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The driver market

Despite the Ferrari team not yet confirming the signing of Sebastian Vettel, or the departure of Fernando Alonso, there has never been any doubt since Vettel put pen to paper three weeks ago, following Alonso’s ill-advised signature of a release document, which wrote off $60 million in future salary. Fernando said “Open Sesame”, expecting that other opportunities would magically appear and duly knocked his nose out of joint by walking into a door… By signing Daniil Kvyat, Red Bull’s Helmut Marko did the F1 teams a big favour, as he gutted the driver market. Instantly, salary demands. Alonso had no real bargaining position with McLaren, his only realistic choice, and that meant that Lewis Hamilton’s ideas of mega-bucks from Mercedes post-2015 took a debt as well. If there’s a cheap Alonso on the market, Hamilton has to become cheap as well. Jenson Button too. Vettel will be the highest paid driver in F1 for the next few years but even he is going to be working the bonuses. The days of mega retainers are gone… The salaries are still massive by everyday standards but its a case of supply and demand. Red Bull went for two cheap young drivers and crashed the exchange.
McLaren and Alonso is not a match made in heaven. They’ve been there before and there are some impressive scars. Some might wonder if taking Alonso is really the best idea because he can get a bit lippy if the car and the engine are not up to scratch, but the fact remains that he is an awesome driver (in the real sense of the word and not the “I mean, like, totally” ersatz version). McLaren will pay the market rate but as the market has collapsed that will be a welcome saving. Jenson is now saying that he’s talking to sports car teams. It would be a shame to lose him in F1, because he is a proper star, but one can argue that after 14 years he’s had a decent run in F1 and now is a good time to follow Mark Webber into cars with lids on them. Life is easier there and the prizes worth having – victory at Le Mans and/or a world title – are there to be plucked, if he ends up with one of the factory teams. Good combinations of success give one a place in history just as much as five World Championships will do. Robert Kubica would have driven a Ferrari had he not smashed himself up in rallying. His original goal was to win one World title in F1 and then do the same in the WRC. Sadly, his passion for rallying and his impatience ruined the plan.
The key question now is whether Fernando will be able to talk himself into a Mercedes in 2016. I doubt it. He is deemed to be the best racer out there but Lewis is no slouch and he would be silly to give up a winning car, by the same token McLaren don’t want a one night stand with Fernando, they want a proper marriage…

In my experience, if Bernie says there’s a race coming in Las Vegas, he’s probably close to a deal somewhere else and this is a lever in a different negotiation. Call me a cynic, but Bernie never says anything about projected races without there being a reason to say it… When he says something like this, he’s like a great magician shouting “Abracadabra!” And you should not look at where the flash-bang has gone off. You should look what he’s doing with his hands as he is probably picking a pocket or two… Actually, call him a cynic…

The source of the story is predictable. Just think of the dim-looking dog on the His Masters Voice (HMV) label and you get the idea. Scraps are thrown from the table and end up as things to avoid on the pavement… yet some stupid muppet on a news desk scoops it up and pays to smear it on a page.

Facts are useful in journalism and here are some: Vegas gets 39 million visitors per year. There are 150,000 hotel rooms in Vegas, occupancy runs at 84 percent. The downtown area lags behind The Strip but occupancy is still 75 percent. It does not need F1 and will not pay for it. Gaming revenues are running at around $9.6 billion a year. The numbers are pretty much the same as last year… and the lowest monthly numbers are during F1’s offseason. The only casino magnate who showed any real interest in F1 was Steve Wynn and he is busy expanding his business with hotels elsewhere.

Of course Vegas would love to push up the rates per night but that’s not justification enough for F1’s inflated fees. They don’t want race fans who will spend $30 in a casino and stay in camper vans. They want sad dreamers who spend $250 on gambling and at least $500 on board, booze and lodging.

We’re in the run-up to Austin, I suspect Mr E wants a signature of someone else on another contract, so he has something to announce in two weeks from now.

I won’t bore you with 30 years of F1 history about why Las Vegas is not likely to happen, but we’ve been through this same news cycle several times over: the casinos don’t mind the promotion, but they don’t want F1 costs and they don’t want ANY disruption on the beloved Strip. That impacts their bottom line. The City government was talked into paying for a downtown Champ Car street race in 2007. It was not repeated. If it had been a success, Vegas would have swallowed it whole. Thus it was a failure… whatever you may read elsewhere.

Engine changes

There is a lot of fuss at the moment about the F1 engine rules and whether they should be changed. The current structure means that changing rules is very difficult and the whole business tends to get bogged down. This is something that the FIA allowed to happen because it wanted money and a share in the business. The whole governance question is a big mess as a result. Perhaps that was done deliberately for some political reason, we can only guess.

