As predicted after Spa, Nico Hulkenberg has signed a new two-year deal with the Force India team. This indicates a number of things. Firstly, Hulkenberg saw no better alternative for the future, which means that Williams is not available and that means that the Grove team is going to keep both Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas; secondly, it indicates that The Hulk was probably worried about finding himself booted out of his current situation because another driver might come along with money, or the support of engine supplier Mercedes. Thirdly, it shows that despite his Le Mans victory this year and rumours of a switch to Porsche, Nico is still not finished with F1. The other thing that it may indicate is that Hulkenberg was once again worried that Pastor Maldonado might pop up and take his seat, as happened at Williams.
More details are emerging about the Lotus F1 team situation, with further media pressure being added to the mix, presumably in an effort to get the current owners to agree to sell the business. I am told by several people who know these things that Lotus has yet to receive an actual offer from Renault, but the terms that will be offered have been leaked in the media, one presumes that this is designed to quieten any political questions that might be raised by Renault buying the team, given that the company is controlled by the French government (which has the right to block any big decision) and this does not want to be seen to be throwing money into such things when it has plenty of other problems to deal with. The government needs all the money it can get because it is in the process of offering tax breaks to businesses and to the French middle classes, in an effort to improve the economy (and to get re-elected).
There is a report in The Times today quoting Bernie Ecclestone, saying that he paid the salaries of the team last month. Making this public is clearly not something that Ecclestone would usually do (he loans money to teams on a fairly regularly basis), so there is clearly a desire to use the media to move things along rapidly.
At the same time I have been sent a document that indicates that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has an administration hearing scheduled for September 9 (the Wednesday after Monza). This documents lists a large number of debts that the team has collected and asks for the team to be administered by Geoffrey Carton-Kelly and Geoff Rowley of FRP Advisory, the company that recently oversaw the Marussia F1 Team administration. HMRC has also asked that the court dismiss three pending winding-up orders, arguing that liquidation would destroy the value in the company as it would constitute what is known as “a cessation event”, as detailed in the secret commercial agreements that exist between the teams, the Formula One group and the FIA. That would mean the team’s entry would disappear and the creditors would only get what value could be derived from selling off the remaining assets. The primary asset is the entry.
The pressure is clearly on for the current owners but it is not clear why, that being the case, the Renault offer has not been made. One must assume that the French company is now waiting for an administration order and will then swoop in and try to do a quick deal with the parties involved. This would mean that most of the small creditors would get their money (or at least a percentage of it), but the big losers would be the owners, who have loaned the team money, or who own the shares. Obviously the situation can be resolved if there is an injection of cash into the team from the current owner, or from a buyer. What is clear is that the team is worth more than the money that is on offer for it, as long as it remains solvent. Logically, this should mean that those with the ambition to own an F1 team would be queueing up to make offers. The problem, as always, is not so much the purchase price, but rather the costs involved in running the team on a monthly basis, as this costs several million to be available every month. The bigger the company buying the team, the better the situation is, which is presumably why there has been so much press about Renault.
Another reason that Ecclestone is keen to have Renault take over the team is that this would mean that the French company would put its own engines in the Enstone cars and that would free up a supply of Mercedes engines. Red Bull is talking about leaving F1 if it cannot find a competitive engine and obviously the best choice would for them would be Mercedes, although it is hard to see why this makes sense to Mercedes, which would prefer to go on winning with its own factory team.
The DTM world is not that exciting for the folk in Formula 1, but in recent days there have been some goings-on that could have some impact in Grand Prix racing. These relate to an incident a month ago when the DTM visited the Red Bull Ring. Mercedes driver Robert Wickens was running in sixth place and was busy blocking Audi’s Timo Scheider, in an effort to allow his own team-mate Pascal Wehrlein to catch up with them. Wickens then engineered a manoeuvre that resulted in Wehrlein being able to sneak through and pass both of them at the same time, leaving Scheider behind the two Mercs. At this point a voice came on Scheider’s radio and said “Schrieb ihn raus!”, which when translated from German means “Take him off!” The driver obeyed the order, presumably recognising the voice on the other end of the radio as being someone who should be obeyed. He duly bumped into Wickens and punted him into Wehrlein and the two Mercedes went off, Scheider took the place… However, this was rather an upsetting thing for Mercedes and there were duly complaints and the stewards investigated and it emerged that the words had been spoken by Audi motorsport boss Wolfgang Ullrich. This was not cricket. Ullrich eventually confirmed that he had said the words, but used the unlikely defence that he was unaware that his radio was transmitting to the drivers and that he had said the words in a passionate moment, never for one minute ever dreaming that such a dastardly act would come to pass. It was a pretty lame defence and the stewards recognised this and passed the incident on to the DMSB, Germany’s national sporting authority, asking them to look into the behaviour of those involved. Audi was found guilty of “unsportsmanlike behaviour”, fined €200,000 and has had its manufacturer points from the race taken away. Scheider was banned from competing in the Moscow DTM race, while Ullrich has been banned from the DTM pitlane for the rest of the season.
