The two smallest teams in Formula 1 won’t be in Austin, Texas this weekend. Caterham F1 Team was placed in administration last week, and now today, it has been confirmed that Marussia F1 Team was also placed under administration. For the American reader, think of “administration” as a very kind way of saying what it really means deep down – “bankruptcy”. They’ll miss the United States Grand Prix. They’ll almost surely miss the Brazilian Grand Prix after that, and while they can come back in time for the finale in Abu Dhabi, there is a worrying possibility that neither of these teams will race again.
And it’s made me so extremely upset. Frustrated, even. Actually, no. Frustrated isn’t the word for it.
You see, when most people want to express their outrage at something via a video clip or a reference to a piece of popular performance art, there is one long-standing, dependable source. The rant from fictional news anchor Howard Beale, in the four-time Academy Award-winning film Network. One of the all-time great motion pictures, best remembered for Peter Finch‘s performance as Beale, and his delivery of the famous line, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” For this instance, though, I’ll pull from something slightly more contemporary, and from a much more low-brow form of entertainment: Professional wrestling. From a 1997 episode of WWF Monday Night Raw, after a main-event match in which former champion and long-serving veteran Bret Hart snapped on live television, shoving announcer/owner Vince McMahon to the ring mat and launching into a scathing tirade expressing his frustration with the way his career has progressed in recent months. A tirade that started with his most famous line, which contained just a little bit saltier language:
And that sums up exactly how I feel about the plight of Caterham and Marussia. This is bullshit. Pardon the language.
It’s so frustrating that even as this situation has been boiling over for weeks, and worse yet, another team is at risk of suffering the same fate, that I’ve hardly been able to properly organize my thoughts on it without immediately having to start over again. Because…well, where do I start, as a frustrated fan and a long-time supporter and sympathizer of teams such as Marussia and Caterham, and before them, HRT, Super Aguri, and my favorite backmarker squadron of them all, Minardi?
Caterham’s situation has devolved into something that only Jim Lahey, the antagonistic, alcoholic trailer park supervisor from the Canadian sitcom Trailer Park Boys, can describe so eloquently using one of his many fecal-inspired euphemisms. Accounts of the full strife within the organisation have been written by people with way more insider info and experience than I have. But to summarize: Former owner Tony Fernandes, having sold the Caterham F1 Team before the British Grand Prix after four and a half pointless seasons because he can only handle bankrolling one bottom-feeding sporting organization instead of two, insists that the next owners, Engavest SA, haven’t paid any of the bills. Meanwhile, Engavest says that Fernandes never transferred his shares of ownership of the team after the sale. Now for all we know, those shares exist in the same purgatory where Jaime Alguersuari spent the last few years of his post-Toro Rosso career, for all we know. The team is now run by a man named Finnbarr O’Connell (no relation) as they try and find a buyer. Police have come to first seize millions of dollars worth of assets from the team’s base in Leafield, then lock the workers out of the base this past week. Sponsors have disappeared from the team’s car at every race. Reserve drivers have fled the team to go take up the same role in other organizations. But nothing captures how deep this debacle has gone than when lead driver Kamui Kobayashi told BBC Sport that the team couldn’t replace a warped suspension piece on his car during final practice for the Russian Grand Prix, instead, they wrapped the bit in carbon and sent him off. That’s a marginally more high-tech version of wrapping the damn thing in duct tape. Duct tape? Are you serious?
That one I could have unfortunately seen coming. Marussia’s descent into the same bankr- er, administration was, to their credit, much less publicized, but still an absolute shock and a bitter shame. The team had enjoyed its best season to date, finally scoring their first championship points at Monaco on the back of Jules Bianchi’s stellar 9th place drive. They had a new engine deal, they’d retained their top star driver, and now they were on pace to finish 9th in the World Constructors’ Championship and secure a larger portion of the massive $765 million USD prize pot for their efforts. Now, as Jules Bianchi continues to lie in a state of sleep in Japan after the most devastating accident that Formula 1 has seen in two decades, his employers have been run into debt to the tune of about £60 million GBP. For that amount of debt, as Jota Sport owner/driver Simon Dolan pointed out, you can run an LMP2 team in the World Endurance Championship for fifty years, and a two-car GP2 Series team for twenty-five years. They’ll make most of that back if they continue to hold 9th in the WCC, but that’s only if they can compete as Marussia F1 Team next season, and that’s contingent upon them finding a buyer (the good news is that there are already interested parties).
