July 1, 2013

BANG! goes my viewpoint

The tyre failures at Silverstone were too much © Getty Images

I’ve been a staunch defender of Pirelli’s approach to rubber all season. I like the chaos of an unpredictable race, of a season in which teams take half the year to get on top of their strategy.

While the likes of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber went on (and on and on) about the unfairness of forcing drivers to drive to the limits of their equipment, and not their car’s outright speed, I found myself agreeing with Kimi Raikkonen, who effectively told the moaners to shut up, that every era of Formula One has seen the drivers held back by some aspect of their equipment, from asthmatic engines to collapsing suspension struts that hadn’t quite caught up with the ever-increasing levels of downforce they were dealing with.

But over the course of the British Grand Prix I was forced to reconsider my position.

One exploding tyre is unlucky. Three exploding tyres in near-identical conditions within seven laps? That, my friends, is what you call a problem. Add to that Sergio Perez’ own tyre failure much later on in the race, and the near-misses caught by the Mercedes and Ferrari analysts following pit stops for Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso respectively, and you have a problem bordering on a crisis.

As we learned in Canada, with the unfortunate post-race death of Mark Robinson, danger is always present in Formula One. We have been lucky to see no driver deaths since Ayrton Senna in 1994, but motorsport is dangerous and it continues to claim lives.

We were incredibly lucky that none of the dramatic tyre failures we saw on Sunday afternoon led to serious injury or death. For Perez and Jean-Eric Vergne in particular, both of whom suffered failures far enough down straights that both drivers were going at considerable speed, the British Grand Prix could have resulted in far worse than lost championship points.

Pirelli are now investigating the cause of the succession of blow-outs, but whatever the result it is imperative that the teams join forces for once, and allow the Italian tyre supplier to make whatever changes to the rubber that are deemed necessary to ensure driver safety.

Degradation is fantastic. Devastation is unthinkable.

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June 30, 2013

I pity the Paul

Paul di Resta will start Sunday's race from the back of the grid © Sutton Images

Poor Paul di Resta. Time after time he drives his heart out, and time after time something goes wrong beyond his control, negating those efforts.

Saturday evening at Silverstone brought the news that the Scot and his car were found to be 1.5kg underweight in the post-qualifying scrutineering session, resulting in di Resta being excluded from the results and pushed to the back of Sunday’s grid.

This is not the first instance of di Resta’s strong performance being undone by forces beyond his control. In Malaysia, the Scot suffered at the hands of some faulty wheel nuts that saw Force India retire both of their drivers. Prior to his retirement, di Resta had delivered an impressive performance, recovering from delays in the pits and making up a lost fifteen seconds on track before his afternoon was brought to a premature end.

The Chinese Grand Prix saw di Resta deliver another strong recovery drive following a first lap incident with Adrian Sutil, one that cost the Scot two or three places on an afternoon that ended with a respectable P8.

In Bahrain, di Resta came within grasping distance of a podium finish – having led the race at one stage – losing third place with only six laps remaining to a charging Romain Grosjean on fresher rubber. While the Frenchman delivered a solid performance that afternoon, di Resta lost his place due to strategy, and not as the result of errors of his own making.

Montreal saw di Resta deliver an excellent performance to finish in seventh place from a grid position of P17, but the poor qualifying result was not of his doing. The team discovered an incorrect gearbox setting and elected to change it during Q1, and in so doing cost their driver his best chance of a clean lap on a dry track.

The British Grand Prix will see di Resta start out of position for the third race in a row, an unlucky statistic for any driver. But it could be a treat for the fans, should the team elect to rebuild the car and start their man from the pitlane, giving him the best possible chance to fight his way up through the pack in the manner he proved himself to be so capable of in Canada.

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June 28, 2013

Playing to the home crowd

The packed grandstands only got to watch cars sat in garages for the majority of FP1 © Getty Images

Silverstone is everybody’s home grand prix. As the first venue to host a round of the Formula One World Championship, you could – if you were so inclined – argue somewhat tenuously that it is the home of F1.

