Editoral – 2014 US Grand Prix Reflections

Forget Hamilton and Rosberg; the real action in Austin was further back in the pack. But did anyone miss the two tail end teams this weekend? Our editor tries to answer that question.

Spa 2014 Friday 013

Marussia in happier times at Spa Francorchamps

Despite all the rhetoric of potential boycotts, and the apparent spectre of financial implosion hanging over a number of teams, Sunday’s US Grand Prix actually turned out to be rather enjoyable to watch. In fact, the midfield action was probably some of the best racing that has been seen all season. Which leads to the pertinent question; did the absence of Caterham and Marussia actually make any real difference?

From Alonso who finished 6th, to Button who came across the line in 12th, there was genuine racing throughout the majority of the race. Yes, there were many factors at play, such as Vettel starting from the pit lane, Alonso running a longer middle stint, and Button’s tyres dropping off dramatically at the end. But this all made for a very enjoyable race for the neutral spectator, with Grosjean and Vergne getting up close and personal, whilst Alonso and Vettel slugged it out.

Put simply, would the addition of Marussia and Caterham to the grid have made any difference to the action on track? In all honestly, I very much doubt it. Such has been the performance difference between even the rear of the midfield teams and Marussia/Caterham, it would seem conceivable that Ericsson, Kobayashi and Chilton would have soon dropped away from the rest of the runners early on.

As sad as the loss of Marussia and Caterham from the grid has been, there seems little point in having ten teams in Formula 1 if such a performance gulf exists between the front and back of the grid. At numerous times this season the qualifying pace of the slowest F1 car has actually been closer to the quickest GP2 runner, rather than the F1 pole position. Take the below examples from Monza and Sochi for instance:

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 22.22.01

Yes, there will undoubtedly be numerous factors at play; Stoffel Vandoorne has proven to be hugely impressive in his first GP2 season, the respective formulas qualifying at different times, and track conditions changing throughout the course of a session to name but a few. It is also fair to assume Marussia were, as a team, somewhat distracted in Sochi too.

Does this matter? Well, yes. As much as someone always has to come last, to have backmarkers closer to lower categories of racing on performance is not right. It neatly illustrates the financial differences between the top teams and those at the rear of the grid, where making it within the 107% qualifying time has been a real challenge at times this year.

Formula 1 needs smaller teams, but they need to be competitive. Otherwise they bring nothing more than filling extra rows on the grid, and potentially offering young drivers a shot at F1. But, given the need for small teams to generate income, a young talented driver is more likely to be usurped and replaced by an older one with more money, regardless of ability. See Pastor Maldonado, for example.

What would have made Sunday’s race better? How about twenty cars running in close succession, all with a chance of taking points and all with a shot at getting on the podium. That would make for a real spectacle, but in the contrived world of Formula 1, such a scenario would seem impossible to imagine.

F1 has always had teams at the back of the pack. For all the success of Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull and Williams there has always been a Super Aguri, Minardi or Forti making up the numbers. Teams have come and gone, but to lose two teams almost overnight suggests something is very rotten in the state of modern Formula 1.

With an unbenevolent dictator in the form of Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s problems are not going to disappear, although the reported  intervention of Donald Mackenzie from CVC Capital Partners this weekend to avert a boycott, may signal Bernie’s reign is not immortal. Regardless, the financial structures of Formula 1 remain a substantial barrier to any new teams joining, along with existing teams simply surviving, and a CEO who changes his mind from one day to the next does nothing to aid the situation.

The 2014 United States Grand Prix was, ultimately, an on-track demonstration of that the sport could potentially deliver. But the inequalities between teams suggests such an event was more a one-off than something we can expect in Brazil this weekend. To answer our initial question, no Caterham and Marussia were not missed in terms of action; but that does not mean we shouldn’t be concerned by their absence from the grid. The current business model of F1 is not sustainable, although how that can be resolved is a question for another time.

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