With the serious risk of a Formula One team going bankrupt, or at the very least not being able to compete thanks to the lack of an engine deal, Bernie Ecclestone has started to become involved in sorting out what could rapidly become a very expensive mess in his back yard.
Since the Concorde Agreement fixed the full grid to twelve teams, their financial value has become directly related to the number of competitors at the events. If there are only ten teams, then two others can purchase rights to the empty grid spots, so there is little to be gained from paying the premium to take over an existing team. Fill those slots, and anyone wishing to break in to the sport will be compelled to purchase an existing team. Being a locked shop, prices double overnight, making owners – and sponsors – far happier.
So, Minardi falling off the grid represents poor value for all the other teams. And, of course, for Bernie Ecclestone and Formula One Holdings. It's little surprise, then, to discover he has started leaning on engine suppliers to be flexible and provide Minardi with motive power for a price they can afford.
Flavio Briatore is talking to the Italian team about a Supertec supply in 2001. However, the price is thought to be high: in addition to the financial side, Briatore is angling to sign Fernando Alonso and place him with Minardi to learn the Formula One ropes. The driver has tested well and is sought after by half the grid as a prospective talent for the coming decade. Minardi, as the case so often proves, look set to provide the platform to unlock his potential, seeing his services for a year, training him up for a bigger team.
Mugen-Honda and Ford have also been leaned on in an attempt to find a value for money deal. Ford were pretty clear at the end of last year that the deal for this year's unit was a one off, intended to tide the team over into getting a new supplier. That they have been unable to do so is not really Ford's fault or problem. Nonetheless, there is plenty of talk that Minardi could run the 1999 Cosworth unit, if sufficient funds are forthcoming.
Mugen's announced withdrawal was something of a blow to the Italian outfit too. With Honda moving to supply Jordan this year, Minardi believed a real opportunity had opened up with their tuner, who still had staff and facilities to supply Formula One engines. That they were largely based in England, and Minardi are based in Italy, proved a significant stumbling block, so Honda have taken on a significant portion of the Mugen staff and site to aid their push for this year instead.
With Ferrari already supplying two customer teams, a third unit was going to stretch facilities too far, though the team actually appear to have considered the proposition. Similarly, Mercedes really does not want to get involved in the customer scene, particularly with Minardi, who traditionally have strong ties to Ferrari.
Since AMT laughed at the idea of supplying two teams on their debut season, and BMW are not intending to have the capacity to supply an extra team, even the involvement of Bernie Ecclestone has not brought about a speedy resolution to this problem.
Paddock speculation sees Minardi running Alonso and a chunk of cash for Supertec engines. Minardi are still hoping Ford will relent and see them free to use their '99 Cosworth unit. But both are likely to be irrelevant, unless Minardi find the funds. And even if the rumoured interest of Red Bull proves well founded, it still means finding a second driver who is prepared to pay several million dollars for the privilege of running near the back of the grid.
By the time they reach the end of season break, all the front running teams have their budgets for the following year largely decided and assigned; all their major sponsorships are in place, and the majority of the bit-players have lined up their spots on the cars for the following year. Small deals continue to take place through the year, but the work is largely done.
At the other end of the grid, by contrast, the opposite is true. This year, for example, Minardi are struggling to line up a headline sponsor, as Fondmetal wish to withdraw from the scene, PSN refused to complete their deal, and Red Bull's interest is expected to hinge on lining up an engine deal. The engine deal, of course, relies on having a sponsor to guarantee the budget for a full season of units...
In order to compete, most of the smaller teams have to make early commitments to develop and manufacture chassis and components, then complete (expensive) test schedules. When the funds dry up, the teams find themselves cutting back on testing in order to make it to the races. Without decent testing results (race results are never going to match those of the top teams), it is hard to attract sponsors, and the problem is compounded. Eddie Jordan is notorious for spending his first eight years in Formula One living hand to mouth, just scraping in sufficient sponsorship money to make it through each season.
The big issue these days, however, is that all sponsors are looking to gain the best value for money. Each cars' exposure to world-wide television coverage is roughly proportional to their performance on track. Accordingly, the amount the teams charge for advertising space on the car is dependent on performance, so a lot of sponsors are looking for "the next mover." Not so easy, when each team claims they are going to make a breakthrough the following season. But the team that does make it, will be providing the top value for money to those who backed it.
Each teams' marketing department is geared to take best advantage of this: whenever the hype around their new car looks good, approaches are made to other teams' sponsors, attempting to lure them in. Despite the incestuous nature of the arrangement – as it brings no new money into the sport – it is considered fair game, as garnering another teams' sponsor is a lot easier than finding new ones.