Both teams joined the now-defunct Hispania Racing Team [HRT] in 2010, curiously beating out seemingly better-qualified entries from Epsilon Euskadi (who no longer exist under their current guise and haven’t raced in a major championship in five years), N. Technology (who had zero open-wheel racing experience upon submitting their proposal), Lola Cars (now bankrupt, and does anyone else remember how that 1997 entry went?), and the only “better option” that would have still been a better option without the benefit of hindsight, Prodrive – builders of championship-winning, production-based cars the world over in various series. They all joined under the condition that a 40 million Euro salary cap would be installed in Formula 1 soon afterwards. That salary cap proposal was apparently thrown into the paper bin by the desk on accident. And this year, another resource restriction cap proposal was brought up, and then shot down in a timeframe of under two months. The FIA Strategy Group continues to propose new ideas to “fix” what isn’t broken while doing nothing about the escalating costs of participation. FIA president Jean Todt, respected in his tenure as team principal at Ferrari, is looking more and more like a meek, ineffective husk of the leader he used to be. And while FOM president Bernie Ecclestone is at least kind enough to grant Marussia and Caterham dispensation to miss the next two rounds without penalty, and knows that he is contractually obligated to produce a 20-car grid next year and is more than likely doing what he can to keep these teams around, he does himself absolutely no favors by publicly saying that Caterham should go away because he doesn’t want to see teams holding out begging bowls. That comment, by the way, completely oblivious to the fact that Caterham were still investing in aero upgrades even in spite of the Fernandes/Engavest spat. And also in line with his previous comments insisting that the sport would be better off with the minimum 20 cars and no more.
To once again quote Mr. Hart in 1997: “You screw me, everybody screws me, and nobody does a […] thing about it! Nobody in the building cares, nobody in the dressing room cares…so much […] injustice around here, I’ve had it up to here! […] Everybody keeps turning a blind eye to it, [pointing at Mr. McMahon] you keep turning a blind eye to it…”
Indeed, that’s what this is. A maddening crisis that F1’s leaders are turning a blind eye towards, as they seem either completely dumbfounded, or stubbornly unwilling to change anything.
And it’s absolutely shameful that while the FIA and FOM will publicly display messages of support for one of its brightest young drivers as his career, and maybe even his life as we know it seems to have ended, it will do nothing but watch as the team that signed him in the 11th hour of pre-season testing in 2013 when nobody else wanted him slides into oblivion.
In all of this debacle, the biggest losers are the engineers, the mechanics, all of the men and women who work for these teams. The most visible of the personnel on a race-to-race basis, however, are the drivers, and on both sides, I feel a great deal of sympathy for all of them, as the cold grip of reality sets in that they may never race again after this.
Think about Kobayashi for a second. Last year, with his F1 career on hold after being displaced from Sauber, he joined the AF Corse team in the World Endurance Championship, and immediately became a fan favorite in the GTE Pro division along with fellow ex-F1 driver Bruno Senna. In the off-season, he had two options: One, he could sign a long-term deal with AF Corse, remain with the Ferrari family via their biggest works sports car team, and if the Scuderia brought a full-factory effort to Le Mans in the near future, he would surely be on the short list to drive for them. Or, two, he could take any competitive offer to return to Formula 1 in 2014, even if all he could bring financially was the funding he’d raised from fans over the last calendar year, and even if the only available team was Caterham. I was pretty optimistic about Kobayashi’s chances at Caterham, with the revised regulations and the seeming return of extreme mechanical attrition giving them what looked to be a strong chance on paper for points. Instead, it all unraveled from the first corner at Melbourne. Now the decision to return to the series he loves seems like a massive mistake in retrospect. And that’s not really fair to Kobayashi. Turning 29 years old next year, he’s all but certain to return to the WEC, and just like it was the last time he raced there, it won’t necessarily be on his own terms.
