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Theissen on Customer Cars

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.

M23

Customer McLaren M23

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.

7 Responses to “Theissen on Customer Cars”

  1. Customer bikes work well in MotoGP – I suspect this is BWM worried about their standing in the F1 Constructors next year. I’ve expended on this over on FromTheKerbside.com.

  2. That’s true, Rob – I hadn’t thought of the parallel in MotoGP. One thing I did forget to mention was where Prodrive stand in all this; with Theissen taking this attitude, it doesn’t seem likely that Dave Richards will get the BMW chassis in 2008 and that leaves him with Mercedes as the only option. And I doubt he’ll get much joy there…

  3. Interesting – where would that leave Bernie if the first official “customer” team was without a car in 2008? Somehow, to avoid this, I think Bernie and Max will “help” Mr. Richards in obtaining a BMW chassis. This might not be too much of a stretch as I think Mario Theissen is voicing objections over the situation in 2007, rather than in 2008 when all this customer stuff is legal and above board.

  4. Well, the Autosport article says:

    “As the possibility of legal action over Super Aguri and Scuderia Toro Rosso’s 2007 plans looks increasingly likely, Theissen thinks there are even bigger issues at stake for F1.

    “He believes the freeing up of chassis sharing rules from 2008 onward will rob the sport of variety, and could result in just six teams producing cars for racing.”

    That would indicate that he is looking beyond the current fight over Super Aguri and Toro Rosso. But I agree that Bernie and Max would help Prodrive to get a customer chassis to avoid their own embarrassment. I just can’t see BMW being interested if Theissen’s thoughts are representative of the company management’s. Prodrive seem to think that their best bet is Mercedes/McLaren and, on this evidence, they would appear to be right. McLaren used to give out M23 chassis to anyone who asked but that was before Ron Dennis took over. These days he might not be so keen on selling their cars.

    Mind you, he has just built that enormous new facility that Briatore was mocking earlier this year. To be building twice as many cars might just be the justification he needs…

  5. I really don’t know what the fuss is all about. If we looked at Indycars (Champcars) in the 1990s, everyone but Penske, Newman Haas and the Target Reynards (can’t remember the team name) were customer cars. And yet, we did see customers (like Team Green’s Jacques Villeneuve) win from time to time which I rather enjoy. And I cannot remember seeing any example of a four car tag team although Penske did run a 3 car works team.

    And I agree, we see no such problems in MotoGP nor as you point out did we have any such situation in the 70s in Formula 1.

    Perhaps, you can accuse Thiessen of being afraid of customers beating the works cars through a little inqenuity of their own. Worse still if they end up beating the works BMWs. If the situation persists and everyone makes their own cars, then perhaps BMW can be reasonably confident of always being in the top half. But if some smart alec customer gets some good cars, well……

    But then again, you could point to the early 1990s DTM, where we see blatant examples of the multi car tag team. I really think team orders are alright but Mercedes took it a little too far in the 1992 DTM. Not only were the Mercedes teams asked to back the top Mercedes driver (which was o.k.) but the finishing order of each Mercedes car was also being decided in the pits rather than on the race track. Perhaps this is what Thiessen is referring to.

  6. All good points, Qwerty, and it could well be Mercedes’ behavior in the DTM that Theissen is thinking about. BMW must be very conscious of how Mercedes likes to steamroller the opposition. But I can’t see it working in F1 – there are too many manufacturers (and drivers’ egos) involved.

    As for fuss, I think it’s all part of staying in the media spotlight. Theissen, Spyker’s Colin Kolles and Honda’s Nick Fry all seem to be playing this game, coming out with controversial statements to keep the press interested. They learned it from Briatore, I think… ;)

  7. [...] Renault’s engineering director, Pat Symonds, has added his voice to those expressing doubts about the idea of customer cars in F1. Like Mario Theissen of BMW, he feels that the legalizing of customer cars in 2008 will create a situation where there are only six manufacturers running two teams each and that the championship could be manipulated as a result. [...]

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