Those German magazines now seem very sure that Mercedes has bought McLaren already and that it is only a matter of time before it is announced officially. If so, one more team from the great days of British participation in F1 will be absorbed into a manufacturing giant.
That would leave Williams as the sole survivor and it looks to me as though they will end up in Toyota’s arms. So we may well be watching the end of an era, the last days of the small, specialist Brit team going racing and doing nothing else. It seems only a moment ago that Eddie Jordan arrived with the latest of these tiny teams and set about making his mark. I don’t think it will ever happen again, although Prodrive wait in the wings to prove me wrong.
Times change and things move on. Formula One has become big business and now attracts the giants, while the makeshift outfit operating from a garage under the railway bridge has gone forever. It was always going to be so. But I don’t think the increasing involvement of manufacturers in the sport is necessarily a good thing.
The problem with manufacturers is that they do not come just for the racing. They have complicated agendas, most of them centered on public relations. The idea is to prove that their engineers, their cars, are better than anyone else’s and so sell more of their products. And the awkward thing about F1 is that only one team can win in any particular year.
These days the manufacturers are much more patient than they used to be. Years ago, if they had not won the championship within two or three years, they would withdraw as quickly as they entered. But they seem to have accepted now that any investment in F1 is a long term thing, that it might be several years before they can taste success.
But success remains their ultimate goal; it has to be or they are merely proving their product to be no better than anyone else’s. And the more manufacturers involved, the more difficult it will be to achieve success. Everyone wants to win but there is only one top step on the podium.
Ultimately, the manufacturers will tire and drop out. It may even be that they win the championship once and then get out while the going’s good. It makes no sense for them to continue indefinitely, pouring time, effort and money into what is essentially for them an advertising campaign. And when that happens, who will take their place in the arena?
There is one manufacturer who has been involved in F1 for over thirty years and will probably never leave it. I refer to FIAT, of course, who have understood what the sport is about and what benefits a manufacturer can obtain from it. Their ownership of Ferrari is unobtrusive (consisting of their name in small lettering on the nose of the cars) yet, since everyone knows where the money comes from, they share in the glory of any Ferrari wins.
This is perhaps the best way for a manufacturer to be involved in F1; to allow a great deal of freedom to the company actually building and racing the cars, and stepping in only when help is required. FIAT understand that racing is a matter for fanatics, for designers, engineers and team members who live for nothing else, and FIAT lets them get on with it. The other manufacturers cannot build a team in the same way, since their participation must always have a time limit, a point beyond which they are not prepared to go.
There has been some talk of Mercedes’ Norbert Haugh taking over from Ron Dennis as the McLaren director. Unless Ron wants to go, this strikes me as sheer madness.