In just one week’s time, the Formula 1 bandwagon will be making its way towards Australia for the first grand prix of the 2012 season. Two teams will be feeling particularly unprepared.
With the test sessions finished, Marussia and HRT will head to Melbourne having done no proper running. The two teams failed to pass all of the required crash tests.
Both teams are about to embark on their third season, and you would have thought that the fundamental task of passing a crash test would be within their capabilities by now. But perhaps the fact that these two teams have struggled really only underlines just how difficult it is to start a new F1 team and become competitive.
Genuinely new teams — excluding those that just took over an existing team — are as rare as hens’ teeth. Three new teams joined in 2010. Before that, the last new team was Super Aguri — a vanity project of Honda. Even then, Super Aguri used an old Arrows chassis as the basis of its car.
Toyota was the previous most recent new team. Starting in 2002 and after enduring years of midfield mediocrity — despite apparently having one of the largest budgets in F1 — they slunk off after 2009.
Stewart Grand Prix started its first race in 1997.
Lola tried that year as well, but their car was rushed out and was so disastrously off the pace that they failed to qualify for the first race and went bust straight afterwards.
Then we come to the glut of tail-end charlies that came along in the mid-1990s: Forti, Pacific, Simtek, Larrousse, Andrea Moda. Each of these teams lasted a maximum of two years.
Of the teams that have formed in the past 20 years, only one stands out as having achieved a modicum of success: Stewart Grand Prix.
Starting in 1997, Stewart had an astonishingly successful season for a new team. Poor reliability masked the fact that the car had decent midfield pace, able to challenge for points. A 2nd place finish in Monaco — only the team’s fifth race — was the reward.
1998 was more difficult. Nevertheless, Stewart finished one place higher in the Constructors’ Championship, clinching 8th place.
But the real achievements came in 1999. The Stewart car was genuinely competitive. It finished on the podium four times. It took a pole position. But most of all, it took victory in the European Grand Prix.
Luck played a part there — the 1999 European Grand Prix was a manic race. But regular points finishes ensured that the team secured 4th place in the Constructors’ Championship. For a new team to achieve this level of success so quickly is more or less unheard of.
After 1999, the team was sold to Ford, who badged the team as Jaguar Racing. Those were consolidation years, as management problems helped ensure the team couldn’t rise above the midfield again.
Then Red Bull bought it and turned the team into the incredible success it is today. Since its earliest beginnings in 1997, the team now has four championships to its name.
Apart from Red Bull, the newest team to have won a championship is Benetton / Renault, which began life as Toleman in 1981.
Putting the new teams’ struggles in perspective
In the grand scheme of things, the troubles facing Marussia and HRT are not too surprising. If you compare them to the likes of Lola, Forti, Pacific and Simtek, just surviving the first two seasons is a major achievement.
But the success of Red Bull, which in just 15 years has become the best constructor in Formula 1, is a reminder of what could be achieved. That Red Bull would have achieved this without the solid foundations built by Stewart Grand Prix is doubtful.