Since I shut up shop on December 17 there has not been an awful lot to report in the F1 world. The usual suspects have churned out a stream of “he says, she says” stories to fill the Webosphere over the break, with plenty of idle speculation about the available Williams drive. There has been talk of Bruno Senna and Adrian Sutil, but there is no doubt that Rubens Barrichello still has a decent chance of retaining the position as the team needs a sure-fire points scorer to take advantage of whatever the new car is capable of achieving. Rubens is a safe pair of hands, although Sutil may appear to be quicker, although there is a risk factor involved in such a decision. None of the other candidates have won Grands Prix and while there might be a decent arguments for drivers like Sebastien Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari, Jerome d’Ambrosio or Tonio Liuzzi, Williams is taking a sufficient number of risks already and it would perhaps be wise to give Rubens a final season in F1, while the team prepares Valtteri Bottas for the job in the longer term. Pastor Maldonado still has plenty to prove, but he is a necessity for the team at the moment. Things may change in the months ahead.
It is worth noting that in recent days the logo of AT&T Williams has disappeared from the team website and has been replaced by the plain Williams F1 badging. The AT&T name remains in the partners section, but both the website and Facebook pages have been altered from ATTWilliams to plain WilliamsF1, suggesting that the AT&T title sponsorship has come to an end after five years. This has been rumoured for some time, with one suggestion being that the US telecommunications giant was none too happy about the team’s Venezuelan associations. This would not be surprising given that over the years the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chaves has described President George W Bush as the devil and called Barack Obama a clown. In recent days the eccentric leader has even suggested that the United States may have invented a way to give cancer to left-wing political leaders in Latin America…
In any case, if all goes to plan, Williams will soon announce a new title sponsor, which is expected to be QNB, the national bank of Qatar. One can only hope that this deal has been completed to give the team a stable platform from which to fight back to where it should be in the F1 pecking order. Finishing ninth in the Constructors’ Championship in 2011 was unthinkable for Williams just a few years ago and one can only hope that the team’s decision to sweep away the old technical management, which has been running things since 2004 – the year the team won its last race – is a success. The change was inevitable when it emerged that the FW33 was not competitive, particularly given that the design team started work early on the car, in order to try to gain an advantage after a poor 2010. Sam Michael is a smart and hard-working individual and has ended up at McLaren in a very different role to the one he had at Williams. It will be interesting to see if this suits him better.
The choice of Mike Coughlan as Michael’s replacement was interesting but hinted that Williams could not afford to wait for another name designer to become available. Coughlan was looking for any chance to get back into F1 after the McLaren spy scandal of 2007. He has a track record that suggests that he should be able to produce a decent car, particularly as the team has now given up on Cosworth engines and struck a deal with Renault. The team’s new chief aerodynamicist Jason Somerville has a good reputation and in Mark Gillan the team has a solid chief operations engineer. If this combination does not work then there will need to be bigger questions asked about the way Williams is run. Rubens Barrichello’s frustration boiled over last year when he remarked that “we need a leader. Right now, it is almost like we have too many, but not enough.” This did not make him popular, but one can understand what he meant. Success in F1 is fundamentally driven by the force of personality of a leader inside a team, be that a team principal, an engineer or a driver. The old regime at Williams had that in spades.
The principal piece of real news over the Christmas break was that Patrick Head has stepped down from his position as a board member of Williams Grand Prix Holdings. Head co-founded the team with Sir Frank Williams back in 1977 and led the team to no fewer than 113 Grand Prix victories and a total of 16 World Championships, between 1980 and 2004. Head, who sold most of his shares in the team last year, will continue to be a director of Williams Hybrid Power Limited, a subsidiary of the main company that develops and produces hybrid technologies.
“Patrick and I have been in partnership for 34 years,” says Sir Frank Williams. “During that time, he has been the leader of the technical team that has won the majority of our race wins and championships. This is a remarkable legacy and one which will be treasured and definitely not forgotten. Patrick is a very straightforward, hard working and truly gifted engineer who comfortably operates at a world class level. I will miss him very much, as I am sure his colleagues will.”
