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Archive for May, 2009

I’ve been fascinated by the coverage of the FOTA teams’ entry for next year’s world championship in the last couple of days.

On Friday morning I was saying that something was going to come out of FOTA which was quite different from the convergence position with the FIA that was being widely reported. And so it proved. Then when the FOTA statement was made most commentators seemed to see it as Ferrari and the other eight teams signing up after all, which it was some way from being.

Ferrari obviously felt quite frustrated with this and so they issued one of those self-generated Q & A documents, with team principal Stefano Domenicali. The intention here was to SPELL IT OUT for those who hadn’t quite grasped the point of what FOTA is saying.

I won’t go over it again, because I’ve written enough about it already, but two things need to be taken away from Stefano’s comments.

First that all nine teams are willing to sign up to race in F1 until the end of 2012 (if their conditions are met). The importance of this point is that the teams are saying that the sport need not fear that it will lose any existing teams, they are making it clear they aren’t going anywhere. The fear of losing teams was one of the main drivers for the budget cap idea.

Second, whereas before Monaco weekend, it was only Ferrari, Toyota, Red Bull and Renault saying that they would quit F1 if the 2010 rules were not changed, now all nine FOTA teams are saying that, which is a much stronger proposition, as Domenicali spells out below.

“It’s very simple. The nine teams – Williams membership having been suspended – that currently make up FOTA, have put in entries for the 2010 championship that will only be valid if the Concorde Agreement is signed and if the regulations will be those currently in use, but modified as per FOTA’s suggestions. The action taken yesterday is completely in keeping with Ferrari’s principles, as stated at the Main Board meeting on 12 May and with those of FOTA.

Q. What will happen if these conditions are not met?

SD: Once again, the answer is simple: the entries from the nine teams will be invalid.”

This has moved the story on quite a bit from the Monaco weekend and is completely against the grain of what was being reported in the days following Monaco.

The FIA believes that Ferrari has a contract to race in F1 and that this was proven in the Paris court case Ferrari brought, seeking an injunction, before Monaco. If the FIA decides to play hardball and reject FOTA’s conditions, it may be that Ferrari, Williams and the new teams are the only names on the entry list which will be published on June 12th.

Meanwhile I note that Alex Wurz has tabled an entry with his Austrian chums from Superfund. Without a sniff of a new team on the horizon for years we now have five putting in entries, which means paying a £2.5 million engine deposit. Some of them have been planning this moment for years, waiting for the right circumstances, others are seizing an opportunity.

Fascinating times..

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So are the nine teams in or out?

The nine remaining teams in the Formula One Teams Association submitted a conditional entry for the 2010 world championship before the deadline at midnight last night.

Along with that single entry for all nine of them, they have submitted a document with proposals for cost reduction to the FIA, which Toyota’s John Howett describes as ‘comprehensive’.

There has been a mixed reaction to this. Some media are saying that Ferrari and the other teams have signed up for 2010, others are highlighting the conditional nature of the entry and the two main conditions which they want to see fulfilled before their commitment will be confirmed.

One is the signature of the Concorde Agreement by June 12th. This would bind in all three parties, the FIA, FOM and the teams to an agreement which would run to the end of 2012. In the Concorde Agreement there are protocols for deciding the rules, involving things like the F1 commission made up of teams, sponsors, promoters and so on, which did not come into play in the framing of the 2010 rules thus far because there is no Concorde Agreement in place. Their idea is that the Concorde Agreement would then take care of the 2011 rules.

The teams want all parties to sign the agreement by June 12th. Bernie Ecclestone is believed to want the agreement to be for five years duration, rather than three, so that could be a sticking point. June 12th is also the date on which the FIA plans to announce which 13 teams have had their entries accepted. As far as I can tell there are 15 teams looking for 13 spaces. If all the existing teams stay, then there will be three slots available for the five other teams. So we may end up with two of them teaming up, which would be quite logical.

The other condition the teams have made is that the rules stay the same as this year, ie no two tier system with a £40 million budget cap. All the other teams who have signed up, including Williams and the new teams, Campos, USF1, Prodrive, Litespeed and Lola, have signed up to compete under the £40 million cap. All must have engine contracts in place before entering, by the way, so one must presume the majority are with Cosworth.

FOTA’s statement doesn’t say that all teams must operate under the same rules, only that all the FOTA teams must, which I suppose leaves open the possibility that the budget cap could apply to the other four teams (Williams plus three new ones) as these teams are not part of FOTA.

