On Bahrain

Bahrain Curbing c/o GP2 Media Service

Bahrain Curbing c/o GP2 Media Service

So, I’ve done it. I’ve bitten the metaphorical bullet and booked my flights to Bahrain. I waited as long as I could to see how the situation played out, and following the confirmation yesterday from Bernie, the teams and the Bahrainis that the event would actually be going ahead as planned, I took the plunge and made my booking.

Now there shouldn’t be any real surprise in this, should there? You can see the headline – Random Bloke in Does His Job Shock. But many of us in the media have been questioning whether or not we would or even should be attending the race.

I was one of very few media to be in Bahrain during the original risings in February last year, as I was present in Bahrain for the GP2 Asia race weekend that never took place. Following the events of those few days, I have to admit that the thought of going back had filled me with some dread. It’s not that I dislike Bahrain. I don’t. I have always enjoyed going there and have always enjoyed going to the Bahrain International Circuit. And with the exception of 2010 when the unnecessary circuit changes were made I think the track layout has lent itself, more so for GP2 than F1, to some pretty good racing too.

The route to the BIC was lined with tanks on my last visit to Bahrain

The route to the BIC was lined with tanks on my last visit to Bahrain

The problem that we all face right now is that Formula 1 has been politicised. Whatever the sport had decided to do would have upset somebody. If the FIA had cancelled the race, then it would have sent out the message that the sport was unhappy with the way in which the ruling regime had conducted itself and that would have been seen as a tacit show of support for those rising against the ruling elite. Conversely, by not cancelling the race Formula 1 has, through no fault of its own, thus shown tacit support for the ruling elite.

Sadly, it was always going to be a case of “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

It is an impossible situation to be in, and one in which I do not envy either Bernie Ecclestone or Jean Todt. The ruling regime clearly want the Grand Prix to be a sign that things are back to normal in Bahrain, and to use it as a point of unity for the country. And I truly hope it can prove to be just that. Sport can be a healing tool for unrest, just look at the Olympics and the fact that so many nations caught up in conflicts have competed side by side with one another over the history of the games.

But an international sporting event is also a very good tool for those with an agenda to get their message out to a wide audience.

Ecclestone himself admitted just a few days ago that the Grand Prix in Bahrain could find itself at the centre of such a demonstration, but that such a vulnerability made it no different to any other Grand Prix on earth. If somebody wanted to make a scene, he said, there is little anybody could do to stop them, regardless of where we race.

Of course, Bahrain is not the only country in which we race which suffers from questionable human rights. Bahrain is also not the only country which has experienced violent unrest and death over the last 12 months… London burned last summer amidst violent protests and yet the British Grand Prix is under no threat. Yes, the London rioters were more interested in stealing a new pair of shoes than they were in fighting for democracy, but incredibly, and despite the gaping holes in the comparison, this is an argument which has been raised in support of maintaining the Bahrain Grand Prix and is thus why I bring it up here.

However, it is due to the longevity of the violence, and the continued insistence by protesters that the Grand Prix is part of the problem rather than being part of the solution, that there are still genuine fears that all will not be peaceful.

Bahraini Media coverage of the Demonstrations. February 2011

Bahraini Media coverage of the Demonstrations - February 2011

Yesterday in London, my Fleet Street colleagues were invited to a media luncheon at the Royal Automobile Club, at which the Bahrain International Circuit Chairman Zayed R Alzayani refuted the need for additional security.

“There’s no need,” he said. “You will come out and you will see — it is business as usual. There are some clashes with police, isolated in villages. Some of these clashes are very small — 10 or 15 people — but it gets blown out of proportion and made to sound as if the whole nation is rising up.”

Bernie Ecclestone himself blamed the media for inflaming the situation. “Seriously, the press should just be quiet and deal with the facts rather than make up stories.”

But the facts are, some of us are still scared.

I am still awaiting news on whether my media visa has been accepted. Without it I will not be going. Even with it, there are still fears over the safety of the media at large. Many have been detained in the Gulf state over the past 12 months and even with an F1 media visa there are no guarantees that we will not be looked upon with suspicion.

