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IMG_7983Will Stevens will be driving FP1 for Marussia in Suzuka. The British driver is having a seat fitting this morning. The 23-year-old was a Caterham junior until recently when the team changed hands ands the old deal were terminated. Stevens is competing in the Renault World Series. He did 95 laps in a Caterham during the Silverstone test in July, but has also done considerable mileage in the team’s simulator at Leafield. It is believed that the deal has come about as Stevens had some backing.

Truth and consequences

Have you ever wondered why there are so many conflicting rumours kicking around in F1 circles? Every day there is something new, some new twist of a story that was perhaps never a story in the first place… and so on.

In part this is due to people called news aggregators. These are the bottom feeders of F1 who pick up stories wherever they can, in whatever language. They have no means of checking the information they gather and so they package up the stories in bite-sized chunks and pump them out to dozens of lazy websites that run the same stuff. This has two effects: the first is that they have deals for x number of news items a day and so if they cannot find enough stuff, they stretch the facts, or run non-stop “he said-she said” stories, with nothing but claims and denials; the second is that an awful lot of websites have exactly the same stories and all of it is pretty lightweight because no one writing it is actually involved in the sport and thus they have no idea about their subject matter – and no contacts to even ask. This is the downside of so-called citizen journalism.

Weirdly, the primary F1 news aggregator in recent years is now owned by one of its customer websites and so not only does everyone get the same lightweight stuff, but the customers are paying their rival, which strengthens the one and weakens the other. In the end perhaps these bottom feeders will earn enough to start sending people to races, but these practices have been going on for nearly 10 years and little progress has been made in terms of quality. All that has happened is that as the sensible sources are forced out by all the free (but poor) information, the bottom feeders have become less well-informed.

But what about closer into the business? How do the original stories that get copied actually get written? The answer has two different elements to it: the first is that very few drivers have any close relationships with the media in the modern day and age. There is no longer the time to sit around and chat as once there was and so drivers tend not to trust the media – and vice versa. Most of the quotes come from media huddles that teams host and because these feature a dozen or so journalists, no secrets are told.
The second problem is that it is impossible to trust a lot of people in the sport because they have lied before and will lie again. This means that after a while there really is no point in asking a question, because you know that you won’t get a proper answer.

The only way to improve the quality of the media is to return to the days when there were trusting relationships and both sides knew where they stood. Honesty, so they say, is always the best policy.

Some people will never change because they are incapable of trusting anyone. One leading figure in F1 has lied to me so much over the years that I barely bother with him these days and when I do chat to him I have found that if I report the exact opposite to what he tells me, I generally get better results than I would if I was printing what he actually says.

Fortunately, some others in the sport have begun to understand that F1 needs a better way to engage with its audience and telling the truth is a good way to do that.

Motor racing and politics

With the Russian Grand Prix coming up, the F1 world must again face the question of whether sport should be treated as something unconnected with the real world, or whether it should be treated as an integral part of the political landscape. It is not an easy question to answer because, on the one hand, no one wants sport disrupted; but on the other hand no one wants it to be used for political purposes. And where does one draw the line? One should point out straight away that when a government pays for a race, any race, there is a political agenda. Usually it is about driving business to a city or a region, but sometimes it is about national pride or the promotion of the leader, his party or his politics. Sometimes it also about diverting attention away from truths that the leader does not want his own people to see.

Ironically, the profiteers always adopt the sporting argument. They say the sport can help cure political problems. Occasionally this can be true, but is fair to say that this is rarer than a French steak. The problem with the argument is that you can hear the ker-ching! of the cash register in the background… Commercial people think commercially and often only in the short term. They do not worry that the sport might be doing itself long-term damage by associating with dodgy or corrupt regimes.
Money is money and they just love shoveling it into their pockets, not caring if there is a policeman just around the corner.
On the other hand one has those who argue that a sporting event is a clear signal that those involved accept and condone the government which is paying for there event. They argue that taking part in the Russian Grand Prix is something between collaboration and donning a Russian uniform and marching through Red Square in the Victory Day Parade.

Much will depend on how much visibility President Vladimir Putin demands, but it would be strange indeed if the President did not show up and take advantage of having the world’s most glamorous, capitalist and televised of sports on Russian soil.

Politicians love to create events at which they can bask in glory, and sport is a favourite way to do it. Some point to the way in which Adolf Hitler (or at least Josef Goebbels) cleverly politicised the 1936 Berlin Olympics with German medal winners giving the Nazi salute and liberal use of the Swastika, both party symbols rather than being national ones.
There was very skillful use of propaganda to promote the idea of the Aryan supremacy and the power of Germany, culminating in Leni Riefenstahl’s movie Olympia. At the same time the Games were used to peddle the line that Germany was peaceful and tolerant, which assuredly it was not. The moment the games were done, repression returned.

