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Archive for July, 2009

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Geoff Willis, the technical director of Red Bull Racing has left the team, with barely half of the season gone.

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The exact reasons for his departure are not known as yet but Sebastian Vettel confirmed it in an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live’s Holly Samos this afternoon. Vettel added that the team would not be destabilised by the departure.

“Geoff did a lot of work and thanks to him we are where we are now. It’s always very difficult if someone leaves but we have a very good harmony in the team and it shouldn’t affect our performance at all. We know what we have to do and where we want to go.”

After being sacked by Honda a few years ago, Willis was reunited at Red Bull with Adrian Newey, with whom he had formed a strong relationship at Williams in the winning years of the 1990s. Willis was hired to make the car reliable and he has certainly achieved that, but there are suggestions that he and Newey may not have seen eye to eye over the technical direction of the team this time.

Whether he jumped or was pushed, the speculation this evening was that he may be on his way to Ferrari. Willis is a fluent Italian speaker and his wife is Italian. He apparently offered his services to Ferrari but the word I’m hearing tonight is that he is not going there.

Meanwhile my Italian colleagues are telling me that Sunday will be the last Grand Prix for Sebastien Bourdais at Toro Rosso. There have been persistent rumours that the Frenchman is on thin ice, but Bourdais denied them today,

“What can I say? I haven’t received any notice from the team that this is my last race so as far as I am concerned it is still a rumour,” he said.

Apparently it is not a rumour, it is a fact and he will be replaced by the recently installed reserve driver Jaime Alguersuari.

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Last night it looked as though World War Three had broken out again between the F1 teams and the governing body, but having got to the Nurburgring and heard both sides, it seems to me that, bizarrely, a lasting solution is close.

Despite the fire and brimstone of various statements over the last 48 hours, in fact the two sides are close to signing a new Concorde Agreement which would return stability to the sport. This document would also be signed by venture capital firm CVC, who are majority shareholders in the commercial rights holder, with Bernie Ecclestone.

CVC and the teams have been talking directly this week and are both keen to get this situation resolved so they can get on with the future. From the briefings I’ve had today it seems as though the teams and CVC have, to some extent, marginalised Ecclestone and Mosley in this latest phase of the story, but I doubt that those two men see it that way.

Mosley is playing the strong man, looking for two key conditions to be met; the teams to sign the new Concorde Agreement and at the same time to agree a legally binding agreement among themselves (including the new teams) to reduce costs to early 1990s levels. The feeling is that once those two things have been done, he will not stand for re-election in October, because he will have achieved what he set out to achieve.

For the teams, their conditions are that the FIA must sign the agreement too and Mosley must step down in October.

The drama of the last 48 hours was all about Mosley giving the three new teams and the two non-FOTA teams (Williams and Force India) a voice in the 2010 rules. After the rather farcical situation yesterday when the eight FOTA teams were told they were not entered in the 2010 championship and therefore had no vote, the five remaining teams then simply voted through the package agreed in Paris on June 25th. This means the rules for next year will be as 2009, but with no refuelling and no KERS. There will be no budget cap and Cosworth will have no special performance advantages.

The FOTA teams, not surprisingly, were uncomfortable with the three new teams having a say in the rules, given that they have no experience of F1 and have contributed nothing to the sport so far. But they have entered the championship and Mosley wants to make sure that they are represented.

The FIA issued a statement this afternoon ‘setting the record straight’ about the events of the last couple of days, which led to the eight FOTA teams walking out of a technical meeting.

It is a strange document and one which, frankly, no-one in the media or among the teams fully understands. But that doesn’t really matter because the essence of it in is the last two lines; a new Concorde Agreement is being finalised and could be signed in the next week.

Once that happens, stability will be restored to F1.

The FIA surprised the eight FOTA teams by saying that as things stand they are not entered into next year’s championship. This message was delivered by the FIA’s Charlie Whiting during a technical working group meeting. I spoke to the FIA and the reason why they are not entered in the FIA’s eyes is simply that they have not physically put an entry in yet, even though they’ve said they will and the entry list was published by the FIA after the Paris meeting with the eight FOTA teams on it.

