Wirth rejects “laughable” Brawn sob story

There have been a few internet reports today which have included some words attributed to Virgin Racing’s tech chief Nick Wirth laying into Williams boss Patrick Head at yesterday’s Virgin team launch. Well you’ll be pleased to hear that he didn’t just have a go at poor old Patrick… oh no. He also took time to have a pop at recently crowned 2009 F1 constructors’ champions BrawnGP.

On a day in which Sir Richard Branson had referred to BrawnGP’s 2009 season, in which his Virgin brand logos appeared on the BGP001 cars, as “David versus Goliath,” Wirth could not help but chuckle when I asked if Branson was expecting the same sort of giant killing form from Wirth’s car in 2010.

“I’m laughing because that’s one of the things I find most annoying about last season because it was Goliath versus Goliath. That was the car that had more money and more resources spent on it than any other 2009 car, possibly [more than any F1 car] in history, so it’s an absolute PR coup for them and it’s laughable. They might want to perceive it that way, and believe me they did a magnificent job in surviving and all the stress they went through, and all credit to those guys and Ross and the whole crew, but it was not a David against Goliath story.”

Wirth’s comments reflect opinions voiced during the 2009 season itself by former Honda and early BrawnGP reserve driver Alex Wurz.

“The car was taken in three different directions in the wind tunnel,” he said earlier this year. “Two directions were found to be wrong, so the team could just switch. The Brawn is probably the most expensive car with the lowest operating budget ever.”

The BGP001, which would have been the Honda RA109, benefitted greatly from 18 months of design work undertaken at Leafiled by the Super Aguri F1 Team which had begun in 2007, a year of design work at Honda in Brackley and Tochigi during 2008, and, it is understood, additional work at the Dome base in Maibara, Japan. The double decker diffuser concept, which would prove so pivotal to the success of the BGP001, is believed to have come from either Super Aguri or Dome. At times it has been claimed that anywhere between four and six wind tunnels were in operation, through the various different arms of the development chain, at one time.

Such benefits will not be afforded to Wirth’s Virgin racing car in 2010, which will be the only car on the grid next season designed solely by Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), and without the use of a single wind tunnel.

Michael and Mercedes

Felipe Massa’s kart invitational at the weekend provided evidence, as if it was ever needed, that Michael Schumacher simply doesn’t understand the concept of driving at anything less than 120%. Asked to come along and have a go by his long term pall Massa, the 2009 running of this annual event had an extra symbolism as it was the Brazilian’s first foray into competitive racing since his monster shunt at the Hungrian Grand Prix.

With the niceties over, Michael proceeded to wipe the floor with everyone in the first race. I think someone must have had a word with him after that, because Felipe managed to get the result he needed in the second race to take the overall combined victory. Everyone say ahhhhh.

It was the same at the Race of Champions, though. Stick Schumacher in a car, any car actually, and he’ll not only be competitive, he’ll be staggering. As the famous saying goes, there’s life in the old dog yet.

Massa’s karting event also showed us that Michael either likes playing games with the media or is seriously thinking about making a comeback to F1. Once again he refused to rule out making a return just as he has done since rumours first cropped up, and just as both Norbert Haug and Nick Fry avoided the issue when quizzed about Nico Rosberg’s 2010 team-mate.

And here’s the thing. It makes sense for Norbert and Nick to dodge the issue because it gives the new Mercedes team massive headline potential. It ensures the team remains the biggest news in F1. From a PR perspective, having Schumacher linked with the team is invaluable. By simply refusing to comment on the rumours, the suggestions of what might be simply compound and evolve. It makes sense for Merc to be doing it, but why would Michael do the same?

One of his biggest personal backers, Shell, are a Ferrari team sponsor. So why piss them off, knowing full well that the new Mercedes team will have backing from Mobil 1? If this is a negotiation tactic in his talks over a new Ferrari contract, it is a dangerous game. But maybe Michael doesn’t really want to stay at the Scuderia.

