As always, pundits and observers are hailing a the season of Formula 1 just gone as a classic, and the best for many years. It has certainly been an interesting one: the remarkable closeness of the field and development race over the season led to every team bar Toro Rosso being at the front of the field on merit at some point or other, while Jenson Button’s ascent to the championship was a truly great story.
But in truth the racing has usually been dull, certainly compared to 2008 when a boring race was a rarity. The nature of the year has been that it’s been hard to predict which teams will be strong at which circuits; the corollary of this has been that at most weekends only one or two cars have been challenging for the win, with the rest some way behind and a lack of genuine racing for the lead.
Where it has been a vintage year has been in the off-track intrigue. The rise of FOTA, the threatened breakaway and the eventual exit of Max Mosley would have made it remarkable enough on its own, but the hounding of McLaren and Hamilton at the start of the year, the rebirth of Honda as Brawn, the saga of Schumacher, Badoer and Fisichella in the second Ferrari, the exposure of the Singapore race-fix and the banishment of Flav and Pat were all fascinating spectacles. However much their disruptive effect might have been deplored at the time, they were what made the season so fascinating.
The trouble with – or the great benefit of – off-track action, however, is that it doesn’t respect the end of the season. I omitted the saga of the departing manufacturers from my list, as that is what I want to talk about most. Honda’s exit was anomalous in some ways: as a manufacturer, they had been making all the right decisions up to that point, bringing in a top engineer and manager to re-shape the team. How stupid they must now feel, knowing that for the same amount of money as they paid to offload their team, they could have had their brand all over the championship-winning car.
Toyota and BMW, by contrast, were manufacturers whose exits were admissions of disastrous error. Toyota’s lack of racing ethos led it to what was probably the least efficient use of money in Formula 1’s history, with huge amounts spent and no race wins. BMW’s mistakes were not so serial, but their decision not to go all-out for the championship last year when they had the chance has been proved thoroughly wrong; their gamble on getting the new regulations right and their insistence on KERS being used – when all other teams were willing to drop it – compounded the wretchedness of the error.
But with all bar three (possibly two, if Renault clear off) of the manufacturers gone, and three new private teams due to turn up on the grid next season, Formula 1 will have changed far more fundamentally than was achieved by the new rules this season. The resulting formula is likely to be much less close than this year, and potentially even less exciting.
Let’s look at the teams. McLaren, Red Bull, Brawn and Ferrari should all be at or near the front, but behind them…? Renault, Toro Rosso, Force India, Williams – who knows what sort of pace they might have, ditto the new teams? New F1 outfits are, after all, not renowned for making fast and reliable cars in their first years. We could have a lot of cars that are there purely to make a noise.
The closeness of the racing this year has been largely down to the presence of the manufacturers: for the first time in many years, perhaps ever, there was not an F1 team on the grid that was poorly funded or under-equipped. Sure, some had more money than others, but the manufacturer teams were well-resourced as ever, Williams had perfected the art of the tight F1 ship, the Red Bull teams were well-funded and had decent current-spec engines from Ferrari and Renault despite being nominally private, and Mercedes was providing close support to Brawn and Force India.
So, while Eddie “The Mouth” Jordan (bless him) and others might go on about how F1 had managed will without the manufacturers before and will do so perfectly well again, let’s remember what that F1 looked like. The gaps from the front to the back of the grid were much bigger, and there were numerous teams unlikely to score points all season. The numbers of blatant pay drivers was higher too – while some drivers relied on patronage and commercial deals in 2009, would an Enrique Bernoldi or Jos Verstappen have got a seat on that grid? Unlikely, surely.
Of course, there are good reasons for wariness around the manufacturers, as the indispensable Joe Saward, among others, has pointed out. They come and go as they please, and may threaten the stability of particular teams, and even the sport in general, as they do so: Honda, BMW and Toyota have all harmed a lot of people’s careers, and the latter two’s involvement in FOTA was not negligible – a set of exclusively privateer teams would no doubt have felt less confident about proposing a breakaway series.
The biggest item on the charge sheet against the manufacturers is of course that they drive up costs. Williams, Jordan, Benetton, Arrows, Tyrrell and Prost were all sent either down the grid or out of the sport as the manufacturers moved in at the start of the decade, or even in the late ’90s – some of them later hooking up with manufacturers to save themselves. But there lies the great irony: the commitment to spending restrictions has finally been made, after a decade of working up to it, and at exactly the point when F1 has found a way to live with the manufacturers, and produce a good show at the same time, the manufacturers go and clear off!
So I seem to be alone in this, but I can’t help but feeling next year’s F1 is likely to be less interesting. F1 is not about to collapse or die by any means, but it may be in for an awkward period of re-adjustment. The off-track shenanigans of this year certainly can’t be topped; fewer teams and drivers seem likely to be challenging for poles and wins; and a higher number of teams trundling round at the back risks undermining F1’s claim to be the pinnacle of motorsport.
Then again, anyone who tries to predict anything in F1 – at least, anyone writing from an armchair perspective like me – will probably be wrong, so I’m happy to wait and see. After all, the situation with Alonso and Massa at Ferrari looks tasty; there are machinations in the driver market to come (will Robert Kubica be unlucky enough to have two successive teams pull out on him? Whither Raikkonen, Kovaleinen, Glock?); we may yet see Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton duking it out for the world title; and at least three impossible things I’ve not even thought of are bound to happen. I’ve long said F1 isn’t often exciting, but it’s always interesting; that seems likely to be the case for some time.