I’ve spoken to a few team bosses about this today and they seem quite calm. They are focussing on the facts as they see them and working with commercial right holders CVC in particular, towards a conclusion which will see them sign the new Concorde Agreement, possibly in the next few days.

They are still mentioning the word ‘breakaway’, as an alternative if things do not go according to plan and seem comfortable to do so, but the reality for them is that they will sign the agreement as long as the FIA signs it too. That said, if there has been no movement by the end of this month then the “B” word will be aired again.

Tonight a FOTA spokesman said, “We no longer have either the willingness of the intention of taking about the FIA president.”

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It took Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier several high profile bouts to settle their differences and it seems that we are in for a rematch of Max Mosley’s FIA vs Luca di Montezemolo’s FOTA; a heavyweight showdown, just when we all thought things had been sorted out.

There may not be a catchy title to this bout, such as the “Thriller in Manilla”, but you certainly wouldn’t call this weekend’s scrap, set for the Nurburgring, “A mere trifle in the Eiffel”.

This is serious and FOTA have responded to being informed that its eight teams are not entered in next year’s championship with the line that this could put the future of F1 in jeopardy.

It’s been an odd week in F1, with the Bernie Ecclestone/Hitler stuff and now this. Non-F1 people I speak to in the media and public consider the sport as a bit of a pantomime. But I think it’s deadly serious and it has to do with money.

I noted that CVC were ‘shocked’ by Bernie’s comments but supportive of his apology, but I cannot imagine they are very happy about today’s development.

The document offering the debt on F1 to interested parties suggested that the new Concorde Agreement had been agreed and that the teams would all sign up during 2007. Here we are two years later and it has not been signed. That has to be creating some real pressure.

Part of the ‘peace deal’ agreed on June 24th was for the FOTA teams to commit to FOM until 2012. If the FIA considers them not to be entered in the championship, then one wonders where this commitment stands and the absence of eight key teams, including Ferrari, must threaten F1′s business model.

CVC is the venture capital company who hold 75% of the equity in F1′s commercial rights holder, which is subject to a debt of over $2 billion. It is felt that pressure from them led to the ‘peace agreement’ between FOTA and the FIA a few days after the British Grand Prix.

But almost immediately that deal started to unravel. First we had FOTA’s hubris at ‘beating’ Mosley, delight that he was quitting in October, accusations that he was a ‘dictator’, suggestions that the next FIA president should be ‘independent’. Since then there has been a steady drip of insinuation about the FIA’s Alan Donnelly and his role in the approval of new teams. We have also had suggestions that the new teams were obliged to sign up for Cosworth engines, as the Northampton firm had indicated that they needed three teams to make their F1 engine programme viable.

The FIA acted last night with a warning that unanimity would be required when finalising the 2010 rules and that would mean the non-FOTA teams, including the three new teams, seeing eye to eye with the existing teams.

I’m travelling at the moment to Germany, so I’m going to have to do some digging around tomorrow to find out what has motivated this latest move. But it looks set to push the FOTA teams back towards their previously suggested plan of a breakaway. If they are not entered in next year’s F1 championship then presumably they are free agents, unless they are now caught by commercial contracts obliging them to find a solution with the FIA.

FOTA believe that the deal struck in Paris on June 24th meant that they were entered in the championship (an entry list was published with their names on it) and that they had carte blanche to agree the 2010 rules themselves, which would then be rubber stamped by the FIA.

The shock of today’s news is that this appears not to be the case. I can’t wait to find out what this turn-around is based on.

The FOTA teams walked out of technical working group meeting at the Nurburgring today and a statement this afternoon shows their exasperation,

“As endorsed by the WMSC and clearly stated in the FIA press statement of 24 June ‘the rules for 2010 onwards will be the 2009 regulations as well as further regulations agreed prior to 29 April 2009′. At no point in the Paris discussions was any requirement for unanimous agreement on regulations change expressed. To subsequently go against the will of the WMSC and the detail of the Paris agreement puts the future of Formula 1 in jeopardy.”

Off to the Eiffel mountains we go then, into another weekend of great uncertainty.

