Only five seats left as Pedro signs for Sauber

Pedro de la Rosa's testing pitboard © http://www.sutton-images.com

One down, five to go. Pedro de la Rosa’s confirmation this morning as a BMW Sauber driver has completed one further piece of the 2010 jigsaw, leaving just five vacant seats on this season’s grid: one at Renault, one at Toro Rosso, one at Campos and two at USF1.

Pedro’s return to a race seat had been expected for some time, although his ultimate destination remains a relative surprise. Until very recently a move to the new Campos squad had been mooted, for it was under the guidance of Adrian Campos that de la Rosa reached F1 back in the late 1990s. Campos himself had held out tremendous hope of signing his former young charge but recently admitted he had given up all hope after finding Spanish sponsors to be fairly non plussed about the idea.

De la Rosa’s abilities as a test and development driver in Formula 1 are pretty much unrivalled in this modern era, with only the likes of Montagny and Davidson in my opinion coming close. Thus what he brings to a team in his technical ability to deliver a quick car makes him an almighty asset. The intensity on Martin Whitmarsh’s face in conversation with Campos towards the end of the season certainly gave the impression that McLaren did not want to let the Spaniard go without a fight, but with limited testing agreed for 2010 there would have been little chance for de la Rosa to have made an impact on the MP4-25.

His worth to BMW Sauber, or Sauber or whatever it’s going to end up being called, is therefore vast. After a season of immense under-achievement in 2009, Sauber needs to get back on the right tracks this year and with the inexperienced Kamui Kobayashi in the second car, the team needed a man with experience to head up the team. In de la Rosa they have experience and class and if Kamui is smart he will learn all he can from Pedro.

Spare a thought however for Nick Heidfeld and Christian Klien. Heidfeld, as a BMW Sauber driver for the last four seasons and a Sauber driver for three seasons before that, will have been hoping that the vacant Sauber seat would be his. Today’s news thus forms the second massive disappointment for him in the last month, following his rejection by Mercedes in favour of Michael Schumacher. His racing options for 2010 are running out. And fast.

Christian Klien will be distraught. A dedicated tester for BMW Sauber for the last two years, he had hoped to be taken on by the team as a racer for 2010. With no racing experience in F1 since 2006, his sole realistic option of a race seat this season has also now gone.

Campos will also be gutted. De la Rosa was exactly the kind of driver the team needed to push the development of their new car in testing, and his experience would have benefitted Bruno Senna, thus far the team’s only confirmed driver, immensely. Speaking with Bruno a few weeks ago when I went to see him in Brazil, I know how much he was hoping to have Pedro as a team-mate so this news will come as something of a blow for the whole Campos outfit.

The big question now is who will fill the remaining five seats in Formula 1.

Renault is by far the most sought after seat. Nick Heidfeld would have to be considered to be in contention at the team given his experience and working relationship with Robert Kubica, but to my mind he doesn’t fit the bill. He’s not part of the dynamic young breed and his results don’t stand him out as one of the experienced drivers you’d break your back to sign. Yes he’s speedy, but is he speedy enough? Two rejections in a month say he’s not. Jacques Villeneuve’s links with Gravity Management and the team’s new owners make him an enticing possibility and the PR from bringing another champion back to the sport would be pretty handy. But is it realistic?

Then there’s the aforementioned Montagny. It is worth remembering Renault hasn’t won a championship since they dumped him as their test and development driver and to my mind that is not a coincidence. He’s currently racing for Peugeot at Le Mans, so a move to Renault would make waves in France, too. All in all it makes perfect sense.

There are also the former Super Aguri boys. Takuma Sato is still hungry and superbly fast, and is a huge draw in Japan. His return to F1 would be big news and a popular move by the team. Anthony Davidson made a spectacular shift in jobs last year, becoming one of the most entertaining and insightful commentators in F1, but he is a racer and deserves a seat if there is one in the sport. And just as with Pedro and Franck, his car development skills are phenomenal.

Toro Rosso’s a strange one. Alguersuari wasn’t abysmal last season and it would be good for the team to give him another shot, but it is a foolish man who tries to second guess what Red Bull is going to do with its young drivers. By that token, Daniel Ricciardo could get the job and from his testing form he’d be an exciting prospect. But with Ferrari engines in the back, might we also see the Scuderia’s tester Giancarlo Fisichella in a Toro Rosso? It’s not out of the realms of possibility but would not fit in with the general ethos of the team.

It seems that the other three seats will fall down to budget. Kazuki Nakajima has been rumoured to be close to the second Campos seat with a budget of around $10million, while Vitaly Petrov and Pastor Maldonado have long been linked with the squad. From what I understand of the situation the latter two became so embroiled in a fight for the seat that the battle to outbid each other put both outside their realistic budget, thus setting the whole process back.