There is an allocated media hotel and media shuttles have been laid on. I will be avoiding both. It’s just too much of an obvious target for those wishing to get their message across to an international audience.

Maybe I’m getting overly worried. And I hope that I am. I hope we get out there and everything is fine, that Bahrain is the place I remember and that we have a great weekend of racing in which media, teams, drivers and fans are able to compete in and enjoy a race weekend like any other.

I hope that the Grand Prix can unite a divided nation and help to bring happiness to a country which has been put through a year of misery.

And I hope that we are able to leave after the chequered flag with happy memories of our return to Bahrain, not because the voices of the people who have been silenced since February 2011 have once again been suppressed, but because the line we have been handed about the race uniting people is one which genuinely resonates throughout Bahrain and brings people of different faiths and opposing politics together, to celebrate under the banner of sport.

BIC exit - February 2011

BIC exit - February 2011

The Tragedy of Silverstone’s GP Deal

Donington Park, October 2009 © J. Moy / Sutton

The British Grand Prix has been saved and we can all breathe a huge sigh of relief. By the time the new deal runs out, if it goes to its full length, I’ll be in the latter half of my 40s. While that may not mean much to many of you, to me that seems like a bloody long way away. Hell, I’m not even 30 yet.

A 17 year deal for Silverstone is great news for British motorsport and of course for British motorsport fans. It’s also a great deal from the perspective of the sport itself, for Silverstone is one of the drivers’ favourite tracks of the year. The proposed changes, which had been due to be made for MotoGP’s arrival in 2010, will go some way to bringing the track into the 21st century and should simply enhance the circuit as the alterations will not affect any of the opening half of the circuit which is so adored by racers.

But although yesterday’s news will be greeted with almost universal approval by the motorsport community, on reflection it has also, through no fault of its own, confirmed a very sorry state of affairs.

Let us not forget that next season was supposed to signal the return of Formula 1 to Donington Park. The revamped, redesigned circuit was supposed to become the new home of British motorsport and of the British Grand Prix. It was to be, in the words of then FIA President Max Mosley, the type of circuit that British fans deserved.

Today however, the circuit lies in ruins. Literally.

The circuit modifications, essential for the hosting of the Grand Prix, were started but never completed. Simon Gillett, the wideboy-esque boss of Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd ran out of money and ideas, renovation work was suspended, the rights to host the Grand Prix were lost and the administrators were brought in. What remains of Donington Park today is little more than a building site. A once wonderful racing circuit, which sat high up the order of racing favourites not just in the UK but in Europe for drivers at all levels, is now unusable.

MotoGP has gone to Silverstone. Formula 1 will remain at Silverstone for the foreseeable future. F2 will not be back at Donington. Neither will Superleague. Indeed, if the lease is not bought and the track repaired, it seems unlikely there will be any racing at all at Donington Park in 2010.

How sad it is that just weeks after the passing of Tom Wheatcroft, the man who restored Donington Park from ruins to racing, the track into which he poured his heart and soul now lies in tatters.

So, while it is right that we celebrate the confirmation that Formula 1 will stay in Britain for the long term and at the wonderful Silverstone circuit, yesterday’s announcement may also have signalled the death knell for one of this country’s favourite race tracks.

One hopes somebody with a big enough pocket and with sufficient passion and foresight is able to take hold of the lease and return Donington to its former glory, let alone shape it into an all singing, all dancing mega-track for the 21st Century. If my sources close to Donington are correct, it’s going to cost over £4 million to simply get the track back into a state where you could drive a full lap.

Regardless of the continuation of F1 in this country, it would be a genuine tragedy if the foolish mistakes of one man should ultimately serve to have robbed us of one of the great racing circuits.

Same home, new circuit for British GP

The British Grand Prix will stay at Silverstone until 2026, it has been announced, after the BRDC agreed terms with Bernie Ecclestone on a 17-year deal to keep Formula 1 at the self-styled home of British motorsport.

Both parties have agreed on a get-out clause which comes into effect after ten years.