So what does all of this have to do with Formula 1?
Well, on the surface, not a lot. Wehrlein is the blue-eyed boy at Mercedes and there is talk that he will go to a Mercedes-engined team in F1 next year, but this is not the point of interest.
Ullrich was 65 years old last week (and probably had a rotten birthday). Sixty-five is retirement age in lots of countries and the Red Bull Ring incident casts a dark shadow over the achievements during his 21 and a half years in charge of Audi Sport. This has included 13 Le Mans victories. Now, with a rampant Porsche in WEC, a new boss at the top of the Volkswagen Group, Audi’s sporting future is anything but settled. The departure of Ullrich – which would be entirely understandable in the circumstances – would open the way for new ideas and there are more than a few people at Audi who have watched the Mercedes efforts in F1 and think that their company should be in Grand Prix racing, reviving the old rivalry between Mercedes and AutoUnion (Audi’s forefather). If Ullrich is shovelled out of the way as a result of this faux pas in DTM, things could change in Ingolstadt.
Let us not forget that while all this is going on, Red Bull Racing is whining and griping about having to go on using Renault F1 engines for 2016. There is a contract in place, but it is clear that Red Bull does not think Renault is going to improve much next year and Dietrich Mateschitz is grumbling that F1 is no fun at all when you are not winning. Bernie Ecclestone and the suits who follow in his wake are worried that Red Bull might walk away and so is busy trying to talk Mercedes into giving Red Bull its race-winning engines. In the longer term that makes little sense. Some argue that the people who drink Red Bull will all instantly be convinced that Mercedes is cool and will hang up their skateboards, turn their caps the right way round and go and buy themselves a $75,000 Mercedes. The downside is a little more realistic. If someone sticks a Mercedes engine in a Red Bull, there is a serious worry that Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg might get beaten and that would make whoever agreed to the deal look like a real drongo. Whereupon the Great Moustache from Stuttgart will descend, boots flailing, because it will obviously not have been his idea.
The option is for someone to sneak in to Audi and point out the patently obvious: there is a topline F1 team begging for engines, who will help finance engine development. Audi might like doing things in-house, but this is a gift horse and you don’t need to be a dentist to see the potential. Later on, when they have found their feet, perhaps they can launch an Audi factory team, but the key thing now would be to gain a foothold. Audi is certainly in a position to handle such a project. They have plenty of hybrid experience and it would be amazing if the company had not played around a little with some of the F1 ideas in recent years. They also have a chap called Stefano Domenicali working at Ingolstadt and he knows a thing or two about making F1 teams work. He has a very useful contact book and could easily manage an Audi F1 engine programme. Could it be done in time for 2017? Possibly… that rather depends on what machinery they have at Ingolstadt. It is the kind of brave move that a man close to retirement would not embark upon, but if the man close to retirement is no longer there and there is a 52-year-old Audi boss who might one day want to run the whole VW empire, one can see that nothing is impossible.
This is all speculation, of course, but someone in Ingolstadt must be thinking along these lines…
It was expected after the Belgian Grand Prix that there would be a swift solution to the problems of Lotus F1 Team, with Renault rumoured to be moving in to take over the team. It now seems that the stories were moving rather faster than the reality, although it is clear that Renault has not been doing anything to dampen the speculation. However, the suggestion that Renault is the only option for the team may not be the whole truth. What is interesting is that there have been some fairly detailed leaks to the media, which seem to be coming from Renault and from the Formula One group. One can understand why both would want the deal to go ahead as rapidly as possible. The Formula 1 group wants stability and wants to be able to exert pressure on Mercedes to supply Red Bull Racing, to solve the problems there. From the Renault point of view, if the deal is not agreed soon, it will be too late for the team to switch to Renault power in 2016. Renault has few choices at the moment. It might be possible to acquire Force India, but this is less attractive a team than Lotus. Beyond that, the French firm does not have the money to spend, even given the fact that it is effectively controlled by the French government.
Our sources suggest that the details of the Renault deal that have been leaked to the media are broadly correct, with the company offering a total of $100 million in order to acquire 65 percent of the team. This values the team at slightly more than $150 million. This is not expensive, particularly when one considers that Renault is only willing to commit to an immediate payment of $11.5 million. This would then be followed by annual payments of $8.8 million for a period of 10 years. After that the French firm would commit to finding the money required to cover the annual costs of running an F1 team. The 10 percent of the team that is currently owned by the Russians who were involved with Yotaphone (which has since been swallowed up by Megafon) would be passed over to Alain Prost and he would take on the role of chairman and front man for the team, along similar lines to the role that Niki Lauda enjoys with Mercedes.
