While the two drivers leading the Formula 1 World Championship battled the Circuit of the Americas track for the fastest time in free practice on Friday, October 31, it was money not sport that took over as the topic of discussion with team officials as they answered questions posed to them in the afternoon FIA press conference. Mercedes not only dominated yet again on the track in Texas, but as the 2014 World Champion Constructors, their team also holds one of the more powerful pocketbooks in Formula 1 and, given the disagreement and lack of consensus about finances demonstrated among the teams during the press conference, it does not look like this is about to change any time soon.
In free practice 1 (FP1), Lewis Hamilton topped the board with a time of 1:39.941 to teammate Nico Rosberg’s 1:40.233. In FP2, Hamilton still squeaked by his teammate, posting a 1:39.085 to Rosberg’s 1:39.088, though Hamilton had to retire with a hydraulic issue, according to Formula 1. Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo posted third and fourth quickest times in FP2 on Friday.
While the championship is yet to be decided for the drivers, it was money that monopolized the discussion at the press conference with team officials. They were asked about the future of Formula 1, both in the United States but more generally, especially given that this race will go on with the absence of two teams on the grid. Because of financial difficulties, both Marussia and Caterham F1 teams are not fielding any of their four cars in the 2014 U.S. Grand Prix.
Team officials who appeared at the conference were: Eric Boullier (McLaren), Monisha Kaltenborn (Sauber), Toto Wolff (Mercedes), Vijay Mallya (Force India), and Gerard Lopez (Lotus). The seating arrangement, typical of the FIA conferences, placed them in two rows on the stage. This time, Mercedes and McLaren team representatives sat in the front row and the other three sat in back. It soon became a battle of the rows with questions fired at both, and alliances seeming to form fairly quickly between the teams in the back row that would like to see more equitable financial treatment within the sport and the more successful teams in front that appeared pleased enough to keep things the way they are.
Toto Wolff commented that he had an “emotional” response to the two teams not appearing for this weekend’s race and a “pragmatic” response. “The emotional view,” he said, “is that there is personal drama behind it. There are families who need to pay mortgages, there are kids going to school and these people don’t have any jobs today anymore and that is a drama and it is painful and I am sorry for that. The rational side of things is that we have seen in the past that teams come and go.”
Among Wolff’s other comments at the conference, this one appeared to draw the attention of those in the back row, “This [Formula 1] is the pinnacle of motor racing and if you want to compete at the pinnacle of motor racing then you need to have the resources of competing there. This is a high entry barrier sport.”
Vijay Mallya of Force India, who sat behind Wolff, commented: “Toto said, if I can use his expressions as an indicator of how the big teams think, well if you can afford to be in Formula One, you’re welcome. If you can’t, get out. Fine. I think the FIA must decide this, not the participants because after all it is the FIA Formula One World Championship and if it is to be designed to be affordable to those big boys in the business, who of course benefit hugely in terms of their regular core businesses. That’s one way of looking at it and if it is meant to be racing in sportsmanlike terms, with big teams, small teams that compete with each other… “
He cited an example. “Look at Williams,” he said. “I’m sure Williams doesn’t spend a fraction of what the big teams are spending and look at their performance this year. Until the last race, Force India and McLaren were competing head-to-head. So money doesn’t necessarily buy performance. Equally, spending is discretionary and if the big teams want to spend $300m, it’s discretionary. That cannot be used against the smaller teams. The smaller teams must get a revenue share that makes it financially viable or sustainable. That’s the point.”
Through the hour-long press conference, Sauber’s official, Monisha Kalterborn, was also asked her opinion. She replied: “It’s been mentioned often that entrepreneurship and thinking like that and ideas coming from there… and entrepreneur should also think a bit long term at least. If you do that, it would be interesting where that strategy leads to. We just go on the way we are and too bad for some teams that can’t make it because they’re not investing enough and it’s such a high motorsport level that you really have to have maybe three-digit million figures of budget that then in F1 are normal, for the outside world, not really. Let’s see where that will lead us to.”
She then drew a mental picture by describing what she saw happening with that scenario in the sport: “Eventually you’ll have four – probably – participants with endless amount of cars. Let’s see where that show will gets you. How much of income you have there. And amongst the four participants, you probably all have big names, so you’ll have three losers every year. So, it’ll result into that.”
The need for money would not decrease if the smaller teams left the series, she contended. “As a big name,” she said, “and we’ve experienced that again – if you lose, you have to invest more. But a big corporation does that maybe for one year, for two years but the third year, it definitely gets too much for them. Because, surprisingly, those corporations do have budgets they control, they can control, and they have ways to measure what they are doing – and that system will just collapse at some point in time. So, I think, we probably could, most of us, agree on that kind of development happening. I don’t think anybody can say this could change Formula One in such a way that it would be far more exciting than it is with the nine or the 11 teams today. And that’s where I think we really should realize that we have to change something in the system now.”
And so it went. Tension in the press room grew, as it became clear to those in attendance that they were witnessing the disparity between the top teams and marginal teams that dramatized the cavernous center of the problem. At this point, the two sides are far apart.
When asked about how it was too bad the entire press conference had been about money, not sport, Wolff agreed, saying, “We haven’t heard the names of Hamilton, Ricciardo, Vettel, Rosberg – none of the drivers today. We haven’t talked about McLaren’s performance today. What we are talking… we are using this as a panel to express our frustration and how everything is bad and we are talking the whole thing down. It’s like a vicious circle.”
At the mention of drivers, Eric Boullier of McLaren was asked if he had any announcement about drivers for the team’s 2015 season. “We have not made our decision yet so obviously we have nothing to announce or to decide,” he said. He indicated that an announcement would be made before the end of the current season.
Meanwhile, the garages, hospitality areas, and pits of Marussia and Caterham remain ghostly empty on Halloween night, 2014. Fans watching the U.S. Grand Prix will have two teams, and four fewer drivers, to root for this Sunday.