Testing times in Formula 1

3 08 2009

No sooner than the f1 world was rocked by the news BMW intended to leave F1 at the end of the season, further news came crashing in, as it was revealed that Felipe Massa would be replaced by Michael Schumacher as he recovered from his horrific incident at the Hungaroring.

Putting all feelings, aside on the matter, which have polarised large chunks of the F1 fanbase, the return of the former world champion raised a number of issues. Not least how he will prepare for the next race with the current testing ban in place.

All the F1 teams do have a reserve driver as a contingency if one of their drivers is ill or unable to compete, with the ban on testing though and restrictions on having a 3rd car available for Friday running, these drivers are a last resort and their experience of an up to date car will be limited to a simulator

These are often highly sophisticated pieces of kit, which attempt to replicate the race cars as best they can. However the reduction in testing this season has forced teams to adapt their cars on the fly with far less data than they would like. Not only does this make the job of driving them harder, but I would imagine the subtle changes in characteristics makes modelling for a nightmare. Not to mention the key issue of how the car handles on its tyres has been far from consistent this year, simulating this would again be tricky.

With this lack of preparation, it is understandable that people were concerned when Torro Rosso announced their intentions to replace Sebastian Bourdais with a youngster who had never sat in a GP2 car, let alone driven a current F1 car around in anger. Jaime Alguersuari’s as allowed to do some limited preparation running straight line tests before the race weekend, but it was not until his sighting lap on Friday morning that he was able to get a genuine feel for the car on a circuit.

Questions have been raised about the safety of these restrictions; it is certainly less than ideal to have drivers with next to no experience of a 2009 f1 car sharing a track with guys pushing to the absolute limit in order to win the world championship. Hopefully this will be taken into account in future, and we can see the return of some testing, perhaps less than the endless lapping of Barcelona we saw in the past, but if they had one test day a month, or so, then it could be done collectively, and broadcast which would no doubt make the sponsors happy.

In any case these are the regulations we have now, so it would seem logical that the arrival of Schumacher at the next race would be preceded by the same sort of preparation as Jamie had.

However Ferrari’s resources are far greater, and despite the fact that F1 is supposed to be in the midst of a 2 week factory shutdown, Schumacher has been able to run over 70 laps in a 2 year old f1 car around Ferrari’s own test track. This is within the legal letter of the law as whilst the F! facility was closed, Ferrari have the benefit of running Schumacher’s testing though their F1 Cliente programme, which offers wealthy clients the chance to use a selection of 200 former Ferrari racing cars

I cant see how any other team would have gotten away with running such testing, although they technically may not have broken the rules, they do seem to have broken the spirit of them. It was a terrible accident that Felipe went though, and I am sure virtually everyone watching has some sympathy for the team. Unlike Torro Rosso they are not replacing their driver by choice; however it is important F1 has a stable set of rules, and that they are universally applied.

If running testing, even of an old car when your factory is supposed to be shut down is questionable, than Ferrari’s subsequent request to allow Schumacher the chance to do a limited test was pushing it. To do this they would need to approach the FIA with unanimous consent from all the teams. Some FOTA members were amenable to this idea, with goodwill from Massa’s accident as well as the teams trying to keep the unity the organisation needs to survive

This plan however did not get off the ground, firstly blocked by suspended FOTA member Williams who didn’t see any reason to break the regulations, and also by the red bull teams, who presumably didn’t want to an extend a luxury their new driver did not have to a rival team. The fact that they also asked for permission to test him and were denied by the other teams is interesting. Did Ferrari make a big noise about the request hoping the publicity would barge it though, or perhaps they knew it wouldn’t be granted but thought they had nothing to loose by asking.

In any case this summer has thrown up a number of driver changes, as Nelson Piquet’s empty seat driver continues a summer of changes on the grid. Perhaps this will highlight the need for the teams to look again at the testing ban. It will be interesting to see if the 3 new teams entering F1 next year are allowed to test whilst this season is still progressing. With news that Ferrari were testing parts for their 2010 car a the Nubergring, and a certain amount of carry over due to stability in the technical regulations, it is hard to see how the new teams wont be at a disadvantage if they cant run at least a few tests ahead of when the current teams return to testing.


Where in the world is Formula One?

28 07 2009

The Formula 1 world championship has seen its calendar undergo a lot of changes over the past few decades. Under Bernie Ecclestone charge formula one has visited more than 40 circuits since 1979, and all of the current venues bar Monaco Silverstone and Monza have been added to the championship by Bernie (http://formulaone.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/23/interesting-ecclestone-fact/)

Circuits come and go off of the calendar as their contracts with Bernie allow. The criteria, appears to almost be entirely be based upon the financial strength of the race promoter. This system does not lend itself to be particularly stable. The United States has seen its grand prix jump on and off the calendar like an angry kangaroo, whilst the French Grand prix, a race which dates back to 1906 and ran interrupted from 1956 found itself without a spot on the F1 calendar for 2009.