If Kobayashi had quit Caterham, or been displaced as he was at the Belgian Grand Prix for Andre Lotterer, his successor would have capped off an incredible comeback story of his own. Spaniard Roberto Merhi was a dominant Formula 3 Euro Series champion in 2011, succeeding Lewis Hamilton, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, and Jules Bianchi as former champions of the predecessor to the current European Formula 3 Championship. But after two miserable campaigns in the ultra-competitive DTM championship, and then a slow start to his shocking return to open-wheel racing this year in Formula Renault 3.5 Series for Zeta Corse, Merhi was seriously contemplating retirement from racing at just 23 years old. But shortly afterwards, Merhi caught fire, recording eight consecutive top-5 finishes including three wins and two more podiums, and for much of the second half of the season he was a genuine threat to Carlos Sainz, Jr‘s title aspirations. That good form earned him the reserve role at Caterham, and the inside track to a race seat if the relationship between Kobayashi and Caterham deteriorated to irreparable levels. Now, his hard work, great form, and persistence won’t even parlay into another FP1 appearance until at least Abu Dhabi, and not even his feathered and lethal hair can pull the team out of the mess it’s in. And he too, faces an uncertain future after this year.
Merhi took over the role of primary reserve driver from current Marussia driver Alexander Rossi. And what a story this would have been. To debut in the United States as only the third new American driver in the last twenty-five years. Under bittersweet circumstances, yes, similar circumstances that led to David Coulthard getting his F1 debut with Williams after the death of Ayrton Senna, or NASCAR superstar Kevin Harvick being named the immediate successor to drive the Goodwrench Chevrolet of the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. His junior career has been littered with more adversity and bad breaks than successes in the last three years, but still he’s persisted in his goal of reaching Formula 1. In Belgium, he came close to debuting at Spa when a contractual dispute popped up with Max Chilton. It was resolved just in time for Free Practice 1, and Rossi didn’t drive on Sunday. At Sochi, he was on the entry list, but stood down so that Marussia could run one car in honor of Bianchi. Now, at Circuit of the Americas, the 23-year-old native of Auburn, California, the brightest American F1 prospect to emerge in almost a decade…will watch from the sidelines because his team can’t make it to Austin. And all of his persistence through adversity since 2012, the gamble to move from Caterham to Marussia, the close calls with a popular F1 debut…they will also amount to nothing until at least Abu Dhabi. At the very least, the local fans are robbed of a chance to see a driver from their home country compete for the first time since 2007. At the worst, Alexander Rossi may never get to take part in a Formula 1 Grand Prix at all.
And I’ll preface this next segment by saying that I’ve found the attitude and demeanor of Robin Frijns to be, at times, childish and appalling. I think his stubbornness to reject two offers from Red Bull killed his momentum, in addition to causing the whole “lack of funding” thing that’s set his career back ever since – and he did no favors by arrogantly hyping himself up to be better than Sebastian Vettel before he’d ever driven a Formula 1 race. And I feel that his supporters coddle him far too much because of his junior formula successes, while turning around and criticizing equally-talented junior drivers like Max Verstappen for making far less flammable statements. This is something I could write a whole article on. That said, Frijns has an incredible junior formula pedigree over three years from 2010 to 2012, becoming champion in Formula BMW, Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup, and Formula Renault 3.5 Series in successive years. He’s also become invisible in the last few months. He hasn’t participated in an F1 race weekend since the British Grand Prix. For all we know, he may have been dragged out of the Caterham simulator by the bailiffs when they came to raid the Leafield base. And at this rate, the closest he’ll get to being on the grid of the Australian Grand Prix next year will be doing the pre-race gridwalks as an announcer for Sport1 in the Netherlands, or buying good seats in the grandstands at the start/finish straight.
