F1 Paddock Insights

June 17, 2009

As we approach the British Grand Prix, a teary, reminiscent mood has fallen over the Formula One paddock. The circuit that launched the very first World Championship race is now hosting its last. At least for a while. As the memories of Silverstone’s high speed corners, redesigned complex and old school charm makes its way further north to Donington Park, the future of the original home of British racing hangs in the balance. Yet again the back pages have been dominated by the civil war that has broken out between the FIA and FOTA. It seems like FOTA are once again making a nuisance of themselves and could, indeed end up as FOCA did – as a distant memory and a reminder of Bernie’s authority. Here’s what’s happening in the paddock this weekend:

Jenson Button returns to Silverstone as a man on top of the world. He is currently 26 points ahead of his nearest rival – the perennial 2nd placed man, Rubens Barrichello – and with 6 wins under his belt he almost has the title within his sights. All this after Bernie Ecclestone pushed so hard for the former Honda Racing F1 Team to avoid collapsing even before the pre-season testing sessions. I don’t think he could have foreseen the dramatic turn of events this season and for the first time in his professional career he must be glad he was wrong. Had the pocket-sized powerhouse of Formula One got his way, Jenson would currently be developing neck muscles not from the cornering speeds of the BGP001, but from the weight of gold medals hanging from his neck. Having taken 6 victories so far in 2009, another win at Silverstone and one more at Hungary would signal the end of the Championship, with no other driver able to match his haul of 8 wins. It would have given the Briton a good long summer holiday and the chance for Brawn to start developing their car for 2010, whatever that may yet look like.

What a twelve months it has been for the man from Stevenage. Lewis Hamilton’s meteoric rise through the ranks of McLaren and Formula One was nothing short of mesmeric. The youngest ever Formula One World Champion had the world at his feet 12 months ago and as he feathered the throttle through the final corners of a rain-soaked Silverstone he must have thought it would never end. Compare, though 2009 to 2008 for the young star and it is strikingly obvious how different his life may now be. Last year Hamilton had stepped onto the podium and qualified on the front two rows of the grid in each of the three like-for-like races prior to the British Grand Prix. This year, however, he has only finished once inside the top ten and not qualified higher than 12th. No surprise then that, when recently speaking to F1 Insiders, he remarked: “It’s a perfect place for the race, so let’s hope it’s not the last time we race at this track”. Lewis Hamilton is clearly searching for the glory days of his youth to propel his car back to the front of the grid.

If Lewis Hamilton’s career has been in reverse, Jenson Button has seemingly applied the KERS button to his. As the man who has forever been a back-marker, Jenson Button’s career has shot up the starting grid. As a result one would think that everyone at Brawn would be jealous. Everyone, that is, including their sponsors, Virgin. Richard Branson, the enigmatic billionaire who has everything he has ever wanted is seemingly high on the list of jealous team members. Surprising, you’d think, until you take a look at the object of his desire. The sleek lines and curves of a champion, Jenson’s girlfriend has been the victim of his affection recently – to the extent that at a recent BrawnGP party, Branson decided to try his luck with the young model. This, obviously didn’t go down to well with his world-beating compatriot and when asked what Jenson thought about Richard Branson, he calmly stated that: “I get on very well with the Virgin Group!”

Many of the drivers have been reminiscing about the history of Silverstone this week. Vijay Mallya, team principal of Force India (based across the road from the Silverstone’s main gates) has possibly the most legitimate reason to call this his home Grand Prix simply told insiders, when asked his thoughts on the venue: “Because it is home to us and Silverstone is a special place” . Ferrari has even more reason to look at the past – their future in the sport is as blurred as everyone’s right now – as it was at Silverstone that José Froilan Gonzalez took victory in 1951 to record the Prancing Horse’s first ever Formula One victory. Fernando Alonso’s view of the circuit seems to be similar to that of his fellow drivers, telling insiders (with a hint of anti-establishment frustration) at the Renault headquarters that: “In terms of the track, it’s a great place to drive a Formula One car and as this is probably the last time we will race at Silverstone, I will make sure I enjoy the experience”.