One point that should also be made is that Head was the man under whom many of today’s leading engineers were trained, his “pupils” including McLaren’s Neil Oatley, Frank Dernie, Adrian Newey, Geoff Willis and many others.
There was a certain amount of irony at the New Year with the announcement about Head and the New Years Honours List in the UK. This featured the appointment of Adrian Newey as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), in recognition of his services to motorsport. The 53-year-old engineer has a remarkable record, having been involved in winning 16 World Championship titles for Drivers’ and Constructors’ in the last 20 years. While recognition for Newey is good news for the sport and well-deserved, there remain a number of other world class F1 engineers who have not been honoured for their successes in the past. Ross Brawn’s work was recognised in 2009 with an OBE, but Head, for example, has received no such accolade. Nor for that matter has John Barnard, the other great British engineer of the 1980s and early 1990s. Given that the UK government is now making a lot of noise about the importance of engineering, it is only right that these oversights should be fixed.
The British honours system remains rather hit-and-miss but to my mind Head and Barnard deserve recognition just as much as Newey and Brawn. The fact that John Surtees has only been given an OBE despite his unique achievement of not only winning world titles on two and four wheels, but also running his own Formula 1 team, is another example, and I also believe that Ron Dennis should be knighted for his services not only to the sport, but also to Britain’s car industry.
Also in the New Year’s Honours List was 1992 World Champion Nigel Mansell, although his appointment as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), was not in relation to the sport, but rather for his work with the UK Youth charity.
That apart there was some talk of Sebastien Buemi becoming the official reserve driver for all Red Bull teams at Grands Prix this year. This makes a lot of sense.
The only other point of note was a remark made by Mr Justice Vos during a hearing in London with regard to a law suit from German media group Constantantin Medien over what it alleges was an undervaluation of shares in the Formula One group of companies when the business was sold to CVC Capital Partners. Gerhard Gribkowsky did not respond to the writ, which seeks tens of millions of dollars in damages from Bernie Ecclestone, his former lawyer Stephen Mullens and Bambino Holdings, the Ecclestone family trust.
The judge was told about the payments made to Gribkowsky by Ecclestone and Bambino and when told the details, responded: “Isn’t that a bribe?” This does not mean anything in particular, but it is nonetheless interesting to hear the thoughts of a learned judge on the matter.
In the meantime the government of Bahrain says that it will try five police officers over the deaths of two people in custody during the unrest early last year. At least four people died in detention after the country introduced a period of martial law with an independent report suggesting that the authorities were to blame for these deaths. The country’s public prosecutor says that two of the policemen beat two detainees to death and the other three officers failed to report the incident to authorities. The trial is due to begin on January 11. It is anticipated that another 15 officers will face similar charges in the months ahead as the country tries to rebuild its damaged public image. The Bahrain government has promised to implement the report’s recommendations.
While this is a very positive step for the country, there is still much opposition to the regime, with opposition groups saying that a change of leadership is needed to heal the rifts created.
There continue to be protest marches in Bahrain with tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades still being used to break them up. In recent days a 15-year-old boy has been killed in one such protest, with the opposition and the authorities disputing the cause of death. The country’s public prosecutor is investigating. As part of the healing process the country’s new chief of police has hired an additional 500 police officers “from all sections of Bahrain society”. However, the head of a commission set up to supervise the implementation of the recommendations of the report has already resigned because of criticism from opposition groups.
F1 seems to be intent on holding a Grand Prix in Bahrain in April. There are many (myself included) who feel that this is not a good idea unless there is very rapid progress in the next few weeks as an event is more likely to stir up trouble than to help in the process of national healing. One can understand the desire of the authorities not to be held hostage by what they believe is a relatively small group of extremists, but I question the wisdom of F1 getting involved in such a tricky situation, when it is not absolutely essential to include the event on the calendar.
As the F1 world now returns from the break we can expect more news in the weeks ahead, before the first new cars begin to appear at the end of the month.