The 107% rule should have come into effect on Saturday the 9th of March 1996 when 26 competitors attempted to qualify for the Australian Grand Prix for the first time ever at Melbourne. However, it seems to have produced an effect already. Just what is the 107% rule?
The 107% rule is this. No driver may start the race if his fastest time in qualifying is less than 107% of the time of the driver on the pole position. For instance, the cut off at Adelaide in 1995 would have been 1:21.097. Hence, neither Andrea Montermini or Bertrand Gachot would have made the grid. Here is the problem with the 107% rule: we aren't even in free practice for Melbourne yet and there are already two casualties in the FIA F1 World Championship of 1996. Pacific Grand Prix and the new DAMS team failed to enter because of lack of sponsorship.
Pacific said that the new rule had put off potential sponsors with the fear that their logo's may never make a race. Pacific Grand Prix have never been a competitive team in Formula One so their loss, while a blow for the sport, is not a major one. However, what is disturbing is that DAMS also failed to get enough sponsorship. For those unfamiliar with DAMS, they are the most successful team in the history of European F3000 -- the formula directly below F1. This team could have had the potential to be a new Jordan -- rapidly climbing through the ranks and leap-frogging many established teams. DAMS is the kind of calibre team that F1 desperately needs. Yet like Pacific, DAMS were again having trouble getting sponsorship; the sponsors were afraid that their products would never make a race. However it is not all bad news for new teams. Jackie Stewart announced his forthcoming entry into F1 in 1997. The team will be established from the basis of the PSR team, run by Jackie's son in British F3 and F3000. Their success in F3000 is certainly not the calibre of DAMS -- while challenging for the championship, they have yet to win one. It is, however, disturbing that to start a new F1 team, you need to be a three-times World Champion, with close friends in Detroit.
The motivation for the introduction of the 107% was clearly set out by Bernie Eccelstone. "Formula One is the pinnacle of Motorsport, we need quality not quantity". This is very true... F1 is the pinnacle and in the recent past we have seen such start-line specials as the Andrea Moda team, Life and Coloni. Since the introduction of the two car per team rule, however, this has not been a problem. The sizable budget required to run a modern F1 team has discouraged many such teams.
To explore alternatives to the 107% rule, we must first understand the reasons for the lack of competitiveness of the smaller teams. The major reason is the customer engines. The Ford HD engine produces reportedly some 600hp, approximately 100 bhp down on the Renault V10 or the Ferrari V12. While Cosworth provides a service which should be acknowledged, that gap is simply insurmountable. Would a better suggestion be that like C.A.R.T? They state that all manufactures are required to supply at least two teams, allowing a more equal sharing of speed throughout the grid.
The FOCA benefits also are stacked against the smaller teams. To be entitled to part of the benefits of travel allowances, the team must be in the top 10, accessed on a biannual basis. The FOCA benefits should be shared on a equal basis, after all these are all F1 teams. Simply giving the money to the most affluent teams is illogical. All teams should be entitled to the proceeds of the TV rights.
The instability of the rules is another factor which can mean sudden death to the teams. In the near past, the Concorde agreement has been overwritten in the name of safety, which was necessary. For a team which may be running on a smaller budget than McLaren's Headed Notepaper division, a redesign of that magnitude can prove simply impossible. Hence, Larrousse could not afford to compete in 1995. Greater stability in the rules, will give the teams more to work with in a evolutionary process.
While the big four turn up at the first GP of the season with everything ready, some of the smaller teams were use the first GP as a shakedown test. Keith Wiggins ex-head of Pacific has said "the smaller teams have no opportunity to test, we would rather have a ban on all testing and say, 26 races a year."
In the golden days of 32 car entries, F1 had no need of a 107% rule. There were many competitors trying for the 26 spots on the grid and the competitiveness took over. However, we just had a season where teams were only required to show up, set a single lap, and they were in the race. Instead of this, why not have a rule where all the entrants (if there are 26 or less) may start except one? This makes a lot of sense and it will encourage the smaller teams to push, wary of the risk that they won't start one of their cars. What it won't do is cause one team not to qualify all year which would soon render the team bankrupt.
The second biggest problem that F1 has is linked to the smaller teams -- the facet of "rent-a-drivers". It is simply unbelievable the some of the drivers in Formula One today have ever meet the requirements of a superlicense. How have people like Taki Inoue, Giovanni Lavaggi, Phillipe Adams and Jean-Denis Deletraz (to name but a few) taken up the seats, while people like Alessandro Zanardi or Gianni Morbedilli have had to wait on the wings? The small teams need better drivers to compete but, unfortunately, the FIA has to enforce the superlicense. The teams can't afford to turn down the money that some drivers have.
Bernie has openly brought up the merits of quality not quantity, something I welcome openly in the sport. But, I don't watch Formula One only to see the "big four" dominate. I also long to see the success of the younger drivers and developing teams. With the 107% rule in effect, I expect to see the grid drop to below 20 in 1997. While Bernie may think that he doesn't need twenty plus cars, the number of cars that finished in Adelaide 1995 might prove him otherwise....