These are four fairly talented drivers, three of whom have never taken part in an F1 race before, and may not get to do so again. Hell, I also feel bad for Marcus Ericsson and Max Chilton. Sure they’re there for their sponsorships than their raw talent and driving ability, but they’re not nearly as mediocre as the Gaston Mazzacanes and Alex Yoongs of yesteryear – Ericsson is a former Japanese Formula 3 champion and a protege of Kenny Brack, while Chilton, the likeable and charming sidekick at Marussia who has, at least ironically, become a fan favorite in certain internet circles – has won races in GP2. And even with all they bring to their teams financially, it’s still not enough to keep them solvent.
But without backmarker organizations around taking a chance on talent like Merhi, Rossi, and Frijns, a lot of young talent would be denied opportunities to break into the sport. It’s an eerie coincidence that the years of the 20-car teams comprised mostly of factory and works entries also featured some of the weakest rookie classes in F1 history. For as much heat as HRT got for taking on a driver like Narain Karthikeyan and his money three years ago, they did give Daniel Ricciardo his first F1 drive thanks to a decent payout from Red Bull. While Minardi had to employ its fair share of terrible pay-drivers in their last years of existence, they were also instrumental in bringing up future Formula 1 winners and champions – Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, and Alessandro Nannini. Joining them include future champions in other disciplines – the likes of Gianmaria Bruni, Justin Wilson, and Christian Fittipaldi. And while, sure, in 93 races, neither Caterham nor Marussia have won a race, or stood on a podium, or elevated themselves out of the midfield, they’ve yet to be thrown out of Formula 1 for “bringing the sport into disrepute” the way that Andrea Moda was in 1992. They may be the first eliminations in qualifying every weekend, but they’ve yet to miss 107% in a dry qualifying session since the rule was reinstated in 2011. Compare that to the Life L190 which was often slowest in Friday pre-qualifying, by anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five seconds. And that’s when Bruno Giacomelli was on an absolute flyer. If Caterham and Marussia do fold as HRT did two years ago, none of these new teams from 2010 deserve to be held in the same infamous disregard as the Andrea Modas and Lifes of the F1 world.
And that reminds me that I’m upset at something that Karthikeyan had said on Twitter yesterday, and remember that this is a driver who spent his entire career at backmarker organizations – Jordan weren’t exactly the championship-caliber team that they were in 1999 when Karthikeyan drove for them in 2005.
First of all, if not for teams like those absentees, you wouldn’t have either a rookie F1 campaign with Jordan because nobody would have scouted you from what was then known as the World Series by Nissan, nor the shocking second career from 2011-12 when you were all set for a career in NASCAR. As for them not being missed? One of the things I remember about the farcical United States Grand Prix from 2005 was a large group of Indian F1 fans parading down the streets afterwards celebrating your 4th place finish regardless of the circumstances. The thing I remember most about this year’s Monaco Grand Prix was Bianchi finishing 9th, not the intra-team battle at Mercedes for the victory. Takuma Sato outracing Fernando Alonso in the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix for Super Aguri, a team that basically ran on Honda’s scraps, is still an all-time upset result. I still support the Minardi team by wearing a t-shirt with their logo on it whenever I watch a Grand Prix at home, as I supported them and cheered them on to championship points in the 2002 Australian Grand Prix and in person at the 2004 USGP. I agree that the sport is too broken to support teams like this and it needs to change, but don’t insinuate that the minnows of Formula 1 won’t be missed by anyone when they’re gone when it certainly isn’t the case for me and countless F1 fans the world over who are so bitterly upset over this development.
The worst thing about this is that we may still be rid of at least one more team by the end of the year.