But even if you’re not comfortable stretching the argument quite that far, every F1 fan and their dog knows that most of the teams come from the Silverstone area, and that pretty much every driver in the history of ever has lived in the neighbourhood as they’ve made their way up through the ranks.

And then you have the passionate British fans, who root for all sorts but whose enthusiasm is said to power the homegrown drivers as they lap (and lap and lap) the track.

Silverstone is a special place, full of special people.

“This is the one I’ve been waiting for,”
Max Chilton said. “To be in front of the home crowd; all the Union Jacks around the circuit. It’s going to be a moment not to forget.”

“You want to repay the fans for all their support,”
Jenson Button said. “They’re not just fans in the good times, they’re fans in the tough times as well. That’s really nice to see. Hopefully we’ll have a full house of Union Jacks here and I promise we’ll do the best we can.”

Sadly, on Friday morning the drivers’ “best” stretched to half the grid setting timed laps in FP1, after more than an hour in which a few installation laps were completed, seemingly all of them by Daniel Ricciardo.

Great way to repay the fans for their tireless dedication in the face of tiresome weather, expensive tickets, and below average sales.

And while the drivers are not to blame for the limited running, comparing the media-friendly quotes handed out on a Thursday afternoon with the frankly insulting lack of track action on offer on Friday morning left a sour taste in my mouth.

Which is why it is very good news indeed that from 2014 onwards, extra tyres will be given to the teams specifically for use in the first half hour of FP1. The World Motor Sport Council decreed it on Friday morning, so it has become (future) law:

“Each driver will be provided with one extra set of tyres for use only during the first 30 minutes of the first practice session on Friday, to encourage teams to take to the track at that time without having to worry about using valuable tyre wear.”

This simple solution to a long-term problem has been too long in coming, but it is heartening to see that – in one area at least – the teams have been able to agree on a change to the rules that will benefit both paddock and public.

Is this progress at last?

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June 25, 2013

GP2 ‘cuts costs’, but is it enough?

Red Bull has backed its drivers through Formula Renault 3.5 in recent years © Sutton Images

For one weekend only, Formula One’s two feeder categories go head to head on the same track, under the watchful eye of the same TV cameras. Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2 both deliver drivers to the top tier of single-seater motorsport, but it is only at Monaco that like for like comparisons are possible.

Recent years have seen heated debates about the best way to prepare young drivers for Formula One. The current FR3.5 cars are DRS-enabled, equipping young talent with experience of the technology that has helped restore overtaking to F1, but they run on durable Michelin tyres. GP2 lacks DRS, but gives its graduates experience of using F1 rubber – something that is both a help and a hindrance.

Tech aside, there are two major differences between GP2 and WSR: cost and coverage. A season in GP2 costs a mind-boggling €1.8 million (on average). In contrast, RenaultSport claim that they can take a driver all the way from karts to Formula One – via the Clio Cup, various Formula Renault engine sizes, and so on – for €3.3 million. Two seasons in GP2 cost the same as a four- or five-year WSR career.

But based on the number of drivers each series has put onto the 2013 F1 grid, the competing routes in are much of a muchness. On the 2013 F1 grid, twelve of the 22 drivers are GP2 or GP3 graduates: Jules Bianchi, Valtteri Bottas, Max Chilton, Romain Grosjean, Esteban Gutierrez, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Hulkenberg, Pastor Maldonado, Sergio Perez, Charles Pic, Nico Rosberg, and Giedo van der Garde.

But WSR graduates make up nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the current F1 grid, although there is some duplication from GP2: Bianchi, Bottas, Chilton, Paul di Resta, Grosjean, Hamilton, Maldonado, Felipe Massa, Pic, Kimi Raikkonen, Daniel Ricciardo, van der Garde, Jean-Eric Vergne, and Sebastian Vettel.