We know that all is not as once it was at Ferrari. Gone are the days of Mr Jean Todt, and into his place has stepped a new regime. The Domenicali era has little in common with the Todt-Schumacher face of Ferrari. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the arrival of a certain Fernando Alonso to factor in to the already complex situation. Exactly what Michael does at Ferrari and to what extent he plays a role with the F1 team has never been more in question.

We should not be surprised, therefore, to learn that Mercedes has reportedly offered Schumacher the chance to play any role he wishes at the team. If he doesn’t want to race, he can be whatever he wants and, one would imagine, would be free to name whatever price he wishes. Again, the PR of Mercedes stealing the legend back from Ferrari would be vast. If Mercedes really does want to establish itself as a German super team, Michael Schumacher’s involvement with the outfit would give it unrivalled gravitas in Germany.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that Schumacher and Mercedes have gone racing together. Almost 20 years ago, at the end of the 1990 season, Schumacher joined the Mercedes Junior Racing programme, and raced the Sauber Mercedes C11 and C291 in the World Sportscar Championship and Le Mans, coming fifth.

But the big question is whether or not Michael Schumacher, seven time F1 champion, would be willing to make a comeback. What sense would it make for him to do so after three years on the sidelines? He has achieved everything there is to achieve in Formula 1, and his reputation will live on forever. Why risk all that hard work on a foolish venture which could end in misery?

Schumacher himself has admitted that his anticipated but ultimately failed comeback with Ferrari in 2009 was born more out of passion than common sense, owing to the basal skull fracture he sustained in a bike racing accident. But the fact that he had even put himself through the immense stupidity of testing an F1 car knowing how severe his injury was gave us an insight into the brain of Michael Schumacher. For here is a man who lives for the thrill of competition. And without it, he is stagnating.

Schumacher had his Formula 1 career taken from him before he was truly ready to throw in the towel. Backed into a corner by Ferrari’s signing of Kimi Raikkonen, he had a tough choice to make of either quitting to allow his apprentice Massa to race on, or to stay on himself and ruin Felipe’s career. In the end he chose to step aside, and just to make double sure that he wouldn’t go back on his promise, Ferrari didn’t even let him make the announcement himself. They issued a press release as he was on his slowdown lap at Monza in 2006. Watch the replay of that post-race press conference with that in mind and you’ll see it in a whole new light. Those aren’t the reactions of a man emotional to be announcing his retirement. That’s not the forthright, strong, self-assured Michael Schumacher who never apologised to anyone for any one of the questionable things he’d done in his career on or off the track.

That was a man who’d had the rug pulled from under him.

Formula 1 remains unfinished business for Michael Schumacher, and that is why I think there may just be a chance that this comeback is a serious prospect. Yes he’d be 41, but Gabriele Tarquini just won the WTCC title at the age of 47. Fangio won his last F1 title at the age of 46. Sure it was a different era, but ask yourself this. Is Michael Schumacher not one of the most talented drivers this sport has ever witnessed? Like him or loathe him what nobody can deny is the man’s staggering skill.

And, while you’re at it, ask yourself this… how incredible would it be to have Schumacher back in the mix? With Button and Hamilton at McLaren, Alonso and Massa at Ferrari, don’t tell me you wouldn’t salivate over the prospect of Michael Schumacher in a Mercedes (Brawn). All that’s missing is Kimi, but a Citroen C4 probably won’t be hugely competitive in F1 next season.

Force India’s confirmation that Adrian Sutil will stay on alongside Tonio Liuzzi next season takes one of the Germans out of the equation for the superteam at Mercedes. All that’s really left on the table are the services of Nick Heidfeld and Michael Schumacher, if Ross Brawn is to be taken at his word and we assume that the team is looking for experienced F1 drivers, and we listen to Norbert Haug and assume that they need to be ones with German passports.

Yes there are other drivers out there, notably Robert Kubica who reportedly has room to wriggle out of his contract at Renault, but do any of them match up to Michael Schumacher?

