Customer cars have become a big talking point in Formula One this year. Both Red Bull and Honda have given chassis and design support to their ‘B’ teams and it has caused massive controversy throughout the paddock. The sport’s regulations stipulate that every team must design and build their own car, and that is clearly not what Super Aguri and Scuderia Toro Rosso have done. Reaction from some of their rivals has been passionately disagreeable.

A few of the Grand Prix teams are unhappy that Super Aguri and STR could very well score constructors points for machinery they did not construct. They’ve argued that it goes against the very point of having a constructor’s championship.

And rightly so.

The 2007 Sporting Regulations are quite clear on the subject. Any team wishing to enter the Formula One World Championship must be a ‘constructor’ as per Schedule 3 of the Concorde Agreement. This states a team must own the intellectual property rights to their car and must not incorporate any part in the chassis that is designed or manufactured by another constructor.

Whilst the situations at Super Aguri and STR are slightly different they have both breached this regulation. Super Aguri are running last year’s Honda whilst STR are running this year’s Red Bull.

Toro Rosso boss Gerhard Berger has pleaded his team’s innocence and claims his cars are different to that of the sister Red Bull outfit. Other than the paint job there is no visible difference and it is obvious to even the most casual observer that both cars are identical. Super Aguri have also made similar claims but of course neither team would ever admit to breaking the rules.

Spyker are only team to have taken any formal action so far and their actions have been fairly interesting.

At the end of qualifying for the first race in Australia they protested the legality of the Super Aguris. By doing so Spyker were asking race stewards, rather than the FIA, to make a decision on customer cars. Not surprisingly the Melbourne stewards threw out the protest since they did not have access to the confidential Concorde Agreement they needed to declare the Super Aguris illegal. This was significant because it meant Spyker could not prevent Super Aguri from racing.

After the Grand Prix, Spyker F1 took the next logical step by launching an arbitration case with the FIA. It has not been confirmed if their case is against both Super Aguri and STR, but it means the matter will now be decided in court. This could take several months and it is hoped an arrangement will be made before the court ruling is necessary.

The core issue is all about Money. Only the top ten teams earn prize money in Formula One and the lower down the grid you are, the more that cash is worth to you. Spyker are certain to finish last this year and would therefore be the only team not to earn prize money in 2007. They are aggrieved that two teams finishing ahead of them could take their share of the winnings without having followed the regulations. Spyker would like to see Super Aguri and Scuderia Toro Rosso barred from scoring points in 2007, allowing them to finish 9th in the final standings.

Every point is worth money and that is the sole motivation behind Spyker’s protest.

The teams have met with Bernie Ecclestone a few times but a compromise has not been achieved. There is currently a month between grands prix so there will likely be a result before the next race. It will be interesting to see how it all works out.

The issue is a totally different one in 2008.

Next year teams are allowed to buy and sell chassis as they choose. There would be no problem at all with Red Bull and Toro Rosso running the same car (or with Super Aguri and Honda doing the same). The regulations have been freed up and Prodrive have based their entire 2008 F1 entry on the premise they will not have to build their own car.

The issue next year is not whether customer cars will be legal, but whether they will be able to score points. The regulations are currently ambiguous in this regard and it is not certain how constructors points will be awarded.

If Scuderia Toro Rosso score points next year it has not been explained whether their points will be awarded to them or to Red Bull, assuming their points will be awarded at all. Frank Williams in particular has argued teams should not be allowed to score constructors points in 2008 if they are not constructors. It’s a fair statement and it is a rule that will need clarification well before the start of the season.

There is a larger issue at hand though, and it is one BMW Sauber boss Mario Theissen brought up before Melbourne.

Could customer cars ruin Formula One?

Mario said “Today we have independent teams who want to be competitive, who see themselves as one of 12 teams on the grid who fight for their own success. With the chassis sale, I think we will very soon have six programmes with four cars each. There will be so-called independent teams who offer their services to the big teams in order to get chassis for free. One has to think about whether that is good for F1. I would prefer having 12 teams, two cars each, everyone fighting for their own destiny and success.”

Mario Theissen has reasoned chassis sharing will force the smaller independent teams out of the sport and that will in turn damage Grand Prix racing.

Others have agreed with him and believe teams fielding customer cars are tarnishing Formula One’s image as the pinnacle of motorsport. One of the very fundamental principles of Grand Prix racing is that teams should design and construct their own machinery, and customer cars devalue the efforts of teams that are doing so.

On the other hand it is pretty hard to accept that customer cars will ruin the sport, or damage it in any way whatsoever.

Chassis sharing has been around as long as grand prix racing itself. It is ironic that Williams are arguing against customer cars given the very first Williams was actually a chassis that had been bought off March.

Williams weren’t alone since Tyrrell, Hesketh and Penske all scored points with customer cars supplied by March Engineering. Plenty of other privateer teams and drivers were using customer cars throughout the 1960’s and 70’s because it provided a cheap and easy way to go racing at the highest level.

The 60’s and 70’s were hailed as the golden era of Grand Prix racing, and you don’t hear anyone saying the period was ruined or tarnished by chassis sharing.

Ferrari even won a world championship in a customer car. The 1956 Ferrari that Juan Manuel Fangio drove to victory was actually designed and built by Lancia. You will be hard pressed finding someone prepared to begrudge Fangio’s success because he did it in a customer car.

A lot has changed since Fangio’s day but one thing remains the same. To win in Formula One you need the fastest car and the fastest driver. Simple as that. The best drivers and the best teams will always take victory at the end of the day. If you want to win there will forever be an advantage in designing and building your own car, and since most teams are out there to win the culture of the sport is not about to be damaged.

Teams are already sharing engines and gearboxes. Things won’t be greatly different when chassis are shared as well. There were only two seconds between 1st and 19th in Q1 at Bahrain so the cars are close to identical anyway.

If anything the racing could get better. Imagine if there were double the number of McLarens and Ferraris on the grid this year. If the end result of chassis sharing is fewer teams, it will mean there are more cars with a chance of winning and that can’t be a bad thing.

Customer cars will not damage the sport at all. As soon as the issue with Spyker, Red Bull, and Honda is finalised we should be able to forget about it for awhile.

Sort out the money issue and let’s go racing.

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