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Tunnel vision

People who say that the Renault launch in Paris today was a sham are looking at the situation with their telescopes the wrong way round. Yes, for F1 junkies, there was little to reveal apart from the new driver and the new team structure – which is plenty. The car was not a new car. How could it be? The new car is still being built and it is on a very tight schedule if it is to be ready in the time available. The decision to switch engines was taken so late in the day, that this was inevitable. The livery shown was different, but it seems that it probably won’t be the definitive look for the season. Again, why should it be? Renault needs to make sure that it has the right look for the years ahead, rather than for a rainy day in Guyancourt. The thing that the junkies forget is that there is a bigger picture here. Today was big news for F1. It was the confirmation that a major car manufacturer has decided to wade into the sport. That is great news. It confirms that F1 remains an impressive way for car manufacturers to market themselves.

“For over a century Renault’s company strategy has centred on motorsport and harnessing its benefits for increased road car sales,” says Jérome Stoll, the Chief Performance Officer of Renault and President of Renault Sport Racing. “The decision to return to team ownership is based on a solid, well-considered business strategy that we firmly believe will bring long term gains to Renault and other members of the Renault-Nissan Alliance. The benefits of F1 are undeniable: access to a large, worldwide TV and online audience, huge growth potential, access to developing markets and fast-paced, dynamic competition with some of the world’s leading manufacturers. Equally there is a real opportunity to showcase French creative technical excellence while testing avant-garde new innovations in the toughest arenas. Through our competitive activities, millions of Renault road users are already enjoying the benefits of turbocharging, greater fuel economy and highly sophisticated electrical vehicles that include improved powertrain architecture definition for efficiency optimization. Now, through Renault Sport Racing, we can go beyond and harness areas such as aerodynamics, driver response and improved suspension. The opportunities are almost endless and will serve as a great motivator for the technical teams across Renault Sport Cars and the Renault brand.

“On the other side, F1 is a powerful marketing tool and one each of our markets will be able to dial into. The announcement was greeted with huge enthusiasm internally and I am very much looking forward to a range of innovative campaigns around our equally exciting new products.”

So, yes folks, there was a message today. A good message. Be positive. There is life in the old dog yet…

 

 

Token efforts

The Formula 1 engine manufacturers have agreed to get rid of engine tokens, as part of the plan to improve the show. The change will come in 2017, if all goes to plan. The system of tokens was introduced in an effort to stop manufacturers spending daft amounts of money on development, although it did not actually stop the spending but rather only what they were allowed to put on the cars. They could spend any sum of money they wanted to spend, but could not use all the knowledge at the same time. The theory behind the change is that with a limit on the number of engines and big penalties for using new versions, there is no need for the tokens any longer because the track penalties will do the same job. The hope is that the removal of the token system will give new manufacturers impetus to get involved. We will have to see if that happens…

Someone said to me at the Renault launch that they did not think I was very enthusiastic about Jolyon Palmer. I was truly surprised. I have been impressed by Jolyon in 2014 and 2015, but it seems that this enthusiasm has not come across in print, even if I think it has.

It got me thinking. Formula 1 is a lot to do with hype and momentum. If drivers are seen to be the rising stars, they become the rising stars. Prophecies can become self-fulfilling… If their progress is solid but unspectacular, their reputation is unspectacular. They can only really be compared to their team-mates, but drivers are often team-mates when one has more experience than the other, so it is not always a fair comparison.

How much does this hype affect the way in which one reports on drivers? And is that something conscious or sub-conscious? Drivers who produce spectacular results in the junior formulae often enjoy momentum but then fail deliver in F1. No-one really knows why. Others, who did nothing much on the ladder to F1, flourish and score results far better than people expect.

Right now, people are excited about Max Verstappen and Stoffel Vandoorne. You can understand why. They have done great things and this seems to make them cooler than a driver who has worked his way up with solid progress. People who take multiple seasons to win titles are clearly less newsworthy than the instant heroes. But does that make them worse drivers? It is a complex thing to judge and often it boils down to opinions. Yes, there are statistics that provide a solid guide, but data does not always tell the full story.

Palmer is in F1 and I think he deserves to be there. To my mind, if you are good enough to be a GP2 champion, you ought to be good enough to race strongly in Formula 1. The list of champions says it all: Rosberg, Hamilton, Hülkenberg, Grosjean… and Pastor Maldonado. But then there are the Glocks, Pantanos, Leimers and Valsecchis, who never quite broke through in F1.

So let’s look at Jolyon.

He started out with all the advantages and disadvantages that having a famous father creates. It opens doors for any young driver, but at the same time, there is an assumption in racing circles that the son of a famous father is unlikely to be as good, and so they have more to prove. That is a common problem whether you are a Hill, a Villeneuve or a Rosberg. In Palmer’s case the situation was probably made worse because his early achievements were in series that were run by his father: Formula Palmer Audi and then Formula 2. The natural cynical F1 assumption is that the son of the series owner might be getting an advantage. That does not always happen. Sometimes it is the opposite. If Palmer had gone through a different route: Formula Renault, Formula 3 and so on, would he have created a better reputation? Probably he would have done…

So when he arrived in GP2 in 2011, it was without much hype. This had one important effect: the top GP2 teams were not really interested and that meant that he would have to work his way through the ranks, proving himself and thus getting into better teams. In the first year there were few major results. A change of team to iSport International in 2012, as team-mate to Marcus Ericsson, led to his first win, in the Sprint race at Monaco. That was good, but in the tough world of F1, a GP2 sprint race is a sprint race, the top eight on the grid are reversed. It undermines the success.

