Sky Sports Online speaks to Marussia's John Booth about their 2013 season
"Operating with the smallest budget in the paddock, I think we can be very proud of what we've achieved," the team boss says
By Mike Wise
Last Updated: 16/12/13 4:59pm
Speaking at Interlagos on the Thursday beforehand, Team Principal John Booth seemed phlegmatic enough when faced with the prospect. "At the end of the day it's still a sport, F1," he said. "You'd lay all your cash on Sebastian [Vettel] going off and winning another race wouldn't you? But it's not a certainty, so there's always a chance it can happen in sport.
"I'd be very sad if it happened but if it does, it does. It's not life-threatening."
As it turned out, we'd all have been advised to put our houses and everything in them on the World Champion, who duly won his ninth straight race. And in truth, there was also a measure of certainty about Marussia's eventual success. Caterham were aiming for the 13th place Jules Bianchi had claimed in Malaysia and yet, with rain threatening throughout but never really delivering, circumstances were always on the side of their rivals.
Although the relief was palpable at Marussia afterwards, celebrations were low-key - in keeping with the team's clout, perhaps. Tenth place represents the biggest step yet in their four years on the F1 grid but, according to Booth, it's not the windfall it is generally made out to be.
"It doesn't make a massive difference financially to us in year one, but it gets us more and more in the party - to become a Column One team, which enables us to fight for more and more prize money," he said. "So it's a big step for us but not an instant financial gain."
(An explanation: Column One, together with Columns Two and Three, are categories of prize money, 50 per cent of which is split equally between the first two. Teams finishing in the top ten gain an equal share of Column 1 money while Column 2 prize money is handed out according to where teams finish in the top ten. Meanwhile, Column Three was established when the new teams arrived in 2010 and guaranteed a payout, said to be $10million, to those finishing outside the top ten.
Marussia's success this season enabled them to enter Column 2 for the first time, but considerably bigger bucks are to be found in Column 1, which Caterham entered last year because they finished tenth for the second time in three years.
In other words, Booth's team need to do it all again next year if they're to get even more, as he said, "in the party".)
All this money talk might seem arcane but it has also come to define Marussia's place on F1's farthest fringe - arguably more so than other cash-strapped teams - ever since Booth's Manor Motorsport was granted an entry in 2009 as part of then FIA President Max Mosley's thwarted bid to impose a budget cap.
It's an existence that, through associations with first Virgin and then Marussia Motors, has stuttered more often than not, with merger talks between Marussia and Caterham even taking place this time last year. Furthermore, the party invite appeared to have been withdrawn full stop for much of last season, with the team unique in not having reached a commercial agreement with Bernie Ecclestone.
However, that has since changed and with Marussia's result in Brazil adding a considerable boost to morale as well as a nice boost to their bank balance, Booth reckons they are now on a surer footing.
"The situation has improved but it doesn't put us in a position where I'm going to spend £200-£300million like one of the leading teams does," he said. "But we have a manageable business plan and at the moment we're managing it fine. I think we do have the most manageable business plan out there by a long way.
"I think we probably spend £25-£30million less than anybody else. It's still a hell of a lot of money but we live within our means."
Booth's assertion of a team cutting their cloth according to circumstances comes in spite of a record £57.6million loss in 2012 - one they say reflected "further significant investment in people, technology and infrastructure".
Marussia claim the eye-watering figure was further skewed by loans from their parent company, debt which has since been turned into share capital. Accounting finesse aside, though, Booth maintains the team have never come close to folding.
"No, we've never been in that position," he asserted. "That's never crossed our minds. It's not been easy, don't get me wrong - there's probably six teams in this paddock that don't find it easy - but we've never been close to that. Our chief shareholders have been very supportive, always."
Budget concerns even dominate talk of Marussia's drivers. As promising as Bianchi is, there's no doubt his Ferrari links have played a part in the team's new powertrain deal. Max Chilton, meanwhile, has been - and probably will always be - dealing with the pejorative 'pay driver' tag.
