BMW’s Mario Theissen has come out strongly against customer cars being allowed in F1. The rules are due to change in 2008 to allow this and Theissen is looking beyond the current storm brewing over Toro Rosso’s and Super Aguri’s plans to run something very like customers cars in 2007.
His point is that the rule change could result in a reduction of the number of constructors, with only about six manufacturers producing chassis and supplying them to ‘B’ teams. This would allow manipulation of the championship by concentration of effort on one driver’s car and other drivers within the constructor’s orbit being ordered to support him.
It is certainly one way things could turn out but history would not suggest its likelihood. In the seventies there were innumerable customer car teams, some of which, like Williams, were to go on to become important constructors in their own right, while others fell by the wayside. There was no apparent collusion between constructors and customers; you could buy a McLaren M23, for instance, and be reasonably competitive but there was no support from the supplier – you were on your own as regards development and maintenance.
Of course, the situation is different now that big manufacturers are involved and it may well be that each constructor will effectively run four cars. But, if they are all using the tactics suggested by Theissen to push one driver forward, it evens out and not much has changed. With the extinction of small constructors (which is inevitable in the future mapped out by the FIA), the fight will be between only half a dozen manufacturers anyway.
So, if our hypothetical six manufacturers are all putting their support into one driver, that leaves us with six guys fighting for the championship. Hey, that’s an improvement over the present – there were only two drivers in with a chance this year.
The real problem is not the customer car rule; this is just a bone thrown to the little guys to suggest that the FIA really means its stated intention to keep small teams in F1. Now that the FIA and manufacturers are in bed together, the rules change to suit the big guys and it will become impossible for genuine independents to compete. If customer cars were to remain illegal, the only result would be that you have the same six manufacturers racing but no small teams. Which would mean 12-car grids…
Whether the FIA and the manufacturers like it or not, small teams have always been the lifeblood of F1. All innovation comes from them and they represent the true drama of the sport – the David against Goliath scenario. In the past such teams have dominated in spite of the rules being weighted against them but I fear that the latest proposed changes will exterminate the little guy altogether. F1 is to become a testing bed for road cars and anyone who wants to compete for the sheer joy of racing had better look for another formula.
Customer cars offer the last lifeline to smaller teams. They will be getting a secondhand product without all the latest tweaks available to the works team but it’s better than nothing. And there will always remain the faint possibility that some bright spark will find a way to make the chassis perform better than the supplier’s cars. Let the rule stay, say I.