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We are in for a fascinating weekend in Germany as we look to see whether Red Bull has its nose in front on all circuits now or whether Silverstone flattered their car.

But behind the scenes in Germany will be very interesting as well as the latest developments in the ongoing row over next year’s rules come into play.

Today’s development is a series of letters from FIA president Max Mosley to the Formula One Teams Association, to the non-FOTA teams; Williams and Force India and to the three new teams; USF1, Manor and Campos.

To the non-FOTA teams Mosley emphasises that they are part of the decision making process because,

“No change can be made to the published regulations without the agreement of all confirmed entrants. As a result, changes to the 2010 regulations require your agreement and consent.”

This gives this long running saga a new twist. in June Mosley was all for the FOTA teams signing up for 2010 and then changing the rules from within. Instead FOTA announced a breakaway series and forced Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone around the table to agree a peace deal. As far as FOTA were concerned the deal agreed in Paris was for them to go away and sort out the rules for 2010 among themselves, which would then be ratified by the FIA. This meant the death knell of the budget cap, the very reason why the new teams signed up.

But now they find that it will not be as simple as that. So at the meeting in Germany this weekend we will have three new teams plus two existing ones who signed up for a £40 million budget cap, asking the FOTA teams exactly how much they propose to slash budgets by and how they propose to police cost control.

What will enrage the FOTA teams is that potentially you could have the three new teams, who have never turned a wheel in F1 and who’s ability to stand the heat in this particular kitchen is yet to be proven, able to veto rules which FOTA has devoted thousands of hours developing.

My sense during Silverstone weekend was that the new teams didn’t want a fight with FOTA and just wanted to get on with it.

Here they are being set on a potential collision course because if the costs are significantly higher than £40 million with no real prospect of them being able to survive and prosper then they will find it hard to agree.

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The belt tightening in F1 continues. Today Toyota confirmed that it is withdrawing from a deal to host the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway, as it deals with mounting losses. Earlier this year the company said that it expected to lose over $1 billion in 2009.

The race will now be held at Suzuka, which, ironically is owned by Honda, who withdrew from F1 last year.

The actual cost of hosting the race is relatively modest compared to the running costs of the F1 team. The event sanctioning fee will be in the $20 million per season range, around 10% of what Toyota is likely to spend this year with the cost cutting measures put in place last December by FOTA and the FIA. But Toyota is able to recoup much of that from ticket sales, so the withdrawal is saving quite a modest amount and is clearly symbolic more than anything else.

Toyota, as part of the Formula One Teams Association, is in the process of finalising the rules and cost saving measures for 2010 and 2011, as agreed two weeks ago in the breakthrough deal with the FIA.

Although there have been rumours all season that Toyota may be pulling out of F1 soon, the team has always denied this and implied that the rumours were being spread by people who would like Toyota to leave F1.

Today’s announcement does not make it more likely that the team will pull out, after all they recently committed to stay in F1 until 2012 as part of FOTA’s side of the deal with FIA and FOM, but it does show that the red pen is out at Toyota and it sends a strong message to the FOTA negotiators that the board is calling for deep cuts in F1 spending when the 2010/2011 rules are finalised. FOTA has committed itself to getting budgets down to early 1990s levels, that is to say around £40 million without engine costs.

On a personal level, although I love Suzuka, I shall really miss Fuji. Being close to Tokyo helped a lot, as Suzuka is very isolated. The Fuji event was much better than I thought it was going to be and the circuit has a tremendous atmosphere. It also lent itself to exciting racing.

Meanwhile it seems that in the UK and Germany the scrappage scheme, whereby you can recoup £2500 off the cost of a new car if you scrap your old one has slowed the fall in new car sales, giving some relief to troubled car makers.

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Bernie Ecclestone’s interview in the Times last weekend has brought a furious response from politicians and virtual silence from the F1 community.

Most people in F1 don’t really want to get drawn into it, as they argue he shouldn’t have allowed himself to be in the first place.

What most people don’t understand is why he did the interview. He didn’t appear to have a key message to sell, such as “I know the breakaway threat looked bad, but F1 is now in the best shape it’s ever been in, ” or something of that kind.

