The 2006 season was the height of F1’s manufacturer era. Five of the eleven teams on the grid that season were manufacturer outfits with an extra satellite operation in the form of Honda-funded Super Aguri.
Today we’re down to two: Ferrari and Mercedes. And, on the whole, F1 fans tend to see this as a good thing. Manufacturer teams, it’s often (and not incorrectly) said, lack the soul of a privateer effort. Frank Williams and his team, for example, live to go racing; manufacturer teams go racing to sell their product and boost their brand.
But as we approach the 2011 season it has become clear that the comparative lack of big-money car companies in the sport today mean you can’t get an F1 drive without mega bucks to back you up. Evidence? Why yes, we do have some. There are currently three rookies set to debut in Bahrain and all of them have brought significant financial backing to their teams. There’s also returnee Narain Karthikeyan who, whilst not a total no-hoper, didn’t land a drive with Hispania because he impressed the team with his performances in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series last year.
Back in the days when there were several extremely well funded manufacturer teams on the grid this wasn’t a problem. They didn’t need a driver to bring cash – they already had plenty of it. They threw money at drivers in the hope of achieving Grand Prix success. They were downright wasteful and nothing demonstrates this better than the fact that Toyota paid Ralf Schumacher twenty million dollars a year to drive for them.
It wasn’t just established drivers who could secure a well-paid job. Manufacturers keen to showcase their brand and it’s youth appeal embarked on expensive young driver programmes. Renault’s produced the likes of Robert Kubica and Heikki Kovalainen; Toyota nurtured Kamui Kobayashi and also brought Timo Glock in to F1; Honda helped (but ultimately failed) Anthony Davidson’s F1 aspirations. Ant didn’t have a penny in his pocket to add to a team’s coffers but he drove for a season and bit at Super Aguri simply because Honda believed he was a quick driver. And he is, he’s very quick. The fact he’s not in F1 today is down to a lack of money, not lack of talent.
In 2000 Williams (who were then very well funded by engine partners BMW) tested two drivers as they sought a replacement for the departed Alex Zanardi. Those testers were Jenson Button and the Brazilian Bruno Junqueira, who was backed by oil company Petrobras. Williams too were sponsored by the company at the time, and it would undoubtedly have been made worth their while to put Bruno and not Jenson in he car. But Sir Frank chose Button to drive for him that season. Why? Because he saw something in the 20-year-old that he didn’t in Junqueira and made a decision based on racing. Ultimately Jenson became a world champion, albeit not in a Williams.
Ten years on Williams – now a full privateer who must pay for their engines – dropped Nico Hulkenberg in favour of Pastor Maldonado, a driver the Hulk beat convincingly when they were GP2 team-mates in 2009. In this case Frank had no choice but to follow the money – there was no manufacturer to back his decisions. A similar situation occurred when Renault sold their stake in the team that still carried their name in 2010. Romain Grosjean – a driver who is generally agreed to be far more talented than he was able to show at the back-end of 2009 – was dropped by the team and replaced by Vitaly Petrov. Grosjean is a fundamentally better racing driver than Petrov but Vitaly’s backing made him irresistible to the team as they began life as an effective independent.
Lotus veteran Jarno Trulli, a man who enjoyed eight years in manufacturer seats, recently made his opinions on the situation heard: “In the last couple of years, F1 has taken an ugly turn,” the former Renault and Toyota man told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “The only thing that interests [teams] is the big money brought by various ‘little’ drivers. Only four teams can guarantee excellent drivers. As for the rest, the level is extremely poor.”
Chances are that neither Trulli nor Lotus team-mate Kovalainen drivers would get a seat were they rookies today; Nick Heidfeld would probably have done one season and then been cast aside as Nico Hulkenberg has been; Robert Kubica and Jenson Button would have struggled to break in to F1; Mark Webber would probably have already given up and turned his attention to a career in sportscars.
Then again F1 has almost always been this way. The manufacturer era was an anomaly and now we’re back to the norm, a field comprising some fantastic drivers and some rent-a-seat racers. And, ultimately, we’ll forget the mediocre and simply remember the guys at the front. When we talk about the 2010 season a decade from now we’ll be remember Vettel, Alonso, Webber and Hamilton, not Sakon Yamamoto paying his way in to a Hispania seat.
But you have to feel sorry for the likes of Nico Hulkenberg. A few years ago he’d have had several teams asking him to drive for them and willing to pay him for the pleasure. Now he’ll be lucky to land a reserve role at Force India, which – no disrespect to the team – is, not what a guy of his age and talent should be doing.
So, whilst generally denigrated, you have to admit that the manufacturer era had its upsides. You just can’t have your cake and it eat it too, F1 fans.