Formula One financing plays politics with parts

Money plays an integral role in every sport. Player salaries and facility maintenance impact how an individual franchise develops and performs, while television deals, sponsors and the media have an enormous influence on a sport overall. While finance plays a part in every sport, motorsports take the cake. Whether in regard to various strange customs and rules, or simply the monumental cost of participating, Formula One, Nascar and the like showcase the extent to which money can influence a sport.

Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsports. It can claim the fastest cars, biggest fanbase, best drivers and greatest tracks around the world. However, if you were to make the claim that F1 showcases the best racing, many would disagree—and for good reason. Mercedes-Benz has had both their cars finish in first and second place since 2014. Before that, Red Bull won four consecutive titles, and you don’t have to go back much further to find Ferrari’s or McLaren’s decades of dominance. In short, you know who will win before each race, or at least who the main contenders will be. The same cannot be said for just about any other form of racing, or even any sport in the world. Why does this happen? It’s because of the business model, and the role of money.

When a racing series is created, a decision must be made, not unlike the one American voters face when choosing between Republican and Democrat. One stands for personal freedoms, deregulation of business and free markets. The other represents equality among citizens and government regulation of business. The decision lies in your priorities. Formula 1 voted Republican. It decided a long time ago that its priorities were pushing the technology of the automobile as far as it could go to create the fastest machines in the world. Thus, F1 provides relatively little in the way of regulation on teams, which are free to develop the car as they see fit. The result is the greatest vehicles on the planet, and growing wealth inequality with domination by the wealthy factory teams.

In today’s field, there are two kinds of teams: factory and customer. Factory teams have the backing of a corporation to fund their development, and thus they have faster cars. Privately owned teams like Williams and Sauber compete for the sake of competing, without a shot at winning. They are customer teams, renting engines and chassis developed by the larger teams because they can’t afford to design one themselves. In fact, the cost of running a competitive F1 team is so high that every little bit of financial assistance can be a game-changer for a midfield team. Before the 2017 season, Williams gave their number-one driver Valtteri Bottas to Mercedes, because Mercedes offered to waive the charge Williams would otherwise pay to use the powerful Mercedes engine.

The search for cash extends to the driver market, and has led to the unpopular emergence of pay drivers. This concept has been around in private sports car racing for a long time: A driver pays to drive the car, not the other way around. However, at the pinnacle of motorsports it is no surprise that they are unpopular. This year, Williams features rookie Sergey Sirotkin, who has never won a serious junior championship. While his resume is not poor, he is nowhere near the most qualified person to fill the seat, except in what his sponsor backers bring to the team. His teammate Lance Stroll is more qualified, but the 19-year-old’s billionaire father definitely does not hurt his chances. Marcus Ericsson was also chosen to continue at Sauber over his teammate Pascal Werline after being outperformed and not scoring a point in the last two years. Sauber knows that the money he will bring to development outweighs the benefit Werline will bring to the track.

Nascar voted Democrat. The irony! For Pete’s sake, it is a stock series. Every car is virtually identical, and requires the same cost and upkeep. The result is close racing, and controlled prices for new teams to enter and perform. However, it lacks the excitement of innovation. Motorsports in its nature will always be expensive — you can’t just buy a bat and a ball and go play. You need a team with funding to run your car, and often that funding comes from you. So should we anguish over squandered potential when a Mercedes wins by a mile, or a racer like Werline loses his job? Or should we write it off as one of the necessities of progress in a “survival of the fittest” industry? I suppose the answer is marked on your ballot.

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