Obituary: Manor Racing

After fruitless discussions with a number of prospective investors, Manor Racing has officially called time on its F1 journey after seven years of operation. As the sole remaining team of those introduced in 2010 and having raced under a number of different guises, Manor was a true representation of the underdog spirit that this site loves to celebrate, and brought great joy to our little corner of the internet following their two points-scoring exploits in Formula 1.

Manor Motorsport had plenty of junior pedigree before their move to F1. This is James Jakes driving for them in F3 in 2007.

James Jakes driving for Manor in F3 in 2007. The team had a long history in junior formulae.

Manor’s F1 operation was conceived in 2009 as an expansion of John Booth’s incredibly successful Manor Motorsport squad which had enjoyed great success in an array of Formula 3 categories and, with Richard Branson’s backing, was entered into the 2010 season under the “Virgin Racing” guise. They joined HRT, Lotus Racing and USF1 as the four teams chosen to expand the dwindling F1 grid, although the latter project died before the season began. Under the technical guidance of Nick Wirth, Virgin Racing explored a CFD-only approach to developing their aerodynamics package. Although this would ensure that the team would save money on wind tunnel testing their first car, the VR-01, it looked primitive in comparison to the rest of the grid. Although drivers Timo Glock and Lucas di Grassi were a talented duo, they were unable to coax the VR-01 to any real success.

Timo Glock in action for Marussia Virgin Racing in 2011.

Timo Glock in action for Marussia Virgin Racing in 2011, their second F1 season.

For 2011, Russian sportscar firm Marussia decided to expand their investment into the team, becoming “Marussia Virgin Racing”. Jerome d’Ambrosio joined the team in place of di Grassi, but the MVR-02 car was little more than an evolution over its predecessor and the team were left to battle at the back with Lotus and HRT once again. Failing to record a classified finish higher than either of the teams around them, Virgin recorded two 12th-place finishes in the World Constructors’ Championship in a row.

A full rebrand to “Marussia F1 Team” for 2012 was a clear indication of the end of Branson’s involvement with the team but, with further Russian backing and cash from new driver Charles Pic, the team still remained financially healthy. Thanks to an excellent 12th-place in Singapore courtesy of Glock, Marussia almost overhauled both HRT and Caterham (Lotus’ new guise) to 10th in the Constructors’ Championship before Vitaly Petrov snatched a last-gasp 11th for Tony Fernandes’ team in the chaotic season finale in Brazil.

Luiz Razia's time at Marussia was short-lived, and spanned just one test before his sponsors stopped paying.

Luiz Razia’s time in F1 was short-lived, spanning just one test before his sponsors stopped paying.

Following some financial worries prior to the start of the 2013 season, John Booth and chairman Graeme Lowdon elected to bring in a brand new driver lineup. GP2 front-runners Luiz Razia and Max Chilton were drafted in to replace Glock and Pic, having incentivised the team sufficiently with large chequebooks. Razia took part in one test for the team, before it emerged that his sponsors were defaulting on payments. In his stead, highly-rated Ferrari junior Jules Bianchi replaced the Brazilian following a successful Formula Renault 3.5 campaign. Furthermore, HRT had withdrawn before the season’s start, and so Marussia and Caterham became the only constituents of the rearguard dogfight. Bianchi put in some particularly strong performances to help Marussia overcome Caterham for the first time in the WCC, whilst Chilton was notably classified as a finisher in every single race of the season.

Continuing into the new turbo era of Formula 1, Marussia secured a deal for Ferrari engines for 2014 after former partner Cosworth elected not to supply power units to the new specifications. The new year brought Marussia’s highest and lowest points, and Jules Bianchi’s fantastic 9th place at Monaco not only sent the F1 paddock into raptures, but also cemented his place as a potential star of the future.