The rules we now have are brilliant and they truly challenge the engineers to develop more efficiency. These engines were what the manufacturers wanted so those who blame the FIA are simply ill-informed or they have a hidden agenda. One of the things that the rules were supposed to do was to bring in more manufacturers. That has happened with Honda but there are no others visible at the moment. In an effort to keep costs down there is a system of tokens relating to engine development. Each major element of the power unit has been given a value in tokens and manufacturers can choose which elements they can change, up to the limit of the tokens available. This limit reduces over time. The aim of the system was to keep costs down, while still allowing manufacturers to develop new technology. Given the car companies want hybrid technology I think that they should be allowed to spend as much as they like, so long as the price paid by customer F1 teams does not increase. Engine costs today in F1 are ruinous and there is an argument that the manufacturers should be regulated in what they can charge. If they want the technology they will pay whatever it takes because the ultimate prize is to sell more cars and that brings in vast sums of money. Teams need cost caps and a limit on the price of the engine. If they had these then the current grid would be safe, although there is still a lot of debt to clear.

It is just a few days since Sergio Marchionne took over as chairman of Ferrari, taking the role from Luca di Montezemolo. At the same time the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles company began trading on the New York Stock with shares priced at $9.00. The market has been rather wary and the share price is now down to $8.60 after the first few days of trading.

Marchionne has said that he does not see the need for Ferrari to be floated, in addition to the FCA initial public offering. He says that he has no intention of screwing up the DNA of Ferrari. Luca di Montezemolo had advocated a strategy of capping production to around 7,000 cars a year in order to preserve the exclusivity and the high prices enjoyed by Ferrari. Marchionne believes that strong demand from the growing number of millionaires around the world can allow a little further expansion in Ferrari production without affecting the brand. However, in an interview with Autocar, he has made it quite clear that Ferrari needs to be producing better results in F1 and that this is of vital importance to the company. This makes sense given that Ferrari does very little advertising apart from F1 and it is therefore important that the team does as well as possible.

“A non-winning Ferrari on the Formula 1 track is not Ferrari,” he said. “We’ve got to kick some ass and we’ve got to do it quickly. It takes what it takes. We might screw up, but we’ve got nothing to lose, right? Let’s risk something.”

James Allison and his team of designers at Maranello are now working on the 2015 cars and there are hopes that this will be more competitive but building F1 cars at the moment is a very complicated matter. There was a time when the engines were largely irrelevant because they were all pegged at around the same level of performance, and the chassis dictated everything but that has changed and Ferrari and Renault have both been left behind by the Mercedes engines. One can clearly see that on a horsepower circuit such as Monza, the non-Mercedes teams were struggling.

There has been a great deal of discussion in recent days after whether or not the engine rules should be altered to allow more changes than original proposed. This would probably help Mercedes’s rivals to improve their products, but the danger is that it might also give Mercedes the chance to further increase its lead. Keeping the rules open might also help to attract more companies to the sport, particularly once there is more knowledge about the new engines flowing around in the marketplace, which inevitably happens when there is a new formula. Having said that the advantage enjoyed by Mercedes is not as simple as it may appear. An internal combustion engine is an internal combustion engine and engineers have been developing these for more than 100 years so the advantage enjoyed by Mercedes this year is not as simple as saying that they did not build as good an engine. The recently departed Ferrari engine chief Luca Marmorini has said that Maranello has not forgotten how to make good engines, rather has failed because it is difficult to find the right balance between the internal combustion engine, the energy harvesting systems and deployment of this energy. He also said that he believed that the integration between the engine and the chassis needed to be better and claimed that the Ferrari engine design was compromised because the chassis department claimed that it would produce aerodynamic advantages would make up for the losses that were created by designing a less efficient engine than might otherwise have been the case.

The word from Italy is that former Ferrari sporting boss Stefano Domenicali going to join Ducati, the Audi-owned motorcycle company based in Bologna. The word is that he will work alongside Gigi Dall’Igna, the former boss of Aprilia racing activities, who was appointed general manager of Ducati Corse a year ago.

Andrea Dovizioso is currently fifth in the championship but has not won a race, while Cal Crutchlow is 12th and Ducati is a distant third behind Honda and Yamaha. This is better than the dismal 2013 season. The story was much the same in the Superbike World Championship.

Things may get slightly complicated by the fact that Claudio Domenicali (no relation) remains in charge of Ducati Motor Holding, the parent company of the bike racing team. The company wants to return the Ducati name to the same kind of level that allowed Casey Stoner to win the MotoGP title in 2007.

There has been speculation that this could lead to Domenicali moving up in the Audi empire and one day replacing Wolfgang Ullrich as head of Audi Motorsport. There is little doubt that Audi is on the lookout for new management as Ullrich is now 64 and has been in the same job for 21 years, leading the Audi team to no fewer than 13 victories in the Le Mans 24 Hours. Perhaps it will be useful to have someone like Domenicali on its books if Audi does finally decide to enter F1, although this is largely speculative as the VW-owned brand is not going to do that until there are one of two changes in the way F1 is run.

The Ducati news has yet to be confirmed.

The latest round of unseemly reporting about the Bianchi accident has led to a reaction from Marussia regarding what was said or not said in radio transmissions to Bianchi in Japan. It is all recorded and at some point it will be made public if that is deemed to be the right thing to do, but until it is, it is irresponsible for journalists to speculate. There is too much contradictory information flying around to be sure of anything except what we know to be fact.

