The quick and the dead

The quick and the dead

Something is rotten in the sport of Formula One.

First, the 2009 season ended on a spectacular new circuit, with a new champion from a new—okay, revived—team. And then days later, Toyota announced that it would be withdrawing from the sport for good.

The Toyota team’s inability to place a driver on the podium was only matched by its ability to sink millions of dollars, since its debut in 2002, into a sport that it could simply never get its head around. After persisting with nine drivers over eight seasons, the team managed just 13 podiums without a single win. All after a total investment in Formula One racing, according to some estimates, of at least $4 billion.

And then on Wednesday another team, Renault, convened a board meeting to decide if it should exit from the sport as well.

A decision is awaited.

Formula One racing is proving to be a sport particularly unsuited to a world in economic doldrums. While the sport has a worldwide fan following in the millions—in the 2008 season, the average race had a TV viewership of around 600 million—the costs of running some of the fastest, albeit expensive and fragile, cars in the world is taking a toll on owners and sponsors.

Some of the smaller teams get by with around $100 million in annual expenses, but top teams such as Ferrari and Toyota routinely spent around $500 million each season (half of the money is used to buy engines). But with economies reeling, sponsor funds are beginning to dry up.

The promoters of Formula One now find themselves in a quandary. The larger teams, such as Ferrari, vehemently oppose any attempt at capping budgets and making the sport more viable for the smaller teams.

While there are always entrants eager to join the fray, few are under the illusion that they will be competitive.

Without action on the tracks, fans will abandon the sport—as they are wont to.

A long-term solution is nowhere on the horizon. Unless teams and administrators decide on a way to make competing in Formula One cheaper, we are looking at a future where three teams, or less, compete for the greatest prize in motorsport.

And no one wins in a race like that.

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