I have been having a look through my notebook from Spa and the following is a summary of the rumours and stories that were circulating over the weekend. Formula 1 reconvened after the summer break and discussions about the driver market were focussed on Williams and McLaren, as a result of the announcement that Kimi Raikkonen is staying at Ferrari. This flew in the face of earlier suggestions from Italy that Kimi would be replaced by Valtteri Bottas.
There is no question that Ferrari went to Williams and asked for Bottas, but it seems that the bill that would have gone with a transfer was too much even for the deep-pocketed folk in Maranello. The stories about the number involved vary, but it seems that Williams wanted 10 million in one currency or another, in order to release the Finn from the two years that are left on his contract. However, it might be that this was all only done in order to convince Raikkonen that a pay cut might be a good idea. Kimi has been earning rather well of late and it seems that some in Italy do not think his results match his pay-check. The word is that come January 2016, the numbers will be about 75 percent less than they have been, probably with a sensible bonus scheme to keep Kimi interested in success. With the Ferrari IPO coming up in a few weeks, the company wants to look lean and hungry and so some of the fat in F1 has been trimmed.
The word in Spa was that, in preparation for the IPO, the team has also extended its arrangements with James Allison, who joined the team in the autumn of 2013. The suggestion I have heard is that James has agreed to a further three years as the man in charge of all things technical at Gestione Sportiva. Allison spent five years at Maranello earlier in his career and is comfortable with the lifestyle in Italy. He has played a big role in getting the team up to speed and is still leading that charge. This made him a rather attractive proposition for some other teams, looking for new technical leadership, but it seems that Ferrari has recognised that danger and has now tied him in for the long term.
I heard at Spa that Williams is in the process of concluding an important alliance that will stabilise its financial situation for the long term. It seems to be rather more than a traditional sponsorship, but there is not much detail available. What is clear is that the team has been trying to squeeze more cash from its current supporters as some of them, notably Martini, got very good deals when they signed with the team. Now, with much better results, the space on the cars is worth a lot more so one can imagine that there will be changes when the deals come up for renewal. The team is not now expected to change its driver line-up in 2016, although I am led to believe that discussions with Jenson Button were quite advanced when it looked as though Bottas might be off to Italy.
From what I now hear, Jenson will be staying at McLaren in 2016 with Fernando Alonso and GP2 champion-to-be Stoffel Vandoorne. This means that Kevin Magnussen will probably be on the market. It seems that all of these factors convinced Nico Hulkenberg that it would be best to get himself sorted out with Force India and I heard a whisper at Spa that The Hulk has just agreed to a new two-year deal. I suspect that he will have included a clause that would allow him to escape if a big team comes calling.
One intriguing rumour I did hear was that Aston Martin is still out there looking to become a sponsor of a Mercedes-engined F1 team. This might explain the rumours about Williams having a mysterious deal as Aston Martin and Martini plus a bit of British bulldog would all be a lovely fit if stirred but not shaken. Aston is also looking for help designing new road cars – hence the rumours of an Adrian Newey supercar with Red Bull – but one can envisage a suitable product emerging from Grove, where there was a team of engineers at Williams Advanced Engineering designing the abortive Jaguar X75 hybrid supercar. Perhaps we might see a similar concept for Aston Martin.
Williams, incidentally, recently signed a £17 million contract to design and manufacture systems for General Dynamics UK’s new Scout armoured vehicle, which will be supplied to the British Army between 2017 and 2024.
I also heard the name Aston Martin associated with Force India, on the basis that the car company would get more space on the cars with the Silverstone team than it would for the same money with other teams. Vijay Mallya took the odd step of telling journalists that he is talking to Renault, which is not what F1 teams generally do when there are secret discussions going on, and so one must conclude that he let this slip in an effort to hurry up some other deal. The funding of Force India is going to be interesting because Mallya’s empire in India is contracting and he is in legal action with Diageo, which is an odd situation to be in when the drinks company is your primary sponsor in F1. Mallya’s business partner in Force India, Roy Subrata, remains in jail in India. The country has much potential for Aston Martin, which is in the process of trying to double its production by 2018. While a car company sponsoring an F1 team with another car company’s engine in the back may sound a bit odd, it should be remembered that Mercedes supplies road car engines to Aston Martin and owns five percent of the English (although Italian-owned) supercar company. It is not that different from having the bizarre concept of Lotus-Mercedes F1 cars…
This brings us to the big question at the moment in F1 – the future of the Lotus F1 Team. Things are not great, despite Romain Grosjean’s terrific performance in Spa. In the course of the weekend Charles Pic sent bailiffs into the paddock to try to secure settlement over a dispute he has been having with the team over his role as a test driver who did no testing.