His management team have confirmed to me that Willi Weber’s comments regarding Michael’s health are correct and that the seven-time world champion will be fit enough to return to an F1 cockpit by the end of 2009. Testing restrictions mean he’d only get seven days of testing under his belt… but come on people… it’s Michael Schumacher.

Is it too much to dream? Is it a step too far? Is this all just some big PR stunt?

Frankly I hope not. Because it’d be absolutely brilliant, wouldn’t it?

Merc’s big surprise

A few days ago Mercedes boss Norbert Haug told German publication Bild am Sonntag that there might be some surprises in store when the new MercedesGP team announced its driver line-up for 2010.

Well yesterday’s confirmation that Nico Rosberg was joining the squad wasn’t exactly the surprise we’d been hoping for. Afterall, it had been a pretty poorly kept secret that the German was bound for Brawn, the only difference between when the news broke in hushed whsiper a few months ago and yesterday’s announcement was the departure of Button to McLaren, which made Rosberg Merc’s new team leader and left a vacant seat next to him.

The surprise therefore is over exactly who will partner Rosberg at Mercedes in 2010.

There’s been a lot of chat over Michael Schumacher making a return with the team which ran him in sportscars 20 years ago. It’s a beautifully romantic idea, but doesn’t add up. Quite apart from his health and the question marks over the strength of his neck, there’s the Ferrari contract, the protestations from Ross Brawn that it is never going to happen, and the confirmation from Michael’s own people that negotiations were never begun.

There are loud rumours that Mercedes will be a German super-team, to combat the English super-team at McLaren, and that Nick Heidfeld is the favourite to land the remaining seat at the team. While he’s hardly Michael Schumacher, Nick’s a safe and fairly quick pair of hands. He is an underwhelming choice however and hardly fulfils the promise of a shock.

Who, then, suits that description?

If Mercedes is still reeling from its failure to grab German wonder kids Vettel or Hulkenberg, they may well have their sights set on Adrian Sutil. At 26 he is still pretty young, and with the last year racing at Force India he has an understanding of the Mercedes powerplant. He’s marketable, like Rosberg, but one feels that Mercedes Grand Prix in 2010 would probably be a bit too pretty with both of them on board. They might as well rename the team Premadonna Grand Prix. No, I jest. They’re both solid, hard working guys. But are they a mega line-up? In all honesty, they are not a Hamilton / Button. Sutil still makes too many mistakes, and Rosberg still fails to get the most out of his cars.

Today’s announcement, then, that Force India will be testing Paul di Resta and JR Hildebrand in the rookie test days at Jerez could be a little more than appears at first sight.

First of all the announcement shows that Vijay Mallya’s promise to bring an Indian racing driver to F1 was worth fairly little. The team ran Hildebrand, Neel Jani and Karun Chandhok through a simulator test and promised a seat at the rookie test to the quickest driver. My sources tell me Chandhok was quickest, followed by Jani, and Hildebrand was plum last, by a fair margin. Jani (half Indian) and Chandhok (properly Indian) have both been passed over for the slower man. I’d wager it had something to do with finance. So much for your promise, Vijay.

The second driver at the test however is down to the team’s engine deal with Mercedes. Could Merc be using this test day to evaluate Paul di Resta for promotion to Formula 1? Could it be a genuine shot for the Scotsman?

Tonio Liuzzi has a deal to race for Force India next season. The team will have one spare seat, which looks likely to go to Sutil if he doesn’t go to Mercedes, and with Hildebrand and his finances looking good for the third driver seat at Force India or possibly even USF1, what are the chances that it is di Resta that ends up at Mercedes alongside Rosberg in 2010?

Don’t forget that di Resta beat Vettel to the F3 EuroSeries crown in 2006. His credentials are outstanding, but I have always questioned Mercedes’ common sense (or distinct lack of) in thrusting brilliant single-seater talent into DTM. how is one supposed to prepare for the pinnacle of single seater racing in closed wheel motorsport? Doesn’t make sense, does it?