Every case is different but my general view is that F1 should be careful not to become part of a political problem, as it did in Bahrain. If a race finds itself caught in a crossfire, it is always going to end up with bullet holes in its trousers. One can say that this country or that country has questionable records on human rights, but if we did that there could be no races because you can find such questions in most countries. It is a minefield and so we have to go ahead and avoid stepping on mines. If it is obvious that there can be trouble for the sport it is best to duck out. Why take a risk when a risk is not required? I understand that most F1 sponsors want to do business in Russia, albeit without the spotlight being shone on the business, but I cannot help but think that F1 has more to lose than it has to gain in Sochi. The FIM, which governs motorcycle racing, showed how it should be done back in the spring when the Ukraine Crisis first began. It immediately cancelled a Superbike race in Moscow but said that the sport would return as soon as the politics were out of the way. It was neat, efficient and little reported. Sadly, F1 does not have a governing body with that kind of political sense, despite employing a string of consultants with fancy CVs. In any case, even if there was some political nous worth having in the federation, it is doubtful there would be the backbone required to tell the commercial people what should be done. The wagon filled with gold is clearly pulling the horse downhill in the FIA world.
And so I guess that we will march through Red Square, figuratively at least, and the world will deal with us accordingly.

Fernando Alonso is at the centre of every rumour known to man. He’s going to Red Bull, McLaren, Lotus and Williams and, because he hasn’t denied being on the grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963, he is also thought to have been one of 13 shooters who assassinated President John F Kennedy. He may also have been responsible for the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985 on the basis that he once wore flippers.

Honestly, the stories one hears about Alonso… and it does not seem to matter if he denies them because it seems that few believe a word he says since the McLaren revelations of 2007 and, of course, Singapore 2008. I do actually feel sorry for the bloke sometimes, but as a farmer or a priest will tell you, you reap what you sow in life.
Anyway, whether he is believed or not, he is respected as a great driver and he continues to show his extraordinary abilities at each and every Grand Prix. He does not let the slow Ferrari get him down, he just drives the wheels off it, never gives up and currently lies fourth on the Drivers’ World Championship in z car that is good for ninth or 10th. The fact that he has still won only two World titles is astonishing, given his ability, although he has been rather good at being in the wrong place at the right time.
In theory, he’s going nowhere next year because of his Ferrari contract, but, as a pal of mine remarked recently, an F1 contract has as much value as toilet paper in this day and age. McLaren would now love to have him (ain’t that ironic) and the only team that seems not to want him that much is the one he currently drives for. Down Maranello way, they are into five-year plans and five years from now Alonso will be 38 and, according to F1 thinking, he will be over the hill.

He has been talking of late of buying a professional cycling team and is currently waiting to hear if he has been granted a licence by the Union Cycliste Internationale (the FIA without the horsepower). The funny thing is that I am now hearing the Alonso may also be considering buying himself a share of a Formula 1 team, for investment purposes. There is some sound logic in this as some of the teams have all you need but simply lack the money to run properly. If the running budgets can be found then there are assets to be had cheaply at the moment. F1 will eventually wake up to real world realities that there must be budget capping of some sort and when that happens the teams will all rise in value in dramatic fashion. It would be guessing to say which team might interest Ferdy, but the teams looking for help include Lotus (for which he won two World Championships), Sauber, Caterham and Marussia. He might also be interested in Toro Rosso as the word is that after five years being co-owned by Red Bull and Aabar, the time is coming when options must be taken up or dropped. Being a business partner with Dietrich Mateschitz might be a smart move for Fernando, and might perhaps one day open the door to a Red Bull drive…
Then again he might soon be arrested for Dallas 1963, so one must not take rumours too seriously…

(Oh, and for those of you who do not have a sense of humour, the JFK stuff is a joke, so please don’t write in saying that Fernando was not born until 1981.)

The thing that kills F1 teams faster than anything is having to pay for engines. In the old days everyone could have a Cosworth at a moderate price and they could be moderately successful if they built a good car. But times have changed and there are no Cosworths left in F1. They have been driven out by manufacturers spending on engine development – and worthless development outside the F1 bubble, come to that. So, the FIA in the pre-Todt era figured out the best thing to do would be to ask the manufacturers what they wanted from F1 and then give them it. This is what the new rules are and Todt and his men can take credit for getting this done. So modern F1 is what the manufacturers asked for. Now, the teams will tell you that the new engines are too expensive and the manufacturers will tell you that they must charge customers because their bosses want to minimize the cost of F1. What no one will tell you is how to fix the problem. It seems to me that if one has an F1 with more manufacturers, each bound, say, to provide a customer engine at a set price for a second team – if called upon to do so – we would be in a healthier state. If the rules are what manufacturers want and the F1 world hits the markets they are aiming at, one needs to understand why there is a problem getting more companies into F1. Thus far only Honda has risen to the challenge. At first glance F1 is an obvious move for Audi, BMW, Peugeot and Hyundai to name just a few.!It is also logical for firms such as Renault to use the technology they have developed to promote more than one brand. If Infiniti (a Renault partner) wants to be in F1 with Red Bull with a rebadged V6, why not? Similarly why does Ferrari not badge an engine as Chrysler and get some US interest going in F1, to help sell both brands. When you work through the possibilities, one can see that getting to 12 teams with different cost-effective engines is not impossible.

