On top of the exits of Bridgestone and Toyota came news that Renault had held an emergency board meeting to discuss their future in Formula 1. According to Andrew Benson at the BBC:
The French car company was considering whether to remain in the sport with its own team, switch to simply being an engine supplier or quit altogether.
Were Renault to pull out, it would conclude the removal of all of the major manufacturer teams in F1. Honda, BMW and Toyota have all gone in the past year. Renault are now seriously considering leaving.
In terms of manufacturer involvement, that would leave engine suppliers Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari. Both Mercedes and Ferrari are as close to being permanent fixtures as it comes in F1. Mercedes have been involved in F1 uninterrupted since 1993. With their increased involvement in Brawn, they look set to stick around. Ferrari have been in F1 since the beginning in 1950 and were they to leave it would be the end of F1. As such, you can more-or-less exclude both Mercedes and Ferrari from the list of manufacturers at risk of leaving F1.
I have to admit that I am wary of what Renault might do. I always suspected that Renault would be the first manufacturer to leave, certainly since Carlos Ghosn took over there. Now they are effectively the last one remaining. That is a surprise. Does it make it more likely for them to stay in the long run? Or is this the opportunity to join the queue of companies leaving the sport without looking a bit silly like Honda did?
There are more questions. Was Max Mosley right all along to push forward with his anti-manufacturer proposals? His justification was that manufacturers might leave with no warning, so it was wise to slash costs, freeze engines and neuter the sport in all sorts of ways. Now that manufacturers are leaving in droves, it looks like he may have been right.
The alternative possibility is that the changes he has forced through, along with the screeds of bad publicity it caused, have fundamentally made the sport less attractive. The manufacturers could well have preferred a breakaway than live with the FIA’s vision. But the FIA’s vision is what we’ve got. Ferrari certainly have their own views.
The thing is, manufacturers are always fickle. They always have been, and always will be. They will leave at the drop of a hat if it no longer forms part of their marketing strategy. Motorsport is not their core business. At the end of the day, if they won’t sell on Monday, why should they bother trying to win on Sunday?
But it was Max Mosley who originally moulded F1 into a sport dominated by manufacturers. He said that teams like Williams were not his vision of F1’s future. Now Williams is the model of the sort of team that will occupy around half of the grid next year.
In a sense, you can see this current phase as the F1 equivalent of a market correction. The bubble has burst. But while it seems painful now, this process paves the way for a more stable situation.
Throughout its history, Formula 1 has had a healthy mixture of manufacturer involvement and privateer passion. In recent years, the scales had tipped a bit too far towards the manufacturers, which drowned out the privateers to an almost dangerous extent.
F1 had become the plaything of manufacturers and multi-trillionaires. Let us not forget that alongside the likes of Honda and Toyota, businessmen such as Dietrich Mateschitz and Vijay Mallya — who have more money than they know what to do with — have bankrolled F1 teams to success. You will notice that, ignoring the ‘For Sale’ sign outside Toro Rosso (which isn’t very prominent), these teams have remained in F1, unlike the manufacturers.
They are a bit more like privateers in the traditional sense. They don’t want to sell cars, though they may want to sell drinks. But in a way they are in F1 because they are attracted to it as a sport, just as people like Frank Williams and Ken Tyrrell were. Manufacturers just do it because they feel like they should.
Next year there might be too few manufacturers. For there to be just three companies supplying engines would be a situation almost as unsustainable as what has happened up to this year. Cosworth may be crossing their fingers though. Their business model might work if they supply more teams.
But I can see Renault playing a happy role as an engine supplier, even if the Renault F1 team is put up for sale. I am certain that there would be a lot of interest from serious people wanting to buy the team. Despite the turmoil of this year’s scandal, and the fact that the team has gone off the boil for the past few years, this is a team that has the facilities and the capabilities to win World Championships.
I would be upset to see Renault leave the sport. I have a bit of a soft spot for them. Toyota were cold and clinical, on top of being comically bad considering their budgets.
Honda were always a bit of a fairweather presence. They took over BAR more-or-less because there was no-one else to do it after tobacco companies left the sport. Then they set up Super Aguri because they were scared to sack Takuma Sato properly. While many were attracted to Super Aguri for their pluck and while struggling at the back in difficult circumstances, it should never be forgotten that Super Aguri was always a crass and expensive publicity stunt.
Renault, though, have real heritage. They have a history in the shape of their involvement in the sport in the 1970s and 1980s. And the current incarnation of the team has been notably successful, mostly for being the one team that has been able to put up a sustained fight against Ferrari in this decade by beating the Scuderia two years in a row.
Here’s hoping that Renault don’t decide to depart. I am especially hopeful for Robert Kubica, a hugely talented driver who after being put through the wringer at BMW this year does not need this again. But, unlike the other teams, I have a feeling that the future of the Enstone-based squad will be perfectly safe no matter who owns it.