The Inside Line #80: A house of cards

TILI Logo PrintThe tower that sits alongside the start-finish line at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) is a mightily impressive structure, but on Sunday it looked a little sad. As the field streamed away at the start of the United States Grand Prix, the three-letter abbreviations for just 18 drivers scrolled through as the cars climbed the crest to the first corner; while the first corner is usually the last time we see a Caterham or Marussia on the world feed at most Grands Prix, the absence of their combined four cars from the regular grid was keenly felt. And it’s a feeling we’re probably going to have to get accustomed to.

The lead-up to the US Grand Prix wasn’t dominated by the title fight between Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, nor was it centred around Sebastian Vettel’s antepenultimate [1] race for Red Bull or the fact that next year’s Mexican Grand Prix is ingeniously scheduled for a week after the 2015 race in Austin [2]. No, it was focused on who wasn’t at COTA, namely Caterham and Marussia. It wasn’t lost on me that they’d received more column inches and air time in three days than they’d managed for the rest of the season combined. With that sort of exposure, you could almost attract enough sponsorship dollars to, say, run an F1 team …

The money needed to finance even a mediocre outfit these days has become completely out of step with the available sponsorship market, acceptable levels and the logic of anyone who dares to step outside of the F1 bubble. An insightful piece by one of F1’s premier news breakers, Jonny Noble, in the lead-up to the event suggested that even an average team needs north of $120 million to survive these days. Per season. And for what? There are some teams who receive precious little TV time for the results they earn [3], while others like Sauber, who have historically punched above their weight but been downright awful this season, appear to be on life support, crippled by a car bereft of sponsors, no money for development and therefore no chance of a decent result, and a driver pairing that was hired for cash considerations more than ability. And it’s Sauber who was in my thoughts for most of the weekend. With Caterham out and surely unlikely to return, and Marussia making up the numbers at best when they are on the grid, the Swiss stalwarts are the next-most vulnerable team. What happens if they fall by the wayside too? Do we have 16-car Grands Prix? What happens to Lotus? Do promoters cite breach of contracts as the numbers of participants plummets? [4] Do the top teams want to, have to or even afford to run a third car? [5] Every time you asked a question, someone else came up with another. And none of the answers or solutions offered were particularly palatable.

With all this going on, it was easy to forget F1 was in the US for a race, and one where Hamilton was chasing history, attempting to win a fifth straight Grand Prix for the first time. Things didn’t look so good after qualifying, but Hamilton showed why he should be world champion this season with another superbly-taken victory. Were it not for double-points in the final race, he’d probably be world champion next weekend in Brazil. Sigh.

A US Grand Prix review – and a preview of Brazil next weekend with Felipe Massa front and centre – is the focus of Episode 80 of ‘The Inside Line’, while for Australian viewers at least, we’re now on Fox Sports 5 (channel 506) at 7pm on Wednesday November 5. And on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia), if watching in standard definition is more your thing, at 8.30pm on Thursday November 6.

– — —- —-

[1] I’ve been waiting to use that since March, and got to use it twice in three days (thanks to Tony last Sunday morning).

[2] One review of the 2013 US GP suggested at least one-third of the attendance at COTA came from across the border in Mexico, just 400km to the south. How many of those people will show up next year if they can stay at home to see a race one week later, and what does that mean for the future crowds in Austin? And did anyone in a position of power consider that, or was it convenient to run the two races back-to-back to make for a shorter flight in the private jet? Why have one strong race when you can detrimentally affect the trackside crowd at two?

[3] If you’re wondering how Sergio Perez ended up on the podium in Bahrain this year because you’d barely seen him on the TV, you’re not the only one. Let’s just say he’d have received some more camera time had he been driving for another team. Almost fitting that his podium came in Bahrain too, come to think of it, given what happened in 2012.

[4] Had an interesting chat to Australian Grand Prix CEO Andrew Westacott about this for Melbourne radio on Sunday. He and his equivalents around the world will be watching future developments very, very closely.

[5] Mercedes’ Toto Wolff reckons a third car might cost an extra $25 million each year to run. For a car that might not be eligible to score world championship points …

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