Smaller Formula One teams need to pull out all the stops

By Samantha Pearson

Formula 1 fans at the VIP area of the Interlagos racetrack, in Sao Paulo, to watch Brazil Formula 1 Grand Prix©Andre Vieira
Sandra Santana can only imagine what lies beyond the heavily guarded turnstiles at the entrance to São Paulo’s Interlagos racetrack.

“I guess I could have saved up, but it’s so expensive,” shouts the 55-year-old bank clerk, wiggling her hips to the funk music blaring out from the bar behind her as she tries hard not to spill her beer.

It is not even 10am on Grand Prix race day, but the atmosphere on the streets around Interlagos already resembles Rio’s famous carnival. Helicopters circle overhead as ecstatic revellers writhe to a confusion of beats, blowing neon whistles and whirling Brazilian flags in the air.

Like Santana, many of them have no intention of going in. The cheapest ticket for the three-day event is R$525 ($225) – almost as much as Brazil’s monthly minimum wage. Nevertheless, they can’t let one of the most important sporting dates of the year go by without a party.

For the world of Formula One, the Latin American country usually represents the final, nailbiting race – a tricky, hilly track that can break or make careers, where a millisecond can be worth millions of pounds.

For Brazilians, it is the one time in the year when their country becomes the focus of the world’s most glamorous sport, host to what they imagine to be a dizzying combination of fast cars, beautiful women and champagne-fuelled parties. Many have lost interest in racing itself after the death of national hero Ayrton Senna in the championship’s last fatal accident 20 years ago.

F1 fans at the Interlagos racetrack
©Andre Vieira

But beyond the turnstiles, up the hill, past crowds of fans, more turnstiles and finally inside the paddock – the hangout of drivers, teams and their celebrity guests – the reality would probably disappoint most F1 fans.

In their designated portable building halfway down the paddock, the Oxfordshire-based Marussia team and their sponsors are having breakfast – baked beans on toast with HP Sauce, washed down with cups of tea. There is barely room for four small tables.

This is partly Brazil’s fault. For races closer to home in Europe, Marussia, the team owned by the Russian sports car manufacturer, bring their own motor home and pack everything into three trucks. Sometimes they even bring their own water – otherwise the tea doesn’t taste right, says Graeme Lowdon, Marussia president and sporting director. But in more far-flung destinations everyone has to rely on the local country’s infrastructure – a rare leveller in the sport. And Brazil’s is one of the worst.

Formula 1 fans at the VIP area of the Interlagos racetrack
©Andre Vieira

Brazil had an early start in F1, completing the Interlagos track in 1940 and holding its first Grand Prix in 1973. However, a lack of public investment since then has turned the paddock into a cramped anachronism of the days when F1 teams made do with a dozen employees, rather than the several hundred they have nowadays.

“Venues such as Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Monaco – F1 still has a glamour factor there,” Lowdon says, hunched under an awning to keep out of the rain.

However, the F1 brand itself is also built on something of a myth, team members say. The sport’s glamorous image has allowed F1 Group to secure lucrative sponsorship and corporate hospitality contracts, helping it to post record revenues even in the aftermath of the financial crisis. While the group does not publish its financial results, the draft prospectus for its planned initial public offering shows its total core revenues grew from $922m in 2007 to $1.225bn in 2011.

Since the end of 2012, F1 Group has secured even more lucrative deals. Rolex signed a $35m-a-year contract in December 2012 to be the sport’s official timekeeper. In February last year, smartphone maker BlackBerry agreed a sponsorship deal with Mercedes’ F1 team worth $12m a year for three years. The same month UPS, the logistics company, joined forces with the Ferrari team, and F1 signed a $200m, five-year sponsorship deal with Emirates, the airline, in one of the sport’s biggest contracts yet.

Yet despite the billions of dollars staked on every race, the reality for the drivers and mechanics is very different.

At Marussia’s team dinner, held the night before the race in one of São Paulo’s buffet restaurants, one member explains how she is bombarded with questions about her jet-set lifestyle every time she goes to the hairdresser. “It is not really like that, but you don’t want to destroy the myth, do you?” she says.

F1 fans have a snack outside Interlagos racetrack
©Andre Vieira

Back in Marussia’s garage in the paddock, the engineers may not have been living the F1 lifestyle their friends imagine, but the atmosphere is still electric. Losing is not an option; the team’s fate depends on whether they can hold on to the 10th place they have kept since the second race in Malaysia. If they do, they come one step closer to winning millions of dollars in extra prize money – a coming-of-age moment for the F1 underdogs who started racing in 2010 with the lowest budget of all the teams.