There is one other possibility, however. Recent comments out of Renault boss Carlos Ghosn suggest all is not well chez Renault. The prospect of the team pulling out of F1 if it does not find a buyer for the team (or at least a substantial percentage investor) grows ever stronger. And if it does, that puts Robert Kubica back on the market. Could it be that Mercedes is simply playing the waiting game for the highly rated Pole? It’s not out of the realms of possibility.

So could di Resta be the shock Mercedes have promised? Will it be Sutil? Will we see the romantic return of Michael Schumacher or could Robert Kubica be with his third team in as many months?

It’s the only really big question left in this winter’s driver market. I just hope that the surprise is as big as we’re wishing.

Why Jenson was right to move

The web of late has been flooded with stories and opinions as to why Jenson Button’s decision to walk away from Mercedes (Brawn) and leap two-footed into the apparent career quicksand of partnering Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, is a foolish one.

My good friend and colleague Adam Hay-Nicholls wrote a really good piece about it on his blog, which I can recommend as top reading as he makes some thought-provoking points.

Click here to read Adam’s piece on the Metro F1 website.

See, told you it was interesting.

As for me, however, I’m not so convinced that JB’s move is as bad an idea as everyone is making out.

Since the mid-point of the 2009 season, when it started to look as though Jenson had taken his foot off the gas and was backing into the championship, he’s had some pretty fierce critics. There have been many who have claimed that he’s not a worthy champion, that he’ll never go down as one of the true greats. Frankly I find that argument a little hard to swallow. I mean, Keke Rosberg won the title with a single win to his name in his championship year, and the guy’s a legend.

Does it really matter how one wins the title, or merely that one does it at all? I personally think Jenson is a great champion, and his story in overcoming the obstacles of his career in many ways make him even more worthy. To come back from so many blows and to see that childhood dream become reality, after all of those earth-shattering moments when the prospect of becoming world champion must have seemed a world away, takes something special.

So here we have a champion, but one whose ultimate talent is being questioned because he was given the best car of 2009 and made the championship look far harder than it should have been.

What better move to make, then, than to put himself up against one of the out-and-out fastest and most competitive racing drivers not just in F1, but the world today? Not only does it show that Jenson’s not afraid to take on anybody, but it also shows he has the self-belief in his own abilities that he can go to McLaren, which is quite clearly Lewis’ team, and beat him on his own turf.

As world champion, there may never be another time in Button’s career at which his star shines as bright, nor at which his reputation is as vast as it is today. Don’t forget that 12 months ago Jenson was staring unemployment in the face. And now he has signed a three-year deal to race for McLaren, a team whose history and record in Formula 1 is second only to Ferrari.

Would you let that opportunity slip? I mean, come on… it’s McLaren. And the boys at Woking do not come knocking every day.

So what do you get at McLaren? A damn good car is a given.

Even in 2009, a car which started off the season as a dog was, by the mid-point of the campaign, winning races. The resources, talent-pool and simple desire to win at the team is staggering. Button could not wish to place himself at the centre of an outfit more tuned towards the objective of winning. That hunger, that competitive instinct, can only be of benefit to the reigning champ.

Plus, in 2010, McLaren will, for the first time in a decade, be its own team. With Mercedes no longer on the board following its 75.1% purchase of Brawn, McLaren is McLaren once more. That most British of teams will, in some ways, get some of its soul back.

While one must hope that the team will still be afforded the incredible reliability which marked out their joint relationship, it is fair to say that Mercedes’ focus will now be on the former Brawn team, and this could play against McLaren. However in 2009 Mercedes showed that, despite its ties with McLaren, it was perfectly able to supply another two teams with good enough equipment to see Brawn take the title and Force India emerge as the surprise package of the season.

Jenson therefore will have a quality car and be up against quality opposition. Sounding good? You bet.
There’s another element, however, and it is one which I think is pretty crucial.