Whatever memories Silverstone may hold for you, enjoy the racing from the fast and furious ex-air force base.

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The freshly released discussions between the FIA and FOTA certainly make for interesting reading – let alone embarrassingly dirty washing, hanging out to dry. Many are saying that the Max Mosley-led FIA is now standing up against the playground bullies of FOTA and is taking a stance that the true fan of Formula One would like to be allied with. A federation that cares about its members, that cares about introducing new teams to the upper echelons of motorsport and that cares about those who ultimately pay its wages – the spectators.

FIA’s press release
The FIA does not hold back in this most recent of public slanging rounds and makes no apology for naming names throughout the entire the document. It is interesting, though, that one of the most severe accusations of the document receives only one line: “Is it about an attempt by some teams to take over the commercial rights to Formula One?”. However tangled Bernie’s web of commercial rights finds itself, I, for one, find it hard to believe that FOTA’s members are looking crowbar his business bread and butter from him. Bernie is as astute a man as you’ll find in any motorsport paddock and I’m pretty certain that he can defend himself when it comes to Formula One’s commercial rights.

The obvious accusation was again thrown into the mire, as FOTA was tarnished with the brush of trying to assume the “regulatory function” of the FIA. Everyone involved is well aware that FOTA is looking to have greater regulatory power over the future of Formula One and perhaps this shouldn’t be a decision so sniffed at by the FIA – at the very least it might lead to a greater level of team retention in the future.

Finally on the FIA’s press release, it reminds us that Mr di Montezemolo was tasked with gaining letters to confirm the inclusion of a Formula One team from all the incumbent manufacturers currently in the paddock. A fantastic idea in principle – a man with such international recognition that even the door of Fort Knox would swing open for him. It may have been a more difficult task than Max or Bernie had originally hoped, however. With the exception of FIAT, the charismatic Italian has no sway in the corridors of Honda, Renault (or even the French Senat, for that matter!) or any of the other manufacturers and asking them to commit their future to F1 at a time like this is as absurd as proposing a two tiered technical specification in F1.

It’s the FIA’s party and it can cry if it wants to
So what is the most recent release trying to do for the FIA? Is it trying to re-position itself as the stronger of the two warring factions – amplifying the voice of the people, owning up to the mistakes of the past? Or is it simply looking for other ways to win this battle?

In a churlish attempt to heap scorn on the actions of FOTA, the FIA has taken the bait and bitten. The FIA is the first to crack under the pressure of war and, in doing so, has exposed its weaknesses. The FIA takes the proud ownership of a Championship that it claims can survive without Ferrari and co., but has not yet had the confidence to rid the resistance from its embattled frontiers. It reads: “In light of the success of the FIA’s Championship, FOTA – made up of participants who come and go as it suits them – has set itself two clear objectives:”The FIA announced a provisional list of entrants for the 2010 Formula One season and included the new teams in Campos, Manor and USF1, the FOTA breakaway teams in Force India and WilliamsF1 and, remarkably, the conditional entries of, among others, Renault, Toyota and McLaren. If the FIA believe that they are standing on the higher moral ground, that they have given the teams the right to a fair negotiation and that they are simply invited guests at its not-so-expensive-anymore party, a strong decision would have been to eliminate the warring factions and focus on those teams who are willing to play the party games under the rules that the FIA want so badly.

I certainly agree with the many analysts who view this Friday as either a new dawn or an apocalyptic day in the history of Formula One, however the FIA has let its guard down. The FIA appears desperate and will try to get the teams to play its game at all costs.

The only thing for the FIA is, however, that there is no mother behind the door to boot out the unruly children. The FIA has to stand up to them. Given the current evidence, I’m not convinced that the FIA is prepared to make such critical decisions for the future of its sport.

