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Prodrive signals renewed F1 hopes

By Matt Slater

Prodrive's David Richards
David Richards's Prodrive has a fine record in rallying but is now eyeing F1

The owner of British motorsport firm Prodrive says efforts to cut Formula One's high costs could tempt smaller, private teams back to the grid.

The global economic downturn has made a big impact on motorsport recently, with some major car makers pulling out.

Honda quit F1 two weeks ago, Suzuki left rallying on Monday and Prodrive partner Subaru followed on Tuesday.

"The sport will go back to how it was in the 1970s and '80s when smaller teams came to the fore," Richards said.

"And who knows? Maybe that is another opportunity for Prodrive. We're very interested if Formula One going to address the costs issue.

"I have always said there are two criteria for Prodrive's return to Formula One: one, we want to be competitive, and two, it must be financially viable. If we tick those two boxes there is a strong likelihood we will be back there."

The 56-year-old, who has had stints in F1 as boss at BAR and Benetton, wanted Prodrive to join motorsport's top tier in 2008 but had to back down because of opposition from the grid's biggest teams.

The new regulations and cost-cutting programmes certainly make (F1) more appealing

Prodrive's David Richards
They were against his plan of buying an engine/chassis off the shelf - a so-called "customer car". Their opposition centred on the belief that F1 is more than just a contest between drivers and that teams should develop their own cars.

But the economic climate has changed since then and the sport has been forced to reassess its dizzying costs and prohibitively high barriers to entry.

Last week, the sport's governing body, the FIA, brokered a cost-cutting pact with the remaining F1 team owners. Among the measures approved were commitments to use less powerful but longer-lasting engines and do away with in-season testing.

FIA boss Max Mosley's plan for all teams to use a single engine/gear-box package was resisted by the major manufacturers but a "common" engine built to agreed specifications by an independent supplier will be made available to smaller teams at a cost of no more than 4.5m per season.

This will reduce costs for those teams by 50% and the other belt-tightening measures should cut overall budgets for the larger teams by 30%. Mosley described the agreement as the "first step towards Formula One saving itself".

GP2 champion Timo Glock in his iSport car
Current Toyota F1 driver Timo Glock won the 2007 GP2 title in an iSport
"It's about time - the costs associated with Formula One cannot be sustainable," said Richards, who has been linked with the up-for-sale Honda team.

"We've seen the sad withdrawal of Honda in recent weeks and unless those costs can be brought under control I fear another manufacturer may follow.

"But the new regulations and cost-cutting programmes certainly make (F1) more appealing and far more suitable for a company such as ours. It's still a challenge, not to be underestimated, but it certainly becomes far more feasible and realistic."

Speculation about the Banbury-based firm's next move will go up several notches now its lengthy World Rally Championship venture with Subaru has come to a surprisingly abrupt end, but Prodrive is not the only British motorsport company with F1 ambitions.

Founded in 2004, iSport International has enjoyed considerable success in GP2, F1's feeder series, and has nurtured the driving talents of Scott Speed, Timo Glock and Bruno Senna.

Formula One is never going to be easy but it's achievable - it's the sort of thing you'd look into more seriously now

iSport's Paul Jackson
Like Richards, iSport boss Paul Jackson has been watching F1's efforts to rein in its spending with interest.

"We're still a long way off but Formula One is moving in the right direction," said Jackson.

"The return of pure privateer teams with the ability to buy engines, gearboxes and all the other bits of technology for a sensible price and compete on a reasonably level playing-field, would be really good for the sport.

"If that was available, and the cost was realistic, it's definitely something we would be interested in looking at.

"Until now, there has been such a gulf between us and Formula One - because you have to set up a design, R&D and manufacturing facility as well as a racing team - it would have been impossible to think about competing without the backing of a major manufacturer or billionaire.

MATT SLATER BLOG
"But if you're allowed to buy all that in and run a 'customer car' it becomes more viable."

Jackson's GP2 team has an annual budget of almost 3m, still less than a tenth of what F1's backmarkers will be spending in 2009 even after last week's financial surgery. Last season, the likes of Toyota, McLaren and Ferrari had 300m-plus budgets and Honda burned a reported 270m for a championship return of just 14 points.

Jackson described these levels of over-spending as "reckless" and said overall costs would have to be halved again before F1 became a sustainable proposition for companies the size of iSport.

"If you could do it on a budget of 15-20m it would not be unrealistic to go out into the sponsorship market and say 'we can go into Formula One and give you all that global exposure at a much reduced price'.

"I think they would accept you're not going to challenge McLaren and Ferrari but you wouldn't be that far off because of the (new)restrictions. And with a lean, well-run machine you've got a chance of causing an upset.

Jenson Button
Jenson Button, who scored three points in 2008, is on a three-year 28m deal
"It's never going to be easy but it's achievable. It's the sort of thing you'd look into more seriously now."

But for Jackson to take the plunge he would want to see further cost reductions, particularly in the area of salaries.

"There has to be a change in everybody's expectations in what they earn from the sport," he said.

"You typically get drivers and top designers earning huge sums of money that just aren't sustainable.

"They should be able to earn those sums but only on a performance basis - paying drivers and engineers millions of pounds on a retainer basis, regardless of results, is crazy.

"It's happened because the manufacturers have been able to write those big cheques to get household names. But how many talented, young drivers are out there who would drive an F1 car for 100,000 and a bonus scheme? It would be a pretty long queue."

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see also
Prodrive chief 'may turn to F1'
17 Dec 08 |  Rallying
Subaru pull out of world rallying
16 Dec 08 |  Rallying
Suzuki pull out of world rallying
15 Dec 08 |  Rallying
The battle to save Formula One
12 Dec 08 |  Formula One
F1 unveils cost-cutting blueprint
12 Dec 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton opposes standard engines
12 Dec 08 |  Formula One
Cost-cutting plan agreed for F1
10 Dec 08 |  Formula One
Big teams pledge to remain in F1
06 Dec 08 |  Formula One
Honda boss upbeat over team sale
05 Dec 08 |  Formula One
Picking up the pieces at Honda
05 Dec 08 |  Formula One
Harsh reality catches up with F1
05 Dec 08 |  Formula One
Global crisis ends Honda F1 era
05 Dec 08 |  Formula One
F1 teams agree cost-cutting deal
21 Oct 08 |  Formula One


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