Battle lines are being drawn as F1 reacts to the ‘crisis’ of collapsing teams.
But Red Bull’s Dr Helmut Marko declared unequivocally ahead of the US grand prix: “We are ready.”
He was referring to the concept of three-car teams, as he admitted to Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport that it might cost the sport’s big players up to $30 million each.
The mood ahead of the US grand prix is therefore dramatically tense, with some declaring it the sport’s latest ‘crisis’ following the collapse of the backmarkers Marussia and Caterham.
David Richards, the Prodrive chief who told Autoweek that he was approached about saving the embattled teams, said he believes at least “one other team” is also in dire straits.
But according to Bernie Ecclestone, the currently 18-car grid could actually dwindle by a further two teams.
“It could go down to 14 (cars),” the F1 chief executive told British television Sky.
Trackside in Austin, the situation is rapidly deteriorating from the initial shock to obvious anger, as the next most endangered teams – reportedly Sauber, Force India and Lotus – threaten to boycott Sunday’s race in protest of the increasingly inequitable balance of power.
At Force India, anger about the make-up of the powerful ‘strategy group’ – chaired only by the richest and most historically important teams – has been bubbling for months.
Deputy team boss Bob Fernley declared in Austin: “Two teams have now gone and I think the commercial rights holder is comfortable in thinking there might be 14 cars next year.
“So the question is, if we are driving teams out of the business, to what agenda is it? And what’s the game?” he added.
The suspicion is that Ecclestone and F1’s controversial owner CVC are happy to see the stragglers go out of business and for their grid places to be filled by big teams running third cars.
Referring to the most struggling privateers, Ecclestone said: “We need them if they are going to be there performing properly and not moving around with begging buckets.”
There was also little sympathy from Mercedes, F1’s dominant force in 2014, who said: “I have great respect for what Tony Fernandes and Andrey Cheglakov have done in their businesses, but maybe formula one is just a different ball game.”
The feeling in the paddock is that the teams are separating into two distinct camps, and according to the Times newspaper, the anger of the ‘have nots’ has now descended into a boycott threat.
“It is 50-50 whether it happens,” the newspaper quoted one executive as saying at the scene of the US grand prix, “but what else is there?
“We haven’t got anything to lose, have we? No one listens, so the only thing we can do is take action that CVC will understand. It would be painful but it would make the point.”
Reuters quoted Lotus team owner Gerard Lopez as confirming that while a meeting took place, he was “not aware” of the boycott threat.
The BBC, meanwhile, quoted Force India’s Vijay Mallya as also playing down the US boycott, but he hit out at the “arrogance” of the big teams who are resisting the idea of cost control.
“There are many fans out there who support the smaller teams and they need to be respected. The small teams cannot be taken for granted,” he insisted.
But Red Bull’s Marko thinks the three-car solution is a good route, even for improving the spectacle and popularity of F1.
“Imagine if we could put a Nascar driver like Jimmy Johnson or Tony Stewart in the (third) car here in the US,” he told Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport.
“The promotional effect would be huge.” (GMM)