It has been a busy day for the F1 scribes, with some real stories to report, rather than the usual dross that passes for news these days. The upheavals at Williams F1 were long overdue and entirely expected. Jon Tomlinson was toast when it became clear that the car was not up to scratch aerodynamically and it was really only a question of whether Sam Michael would get the chop as well. Sam is good guy, but there is a finite amount of time that one can survive in F1 without results before people begin to believe it is your fault. To have survived seven years as technical director at Williams without any wins shows that Michael was a great politician although it must also be said that his tireless work and loyalty to the team were much appreciated by the top management. Drive and enthusiasm are vital for success and Sam has boatloads of both. Why he never managed to put together a winning car is a more complicated question, but there is an argument, often heard in F1 circles, that a modern technical director needs to be an aerodynamicist because that is the primary key to performance and it is the one area where one can be led astray if one does not know the subject inside-out. The choice of Mike Coughlan is an interesting one and rather surprising for many in the sport. The truth is probably that Coughan was the only man on the market with suitable F1 experience, who was immediately available. The fact that he has been hired, despite his dubious history, is a sign that Williams was willing to take a fairly big risk to try to get a better car next year. The thing that I think is most interesting is that Coughlan’s title is chief engineer, rather than technical director or something along those lines. This clearly suggests that Williams has other plans for the top job and that may take some time to emerge. However, it is worth watching for any top engineers leaving other teams in the months ahead. Most can join a rival team within six months of leaving their current job, although some do stick to their contracts and so it may take longer to achieve. Whatever the case, there is little doubt that more announcements will be coming from Grove. The problem is that the team needs a car for 2012 and some new blood to change the thinking was deemed essential.
The one question that was never really certain was whether or not the team’s chairman Adam Parr would get caught up in the changes. He has been around for five years now and that means that he might have been seen to have some responsibility for the performance. One has to say that Parr seems to be excellent at the business side of the company. He has done some very sensible things, diversifying the business and is credited with pulling off the extraordinary PDVSA sponsorship. He is not at all experienced in the sporting side, although there are some good people at Williams who understand all this stuff so there is no reason why he should be involved. The other thing that is important is that he does not always come across well to the F1 community. There is no question of his intellect but he has been known to rub people up the wrong way, in much the same way as Max Mosley used to do when he was FIA President. It will be interesting to watch in the weeks ahead to see if his role in the team changes.
Changes are often a good thing is a team that has been together for a long time. There is a breath of fresh air and the political structures change. The Frankfurt stock exchange greeted the news with cautious optimism, with the team’s share price closing at € 19.00. The stock was launched at € 24.65 back in February but has been as low as € 16.30 in recent weeks.
The news that News Corporation and Exor have confirmed their interest in buying Formula One will come as a blow to the supposed F1 business experts who argued that such a thing would never happen. The news was confirmed this evening in a joint press release from the two companies, which said that they are “in the early stages of exploring the possibility of creating a consortium with a view to formulating a long‐term plan for the development of Formula One in the interests of the participants and the fans”.
Exor and News Corporation will be approaching potential minority partners and key stakeholders in the sport in the weeks ahead. They did add, however, that “there can be no certainty that this will lead to an approach to Formula One’s current owners”.
The news creates all manner of questions about whether or not it is a clash of interest to have the sport owned by a company that is, in effect, a parent of Ferrari. This is understandable in some respects as there is a desire to protect the investment made in the sport, but it would be wise if the consortium that is put together includes other stakeholders as well.