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Archive for February, 2009

What shall we call the new Honda team?

Honda F1 team looks like it has been saved by a management buyout headed by Ross Brawn and now it needs to be renamed and rebranded. So what shall it be called?

If we had a bit more time we could propose to the BBC that they do a reality game show to find a name, along the lines of the ones where they find a lead actor for Oliver or Sound of Music. Graham Norton could come flouncing on to our screens on a Saturday night to host it, with Bernie and Max as the gnarly old judges.

It’s a clean sheet of paper really, they could come up with anything, within reason. I remember a few years back when David Richards was put in charge of BAR by the parent company British American Tobacco. He conducted a name finding exercise with focus groups and all that carry-on and the winner was “Pure Racing”. It’s a nice sentiment but not a very punchy name for a racing team. And it wouldn’t have sat well with a title sponsor name alongside.

There’s no point reviving an old name like Lotus or Brabham or Tyrrell because you should never go backwards in life and those great names had their day. This is not it.

One innovative approach would be for Brawn to sell naming rights to the team, of course, like Arsenal did with the Emirates Stadium, but it was only the stadium that got named, not the team. It would be quite a novel approach to sell the team name to the highest bidder and it would give them a sensational return on investment. But you’d have to be sure they were in it for the long haul, because you couldn’t go changing the name of the every three to five years.

Funnily enough Emirates were looking at a sponsorship with Honda when the plug got pulled and I’ve heard that there is some Middle Eastern money involved in this deal.

These days a sports team is a brand. Think of football teams like Manchester United or Liverpool or the Chicago Bulls basketball team. It’s a huge merchandising and branding operation, built around the name and so the name has to be right. There is a suggestion that he may be lining up to call it Brawn Racing and has registered some domain names with that title. Presumably that would mean that this year’s car, powered by the Mercedes engine would be called the RB01, same name coding as Red Bull uses.

Teams have generally either been named after the owner (McLaren, Williams, Tyrrell, or the company which owns them (Benetton, Honda, Toyota). A third way is teams like Pacific and Spirit and FORCE, with neutral sounding nothing names. I really hope that Ross doesn’t go down that route, but Brawn Racing isn’t great either.

So what shall they be called? If I were in Ross’ shoes I would call the team “Speed F1″ or “Speed Racing”. That’s the best I can come up with after ten minutes reflection on a Saturday lunchtime. What ideas do you have?

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at what colour the cars should be…

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More on BBC’s new head of F1

Following the news that Niall Sloane, executive producer of F1, has quit the BBC, I saw on the Guardian media website that the BBC has appointed Ben Gallop as head of F1.

I’ve asked around and apparently he comes from the online side of the media business rather than TV and has no F1 background. Mark Wilkin, who is the editor of the F1 programme will report to him. Mark does have a strong F1 background and is also a very experienced producer/director. He held the same role when the BBC last had F1 in 1996.

There seems to be some confusion among people who’ve left comments on the site about how these two roles work, so let me explain.

An executive producer is generally a senior figure who oversees a programme, he has the major say in who is appointed in the presentational roles, argues with the network bosses for more budget and airtime for his show etc. He can often be executive producer on a number of different programmes, as Niall was with his Match of the Day position.

He is often someone who has extensive programme making experience, so knows what it’s like to be at the coal face, but has risen to a senior position where he does not actually put the programme together. He has the authority to tell the editor he wants to see less Lewis Hamilton or more on Ferrari, but often exec producers just leave the editor to get on with it.

As the BBC’s new offering is based as much on the online and interactive stuff as it is on the TV element, appointing someone with extensive online experience makes some sense and it shows which way the BBC thinks the media is going that a non-TV person can take on this role.

Remember that the coverage of the race itself is done by Bernie Ecclestone’s FOM TV operation, a scaled down version of the team who made the digital pay per view service of the early 2000s, which was briefly broadcast on SKY. BBC will just be doing the bit before and after the race and sticking a commentary on the race itself.

Niall will stay on for the first two races of the 2009 formula one season before departing in mid-April. There is currently a vacant role for head of sport at ITV and as they have a lot of football contracts it’s a fair bet that Niall will go for that job.

It’s not ideal to lose the man who put the team together, but it will not disrupt their preparations too much, in my view.