GP2 has created one F1 world champion, in Hamilton, while WSR can claim three who have featured in one of its categories: Hamilton, Raikkonen, and eternal record-breaker Vettel.

During the Monaco weekend, a select group of journalists were invited to dinner by RenaultSport, where we were given the opportunity to grill the company’s high-level executives about their championships, their rising stars, and their hopes for the future. As we all live in an F1 bubble, the assumption was that WSR was desperate to attach itself to Formula One, to get the same coverage that GP2 does.

The assumption was very, very wrong. World Series by Renault was deliberately designed to operate on a different financial model to F1 and GP2. As a series that exists to promote a brand, WSR events – all of which offer free entry to fans – exist to sell Renault both as a manufacturer and as a sporting endeavour, creating brand loyalty without emptying anyone’s wallets.

If WSR were to tie itself in to Formula One, not only would they be restricted in their ability to advertise Renault (by restricted, read prevented…), but they would no longer be able to offer young drivers a reasonably priced ladder into the top tier of international motorsport.

This week GP2 series organisers announced their intention to cut costs by reusing the current chassis for the next four-year cycle, with Bruno Michel saying that the aim was to cut the cost of competing by around 10 percent.

All cost reduction efforts deserve praise, but context should be applied. Cutting 10 percent from an annual budget of between €1.5 million and €2 million still makes GP2 considerably more expensive than FR3.5.

Spending an evening chatting with motorsport bigwigs intent on keeping costs down with a view to protecting the future of the sport as a whole was unexpected, refreshing, and bordering on revolutionary. It’s a pity that the WSR attitude is not a common one in the world of single-seater motorsport.

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June 24, 2013

Thailand’s new frontier?

Plans for F1 in Bangkok have been blocked but could the northeast of Thailand hold the answer? © Getty Images

Thailand is southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, although – like much of the world – growth has been slowing in recent years, thanks in part to the Great Financial Crisis™. But northeastern Thailand is a region still experiencing a boom, particularly the province of Isaan.

Reuters recently ran a fascinating piece about the whys and wherefores of Isaan’s economic growth, which stems in part from the region’s support of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – whose influence can still be felt in Thai politics – and in part from their previous abject poverty.

The current Thai government has mandated minimum wage increases that have been most sharply felt in Isaan. In January 2013, the government introduced a nationwide minimum wage equivalent to $10 a day, but because wages in Isaan had previously been so low, the increase was equivalent to a 35%, one of the sharpest jumps in the country.

So what relevance does any of this have to Formula One?

Isaan is “the next entry point for investors and consumers – if they link it up to China, it becomes the entry point to Thailand, not Bangkok,” Barclays Capital economist Rahul Bajoria is quoted as saying by Reuters.

And if Formula One can’t race in Bangkok, why not explore this new frontier?

With endless on-going construction work and infrastructure improvements, the addition of the F1 circus could not be said to have a detrimental effect on the locality, the (entirely sensible and legitimate) reason the proposed Bangkok palace route was dropped. If the area is booming, and infrastructure booming with it, then F1 could be accommodated into new developments in the early stages, creating the sort of city circuit that Mokpo was supposed to be.

Economic growth in Isaan is nearly double that of the rest of Thailand. Since 2007, monthly household income has increased at a greater rate than anywhere else in the country. Private and public investment are both thriving. Some of Thailand’s biggest companies are moving northeast, both to save money and to protect their businesses from losses caused by regular flooding in the southern regions.

But the business migration means that logistics and facilities in Isaan are improving, and could be made F1-ready. Transport links are improving every day.

If F1 really wants Thailand, why not take a punt on Isaan? The Mokpo model has to make sense somewhere…

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June 21, 2013

The end of Tyre-gate (we hope)

The International Tribunal delivered its verdict on Friday © Getty Images

The hearing is over, the verdict has been delivered and – as predicted here yesterday – both Mercedes and Pirelli got off with the sporting equivalent of some time spent on the naughty step, thinking about what it was they had done.

