Does Formula 1 need more teams on the grid?
Is it worth opening up the grid to more teams and who would step up to the plate if it did happen?
We all know the drill with the Formula 1 grid. 10 teams, two cars each, making up a 20 person grid of the highest quality driving talent in the world. Well, that’s the theory anyway. There’s a bit of a problem with this though, at least a problem that I’ve noticed quite a lot recently. A lot of really great drivers, both junior league drivers and older drivers who got a chance with F1 but ended up dropping out, are missing out on F1 seats because teams overly favour certain drivers more than others. That’s not exactly the worst thing ever. Sometimes teams need the sponsor money from a pay driver to keep them financially competitive with the bigger budget teams like Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari. Some teams such as Red Bull (and by extension its B team Alpha Tauri) would rather take the Arsene Wenger approach, focusing on developing new talent through junior programmes over already established names looking for a new home. The problem is this leaves genuinely talented drivers like Nico Hulkenberg, Antonio Felix Da Costa, Jean-Eric Vergne, Sebastian Buemi and Pascal Wehrlein either losing their drives or getting tested for F1 but never actually getting into a full-time seat. So, what would be a good way to solve this? The solution might be to do something that’s already been done in F1 in the past: Open up more slots on the grid to new teams.
Whilst we’ve had the 10 team grid in Formula 1 for quite a while now, it’s not always been this way. Back in the 80s and 90s it wasn’t uncommon for up to 13 or 14 teams to enter into the series, although not all of them qualified for every race thanks to systems such as pre-qualifying or the 107% rule (the 107% rule is actually still in place today, although it hasn’t had to be used since the early 2010s). Of course, this was back in the days when the entry requirements into F1 were very different. Things such as super licence points didn’t exist so absolute duffer drivers like Ricardo Rosset could pay their way into an F1 seat and end up not qualifying for every race due to not meeting the 107% time or not even getting past pre-qualifying. These days, thanks to the whole thing with super licence points and cars normally being fast enough to be faster than the 107% time, we’re in a situation with F1 where everyone on the grid is a genuinely really good driver. Even the much-maligned Lance Stroll, Romain Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen and Danill Kvyat are properly talented drivers; they’re miles ahead of the Ricardo Rossets and Andrea De Cesarises of old. It seems really unfair to let those drivers fall by the wayside when they could easily have long and fruitful careers in F1. Whilst it might mean that drives like Stroll, Magnussen and Kvyat end up taking seats at backmarker teams who are just breaking into the sport, it would keep them there and their experience as drivers would really help to develop the cars and the team as a whole.
There’s also the whole question of whether Formula 1 has enough space for women. As weird as it might sound to suggest this, I think opening the grid up to more teams might actually give female drivers and potentially women in non-driver roles more of a chance to get into F1. More places on the grid and more teams in the paddock instantly equals more space for everybody and that includes more space for women. Whilst it’s pretty much guaranteed that Jamie Chadwick is going to get an F1 seat with Williams in the mid-2020s and it’s absolutely what should be happening, more teams coming in could potentially allow for other potentially F1-calibre female drivers such Tatiana Calderon (who is already signed with Alfa Romeo Racing as a test driver), Beitske Visser, Alice Powell and Marta Garcia into fully-fledged F1 seats much more easily. There’s also the potential for another woman to emerge into a high-level non-racing role in a new team, maybe even reaching the team principal slot like Claire Williams managed in 2013 and has held onto ever since. It’s something that definitely needs to happen. F1 is incredibly, obscenely even, male-dominated and whilst that is slowly starting to change, I think it’s a change that does need to happen faster. If the bigger, more conservatively-minded teams don’t want to invest that much in female talent both on and off the track, maybe some new teams who are more willing to do so have to come into the sport to change things up.
I guess the reason why Formula 1 is kind of reluctant to allow new teams into the sport is what happened the last time a batch of new teams were allowed in under new regulations following the global financial crisis. All three of the new teams that were let in disappeared after 5 years, the final one to die being Manor (formerly Marussia) which bit the dust in 2015 leaving the door open for Haas to enter (Haas’s forward base in Banbury, Oxfordshire was even taken over from Manor/Marussia!). Caterham went belly up after only a couple of years and the HRT team was also so legendarily bad that it forced the reintroduction of the 107% rule. The only positive concession HRT made to the sport was that it was the first team to give a seat to Daniel Ricciardo, somebody who evolved into one of F1’s most beloved drivers through his brilliant personality and legitimately fantastic driving skills and could end up going back to race-winning ways at McLaren if McLaren gets the new regulations absolutely right. Taking all of that into account, you can absolutely see why F1 is happy to just have 10 teams on the grid who aren’t constant embarrassments (although Ferrari’s recent struggles might have you questioning that, understandably).