At the same time there are still people banging on about the use of tractors. It is a subject that has been much discussed over the years but it is still deemed to be safer than having static cranes that require marshals to be manoeuvring stricken cars to positions where they can be picked up. The tractors are fast and efficient and are used in conjunction with double yellow caution signals.This means that the drivers should slow down and be prepared to stop. If they do not do this, then they must take responsibility for their own actions. If they come around a corner and find a car in the middle of the track, surrounded by marshals, they must take responsibility for what happens. If they crash because they drive too fast, no one is to blame but the driver himself.

What was unusual about the Bianchi crash was the angle and the speed. In many respects it was a classic case of a driver losing control, correcting his car and suddenly finding unexpected grip, which speared the car off at an unexpected trajectory and speed. But it was not the kind of accident one expects to see in such a corner. The key point, however, was that at the very moment Bianchi had his accident, the tractor moved into his path. That, I’m afraid, is fate and no amount of wailing and gnashing of fate is going to make the system wrong. It was a combination of things that came together to produce the accident.

The definition of accident is “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally”. This is not to be compared with safety in other eras, where everyone knew that things were wrong and accepted them. If we were discussing national level rallying that might be the case because the best is still not good enough, but in F1 everything has been gone over and over. This does not mean that lessons cannot be learned but sometimes one just has to accept that things happen.

The same people who now yell about tractors are the ones who complain if the safety car is used too much.

Thoughts on Sochi

I enjoyed most of the Russian GP weekend. I did not feel that I could not say what I thought, did not feel that I was being watched or whatever. The facilities were decent, the fans were enthusiastic and the place itself seemed nice enough, although we never really had the time nor the energy to venture out of the Olympic area, where we were staying. Those that did, came back with some interesting tales. I had a few minor gripes about silly things like the quality of Internet access, the colour of water in the bath tub and the troubles some folks had being fed, not to mention the ease of access to the region. But we have these kinds of things at other places as well, notably in Korea and Indian in recent years. There was wildly excessive security at times, but then again I fully appreciate the Russians do not want Chechan suicide bombers in the crowd.

It probably did not help that the Grand Prix came straight after the Bianchi accident in Japan and the stress and strain of an intercontinental back-to-back. But once the cars started running in Sochi, things began to settle down.

The one discordant note, as far as I was concerned, was the feeling that the sport was being used for propaganda purposes by President Vladimir Putin. When someone famous turns up (or leaves) in the middle of a race you know that their motivation is purely related to photo opportunities and video clips. They have no interest beyond that.

Commercial folk like Bernie Ecclestone have no qualms about trading with anyone, as long as there is money in it. It was the same in Bahrain a couple of years back. He believes that any publicity is good publicity.

After a while in Sochi I began to wonder if it was just me and so I asked a few senior F1 figures – off the record – about their private feelings on the subject. Remember that teams are contracted to race and so go where they have to go, even if they don’t want to. “I think it is disgusting,” said one. “The sport should not be mixing with…” well, I’ll leave out the rest because Russian readers will not like hearing their leader described in such terms. Needless to say “blood on his hands” was a phrase included in the rant. Others wondered whether it was wise strategic thinking, given Putin’s reputation outside Russia at the moment.

I understand Bernie. Money is money and if giving politicians what they want gets you more money, then some people will do it. Ecclestone seems to look upon Putin as a kind of Thatcherite hero, who made Russia more competitive and is trying to change Soviet era attitudes. Some of this is probably true but being too enthusiastic is perhaps not wise.

I don’t understand FIA President Jean Todt at all. Perhaps he wins votes in Syria, Cuba and North Korea but he is going to be doing himself damage in other key regions. Will this really help with his ambitions to become the czar of road safety for the United Nations? I just don’t see it. Perhaps he felt it was a good idea given that Russia’s FIA representative is General Victor Kiryanov, an important man in Russian policing in his role as Russia’s Deputy Interior Minister. He is a man of influence at the UN.

In essence there is nothing wrong with racing in Russia, it is a good market and the people seem keen, but the timing was dreadful and it might have been wiser to wait until things have calmed down a little more.

I don’t believe for one minute that sport can really transcend politics. It is a nice idea but utter rubbish. Politicians like Putin are using the sport to enhance their image and F1 is foolish not to appreciate that.

I have a Russian colleague who has views on these subjects that have shocked me of late. Of course, one must remember that most Russian media, especially the television, is controlled by the state or by those close to Russia’s leadership, but he actually seems to believe in the Russian coverage of the Crimean crisis, the activities in the Donetsk region and the shooting down of flight MH17. This has featured some spectacular explanations that do not appear to be supported by the facts on the ground. My colleague is now refusing to go to the United States GP or to next year’s British GP because he thinks that these countries have been unfair to his homeland.

My view is that a journalist who picks and chooses events based on his political beliefs is fundamentally flawed, because one should always go and report on what you see and what you feel, and if you feel that you cannot speak out then you should report on that as well…

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