It is in this context that race fans all across the world live in perpetual fear that their race could be about to depart and be replaced on the calendar by an event in Shanghai or Istanbul which will be attended by the proverbial 3 men and a dog.

The calendar itself has no fixed number of events, flirting over the past decade from  16 in 1999 to 19 in 2005 with 17 this year. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Formula_One_Grands_Prix#Races_by_season) Races are normally announced through deals being signed between Formula one management and the circuit promoter for a certain number of years. This is followed by the publishing of a provisional calendar, usually in June, which is then ratified by the FIA World Motorsport Council, Usually at the end of the year.

I am writing this post as it is now the end of July, and no provisional calendar has been announced. There are clouds of uncertainty over the presence and location of both the British and German Grand Prix’s. The world championship has missed North America completely in 2009, and there are question marks over the future of races in Hungary and Turkey.

The political turmoil and potential breakaway have done negotiations for venues next year no good at all. It is likely the provisional calendar will be released after the Concorde agreement is signed. However the global financial crisis has put pressure on a lot of venues under pressure, with questions over the funding of the upgrading of Donnington Park to F1 level, and the Race promoters at the Nurbergring declaring that they have no interest in running the race every year as it is not viable.

So where are we going in 2010?

The Monaco Grand Prix is pretty much the centrepiece of F1, so we can assume this is going to be run. A new circuit is being added to the calendar in South Korea (http://www.grandprix.com/ns/ns17550.html). Existing multi-year deals are in place with many of this years venues as well giving us a probable calendar looking like this

Australia// Malaysia// China// Bahrain// Barcelona// Monaco// Turkey// Britain// Valencia// Belgium//Singapore// Korea// Brazil// AbuDhabi

Despite the Hungaroring supposedly having signed a deal to host the race until 2016, announced ahead of the 2008 race. But doubts have been aired as to the viability of the race this year, with suggestions for replacements in both Romania and Bulgaria being put forward.

Turkey has one year left on its deal and it is likely that F1’s return to the Istanbul track will be its last for the foreseeable future. Malaysia’s deal is also in its final year next year, although this is expected to be renewed. The British Grand Prix is likely to return, with a deal being signed with Donnington, however if they are unable to deliver on this, it can return to its previous home at Silverstone.

The Italian Grand Prix needs to renew its deal this year to continue at Monza for 2010, and although this hasn’t happened, it is expected to be confirmed at the race this year.

Both Germany and Japan face some uncertainty, deals were in place to alternate the races between two circuits in each country, however both Hockenheim and the Fuji circuit have stated they will be unable to proceeded with hosting next year. It remains to be seen if the partner venues can or will host every year.

The absence of North American races has caused some discomfort with the teams who are eager to be racing in such a big market. Negotiations for a return to Montréal for the Canadian Grand prix next year have been taking place though, although no resolution appears to have been found. The teams have also been making noises about having more input to the calendar, with a return to the US being heavily hinted about. It is interesting that the former venue of the US grand prix, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is now under new management, so new negotiations may be possible.

We should have a better idea of where the calendar is headed when the provisional list is published. But I hope to comment on the rumours and speculation as negotiations develop.

Through the eyes of Empire

30 06 2009

The troubles over the future of formula one over the past weeks have been well documented, from the apparent departure of the teams from the FIA championship on the eve of the British Grand Prix, to the apparent outbreak of common sense at a meeting in Paris last week.

I however want to look at this conflict in another way; with the FIA as The powerful, established empire, and the teams as its frustrated colonies wanting more say in their destiny.

The first image this will conjure up for most people will be the American Revolution. Thirteen colonies, in this case eight teams, joining together to throw off the colonial yoke, and go it alone into a brave new world. The enthusiastic radicals and reluctant conservatives led by a respected moderate, standing up to their former masters, for a future of their own.

Of course the red coats have been replaced by the darker suits of gangs of lawyers keen to wield their stacks of paper and bring the rebellious to heal. But the old adage of the American Revolutionaries ‘No taxation without representation’ holds just as true for formula one today.

The teams perceive themselves as doing all the hard work in the sport; and although they have no desire to move from racers to governors, they believe they have the right to have a say, especially with the amount of money they see themselves generating for others. This situation differs slightly from history, as the teams serve two masters, unlike the one empire. One of the masters rules over them, the other taxes. This solution works perfectly as long as the teams in the middle are happy and do the work.

Clearly though, with the teams unhappy with both their ruler and their taxer they felt they had to revolt, as they could not continue under the status quo. Revolutions are initially simple, anyone can protest, but ultimately they become very difficult, as the protagonists have to step up to the roles of governing, for which they may not be prepared. It is one thing to complain, it is quite another to solve everything.

