Archive for January, 2009

Just received an email from the FIA press department with some great research on how F1 history would have been rewritten if Bernie Ecclestone’s medals idea had been in place since the start of Formula 1 in 1950. The outcome of the world championship would have been different on 13 occasions.

Bernie thinks that the winner of a Grand Prix should get a gold medal and that the winner of the world championship should be the driver who has the most gold medals in that year. This would have meant that Felipe Massa would have won the world title in 2008. Bernie proposed this idea after he attended the Beijing Olympics last summer, but before he went to Ferrari’s press event at Madonna di Campiglio wearing a Ferrari jacket.

Ironically the FIA research has revealed with the medals system the Brabham team under Bernie’s tenure would not have won any world championships, losing the 1981 and 83 titles!

But looking across the span of the years you’d have to say that, with one or two exceptions, it would have given a fairer reflection to the distribution of world championships. Alain Prost would have won five, Ayrton Senna and Jim Clark four and Nigel Mansell three! Also Stirling Moss would have won the world championship. This I think, would have been a fairer reflection of those drivers’ place in F1 history than what we actually have in the record books.

There would have been some losers; Nelson Piquet would have lost all three of his titles. I never thought he was a three time champion driver, not in the same league as Jackie Stewart, for example. Niki Lauda would have won one instead of three, which would probably have been wrong.

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Some good news for F1 TV viewers

Yesterday I wrote about some things we will not be seeing on TV, today I’m posting on a couple of things which will be in the show, although I’m not sure about one of them.

Radio conversations between team and driver have been available for a few years, but the team had a button it needed to press to make the channel open to the TV director. Renault were always very good and open about this, even though it used to irritate them that the director kept playing clips of them telling Fisi to push harder. Ferrari and McLaren were useless at opening the line, and would simply open it at the end, after a victory for some stage managed gushing. This season the radios will be open all the time from every team, so you should hear some much more insightful stuff and get a feel for how the big names come across on radio in the heat of battle.

The other thing I’m not so keen on. I’m told that the teams and the FIA are seriously planning to publish the weights of the cars after qualifying. If this is true I think it is mad as it takes away from the suspense of the opening part of the race and might make teams inclined to do more or less the same thing on fuel strategy as each other, which will create more of a procession.

One of the reasons qualifying with fuel has worked was because there was the chance to go short or long and we couldn’t be absolutely sure, because there was always that margin for driver error.

Also it will devalue the pole before the race has even started if say, Kubica has achieved it by running six laps less fuel than Hamilton and Massa. We’ll all stand on the grid saying, “So what?”

I hope that this change does not come about. The new mood of openess in F1 is good, but this is one step too many for me.

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As regulars here will know, I occasionally like to highlight a feedback comment and there’s one here from Rpaco, who clearly has worked in the car/racing industry at some point. His comment in response to my post yesterday about Charlie Whiting’s briefing really made me laugh.

“Well I trust that the new BBC team will keep us informed of the engine number being used by each car. A spreadsheet will be needed to keep track of them all. Though I have a vision of the Lottery commentator, “the voice of the balls” giving the statistics on each number. ‘This engine was last seen as a bonus Friday engine Monaco and Spa. It has covered 1200 miles and 3 hours on the dyno.’

“Let us also hope that Charlie’s KERS training program for the Marshals goes somewhat further than his stated “We shall send them some instructions to read” All marshals are the salt of the earth, largely unsung, without whom this sport could not exist and many posses great knowledge and a deal more experience and common sense than the so called race stewards.

“However not all are great readers, and a more practical training is necessary, a few 10,000 Volt shocks should do it. 🙂 *Dont touch the ****ing car when the ****ing light is on!”

Actually we could all do with some more information on KERS and engines. It’s often hard to keep tabs on who’s on what engines even when you are in the paddock! And as for KERS, I’m told that there is currently no plan for an on-screen graphic telling the viewer when a driver is hitting his KERS button. I’m sure that Bernie’s FOM TV technical people will get onto this as the season goes on, as it would be indispensable when watching a good dice between two cars.

It rather takes away from the KERS story if the public hasn’t got a clue when and how it is being used. Don’t you think?

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Two thousand five hundred years after the Romans got their kicks from Chariot racing, there is a plan to bring their modern counterparts back to race there.

