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The long story of Formula 1’s elitism

It is accepted that F1 1 is an elitist sport, nowadays it is almost impossible to see a driver coming from very humble beginnings or a team to make an impact with financial limitations. However, between the 1960s and the 1980s, independent teams were a force; history shows us this is true.
Friday, June 28, 2013

June 27th, 2013 (F1plus/K. Grimmett).- “Unfortunately we are close to the pace of the Williams” remarked a sentimental Mike Gascgoyne in 2011. When a Caterham boss reflects negatively on a surprise pace ratio in a team’s second year, it is easy to see how well regarded the Oxfordshire outfit is.

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The deafening silence of the unfulfilling FW32 was evident; it was the least successful season in Williams history. Alas, the dulcet tones of Murray Walker overcome with emotion following Damon Hill’s 1996 championship victory, now seem a distant memory.

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Indeed, a humble, Sir Frank Williams, has crafted a team with a prestigious history that Caterham and Marussia could currently only dream of - nine constructors titles and seven driver championships is hard to ignore. Unlike McLaren, whose wealth is almost boasted in their Technology Centre, the independence of Williams F1 creates instability and uncertainty.

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The truth is, the elitist nature of Formula 1 is nothing new. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, independent teams, Brabham and Tyrrell, won six driver’s titles between them with Jackie Stewart and Nelson Piquet emerging as their great talents.
Independent teams can make it; history shows us this is true.

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But patterns in performance suggest there is a formula to adhere to. Firstly, by building on the success or failures of their predecessor, a team can build a formidable presence. Brawn GP dominated the 2009 season but, unlike Caterham and Marussia, they were the product of a failing Honda team; stable financial foundations were already solid for Ross Brawn upon his arrival. Similarly, Vettel’s rain sodden Chinese Grand Prix victory in 2009 was the team’s first, though Red Bull is often considered a by-product of Stewart GP.

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Stewart GP grew from the dreams of a British racing legend, Sir Jackie himself. Starting their Formula 1 career from scratch, a £24 million budget is not enough to secure fee seeking drivers and to compete with wealthier teams nowadays. Stewart GP are not remembered for their 1999 victory with Johnny Herbert but for the man who co-founded them. Instead, Jaguar and more recently, Red Bull, continue their legacy, and rather successfully too.

Jenson Button won the Championship 2009 for Brawn GP after Honda left enough to produce a winning machine. (LAT Photo)

Johnny Herbert won the only race in the three years that Stewart GP was part of the grid in 1999 (LAT Photo)

Second in this survival story is a correct pairing of drivers. The norm is to have one young hopeful alongside a seasoned veteran and the emerging talent usually carries with them an ostentatious pot of gold. The line between talent and money is thin, easily mistaken and often under rated. The news of Mark Webber’s retirement will certainly give other teams food for thought as the race for 2014 seats officially begins.

When Kamui Kobayashi announced that his chances of a 2013 seat were over, it felt like the world had gone into mourning. A podium in the independently-run Sauber was not enough for a team who have enabled Sergio Perez, Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen to emerge into the sport’s higher echelons. His replacement, Esteban Gutiérrez, brings millions from his native Mexico, proof of the insecurity faced by all on this matter.

Not even £1 million worth of fan donations was enough for Kamui.

Perhaps his exit from Formula 1 isn’t such a surprise? After all, I have lost count of the number of times a team, driver, broadcaster or publication has used the words “funding” or “sponsorship” in conjunction with a driver announcement. I know it features quite heavily in my own ramblings.

2012 Formula Renault 3.5 champion, Robin Frijns, may be Sauber’s Reserve Driver but he is yet to stamp his authority on a practice session, as the experience of Nico Hulkenberg and the team’s financial dependence on Esteban Gutiérrez has forced him to remain firmly on the sidelines.

Last year I spoke to Robin Frijns. I asked him if it was possible to describe the sensation of driving a Formula 1 car. Following his début for the Swiss outfit at the Young Drivers Test, he explained to me “it is like going from a normal plane to an F16”.

After that, the Dutchman had no words.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in Japan 2012. (LAT Photo)

Excuse the pun but Formula 1 is somewhat of a lottery, a game of luck out of the control of the participants. Wins and losses occur on a knife’s edge, hovering tentatively until a team decision is made which will swing the result to one side. Monisha Kalternborn will determine much of Frijns’, and subsequently, the team’s economic future.

Sauber are yet to join the championship list. Their story is typical in its meritocratic style, a former car sales man becomes a Team Principal after building his first model in a basement. Peter Sauber is one such man who has defied the odds with a Formula 1 career spanning two decades.

It seems Peter Sauber has adopted the third, and arguably most important, survival strategy. The team may lack the championship that he craves but Sauber has longevity.

Perhaps this is the most important legacy.

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