So, as we head into the Christmas holiday, I am going to stop writing news, not that there has been much, and I may also stop the Fascinating Fact series for a few days, if I need some time off. The plan is to go on until I reach 100, which would be the end of February if I do one every day, so there is some leeway for a few days off along the way.
However, the one big question about 2018 is who will drive the second (or first) Williams-Mercedes. This is an interesting situation with a lot of muddying of water going on at the moment. The word is that Robert Kubica was not convincingly fast in the Abu Dhabi test, but other sources say that this line is being fed out deliberately, so that Williams can avoid the accusation that they are going to choose a driver because of money, rather than ability.
What is clear is that Williams needs money, and the more the better, as Paddy Lowe, the team’s new chief technical officer, has things he wants to invest in, and (probably) a few more people he would like to hire. Williams is always a company that has tried to lead with engineering because this means that if the team builds a winning car, the price of the drivers will come down because fast drivers always want to drive the fastest cars. This is why the team has often fallen out with its World Champions in the past because they ask for more money than Williams is willing to pay. The key to success is building a fast car and Williams has not been very good at that in the modern era, although its last victory in Spain in 2012 was achieved by the mercurial Pastor Maldonado, a monster pay-driver.
In 2014, 2015 and 2016 the team had sufficient cash to run drivers it wanted: Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas. In the first year that was helped by a settlement on the PDVSA contract because Maldonado wanted to go to Lotus instead (a disastrous decision). Last year the coffers were boosted by a similar thing, as Mercedes had to agree to pay certains things, or reduce engine bills, in order to get Williams to release Valtteri Bottas. In 2015 and 2016 the team had more money because it did better in the Constructors’ Championship in the previous seasons, with third places each year, dropping to fifth in 2016 and 2017. This cost the team about $10 million per year in prize money. The arrival of Lance Stroll was helpful because he brought a pile of money with him, in exchange for which Williams is believed to have provided space on the car which the Strolls could use to recoup the investment. That deal is believed to have reduced in 2018. Nonetheless, Williams still needs cash if it is to have the development programme it requires to close the gap to the super-big teams, which of course get far more money from the Formula One pot. Williams may get an annual heritage payment of $10 million, but that is nothing compared to the loot that Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull and McLaren are being paid, above and beyond the basic prize fund. If you don’t have money, you have to be cleverer and Lowe hopes that with aerodynamic boss Dirk de Beer, from Ferrari, and new vehicle dynamics chief Barney Hassell, from McLaren, the FW41 will be a much better car and will enable Williams to take the fight to Force India and defend against the likely onslaughts from McLaren-Renault, and indeed Renault Sport Racing itself.
Robert Kubica looked like the perfect candidate with rumours that he had as much as $11 million in backing from a Polish chain of convenience stores, and an energy company. This seemed rather odd given his struggles in the past to find cash in his home country, but sources suggest that this is not really a Polish deal, but rather one involving CVC Capital Partners, the former owners of the Formula One group, who have sold up and gone but who still understand the value of F1 as a means of delivering a message.
What’s interesting is that CVC has two investments at the moment in Poland: Zabka, a chain of Polish convenience stores, which were acquired earlier this year and, you guessed it, an energy company called PKP Energetyka, acquired in 2015. This distributes electricity to the country’s railway system and to other businesses. It provides maintenance for the railway network and operates fuel stations for diesel locomotives, while also reselling electricity and gas.
The problem is that Sergey Sirotkin, who needs to be racing in 2018 and not being a reserve driver again, is rumoured to have come up with $22 million from his regular backer SMP Bank, and he did a decent job in the recent testing. There is no doubt that this money will actually arrive (which is not the case with all Russians deals in F1 history) but there is a question about whether Williams (and its other sponsors) want the association with SMP. The bank is owned by Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, oligarchs who are close associates and old friends of none other than Vladimir Putin.
The bad news is that the bank is on the list of sanctioned Russians firms, resulting from the Ukraine Crisis in 2014. However, it is not quite that simple as SMP is only black-listed in the United States and Canada, but is not on the EU list. The Rotenberg brothers are also listed by they appear on different lists as well. The current pause in negotiations is probably to provide Kubica to see if any more money can be found to support his candidature. Both Zakba and PKP Energetyka are companies with multi-billion dollar annual revenues so perhaps they can find some more…