Formula One is not a fair sport

Well, that’s not quite fair – everyone does play by the same rules (extra Mercedes tests notwithstanding) – but it is not a sport that strives for parity like, say, the National Football League (NFL). While the NFL, and most other team sports (at least in North America), share revenues and hold entry drafts in attempts to balance the competition, the opposite is true in F1.

Coming into the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, the final race of the season, Marussia led Caterham in the World Constructors’ Championship on the basis of the teams’ best finishes (Timo Glock had finished 12th in the Singapore GP – neither team scored any points in 2012). This left Marussia in 10th place in the Constructors’ standings, worth millions more in prize money than the $10-million Caterham would receive for finishing in 11th place.

During the race, everything was going well for Marussia until Caterham’s Vitaly Petrov passed Charles Pic for 12th place with only a few laps remaining. By itself, this was not enough to vault Caterham over Marussia in the Constructors’ Championship – but then, Paul di Resta crashed and Petrov finished in 11th place. Ka-ching!

petrovPetrov leading Pic in Brazil.
Photo credit: CaterhamF1 via Flickr

The kicker is that it had just been announced that Pic was moving to the Caterham team at the end of the season…by getting passed, he made his new team a few million bucks. But the story does not end there: this season, Marussia is once again leading the championship on the basis of Jules Bianchi’s 13th place finish in Malaysia. Bianchi has also beaten his countryman, Pic, in three of the five races they have finished this season (neither saw the chequered flag in Monaco). The 10th place currently held by Marussia is even more important this season, as Bernie Ecclestone has announced that the $10-million previously guaranteed to teams outside the top-10 will not be paid this year.

The point is this: in Formula One, the rich keep getting richer while the poor struggle along, trying to make ends meet (sounds a lot like life). The Concorde Agreement (the new version of which still has not been signed) divides prize money between the teams based on the standings in the World Constructors’ Championship. The top teams get the most money, allowing them to remain at the top. This is the most obvious sign of the sport’s inequality.

bernieBernie Ecclestone
Photo credit: RyanBayona via Flickr

But it manifests itself in other ways, too. For example, many professional sports leagues hold an entry draft where the worst teams from the year before get the top pick of new players eligible for the league. In F1, much like in European soccer, new drivers will often start out with a smaller team and, as soon as they have proven themselves, are signed by the teams with bigger budgets. The top teams also operate driver development academies to support up-and-coming drivers who they hope will develop into F1 superstars. The smaller-budget teams cannot afford this.

Even when the FIA tries to limit teams’ spending (e.g. the in-season ban on on-track testing), the teams with money to spend will find a way to spend it: on better simulators, bigger wind tunnels, or nicer motorhomes.

While it is always fun to cheer for the underdog, independent teams, F1 needs the major manufacturers to keep the sport going. Pre-eminent among them is Ferrari, the only team to have competed in every F1 season. It is no surprise that Ferrari has won 16 Constructors’ titles in the 55 seasons it has been awarded, while no other team has won more than nine (Williams – an independent team!). Ferrari has also won over a quarter of all the grands prix since the World Championship began in 1950.

austin gpFamiliar teams on the podium.
Photo credit: Texas Governor Rick Perry via Flickr

It is not known exactly how much of the nearly $700-million in prize money each team takes home every year, but a big chunk of it ends up in the hands of the top teams – lately, Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus and (except for this season) McLaren. Not coincidentally, those are four of the top five teams in terms of all-time Constructors Championships (along with Williams).  It is not in F1’s interest to distribute the money more evenly – the key is to keep the big teams happy while ensuring enough smaller teams survive to fill out the grid.

In Formula One, more success means more money, and more money means more success.

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