The teams are quite adamant behind the scenes that their statement is a rejection of the notion of the budget cap. Instead they intend to self police and self regulate. They will agree among themselves not to spend any more than a target amount in 2010 and 2011 and this amount will decline significantly over the two years. No-one would give me an accurate figure but I still think it’s going to be around £80 to £100 million in 2010 and £40 to £50 million from 2011 onwards.

Incidentally there is nothing specific in the FOTA press release about technical help for the new teams. I’m told there are some thoughts in the technical document, but nothing concrete. Another important point to make is that the join entry includes Toyota so it looks, despite the spin, as though Toyota is at this stage planning to stay in F1. If the terms of the final offer do not suit them there is always the possibility that they will leave.

So yes, the teams, led by Ferrari, have signed up, but there still seem to me to be some fairly big blockages in the road to a settlement. I guess the next deadline in this process is June 12th, but before that the FIA is going to have to make some kind of acknowledgment of the entries and we will see how they take to the terms of what has been put forward.

Sources close to the FIA are still confident that a budget cap is on its way, even if the figure in 2010 is higher than originally planned.

For more on the FOTA position, take a look at the Q&A with Toyota’s John Howett on Autosport.com

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Counting down to midnight

After all the brinkmanship, the tough talking and the threats, the Formula 1 teams should today, barring any last minute upset, submit entries by midnight for the 2010 world championship. Ferrari will still be a Formula 1 team and life will carry on.

A statement is expected today from the Formula One Teams Association with their position ahead of the deadline, although team sources could not confirm at what time this might be published. Intriguingly, it has been suggested to me, however, that this statement will not be along the lines of what has been speculated in the media since Wednesday’s FOTA meeting in London.

The general gist of what has been written is that FOTA is proposing a phased reduction in costs with a limit somewhere below £100 million for next year dropping to the £40 million Max Mosley wants in 2011. The concession by FOTA is that the established teams will go out of their way to help the new teams Mosley is so keen to attract, by leasing them engines and gearboxes at below £5 million and giving them extensive chassis support. This will enable the new teams to compete at a sensible level – not be six seconds off the pace in other words – but will stop short of customer cars, which teams like Williams will not tolerate.

FOTA wants to exclude driver salaries, engine costs, dividends and marketing spend from the budget cap and there appears to also be some sort of exemption proposed for big salary outside subcontractors like Red Bull’s Adrian Newey. I look forward to hearing how that might work.

All eyes will be on Cologne this afternoon to see whether Toyota submits an entry. Rumours were rife in Monaco that the team would use this opportunity to make its exit from the sport. It’s not hard to see why they might do that, having failed to make much impression in the era of unlimited budgets, they are not likely to rise to the top when efficiency is the name of the game. But Toyota F1 boss John Howett said earlier this week that stories of Toyota pulling out were mere ‘spin’.

Meanwhile Williams CEO Adam Parr has spoken about the team’s decision to act independently of FOTA and submit an entry for next year. He denied that Williams’ move was to undermine FOTA’s unity. He said, “We are not trying to split the teams. We are not even trying to dissuade them.

“As a team we have a certain philosophy and this is an inevitable and necessary development. It may well be that other teams have a different view. I completely respect that.

“We feel there is a huge chance to resolve this and very much hope that all the existing teams, plus one or two new ones, will be on the grid with us next year.”

Of those possible new teams, US F1 and Campos have already entered, while Prodrive and Lola have made positive noises. My understanding is that you have to have an engine contract in place before you can submit an entry.

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There has been quite a bit of chatter in the last couple of days about Jenson Button’s future, in light of comments made by Brawn GP’s Nick Fry on the subject.
Buttn8

“Jenson’s been with us a long time, and we’ve had failures and we’ve had successes,” said Fry. “My objective, and our objective, is to have him for the rest of his career, and nothing’s changed on that front. It’s mutual that he would like to stay with the team, and after five race wins, we should be able to get something together.”

After five wins from six races and with a seemingly unassailable lead in the championship it is hard to imagine either side thinking about other options. Ross Brawn admitted last year that he was still assessing Button, after being quite impressed by him during the 2004 championship when he and Michael Schumacher raced against him in the BAR Honda. As this season goes on Brawn is increasingly impressed with Button’s ability to pull out a lap time in qualifying and to control races.

