‘The Staircase of Talent’ is a phrase often used in talent management circles, but it was Sir Jackie Stewart who coined this expression when used in motorsport. It referred to the way in which, having retired as an F1 driver, he had helped his son Paul move into single seater motorsport through the creation of Paul Stewart Racing (PSR) in 1988. PSR competed first in Formula Ford, then Formula Vauxhall, then Formula 3 – where they dominated the series, winning a total of six championships – and then also added a Formula 3000 team in 1991. At the time F3000 was seen as being the final stage before moving into F1. In 1996 Stewart Grand Prix was formed which took the operation up to the final and ultimate step of the staircase, Formula 1.
For many this is the natural and only place for Formula 1 – the pinnacle of motorsport, where the best drivers, teams, designers, engineers, mechanics and marketing people all come together to create what remains the third most watched sport in the world. However, events during this last week suggest that the motorsport world is changing, certainly from the perspective of the car manufacturers. Mercedes announced the end of their long association with German touring car racing (DTM) to focus on the all-electric single seat series Formula E, and, if that wasn’t enough, Porsche issued a statement that they are withdrawing from endurance racing (LMP1), and would join Mercedes in season six of Formula E which runs from 2019-2020.
For many Formula E has been regarded as a bit of a joke, drivers having to change cars as the batteries would not last the entire race, ‘Mickey-Mouse’ temporary tracks created in city centres, and cars which make hardly any noise, other than the screech of tortured tyres. Motorsport motoring correspondent, Andrew Frankel, responded to the Porsche news by putting the blame on the LMP1 regulations and also flagging up his concerns on Formula E: “My fear for it is that it is fundamentally flawed, and not just because it is so very boring to watch. The problem is that at its very heart are not race car teams but car manufacturers.”
The presence of car manufacturers and race car teams in motorsport has been a perennial issue. Car manufacturers bring in new investment for the teams – just look at F1 in the late nineties, as tobacco moved out the car manufacturers moved in, BMW, Toyota, Jaguar, Honda, Mercedes and Renault all become more involved in F1. The counter-argument is, as Frankel implies, that car manufacturers come and go because of particular market needs and strategies, when these have finished they move onto other things. Race car teams will always be there because this is their reason for being, they will find funding from wherever it comes and go racing, because that is what they do.
Of course it is never as simple as car manufacturers vs race teams. A recent piece on ‘the greatest engine in Formula 1 history’ by venerable F1 journalist Nigel Roebuck on the Autosport Premium site, told the story of the engine that provided the basis of the British motorsport cluster, by allowing the teams to concentrate on designing the chassis and then using the Cosworth DFV to go and win Grand Prix and world championships. The Cosworth engine allowed the likes of McLaren, Williams, Brabham and Lotus to compete directly with those who built their own engines, such as Ferrari and Renault. So where did the investment come from to support the creation of the greatest engine in F1? The Ford Motor Company provided Cosworth with £100,000 investment in 1965, £75,000 to be spent on the V8 DFV specifically to meet the 1966 F1 regulations.
The challenge now for F1 is that it is based on hybrid technology – using both the internal combustion engine (ICE) and electric power to race. It is clear that, in the view of the car manufacturers, this technology is a stop-gap, a temporary transition to allow them to move into 100% electric powered vehicles over the next ten years. F1 is currently out of line with this trajectory, far from being the pinnacle it is in danger of becoming an irrelevance as the market shifts into electric power, and the loud, noisy , vibrating ICE becomes something that you see in historic racing, in the same way as we once looked at steam engines, it is no longer the future.
I hope that F1 will be able to adapt and to remain the pinnacle of motorsport technology, my concern is that Audi, BMW, Renault, Mahindra, Citroen, Jaguar, Mercedes, Porsche have already decided on their motorsport future and that this is where the money and the technology will be going over the next ten years. The racing in Formula E may be currently lacking excitement, but when we see top manufacturers, top drivers and top circuits brought together by the funding going into this format, it can only be a matter of time until we reach the tipping point. Interestingly, both McLaren and Williams, like Mercedes and Renault are well placed to take advantage of the growth in Formula E, should it really take the place of F1 as the pinnacle of motorsport. Perhaps at some point we will see these two formats coming together, after all they are both regulated by the FIA, and Liberty Media, the owner of Formula One Management, also holds a stake in Formula E. However it develops one thing is clear, as far as the car manufacturers are concerned the future is electric.