According to the championship’s byzantine rules, if Marussia finish 10th or higher for two years in a row they stand to win prize money of around $40m in 2015, depending on the F1 Group’s 2014 earnings.

“We were in the same position last year and we lost it, so you can imagine the emotions running through the team right now,” says Andy Webb, chief executive of Marussia F1. With only six out of 71 laps to go in the season’s final race in Brazil in 2012, rival Caterham stole 10th place.

Originally called Virgin Racing, the team was set up in 2009 as an offshoot of Manor Motorsport, one of Britain’s most successful Formula Three teams, in partnership with entrepreneur Richard Branson. A year later, Marussia stepped in.

It was a management reshuffle that would change Webb’s life. A former property developer, he had worked on behalf of Andrey Cheglakov, the Russian tycoon behind Marussia – a classical music fanatic who made his fortune in video-game consoles. “I ended up helping him with a few other things. Then he told me he was going to buy an F1 team – and asked me to run it,” says Webb.

Marussia may be one of the newest teams on the grid, but when it comes to pit stops their mechanics are some of the best. In one of the many practice sessions before the race, a crowd gathers on the track to witness the mesmerising spectacle. About 20 mechanics take their positions around the car with the calm and poise of athletes, waiting for a random selection of instructions – in this case, “change the four wheels and the steering wheel”.

What follows is a two-second blur of bodies darting in perfect co-ordination – a form of extreme high-speed ballet. “If everyone had changed the wheel as quickly as that guy on the front left one, that would have been a world record,” explains Lowdon as the crowd applauds.

The whole team take fitness seriously. But for the drivers there is even more pressure to stay in shape: an additional 3kg around the waist will slow the car down by 0.1 seconds a lap. “People often wonder why I have to work out. I don’t think they realise what the speed feels like in such a confined space,” explains Marussia driver Max Chilton, who is in his debut season.

It is also a gruelling lifestyle. From March until the end of November drivers travel to a new country roughly every two weeks, fitting in a rigorous training schedule around the races. Chilton recalls one terrible night of jetlag in South Korea: “I got an hour and a half’s sleep and then I had to get up for the Korean Grand Prix.”

However, Sunday’s race will be his toughest yet. Based on his performance, Marussia will decide whether to keep him on next season – his F1 career could be over within a few hours. He has been watching motivational speeches on YouTube to psych himself up, he says.

. . . 

In the garage, the team are preparing for the race. The room resembles a hospital ward as mechanics lean over Chilton’s car, carefully extracting samples of oil with syringes to check for any microscopic metal particles that could indicate internal damage.

“That car gets more attention than a typical human,” says Lowdon. Every time the cars leave the garage the mechanics scrub the tyre marks off the white floor – that way it is easier to spot any debris that might indicate a problem, he says.

As it gets closer to 2pm, Chilton and Jules Bianchi, Marussia’s other driver, are strapped into their cars. Finally, the five red lights on the starting gantry go out and the race begins. The mechanics run back from the track to the garage. Everyone slides on their protective headphones and locks their gaze on the small screens overhead. For the next hour and a half the eerie silence inside the headsets is broken only by radio messages between the team and the drivers, and the occasional thundering roar as the cars pass by. “For traction, try mid five, exit 10,” an engineer instructs Chilton – a code that tells the driver which of the buttons to press on his steering wheel. The drivers respond with breathless observations about conditions and the car’s performance.

After a couple of frenzied pit stops the unbelievable happens: Caterham driver Giedo van der Garde is penalised for ignoring a blue flag – a warning to make room for a car that is about to lap him.

The Marussia team cheer, to the dismay of Caterham in the next garage: victory, or rather that elusive 10th place, is in sight.

Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel is the eventual winner, but nobody here is paying much notice. It is only when Bianchi, followed closely by Chilton, passes the chequered flag that the team members roar with delight and collapse into each other in exhausted hugs. Not only have Marussia secured 10th place, but Chilton is the first rookie driver in F1 history to finish every race in a season. He will be back for another one and the sport’s smallest team may soon have the cash to buy the technology they need to secure their future.

Before giving television interviews and then packing up their belongings to head to the airport, the team linger in the garage to gulp down some celebratory sparkling wine in plastic cups. Chilton is nowhere to be seen, though. He has popped out for a cup of tea.