On the front line: Tightening the purse strings

Saturday 30th June 2012, 16:33 by Marc Priestley 

F1 is beginning to turn its back on the decadent times ( Red Bull, Getty Images)

With the current economic situation, cost cutting and budget controls within the sport is a major talking point. The FIA is even hoping to include cost controls within the 2013 regulations.

Such measures would have been unimaginable ten years ago when money wasn't a problem.

In his latest exclusive column, former McLaren team member Marc Priestley takes a look at what impact such controls will have and are having on the sport.

Formula One is in the middle of a transitional period right now, a period which began some years ago and will continue for the foreseeable future.

At the turn of the millennium, when I was getting involved in the sport, Formula One had more money than it knew how to spend. Marketing departments dreamt up ever more bizarre and outrageous publicity stunts using the tobacco millions and the bigger teams had seemingly endless resources to try and make the cars go quicker. At McLaren we thought nothing of taking Mika, DC and their race car into a zero gravity plane, simply to take a few pictures, whilst on track it was fairly usual to hire out an entire race track for a week to be able to test privately without prying eyes getting a glimpse of any new parts.

Those days are now long gone.

Today's F1 is leaner, meaner and arguably even getting greener...well, as green as you can get flying thousands of tons of equipment and thousands of people around the globe to events where fast cars race around using thousands of litres of carbon based fuel.

The industry, which for years arrogantly thought of itself as indestructible and untouchable, has had to fall in line to some degree, with the rest of the 'real' world. 

As with many things, people and communities are often reluctant to change in the beginning and let's not forget there's an awful lot still to do, however if we look back at some of the more significant impacts of the cost-cutting era so far, I don't think things are going too badly.

Engines and gearboxes, which used to be throw away items after each event, now seem to last forever without issue and racing certainly hasn't suffered as a result. 'T Cars' have disappeared into the history books, almost without anyone noticing. In fact many modern race fans may not even know what they were.

Teams have had to rethink the way they do everything which of course is simply a reflection of modern life. Large portions of freight now travels months in advance to long distance races by sea because it's cheaper and they even get together to share containers in order to bring down costs further. Private flights and club class travel have been stringently cut down and everyone's putting effort into finding the best deals, as apposed to paying extortionate premiums for luxury and convenience.

One of the biggest impacts on the sport in recent years has been seen from the restriction on open track testing.

At the end of 2008 when this was officially announced, the immediate result was that the bigger teams all of a sudden had a large surplus of people and redundancies inevitably followed. In the space of a few months, the job market was flooded with people and racing's lower formulae had the pick of some very experienced personnel who were available and looking for work.

As time's gone by the situation's naturally become the norm. It's the same for everyone and you make the most of the tests available. The more well funded teams are still able to spend vast sums on car development and the testing process has been largely moved into simulation departments where 'theoretical' parts can be assessed against their 'theoretical' laptime improvements.

Here in 2012, the ban on testing is playing two fairly significant roles in the season for some teams in pit lane.

Firstly, Pirelli's new, much talked about tyres are playing a massive part in spicing up this championship, along with the aerodynamic restrictions based around exhausts and diffusers. In the past big changes to the cars like this would have simply had the big spenders out testing every single week pre-season and every other week in between races. They'd be pounding round and round until they had the best aero solution and had a firm grip on the characteristics of the tyres in every condition, and Pirelli would be right there beside them helping them along the way. During the tyre wars of Bridgestone and Michelin particularly, it wasn't uncommon to run for three or four solid days of testing in between grand prix, working on nothing but tyres alone, even dousing the track with water at times to recreate all possible conditions.

This year, and I firmly believe to the enhancement of the sport, FP1 and FP2 are when a very limited version of this work has to be done. It not only means that cars are encouraged to maximise the available time on track, which is obviously great for ticket holders in the stands, but it's meant that instead of everyone having a full and comprehensive understanding of their cars so far, they're all still learning at each race. Some make mistakes, some are having to adapt over the course of a weekend, some are able to capitalise on the mistakes of others to their own advantage and whatever's learnt, we get to see the results of at the next round. With all of this happening transparently rather than behind closed doors, it's adding to the F1 experience for racing enthusiasts.

There's another, perhaps less obvious impact that the restriction on testing is beginning to highlight and it's affected my old team maybe more than most.

With test teams affectively gone, so to has the progressive infrastructure which manufacturers used to train and develop staff in order to be ready to go racing.

In the past the career route for many F1 race team staff, as mine was, was to work the way up through the different levels of lower formulae, gaining motor racing experience along the way. At some point, having made it successfully to F3000, as it was, or GP2 nowadays, you might be lucky enough to land yourself a job with an F1 outfit and be placed on their test team to learn the ropes.

F1's a very different place to work than at any of the lower tiers and the test team provided a great way of 'bedding' someone in, getting them used to the cars and systems, the people, the punishing schedule, the pressures involved and the general way things are done. 

The next step would be to bring different test team members to a race, again for all the same reasons, in the different environment. The race team is a whole new situation again and to have a pool of people able to gradually gain experience with them meant that when the time came and someone was needed to step up, they were ready.

Today, we don't have that. Obviously it's the same for everyone, but over the last year or two there's been a bit of a turn over of staff, not least at McLaren. Restructuring has meant people have moved around and the ever more punishing schedule has taken it's tole on many, who've decided to go factory based or move on to pastures new. The necessary influx of new faces has brought with it a large amount of relative inexperience to the race team and although McLaren have a number of procedures in place to smooth the transition, it's become clear that, at times, there's no substitute for having been there and done it.

Clearly there've been many different reasons for some sub par pitstop performances and silly mistakes during the early part of this season at one of F1's most prestigious constructors, but the lack of experienced staff waiting in the wings is most definitely one of them. Sam Michael's determination to improve pitstops at the team has produced results in some of the fastest stops ever in the sport, but he could well be ruing the slip ups when it comes to crunch time in November.

At McLaren, as I'm sure is the case elsewhere, training and graduate schemes are in place to try and introduce people to the experience required to go racing, but they are yet to bare the fruits, and in the mean time it's a case of having to learn very quickly on the job for the current crop. 

So F1's tightened it's purse strings, relatively speaking of course, and as we all know there's an ever noisier chorus of people shouting loudly about the desperate need to do a lot more, very quickly. It's inevitable, it's necessary for the sport to survive, and as long as we do things sensibly, there's no reason it can't work. In another five years, our sport will look like a very different place again, but let's hope I'm writing about it as a success story and not as the basis for an argumentative and destructive demise of motor racing's top notch. 

Related: On the front line: Goings on behind the scenes
Related: On the front line: Pit stops with Marc Priestley
Related: On the front line: Marc Priestley in Bahrain

Marc Priestley (@f1elvis) has a wealth of experience having worked at McLaren between 1999 and 2009 as a race mechanic and member of the team's pit crew. Marc has worked with drivers such as Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button and still frequents the F1 paddock.

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