Will Gray

Gray Matter: The danger of customer cars

Will Gray

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Ferrari spoke again of their support for third cars after the recent Formula One Commission meeting - but how does that sit within the developing landscape of technical collaboration?

Formula One has always been about man and machine and although in the past the sport's big manufacturers were allowed to supply other teams with entire cars to run, these days each team on the grid must be an independent constructor in its own right.

The rules stipulate that each must own the unique designs for a number of key parts including the monocoque, the front, rear and roll-over safety structures, the aerodynamic package, suspension and the fuel and cooling systems.

But recent technical collaborations between teams have made the waters murky, and led to a discussion about just how some are working with each other.

The line first became blurred when Red Bull bought Minardi and founded Toro Rosso for the 2006 season, using a newly-created company called Red Bull Technology as a 'middle-man' manufacturer that supplied cars to both Toro Rosso and Red Bull Racing.

Given the sport was keen to avoid the collapse of another team after the departure of Prost and Arrows, it appeared to turn a blind eye to the customer car issue and Honda then took on a similar arrangement when they created Super Aguri, which was effectively a 'b' team, and used reworked chassis designs from previous Hondas for their cars.

That approach was ended in 2010 when an effective ban was introduced on shared chassis designs - but while that prevented two teams from running identical or near-identical cars, it did not put an end to team collaborations.

McLaren have turned this into a lucrative business in recent years, securing a strong commercial tie-up with Force India for the last three years and recently a new supply deal with Virgin Racing. Ferrari, also, have long-held links with Sauber, briefly broken during the BMW days but now renewed with the team's independence, while Williams have just inked a new collaboration deal with HRT.

There are now concerns, however, that these technical collaborations are starting to blur the lines again, with debate over whether these simple commercial supply deals are becoming a more elaborate use of allegiances up and down the paddock for mutual benefit.

The Force India and McLaren deal, inked in 2008, for instance, went beyond pure supply and included the installation of McLaren man Simon Roberts as CEO for the first year while also giving Force India "access to the McLaren Group's network of bespoke suppliers".

This year has seen the Silverstone-based team have their best season to date, with the links clearly helping development - and while team boss Vijay Mallya has defended any suggestion that it pushes the boundaries of the customer car regulations, it does beg the question as to how each party is benefiting from close technical collaboration and whether it is good for the sport.

On one hand, there is a strong argument for it, as it enables smaller teams to gain insight into front-running technology and helps them develop faster. Equally, for the supplier teams, in some cases it enables them to get more test data on certain components that they would otherwise have been spending money to test on rigs or on track.

Williams' expanded deal with HRT - which now includes KERS for 2012 - is a good example. By adding KERS to their gearbox supply they will have four of their units running at each Grand Prix and potentially gain a more rapid understanding of the system while HRT gets to run something they could not afford to develop in any other way. In theory, that could help Williams progress back up towards the front-runners and drag HRT with them.

That level of collaboration is extremely different, however, to the customer car approach that Ferrari is pushing.

The third car concept is generally unpopular and, arguably, Ferrari is only using it as a political tool to get their own way in upcoming negotiations over the new Concorde Agreement. But the discussion won't go away - and it could be dangerous for the sport if it is allowed to go through.

Ferrari's suggestion that they provide a third car for another team to run - similar to the way things worked in the early days of F1 - could, on the face of it, seem a good thing as it would provide an even cheaper way for a smaller team to achieve quick success.

But a big part of the infrastructure of the modern F1 industry is the importance put on manufacturing and design, not only amongst the teams but also amongst the large network of independent suppliers who each support one or two teams. And the difference between the cars creates an added interest and unique aspect to the sport.

Ultimately, while it may sound interesting, a grid with additional cars from top teams would reduce the number of individual constructor teams and also reduce that network of suppliers forcing Formula One as an industry to contract - which is surely not a good thing for the sport in the long run.

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