With black financial clouds hovering over several teams as Formula One settles in to its four-month off-season, 2014 may be a make-or-break year for a few outfits.
It’s no secret that several teams barely kept their financial wheels fastened in 2013 and many worry that a new V-6 turbo engine formula coming online next year, along with new energy recovery technology, will only increase costs and put more operations at risk.
Some teams are hedging their bets, and there’s no better illustration of that move than Lotus’ signing of Pastor Maldonado’s fat wallet for 2014. Lotus finished fourth overall in the constructors standings.
The cash from Maldonado, who is backed by the South American state-owned oil company PDVSA to the tune of somewhere around $40-million, replaces the expected infusion from Quantum Motorsport which was supposed to buy a 35 per cent stake in the team. That deal either fell through completely or is terribly delayed, depending on who you ask.
Fans might recall that Genii Capital vowed to shake up F1 with its strategy to use the sport as a business platform to generate operating cash for the team when it took over the Renault outfit in 2010. Three years into that plan, its Lotus squad experienced the embarrassment of 2007 world champion Kimi Räikkönen complaining to anyone who would listen that he wasn’t getting paid. Räikkönen will drive for Ferrari next year.
Further down the grid, two more teams teeter on the brink of ruin as they struggle to stay afloat in the world’s most expensive racing series. The venerable Sauber team, which brought the names like Räikkönen, Felipe Massa and Heinz-Harald Frentzen into the sport, may not be on the grid in 2014 without some serious coin showing up soon.
Russian investors bailed out the 20-year-old team earlier this year as it faced bankruptcy. The Russian backers were keen to get into the sport because it will race in Sochi next summer following the Winter Olympics. Although Sauber for a reprieve, how long the Russian cash will last is uncertain.
Another rumoured scenario has the backmarker Marussia team merging with Sauber and cutting the number of cars on the grid by two, to 20. The Marussia squad is also in trouble after limping along for the past three seasons, trying to do F1 on a shoestring budget.
Should a merger happen, the move would leave Caterham as the sole remaining newcomer from the crop of three teams that entered F1 in 2010. Caterham joined F1 three years ago as Lotus Racing before switching names at the beginning of last year. A Marussia-Sauber marriage would also bring the total number of teams to fold or leave F1 to four in the past six seasons.
Unfortunately, F1’s money troubles likely won’t stop there. While Caterham continues to survive at the back of the grid, it will take a big hit in 2014 because it finished behind Marussia this year in last place among constructors. That alone could cost it several million dollars since it will receive a significantly smaller portion of the television revenue pie that F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone doles out to the teams.
Williams will also be hurting after losing Maldonado’s millions to Lotus. The team is thought to be on the razor’s edge when it comes to finances, and losing approximately half its annual income will not bode well for the once-mighty operation. To make matters worse, Williams finished one spot lower in this year’s standings compared to 2012, which means it will also get less TV cash from Ecclestone.
These high-profile woes may be the reason F1 is once again talking about having the big teams supply cars to the lower ranks. The idea of three-car teams has also been raised.
In addition to teams running into trouble, several tracks have had their share of difficulties. The famed Nurburgring Circuit almost didn’t host the German Grand Prix this year due to its financial situation, while the Silverstone Circuit in Britain continues to struggle under debt.
Unsurprisingly, the on-again, off-again race in New Jersey won’t happen for the second consecutive year due to financial issues. The race was supposed to make its debut on the F1 calendar in 2013 but was pushed from the schedule after it became obvious the facility would not be ready. The rescheduled maiden grand prix set for next summer was left off the 2014 calendar approved by the World Motor Sport Council earlier this week.
Although Ecclestone continues to believe the race will happen, he is more or less alone in this view. A planned race in Mexico City was also left off the calendar, as were the existing stops in South Korea and India. Russia and Austria were the additions. The 19-race schedule begins in Australian on March 16 and ends Nov. 23 in Abu Dhabi. The Canadian Grand Prix goes June 8 in Montreal.
Something that could really boost the series fortunes and help turn things around for several teams would be success in the lucrative U.S. market, which has eluded F1 in the past three decades.
Despite New Jersey’s false starts, the race at the Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas seems to be promising in that regard. It has turned out to be a pleasant surprise for F1, bringing in more than 117,000 fans on race day for its debut last year and following that success with more than 113,000 for its second grand prix last month. That decrease of about 4,000 on race day from the maiden grand prix is about the best news F1 could get, as a significant softening of crowd numbers in the second year is usually expected.
Unfortunately, just as F1 seems to have a toe-hold in the U.S. in Austin, it shoots itself in the foot by scheduling the 2014 grand prix on Nov. 2, the same day NASCAR’s Sprint Cup will be running a Chase for the Cup race at the Texas Motor Speedway. The speedway is in Fort Worth, about a three-hour drive from Austin.
So far, having the F1 race clash with the NASCAR season finale in Miami for the first two races in Austin hasn’t hurt the crowds for the grand prix. But having the NASCAR Cup down the road where it pulls in the two largest single-day crowds in the state every year might be a bit more problematic.
But with Austin already defying the odds with its first two grands prix, many in the paddock will be hoping the third time is lucky too.
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