This is a relatively insignificant problem as Lotus’s problems go, but it got plenty of coverage. The team is up to its neck in debt and the creditors are beginning to get worried. Renault has been looking to buy the team for months, but has been hesitating because, apparently, they are worried about what they might find if they buy the team in its current state. The option is to organise a pre-packaged administration agreement that would mean that the team would go into administration for a few days but with a rescue package already in place. That would need to be agreed by a majority of the creditors but if the buyer is likely to bring more business in the future, most creditors will accept a deal (as happened with Manor last winter). This would mean that the team could restart with a clean slate and, if Renault was to take over, the designers would immediately start work on a car with Renault engines for 2016. The team’s rights and benefits will remain in place as long as the company is not declared insolvent at any point. From what I hear, Renault has now agreed to put together a plan to go to the board and if that is accepted then it could all happen very quickly. This would be great news for Enstone. One would imagine that Renault would ship in Bob Bell to run things and put Alain Prost in a chairman role, similar to that Niki Lauda has with Mercedes. This would encourage engineers to go back to Enstone and would be good for F1 as it would cement the future of the once-great team, which won the World Championship as recently as 2006 (when it was previously under Renault ownership). Romain Grosjean would lead the team and there would be quite a competition for the second seat, although Renault would have the financial clout not to need to take money and so Pastor Maldonado’s future would likely to be limited. The financial meltdown going on in Venezuela will not help his cause.
There would likely be other knock-on effects of a Renault takeover of Lotus with Red Bull and Scuderia Toro Rosso being in the firing line. The Red Bull team has a deal with Renault until the end of 2016, but it is an unhappy relationship and if Renault comes back with a factory team, Red Bull will be unlikely to renew that relationship. The problem is that there is no obvious engine supplier to replace Renault. Red Bull’s options are fairly limited because it does not seem able to attract a new manufacturer and does not really want Ferrari or Honda customer engines. The best option is Mercedes, but while there are attractions of such an arrangement, it is tempting fate as Red Bull might easily beat the Mercedes factory team and, if not, would likely make a lot of negative noise about the engines. On the other hand, there is an argument that Mercedes might be able to benefit from Red Bull’s young customers. Mercedes would also be seen to be acting in the best interests of the sport, which is no bad thing for them, while also getting more political power, as it would gain influence in more teams. The other element that has not been much discussed is the fact that Mercedes and Renault are involved in an industrial alliance which is far bigger than F1 and so Mercedes is not going to do anything to jeopardise that. Poaching one of Renault’s teams in F1 and thus causing its partner some difficulties is not going to happen. However, if Renault does not care about losing Red Bull then this might happen. One sticking point might be a very specific gagging order on Red Bull personnel because the team has a record of trashing partners (Renault, Pirelli etc) when things do not go right. The other option for Red Bull is to shut up and rekindle the relationship with Renault for a few more years, while waiting for a new manufacturer to come along. The team says that Red Bull might get out of F1 if it does not have a factory engine deal, but there is not much sympathy for the company amongst the other teams. If Red Bull does walk its two teams would be sold and there would be new owners. Aabar is already a partner in Scuderia Toro Rosso and could take over that business, while a solution would, no doubt, be found for Red Bull Racing.
The other suggestion I have heard is that we could see Manor using Mercedes engines in 2016, rather than the old Ferrari engines that are currently being employed. The team is building up its numbers rapidly at the moment, is fitting out a new factory in Banbury, a building next to the new Prodrive factory. It seems that the factory actually belongs to Prodrive and will be leased by Manor, but the team should be in there by the end of September. If Lotus switches to Renault engines Manor could get Mercedes power units and from what I hear this would be entirely independent of any possible deals between Red Bull and Mercedes. Mercedes would need to ask permission from the FIA to supply engines to a fifth team, but the federation is unlikely to do anything to stop that happening, as it rarely says “Boo” to anyone in F1 outside Race Control and the Scrutineering Bay.
Every new customer represents more revenue for Mercedes while also meaning more data and the potential of additional cars between Mercedes and Ferrari… The Italians might not be happy about this, but if it offered customers a realistic chance of success using its engines, perhaps it would be able to attract more of them.
The last note in the Spa notebook is that Phil Kerr, one of the early members of the McLaren team has died in his native New Zealand at the age of 81. Kerr was hill-climbing with an Austin Seven when he first met Bruce McLaren in 1951. Kerr studied business management and was running an engineering company when McLaren suggested to Jack Brabham that he might be a useful recruit. Kerr helped Brabham set up his operations in Chessington and also took Denny Hulme there, as he was also acting as Denny’s manager. After Denny won the World Championship with Brabham in 1967, Kerr and Hulme moved to McLaren where he was joint Managing-Director with Bruce McLaren while Denny drove F1 and CanAm. The two men played an important role in keeping the team together after McLaren’s death, but as Teddy Mayer took over running the operation Kerr was moved across to run the semi-works Yardley McLaren team and then, when Hulme retired as a driver, Kerr decided to return home to New Zealand where he built up several successful businesses in the 1980s and 1990s.