Jenson has been at BAR / Honda / Brawn (call it what you will) for over half a decade. The team in all that time, other than the men at the top, has changed very little. It’s only normal for the guy to want a change.

Plus, and here’s the clincher, this was Jenson’s first and only opportunity to get himself free of the bind that he was in at the team.

It is important to remember that Jenson’s career at BAR and Honda was framed by some pretty bad decisions. For a start his original management team lost a vast amount of his money via the scandal that erupted when they signed for Williams, only to be told by the Contract Recognition Board that they could not do so. Button was forced to stay at the team, and thereafter was essentially owned by them. His commercial rights were taken away from him, and his freedom to negotiate or to get himself out of the team disappeared.

It is thus interesting to read Nick Fry’s recent quotes, as the financial considerations are not as simple as he makes out.

“We offered loyalty which we hoped, perhaps naively, he would return,” Fry told the Daily Mirror. “There is bravery and there is stupidity, and we will only find out which it is next year.

“We believe we made Jenson a good offer – one that was significantly more than he is being paid at McLaren. We are all mystified by this decision. We think he has been badly advised and had his head turned by McLaren’s glitzy headquarters.”

Personally, I think Jenson’s head was turned by the opportunity of racing for one of the greatest teams in Formula 1 history. I think Jenson’s head was turned by an opportunity to put himself up against one of the best drivers in the sport today. Win or lose, nobody will be able to argue in the future that he hasn’t left himself open to scrutiny.

And when Fry refers to the financial aspect, he would do well to temper his statements with a touch of humility given that the Mercedes buy-out of the team has gifted him what has been estimated to be in the region of $30million. Considering that Button took a 70% paycut to help ensure the team’s future, Fry has a lot to thank Jenson for. Actually he has about 30 million reasons to be thankful to him.

Jenson meanwhile may not be getting as high a base salary from McLaren as he might have been offered at Brawn, but he is finally free from the constraints which held him at Honda. His relationship with Fry was known to have become stretched, the forced smiles at times a touch too saccharin to really believe.

For Jenson therefore, I believe this move to McLaren will also come as something of a relief.

While he will not like to be leaving his boys, and in particular Andrew Shovlin his long time engineer and bezzie mate, Jenson has had to make a clean break.

There are times in everyone’s lives where the relationships in which they find themselves stop giving back what they once did. The weight of history is often too great to overlook, and no matter how great things might be at the time there may always be a niggling doubt of what could be achieved elsewhere.

I think that is ultimately where Jenson is at right now. His relationship with the team that he has seen through three different incarnations is simply at an end.

He needs a new environment, a new relationship. He needs a new challenge, and the excitement that comes along with something different.

I think Jenson’s move to McLaren is the first thing that has really made sense in his career in a good many years. Of course, I wish him luck. He may need it for 2010 as it could yet be, competitively, the toughest season of his F1 career.

But he is taking his opportunity by the balls, and I cannot help but admire him for that.

The Brawn Domination: Boring or Brilliant?

Something got me thinking in Monaco, and it’s something I hope you can help me with.

This whole BrawnGP domination thing… is it exciting for you, the fans, or is it a bit dull?

The reason that I ask is that there is pretty much universal delight in F1 circles that we’ve got new teams winning races in 2009. The BrawnGP story is a fairytale, and seeing JB up on the top step of the podium is something we’re all really enjoying. He’s done his time, taken the knocks, and come out smiling as he finally reaps the success his talent and hard work deserves.

But outside the paddock, I wonder how this is all viewed? Are you enjoying watching this season’s racing, or, to your mind, has the domination of the likes of Ferrari and McLaren simply been replaced with the domination of another team? With five out of six wins going to Brawn and JB, is there a risk that 2009 is actually becoming a bit of a bore at home?

Personally I don’t think it is, and I don’t think that it would be seen like that… but you never know. That’s why I’m interested in finding out…

Independents to Break FOTA Unity?

