Archive for the ‘FOTA’ Category

As the teams return to the UK and the dust begins to settle on an explosive weekend, we start to contemplate the next stage in the saga over Lewis Hamilton and McLaren ‘deliberately misleading’ the stewards.

The feeling on Saturday was that Hamilton’s frank and astonishing ‘mea culpa’, held in the FIA press conference room, was enough to satisfy the FIA. McLaren, however, still have a lot more explaining to do.

“We recognise Lewis’s efforts to set the record straight today,” an FIA spokesman told Reuters.

“It would appear that he was put in an impossible position. We are now awaiting reports from the FIA observer and stewards before consideration can be given to further investigation of his team’s conduct.”

This is ominous. If I was McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh I’d be feeling the trapdoor beneath my feet starting to slip on its hinges a little.

On Sunday morning Whitmarsh revealed that his own future was on the agenda as part of a review of the whole episode, as McLaren prepares to face the music from the FIA.

“In the longer term I can contemplate my own future. Of course it is not self-determining, it’s for the shareholders of this team to take a view and that’s something they have to decide what’s the best thing. I’m not resigning this weekend. We’ve made a commitment to look at how we arrived in this situation and we’ve got to learn from it and we’ve got to better in future.”

The problem for McLaren is that Whitmarsh is the heir apparent, the man groomed by Ron Dennis for the last 20 years to take over. Below him there’s not another dauphin. Whitmarsh is only 50 years old – although he’s probably aged another 10 this weekend – and beneath him there are layers of management, but no-one with hands on racing experience or experience of dealing with FIA and FOM. The next in command is Jonathan Neale, a very competent COO, but not team principal in waiting. If Whitmarsh goes they will almost certainly have to recruit someone.

The list of questions Whitmarsh is likely to face from the FIA is examined by Ed Gorman in The Times blog. He raises some questions that Whitmarsh needs to answer about the scape-goating of Dave Ryan and about what happened between Sunday’s meeting with the stewards and his own appearance before the media on Thursday, when he denied that lies had been told.

Ed writes; “It is easy to imagine Hamilton and Ryan making things up between themselves and going into the room and saying something they should never have done. But the part that stretches credibility to breaking point is the idea that after Melbourne and before the pair were summoned back before the stewards on Thursday in Kuala Lumpur, that no-one else in the team was made aware of what they had said and what was going on. It is important to appreciate that when Ryan and Hamilton went back to the stewards in Sepang they both continued to lie and to stick to their story from Melbourne. This has been confirmed both by McLaren and the FIA. It beggars belief that, in a team like McLaren which has been taught by Ron Dennis to think in a complex and often self-defeating way about even the most simple problems, that this critical issue would not have been more widely discussed by senior management before they went back in and approved by those people (or maybe not approved by some of them).

“McLaren being caught lying through the actions of Ryan and Hamilton is one thing; if it turns out that they have properly scapegoated Ryan and lied again about who knew about what was going on, I would fear for the consequences on their behalf. The FIA is not going to like that at all. The Times does in fact have an admission of sorts on this issue but it would be improper to report it here at this stage.”

Whitmarsh said on Sunday that he had been on a couple of days’ holiday after Melbourne, his wife was with him, and that was why he’d not been on top of the situation. I think that he probably hadn’t realised the full picture and was a little complacent.

Expect word very soon from the FIA as to when the hearing will be set for a deeper examination of this episode. McLaren was warned about its future conduct at the end of the spy scandal in 2007.

Have you noticed how quiet FOTA has been on this issue? No words of support. The teams’ spirit of brotherhood and togetherness does not extend to defending a brother, who shoots himself in the foot as spectacularly as McLaren has done.

The other teams are upset with McLaren for acting with such stupidity. It has done nothing for their cause.

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It was all looking so good, Ross Brawn saves the Honda team, the car turns out to be a rocket ship, David threatens Goliath, a shake up of the old order was in prospect. The racing was shaping up to be really close, with many teams on roughly the same pace. In other words a great season was in prospect, as many of you have said in your comments on this blog.

And now with a week to go until the first race, we have the FIA backtracking on the winner takes all points rule, because the FOTA teams did not unanimously agree it and then there is the virtual certainty of a messy technical protest into the legality of the diffusers on some of the cars, including Brawn, which will dominate the weekend and be well beyond the understanding of most of the fans and the media.

F1’s capacity to shoot itself in the foot is to the fore again.

As I’ve been saying in my recent posts here since the Barcelona test, the Brawn car is seriously fast, perhaps fast enough to stay out front for quite a while before teams like Ferrari and BMW catch up. It would be intriguing if one of the Brawn drivers got a good head start on the field with four or five early wins.

