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.

You’ll see what I mean…

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.

My notebook at Spa

NotebookI 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.

Milking it

I rarely have time to post blog items over a Grand Prix weekend, but last weekend I did actually write a story. I was surprised on Sunday when I looked at the blog to see that my story was not there and I wondered what had happened to it. This morning I see that I filed it in the wrong place. However, it was the kind of story that I like to see as it shows a little of the reason why Formula 1 has been so successful over the years… So, here it is, a few days behind schedule but worthwhile nonetheless.

The Belgian Grand Prix at Spa is held in a rural environment, where the farmers are struggling, as are many farmers across Europe. One particular gripe at the moment is the price of milk. This follows a European Union decision, implemented in April, to end milk quotas, coupled with a fall on demand for milk as a result of the Russians embargoing EU dairy products, in response to the trade embargoes that followed its interventions in Ukraine last year. Farmers say that the current milk prices do not cover the costs of production and that they are all going bankrupt as a result. In Belgium the more militant milkers have been taking action, notably by blocking the entrance to Liege airport to try to draw attention to this problems. The arrival of the F1 circus was going to provide them with the opportunity to use the race to get media coverage and plans were drawn up to park tractors across the access roads and blockade the Spa race track on Saturday morning. The police in some European countries do not behave as one might expect. Rather than removing those who disrupt public order, they stand by and watch which, being an Englishman, I find utterly indefensible, as they are simply not doing their jobs.

So, there was no suggestion that the police would help F1 and so it was left to Bernie Ecclestone to head off the cowboys at the pass and he had a meeting with the local farmers’ union and invited them to bring a cow or two along to the F1 Village, saying that he would provide them with media coverage that would not produce negative stories by messing up the race meeting. It was a win-win suggestion for all concerned – a great example of how F1 deals with problems that pop up that others allow to get in the way of their business.

Feeling weary…

The Internet is a great thing, an astonishing tool for the human race, but there are inevitably downsides because while the Web gives a voice to many who deserve that chance, some of these voices do not warrant any exposure. The Internet is filled with frauds and snake-oil salesmen, all pretending to be things that they are not. How can we know what is real and what is not when F1 insider columns are written by people who have never been inside an F1 paddock? How do we know who to trust when anyone can hide behind a pseudonym and a false e-mail address? Very often I find that perfectly normal people have doppelgängers when it comes to the Internet and they behave with astonishing rudeness when their identities are protected. They seem to believe that they are experts because they have watched a race on TV or read someone else’s opinions on the Internet. Often the arrogance is astonishing.

I admit that sometimes my replies may appear to be brusque, but when one considers the number of comments I am dealing with each day, it is inevitable that there is not sufficient time to write a sonnet to each and every commenter. Others feel that it is nasty of me to disagree with their opinions and accuse me of arrogance if I challenge their views. Yesterday, as I was reading through all the comments that had collected, I felt a very profound weariness at the gracelessness and the ingratitude of so many of these people. Normally, I do not let such things affect me, but perhaps it was the lack of sleep of a Grand Prix weekend, perhaps it was the sense of deflation of getting back to the coalface after a great holiday. It may even have been a reaction to the mess that the sport has got itself into and I am sure part of it was because of what happened to Justin Wilson, one of the good guys, but I found myself completely demotivated and just about ready to turn off the blog comments. Comments do not come as some divine right for a blog reader, but rather as a gift and I marvel at how and why some people think that this gives them the right to be so thoroughly offensive.

I write this blog and allow comments because I want to amuse and inform F1 fans. I want to share my passion for the sport with them and to attract more people to join the throng. There are many people in Formula 1 who think I am crazy to try to engage with the fans, when it takes so much time and I get nothing from it. Sometimes I think they are right and ponder switching off the comments and leading a less stressful life. But I keep coming back because I believe that we – as an industry – should engage with the fans, and that one should always lead by example.

However, there are blog rules, although no-one seems to pay much attention to them. So, here they are again, as a reminder. Please abide by them because my patience (which is legendary in F1 circles) is frayed and I am currently trigger-happy when it comes to banning anyone who steps over the line.

Joe Saward’s Grand Prix Blog is not a traditional news source. The aim is to amuse and inform about the complex world of Formula 1 motor racing. Some do not understand what the word “blog” means. It is not a traditional new source, but rather a personal website in which I record my opinions about the world of F1, or anything else I care to include. I am happy to allow people to air their opinions in comments, as long as this is done in a respectful fashion. You must remember that it is not a right. You are, in effect, a guest in my house so being abusive and rude about me or others is not acceptable and such comments will be deleted and the author stopped from making further comments. A good rule of thumb when writing a comment is to question whether you would say such a thing to someone’s face…

I would also appreciate if people do not post links as I am not an advertising service for other websites and I will delete such links in almost all cases.


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