The discordant note in all of this is that Renault seems to be content to include Gérard Lopez in the deal, with the suggestion being that he will retain 25 percent of the shares in the company after a Renault takeover. This looks like a face-saving exercise. Lopez and Genii Capital partner Eric Lux did invest some money into the team but, by all accounts, British real estate developer Andrew Ruhan invested more and this resulted in Ruhan turning his loans into equity and taking control of the company, at the start of 2014. He then put his associate Matthew Carter in to run operations at Enstone and has funded the team ever since. There is a limit, however, to the amount of money that any investor will put into a Formula 1 team and it seems that this limit has now been reached. The team is up to its neck in debt, with creditors more and more nervous about the future.
However, the fact that the Renault rescue deal has not gone through confirms the belief that Lopez does not have the power necessary to get the deal done and, it is safe to assume that Ruhan has little interest, presumably on the basis that he feels that he could do better, or that he does not want to work with Lopez any longer. Or both. Given the amounts of money that has been put into Lotus in recent years – probably in the region of $200 million – it is not hard to understand why Ruhan would not be happy with the Renault offer and, as the majority shareholder in the team, he does not have to agree to any takeover, even if others are trying to use the media to put pressure on him, which seems to be what is going on.
This suggests that Ruhan probably has an alternative project, the only other option being to put the team into administration, which would likely end up with Renault buying the assets, if the company survives without being deemed insolvent, as that would mean instant cancellation of all of its rights and benefits under F1’s complicated (and secret) commercial deals. If this is the case, there is clearly something holding it up and one must suppose that something is getting in the way of a deal. One might speculate that this is because Lopez still wants to be involved, even if he has not had much to do with the team in recent months, having begun a new business in oil trading.
As reported last week if the Renault project does get the go-ahead (if, for example, more money appears) then it is anticipated that Bob Bell would be drafted in as the managing-director, with Prost as the Team Principal, to give it the French flavour that would be required. Romain Grosjean would be retained as the lead driver but it is thought unlikely that Pastor Maldonado would stay on. It is not thought likely that the company would go for two Frenchmen (although it has happened in the past), but rather will get the best drivers available.
Eric Thompson has died at the age of 95. Born in Surrey in 1919, Thompson started late in the sport because war broke out when he was 19 and for six years, during which he was in the British Army, there was no motor racing in the UK. He was finally demobilised in 1946 and went to work as a marine insurance broker at Lloyds of London. He began to take part in rallies and trials, using a pre-war MG and a Ford V8 and it was not until the autumn of 1948 that he was invited by Robin Richards to share an Ecurie Lapin Blanc HRG, as part of a team representing the BRDC against France’s Association Générale Automobile des Coureurs Indépendants (AGACI) in the Paris 12 Hours at Montlhéry. The British won with Thompson finishing fourth in class and he was invited to join the BRDC. Encouraged by this, he bought an HRG chassis from the company’s concessionaire Charles Follett Ltd and had the machine prepared for him by Monaco Motors. He raced this at Le Mans the following year Jack Fairman as his co-driver and the pair won their class and finished eighth overall. A month later he scored two wins at Goodwood in the car and added a class victory at Silverstone. Because he was not a professional racing drivers, his time was very limited and he preferred to race sports cars because it gave him more time in the cars. He raced only in the United Kingdom, except for his annual pilgrimage to Le Mans. In 1950 he did only six races, beginning with a class win with his HRG at Blandford Camp.
The impressive early performances attracted the attention of Aston Martin racing manager John Wyer and Thompson was invited to join the factory sports car team for Le Mans, sharing a DB2 with John Gordon, alongside the George Abecassis/Lance Macklin and Reg Parnell/Charles Brackenbury entries. The car suffered engine failure after eight hours. That year he was one of the founders of the Lloyds Motor Club.
In 1951 he was able to race on eight occasions and finished Le Mans third overall, paired with Macklin. In 1952 he did slightly more racing, competing at Le Mans with Aston Martin once again, but being driving Rob Walker’s ERA-Delage and a Connaught in Formula Libre races. This led to him to receive a call from Rodney Clarke at Connaught, asking if he might be available for the British GP that year. Thompson had to miss the first day of practice because of a meeting with a ship owner, but he then qualified ninth and in the early part of the race, ran in the top six, ahead of stars such as Prince Bira, Roy Salvador and Peter Collins, before his rev-counter failed. He then shadowed Dennis Poore’s sister car for some laps to memorise where to change gear and ended the race battling (and beating Giuseppe Farina) to fifth place.
