F1: Hard for Caterham to overtake big boys

Formula One has long been synonymous with a champagne-popping, party-hopping lifestyle embraced by its drivers and fans. But beyond the glitz and glamour, it is also a gritty, never-ending race for survival.

Just ask Caterham Technology chief Mike Gascoyne, who has been with the team since their inception in 2010 under the Lotus moniker. For the Malaysian-owned outfit, uncorking bottles of bubbly on the podium is still a distant dream. After 31/2 seasons of racing, they are still chasing a first top-10 finish.

"The fact that new teams like us still haven't scored a point shows how bloody difficult it is," Gascoyne noted. The Briton was in town recently to deliver lectures to budding engineers at local tertiary institutions.

In a 45-minute session with The Sunday Times at the British High Commission, the 50-year-old spoke candidly about the challenges that newcomers to the sport face in competing with giants like Ferrari and McLaren.

"When you come into F1, you're playing catch up," he said. "The trouble is, they're not standing still - they're bigger than you and pushing like hell as well. "It's a bit like setting up a football team and going straight into the knockout stages of the World Cup."

Indeed, for a team like Caterham and their 250-strong F1 team, the harsh reality is that they are coming up against rivals with close to 700 employees and far more resources at their disposal.

A 23-year veteran of the motorsports scene, Gascoyne's pre-Caterham curriculum vitae includes spells at McLaren, Sauber, Jordan, Renault, Toyota and Force India. For all the accolades received over the course of his career, few can compare to something his 10-year-old son Freddie said to him not too long ago.

"I was explaining something to my youngest son," the father of three recalled. "And he turned to me and said, 'Dad, you're a real nerd. Mind you, you're the coolest nerd I know!'" A smile spread across his face as he recounted this tale, but when the conversation returned to motor sport, Gascoyne was all business.

And, make no mistake, F1 is a business. According to Gascoyne, simply showing up at F1 - building a car and travelling to races around the world - costs in the region of £45 million (S$89.7 million) each season.

For smaller teams with a budget of £50 million, that leaves around £5 million for research and development. At the other end of the spectrum, a big-name outfit with their £150 million cheque book can spend over £100 million - or 20 times that of the smaller teams - on improving their on-track performance.

Even so, there was no disguising Gascoyne's belief that Caterham can start moving up the field, aided by a host of rule changes coming into effect next season.

The most significant is a move from 2.4-litre V8 engines to smaller 1.6-litre turbo-charged ones with an in-built energy recovery system. There will also be new regulations to increase fuel efficiency as the sport moves to reduce its carbon footprint.

"Any time you get a big rule change, it helps a team like Caterham because everyone starts from a level playing field," Gascoyne pointed out. In fact, he added, the team have been looking ahead to 2014 since essentially the start of this season.

"We haven't really moved forward from last year but part of that reason is a very deliberate effort to concentrate on next year," the Norfolk native said. It is a decision that could have massive implications on the team's future - and not just on the track.

"For us, F1 was always the marketing tool and, hence, results are important," said Gascoyne, whose current role takes him away from races and instead focuses on commercialising the Caterham brand.

These efforts include a partnership with Greaves Motorsport at this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, as well as the announcement of the Caterham Challenge, a series of offshore sailing races.

The latter, in particular, represents yet another diversification move by the 40-year-old British sports car manufacturer, which earlier this year launched its first carbon fibre push bike.

But that does not mean that the group is losing sight of its automotive roots.

Notably, a new iteration of the iconic Seven sports car is set to be unveiled at this month's SingTel Singapore Grand Prix. And with owner Tony Fernandes hailing from Malaysia, Caterham are also looking to make inroads into the South-east Asian market with a line of road-friendly cars. But, like the group's F1 foray, these will not be expected to compete with flashier sports cars on the market.

"We're not going to take on Ferrari or Porsche; we don't see Caterham at that high level," Gascoyne said. "We look at ourselves as a lifestyle technology company.

"We're affordable F1."

fabiusc@sph.com.sg

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