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BBC F1 boss quits

I was sad to see in Charlie Sale’s column in the Daily Mail today that Niall Sloane, the executive producer of the BBC’s F1 coverage has quit. Sloane is a football man, a former player in fact, who took charge of the F1 brief when the BBC won back the rights last March. He spent most of 2008 setting up the presentation team and the coverage schedule, which was announced earlier this week.

According to Sale, Sloane lost out on the job of BBC Head of Sport to his colleague Barbara Slater and is leaving the corporation after 27 years.

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Things are moving Honda and USF1’s way

I’ve written extensively about the moves afoot to bring down costs in Formula 1 over the last couple of months and talked about how the FIA intended to produce a set of rules for 2010 based on areas of non-compete on the cars to reduce costs for everyone. The key proposal is for the big teams, who choose to spend money on a technology, to be made to sell that technology to a smaller team at a capped price.

Today the FIA put out a statement which shows that it is going for this sooner rather than later, in an effort to help the sale of Honda and in plenty of time to give the USF1 project and other similar initiatives a chance of life in 2010.

The statement said, “In view of the difficult economic conditions which continue to affect Formula One sponsors and major car manufacturers, the FIA is preparing radical proposals for 2010.

“If adopted by the World Motor Sport Council, the new regulations will enable a team to compete for a fraction of current budgets but nevertheless field cars which can match those of the established teams.

“These regulations will not affect the established teams which now have stable backing from the major car manufacturers, but will enable new teams to fill the existing vacancies on the grid for 2010 and make it less likely that any team will be forced to leave the Championship. The proposals will be submitted to the World Council on 17 March.”

This is a bold statement, if rather more vague than the FIA has been in the past when laying out its plans, this is possibly a pre-emptive strike ahead of next week’s FOTA press conference in Geneva, at which we will learn exactly what thea teams have been plotting for the last few months. The FIA’s proposal does, of course, affect the larger teams as the purpose of the changes will be to allow small budget operations to compete with them.

The FIA is in a position to ram through anything it wants using the justification of force majeur, because of the global recession. Although the wording of today’s statement makes that less likely because it acknowledges that the leading teams have ‘stable backing’ from the motor manufacturers.

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Just had a very enjoyable day at Williams HQ in Grove where a few of us were treated to a series of briefings by the team. The drivers Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima were there, we had a talk around the car by technical director Sam Michael and then a briefing on the team’s health, FOTA and other general F1 matters from Sir Frank Williams and team CEO Adam Parr.

They even threw in some lunch, all very trendy, with small tapas-sized portions and lots of them. Being Williams though it was roast beef and fish and chips in the tiny bowls rather than some continental nonsense. Rhubarb crumble and crème brulee for pudding. Hardly anyone drank any wine except a few of the older generation journos…

Williams is a no-nonsense team which has been living beyond its means for the last couple of seasons in an effort to keep up and which is therefore grateful to the credit crunch for forcing its main rivals finally to agree cost saving measures. I actually think that Williams could have been in serious trouble if FOTA had not happened and with it the agreement to slash costs. Now Williams will be able to compete more fairly and will be able to pay off their debt. Despite losing RBS, Baugar and Petrobras as sponsors, they are more diversified than some other teams, a point CEO Adam Parr made. It was interesting to see Sir Frank together with Adam. He defers to him more and more and you could see that he has great trust in his number two. Could be another handover soon a la Ron Dennis…

The drivers spoke with optimism about the season ahead. The headline quote of the day was Nico Rosberg saying that he wants to be in a top car by 2010 and although he hopes it can be with Williams, that is his clear priority. He looked fantastic, no I mean even more fantastic than he normally looks. He’s slimmed down, like many drivers, because the KERS system has added weight to the cars and that means weight has to come off the drivers. Nico also said that he was relishing the challenge of the new rules with all the buttons to press and front wings to adjust. He feels that F1 is moving even more towards the intelligent drivers and he’s keen to position himself as a driver with a great interest in and feel for, the technology.

Frank said that he thinks the Honda team will be on the grid in Melbourne in some guise or other, Adam added that the fact that they are still making things for the car, planning a shakedown test next week ahead of an appearance at Barcelona test the week after, shows that Honda are serious about the proposals in front of them.
Looking at the opposition, Frank said that he thought Red Bull look particularly strong. Sam Michael pointed out that the RBR car was more developed at launch than other cars, but that other teams had major upgrades planned before Mclbourne, so you could really only judge at the first race.