With luck, Pirelli will choose to stay on as F1 tyre supplier for 2014 and beyond, and the Mercedes board don’t need to worry about awkward meetings in Stuttgart over the wisdom of continuing in Formula One. In theory, life can go on unabated, and next week’s British Grand Prix will be a celebration of racing and motorsport, not a handbags-at-dawn tyre moan.

Given that the default position of a Formula One fan (nothing like tarring a diverse group of individuals with the same brush…) is to criticise the FIA for perceived favouritism – Ferrari International Assistance, anyone? – what I found most heartening about the process of the International Tribunal was its openness and transparency.

The small group of assembled journalists who travelled to Paris on Thursday were able to see and hear every stage of proceedings, and the FIA communications department did an excellent job answering our questions, making sure that we had everything we needed to be able to cover proceedings from an informed point of view.

But the FIA comms team is excellent, and the F1 press corps have come to expect nothing less from them.

Tyre-gate was the first time the FIA International Tribunal had been convened, a body set up by Jean Todt with the express intention of separating the FIA’s judiciary from its executive, much like Montesquieu’s system of checks and balances. Previous FIA presidents have used their position to assert power and influence, whereas Todt’s Tribunal exists to ensure that presidential power cannot be wielded as a weapon.

In the 20-page summary judgement currently available on the FIA website, the judging body laid out the arguments heard, the decisions taken, and the reasoning behind those decisions. What I found to be most interesting was the human aspect of the decisions taken, something that reflects the way in which the FIA has itself changed since Todt took the helm.

Over the course of the whole tyre test scandal no one has tried to deny that a test took place. The argument has been about the legality of that test, and – from a black and white point of view – the test did not pass muster. In theory, the Tribunal could have thrown the book at Mercedes and Pirelli.

Instead, however, the Tribunal acknowledged that life (and law) are often about the grey area. Rather than penalise for a broken rule, the Tribunal looked at why that rule was broken, whether procedures had been followed, and what the intentions of the interested parties had been at every stage. It is that human analysis that led to the punishments we have seen today.

According to the Tribunal, both Mercedes and Pirelli acted in good faith in the way they sought permission to test, and so did Charlie Whiting and the FIA legal department: “(1) The track testing, which is the subject of these proceedings, was not carried out by Pirelli and/or Mercedes with the intention that Mercedes should obtain any unfair sporting advantage. (2) Neither Pirelli nor Mercedes acted in bad faith at any material time. (3) Both Pirelli and Mercedes disclosed to FIA at least the essence of what they intended to do in relation to the test and attempted to obtain permission for it; and Mercedes had no reason to believe that approval had not been given. (4) The actions taken on behalf of FIA by Charlie Whiting (having taken advice from the legal department of FIA) were taken in good faith and with the intention of assisting the parties and consistent with sporting fairness,” the judgment read.

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June 20, 2013

The Tribunal

Ross Brawn and Mercedes contacted Charlie Whiting at the FIA for permission to use its current car © Getty Images

The FIA International Tribunal was certainly an interesting way to spend a day, even if a lot of the deliberations sounded like re-rehashing of the same old points.

First, the FIA took to the stage – so to speak – outlining their case against Mercedes and Pirelli. Then lawyers for both defendants had their chance to put their cases forward, arguing that the ‘secret Barcelona test’ had – as far as they were aware at the time – complied fully with the FIA rulebook.

At the time of typing, no decision has yet been made public, and no decision is expected until Friday.

But from where I’m sitting (the Salle de Commissaires at the FIA headquarters, if you’re wondering), it looks like it will be very difficult for the Tribunal to issue either Pirelli or Mercedes with more than slaps on the wrist.

Whatever the official procedure for establishing whether or not something is legal in the Sporting Regulations, the accepted procedure has long been that the questioning party check with Charlie Whiting, who then refers the question to the FIA’s legal department should he think it necessary to do so.

