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F1's customer care team

Maurice Hamilton October 12, 2013
Neslon Piquet made his name behind the wheel of an ex-James Hunt McLaren M23 © Sutton Images
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Customer cars in F1: who needs them? Not many drivers if you look at the list of World Champions.

By my reckoning, only four of the 32 title holders started off in F1 with a non-works car: James Hunt with a Surtees and then a March, Nelson Piquet in a privately-entered McLaren, Alan Jones in a Hesketh and Damon Hill in an ex-works Brabham that was never quick in the first place.

As for the rest, from Farina to Fittipaldi to Raikkonen, their F1 careers were launched at the wheels of cars actually made by their team owners. Fangio's debut may have been sponsored by his local automobile club but it was works entry in all but name. And the likes of Keke Rosberg found himself in a Theodore, a car commissioned by the wealthy Far East entrepreneur Theodore 'Teddy' Yip and which actually won a non-championship race.

If you look beyond the champions, however, there is a host of drivers thankful for the opportunity presented by private entries in ex-works or loan F1 cars. Back of the grid candidates they may have been but this was a means of gathering experience in the manner of Hill being lapped continuously as he wrestled that Brabham-Judd around Silverstone in 1992.

Piquet's example is a classic of its kind. It's true that his very first Grand Prix was in Germany in 1978 in an Ensign built by Morris Nunn in Walsall but Piquet really made his mark later that year with an M23 that had previously been raced by James Hunt.

M23, chassis number 11, was entered by BS Fabrications - hardly a name that rolls off the romantic tongue in the manner of Toro Rosso - but the excellent preparation by Bob Sparshott (a former Lotus mechanic) and John 'Ace' Woodington was good enough to have Piquet earn the attention of Bernie Ecclestone and a Brabham drive in the Canadian Grand Prix.

The plethora of ex-works cars from Lotus, Brabham, Williams and others was not only good for prospective superstar drivers but it was also a handy means of raising revenue for the constructors.

Impoverished F1 teams were as prevalent then as they are now. It's just that the numbers we hear of these days are absurdly high thanks, in part, to CVC Capital Partners grabbing a tidy £536m without returning a single penny (as far as we know) into the sport they are squeezing to death with gross - but perfectly legal - self-indulgence.

The practicality of delivering a customer car has also changed beyond recognition. Gone are the days when you bought a chassis and then took delivery of a nice raced-but-not-rallied Ford DFV from the back of Mr. Ecclestone's lock-up. F1 cars are now so intricate, and the engine such an integral part, that merely starting the thing requires a bus load of boffins with laptops.

That is nothing compared to what lies ahead with the unbelievably complex marriage of turbos and ERS in a wind-tunnel spawned chassis. The chances of a couple of good guys from Luton running a car like that are as unlikely as Bernie allowing a burger van in the paddock.

That said, I'd be interested to know why current F1 entrants could not farm out a chassis to a 'B' team. I hear Sauber's argument that this would stitch up Constructors' Championship places for front runners possessing the manpower and wherewithal to supply cars with their names on the nose.

But surely it's not beyond the wit of man and Monisha to concoct a scheme whereby customer teams do not count towards the constructors' series but accumulate points in a separate championship geared to a pay out agreed with Paymaster Ecclestone.

What's the difference between that and the Marussias and Caterhams of this world thrashing around at the back with never the sniff of a championship point but yet adding to the spectacle in their modest and highly professional way? A big plus is the race seat time available to novices. That remains essential, regardless of the passing decades. Just ask Damon and Nelson.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.

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A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live
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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live