F1 Paddock Insights

June 3, 2009

With another performance that warrants a more impressive acronym than 3 Bs, Brawn’s Button and Barrichello once again occupied the top two steps of the ‘podium’ – this time in Monaco. An imperious drive through the streets of the principality gave the Briton his first taste of victory at Monte-Carlo. As he whooped down the team radio on his parade lap, a surprised pair of red Ferraris crossed in third and fourth to claim their strongest finish yet. From the tight turns of Monaco’s harbour-front circuit, the Formula One circus flies off to Istanbul, Turkey to embrace the 40 degree heat, undulating straights and the longest single turn on the F1 calendar (left-handed turn 8). This is what’s happening in the paddock:

Toyota’s up and down season continued at Monaco where both cars locked out the back row of the grid. President, John Howett put this down to a lack of low-speed grip, saying: “We were not good enough on slow-speed sectors and we have worked tirelessly to understand the reason for this. It tends to be influenced by traction and this was magnified by Monaco.” With the poor result two weeks ago and the ever-increasing rumour of quitting F1, it’s been a testing time for Toyota both on the track and back at the factory. Howett recently told F1 Insiders that, “Clearly we want – and expect – to deliver a significantly better performance in Turkey than we did in Monaco, which was unacceptable. Turkey is a very different circuit to Monaco and I am very optimistic we will be strong.” In addition to this, Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock are clearly looking forward to this weekend, too. They recently spoke to an F1 Insider, saying that they: “can’t wait to start practice and find out where we are because we are fired up to bounce back this weekend.”

FOTA suspended Williams this week for submitting their entry to next year’s F1 season without the remainder of the teams on the grid. In going against the rest of the teams, their only reaction was to suspend the team for not complying with FOTA regulations. With their entry lodged for next year, though, the support of FOTA is surely redundant anyway. Sir Frank Williams, team principal, told F1 Insiders at the time that: “As a racing team and a company whose only business is Formula One, with obligations to our partners and our employees, submitting our entry to next year’s Championship was unquestionable. In addition, we are legally obliged under our contract with FOM and the FIA to participate in the World Championship until the end of 2012”. A recent Williams employee told me that he expected the ‘Max and Bernie double-act’ to pull a rabbit out of their hat at the eleventh hour and for all the teams to be delighted with that option and accept the terms. Seeing as this didn’t happen, however, do we think that the deafening silence from the FIA since the deadline is to resist any temptation to negotiate with the teams? The decision on who will be entered into the F1 Championship for 2010 will be announced on the 12th June.

Istanbul Park is another of the Hermann Tilke-designed circuits on the calendar and is a new track that differs to the majority that he has recently designed. The open, expansive feeling of the Park often gives spectators and drivers the initial impression that the circuit is another simple one. The main and obvious difference is that the circuit is driven anti-clockwise, giving drivers more than just a pain in the neck, but a technical conundrum on the balance of the car. One man who might be worrying about the temperature in Turkey is actually one of the fittest men on the grid. Jenson Button managed to burn his left buttock in Bahrain as the cooling mechanisms inside the Brawn BGP001 failed. With the undulations of the track taking the cars up to 125m above sea level, the air pressure at Istanbul is much lower than in Monaco and therefore the cooling in the cars is much less efficient. He will have to make sure it is working properly before he sits inside his 60° cockpit on Friday morning.

It is usually about this time in the Formula One season that the driver roulette starts and seats and drivers are being thrown up in the air. Brawn GP insiders told me that Jenson is in line for a huge pay-rise at the end of this year, to keep him from the clutching hands of some of the ‘bigger’ teams. Young Nelsinho Piquet, currently with no Championship points, is one driver whose seat at Renault looks like it could be up for grabs and add to that the place of Kazuki Nakajima who has failed to score a single point either and embarrassingly dropped his Williams into the wall on the last lap at Monaco two weeks ago. With Nakajima comes a Toyota engine deal, however, so his place may be saved for one more year, but others are definitely on the market. Expect Bruno Senna to announce his determination to return to the F1 grid and Giorgio Pantano to make his last attempt at an F1 seat.

