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Beyond the smoke and screeching tyres

All said and done, Formula One is a competition between the most skilled drivers and technicians in the pit-lane. Having the best car doesn't necessarily guarantee championship success and neither does having the biggest budget. Vinayak Pande reports. Case in point: Williams F1

india Updated: Oct 06, 2011 01:33 IST
Vinayak Pande
Vinayak Pande
Hindustan Times

All said and done, Formula One is a competition between the most skilled drivers and technicians in the pit-lane. Having the best car doesn't necessarily guarantee championship success and neither does having the biggest budget. If that were the case, Jacques Villeneuve and Williams would have cantered to the title in 1997 and Toyota would not have been winless and scored just eight podium finishes in their eight years in F1.

However, what you see on your television screens for two hours is just the tip of the iceberg and money, including how it is spent, does decide the fate of the majority of the 12-team grid.

A difficult position
A quick look at the 24 cars on the F1 grid reveals the crisis that F1 is suffering from. Unsurprisingly, the crisis is one of funding. Top teams like Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari have, at the most, one or two major sponsors who ensure that they can afford the resources required by the technical staff and drivers to do their job to the best of their abilities.

It's a different story with midfield teams like Sauber, Force India and Williams where large parts of the cars' bodywork go uncovered. The problem is more pronounced with tail-end teams like HRT whose only silver lining is that they see the funny side of not having a major sponsor.

According to Peter Windsor, former sponsorship and team manager of Williams, the problem is of there being no major new sponsors in F1 and a smaller range of companies willing to throw their hat into the ring as compared to what was arguably F1's heyday of the mid 1980s to early 1990s.

"There were definitely more companies around back then," says Windsor. "Partly because of easier tobacco advertising legislation and because F1 was much better priced then."

It is a view shared by Yohann Setna, former manager of Team India in the now defunct A1 GP series where the average cost of running a team annually was $2 million a year. "F1 should not be a one-make championship like A1 because that takes away its essence," says Setna. "But it is ridiculous that to be even semi-competitive in F1, a team needs an annual budget of $100 million a year to try and keep up with the top teams who spend a large part of their budget on aerodynamic research, which has no benefit to the cars bought by average and regular people."

According to Windsor, even the competitive teams are spending beyond what any major sponsor can afford. "With the costs of running an F1 team now disproportionate to the sponsorship budgets of many of the multi-nationals, F1 finds itself in a difficult position," said Windsor. "The short-term solution is to add more races to the calendar on the basis that the money is still flowing from governments and major TV networks. I don't believe anyone in F1 has yet considered a medium or long-term solution to the problem."

The show goes on
With problems like these, you would think that F1 should not have much of a future. But Sanjay Sharma, head of JK Tyre, thinks otherwise. "Whenever there is a financial crisis, sponsors can pick and choose which region they want to target because F1 gives them a global platform," says Sharma. "It is the reason why Amul has tied up with Sauber for the Indian GP and why Big Bazaar is with Red Bull." Presumably, that's the reason for Airtel ditching the ill-received Champions League T20 in favour of F1.

But it is motorsports' benefit to the auto industry (which reportedly accounts for 70 to 80 percent of F1's sponsors) that can also justify costs to impatient board members of companies like JK Tyre. "I can't justify expenditure in motorsports to my board members from a financial perspective," says Sharma. "But from a marketing perspective, I can show them how my company's brand benefits by projecting a youthful and happening image." There is also the technical expertise gained from involvement in motorsports.

"Back in 1994, it would take my company nine months to manufacture and deliver a tyre to a customer," says Sharma, who now oversees JK Tyre's involvement in everything from karting, to the Polo Cup to the single-seat JK Asia Series. "Over the years, we have been able to improve to the extent that it now takes us 27 days from the point of manufacturing to delivery."

Still a sport?
So, with F1 being a boon to the automotive industry, one has to wonder what room it leaves for the sporting aspect of the championship. Like any other major sport, it comes down to good management, according to Setna. "Corporates may play a large part in the functioning of F1, but corporate thinking will get you nowhere," says Setna. "It's about people and how they need to be confided in to do the best job they possibly can without restrictions."

A perfect example is that of the fortunes of Ferrari before and after Michael Schumacher started to compete for them in 1996. From 1991 to 1995, the team won just two races. Schumacher won three races for the team in 1996 alone, including a wet race where he lapped the majority of the grid. And this was done before he convinced the technical team he worked with at Benetton in previous seasons to defect to Ferrari and help turn their fortunes around.

Current world champions Red Bull Racing had the best F1 designer in Adrian Newey and a massive budget to back him up when he joined the team in 2006. But it was not until a certain Sebastian Vettel came along in 2009 that the team was able to win their first race and get to the next level. "In the end, it is the right driver that will get 100 percent out of the car," says Setna. "Not to mention the confidence the entire team gets through winning that leads to more winning."

It is ultimately a tired, jubilant human being with a bruise on his shoulder, who's up to 4 kilos lighter after sweating it out for close to two hours, that stands on the winner's podium. And that is why fans around the world continue to look beyond what's under the surface and focus on the tip.

First Published: Oct 05, 2011 23:32 IST