An unfortunate question

Robert Kubica’s accident yesterday has left the Formula 1 world in a genuine state of shock. Robert is a lovely bloke and a bloody fast racing driver, and after spending time with him in Valencia just a few days ago and listening to his thoughts on the positive steps his Renault team had taken for 2011, to learn that he is in such a bad way has hit everyone for six.

With the news that Robert may be forced to sit the majority of the 2011 season out, there is thus a natural but unfortunate question which will be asked and will no doubt be poured upon over the coming days. Who will step into his seat?

The problem for Renault is that Robert is an absolute number 1. His natural instincts and feeling inside the car make him a phenomenal car developer and the team will miss his input and directional lead at this most critical period of development. With just three test sessions left, Renault needs every piece of insight and feedback to develop what could be an excellent racing car into a race winner.

There were a few raised eyebrows when Renault launched with five reserve drivers, but their role could now become all important to the team. Naturally, all of the talk right now is centering around the two most experienced reserve drivers, and the team’s two official third drivers, Bruno Senna and Romain Grosjean.

In Valencia, Eric Boullier said that should a reserve driver be needed it would most likely be Senna who received the call as Romain Grosjean has commitments in the GP2 and GP2 Asia championships, the latter of which begins racing next week. Grosjean has just half a season of F1 under his belt and that was over a year ago. Senna meanwhile has an entire campaign (bar one race) of racing in F1, albeit at HRT who put no updates on their car in 2010.

I rate Senna highly and a promotion to a race seat could very much be a case of “cometh the hour, cometh the man.” But will the team take the risk, or will they, as has been suggested, look to a more experienced driver to lead the team in 2011, for while Vitaly Petrov has shown class and speed he is not yet close to being a team leader.

Nick Heidfeld and Tonio Liuzzi are two names which have already been mentioned. Both are unemployed and both are highly regarded, with much experience in Formula 1. For Liuzzi, it could be the shot he’s been waiting his entire career for and an opportunity to finally show the potential that his numerous fans have awaited since he made his debut back in 2005. For Nick Heidfeld, his vast experience could prove to be the key, and “Quick Nick” would be keen to show he can still mix it with the youngsters.

Anthony Davidson is a name which has not yet been mentioned but which I believe should be. Rarely has there been a better car developer than Davidson. His work at BAR Honda was incredibly highly valued, and he made something of a name for himself as a Friday driver. He has recent and relevant racing experience for Super Aguri in F1, regular simulator sessions over at Mercedes have kept him sharp, and racing for Peugeot at Le Mans hasn’t done him any harm either. Could he lead the team? You bet. Could he take a good car and turn it into a race winner? Absolutely. He is, perhaps, the very best driver to do so in these circumstances.

Clever, technically gifted, a wonderful development driver, a proper bloke and a team player, Davidson would be a perfect fit.

And what of Giorgio Pantano? The 2008 GP2 champion is the only GP2 champion not to have gained promotion back to Formula 1 and for many this is a baffling fact. Pantano is now into his 30s and he is a very different driver to the youngster who made his F1 debut in 2004. He is fast in everything he ever steps into, and if he was to be afforded a shot at an F1 drive you can guarantee he would give it everything. He has recently been praised for his technical diligence by such big hitters as Chip Ganassi and his GP2 team boss Alfonso de Orleans Borbon who claimed that Pantano, along with Sebastian Vettel, was the best driver he had ever run. Eric Boullier knows Pantano well given both of their long shared careers in F3000 and GP2, and will also be well aware of the very close relationship between Pantano and Vitaly Petrov given that it was in 2007 when, as Pantano’s team-mate, Petrov made perhaps his greatest strides as a driver before being paired with Robert Kubica at Renault last season. Would Renault take the risk on a man who still, for some reason, has question marks hanging over him? It would certainly be a bold move. But would favour fortune the bold? And yes he had an F1 shot in 2004 and didn’t make the most of it, but anybody who read my piece on Giorgio in last month’s F1 Racing mag will hopefully see why he deserves a second shot.