Marussia’s season was thrown upside down at the Japanese Grand Prix. Typhoon Phanfone was beginning to approach Japan, ensuring that the race at Suzuka was a wash-out. On lap 42, Adrian Sutil lost control of his Sauber at the Dunlop Curve in the tricky conditions, bringing out yellow flags and a recovery tractor to clear the wreckage. Approaching the corner a lap later, Bianchi went off the track and careened head-first into the tractor at a horrifying speed, his car sliding underneath the vehicle. Airlifted to hospital in Yokkaichi, the prognosis confirmed that the Frenchman had sustained a “severe head injury” and was moved to intensive care, where a number of leading neurosurgeons discovered that the trauma to Bianchi’s head had caused a diffuse axonal injury.

A moving outpour of tributes to Bianchi were made in their thousands by those invested in the sport, and although many had hoped that the talented Frenchman would recover, he would never regain consciousness despite having been able to breathe unaided. Eight months after his relocation to the CHU hospital in his home town of Nice, Jules Bianchi died from his injuries on the 17th July 2015.

Amazingly, Marussia were able to briefly regroup. The team attended the next race at Sochi, and as a gesture towards their fallen driver had prepared Bianchi’s car as normal, although it would remain in the garage for the weekend. Max Chilton managed nine laps in a sombre race before enduring a suspension failure. As a result of the events at Suzuka in 2014, Marussia investor Andrey Cheglakov decided to pull his funding from the team; Marussia went into administration immediately after the Russian Grand Prix, coincidentally at the same time as rivals Caterham.

Roberto Merhi at Malaysia in the Manor MR03B. This was the rescued team's first race since Sochi in 2014.

Roberto Merhi at Malaysia in the Manor MR03B. This was the rescued team’s first race since Sochi in 2014.

Bianchi’s 9th at Monaco and the two points that came with it would prove to be the team’s saviour, as Marussia were now entitled to an attractive amount of prize money. An eleventh hour rescue deal from Ovo Energy chief Stephen Fitzpatrick breathed new life into the team, which would be known as Manor from then on (although they were officially listed as Manor Marussia to retain their claim to any prize money). The 2014 MR03 chassis was hurriedly modified to satisfy the 2015 regulations, fitting a spacer into the front bulkhead to meet the new nosecone ruling. Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi took driving duties, and although neither driver was able to participate in the Melbourne weekend, the team managed to join in with the rest of the season despite their pace disadvantage. Replacing Merhi for a number of races in the latter half of the year, Alexander Rossi claimed a season-best 12th-place at his home grand prix at Austin.

After a turbulent few years, 2016 represented a fresh start for the Manor team. Rolling out an attractive blue and orange colour scheme, Fitzpatrick and new team principal Dave Ryan had secured a supply of Mercedes engines and the driving talents of DTM champion Pascal Wehrlein and GP2 race winner Rio Haryanto. Displaying much-improved pace in testing, Wehrlein was able to show off the virtues of the MRT05 car with some impressive race results, culminating in a brilliant 10th at the Red Bull Ring to claim a world championship point. After the summer break, Haryanto’s loss of Indonesian backing ensured that GP3 champion Esteban Ocon would join the team. After a steady start from the French driver, Ocon displayed some terrific skills at the rain-affected Interlagos en route to 12th. However, Sauber’s Felipe Nasr managed to grab a 9th-place finish at the same venue, which gave the Swiss outfit the keys to 10th in the Constructors’ Championship and the extra prize money on offer.

Unable to jump above Sauber at the Abu Dhabi finale, Fitzpatrick decided to sell up.  The team’s holding company Just Racing Services Ltd was put into administration, although this remained separate from the company which held Manor’s entry and ensured that investors could bid for the outfit as a going concern. Unfortunately, no serious investors were forthcoming. US Grand Prix promoter Tavo Hellmund was involved in talks to buy the team, but these broke down. An Asian consortium known as Capital GF were also looking to purchase Manor, but were unable to provide proof of funding in time, leaving Fitzpatrick no choice but to reject their offer. As a result, Manor has now started the process to close their doors.

F1 will be poorer for having lost Manor. The sport has always benefitted from small teams with the means to pick up young drivers, giving them a chance on motorsports’ biggest stage before they move onto bigger and better things. 2016 pairing Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon have been able to move up the grid following their time at Manor, and everyone at GPRejects will be incredibly disheartened to see them go.

RIP Manor Racing, 2010-2017 / #JB17

Featured image by Anthony Byrne.