By Alan Baldwin
MONACO (Reuters) - Three Formula One teams have asked Mercedes about the possibility of acquiring 'customer cars' if the rules allow it, according to Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff.
The Austrian brushed aside a suggestion that none of the smaller constructors, many of them struggling financially, wanted to relinquish their status and run cars provided by others.
"It's interesting they say that because three of them came to see me (on Friday) about whether we could supply customer cars to them," Wolff told reporters ahead of Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix.
The subject is controversial, with critics saying such a change would lead to a two-tier sport dominated by the major manufacturers.
Advocates argue that is already the case and say the sport needs to do something to ensure there are enough cars on the starting grid and reduce the costs of competing.
There are currently 10 teams, with tail-enders Manor Marussia surviving by the skin of their teeth after going into administration last year.
Sauber, Lotus and Force India have all had financial problems while former champions Red Bull have raised the possibility of quitting if Renault fail to provide them with a competitive engine or walk away themselves.
Force India and Lotus are already customers of Mercedes, using their power units, but both have said publicly they want to make and race their own cars as the current rules stipulate.
Williams also have Mercedes engines while Sauber and Manor use Ferrari units.
"I think we need to have a contingency plan in place and customer cars, or franchises, we have seen that in other sports, in NASCAR, and it functions pretty well," said Wolff, whose own Mercedes works team are currently dominant.
"So if the contingency is about supplying our cars to customer teams, hopefully current teams, then yes we will be looking very much into it," he added.
"I think it is a good model. As a contingency plan it works, and if we can find a business case around it, we shouldn't rule it out."
Reports have said a recent Strategy Group meeting, which includes the top six teams plus governing FIA and the commercial rights holder, discussed the possibility of customer cars but there was no mention in a subsequent statement.
Commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone told reporters in Monaco that he would be willing to act as a go-between and supply cars to client teams at a fixed cost.
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)