And as for USF1… your guess is as good as mine. Heidfeld? Klien? Maldonado? Jose Maria Lopez is understood to have a pre-contract in place that will give him the seat if he can raise $8million, but that remains to be seen. By leaving their decisions to the very last minute however, the team may yet be able to land themselves a couple of pretty nifty drivers at bargain basement prices because if they leave it much longer, they should have the only two seats left in the sport.

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.

BMW sells to Sauber – Qadbak deal is off

BMW has just announced that it has sold its Formula 1 team back to Peter Sauber, from whom it originally purchased the squad half a decade ago. The contract, however, remains subject to the team being granted a starting place on the 2010 F1 grid, a factor which is still in some debate as the legal position of Toyota following its withdrawal from the sport remains in question.

Dr Klaus Draeger, Member of the Board of Management of BMW AG with responsibility for Development, stated this morning: “We are very happy with this solution. This fulfils the most important requirement for a successful future for the team. Our relationship with Peter Sauber has always been excellent and marked by absolute respect. We would like to express our thanks to Peter Sauber and the whole team for the excellent cooperation during the recent four years.”

Peter Sauber himself was clearly delighted to have resolved the situation, with BMW’s original plan to sell to the Qadbak outfit having experienced a number of hurdles.

“I am very relieved that we have found this solution,” he said. “It means we can keep the Hinwil location and the majority of workplaces. I am convinced that the new team has a very good future in Formula One, whose current transformation with new framework conditions will benefit the private teams. Our staff here are highly competent and motivated, and I look forward to taking on this new challenge together with them. I would like to thank BMW for four shared years that have in the main been very successful.”

The BMW statement this morning also confirmed that an agreement had been reached which would see personnel cuts from the current level of 388 to around 250 employees, in line with future FIA frameworks.

The announcement draws to a close the links with Qadbak and Russell King, and there will be many in the sport breathing a large sigh of relief. Qadbak had been in the media spotlight in 2009 as its purchase of the Notts County Football Club in England had caused much controversy. The group, however, was judged by the Football League to be “fit and proper” as owners of the club, despite alleged financial irregularities.

Qadbak’s plans to takeover the BMW F1 team however hit the rocks when it became clear the group did not have the funds to complete the purchase, and did not have a bank guarantee. Bahrain Capital International, whom it was understood to be the guarantor, turned out to be a shell company of Russel King with no assets.

It remains unclear where Sauber has found the funds to secure the purchase of his old team back from BMW, with rumours linking an unnamed US investor with the buyout. Sauber was initially known to have been trying to convince Malaysian oil partner Petronas to help him purchase the team, when BMW first made their plans to withdraw from F1 public, although with Lotus’ entry being backed by the Malaysian government, it seems likely that Petronas will end up as a backer for the Norfolk-based team.

What’s in GPWeek this week?

gpweek48

The latest issue of GPWeek is online now, bringing you all the news from the worlds of Formula 1, MotoGP and the WRC.

In this week’s issue:

F1 2010 Crisis: The latest news and analysis as the 2010 deadline passes and the FIA and FOTA lock horns.

BMW-Sauber: We chat exclusively to Willy Rampf on what’s gone wrong in 2009.

GP2: An in depth feature and interview with Bruno Michel, GP2 Series organiser.

MotoGP: All the latest news from Michael Scott in Mugello including…

Stoner beats Rossi on home soil in thrilling GP
Another Nightmare for Pedrosa
All the news from Mugello including the 250s and 125s

Rally: All the latest from the world or Rally with Martin Holmes

An in depth analysis of Sardinia – How did Llatvala get it so right… how did Loeb get it so wrong?
Turbos back on FIA agenda
Opel in IRC

Click on the blogroll now to check out this week’s issue.

Formula Juan

I was chatting to a colleague yesterday about Jacques Villeneuve’s recent comments that he wouldn’t be averse to an F1 comeback. We pretty much agreed however that if Robert Kubica was having trouble reaching a suitable weight to run KERS, JV could be similarly troubled.

“Why not divide F1 into weight categories?” he asked.

“The heavyweight F1 world championship” I quipped… which got us talking about Juan Pablo Montoya.

This weekend marks six years since Montoya won the Monaco Grand Prix for Williams. Indeed it was the Colombian who scored the last of Williams’ 113 F1 victories back in 2004, and I couldn’t help but feel that Formula 1 of today is slightly poorer without him. I just loved his personality, his honesty and his humour. More than anything, though, I think I loved the way he raced. Foot to the floor, balls to the wall, hard-ass racing. He was one of very few drivers who really took it to Michael Schumacher, and in any other era might well have been an F1 champion himself. Arguably, he should have been.

Here’s some of his best bits Vs Michael.

And the other side of Mr Montoya… fairly fruity language, and possibly the single greatest F1 quote of the last decade.

Oh, and just one more… a brilliant advert.