The BRDC has confirmed that it intends to run the Formula 1 Grand Prix on a new circuit layout, initially designed for Silverstone’s hosting of MotoGP in 2010 (pictured above). Work will also begin after Christmas on a new pitlane and paddock, which the BRDC intends to complete in time for the 2011 Grand Prix.

“The FIA have been to see it, it has been submitted for homologation and we hope to be running on the ‘arena’ circuit next summer. If not we can run on the current circuit,” said Silverstone MD Richard Phillips.

BRDC President Damon Hill has long admitted that Silverstone had only been willing to hold onto the British Grand Prix on the right terms, but was clearly delighted to have ensured the survival of the British Grand Prix after Donington’s inept failures had called into question the very future of the event.

“It is not easy to enter into a contract of this magnitude and you have to take on a lot of responsibility, but the BRDC wanted this relationship to continue.

“Everyone was well aware that the British GP is not just a sporting event, but it is dynamo of the industry in this country. Losing it would have been damaging and perhaps there would have been no coming back.”

It is understood that new FIA President Jean Todt was instrumental in pleading the case of maintaining the British Grand Prix to Ecclestone, and thus hope of a return for the French Grand Prix and the safety of F1′s traditional heartland in Europe in the future must be high.

The Gravity of Renault’s Situation

Romain Grosjean © D. Kalisz / Sutton

Back in Abu Dhabi I had a rather interesting chat with a colleague regarding BMW-Sauber and the Qadbak deal which, as we now know, was ultimately doomed to failure. Nobody ever really gave the Qadbak buyout a chance of working out, the involvement of Russell King stamping enormous warning signs and attaching blaring alarm bells all over it to anyone in the F1 paddock.

My colleague however suggested that there was another reason the deal wouldn’t come off, and it had to do with the diminutive but colossally powerful supremo of the sport, one Bernard Charles Ecclestone. Bernie, said my source, was fuming that his preferred choice of Sauber-saviours had lost out in the bidding process to Qadbak. It wasn’t the fact that nobody trusted Qadbak, it was more the fact that Bernie trusted someone else.

Bernie’s apparent choice of BMW saviours was Gravity, a management firm of pan-European reach based in Luxembourg which has on its books not only a few racing teams under the Gravity Racing International banner, but a number of pretty nifty drivers. GP2 hotshot Jerome d’Ambrosio is one such driver, as is Chinese racer Ho-Pin Tung, who received a last-minute call-up to take part in the rookie F1 test this week for Renault.

It is Tung’s last-minute call-up that has kicked off rumours surrounding Gravity, with Swiss Publication Motorsport Aktuell claiming that the firm is in talks with Renault over a potential take-over.

Now, if we assume that Bernie Ecclestone is backing Gravity’s attempts to make a move into F1, that he trusts them and believes they have the finances to do a proper stand-up job of taking over a team, then these reports need to be treated pretty seriously.

We know that Renault is wavering in its commitment to Formula 1 in the long term , with the manufacturer’s President Carlos Ghosn not doing anything to silence the rumours of a Renault pull-out with his recent comments that never mind F1 being important to Renault, he doubted it would remain important to anybody if it didn’t address a few environmental issues. Not the words of someone planning to plough money into the sport and give their new signing Robert Kubica a car worthy of his talents. Not the words of a man hoping to hang around in the sport, one would assume.

Over the last few weeks we’ve therefore seen a few different rumours over potential suitors. David Richards of Prodrive was in Abu Dhabi and seemed to spend some time hanging around the Renault part of the paddock. Was he interested in making a move for the team? The chat at the time was he’d be interested in a share option for 2010 before a full buyout in 2011, but it was never confirmed.

Also believed to be an interested party is Megafon, Renault F1’s Russian mobile telecoms sponsor. With Vitaly Petrov finishing runner-up in GP2 this year the Russian is hot property and with a brace of government backed Russian companies behind him is a favourite for promotion to F1 in 2010. No doubt the chance of him racing for a Russian team would be a dream for Russian sponsors, and Megafon remains linked with a take-over of Renault F1.

