Having vowed never to return to F1 following his disillusioned exit from the top flight a decade ago, Virgin Racing technical director Nick Wirth has explained that his change of heart in agreeing to come back was only possible thanks to the dramatic cost-cutting drive implemented of late – quipping that in the absence of a strict budget cap, he would 'rather stick needles in his eyes'.
Having entered F1 as an aerodynamicist with March Engineering and the Leyton House March operation in the late eighties, Wirth was the brains behind the Simtek grand prix project that ran from 1994 until the money ran out midway through 1995, and subsequently acted as chief designer at Benetton before walking away from the sport in 1999.
Since then, the highly-regarded Englishman – the youngest-ever Fellow of the Royal Institute of Mechanical Engineers – has successfully plied his trade in sportscar racing across the Pond in the States, with his Acura LMP programme in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) achieving title glory in both the LMP1 and LMP2 classes last year. During all that time, he admitted, he had never once been tempted to give F1 another crack – until now.
“It would have taken an infinite amount of persuasion if this resource restriction and budget-capping hadn't come in,” Wirth explained in an interview with Crash.net Radio
. “Honda Racing in America was having great success, whilst Honda Racing in F1 was being pathetic, quite frankly. Someone very high up in Honda put two-and-two together and there were some discussions (between Honda F1 and Wirth) at a very, very gentle, early stage, which were just stamped out immediately, because there were no resource restrictions at the time and I'd rather stick needles in my eyes.
“The whole thing that made this project (Virgin Racing) interesting was, right, now there is a budget cap – and I'm really, really sad that there's no longer that cap (for 2010), to be honest, because it's a major mistake in my opinion – and all-of-a-sudden everyone is brought crashing down to realise it's not a spend-a-thon. It's now about who can be the most efficient, and that's what I'm interested in – I'm not interested in a spend-a-thon.”
Hopeful that F1 is heading back-to-basics as it were, and back to what it should be about – technological, engineering brilliance – in the wake of the ultimately self-destructive, big-spending manufacturer-dominated era, Wirth is convinced that with the right approach, an outfit like Virgin can succeed, regardless of the fact that the team is reputed to possess the smallest budget in the sport. Money, he insists, is not what it is about in the end – what really matters is the way you choose to spend it.
“I really hope so,” he replied, when asked if the days of big bucks are now over. “That's what all the [new] teams signed up for. I think the big teams are going to go through a very painful process in 2010, 2011 and 2012. They've still got 500 or 600 people in each team, and they have signed up to a maximum of 260 by 2012, so every single person in those teams is going to be thinking, 'Is it me? Am I going to be here next week?' How do you know?
“It's going to be a difficult time, and I'd prefer to be growing in that period rather than shrinking, because shrinking is so painful – you lose your friends and it's so disruptive, because everyone's on notice and looking over their shoulder. Every time there's a call in a company meeting you're thinking 'Oh my God, what are we going to say?' It's a difficult time; I've been through it.”
Not altogether happy with some of the stipulations of the budget cap when it does eventually come into force in two years' time, Wirth nevertheless remains adamant that it is the only way to move forwards for a sport that has looked on occasion in recent times to be in very real danger of imploding in on itself. The cost-cutting measures, he believes, are almost there – just a few more minor modifications and they will be spot-on.
“The budget cap is a bit too contrived,” the 43-year-old contended. “It's like in the resource restrictions, it says 'you shall have 260 people, you shall still make your axles out of aluminium' or whatever. No, I want to have £45 million or €45 million and do what the hell we like.
“If John [Booth – Virgin sporting director] wants to go testing all season and burn all the money up because we think that's the fastest way to go, do it; if I want to build a gearbox out of unobtainium and burn all the money up so he can't go testing, just let people do it. That would have been really, really interesting. I kind of like the resource restrictions, but it's almost like it's laid out for you – whereas I like doing interesting things.”TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE