates that manufacturers have enjoyed far better success when working together as a supplier or even technical partner to a team. If manufacturers start coming back to the sport they will hopefully not make the same mistakes which BMW, Honda and Toyota made.

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