x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Drove my chassis to the McLaren garage

There was a time in Formula One when the field was awash with colour, and not just from the old Beneton team

There was a time in Formula One when the field was awash with colour, and not just from the old Beneton team. I remember seeing the distinctive mustard and green bodywork of Flavio Briatore's team when the sport first grabbed my attention in the early 1990s. The team had been known to stand out from the crowd, most notably in their outlandish multicolour design of the late 1980s. Even when it was rebranded to sky-blue and white, the design still turned heads. More were to follow; Jordan became the "yellow" team before going for gold. Footwork Arrows had grand designs like their 1995 number that consisted of a blue nose that was "chipped away" into a white body with a red air vent. The team went on to produce a nice orange number, thanks to, unsurprisingly, the Orange mobile network provider. Even Jaguar, the height of restrained British taste, used classic British racing green regalia to give the team prominence. Sadly, today's showings amount to the scarlet Ferrari and a bit of blue, white and silver here and there. Maybe sponsors are to blame but the cars look very much the same. The similar aesthetics of the cars is not really the problem, though. When what's under the chassis also starts to look remarkably similar ? that's when alarm bells should start ringing. The announcement by F1 back markers Force India that the team will run with Mercedes engines and have access to a host of McLaren technologies, puts the essence of the sport in question. They may well have changed engine suppliers from Ferrari to their main rival, but an alignment towards McLaren will disappoint the tradionalists. The McLaren chief executive officer, Martin Whitmarsh, announced, rather unconvincingly, that Force India will not become a "McLaren 'B' team". The deal puts McLaren at a great advantage though, using the team as a guinea pig to test out improvements in a race environment, rather than the test circuits of Valencia in the close season. It is not a novel practice. Ferrari have provided back-of-the-paddock teams such as Minardi and Lola in the past, but on this occasion the ties seem even closer. There is a sense of pragmatism behind the venture. It is important that F1 remains competitive and it needs its lesser teams to survive. There are currently 10 constructors competing in the premier class but there is room for two more teams. If F1 was to lose a Force India, or if one of the Red Bull racing teams did not exist, the field would look depleted. The sport would find it hard to have any credibility with a field of 16 drivers assisted by four or five manufacturers. The Ferrari Chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo was correct in quashing any plans by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) to serve teams with a single engine provider. Montezemolo's threat to withdraw arguably the sport's biggest draw from competitive racing should it be enforced will hopefully be enough to see the FIA abandon the proposal. The idea makes a mockery of everything the sport stands for: innovation, engineering, development and above all preserving the passion that each and every manufacturer brings to the sport. It would also put off the casual follower. I would hope to see the sport move in the opposite direction and see it openly encourage more companies and manufacturers to come on-board. It's a tough challenge, particularly with the likes of Jaguar, Ford and Spyker struggling to break into the sport. It would be a dream to see 12 different manufacturers on the grid, but in reality, it is enough of a struggle keeping current teams involved with the sport, with the newly founded Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) recently announcing plans to reduce engine costs by more than ?15 million (Dh70m) by 2011 to help teams stay afloat. It's as much a priority to keep Formula One a team sport as it is as an individual one, but when two or more are batting for the same side, a bit of F1's soul is lost.

snelmes@thenational.ae