So why is it not happening? The first thought I have is that F1 has the right technology but the wrong image, while ironically Formula E is the opposite. F1 has an image of profligacy that the car industry definitely does not want. The whole industry is geared towards financial efficiency and F1 does not fit. That is easily changed with a properly presented FIA cost cap regulation. That would benefit everyone in more than one way. The problem is that this requires political backbone and good presentation skills, neither of which the FIA has at the moment.

Some say the the man who is trying to solve F1’s problems is in fact part of the problem himself, but it is hard to judge if this is true. That could be found out if CVC Capital Partners – the owners of the commercial side of the sport – asked the car manufacturers about their reticence to join in, despite the fact that F1 is what they want.

If I were Frank Williams, Peter Sauber, Vijay Mallya or Dietrich Mateschitz I would be touring the world, talking to car companies. Catching up with the technology is not so hard if one can hire a couple of people who know how to do it. And if the level of competition on F1 is balanced more, as will happen as the formula matures, it is quite possible for six or seven car companies to enjoy success and the halo effect of the sport.
Closing down the development potential makes F1 less valuable for the industry and less attractive to the individual car companies looking for ways to sell their wares.

The Singapore Grand Prix is always busy, with a lot of heavy-hitters in town. Finding sponsors these days is not easy because not only are the teams competing against other teams and rival sports, they are now having to fight off the Formula One group as well, and it’s not really a fair fight as FOM insists these days on knowing the names of all the guests brought to the paddock by the teams. No doubt this will lead to the big CEOs visiting the paddock wearing false moustaches and using pseudonyms to stop any poaching.

The Singapore paddock is a place to catch up with old friends from Asia and the Pacific and this year it was fun to bump into Craig Lowndes, one of the biggest stars of the Aussie V8 Series, who was in town doing some sponsor work and was invited to the GP by Red Bull.

I also bumped into Chung Yung-cho, otherwise known as Joe Chung, who was the power behind the Korean Grand Prix in Yeongam. I won’t forget the day of the first race there as Joe was battling to make sure everything went to plan, up until the very last minute. We don’t often get to see the emotion involved in being a race promoter, with all the highs and lows involved, and Joe’s face at the end of that race that day will always be remembered. He was unlucky in that the global recession hit at the wrong moment and the plan to build a city around the track, in order to develop the entire coastline area, never happened, leaving the Koreans with a racetrack without a raisin d’être in the middle of a marsh. He was thrown out and blamed for the disaster, but I never felt he was the one at fault. The bureaucrats messed things up and slowed things down so much that making the race happen cost more than the budgets allowed.

Today Joe is working on a new plan for a street race in the Seoul region. This is a better idea because the people and infrastructure are there. Joe saw Bernie Ecclestone and showed him the project and Bernie is interested as Korea is still an economic powerhouse where F1 should be. The hope is that the new race, based on the same model as Singapore, could be ready for 2016. We’ll see.

Racing is gaining traction in Korea with a new track opening recently at Incheon, just up the road from Seoul. This is an unusual permanent street circuit, which has the facilities there all the time but with normal traffic using the roads when there is no racing. The Incheon track was built into a new city laid out on reclaimed land and is designed only for national events. It is however a blueprint for similar schemes. It is a great deal cheaper than a temporary street track as the costs and time involved in the set up and tear down of such facilities is greatly reduced. The pits are permanent and the barriers remain in place, so I am told, but the debris fencing and grandstands are built each year.
Efficiency and cost-effectiveness are becoming more of a feature in F1 races these days, not only in terms of circuit construction, but also in the TV coverage. The Singapore event proved to be the first trial for the latest 4K quality TV feeds, with the data from the cameras being sent down cables in real time to FOM’s remote production facility at Biggin Hill where increasingly the organisation is editing the coverage into live shows that will be sent out to TV companies using Tata Communications’s data networks. I think it is only a matter of time before the FOM television production facility at races disappears and only cameramen are sent to events. The Biggin Hill facility is already producing a prototype feed along these lines for the Dutch TV channel Sport 1 and I think the trend towards cable and away from satellite will continue.