Plans are afoot for a second Grand Prix in Italy, on a street circuit in Rome. The man behind it is Maurizio Flammini, the founder of the World Superbike series.

Flammini showed the plans to Bernie Ecclestone at the recent Ferrari event in Madonna di Campiglio and Ecclestone seemed interested, according to the Roman entrepreneur. “We reflected on how street races offer an opportunity to grow F1, as happened last year in Valencia and Singapore,” he said in Gazzetta dello Sport today.

Well, up to a point…Luca di Montezemolo, the Ferrari and FOTA president has said the exact opposite, criticising the new street tracks for their lack of overtaking opportunities.

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FIA race director Charlie Whiting today issued a question and answer briefing to F1 journalists with a couple of clarifications of new rules for 2009.

One concerns the eight engines the drivers may use during a season and when penalties may apply and the other regards the safety car.

The engine rule is the one I wrote about here a few weeks ago after the Ferrari launch. Here’s what Charlie had to say on the subject:
“It’s eight engines for the whole year. A driver will only incur a penalty if he uses a ninth engine. So the teams can use the engines as they like. There’s no three consecutive race rule because there doesn’t seem to be a need for it any longer. The engines will not have to do three complete events now.

In the past, as you know, the two-race engine was used only on Saturdays and Sundays. Now, for 17 races, the eight engines will have to do the three days of each grand prix. What the teams will do is to have a Friday engine that’ll probably do the first four races or something of that nature. They’ll then take the engine out and use another one for Saturday and Sunday. All we’ve got to do, – it’ll be extra work – is to make sure that these engines remain sealed and are untouched.”

This is pretty straight forward and logical. I think that engines will become less of a talking point as a result. Although bear in mind two things; first the engines were not designed to do three races, they are being adapted to do so and that may mean some blow ups early on, particularly in testing. A few years ago an engine would be something like 20hp down after two races, but now they are much better at maintaining their performance, so the disadvantage, even after 1500kms will not be significant.

Also Renault has been allowed to bring its engine up to parity with the rest of the field. Charlie would not go into details about how that was achieved, but said it involved one major change.

Charlie also clarified the new situation with safety cars. The rule we’ve existed with the last couple of years, where a car could be caught out having to pit for fuel when the pit lane was closed following the deployment of the safety car, has been dropped. Quite right too, It made no sense for a driver to be penalised because someone else hit the wall. Here’s what Charlie said,

“The rule introduced in 2007 was a bad one, and we’ve gone back to the 2006 regulations. The only difference is we intend to implement a minimum time back to the pits. When we deploy the safety car, the message will go to all the cars, which will then have a “safety car” mode on their ECUs. As soon as that message gets to the car, it’ll know where it is on the circuit, and it’ll calculate a minimum time for the driver to get back to the pits. The driver will have to respect this and the information will be displayed on his dashboard.

If you remember, the reason we closed the pit entry was to remove the incentive for the driver to come back to his pit quickly. That’s gone now, as you won’t be able to reach the pits any quicker than your dashboard display allows you to.”

That’s easier for everyone to understand than before. The show will be improved.

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Why Renault is right to be scared

There have been some worried noises coming out of Renault staff in recent weeks and delving around it’s not hard to see why. The staff have had to take a pay cut, they have acknowledged that there will be a round of redundancies and the title sponsor, Dutch banking and insurance group ING is laying off 7,000 people.

Although the sponsorship has been brilliantly effective for ING and has been exploited very well by its marketing team, it is hard to see how that deal can be renewed when it expires at the end of this season. That could leave Renault looking for a new title sponsor in a super tough environment.

And find a sponsor it must because the Renault parent company is living a nightmare at the moment. At the peak of the business cycle in July 2007 the Renault share price was 120 euros per share, valuing the company at €34 billion. In September 2008 it had fallen to €57 per share and today the share price stands at just €14, valuing the company at just €4 billion. In other words it has lost virtually 90% of its value in 18 months or so.

Last week the French government weighed in with a €6 billion bailout for the French car industry, after a meeting with Renault chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn, who had warned them that the European car industry was about to fall off a cliff.

Ghosn said yesterday that “It may take more than seven years for car sales to return to 2007 levels.”