Perhaps these difficulties played on the revolutionaries minds as they headed to a last minute peace conference, or perhaps the talk of revolution was just to buy them a seat at the table to negotiate for something else.

Of course belonging to the empire has its advantages in Prestige, and resources. In colonial times this would serve to ward off potential aggressors, in the modern context it provides access to the television contracts and the promotion and negotiation skills of Bernie Ecclestone.

The desires on both sides to remain together led to the teams and the FIA to come to a solution more akin to the Colonial Autonomy seen in Australia and Canada. This allows the teams to have a say in their own governance with the FIA, whilst also allowing them the Benefits of the status quo.

The key factor in this solution however is that the former rebels must respect the authority of the Empire, if this does not happen the Empire has nothing to gain by sharing its sovereignty, and the situation can easily fall back to how it was before the revolution happens.

Max and some members of the FIA clearly feel that the celebrations and commentary by the former rebels did not do so with the respect he expected. The whole peace deal now rocks on a precipice, its fate ultimately depends on how much everyone jumps about, it can be saved by calm and quite discussion, any jumping around and it will slide down the cliff to its destruction.

The Great Puppeteer

23 06 2009

During the BBC’s coverage of the British Grand Prix on Sunday they spoke to Max Mosley, where he made the assertion that Flavio Briatore was keen to take over running the commercial activities of formula one from Bernie. This was somewhat of a surprise as Flav and Bernie are close friends and business partners owning queens park rangers together.

Bernie is 78 years old, and although he is arguably doing the job as well as he ever has, he is understandably having to step back a little; missing the first race of the year in Melbourne, as well as Turkish Grand Prix earlier in the month. He would undoubtedly deny his age is hampering his ability to run the sport but he isn’t getting any younger.

There has also been recent speculation that Max could step behind the scenes at the FIA putting a replacement of his choosing in the president’s role, but keeping all the power. This would allow him to avoid any personal involvement in the politics, but at the same time keep hold of the organisation he sees as his own.

Putting all these facts together with a bit of imagination and a theory (or conspiracy theory) materialises. Could Bernie be putting Flav forward as a replacement who he could act through, in the short term at least? Of course Flav is a very strong personality, and going by the size of his yacht, he isn’t short on ambition either. But moving from a team boss to run the commercial side of F1 is no easy task, and doing it with Bernie’s support would defiantly make that process easier.

It could be attractive to Bernie as well. It would allow him to step back from the demands of the sport somewhat, whilst still having a stay. It could also be very difficult for him to move into running a FOTA series, without facing lawsuits from the people he currently does it for in F1, CVC.

It’s just a theory, but could it just be plausible?

Martyrdom for Max?

23 06 2009

Tomorrow sees the world motorsport council meet in Paris, And FOTA’s plans for a new series will loom large in the room like an elephant free of its chains. Ferrari will be represented there by Luca di Montzemolo , fresh from FOTA’s call for the body to intervene in its disagreements with the FIA.

It is possible that the body will side with FOTA at the meeting and ask max to step down or the good of the sport. This I believe is highly unlikely as Max has done his best over his 4 terms in office to ensure that the only people who get near the top of the FIA are those who are loyal to him. The swift promotion for former rally driver Mohamed Bin Suleyham, (A member of a powerful Dubai family) to FIA vice-president after he orchestrated Max’s survival of a vote of no confidence illustrates max’s political manoeuvring in the FIA.

Max has today announced his intention to run for another term as FIA president, at the elections in October. This is a strong warning to the FIA and especially WMSC members that he is not going anywhere, and betraying him would not be a good idea. He wants everyone to know that nothing has changed, and he is still the man with the power.

Max is often described as a dictator, and although this is not entirely true, he does have an incredibly tight grip on the FIA; much like a dictator it would take something drastic to happen in order for him to be ousted. The FOTA breakaway is just a small protest in this context, and it would need someone to escalate it into a full on rebellion to oust max. Any individuals going down this route would be risking their careers, and doing something at this point may be too risky.

Max at this point may well be looking at his legacy, he could of course point to his work in the area of Safety, pushing though the Ncap testing standards for road cars, and the lack of fatalities or serious injuries in F1. However being remembered as the FIA president who split F1 or took it out of the federation’s control will not appeal to him.

The teams have made it clear that they no longer wish to deal with max, although ultimately it is not there decision to make, it does make life difficult for him. His intention of seeking re-election eliminates one convenient avenue for his departure, and he appears to be secure enough to avoid being pushed. This leaves the options remaining as a continuation of the fight, an unlikely compromise, or perhaps Max opting to jump himself.

The idea of Max resigning seems alien to many in the F1 world, but it may be the option which saves the most face for F1 and make it look like he has been the bigger man, saving F1 in the process. It would also likely enable him to virtually nominate his successor; Mr Bin Suleyham perhaps? It is hard to see Max taking up any other career, so perhaps he could find himself a position elsewhere in the FIA where he could pull strings unseen. The teams will be well aware of this risk however, and eagerly watching out for signs it is happening.