According to the Mercedes lawyers – and not denied by anyone from the FIA – the Brackley-based team not only asked Whiting for permission to test with a 2013 car, but that when the race director gave his approval, they then asked for him to confirm the decision with the FIA legal department, which he did.

Both Whiting and Sebastien Bernard gave Mercedes explicit permission to test with a current car. Neither Whiting nor Bernard gave Mercedes any indication that their approval was not good enough, that they needed to put the matter to the World Motor Sport Council before official permission could be presumed.

Given that, how can Mercedes be punished for breaking a rule when it is patently clear that they took every step they thought necessary to ensure legality? As Paul Harris QC said in his closing statement to the Tribunal, Mercedes would not have gone ahead with the test had they been given the slightest indication from the FIA that to do so would get them in any sort of trouble.

It’s a pretty convincing argument…

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June 9, 2013

Ross Brawn is no dummy

Ross Brawn knows how to negotiate the murky waters of the Piranha Club © Sutton Images

In his pre-motorsport life, Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn worked as a trainee engineer at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment. Homer Simpson aside, nuclear engineers tend not to be thickos.

Since the 1970s, Brawn has been working his way up through the ranks of competitive motorsport, and building up an impressive CV along the way. He has helped three teams to World Constructors’ Championships – Benetton, Ferrari, and the eponymous Brawn GP – and has overseen race victories at the three aforementioned teams plus Mercedes.

The world of the paddock can be a tough one to navigate, for F1 success – F1 longevity – is about more than just the trophies one collects along the way. There are relationships to build and manage, egos to handle delicately, and more controversy than you can shake a stick at. To endure in this sport for as long as Brawn has requires emotional intelligence as well as the more traditional grey matter.

So for Ross Brawn to go on the record as saying that it was his decision to press ahead with the secret Pirelli tyre test after the Spanish Grand Prix is interesting. Was he offering himself up as a sacrificial lamb should the International Tribunal find Mercedes guilty of flouting the Technical Regulations, or is Brawn so confident of victory that he is happy to take responsibility for something that will cease to be an issue by the end of the month?

While there are those in the paddock who heartily believe the former – some have even suggested that Tyre-gate has given Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda the opportunity to ditch the Briton – I fall into the latter camp.

Since the testing scandal broke in Monaco there has been a rumour doing the rounds that Mercedes are in possession of an email from FIA race director Charlie Whiting giving permission for the tyre test. When asked to confirm the existence of said email in the Montreal paddock, Brawn deflected the question with panache.

Ross Brawn is no dummy. He is also, thanks to the sale of Brawn GP to Mercedes, a very wealthy man. If he decides that he no longer wants to paddle in the murky waters of the Piranha Club, he has the means and opportunity to walk away with his head held high as soon as he has given the team suitable notice.

If you have a clearly marked safe exit, why jump out the window? Brawn’s quiet confidence this weekend makes me think that – email or no email – Mercedes have got something up their sleeve for the FIA International Tribunal.

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June 7, 2013

New Jersey gets serious

Grand Prix of America promoter Leo Hindery Jr was prominent in the paddock on Friday © Sutton Images

Was it the farce that was the run-up to the first Korean Grand Prix in 2010 that led to a general loss of faith in new races, or has Formula One had a long-term problem with its debutantes?

As a rookie journalist in 2010, I elected to skip the Korean event as I couldn’t afford to commit to the cost of a non-refundable plane ticket for a race that looked like it might not happen. At the time, paddock colleagues confessed they could not remember a new event with worse pre-press. The track was homologated about five minutes before the race started, breaking all established precedents (and bending a few FIA regulations in the process).

Since Korea, every new race has been subjected to news stories claiming the event won’t go ahead.

In 2011, the big news surrounding the Indian Grand Prix was the tax furore which, if unresolved, would have seen the teams and drivers paying income tax to the Indian government for the four days they had spent working in the country. The circuit was still being built when the F1 circus rolled into town, but the race was a success and Buddh hasn’t looked back.

