Formula One’s mind-blowing numbers game is a mounting puzzle and concern for cash-strapped teams in danger of being swallowed up in enough debt to sink them without trace.
As moves are afoot to increase the number of races from 19 to 20 and perhaps 21, there are no such worries for the mega-wealthy big three teams of Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes-Benz. At least, not that they would let on.
Not so Lotus. They are the season’s surprise package with comeback champion Kimi Raikkonen lifting them to third place in the championship, but that has not isolated them from a monetary freefall.
And if it can happen to high-fliers like them, what hope for the also-rans Caterham and Marussia?
Lotus team boss Eric Boullier has fired the opening salvo of warning shots amid suspicions that they are in dire financial straits. So much so I heard whispers that they were late in paying Kimi Raikkonen. And that really is a serious matter.
But not only was their star turn forced to hang on for his take-home, the suppliers and the race personnel, I hear, all suffered delays in salary pay-outs.
Frenchman Boullier, who could well yet mastermind a second title for Finland’s Raikkonen with half the season still to go, has to cope with a rumoured debt of $160 million (Dh587.53 million).
He urges a brake on outlay and, like most of his rival team bosses, would not encourage a costly increase in the number of races.
“To keep teams competitive,” he argues, “we need to keep a minimum budget with our resources.
“Don’t forget in the beginning of the 90s a top team would spend maybe £40 million [Dh227.03 million] — but nowadays it is upwards of £100 million. We have to put down that cost.
“I don’t think it is fair if only three teams, Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes, can still afford to invest in the old way and can spend a lot on the car. We can’t do that,” Boullier says.
“The sport’s regulators should find a way around it, to reduce costs. And I am happy to say there are some discussions going on to move forward.”
Formula One’s shopping list, with teams like Ferrari forking out $470 million a season, goes like this: the race car shell costs $125 million, engines, with about 10 used a season, cost $130 million; testing takes up $15 million; a top-paid driver like Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso earns $47 million; and the hospitality bill is $15 million.
So what comes back? Prize money works out like this: the champions earn $47 million; runners-up $40 million; third-placed $32.5 million... with $10 million for tenth place.
Boullier revealed the team’s money flow could be restarted without a hitch, with an incoming new partner expected in the next couple of weeks.
“We still can’t spend the same money as Ferrari and Mercedes,” he said
Whether, in the light of recent salary setbacks, Raikkonen, a target for Red Bull and Ferrari, is prepared to risk another pay freeze and opts to stay put, is a poser intriguing me and all of Formula One.