Competing in Formula One is notoriously expensive even for lousy teams, and not one but two teams have been driven into bankruptcy this season. One of them, Caterham, has missed two races and is so desperate that it’s turning to fans to help it reach the season finale at Abu Dhabi. To do this, it is trodding a well-worn path followed by entrepreneurs, do-gooders, and the occasional celebrity: It’s started a crowdfunding campaign to raise £2.35 million ($3.72 million).
You laugh, but within hours of its launch on Crowdcube, an English crowdfunding site, the campaign had raised nearly £300,000, 12 percent of the goal Caterham must hit by November 14. “That’s not a bad start,” says Finbarr O’Connell, Caterham’s interim principal and administrator, the UK equivalent of a Chapter 11 trustee.
O’Connell has been given the difficult task of doing whatever necessary to save the F1 team and the jobs it provides to scores of people—none of whom were paid on October. Those people will “have to move on” if someone doesn’t buy the team, and soon. It’s hard to attract investors when your cars can’t even race.
And those investors must have deep pockets. Running a team costs between $110 million and $130 million a year for an outfit at the back of the grid; highly competitive teams might spend far more than that. For large corporations like Mercedes-Benz and Red Bull, that easily fits within the marketing and motorsports budgets. But for independent manufacturers like Caterham with individual owners, O’Connell says, you’ve “got to know you’ve got the sponsorships every which way sorted out to fund that.”
The economics of the sport make survival dicey for all but the wealthiest teams, which creates something of a vicious cycle because the sport’s revenues are allocated to teams based on their performance. It takes money to win, and only winners make money. This season, Caterham hasn’t placed higher than 11th in any race, so it is dead last in the points, with a grand total of zero. Mercedes, on the other hand, has more than 600 and locked up the constructor’s championship with three races left in the season (its two drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg handily lead the race for the driver’s championship). “As more wealthy teams progress, and as they have got better cars, the other teams clearly try to keep up,” O’Connell says. “That puts them under cost pressures.”
Raising the money is a temporary solution. “This is a one race project, just to show the team off,” O’Connell says. Giving Caterham a future means finding a new owner, and the best way to tempt interested buyers is by proving the team can still race. There are interested parties, including one wealthy Middle Eastern family, but they don’t want a broken business, O’Connell says. Caterham has “ironed out” the problems with the car, and getting on the grid at Abu Dhabi “shows them it is completely there.”
The Crowdcube campaign could double as a rally the troops moment, giving Caterham’s fans a chance to play a role in a sport where the economics are far beyond most millionaires. It’s also the chance for fans to grab some rare goodies. Rewards for investors include standard F1 swag—baseball caps, t-shirts, polo shirts—but also pit team overalls, boots, and gloves.
For more money, you can actually take home chunks of Caterham’s 2012 and 2013 race cars: £2,200 gets you an aerodynamic bit called a turning vane. You can buy a nose cone for £5,500 or a rear wing for £3,000. Someone’s already claimed the front wing from the 2013 car for £2,500, though Caterham won’t say who plunked down the cash. You have a better chance of picking up one of four bargeboards from the 2012 car, for just £400—that’s cheaper than the overalls. For £1,000, you can have your name painted on the car, in print size that should be big enough to see on television.
The risk that comes with crowdfunding is that it’s all or nothing. If Caterham doesn’t hit the ambitious £2.35 million mark, it doesn’t get a tuppence, and no one gets a nose cone. But if it works, Caterham could survive, and will at least have one more race. “Everybody who helps this will look at the team on the grid at Abu Dhabi and say, ‘That’s my team,’” O’Connell says.