The Formula One paddock is playing a waiting game with the FIA. Both sides have submitted their demands and we will see on 12th June who will win which battles. For now, though, it’s off to Turkey where the 20 cars are lining up on the grid, ready to tackle one of the fastest circuits on the calendar

Enjoy the racing from the Eastern edge of Europe.

F1 Paddock Insights

May 6, 2009

Despite taking two weeks off, Formula One is still a hive of activity inside both the garages and law courts of the world. McLaren escaped with a slap on the wrist for their part in the lying scandal that has rocked Formula One since the opening Grand Prix of 2009, even though many people thought that the sanctions would be a great deal harsher. A suspended sentence, the firing of Dave Ryan and the expedited departure of Ron Dennis will, I think, be enough to scare McLaren into not trying to pull another stunt like that – this season, at least.

Almost like a new season – Never before has the start of the European season heralded such a breadth of technical developments to carry the hopes of the teams. The two week break has encouraged a raft of new developments across every single team. Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated development will come at the hands of Renault who teased us with their new diffuser at Bahrain. Spaniard Fernando Alonso has said this week that, “seeing the support of the fans always gives me a big boost”, couple that with “a new diffuser and floor, new wheel fairings to increase downforce and a new rear wing” and we should see a “reasonable step in performance this weekend.” Expect to see more this weekend from Ferrari, with their new, fabled double diffuser, too.

£40m enough? – The big news from the FIA in the last week has been the proposal of the £40m budget cap. The proposal has left FOTA divided, with the smaller teams delighted by the plans and the big boys now having to look at how they can seriously reduce their budgets. Even some of the satellite teams, such as Toro Rosso manage to spend upward of £60m per year. It leaves teams asking big questions of their finances and, unfortunately, now of their workforce. An F1 insider told me over the weekend that “the first thing to go will be the staff”, leaving even more people out of work, where the budget cuts had initially planned to prolong the life of teams and jobs. There are suggestions in the paddock that FOTA will respond by proposing a reduction in expenditure by 30-40%, rather than a budget cap – a good idea, but one that will not resolve the issue of new teams joining the F1 paddock.

Donington saga continues – As talked about in Bahrain’s F1 Insider, the Donington-staged British Grand Prix of 2010 could still be under threat. Donington Ventures Leisure Limited (DVLL) CEO Simon Gillett has met with the local council who had underwritten £100m for his re-development of the Donington site and the North West Leicestershire District Council has extended his grace period until the end of June. It is claimed that Gillett is yet to sign the planning agreements to detail the development of the site – necessary before any substantial backing can be put in place. Turns out he is still fighting on two fronts, too, as Tom Wheatcroft is still after his £2.47m, for which a law suit was filed two weeks ago.

Every car running McLaren? – Following the success of McLaren’s standard ECU throughout the paddock, an insider at the Woking-based technology firm are looking to implement the only truly productive Kers throughout the whole paddock next season. With limited downforce so far this season, the cars’ Kers have propelled them to the unexpected heights of 4th in Bahrain. Another potentially cost-saving measure, this could be the answer to the FIA’s Kers prayers, following the first 4 rounds of the season and less than a quarter of the field using the power booster regularly.

And finally – With the weather forecast looking mixed for this weekend, the paddock could be, once again, thrown upside down. An abrasive track surface, plus the high downforce requirements mean that tyre-life is limited around the Circuit de Catalunya. Will the rain play into the hands of the already-strong Brawns and Red Bulls or will we see yet another team leading the pack this weekend. Expect to see tight lap times, though, as most of the teams tested here in pre-season and should be on fairly familiar set-ups.

Enjoy the first European race of the season.