It would then be tough for one other driver to get beyond that total. With McLaren seemingly out of the picture at the start of the season and the two Ferrari drivers likely to share the wins between them across the season, the way is clear if one of the Brawn guys can gain supremacy, to open up a bit of a lead, which under the winner takes all system might make him champion.

Ed Gorman in the Times today writes that this is the suspicion of the FIA as to why the teams are now refusing to sign off on the new winner tales all system for deciding the champion.

Brawn’s pace is certainly not going to encourage the other teams to sign up, but I think the real reason the teams have kicked back on this one is simply because they can.

To bring in a new rule at short notice requires the teams to sign off on it unanimously and, stunned by the FIA’s budget cap move, they’ve said, “You know what? We aren’t going to to that, Max.”

Mosley must have known that there was a risk of this and the blame appears to be being deflected onto the teams, but also onto Bernie Ecclestone, who allegedly told Mosley that the teams were on side with the new system. Maybe they were at the time, but given the opportunity to put the brakes on an FIA initiative, they’ve taken it.

In other words its another step in what is now clearly going to be a drawn out battle
between the FIA and the FOTA teams. It’s not what anyone wants or needs, for a sport to be seen to not know what the hell it’s doing eight days before the start of a new season. One of my old heads of sport at ITV, a football man, used to say that he quite liked F1 as a spectacle, but that it too often it opened itself up to ridicule. And that’s what we have again here.

The FIA brought out some stunning material on Tuesday, particularly the £30 million budget cap, which would oblige the top teams to shed three quarters of it workforce, and would encourage a gold rush for new teams to come in to the sport.

This blocking move by FOTA and the embarrassment caused to the FIA, is likely to harden the FIA’s resolve to leave the capped figure at £30 million, rather than negotiate it up to the £50-60 million, which is more feasible.

I was also interested to see Lewis “No comment” Hamilton commenting quite strongly yesterday on this. His words, especially the second paragraph below, read like they were drafted by a FOTA or McLaren speechwriter, but as the reigning world champion, who has hitherto kept his opinions to himself, his words carry real weight,

“It’s a shame what is happening to Formula One. It’s hard to believe that these recent decisions will improve things for the trackside spectators and TV viewers, who should always be our No1 priority, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

“For the first time in recent years we have the teams, drivers, sponsors and fans all working together for the good of our sport – now we just need the governing bodies to listen to us and help us.”

Yesterday’s short statement by the FIA that the new system would not be introduced if the teams did not all agree it, sits oddly for me. Max Mosley is famous for planning everything meticulously. Something has gone wrong here.

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Just going back through my email archive I came across the February 29th press release from the FIA anticipating what arrived yesterday. Take a look, especially paragraph 3 and see how it evolved from here.

“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.

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From a fans’ point of view the big story from yesterday’s FOTA press conference was the changes they’d like to make to shorten the races, change the points and boost the TV coverage.

Martin Whitmarsh spoke about the desire to change the points system to reward the winner and podium finishers and to shorten the races by fifty miles, which for the average race will take about 20 minutes off the race time. The points thing will exaggerate the difference between the top teams and the rest and is possibly a payback for the big guys agreeing so many cost cuts and giving cheap engines and gearboxes to the smaller teams for the next three years.

All of this is in response to a huge public survey FOTA conducted. Unlike the recent ING/F1 Racing survey, this one asked people who are mildly interested in F1, not the diehards and the proposals are a response to that. These are the right people to be having that dialogue with because they represent the potential for growth.

Flavio Briatore picked up this theme, talking about how the TV show needed improving. And here we get into some difficulties.

FOTA propose to spice up the show by revealing the weights of the cars after qualifying, opening all radio conversations, showing which cars are fuelled to the finish and showing predictions of where a car will slot in after a pit stop.

Removing all suspense in other words, which I have to say might be a mistake. Telling people right away how much fuel everyone had when they set their fast lap makes qualifying even more meaningless than it is already and takes all the suspense out of the opening phase of the race. The not-knowing sometimes is the best bit. There were quite a few times when I was a TV commentator that I knew more than I let on because it was clear to me that by revealing the information I would ruin the sporting suspense.

The problem here is that they want to make it more accessible to the casual fan, which is laudable and they have some very good ideas like constructors’ championship points for the fastest pit crew. There is some fantastic information the teams have which would be of massive interest to viewers, like a graphic which shows the different lines drivers take around a corner, the radio traffic of course and things which only they see at present.

But to reveal many of the things proposed today would make F1 races less a sporting spectacle and more like a scientific process, with a predictable outcome. I think they need to be more selective, not give all the goodies away too soon.

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Behind the scenes at FOTA

Yesterday was frantic. I got up at 4-30am in London and got the 6-50am BA flight to Geneva with a load of excited people who were going skiiing. Geneva was cold and wet, the motor show is on, but there isn’t much enthusiasm from (or for) the car industry at the moment.

