F1 Paddock Insights

August 21, 2009

After nearly a month since the last race, the F1 drivers are strapped back in their seats and ready to hit the Valencia harbour. The teams have had to take a two week break from anything F1 related, but don’t be surprised if you see a raft of new changes – development happens very quickly in F1, it’s our job to try and keep up with it. Find out what’s happening in the paddock in sunny America’s Cup Harbour.

– When Fernando Alonso’s tyre went bouncing down the circuit to end his chances of a good finish in Hungary, the F1 world was taken back to the tragic accident that killed Henry Surtees only a week prior and the freak accident that injured Felipe in qualifying the previous day. Perhaps that is why the FIA took the accident so seriously and immediately banned them from the European GP. Crowd favourite Alonso was in disbelief and the race organisers were starting to count their ticket losses. In the end, though, it was four of the major teams in F1 who came to Renault’s rescue (Red Bull Racing, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, Panasonic Toyota Racing and Ferrari), by submitting letters to the court in support of the French team. Either way, the Spaniard and his French team are racing in Valencia, but Nelson Piquet is not. The unsuccessful Brazilian has been dropped by the uncompromising Flavio Briatore for his lack of points this season. Then flew a tirade of abuse towards the Italian and the whole team, saying that Flav on the radio is “like listening to something my sister would say about the car. Pat Symonds is the guy who really understands what is going on with the team” and that “he makes comments that don’t make any sense”. As Romain Grosjean takes the seat still left warm by the young Brazilian, one can only hope that he has more luck than its previous inhabitant.

– There was a time where all F1 fans’ hearts were lifted prior to the Valencia GP – Michael Schumacher had climbed back into a Ferrari Formula One car with the hope of filling the injured Felipe Massa’s boots for the rest of the season. Unfortunately for the great man, the neck injury he sustained in February on his bike was too severe for his F1 racing career to get back on track and the F1 world could breathe again. No worries for the bookies – his replacement is none other than Luca Badoer…Who? I hear you ask. Luca Badoer – the man who has started more Grands Prix than any other man in F1 (48) without scoring a single point. Now that’s a replacement to a seven-time world champion who has won a record 91 Grands Prix, scored a record 1,369 points and finished on the podium 154 times. So who is Luca Badoer? He is an Italian man through and through. Born in 1971 and a graduate of the Italian karting system. He has raced for only Italian teams and is the first Italian to drive for Ferrari since 1992, when Ivan Capelli scored a total of 3 points. He has been a test driver at Ferrari since 1997 and according to his engineers has completed “over 150,000km in F1 cars since he joined Ferrari – nearly 5 times the amount covered by an F1 driver in that time”. The decision to chose him over Marc Gené, Ferrari’s other test driver is one that confuses a number of people. Luca di Montezemolo told insiders that “In agreement with Stefano Domenicali, we have therefore decided to give Luca Badoer the chance to race for the Scuderia after he has put in so many years of hard work as a test driver”. Sounds to me like he has been given the drive as they are already testing for 2010 and Luca is the best person to test the new parts.

– Felipe Massa has recently told insiders that he is expecting to be back in time for the Brazilian GP from the 16-18 October. This, given the Brazilian suffered a double-fractured skull and eye injuries as well as injuries to his brain. The comeback would be remarkable and, of course, subject to an FIA medical. Having spoken to insiders close to Felipe, they say he “is confident that he can make it back with some karting laps before the weekend.” Suspicions across the paddock suggest that Felipe’s encouraging words ahead of his home Grand Prix have been used in an attempt to bolster ticket sales as without Piquet Jr and Massa, Rubens Barrichello remains the only Brazilian interest on the grid. Even then he might be on his way out of a Brawn team that he has fallen out with on more than one occasion this year already.

– The man to watch this weekend will be Lewis Hamilton. Not only has he been tucking into pancakes, care of his Pussy Cat Doll, in LA but he is coming to the Harbour circuit off the back of his first victory all season. He promised his fans one when the MP4-24 was a second off the pace in Australia, but few believed it was possible. Speaking to McLaren engineers in their Woking factory, it seems that the two week break came at just the wrong moment this season. They have been working “19 hour days, 6 days a week” to get the car up to speed and the break in August could “potentially de-rail their plans to take another victory in Valencia”. It’s not only the engineers under pressure at McLaren at the moment, though, as Heikki Kovalainen is fighting to retain his seat into 2010. With Nico Rosberg apparently “ready to relish the opportunity to drive for McLaren”. He added that he “would like a competitive team mate, that’s for sure” – is he saying that Kazuki Nakajima isn’t doing well this season?!

– And finally, with Luca Badoer returning to race in F1 for the first time since Japan 1999, I tried to think of anyone who had made a comeback after so long. The only man that beats Luca’s 9 years and 10 months is Jan Lammers, who retired in 1982 and returned a full 10 years and 3 months later at the 1992 Japanese GP. Lammers failed to finish that race, by the way…

After 4 more weeks of off-track news, F1 finally returns to the tarmac. Expect Valencia to be hot, tight and close, with at least half the grid looking to take podium finishes. With only a week to wait until the next round in Spa, the next fortnight could make big steps towards the destination of the Championship trophy. Or it could make it all the more confusing.

Enjoy the racing.

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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.