The 'haves' have it
"It's like pre-revolutionary France" was the sage observation made by one seasoned contributor to F1 Racing as he gauged the mood of the Jerez pre-season paddock. The 'haves', he explained, were better funded and more confident of their standing as big beasts in the F1 jungle than at any time in recent memory. In this category we might place Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, Red Bull and - thanks to their association with the wealthy mothership - Toro Rosso.
So far so good. But what of the 'have nots', who we must classify as Lotus, Force India, and Sauber? Each of these valiant battlers has emerged from the winter in better shape than they left 2014: Lotus have a car and engine package that will allow their drivers to perform; sponsor-light Sauber look 'testing-quick'; and Force India, new car unseen as we went to press, at least have the comfort of fresh Mexican funding (see p102).
But how healthy are they really? Sauber are heavily reliant on the cash brought in by Marcus Ericsson and highly rated rookie Felipe Nasr (see p122) to fund their exploits; the true nature of Lotus's finances remain opaque, while Force India, despite a bank-balance boost, have been struggling to get their new chassis ready in time for Melbourne (see 'F1 Insider', p24).
Six robust teams; three struggling and two non-starters (unless the remnants of Marussia are exhumed by a City-backed, Graeme Lowdon-led consortium). This presents a tricky message for a sport with global reach and expansionist intent. For even as it grows and reaches ever further from its Euro-heartland (Mexico this year, Azerbaijan and possibly Qatar in 2016), F1 seems to be in danger of pricing itself beyond the reach of all but the very wealthiest participants.
Sure F1 has always been a sport through which cash has sluiced fast and loose, but now, without the backing of a global corporation, or, in Williams' case, strength built upon decades of achievement and, lately, root-and-branch reform of internal working practices, there seems to be less and less room for the little guy.
And even an often-callous sport like F1 should care about the diminution of the grid, for what is victory without opposition to beat? No discredit to Mercedes, or, before them, Red Bull for achieving dominance, but is that really what sport is for - crushing the opposition or squeezing them so hard that participation becomes unsustainable? Remember the excitement of 2012 when Sauber battled for victories and podiums? Or 2013 when Lotus were often the closest challengers to a fleet Red Bull? It seems unlikely that either will have much hope of getting on terms with Lewis and Nico this season.
It doesn't have to be this way, though, as regular readers of this magazine (and, in particular, of Dieter Rencken's Power Play column, p37) will know. A more equitable distribution of revenues would help guarantee the existence of the smaller players and the livelihoods of those who work for them, while enriching the show and maintaining F1's cherished heritage of constructor-participants. Will that happen? Don't hold your breath.
More likely, alas, a message of 'let them eat cake'.