The FOTA press conference was held in a kind of transport museum, not far from the airport. There weren’t as many media there as I’d expected. The usual faces from Italy, Germany, UK, but not the hundreds I thought might come. It’s a sign that the credit crunch is affecting the budgets of many media organisations and I’m sure that the press office at the GPs will have a few more empty seats.

It’s also because FOTA is a slightly odd story in a way I guess. I’m not sure many people have fully appreciated the significance of FOTA and of this day, the first time the teams have all got together with Ferrari at the heart of it and put on a show to say how they want F1 to be run both in terms of governance and commercially and how serious they are about it. They feel they can shape the rule and have more of a stake in the revenues.

For such a big moment, it was a very calm atmosphere. Ferrari and FOTA president Luca di Montezemolo was very much the star of the show, he was centre stage and everyone else played second fiddle, including Ron Dennis. Montezemolo was aware of this and towards the end he asked Ron to say a few words, introducing him by saying that many people would be astonished to see him and Ron together on the same platform, but it was a sign of how FOTA was about togetherness and so on. Although he’s a few years older than Ron he cheekily introduced him as ‘the oldest man on the stage’ but Ron quickly came back with, “But I date younger women..:!” Which he most certainly does.

Some of the behind the scenes chat was about who will follow Montezemolo when his one year term is up. the logical next man in line is Dennis, but there is a feeling that he might prove more devisive and lack the ‘we’re all equals here’ charm of Montezemolo.

Ron had looked quite awkward on the back row. The front row was made up of the chairman (Montezemolo) the deputy chairman (Toyota’s John Howett) and the people who were speaking, Mario Theissen from BMW, Renault’s Flavio Briatore and McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh. The other team bosses were on the back row.

After hearing all this talk of the dramatic cost savings they had made I was sorely tempted to ask for a show of hands of who had flown in on a commercial airline, but I thought that would be churlish. There is no doubt that a huge amount of work has been done behind the scenes in a very short space of time and the measures announced today are pretty impressive. But I can’t see many of these guys dropping the private jet.

Montezemolo spoke about how they wanted to preserve the DNA of F1, it’s technical challenge, but how they wanted to balance the costs and the revenues and improve the show. He admitted that the credit crunch had forced them all together, but said that this was a positive thing. It certainly is from the point of view of the former Honda team, which would have died without FOTA and some of the others who might well have pulled out. They were all serious about FOTA from July onwards, but when Honda pulled the plug it galvanised them into action.

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The Formula One Teams Association held its first press conference today here in Geneva and the show of strength from the teams underlined how united they are.

The headlines are that they have agreed to measures for 2010 which will cut budgets by 50% compared to the 2008 season. This will mean teams like Force India needing a budget of around £50 million and a top team like Ferrari and McLaren operating on £150 million. It’s impressive progress, but still some way short of what FIA president Max Mosley is looking for. I think the FIA will probably accept these proposals when they are put to them in the next couple of days. Montezemolo told me afterwards that he thinks they will go further in 2011 and 2012 reducing costs, but also looking to increase revenues, particularly from the internet.

They have achieved the 50% saving for 2010 by going through the costs and making savings they are all comfortable with like a 50% cut in aerodynamics work, more savings on gearboxes, a reduction in the number of updates allowed on the car in a season and a further cut in testing. They will also cut the cost of engine supply for small teams by another 37.5% (ie from £5 million per season to £3.2m, so engine and gearbox will be under £5 million total. They also agreed unanimously to standardise the KERS systems and a tender will go out shortly to that effect. It will be very interesting to see what Max Mosley thinks of that…

They have also called for two significant changes to the racing for this season – they want races to be shortened to 150 miles from the current 200 (so Felipe Massa gets his way, see post yesterday!) and for the winner to be better rewarded with a points system which goes 12-9-7-5-4-3-2-1.

The manufacturer teams will make gearboxes available to privateers for £1.5 million per season.

FOTA chairman Luca di Montezemolo also confirmed that all the manufacturers in F1 have committed to stay in the sport until 2012, putting to bed any suggestion that Renault or Toyota might pull out and it was confirmed that the former Honda team will be on the grid in 2009, (see separate post).

It is quite clear that without the FOTA initiatives of the last few months, Honda would have been dead and maybe one or tow more teams would have followed.

All the teams will now sign the Concorde Agreement by March 18th and that will provide a lot of stability to the sport.

They have also committed to provide more information for viewers this season to make the races more entertaining to watch, such as all the fuel data after qualifying, the radio conversations will be totally open and they want to make a graphic showing which cars are fuelled to the finish. Whether Bernie Ecclestone chooses to use these graphics on his TV feed is another question….

I’ll post later on the mood here, the details of the proposals etc, but these are the headlines.

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