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Yesterday’s news that Williams has entered its name for the 2010 Formula 1 World Championship caught many of us unawares. After a weekend of multiple meetings and relative media silence from FOTA representatives the media was, on the whole, fairly convinced that FOTA unity was tight. The teams had written to the FIA demanding the 2010 regulation changes be dropped and, from what I had understood to be true from a number of reliable sources, FOTA was due to enter its name for the 2010 championship as a block unit if their condition of a revision to 2009 regulations was met.

So why the sudden change in position from Williams? If the teams had agreed to make their demands known to Max Mosley and the FIA in writing, in return for the teams agreeing to sign a new Concorde Agreement, has Williams’ entry to the 2010 championship not seriously reduced FOTA’s bargaining position? Furthermore, does the action of Williams not call into serious question the unity of FOTA, and give us a true reflection of the divisions between the manufacturer teams and the independents over the issue of budget caps?

“The unity of FOTA is of paramount importance to Williams,” Williams F1 CEO Adam Parr told Reuters. “Yesterday [Sunday] we joined the other members of FOTA in writing to the FIA to request a continuing effort to find a compromise concerning the regulations for 2010.”

“We believe that under the leadership of di Montezemolo and John Howett, FOTA has extracted some very significant concessions from the FIA. These include not only the procedural aspects of the budget cap but also other elements that will enable the higher budget teams to participate. Having said that, Williams has, and has always maintained, that we have a binding contract with both FOM and the FIA to participate in the world championship from 2008 to 2010.”

“We have been paid in full for our participation and we feel both morally and legally obliged to make it clear that we will participate in Formula One in the future as we have in the past 30 years. We owe this to our employees, our sponsors and the fans, all of whom are affected by statements that the teams may not enter next year’s championship.”

“We will continue to work within FOTA and with FOM and FIA to find a compromise but no one should be in any doubt about our commitment to the FIA F1 world championship.”

Williams has long been known to have been in favour of a budget cap in Formula 1. Indeed, there have been very few public comments from Williams, Brawn or Force India over the past few weeks over the subject of budget caps. Quite simply, it makes an enormous amount of sense for independent F1 teams to agree to the budget cap. They cannot compete forever with the big spending of the auto manufacturers.

A division was always going to occur within FOTA at some point, and Williams’ decision to enter its name for the 2010 championship could yet come to be seen as a pivotal moment in not only the future of FOTA but the future of Formula 1. Williams, in citing its contractual obligations to F1 and in not wishing to let go of its 30 year history in the sport, is drawing a very clear line in the sand, as the team is displaying a position completely at odds to that of Ferrari which is claiming that all deals are off in F1 as the 2010 regulation changes breached Concorde, and that they have no qualms in breaking their 60 year history in F1.

It is widely rumoured that two of the major manufacturers will pull out of F1 regardless of what happens in these negotiations, at the end of 2009. Why then would Williams wish to align itself too heavily with a group whose own members do not even know if they will be around in 2010, if Williams itself is already certain that F1 is where it wants to be next year?

Williams may not be the powerhouse it once was, but its place in Formula 1 is no less important. It is the third most succesful team in F1 history. Its name is as synonimous with the sport as that of Ferrari and McLaren. Indeed, in both historical and emotional terms, Williams falls behind perhaps only those two teams in the heirarchy of Formula 1 public perception.

It’s also worth noting that in the top six most succesful teams in F1 history, only two (Ferrari and Renault) are motor manufacturers. The rest are independents.

Independent teams then have formed a critical part of this sport’s history, and could yet play a decisive role in its future. Williams’ decision to enter for 2010 has seriously weakened FOTA’s position. If they are joined by another independent team over the next few days, FOTA’s bargaining position will be weakened still further, particularly if Williams is joined by the championship-leading BrawnGP team.

Also, don’t rule out McLaren from splitting with FOTA’s bigger picture plan. Already under pressure from the FIA following the lie-gate scandal, Martin Whitmarsh has already claimed today that McLaren is playing peacemaker. The point at which the peacemaker does a deal to save its own skin may not be far away.