There’s also the question of whether adding more teams to the 10 that are already there would crowd up the grid far too much. Back in the days of there being up to 26 drivers on the grid, the grid would often end up being less crowded by the day of the race because of drivers being knocked out either during the pre-qualifying process or by not going fast enough to meet the 107% time. These days, thanks to the super licence requirements, F1 drivers are good enough across the board to not get punted out as a result of not meeting the 107% time or similar, meaning that if there were 26 drivers on the grid 26 drivers really will be starting the race. This could cause a really, really crowded grid and a super crowded grid like that could potentially result in more accidents, more controversial moves and less camera time being given to certain drivers, teams and (most crucially in terms of the commercial applications of F1) certain sponsors. Maybe pre-qualifying would have to be re-introduced? Maybe cars that don’t make it through Q1 wouldn’t be allowed to start the race the next day? Maybe they’d have to switch to qualifying groups like Formula E or one-lap shootouts in a style similar to time attack during Q3 so that each team in the top 10 gets enough camera time? It’s difficult to predict what F1 would do in a situation like this. What I can be sure of though is that the backmarker teams wouldn’t take too well to a situation where they wouldn’t be allowed to race on Sunday if they failed to get past Q1!
If Formula 1 were to take the plunge and allow slots to be opened for new teams, who would step up to the plate? I think one of the front runners would be a name that’s already present on the F1 grid. That name is Honda. Whilst Honda withdrew their manufacturer team in 2008 due to financial difficulties brought on by the global financial crisis, selling the team to former boss Ross Brawn and starting the legendary fairytale rise from the ashes that was Brawn GP, they did return to F1 in 2015 as an engine supplier for McLaren. Whilst that bombed spectacularly (insert all the “GP2 engine” jokes as you want), Honda did a fantastic job supplying engines to Toro Rosso in 2018 and it scored the Japanese juggernaut a long-term deal with both Red Bull-owned teams as an engine supplier. The Honda engines have been doing a really good job in the Red Bull cars of recent years, with several podiums and race wins under their Honda-powered belts. With Honda power developing such a great track record in F1 and leaving the spectre of the McLaren-Honda debacle well behind, new team slots opening up could be the perfect opportunity for a Honda works team to come back to the grid.
Another couple of potential emergents into the F1 grid if more slots were opened for new teams could be the two Indian industrial stalwarts Tata and Mahindra. Mahindra already has a strong presence in Formula E and, perhaps even more crucially, owns the legendary Pininfarina name which it is developing into a super prestigious new car brand. Perhaps we could see a Team Pininfarina entering the grid? I certainly wouldn’t mind that! The legendary Italian name fires off all the right motorsport connotations for sure. As for Tata it has an unbelievable amount of money as a company and like Mahindra owns a legendary brand, that brand being Jaguar. A Tata team branded under the Jaguar name would mean the return of a name from the recent past to F1, as well as potentially the return of that brilliant green and white livery! It’s not as if this doesn’t have precedent either, considering the Jaguar team of old was actually owned by Ford and used the Jaguar branding purely for branding purposes.
One of the most exciting potential entrants though could be a VW Group-affiliated team making their way into F1. Porsche, Audi, Lamborghini or Bugatti would be the perfect brand for VAG to fully venture into F1 with considering the performance connotations associated with all four of those brands. Porsche and Audi already have a lot of heritage through their endurance racing efforts, Lamborghini is… well… Lamborghini and Bugatti has a lot of connections to the early days of F1, being a dominant force in Grand Prix racing (F1 before it was called F1) during the 1920s and 1930s. That heritage is something that’s a marketing person’s dream and not only would the liveries look fantastic (especially a marine blue and black Bugatti car) but corporate sponsors would be attracted like moths to flames to such massively iconic brands, especially if the cars with that branding on them produce results.
The question of whether Formula 1 should allow more teams to join in isn’t a straightforward one. There are obvious reasons as to why F1 is very reluctant about having no more than 10 teams around. The horrible backmarker teams of the early 2010s are still fresh in everyone’s memories, as are the memories of older grids where back of the grid teams with god awful pay drivers often didn’t even make it to race day, or would make it to race day with only one driver on the grid. There is, however, a lot of potential that could come with letting more teams onto the grid in terms of allowing genuinely talented drivers a chance to stay in an era where F1 drivers are better on average than they have ever been before and more teams in the paddock and more space on the grid instantly equalling more opportunities for women to occupy more of a space in a typically very male-dominated sport. Is it worth a try? I definitely think it is.