Tung’s run for Renault this week however has been met with much interest in the usually disinterested Chinese market. Motorsport Aktuell’s report suggests that Tung is only making the test run to try and bring some Chinese money into Gravity’s hands for a take-over of the Renault F1 Team. Gravity, says the publication, is linked with a venture capital firm named Mangrove, through which the team purchase would be made.

So is this Gravity thing serious? To be honest, there are enough factors pointing positively towards it to tell me it could be.

Gravity has taken on Eric Boullier, long time stalwart of the DAMS outfit, one of the most successful racing teams in the world at all levels of competition. As DAMS Team Manager he oversaw the team’s many successes over the past decade, but quit at the end of the 2009 season to move over to Gravity. Having achieved championship success in A1GP and GP2, why would Boullier have quit a well paid and high profile job unless there was a step up for him? And where does one step up to from GP2 other than F1?

I spoke to Boullier at the GP2 finale in Portimao when Flavio had first been booted from Renault and the Frenchman’s name had first been linked with the vacant Renault F1 Team Boss slot.

“There’s been no direct contact,” he told me, “but a couple of indirect ones. I know my name was put on a list within some talks by them and obviously if tomorrow somebody is doing direct contact I would be pleased to speak to them. It is Formula 1 and it’s a different world to GP2. I would consider it a lot if such an opportunity was offered to me.”

Could that indirect contact have been through Gravity, for whom he had pledged to work in the future at the end of his DAMS contract?

There’s another factor in the Gravity situation as well. The company recently signed up Jacques Villeneuve, who raced for Gravity in the Spa 24 Hours in a Mosler MT900R partnered by… Ho-Pin Tung! JV was to be seen nowhere but hanging around BMW-Sauber over the last few races of 2009, or at least for as long as the Gravity boys were negotiating the sale of the team. What odds that the eagle eyes in Enstone see a familiar Canadian knocking on their door anytime soon?

If these reports are true, Renault could be about to get the bailout for which its chiefs are desperate. A Gravity buyout could keep the team in F1, give it a young, passionate and hugely talented new Team Principal in Eric Boullier, a brace of talented young testers along the lines of d’Ambrosio and Tung, and the cherry on the cake… Jacques Villeneuve in an incredible return to the F1 cockpit to partner Robert Kubica in 2010.

Sound bonkers? Add up the component parts and it’s not as mad as one might at first assume. And with the way this winter is already panning out, it really isn’t the craziest suggestion out there.

Canadian GP back… but at a cost

The return of the Canadian Grand Prix to the Formula 1 calendar in 2010 appears to be all but officially confirmed, after reports in Canada suggested that Bernie Ecclestone has reached agreement with the race organisers and has given the green light to the running of the race.

The executive committee of Montreal and the Canadian Secretariat of Intergovernmental Business (SAIC) will meet on Wednesday to give the final OK which should, according to La Presse be “a formality.”

The deal will bring F1 back to Canada for five years at a combined cost of $75 million ($15 million per season). Canada’s capital city Ottawa will provide $5 million a year, with the Quebec region, in which Montreal rests, paying $4 million a year. Montreal itself will foot $1 million a year, which leaves a $5 million shortfall.

This $5 million will be raised by the introduction of a special tax on hotels over the race weekend.

The end of the negotiations have seen Ecclestone make an incredible cut in price for the hosting of the race, ultimatley settling for a figure $100 million lower than his original demand.

Fans, teams and those who follow Formula 1 will be worried by the special tax however. While Montreal is one of the most popular races of the season, hiking tax rates for the duration of the race weekend will not go down well. As Formula 1 enters a new era in which costs are intended to be brought under control, increasing costs on those attending races in order to allow nations to host those very races could prove to be a gravely misjudged error. And with the Quebecois government understood to be taking home 30% of the revenue from ticket sales, there could be little sympathy for them.

Donington’s last act of desperation

Donington Park’s hopes of hosting the British Grand Prix from 2010 rest now upon the success of a bond scheme, announced today by Donington Ventures Leisure Limited.

Following the company’s failure to assure Bernie Ecclestone of its ability to host the event by the October 3rd deadline laid down by the F1 supremo, Donington and DVLL boss Simon Gillett are now in breach of contract and have just 14 days to pull themselves out of the mud and back into favour.