Even when sidelined, Marussia can still hold onto 9th place because with Caterham out of the frame, their only competitors would be Sauber F1 Team, who are enduring their worst season in their twenty-two seasons as a team under any guise – Mercedes works team, Ford works team, de-facto Ferrari junior squadron, BMW factory team, and their current guise that they’ve held since Peter Sauber bought the team back from BMW in 2010, after BMW suffered the indignity of one sub-par season out of the last ten, then took their ball and went home in a huff. Sauber do not have a point after sixteen races in 2014, and unless something changes drastically over the next three races, they are likely to stretch it to nineteen. They have the most sub-par driver lineup they’ve fielded since Pedro Diniz teamed up with Mika Salo in 2000, consisting of a young driver who’s rapidly devolved into a bust at the F1 level, and a 30-year-old career midfielder who has now run out of veteran craftiness. In fairness, the car is a barely-driveable dog of a chassis that’s as slow as it is unstable, and the team has no substantial source of sponsorship that’s not coming from one of their employed race or reserve drivers. After twenty-two seasons of loyal service to Formula 1, introducing the sport to marquee sponsors Red Bull and Petronas, bringing Mercedes-Benz back into grand prix racing after forty years out, and introducing and developing new talents such as Kimi Raikkonen, Sergio Perez, Nick Heidfeld, Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Karl Wendlinger, the aforementioned Kobayashi, and even giving a debut F1 drive to a 20-year-old Formula Renault 3.5 driver named Sebastian Vettel in 2007 – two years after Sauber were pounding on the door of victory, they may soon join Caterham and Marussia on the provisional list of “Former Formula 1 constructors” if things are not drastically changed. And where will all the blame fall if the Sauber organization fails?
The same place it fell when Kobayashi was let go at the end of 2012, the same place it fell when Robin Frijns was released and Sergey Sirotkin replaced him as reserve driver last season, the same place it has fallen in all of 2014 as the team slides into the back of the grid. The team principal. All the blame goes to the only woman of colour in the history of the sport to assume the role of Formula 1 Team Principal or CEO in a white and male-dominated field, Monisha Kaltenborn. Who has, conveniently, received none of the credit for the team’s successes from 2010 to mid-2012 when she was still holding the position of CEO of Sauber Motorsport AG. If Sauber fails, this could be an organizational collapse that has troubling consequences on a social scale beyond just the mere finances and politics of Formula 1. But that’s getting ahead of myself slightly.
If Jean Todt, Bernie Ecclestone, and the FIA Strategy Group had taken an elementary school science course, they’d know that every ecosystem has a food chain. In large bodies of water, minnows are an essential part of the food chain, without them, it has dire consequences for every form of life above and below. The WWF of Bret Hart’s era needed its enhancement talent to balance out the roster and help younger talent make strong first impressions. Likewise, Formula 1 needs its minnows to at least keep circulating through the sport to keep itself healthy. Paul Stoddart said that without teams such as Minardi, which he ran from 2001 to 2005, the role of backmarker would fall to some underachieving factory team, who would pull out just as Toyota, BMW, Honda, and Ford did, and eventually, Formula 1 would wither and die without enough teams participating. That wouldn’t change even if three-car teams were on the books next year, because someone still has to finish last.
And Formula 1 still needs the underdog factor to deliver thrilling moments of celebration even for the smallest of victories. Championship-caliber celebrations for something as small as a Q3 appearance, or a handful of points in one race. You bet I’m angry over what’s happening. And I’d be frustrated if I was lucky enough to watch the race at Austin but to see the grid down to a paltry 18 cars. I’ve seen one USGP in person with a reduced grid before, and I’d rather not do that again.
And much like how Bret Hart eventually became so frustrated with the WWF that he jumped ship to rival promotion World Championship Wrestling in late 1997, Formula 1 may see potential new teams, drivers, and fans jump ship to follow another series like the World Endurance Championship. Except, unlike WCW in the late 1990s, and unlike Formula 1, the leaders of the WEC seem intent on progressing forward and expanding, rather than alienating people with ineffective leadership that’s toxifyingly stuck in the past and refuses to change.
When it comes to the plight of the backmarkers of Formula 1, frustrated isn’t the god damned word for it. This is bullshit.