In 2013 he moved on to Carlin and was team-mate to Felipe Nasr. He won feature races in Hungary and Singapore. He finished seventh in the championship. That was good enough to attract the attention of DAMS and he joined the team in 2014, as a championship hopeful. And he delivered. He won four victories and took the title. You don’t do that if you’re not a good driver. Seven wins in GP2 is a better record than quite a few others who have arrived in F1.

Last year he did a decent job up against Pastor Maldonado in practice sessions for Lotus in F1. But that was Pastor. The good news (or bad news depending on what happens) is that in 2016 Jolyon will be up against Kevin Magnussen, who is deemed to have a special talent. If Jolyon beats him or matches him, he will suddenly be a star in the making. Can he do it?

I don’t know. This is one of the joys about motor racing, you never know what will happen, who will rise to a challenge and who will fade when you don’t expect it. It could be that Palmer will be the revelation of the season ahead, leaping out of the shadows and making people take notice.

I am keen to see what happens. I don’t believe, and never have believed, in cheering for a driver of one’s own nationality, unless there is good reason to do it, but I think Jolyon has done more than enough to be worth a promising write-up.

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We are delighted to announce that the winner of the GP+ Lifetime Subscription competition is Luke Freeman, who comes from a small town in Kent, in England, not far from the Brands Hatch racing circuit. Congratulations to him…

Luke seems quite excited by the result and says that it is “fantastic news”, which isn’t really a surprise considering that he not only gets a free lifetime subscription to his favourite F1 e-magazine, but he also gets this year for free, as we will be sending back his 2016 subscription payment.

If there are sore losers out there, we thought we would tell you exactly how the draw was made, to ensure complete transparency. In the old days, we would have written out names on bits of paper and shoved them in a big hat and then asked someone with impeccable credentials (a judge, policeman, vicar’s wife etc) to pick a piece of paper (without looking, of course). As we did not have a hat big enough, nor a spare policeman, we decided to use modern technology instead. In order to make sure that the draw was fair, and that the timing of the purchase was not a factor in the result, the people who qualified for the draw, by buying a GP+ subscription within the time limits announced, had their names put on a list, which was in alphabetical order, to ensure that the timing of their purchase was not a factor. Each name was given a number that corresponded to their position on the list and then the winner was chosen using the simple device of a Random Number Generator on the Internet.

Congratulations, Lucky Luke.

Kevin Magnussen has been confirmed as a Renault driver in F1, alongside Jolyon Palmer, with Esteban Ocon, who was under contract to Mercedes, joint the team as the third driver. The new car is black and silver…  

    
 

At Guyancourt

Carlos Ghosn, the boss of the Renault company says that Renault is back in F1 because “racing is an important part of our heritage” but primarily it is to boost awareness of the company, its brand and its technologies in new markets, notably China. The company has restructured its entire sporting departments with the Renault  Sport performance range of products being separated from the actual competition activities. Ghosn says he wants the F1 team fighting for victories within two or three years.

The team will be led by Racing Director Frederic Vasseur and Chief Technical Officer Bob Bell, reporting to CEO Cyril Abiteboul and President Jerome Stoll.

The team has backing from Total, EMC, Microsoft, Jack&Jones and Infiniti.

Meanwhile in India

The ownership of the Force India F1 team is rather complex at the moment. On paper the team is wholly owned by a Luxembourg-based company Orange India Holdings SARL. The last available records suggest that this is 42.85 percent owned by the Sahara India Group and 42.85 percent owned by the Mauritius-based Watson Ltd, a holding company belonging to Vijay Mallya. The remaining 15 percent is owned by the Mol family in Holland, who were involved in the team in the Spyker era. However, things are complicated by the fact that the spirits company Diageo, which controls USL, the Indian firm that Mallya used to own, gave Standard Chartered a bank guarantee worth $135 million for a loan facility for Watson. This defaulted on the loan in May last year and Diageo has since been seeking to recover the money, claiming shares in Orange India Holdings. The problem is that this process has been slowed by other creditors, fighting to get money from Mallya’s crumbling empire. The team stands to make around $70 million this year from the Formula One group, although some of that has probably been paid in advance, and the situation with Diageo is less than clear. Diageo wanted to get control of the team and rebrand it as Aston Martin, but it seems that there was too much risk involved for the British car company, which would love to be in F1, but has other priorities. There is money coming in from other sponsors, notably from Mexico, but the cynics in F1 believe that the announcement a few days ago that the team has signed a development driver deal with 16-year-old Nikita Mazepin was more to do with cash than talent. Mazepin is related to Dmitry Mazepin, a Russian chemical company billionaire.

The team has struggled with money a fair bit as a result of all of this but has done an amazing job in very difficult circumstances.

The latest twist in the story concerns Sahara’s Subrata Roy who has been in jail in India since March 2014 as the authorities wait for him to return money to investors. He has fought all along the way but has failed to sell his prize assets. The Supreme Court of India has grown tired on this game and so is now considering appointing a receiver and breaking up the group. This has caused Roy to ask the court if he can sell his F1 shares along with other assets, notably four planes and several luxury hotels. There are also reports that he has completed the sale of his flagship hotel, the Grosvenor House in London, to a Qatar government-owned trust fund. After paying the debts on the hotel, Sahara will be left with about $430 million. It is doubtful that Diageo would want to buy the team, but that really depends on the price…

Elsewhere the Indian newspapers have been filled with comments made at Davos by Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, who made a passing, but cloaked, reference to Mallya when discussing the state of some of India’s entrepreneurs.

“If you flaunt your birthday bashes while owing the system a lot of money, it does seem to suggest to the public that you don’t care,” he said. “I think that is the wrong message to send. If you are in trouble, you should be cutting down your expenses.”

This is viewed in India as being an attack on Mallya, who owes banks around $1.2 billion, but celebrated his 60th birthday recently in the only style he knows – ostentation.

 

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