There are suggestions that it may have been to help his old friend and colleague Max Mosley and suggestions to the opposite. It certainly aroused some uncomfortable memories of last year’s News of the World headlines and their Nazi association, which Mosley successfully challenged in court.

But actually I think what has happened here is extremely timely in the current debate about F1 and what direction it should take next in terms of governance.

Ecclestone has spoken to Bild newspaper, the German equivalent of the Sun to say that he has been misunderstood,

“All this is a big misunderstanding,” he said. “In the interview we were talking about structures and that it can sometimes be good to act and make strong decisions without reservation. I wasn’t using Hitler as a positive example, but pointing out that before his dreadful crimes he worked successfully against unemployment and economic problems.

“It was never my intention to hurt the feelings of any community. Many people in my closest circle of friends are Jewish.”

Ecclestone himself is Jewish and on his Saturdays off he can be seen in a very famous London cafe with his largely Jewish friends, drinking coffee and discussing.

Although he has got into trouble for choosing some poor examples to illustrate his point, he seems to have been trying to make the wider point that democracy is on the wrong path, that politicians today are more concerned with their image, distracted by the 24 hour news cycle, than they are with getting things done. He believes that the best system of government is where people put their faith in dictators and trust them to make tough decisions and get things done.

In this his start point is his own experience in motor sport and it has some interesting reflections on the current situation in F1 with an uneasy truce currently in place between the teams and the men who run the sport.

It has been proven over the years in motor sport that the best way to run a racing series is by a ‘benevolent dictatorship’. This is true at all levels. Someone needs to get things done and make decisions and the rest abide by them. Series run by the teams themselves don’t really work, like CART in the USA for example.

F1 is where it is today because it has been run by a dictatorship and for many years the team owners like Ron Dennis, Frank Williams and even Luca di Montezemolo were quite happy to go along with it because their series became the biggest motor sport show on Earth.

But now times have changed and that is what the F1 power struggle is all about.

The key to it is the ‘benevolent’ bit. If a tough, strong, but fair leader is in charge then things get done and it works, as long as everyone is treated equally. The teams feel that this is no longer the case and they are highlighting instances like the selection of new teams, (with today’s allegations in the Telegraph that having a Cosworth engine contract was a requirement for entry) to show that this system of governance has gone down the wrong track.

What the F1 teams want, motivated by the manufacturers, is a more democratic F1. This is why Max Mosley’s message to the FIA members is that their institution is under threat because the Formula One Teams Association thinks it can run the sport itself. History would suggest that it would be a mistake for them to try to do that and I think it is what Bernie was trying to say (obliquely) in the interview with the Times. But the problem is, he chose some bad examples to illustrate his point.

His words have hurt many people it seems, but I think what will hurt him about this episode is the impression that he is out of touch, an accusation levelled at him over his response to the racism incident where Spanish fans mocked Lewis Hamilton.

The interesting thing will be whether anyone in F1 seeks to capitalise on this episode or whether the teams will remain focussed on Mosley and his ‘retirement’ in October.

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There are a few interesting threads around today. The Times has an extraordinary interview with F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone where he explores the theme of ‘dictators’.

Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo recently implied that FIA president Max Mosley was a dictator and Bernie sets out here to defend the breed as people who ‘get things done’.

“Politicians are too worried about elections, ” he says. “We did a terrible thing when we supported the idea of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, he was the only one who could control that country.

Warming to his theme, Bernie tackles the sensitive subject of Hitler, “In the end he got lost so he wasn’t a very good dictator. Either he knew what was going on and insisted, or he just went along with it — either way he wasn’t a dictator.”

Meanwhile I keep hearing stories about the new teams struggling to come to terms with the fact that the F1 they will be entering next year is not the same as the F1 they have signed up to. They came in on the basis of £40 million budget cap and two tier rules which allowed their Cosworth engines to run at higher revs than the other engines and gave them some aerodynamic advantages too.

Although the deal struck between FOTA and the FIA last week will mean that F1 budgets will be dramatically reduced, it will still not be anywhere near the £40 million next year which was originally on the table. The idea is to get down in 2011 to the budget levels of the early 1990s, which was around £40 million without the engine costs, which were at least that much again.