Austin – which in hindsight was probably the most successful debut race in F1 history – was also subject to media scare stories. There were the financial issues, the hasty (and lawsuit-tinged) departure of Tavo Hellmund, and millions of pieces about the Texas Major Events Fund, the inevitable traffic chaos, and the shortage of hotel rooms.

And then there was New Jersey, which should be making its debut next week. Except that it got knocked off the calendar last year when it became clear that money problems weren’t going to fix themselves in time to make the race possible.

The delay was seen by many to be a cancellation, the inevitable outcome of race organisers attempting to play chicken with Bernie Ecclestone. And no one plays chicken with Bernie and wins.

But construction work continued unabated along the Hudson River, and this week the New Jersey race organisers have been a very visible presence in the Montreal paddock. The message is simple: New Jersey is on.

After months of silence from the Grand Prix of America, today has seen a flurry of press releases from the organisers, who have poached Marty Hunt, formerly director of facilities at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. Hunt will be joining the Jersey team as director of race operations.

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June 6, 2013

The challenge of succession

What will happen when Bernie Ecclestone is gone? © Getty Images

When studying politics at university, I came across Max Weber’s Three Types of Legitimate Rule, which says that there are three types of authority that give leaders the right to rule (I paraphrase). According to Weber, the three types are legal authority, traditional authority, and charismatic authority.

Over the years, the concept has been distilled into three types of leaders, which isn’t entirely correct.

I was never a student of business, but I have been told that there is a theory that puts business leaders into one of five categories, only two of which I can remember. A category five leader is someone who creates a business that can grow and build after their departure, and one who chooses a successor able to do more with the business than he himself has done.

Then you have category four leaders, who essentially take a slash-and-burn approach to business. They are the sun in the solar system of their work, and they create a universe in which they are so essential to the business that it will implode when they move on. There is no obvious plan of succession, because – in their eyes – there is no business without them.

Over the weekend, Bloomberg ran an interview with Bernie Ecclestone in which the F1 boss admitted that CVC Capital Partners had approached him with two possible successors – one unnamed, and one identified as Sainsbury’s boss Justin King – but that he had rejected both men as candidates.

“The people they had wanted, if they had come on board, they would have wanted to be the stars… If someone comes up who I think could do a good job, let’s have him on board,” Ecclestone was quoted as saying. “Lots of people have been suggested but I don’t think they are the sort of people who could do the things I do.”

But for years it has been known that no one person could do the things that Bernie does. The 82-year-old has been involved in Formula One for longer than any of the drivers on the current grid have been alive. In 1949, Ecclestone was taking part in Formula Three races, a year before the Formula One World Championship was launched at Silverstone.

When one has been involved in the periphery of the sport since its infancy, and actively for forty years, it is going to be impossible to find a like-for-like replacement. Bernie knows everyone in the sport, and has spent decades building relationships that enable him to do multi-million dollar deals on the strength of a handshake.

That, however, is no longer the world we live in. As Ecclestone – whose inner circles is comprised almost entirely of lawyers – knows full well. Any replacement for Ecclestone is going to have to be a multi-headed beast, with different people taking on the commercial aspects, the negotiating, the branding, and so on.

Which is how it works today. Bernie has built up a trusted team of confidants and experts who can deal with the small print while he acts as a figurehead for the sport as whole, the man whose name ensures that phone calls are always taken.

But unless he can identify a replacement figurehead and help that man or woman ease into the existing relationships that form the F1 power structure, Ecclestone runs a real risk of going down in history as the man who built up and tore down the sport that made his fortune.

Leaders plan for the future, even when it’s a future they won’t be a part of.

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Kate Walker is the editor of GP Week magazine and a freelance contributor to ESPN. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, her unique approach to Formula One coverage has been described as 'a collection of culinary reviews and food pictures from exotic locales that just happen to be playing host to a grand prix'. Kate Walker