Against that backdrop, the company has to be thinking of its F1 programme with the same affection as Honda had for theirs. The cost saving package agreed before Christmas was vital, but given that Renault’s estimated spend on F1 was around €300 million last year, you can see that FOTA and the FIA are going to have to cut the costs of competing a bit more seriously still if Renault are to have any chance of carrying on as a competitor in 2010. Hence the rumours about the customer engine deals not carrying on next year. And hence the reason Alonso has done his Ferrari deal, with a potential 2010 start date.

I’m one of life’s optimists, not at all partial to the doom-mongers, who are having such a field day at the moment. But it’s not hard to see where this story is headed.

And then what? I don’t think that the team would be lost to the sport. Seasoned F1 watchers expect veteran Renault F1 boss Flavio Briatore to pick up the team if Renault pull out. The model the FIA has in mind will make the future viable for independents operating on a budget of around £50 million per year so there is plenty to play for there. And knowing Flavio, he’d be able to sell it on again once the business cycle starts picking up. Let’s not forget that the last time Renault pulled out, in 1997, Flavio took on the customer engine supply business through his Supertec concern, which supplied engines to Williams.

Let’s hope we are wrong, but the numbers are definitely right and very worrying.

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What’s an F1 driver worth?

Nick Heidfeld, ever the pragmatist, is quoted today saying that if drivers are to be asked to take a pay cut, so be it, ” We have to adjust ourselves just like everyone else.” Actually Nick is pretty good value at approximately £2.8 million per season. It’s the £30 odd million Raikkonen gets or the £20 million Alonso scoops up, which give the eye catching numbers. The average, according to Formula Money, is £5.5 million. So what are the drivers worth in the current economic climate?

I wrote a post here on Friday about the cost of superlicences and the drivers complaining about the increase in price again this season. To some this is a non-story, but if you look at the comment which is coming out of the drivers and also from Bernie Ecclestone about salaries, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is all starting to come to a head. The licence furore serves to highlight the fact that they are extremely well paid, that puts it on the news agenda and a debate about driver salary caps ensues, as it does from the ongoing debate about cost reduction. The drivers are starting to be caught in a pincer movement.

With teams slashing costs, cutting testing, going for long life engines and gearboxes, the savings already made are significant and yet sitting there on the balance sheet is this whopping great cost – the drivers’ salary. The lucky drivers are contracted forwards for a few years yet, like Lewis Hamilton who is only a year into a five year deal. Kimi Raikkonen is sitting on a contract which was extended last season to the end of 2010. They would have to agree to accept a pay cut, I cannot see how they could have one forced on them as they surely have a contract with payment schedules.

It’s not hard to see why the teams would love to get the costs of drivers down, but the irony is that the more they change the rules to standardise things and cut costs out of making and running the cars, the more important the faster driver becomes…and therefore the more valuable. And now with more things for the driver to do in the car, thanks to adjustible front wings and KERS, the premium on drivers becomes even higher.

But as ever with F1 it’s not as simple as that. Many argue that the most important part of a car is ‘the nut who holds the wheel’ and that is why driver salaries are high – for the best drivers at least. But nowadays a large part of the driver’s salary also reflects his image rights and his use as a marketing face for the brands which associate with his team.

Lewis Hamilton was up in the Midlands last week at a branch of Alliance and Leicester, now owned by Santander/Abbey, helping to draw attention to that fact.

Expect a lot more on this salary story as the season goes on.

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It’s been a quiet day today, BMW are still hammering around in Valencia, but the teams who were all in Portugal are back at base shaking their heads over what a waste of time it was. There was basically only a brief window of a few hours without rain on one day to get any meaningful running done and Toyota had a technical problem at that time anyway, so missed it.

Anyway, the most interesting story I’ve seen today is one on Autosport.com about the drivers getting shirty over a further rise in the cost of their superlicences. Last season the FIA raised the cost of the licences dramatically, some 500%, because it said the cost of the work it has done on safety is mostly for the drivers’ benefit so they should cover some of the costs. A licence went up to 10,000 euros plus 2000 euros per point scored.