This helps to explain the interest being shown in F1 by US cable magnate John Malone, who understands that driving subscriber numbers up involves not only multiple broadband functions, such as Internet and phone access at sensible prices, but also good quality and sensibly priced content. This is probably the best possible compromise when it comes to the question of freeTV or payTV. If coverage is bundled with other things it is effectively free and the whole business benefits. Thus if a cable company owns F1 it can benefit from smaller profit margins on each subscriber but larger numbers of them, while also maintaining high TV rights fees in markets that it has yet to develop.

So the one area which still needs better cost-efficiency is the racing itself with teams needing to find a way to make themselves more sustainable. Cost cutting is the only way… If they don’t find a solution soon, the Formula One group is in danger of failing to meet the requirement for 20 cars at each race. This is why Bernie Ecclestone is currently talking about third cars, although agreements in place mean that this is almost impossible to achieve because the extra cars will not score points, nor win prize money. However the results they gain will stand, thus pushing the smaller teams further back in the pecking order. Consequently no small team is going to agree to change the contracts in place, and the so-called Strategy Group cannot change contracts without the agreement of all the signatories. Nor will the FIA want to change the deal because the failure of FOM to provide full fields could lead to the cancellation of the 100-year commercial deal, which would give the FIA control again. That in turn could lead to a better (and fairer) deal for all the teams, with a bigger share of the revenues. So those who will benefit from third cars are a smaller group than those who will lose out. The existing arrangements are, in any case, only an emergency measure and they are not compulsory if teams can prove that they cannot afford to run an additional car. If third cars are needed in the future only about four teams can really afford to run them, which means that if four of today’s teams fail and disappear (which could conceivably happen given the state of some teams at the moment) the sport would lose eight cars. The current 22-car field would be reduced to 14 but there would be only four non-scoring cars to replace them. That would make 18 cars, an insufficient number to satisfy the FIA contract.

The idea that all eight surviving teams would be happy to run three cars is flawed because those in the midfield know that FOM’s failure would open the way for a better deal for everyone (except perhaps Ferrari).

The irony of this is that cost-capping will slow this process, so it is in the interest of the middle-ranking teams NOT to cut costs so as to push the small teams out of business, to end the reign of FOM and usher in a new era where the distribution of revenues would allow all contenders a fairer share of the money. One can even argue that some small team failures with liquidation processes to wipe out the debts would provide the current owners with the chance to buy the assets cheaply and come back into a renewed F1 in a better shape.

If FOM was to lose the commercial rights, the FIA would still need a certain number of teams and those applicants with the best proven records and resources would be best-placed to win the available franchises…

There are times when going out of business is the most profitable route to take.

Your GP+ is now available

Sorry about the delay, we had a corrupted file and had to rebuild the magazine…

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 17.40.00Lewis Hamilton ruled in Singapore on Sunday evening – and the Englishman ended the day back in the lead of the World Championship after Nico Rosberg’s dreams of glory were interrupted by software gremlins before he could even start the race. Lewis did not have it easy. A badly-timed Safety Car gave him a mountain to climb, but he hopped and skipped his way to the summit. Sebastian Vettel had his best result of the year to finish second with team-mate Dan Ricciardo chasing him to the line. The race itself was a bit of a slow burner, but it caught fire at the end with some sensational action in the closing laps.

As F1 now heads for Japan, Hamilton leads the World Championship again.

In GP+ this week…

- We rip the 2015 F1 calendar apart…
– We look at the radio communication ban
– We praise F1’s brilliant hybrid achievements
– And we have some amazing tales from the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah
– JS asks difficult questions that F1 needs to ask
– The Hack gets his teeth into Luca Montezemolo
– DT speeds along the salt
– Peter Nygaard captures the glory of F1 in Singapore

If you haven’t heard of GP+, you are missing out big time. This is the fastest F1 magazine in the world. It is published before the cars have cooled down properly. And we’re not pretending to be there in the F1 Paddock. We are there and we’re mixing with the movers and shakers. If you want to know what is really happening this is the place to find it. We are passionate about the sport and we have strong opinions – and a huge amount of experience. We don’t believe in sound bytes, so we tell the story in depth… We even know the history of Grand Prix racing and are happy to share it.

GP+ is the fastest F1 magazine in the world. It’s so fast, it’s almost real-time… But it is a magazine that tells you the full story, like racing magazines used to do. Yet it is published in electronic form in PDF format, so you can read it on a laptop or a tablet.

GP+ is an amazing bargain. You get 22 issues for £29.99, covering the entire 2014 Formula 1 season.

For more information, go to http://www.grandprixplus.com.

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