Their announcement today of the launch of a bond scheme to raise the outstanding £135 million of the £145 million they need to complete track redevelopment is thus the last throw of the dice in a game of chance that the circuit now appears to have little chance of winning.

“Donington Holdings Plc, the parent company of Donington Ventures Leisure Limited that operates the Donington Park motor racing circuit, has launched an offering of £135,000,000 aggregate principal amount of first priority senior secured notes due 2016,” said a statement from the circuit.

“The Notes are expected to be issued at a discount to the principal amount thereof. Purchasers of Notes will also be able to subscribe for warrants for no additional consideration.

“The offering of the Notes and the Warrants is being made solely by means of a confidential offering memorandum.

“The net proceeds of the offering of Notes, together with a concurrent offering of preference shares, will be used in large part to fund the redevelopment of Donington Park in preparation for the hosting of the Formula One British Grand Prix in 2010.”

But here’s the question. If Donington has thus far managed to only raise £10 million, and has missed deadline after deadline to the point which Bernie has told them they are in breach of contract, who in their right minds would take on the risk of shelling out such a huge sum, without any guarantee that the British Grand Prix will even now be hosted at Donington? Just as the BMW Sauber team lost its residual value by not signing up to the Concorde Agreement, so Donington’s failure to assure Bernie that it will be ready in time would appear to have lost the circuit any guarantees it could give to potential investors over the security of their investment.

Bernie has now gone on the record to say that the 17-year deal to host the British GP could now, and in all likelihood has already been, offered to Silverstone. The BRDC is likely to want to play hardball over cost, but at the end of the day has at least put in place a plan for the future which appears both affordable and achievable in the timeframe.

With less than two weeks to find their £135 million, Donington’s days as host of the British GP appear to be numbered, for even if the money can be found, the chances of track alterations being made in time for 2010 look bleak.

What a bloody mess.

The FIA makes its case

fia logo

The FIA has released a public dossier on its dealings with FOTA over the past few months, as both bodies strive towards finding a solution for the future of Formula 1.

I ask you to take a few minutes from your day and read the document through in full. It is fascinating reading, and with FOTA’s own document sure to be released soon, gaining a full understanding of the FIA’s position is, I feel, of great importance.

The FIA Statement in Full

The document makes genuinely intruiging reading, but it is concrete in its resolution.

The FIA and FOM have together spent decades building the FIA Formula One World Championship into the most watched motor sport competition in history.

In light of the success of the FIA’s Championship, FOTA – made up of participants who come and go as it suits them – has set itself two clear objectives: to take over the regulation of Formula One from the FIA and to expropriate the commercial rights for itself. These are not objectives which the FIA can accept.

It is this section of the document, perhaps more than any of the whys and wherefores, that matters. It is in this that the FIA sets out its stall and says, perhaps in stronger fashion than ever, that FOTA will not and cannot win this fight.

It’s over. Time at the bar. If FOTA stands firm, this sport as we know it is done. Finished.

The teams simply cannot win. The governing body and the commercial rights holder are now so steadfast in their position and their belief that the teams are trying to stage what, in their eyes, is a coup d’etat, that they will not give in and relinquish even the scantest element of their authority. The rules will not be changed. The budget cap will not be raised. It’s over.

Which means that the threat of a division, and of either the establishment of a new championship or of the manufacturers going their own separate ways, is now an almost certainty.

The only question left, it seems, is whether FOTA will remain united and do its own thing, or if its membership will start to capitulate to the FIA.

Unfortunately, and as a result of this document making public the instances of battle in a war that still rages between two bodies so fundamentally opposed to the existence and demands of the other, there seems little question that this Friday’s deadline could yet see the single most cataclysmic event in the history of the sport.

Fifty nine years ago, Formula 1 was born at Silverstone, with the running of the first ever World Championship Grand Prix. Could it be that at that very circuit, which itself is being ejected from the sport it helped to create, we receive confirmation that Formula 1, as we have come to know it, will cease to exist?

God, I hope not. But it seems as though there just isn’t any room left to manouevre.