Everyone seems to be shocked by Honda’s withdrawal from Formula One. I myself was suprised that it was Honda that pulled the plug on F1 first but I am not surprised at all that a major car manufacturer left the sport. After all this has happened many times before.
Formula 1 these days is dominated by car manufacturers but this hasn’t always been the case. If you look back to for example 1999 the only proper manufacturer team was Ferrari. Mercedes powered McLaren was the next closest thing, all the rest were privateers. The big shift came next season in 2000. BMW returned to the sport as an engine supplier for Williams, Honda joined forces with BAR, Ford turned Stewart into Jaguar and Renault purchased Benneton. In 2002 Toyota entered Formula One circus and towards the end of the season Honda dropped engine deal with Jordan to fully focus on BAR team from 2003 on.
When season 2003 started 7 out of 10 Formula One teams were fully owned or backed by manufacturers – Ferrari, McLaren-Mercedes, Williams-BMW, BAR Honda, Jaguar, Renault, Toyota.
It looked liked good news at that moment and the future of Formula 1 looked very rosy. But when big spenders enter any territory the first thing they do is upsetting the balance of tings. If some big developer discovers some sleepy village and drives the property prices up, all the locals who owned are happy – they become rich. On paper or if they sell in reality too. But those locals that do not own all of a sudden find themselves totally priced out of the market. This happens in real life, this happens in football for example with all the eccentric billionaires buying themselves football clubs. This happened in Formula 1 too.
First to leave that manufacturer driven F1 was ironicaly a manufacturer. Ford called it quits at the end of 2004 season. They were by far the smallest spenders among those car companies (see the figures here as an example). The issue sure was more complex but to put it simply: The money they were willing to commit to F1 were not going to get them anywehere and so they pulled the plug on their failed Formula One adventure.
Here we could see for the first time the danger of Formula 1 relying on car manufacturers.
As Ford was also an engine supplier to Minardi and Jordan F1 was in real danger of loosing 3 teams in one go. It never went that far. Champ Car World Series owners Gerald Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven bought Cosworth and continued the engine supply to Minardi, Toyota stepped in with engine deal for Jordan. The Jaguar team itself was purchased by Red Bull.
Around this time Formula 1 turned itself into primarily a marketing vehicle. The budgets of teams spiraled way beyond their revenues. But who cared. The teams did not really have to break even, did they ? It was all about marketing and PR and owners would not mind to pay. Not all owners however. Those who were in it not for marketing but purely for racing like all the Minardis and Jordans and Saubers were on the way out. The only way for them to stay in the game was to sell to either a car company or to another eccentric billionaire.
Peter Sauber sold his team to BMW, Jordan after the Midland and Spyker failures ended up in the hands of Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya, Minardi was bought by Red Bull and turned into Toro Rosso.
When the 2008 season came Formula One had 6 teams owned fully or partially by car manufacturers, one created and fully funded by a car manufacturer (Super Aguri Honda), 3 owned by billionaires. Against them the last privateer team that has to live on what they make – Williams…
So are the manufacturer teams in such a number actually good for Formula 1 ?