This year the rate of increase is much less, only 4% on the basic licence and 5% per point scored, possibly reflecting the credit crunch, but it’s still got the drivers upset and they are refusing to sign their new licence forms. The champion will have to pay just under €220,000, which is actually £220,000 now that the pound has collapsed. I’m sure Hamilton is paid in euros anyway, so it’s probably not the end of the world, but if he was paid in pounds, that makes it another 25-30% more expensive than it was last year.

As a protest chant, “What do we want? Cheaper superlicences..when do we want then NOW!” Is hardly the most dynamic of political statements. And as far as public sympathy is concerned, multi-millionaire drivers seeking support over the cost of their licences at a time when most people fear for their livelihoods will be a hard sell. But the drivers are serious and it seems that the matter will be brought up at the next meeting of the F1 teams’ body, FOTA in the first week of February.

Now FOTA has done some impressive things in its short existence and it’s making good progress in other areas. It has made huge cost savings, found a level on which to talk to Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone and both are taking it very seriously. A spat like this one over drivers’ licences is not something they would ideally like to get embroiled in at this time, it’s a distraction they could do without, but if the teams don’t show support for their drivers, who will?

Mosley says he is prepared to talk to aggrieved drivers, apparently, as long as they reveal their income first!

This is one way of gently highlighting the fact that at present we do not have budget caps in F1, which Mosley and some teams would like, and even when they have been discussed, drivers salaries and marketing budgets have been left out. There has been talk of a wage cap in recent months as the industry faces up to the recession. I was in America a lot in the early 1990s when baseball and and basketball tried to impose a wage cap on players and the players went on strike, as I recall for most of a season, which caused a lot of damage.

No-one is suggesting that a wage cap or a drivers strike are around the corner in F1, but if you wanted to highlight the fact that the salaries of the top drivers are out of alignment with the cost-savings going on elsewhere in the sport and with team employees starting to be laid off, where would you start in raising the issue?

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BMW gets a head start

It’s only week one of the 2009 season, but already BMW has its nose in front. By choosing to go to Valencia this week, the expected challengers for the world title have managed to get some serious dry running in, 99 laps yesterday and 116 laps today.

Ferrari got over 100 laps in today on slicks after covering a similar distance yesterday in the wet, while the teams who went for the new Algarve Portimao circuit have struggled to do much all week and have been watching the rain drilling off the tarmac. Today was a total wash out for Williams, Renault, McLaren and Toro Rosso (still with the 2008 car). Yesterday was the only day they really were able to get anything done on slicks!

BMW has two more days with Nick Heidfeld in Valencia. It’s a bit windy over there on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, but the forecast is fine for the remainder of the test.

It may not seem very significant at the moment, but with only a handful of tests before the season starts in March and then no testing allowed until the season ends, this has been a very positive start by BMW, with very impressive reliability. McLaren and Renault have both had minor early teething problems.

Ferrari has made solid progress with its KERS system and is making more positive noises about using it from the start of the season.

Ideally, the teams who’ve suffered this week in Portugal would like to add some days to their schedule to make up for lost time. But the new testing rules for 2009 mean that they cannot. The days are lost. Advantage BMW.

It’s still too early to say who’s quick. That picture will not emerge until well into next month.

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How can our sport identify and nurture the best driving talents and bring them to F1? What is the best way to evaluate a young driver?

One of the eye catching lines Bernie Ecclestone came out with recently in an interview with my Financial Times colleague Christian Sylt was a dismissal of the revived Formula 2 series as merely something Max Mosley came up with when he was going through “a problem with his private life “ last summer. It was “all done for the wrong reasons,” he said.

While it is true that F2 was announced in the midst of the Mosley/News of the World situation, on closer inspection it is a serious project and it could turn out to be a threat to GP2, which is why Bernie was scathing. I spent some time recently with the man charged with running the series for the FIA, ex F1 driver Jonathan Palmer, and got a look at what he and the FIA think is the model for the future of motor sport.

Bringing a driver up to F1 level is very expensive; it costs £600,000 for a season of Formula 3 and an eye watering £1.3 million for a season of GP2. Admittedly the GP2 is a good show; the racing is exciting, the series supports all the European Grands Prix and has a strong TV package because it is sold with F1 to rights holders. So it’s high profile and gives the drivers 24 races a season. There is a lot of value there.

But in this climate young drivers will find it much harder to raise £1.3 from family, friends and sponsors because everyone is hurting for cash at the moment.

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