This remarkable debut went almost unnoticed, while he had a close shave later that summer when Reg Parnell pulled him from an Aston Martin sports car shortly before it burst into flames after a refuelling spillage at Goodwood. In 1953 he and Parnell went back to Goodwood and shared victory for Aston Martin in the nine hour race and a visit to Dundrod resulted in second place in the Tourist Trophy. Pressure of work meant that Thompson hardly raced at all in 1954, with his only appearances being at Goodwood and Le Mans, after which he parted company with Aston Martin. He reappeared briefly in a Connaught sports car the following year before ending his career with a 500cc race early in 1956.
He would later be a timekeeper with Aston Martin and when he retired from the insurance work in the 1980s he became a dealer in rare automotive books.
In the wake of a motor racing incident, there are always people who look for solutions to the problems. Sebastian Vettel complains about his tyres and his supporters want to reinvent the wheel.
Usually, there is some logic in taking action, even if it is merely shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. However, knee-jerk reactions are never a good idea. Safety is a science and research and experimentation are required because rushed solutions, applied too rapidly, can create new problems that were not immediately obvious.
Justin Wilson’s death at Pocono was the result of an incredibly unlucky accident with objects with different trajectories combining to create a disaster. Suddenly, fighter jet style canopies are the discussion. Perhaps they can stop intrusive objects… but perhaps they would also create even worse problems and further tragedies.
I doubt there are many people who remember the name Lyle Kurtenbach, but for some reason I do. He was a 41-year-old cement additive salesman from Rothschild, Wisconsin, who went to the 1987 Indianapolis 500 as a spectator. The race was something of a family reunion and there were 10 relatives gathered in the top row of a grandstand in Turn 4.
On lap 130 of the race, a wheel came off Tony Bettenhausen’s car and bounced into the path of Roberto Guerrero. He was lucky as the wheel hit the nose of his car but missed his head. The impact sent the wheel high into the air, arching over the safety fences and falling back to earth on the top of the grandstand, where it hit and killed the unfortunate Kurtenbach, who became the third spectator to die after being hit by a tyre, the others having been in the 1930s.
The point that must be made here is that if there were easy solutions, they would already have been applied. The FIA has been researching canopies and doing tests for at least five years, but no safe solution has been found. Canopies protect the drivers, but they deflect flying wreckage in an almost random fashion, and that could create even worse problems, as illustrated above by Kurtenbach’s death.
In addition there are questions about whether a canopy would hinder drivers trying to get out of a car in a hurry, or impede rescuers who are needing to get quick access to help an injured driver. If the canopies are made detachable, perhaps they will fly off or be dislodged in an accident. And so it goes on…
It is the same thing with cranes. If you have a static crane to lift cars off a race track you may need to have more people on the race track to manoeuvre the car so it can be attached to a crane. Think of the number of marshals you see on the circuit in Monaco. Using tractor units may not seem logical, but they do actually reduce the number of people at risk.
Some say that tradition is important and that open cockpits should be open cockpits. I don’t hold with this. If something is dangerous and there is a solution then it is wrong not to at least consider it. However it does mean that the sport would need to be rethought in a fairly major fashion because it is not going to be easy to explain the difference between an F1 with a canopy and a sports car and this would blur the lines between the different and distinct disciplines. It is the same too with enclosed wheels. There was a time when sports cars were Grand Prix cars with mudguards, but the two disciplines quickly diverged from one another.
Some would have us believe that there should be no mortal danger in motor racing, but in my opinion this is simply naive and unrealistic. If one pushes the boundaries of speed, it is inevitable that sometimes things will fail. The laws of physics are the laws of physics and they are not going to change. We can stop some dangers, but “freak accidents” will continue to occur because these are often the result of multiple factors. So, one must accept danger – as racing drivers do – while at the same time always looking to improve standards. One should not be complacent, but at the same time, one should not allow Health and Safety despots to lead crusades that destroy an activity that has brought pleasure to the world since the dawn of time. People like competition. I’m not a great fan of athletics (how can you tell who has been cheating with what drugs, blood transfusions and so on?) but yesterday I found myself watching races from the IAAF World Championship in Beijing while I was having lunch. I enjoyed it.
Some would ban motor racing completely, yet they let people fall off mountains or yachts all the time, without a word. They do this because motor racing has a higher profile and gives them an easier target.
In the end, there have to be compromises. Races should not be started behind Safety Cars, tracks cannot be entirely encircled with debris fencing. People buy tickets that tell them that motor racing is dangerous and while slippery lawyers may win cases, arguing that no-one ever reads the back of a ticket, we all know that there are risks involved in racing – and we accept them.