The state of the new teams (part 1)

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, Ferrari have raised eyebrows by choosing to speak the truth about the new teams in Formula 1:

This is the outcome: two teams will limp into the start of the championship, a third is being pushed into the ring by an invisible hand – you can be sure it is not the hand of Adam Smith – and, as for the fourth, well, you would do better to call on Missing Persons to locate it.

This week, that fourth team — USF1 — finally threw in the towel, after weeks (indeed, months) of speculation. And this evening they have been officially removed from the entry list. But I’ll discuss USF1 in further detail later.

However, this news once again shines the spotlight on the new teams, and the FIA’s process for selecting them. Right from the beginning there was controversy surrounding some of the choices. There is also the fact that new entrants were seemingly forced to use Cosworth engines.

It is worth remembering that there were at least two highly credible entries that were rejected by the FIA, to the surprise of many. David Richards and his Prodrive operation has been looking at entering F1 for years, and indeed had a slot on the 2008 grid until the future of customer cars was thrown into doubt. Lola were another highly credible entry with the ability to field a strong car.

So, what’s going on with the new teams? In this short series of articles I will take a brief look at the five main protagonists — Lotus and Virgin (the good side of the process), USF1 and Campos (the bad side) and Stefan (the ugly side).

The good side of the process

The Lotus position: last?

Lotus driver Jarno Trulli openly admits that the team expects to turn up at Bahrain four seconds off the pace. And yesterday Heikki Kovalainen back-pedalled from comments attributed to him that this year’s Lotus is worse than the Minardi he tested in 2003. The Finn claims the comments have been taken out of context.

Nonetheless, for my money the Lotus team has good long-term prospects. The jury is out on Mike Gascoyne’s abilities as a technical director. He is well regarded and appears to do a good job, but critics point out that he has never produced a World Championship-winning car.

Lotus are at pains to point out that they have had just five months to create this F1 car. That is nowhere near long enough to produce a competitive package. In the long term, they could be headed for a respectable role in the midfield.

The driver line-up of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen is unadventurous, but at least it is credible. Trulli and Kovalainen have both won just one race each, and neither is particularly convincing during the race. But at least they are two established and experienced drivers.

Virgin’s CFD gamble

Virgin — the Richard Branson-backed F1 entry of Manor which has been highly successful in lower formulae — has taken a gamble by exclusively using CFD to design the car, without ever having put the car in a wind tunnel. The car has been blighted by several reliability issues, while typically lapping five or six seconds off the pace. If testing form is anything to go by, there is little for the team to be optimistic about.

On the plus side, they have a credible driver pairing in the former Toyota driver Timo Glock and experienced GP2 racer Lucas di Grassi. Perhaps more important, given the current climate, is the fact that the team appears to have been highly successful in attracting sponsorship. I guess sponsors are magnetically attracted to the golden Virgin brand.

Lotus and Virgin are the two teams that are described by Ferrari as “limping” into the start of the championship. That is the best side of the new teams. The other two new teams, Campos and USF1, have both teetered on the brink of collapse. But that is for the next article…