Ahead of the 2021 Formula One season, there was great anticipation surrounding what was supposed to be a record-breaking 23-race schedule – as it was a sign that the sport was returning to normality in this pandemic affected world.
In news that will either come as a great surprise or be of little interest, Mercedes is on the brink of winning its third Constructors’ Championship at this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
Mercedes needs only to ensure that Red Bull Racing, its closest competitor – though ‘competitor’ is used loosely here – doesn’t outscore it by seven points or more to make the title race a mathematical certainty.
It’s an impressive feat, especially considering the state of the 2009 championship-winning Brawn team when Mercedes bought it and took the full-time plunge into F1.
Four years rebuilding the team under the directorship of the iconic Ross Brawn gave way to two, and now three, years of almost unchallenged domination.
Of the 53 races to date since 2014, Mercedes has lost just seven – an impressive 86.7 per cent win rate.
These statistics are nice, and a third championship will be an illustration of how supremely functional the Mercedes team is, but is the constructors’ title still relevant?
Notwithstanding that Formula One remains a team sport, it is open to debate whether the team championship continues to be a worthwhile part of the show. (Click to Tweet)
Sponsors see value investing in teams when a partnership opens up an opportunity to develop a product or service. Technical partners relish the opportunity to demonstrate that their technology plays a part in building a championship-winning car, and likewise almost any other business wants some of the reflected glory available to them as a team partner.
But personal sponsorship is increasingly important when it comes to advertising.
Watching Daniel Ricciardo drink from a Red Bull can is of infinitely more value than seeing a team of mechanics dressed in the Red Bull logo, and associating your brand with a high-profile personality is a more effective way of defining your product or service than pairing it with a company.
Car manufacturers have an obvious desire to claim a title that identifies them as the best constructor in the world, but in a sport that boasts just four auto companies, only two of which sell to the mass market, is there value in the championship beyond the feel-good factor?
There is of course one functional reason for the existence of the constructors championship – it’s the ranking according to which the commercial rights-holder deals the prize money each year.
Winning the title comes with significant financial reward. Likewise the battle between Williams and Force India for third in the standings is of enormous importance to both small-budget teams, a single place difference equating to millions of dollars.
Sauber, too, continues to bring updates to its car because finishing last in the title standings, where it currently sits behind Manor, would carry serious financial consequences.
But while prize money is of obvious importance to a sport famous for spending lots of it, even this core function is executed sufficiently poorly to bring the existence of the ranking into question.
Formula One’s desperately inequitable distribution of prize money makes a mockery of the very purpose of the Constructors’ Championship, by creating a world in which poor performing teams are rewarded more highly than those that win the title.
According to figures released by Autosport, despite the aforementioned dominance of Mercedes, the soon-to-be championship-winning team earned $US12 million less than Ferrari, which has managed just three wins since 2013.
Perhaps worse is that McLaren, which finished second last ahead of only Manor, with an average finishing position of somewhere between P14 and P15, earned the fifth-most amount of prize money by the end of the year, crucially ahead of Force India, which had achieved its best Constructors’ Championship result, of fifth.
Can a case be mounted for the validity of the Constructors’ Championship in these circumstances, particularly given the principal effect of the unequal distribution is to give the best-rewarded teams more opportunity to build a better car? Can such a distorted measure be meaningful?
None of this serves to discredit Mercedes’ imminent victory – indeed, even Bernie Ecclestone has admitted he paid the team very little until it won its second crown, meaning the investment that brought it to this point was largely from the company and sponsors.
However, if the Constructors’ Championship exists as little more than a reflection of the sport’s unfair finances and for the benefit of a few teams and sponsors, its credibility – particularly alongside the more popular Drivers’ Championship – is greatly diminished.
Follow Michael on Twitter from the #MalaysianGP paddock @MichaelLamonato.