If Max does go on, so must the war, and the preciously finite resource of time dwindles further with each skirmish and day which passes.

The war of escalation pauses for a breath.

20 06 2009

Following FOTA’s announcement of a breakaway late on Thursday night, the ball was thrown back to Max Mosley and all eyes were on him once again. The FIA deadline for the FOTA teams to enter unconditionally was imminent, and during the first free practice at Silverstone, we heard the man himself say a statement would be released later.

Max had several options at this point, firstly he could have resigned, however this seems a virtual impossibility given the resilience of the man, and his determination to survive even in the face of the revelations made by a British tabloid last year.

A second option available to max, would have been to fight fire with fire, and replace the five FOTA teams whose entries were regarded as conditional with 5 new teams such as Prodrive, ho had been advised to remain on standby by the FIA. This would have been highly inflammatory and almost certainly guaranteed the creation of a breakaway as 5 major teams would have been locked out of F1 next year.

Instead Mosley decided to throw it all to the lawyers. Putting his money where his mouth is some might say; he has stood firm in his belief that Ferrari’s contract to race in F1 next year is binding, and that FOTA is an illegal cartel organisation.

This has done nothing to calm the situation down, and it seems to have everyone heading for the trenches as they roll in the Big Legal guns. As I have blogged before, some are excited about a new championship, including Nigel Mansell as we discovered during the BBC coverage of qualifying today. There are a lot of people in the F1 paddock however who are looking at the present situation with great alarm.

They are calling for Bernie to step forward and do something to solve the situation, as he is the only one who can. At 78 years old however, It seems that this solution will either have to throw up someone new who can play Bernie’s role in the future, or find a solution which will last in the long term, and not simply the duration of any agreement.

The issues in F1 are deep-set, the teams fell that since they pay for the sport they are the most important component of it. To put it simply they want money from Bernie, and Power from Max. F1 has existed for 30 years with a fragile balance being held together by strong personalities. The sport needs to find a long term solution, to exist as a stable sport series. Perhaps this war will bring the changes the sport needs.

We are headed for the courts now, and who knows how long this process will take. The FIA has a grid with 10 cars on it for next year, and FOTA has to prepare a series for next year, not knowing if it itself will be declared illegal, or if 3 of its teams will be able to be there. The legal route is far from ideal, it takes up the one thing no one can afford… Time. Perhaps it is a master stroke from Max and will force everyone into a compromise, or perhaps it will harden everyone’s resolve even more. The situation is far from over.

Reaction to the big break

19 06 2009

The first steps towards the great breakaway of F1 were taken last night as FOTA announced their intentions to leave the FIA championship next year. This is the first concrete step in this direction for FOTA, although there is a lot of time for things to change before a breakaway series is launched, FOTA appear to be prepared, with the BBC’s David Croft reporting last night that there is already a list of circuits, and analysis of series such as A1GP have been done (http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/motorsport/formula_one/8108492.stm)

The ultimate verdict on which series will prevail if a breakaway was to go head to head with the FIA championship, will be the fans, and for that reason I want to look at their reaction. The FOTA release (http://www.teamsassociation.org/press-release/2009-06-19/press-release) was designed to appeal directly to the fans, mentioning how, everything they recognise in F1 will be going to the new series, the fans will be listened to, and how ticket prices would come down for the fans.

The initial reaction I witnessed on online forums was about 90% positive, with fans excited about the old circuits they love getting some racing again, and the prospect of the sport finding more stable governance (http://www.sidepodcast.com/2009/06/19/anyone-for-a-breakaway/). Elsewhere on the Times Online f1 blog, fans again seemed pleased at the idea of a breakaway; albeit with a big dose of scepticism as to whether it would actually happen.

The more mainstream F1 media seem to have taken the news badly, believing the news was bad for the sport. The BBC commentators took this view at the beginning of FP1, perhaps understandably as it will have a huge impact on the interest of what they are commentating on next year. Joe Saward (of grandprix.com) described it as a ‘worse case scenario’ (http://joesaward.wordpress.com/2009/06/19/cooked-goose-for-breakfast/), whilst others such James Allen declined to express an opinion.

It is still early in this story, and the news it is yet to sink in properly, we will hear more and more as the weekend goes on. The next big news story will be Max and the FIA’s reaction to the news story, and whether he will be announcing new teams to replace the conditional entry’s on next years list of teams. Perhaps he will back away some what, or perhaps he will pour petrol on the fire. He must be considering his own position in the FIA as elections will take place in less than 4 months time. It is also not clear where Bernie stands at the moment, and this will be key, although I suspect we will not hear from him on this issue today.  F1 is certainly living in Interesting Times at the moment.