Although F1 is a cynical business, it matters all round that Button stayed with the team through the winter even when it meant he was potentially risking his career. The team have rewarded that loyalty with a race winning car and no driver can ask more than that.

But F1 is also a fickle business and a driver who was considered to have ‘flatlined’ in his career is now flavour of the month again and in demand from other teams. Jenson was considered to have plateaued by Ron Dennis and was described as a concrete post by Renault boss Flavio Briatore earlier in the year. He responded by revealing that Flavio had tried to hire him over the winter.

This will have been the period when Flavio was unsure whether Fernando Alonso was going to stay with the team. Alonso had been in quite serious discussions with Honda among others, but decided to stay put in the end.

Jenson signed a new contract with Honda just before the Japanese Grand Prix last year, having been made to sweat on it by the Japanese manufacturer. After the pull out he took a pay cut this year to stay with Brawn and is believed to have signed only a one year deal, but he will have had a pay off from Honda for the unfulfilled contract and will have benefitted from bonuses from the success he’s enjoyed this season.

It is clear that some of the established top teams have been making enquiries about getting him for next year. Button will reflect that at 29 and likely to become world champion this year, it could be the time to maximise his earning potential. Also it will be difficult for Brawn to maintain is pre-eminent position in F1 next year, despite Ross Brawn’s acknowledged brilliance at planning and resource management

There is no need to hurry into a decision, especially with the sport in such a volatile state over the rules for next year but it makes little sense for him to think of moving on to another team. Funding remains an issue for Brawn. They stand to win around $70 million for winning the championship, but they have yet to put any more sponsors on the car apart from the relatively low fee paid by Virgin. He will want some assurances that Brawn is going to pull in the sponsor investment for the medium to long term.

Fry made another interesting comment when he said “I’m sure he (Button) and his manager are sitting there thinking his price is going up the whole time. But maybe the sponsorship for the team is going up too, so maybe we can afford it.”

This seems slightly odd because it is acknowledging that they are going to have to pay him a lot more money because of the results. But you could not have a more graphic illustration of the fact that an F1 driver is only as good as his car than Jenson Button’s last two seasons.

Button staying at Brawn is considered more or less a given in the F1 paddock, but there was some discussion as to who his team mate might be next year. Rubens Barrichello has done well this year at getting the car set up and backing Button up by scoring lots of points. The balance seems pretty good between them but Rubens cannot go on for ever.

There are not too many obvious alternatives, although someone like Timo Glock might fit the bill quite well. However he is known to be on Mercedes hit list for the McLaren team as a possible replacement for Kovalainen.

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At a meeting of FOTA teams in London today it was decided to suspend the membership of the Williams team, after they broke ranks and submitted an entry to the 2010 world championship.

“Fota’s decision, although regrettable, is understandable,” said team boss Frank Williams. “As a company whose only business is F1 with obligations to our partners and employees entering 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.”

Williams acknowledged that the suspension of the team is temporary, pending ongoing negotiations with the FIA over the rules for next season. FOTA had no choice really and although their discussions concern the longer term issues which will also concern Williams, it is a sign of the irritation of the other teams that one of their number has been picked off, thus breaking the ‘all for one and one for all’ spirit which has made FOTA a force in F1 politics since its foundation last September.

It remains to be seen whether any of the other teams who signed up to a similar deal to Williams in 2005 feel that they are legally obliged to submit an entry by Friday’s deadline, particularly Force India.

The Williams team has been one of the staunchest supporters of the idea of the budget cap and believes that the proposed £40 million level is about right.

Meanwhile talks continue.

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I posted here on Sunday morning that I had heard Williams were going to break ranks with the other Formula 1 teams and put in an entry for the 2010 season this week and they have done that.

I’ve been thinking about this, about why they have done it, what it will do to FOTA unity and where it leaves the other teams.

Williams have become the team closest to the FIA in recent times. In part this is down to a personal relationship between Williams CEO Adam Parr and Max Mosley. Both trained as barristers and I think they understand each other as a result. I also think Adam knows how to read Max pretty well. On a more basic level Williams need to stay close to the FIA because all they do is race F1 cars, they don’t sell energy drinks or road cars. So if they didn’t put an entry in for 2010 what would they do with themselves and their 500+ employees? They also stand to benefit from budgets coming down to £40 million. At that level they will not only be able to survive but to make a profit. And the technical department reckons that with many teams scaling down, they will do the best job on that level of money.

