Tavo Hellmund has made his bones in Formula One as a promoter and an organizer, not as a team owner. He put together the 2010 deal to build the Circuit of the Americas track in Austin and place the U.S. Grand Prix there. Later, after he split with his partners in that project, he was instrumental in reviving the Mexican Grand Prix.
In the past seven years, Hellmund said, he has been approached numerous times by investors asking how they could get involved with an F1 team. His advice has been simple: Don’t.
“How do you make a small fortune in (F1) racing? Start with a large fortune,” Hellmund said.
Yet for the past year and a half, he chased a deal that could have put him on the F1 grid as an owner.
“At one point we had agreed to terms,” Hellmund said of his negotiations to buy Manor, a team he acknowledged was “the Cleveland Browns of Formula One” and which officially shut down late last month.
So why did he bother?
In a sport where even the top dogs struggle to break even, why shoot for a team that has to spend about $100 million a year just to eat dust and breathe fumes at the back of the F1 grid?
Hellmund said a special set of circumstances made Manor attractive — at least until one rainy day late in the F1 season.
Manor first appeared on the F1 grid in 2010 as Virgin Racing, then became Marussia two years later and then MRT Manor in 2016. Although the team’s name changed, its results did not. In 132 grand prix races over seven years, it eked out points in only two races. Two years ago, Stephen Fitzpatrick, a Northern Irish energy entrepreneur, rescued the team from “administration, which is somewhat similar to Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Having a single owner, and not a group with various financial and/or legal entanglements, was one of the elements that made Manor attractive to Hellmund’s investor group.
Hellmund’s group has been described elsewhere as Texan, but he said that wasn’t the case. It included New York financier Jim Carney, who was out front with Hellmund; an investor from Florida; another from Canada; and two from Mexico, although Hellmund says neither was multibillionaire Carlos Slim.
“They all had their different reasons for wanting to invest,” Hellmund said. “The first go-round, we were even going to involve Anthony Hamilton, Lewis’ dad.
“We made two stabs at it. We offered 22 million pounds a year and one-half ago.”
But, Hellmund said, Fitzpatrick initially wanted more. And there were other interested parties. Those linked to a possible sale included Indonesian Kentucky Fried Chicken magnate Ricardo Gelael, former McLaren chairman Ron Dennis and a group of Asian investors. Representatives from Andretti Autosport also were spotted touring Manor’s facilities in Banbury, England.
According to Hellmund, other factors that made Manor attractive were its relatively small debt, its lean team of slightly more than 200 employees and the fact that it seemed to be turning the corner in performance. Oddly enough, the team’s dearth of sponsorship was also considered a plus.
Hellmund explained that picking up about $20 million a year in sponsorship was a way his group planned to make Manor at least a break-even proposition.
Then there was the long-shot possibility of hitting a home run. With new ownership, U.S.-based Liberty Media, changes are coming to Formula One. If the sport ever goes to a franchise system, like the NFL, the NBA and major league baseball, owning a spot on the grid might make a team — even one like Manor — worth perhaps $350 million, Hellmund speculated.
Currently, F1 has what is effectively a two-tier system, Hellmund said. Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull and McLaren might spend between $300 million and $400 million or even more a year trying to win a championship. The other teams typically have far more modest goals and budgets somewhere above $100 million. Hellmund said plans were to have a $95 million to $100 million yearly budget for Manor.
“We were looking to form a partnership with one of the big manufacturers, Mercedes or Honda. We had conversations with both,” Hellmund said. “That way you can get motors — discounted motors — and get a driver. It’s almost like being a Triple-A (baseball) team.”
Hellmund said a larger team might pay $5 million to place a promising driver on a smaller team, while the second seat could fetch $12 million to $15 million in the way of a pay driver.
Another piece of the economic puzzle was a $5 million tax credit that Hellmund said is available from the British government for small technology firms.
The major piece of the puzzle, though, is the ability to feed at the F1 trough of prize money; according to Hellmund, Manor could make about $15 million for finishing 10th for a year and another $34 million from a different pool if it did that two times in a three-year span.
That was fine and dandy when there were only 10 teams on the F1 grid, but 2016 saw the addition of an American team, Haas F1. That 11th team created a high-speed game of musical chairs for the 10th and last paying spot in the team standings.
In 2016, Mercedes ended up claiming the constructors’ championship with 765 points. Manor earned just one point. But until the next to last race of the year, that appeared to be enough to at least stay ahead of Sauber.
“In the dry, Manor was the faster car,” Hellmund said of that back-of-the-pack rivalry.
But in the wet — the rain-plagued Brazilian Grand Prix — Sauber’s Felipe Nasr finished ninth, scoring two points.
“They were starting to come to our terms, and then Brazil happened,” Hellmund said.
Suddenly the economic outlook changed, and so did offers for the team, which was worth substantially less. Manor finished out of the money for the 2016 season — and put into jeopardy the $34 million payout for finishing in the top 10 two out of three years. Unless Manor finished in the top 10 next year, it would miss that payment and be behind the eight ball in the future, having to finish in the top 10 two straight years to get back in that lucrative pool.
To Hellmund, it appeared the only way to avoid that fate was to ready a car for the 2017 season that could at least finish 10th.
“We felt we had reached critical time in the development of the car for next year,” Hellmund said. He added that after a year and a half, his investors were getting deal fatigue, and as things dragged on, Manor’s only hope became running last year’s car in 2017 — almost guaranteeing a finish out of the top 10.
In early January, Manor’s operating company, Just Racing Services Ltd., was placed in administration. Then on Jan. 27, it officially shut down.
Teams are allowed to miss three races a season, so Manor technically would have until the Russian Grand Prix on April 30 to miraculously appear on the F1 grid. Hellmund doesn’t see that happening.
“It’s a shame those people are now out of work,” Hellmund said of Manor’s employees who, had things played out differently, might have been working for his group this season.