John Booth, team principal of Manor, one of the new entrants, is quoted today in his local paper, the Yorkshire Post as saying, “”Hopefully, it should become clearer in the next couple of weeks. There does seem an intention from all concerned to get the costs under control. We have only been planning to join formula one for the last five or six months. Over the years it has not been feasible, you had to be a multi, multi-millionaire to even consider it.”

Meanwhile Manor is currently the subject of some controversy regarding the involvement of FIA chief steward Alan Donnelly in the team’s F1 entry.

According to the Guardian, Manor already has VIrgin as a 20% shareholder and Donnelly was working on finding further equity partners and sponsorship for the team in Saudi Arabia. The paper reveals details of a leaked email to illustrate the point. The email was allegedly sent on on 29 May, two weeks before the FIA announced the three successful new teams.

This is part of what looks like quite a systematic attack on Donnelly, following on from the stories about him lobbying teams in Turkey, particularly Ross Brawn’s to leave FOTA’s proposed breakaway and sign up to the FIA world championship.

It would appear that the tactic is both to undermine Donnelly and his FIA role by alleging conflicts of interest and possibly to force an enquiry into the process by which the entries for 2010 were made, with a view to getting the process re-run.

It’s all part of the ‘great game’; the battle between FOTA and Mosley.

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Here we go again; summer’s here, the temperatures are sky high, there’s a long three week gap between races and Max Mosley and FOTA have gone quiet.

If a vacuum is created something will come along to fill it and in this case it is the Spanish sports paper AS claiming that Ferrari is set to announce its deal with Fernando Alonso at the Italian Grand Prix in September.

According to AS, Monza is where important Ferrari announcements are made (true up to a point) and the traditional end of season Ferrari celebration has been booked in for November at the Valencia circuit (the permanent one, not the F1 street track) in order to celebrate the arrival of the Spanish driver many in the team feel they should have hired in 2006.

“We are not going to waste our time commenting on speculation. Everyone should remember that Massa and Raikkonen have contracts which include 2010,” team spokesman Luca Colajanni is quoted as saying to Gazzetta dello Sport.

I’ve posted on this before, if anyone wants to look back it was during Monaco weekend and just after Christmas last year. Alonso is a Ferrari driver, the deal is done and it is looking increasingly possible that he will drive in 2010 rather than 2011. Who knows whether they will announce it at Monza, but the story fills the news vacuum at the moment.

What I will say is that back in 1995 there were many rumours that Michael Schumacher was going to be announced as a Ferrari driver. The Ferrari press office issued a press release on 20th June which said,

“Ferrari would like to express, for the umpteenth time and with maximum clarity that all stories relating to negotiations with the driver Michael Schumacher are totally false.”

A few weeks later FIAT patriarch Gianni Agnelli announced the signing of Schumacher and new era began.

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You’ve probably not heard of Liam Fairhurst but he was a mad keen F1 fan and he died this week.
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But there’s more to it than that. Liam was only 14 and he had been battling against cancer for four years. He thought he’d beaten it, but it turned out he hadn’t.

Liam was remarkable because when he was being treated the first time he made friends with another child who subsequently died. Upset by the loss of his friend, Liam was determined to raise money for Clic Sargent, the children’s cancer charity, of which Eddie Jordan and I are patrons, which helps children and their families through the struggle of dealing with cancer.

He raised over £320,000.

Liam had an indomitable spirit. Despite being wheelchair bound and through frequent rounds of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and operations, Liam went to a lot of fund raising events. He won a Pride of Britain award.

He was crazy about Formula 1 and was desperate to visit the McLaren factory, which he ended up doing more than once, because Ron Dennis got involved in a bet with him to see how many fish he could catch in the lake at the factory. That turned into another big fundraising initiative.

He was a brave little guy, who proved how much you can achieve if you are really determined.

It puts the struggles of the last few weeks in F1 into perspective really.

To find out more about Clic Sargent and donate please go to
http://www.clicsargent.org.uk

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