Williams signed a contract back in 2005, shortly after Ferrari, to stay with the FIA and with FOM, rather than join the manufacturers’ breakaway series being proposed at the time. The contract they signed then obliges them to race in F1 until the end of 2010. I don’t know what time frame is in the agreement Ferrari signed at the time, but Bernie Ecclestone referred to it the other day when he implied that he would sue them if they didn’t enter next year.

The question now is, will the other teams who signed up in 2005 also now be obliged to put an entry in for 2010? These teams are Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Force India (was Midland at the time). It is unlikely that their deals are all the same as Williams, because Ecclestone tends to like doing different deals with everyone.

For example, Frank Williams said on Friday that he knew Ferrari’s deal paid them more money than Williams but he did not know that they had a right of veto over the rules.

It has been reported in the last couple of days that the other teams within FOTA are angry with Williams because they signed a collective letter saying that they would not enter the championship. This isn’t quite true. They refused to sign that letter, but they did sign a second, modified letter, which did not commit them to that collective action.

Williams have painful memories of a time when they didn’t put in an entry; in 1993 they missed the deadline for entering the championship – a championship incidentally they went on to win with Alain Prost – and there was some pain to be taken over that.

Judging from the noises coming out of Toyota at the moment, governance and transparency are their big bugbears, more than budget caps. Toyota and Ferrari have been working closely together at all levels and if Toyota are to leave the sport, I’m sure that they will say that it is because of the governance.

There is another meeting of FOTA this week, so the story will move on quite a bit before the deadline for entry on Friday.

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Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix saw confirmation that Ferrari are back in business. Kimi Raikkonen qualified within hundredths of a second of Jenson Button with only two laps less fuel on board and in the race the Scuderia got its first double points haul of the season, with Raikkonen third and Felipe Massa fourth.

Barcelona 18.
On top of that, Massa set the fastest race lap, with 1min 15.154, four hundredths of a second faster than Jenson Button’s fastest lap in the Brawn and two tenths faster than the Red Bull of Mark Webber.

It is tempting to say that Ferrari has now moved into position as the second best car in the field, ahead of the Red Bull, but I’m not sure that will be the case everywhere, particularly the next two races in Turkey and Silverstone where the Red Bull will stretch its legs on the long fast corners.

But there is no doubt that Ferrari has made the most progress of any team since the start of the season. They have also got on top of the reliability issues which cost them at the start of the season. It is too early to say whether they have completely fixed their operational problems, because it was only the last race in Spain where they misjudged qualifying with Raikkonen’s car.

But the management changes they made after the first couple of races, where Luca Baldisseri was moved back to a factory based position, to improve the links between the R&D and manufacturing departments at base and the race team on the road, seem to be working.

It looks like it is too late to have any effect on the world championship, with both Ferrari drivers over 40 points behind Jenson Button. But it will certainly put more than a veneer of respectability on their 2009 campaign.

Team boss Stefano Domenicali was moderately pleased with progress, “At least two cars scored points, that was a very important step. For me the most important thing is that we show that the people at home the team is totally committed to the job. It is not easy at this moment when you hear all around that to cut dramatically and that we can lose hundreds of places of work. So that is why it is important to thank the people at home that have worked flat out to recover the performance. We have showed in Spain and again here that what we are doing is going in the right direction. We need to stay focussed on our job and that in Turkey we need to improve again.”

Stefano’s point about the motivation of the staff at the factory is a good one. It’s a bit like the people at Honda over the winter, working flat out with deep concerns that they were perhaps a day away from being made redundant. Not being forced into a dramatic cull of staff in one go is one point on which all the teams are agreed.

Asked where the Ferrari is still lacking speed Stefano said, “I think downforce is the most important thing that we need to recover. This will help a lot in high speed corners. In Turkey we will have another step. We are pretty sure that our competitors will do a step again.”

Felipe Massa agreed with his boss’ assessment, “I think we are still missing a little bit of downforce. So we are still missing slightly a little bit of grip on the car. So, for me they have a little bit more grip than us, and they can work a little bit better on the tyres, so they can work a little bit better on the qualifying to prepare the car in the right way.

“Sometimes in the race we show a great pace, in the conditions you fight, but we are still missing a little bit more downforce and a bit of grip. We need to use better the tyres, especially in qualifying, and also when it is necessary.

“I think maybe we need a couple of races to be sure that we are the second strongest team. For the moment I think it is too early to say – Red Bull sometimes they are very, very strong and sometimes they are a little bit less.”

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