The news that Anglo-Russian Formula One team Marussia is on the verge of bankruptcy marks the end of an era. Of the four new teams approved to join the sport in 2010 in its biggest modern-day expansion, none will be on the shrunken 18-car grid at the next race in Austin, Texas.
It seems that recent sanctions applied to Russia by the US and the EU have had further impact than imagined, as funding for ‘national’ sports evaporates and businesses hesitate investing in anything but basic operations as a ‘survivalist’ strategy.
Marussia went into bankruptcy administration a week after Caterham, another team from the class of 2010, while Spanish team HRT went bankrupt in 2012 and North Carolina-based USF1 never made it to the grid, going out of business before its first race.
While Marussia has not ruled out returning to action in time for the season finale in Abu Dhabi late next month, that looks highly unlikely.
Marussia, based in the English town of Banbury, has packed a lot into its time in F1. In five seasons, first under the Virgin Racing name, then as Marussia (obviously re-named for Team Russia), it has seen much tragedy, some farce and a few rare moments of triumph.
The team certainly exits the sport under a cloud, as French driver Jules Bianchi lies in a Japanese hospital with severe head injuries. During the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka earlier this month, he lost control of his Marussia in extremely challenging conditions – heavy rain and fading light – and slid off the track into a tractor that was taking away another crashed car.
For F1, it was a reminder of the bad old days, the most serious injuries to a driver since legendary champion Ayrton Senna was killed in 1994. Motorsport can never be 100 percent safe, but there have long been worries about tractors positioned near the course. Typically, their design means much of an F1 car could slide underneath, while the driver’s exposed head makes contact with the tractor at high speed, making all the car’s advanced crash protection redundant.
While there is no suggestion that the team bears any responsibility for the crash, it bears an eerie similarity to an earlier Marussia tragedy in which Spanish test driver Maria de Villota was maimed.
On that occasion, de Villota was conducting a simple aerodynamics test, simply driving in a straight line up and down a disused airport runway to test some new parts. As she came in to park, the car suddenly speared off course into a team truck. The nose of the car went under the truck’s loading ramp, which struck de Villota’s helmet. She lost the sight in one eye and died a year later, allegedly of complications resulting from her injuries.
Marussia’s competitive life was always a struggle. Its brightest moment came in May, when Bianchi’s ninth place at the glitzy Monaco Grand Prix brought the team its first championship points, something none of the other teams who joined in 2010 have ever managed. But compared to any of F1’s more established teams, that is a shockingly low return from five seasons of racing.
So why did Marussia struggle so much?
To put it bluntly, the odds were stacked against the team from the beginning. When the three new teams were invited to join F1 for the 2010 season, they did so with a promise that team budgets would be capped to stop better-funded outfits spending to win with expensive car development programs.
That never happened. The new teams were left trying to compete with vastly better-funded opponents, but they made their share of blunders on their own too. Marussia, then known as Virgin, even managed to start the 2010 season with a car that could not carry enough fuel to make it to the end of a race.
F1 is a cutthroat sport with a low survival rate – of the 10 teams on the grid a decade ago, all but four have gone bust or been bought out – but without some semblance of a level playing field, teams like Marussia never stood a chance.
Marussia’s finances and its relationship with Russia have never been particularly clear, either. When Russian investors bought into the team in 2011, it was renamed after Russian sportscar company Marussia, founded by TV presenter Nikolai Fomenko.
However, the company never made many cars and when it went bust in April, the team said it no longer had any financial relationship with Fomenko or his company – in effect, Marussia F1 seems to have been providing free advertising. Where exactly the money was coming from is something of a mystery, since Marussia had relatively few sponsors.
Marussia tried to drum up Russian sponsorship, celebrating that it would be the only home team on the grid for the first Russian Grand Prix in Sochi earlier this month, but still had problems, partly because companies flocked to Russian drivers rather than a Russian-badged team with foreign drivers.
Marussia couldn’t even claim to be the first Russian-registered team in F1. That honor goes to the long-forgotten Midland, which endured one unsuccessful year in 2006 under the ownership of Canadian-Russian businessman Alex Shnaider.
So where does this leave Russia?
Not out of F1, by any means. While, barring Marussia’s return, there will be no longer a Russian team on the grid, there is a Russian sensation – the exciting young driver Daniil Kvyat, who has lit up the sport this season in his rookie year.
Still, Marussia may yet be back. After all, it’s a team of fighters. A team which, despite the tragedies, the financial problems and the dodgy fuel tanks, still made it to the Russian Grand Prix this month. There in Sochi, Marussia ran just one car as a mark of respect for Bianchi, but that they made it all is something of a miracle.
Right now, Marussia needs support and a very large cash injection, but I wouldn’t rule it out completely just yet.