Everyone agreed that it’s very close with no more than 3-4/10ths of a second separating the cars which have tested so far. That’s mind blowing if you think about it. Sam also said that Williams are not ready with the KERS system and hope to bring it to the car soon. He reckons BMW and McLaren are the two teams who are most bullish about their KERS systems and are most likely to use them in Australia.

One interesting undercurrent I picked up was that there is some muttering about the Renault engine. They were down on power last season and were allowed by the other teams to bring their motor up to speed with the others. This was done on trust through a FOTA agreement, whereby each manufacturer presented its power curve and they all agreed what Renault should be allowed to increase by. The implication is that perhaps the power curve they demonstrated at the start was a little lower than the reality….and so they may actually be a little ahead of the others now! This would also help Red Bull as they use the Renault motor.

Sam said that the adjustable front wing was going to make a bigger difference to overtaking than he and others had anticipated, Apparently the drivers can get really close to a car in front through a fast corner onto a straight and that makes passing very possible,. It will be circuit dependent of course and Shanghai for example, with the long fast corner onto the long straight will see a lot more passing. Same with Bahrain.

The boost from the KERS button adds 5mph to a car’s straight line speed so the cars which start the season with KERS will be able to take even more advantage of the adjustable front wing for passing.

Final note, Frank was very unhappy about the BBC News coverage of the RBS pulls out of F1 in 2010 story yesterday. He felt it was far too doom and gloom and also not accurate in its depiction of the facts of the story. I didn’t see it, so I cannot comment, I was engrossed in Liverpool vs Real Madrid football match, which had a good outcome as far as I’m concerned.

To sum up, Williams seem quietly confident about the season ahead, the car seems to be going quite well in testing and the key for them is going to be to take their chances when they arise this year on the tracks they always go well on, the street tracks for example.

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With its first head-to-head testing clash with McLaren due next week at Jerez (1st to 5th), the Ferrari F60 is undergoing a major metamorphosis, according to today’s Gazzetta dello Sport.

The wings and exhausts are being revised as part of a long list of scheduled updates. This is normal and most teams will have extensive updates planned before Melbourne, but after the Bahrain test, Ferrari is under no illusions that they do not have three tenths of a second in their pocket over the field. It looks tight and they need to find more performance to get their nose in front this year.

They also have been working hard on cooling after some difficulties encountered with the KERS system overheating in Bahrain. Like McLaren, Ferrari were quite pleased with the performance of the KERS system so far and are set to push it further at Jerez.

Today the car is running at Vairano, a straight line aerodynamic test facility, with Marc Gene and new parts which convert wind-tunnel figures into reality will appear on the car next week in Spain. Different front and rear wings are being tried.

A major area of focus for all teams is getting the rear tyres to last over a stint without losing performance.

Meanwhile all eyes will be on McLaren’s new rear wing in Jerez, with the team having run an old spec wing most of the time so far.

Personally I will have a close eye on Renault in the next few weeks. It’s been hard to read their performance thus far.

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Williams CEO Adam Parr has just done a conference call with the media on the news that RBS is to pull out of F1 at the end of 2010.

“It isn’t good news for the sport for a sponsor like RBS to announce it’s withdrawing. We’ve suspected for some time that there wasn’t much chance of the sponsorship continuing beyond its term, ” he said.

“In the latter part of last year we lost two or three significant partners, Lenovo, Baugar and Petrobras. But we also had 10 of our partners renew and four of the partners who renewed were major upgrades, meaning they at least doubled. The FOM revenues are stronger this year than last year and there are some significant cost savings from the cut in testing.”

“Overall we have a solid budget for next year, but we are also in advanced negotiations with other partners. For 2010 we have 90% of the sponsorship for this year confirmed for next year and we will have further significant cost savings. “

On Toyota he said that the manufacturers have committed for at least the next three years and he thinks that Toyota will stay beyond that if costs are brought under control.

Asked how hard it would be to replace RBS, Parr said,
“I’m confident that for 2011 we will have a strong sponsorship roster. No individual sponsor is make or break for us. It’s incredibly difficult to bring new sponsors in, but the return on investment is compelling.

“Last year RBS accounted for 10% of our revenue. They are one of our two senior sponsors”

Parr also said that the figure of £20 million on the BBC was “too high”. He was not specific, but the figure is likely to be more like £12 million per season.

Parr admitted that in the last three years the team had ‘spent beyond our means’ and that it would be paying off its debts this year and next. He reiterated that the cost savings FOTA and the FIA envisaged would make Williams’ budgets more closely aligned to the other teams in F1.

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