Yet Booth seems happy enough with the young Englishman, who became the first rookie to finish every race in 2013. Will he stay on? "We are very close with Max, very close," he said. "He wants to stay and we want him to stay so it's a matter of sorting the details out really.
"We like the lad and he's done a great job, particularly in the second half of the year. I think he's very comfortable here and very happy here."
According to Booth, what makes Marussia's tenth-place finish all the more satisfying is that, with an eye on next season's technical shake-up, they had to turn the development tap off early.
"The problem with a team of our size is that building a 2014 car from scratch has taken all our resources," he said. "So from Barcelona onwards, we haven't really brought any updates to the car. We've brought small updates but nothing major.
"We've put all our resource and efforts into our 2014 car - which is on schedule. In fact, it's ahead of schedule. So we had to make that choice. Some teams have that choice but they have a parallel development plan going; we don't have that luxury."
The switch to a new formula featuring smaller V6 turbo engines and enhanced energy recovery systems does, of course, have a heavy cost associated with it - one which Christian Horner wondered whether the small teams could cope with when he was asked about the subject in Brazil.
"Impossible," was the adjective bandied by the Red Bull team boss but while Booth stresses that Marussia have planned ahead, he also questions the FIA's decision to 'go green' while economies are still experiencing sluggish growth at best.
"The technology is wonderful, it's the first thing that F1's done that's really green ever, I think," he said. "To go at the same speed and the same distance on two-thirds of the fuel is a massive achievement.
"But it may be that the timing is not great for Formula 1: the world economy is not recovering properly yet, and we're always two or three years behind - either the depression hitting us or the turnaround taking us with it. So it's probably not great timing."
Even so, next year's car is ahead of schedule and Ferrari are "proving to be a bloody great company to work with. They even supplied us information we needed before we'd signed the contract, because they knew our deadlines were getting too late for the engine stage. That was amazing."
But what about the paddock soothsayers who reckon that Renault and, particularly, Mercedes will steal a march over the Prancing Horse? "I suppose there is a chance that one of them may not get it quite right," Booth admitted. "But they've all got some very clever engineers working within set parameters for two or three years now. So I'd be amazed if they haven't come to similar solutions for most of their problems."
With the most profound changes for a generation offering the prospect that F1's competitive order, while not turned on its head, might at least be given a hefty jolt, Booth is even optimistic that Marussia can make their biggest step yet.
"I hope we're not battling for tenth place next year - we could be in the pound seats," he said. "We definitely chose the right partner; I'm 100 per cent sure. I haven't got the slightest doubt it won't be right. If it's not right instantly, it will be right."
Marussia's cars are being constructed at their base in Banbury, which they moved into a couple of years ago. "It's not McLaren but we're very proud of what we've done with it," Booth said. It's an understated comment that reflects both the team and their boss. Hailing from Sheffield, the 59-year-old didn't become interested in motor racing until his mid-20s and worked as a butcher for years whilst satisfying his newfound passion in Formula Ford racing.
And let's face it: the fact that Manor Motorsport is named after South Yorkshire's largest housing estate hardly suggests that Booth dared even think about F1 when he formed the team back in 1989. It doesn't evoke a desire to shoot for the stars, does it?
"There's opportunities in life that come along; you know that if you don't take it, you'll regret it for the rest of your life," Booth attested. "The circumstances just fell right for us and so we had a go."
That Marussia are still having a go, having originally signed up to a £29million formula but asked to compete with teams who now spend ten times that amount, is testament to lots of attributes - fighting spirit not least. Whether they'll gain an advantage under 2015's proposed cost cap - indeed, whether the cap will ever see the light of day - is anyone's guess but on the evidence of the season just gone, Booth is convinced that progress is being made.
"We've made great strides this year and we're very happy where we've been. Formula 1 is not easy; Red Bull took over a race-winning F1 team with a limitless budget and it still took them five years to win a race. That's an indication of how difficult Formula 1 is," he added.
"So operating with the smallest budget in the paddock, I think we can be very proud of what we've achieved."