Of course there are others. Nico Hulkenberg has moved to Force India as a tester and has been mentioned as a possible replacement, but again if you bypass Senna on the sole basis of his inexperience then that counts out Hulkenberg too. The same is true of Lucas di Grassi, who is a magnificent car developer. Sebastien Bourdais might feel that F1 is unfinished business for him, and there has even been talk that Kimi Raikkonen could step into the void.

It all seems far too early to be talking about any of this, but sadly while nobody wanted to be in this situation and while our thoughts and prayers will rest with Robert and what everyone hopes will be a swift recovery, this is a question which will be asked and must be asked because there are just three test sessions left until the season begins, and the next one starts in just three days’ time.

What can be in no doubt, however, is that everyone in this sport hopes that whatever replacement is made is but a temporary change, and that we see Robert back in a racing car soon. Mieć odwagę Robert.

When is a Lotus a Lotus?

Confusion reigns over which Lotus is Lotus.
A Buxton photoshop job

So it is official. Lotus will return to Formula 1 next year.

What do you mean aren’t they already in F1? Haven’t you been paying attention?

It’s all just such a mess, isn’t it? Even working within the sport it is testing my patience and confusing the hell out of me so goodness knows how this situation is supposed to translate to the wider world outside the gated confines of the F1 paddock. I guess like most things F1, it will appear to be a big squabble over relatively little by a bunch of rich people who really should know better.

The fact is that as things stand we’re set to have two teams in F1 next season known as Lotus Renault.

One of them is the team who entered Formula 1 in 2010 as Lotus Racing but who will next season become known as Team Lotus and will use Renault engines.

The other is a team which started its life in 1981 as Toleman, became Benetton, then Renault and is now still Renault although Renault no longer owns the team which is now instead owned in the most part by Genii Capital and in a minority by Group Lotus. Group Lotus will become the team’s title sponsor in 2011 thus creating Lotus Renault.

It seems pretty simple but it has led to much confusion, especially as both teams are expected to run the same livery next season. The announcement of Renault (Genii)’s link up with Group Lotus was made with an image of how their car will look next season, paying homage to the classic JPS Lotus livery of the 1970s and 1980s. And here came the first stink… because Lotus Racing / Team Lotus had already said they’d be switching to the Black and Gold colour scheme next year and has now apparently been beaten to the punch.

I’ve been a big fan of Lotus Racing / Team Lotus from the outset and so I immediately thought this was a bit of a petty move by Group Lotus. However it is worth noting that on November 6th, respected French journalist Jean-Louis Moncet reported on his blog that: “I add today, 6 November, at 15h42, a story that will change the hearts of lovers of beautiful Formula 1. One of my very good friends called me and said: “Jean-Louis, everything you say about Renault, Genii Capital, of Renault in 2011, and Lotus is true, but one thing … What? “You’ve got the wrong color, it will not be green, but black and gold. -To recall JPS? “Of course.” What emotion!”

Lotus Racing then announced on November 11th that it would be switching from Green and Yellow to Black and Gold in 2011. So you’ve got to ask the question, who was trying to out-do who?

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Lotus Racing wasn’t aware of Moncet’s blog or Renault and Group Lotus’ plans to switch to Black and Gold… it would have made sense for Lotus Racing to switch to the Black and Gold as Lotus Group in its sponsorship of Takuma Sato in Indycar, and in its proposed livery for ART in GP2 and GP3 used the Green and Yellow utilised by Lotus Racing in F1 in 2010. Why, then, would Group Lotus choose anything other than the Green and Yellow for F1? A switch to Black and Gold by Lotus Racing, as another classic Lotus livery, would have been a way to keep everyone happy. Now we have two teams due to run the same livery.

Another classic Lotus livery

Frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if Lotus Racing / Team Lotus keeps its Green and Yellow, but then that’ll just confuse everyone who watches GP2 and GP3 as they’ll think the ART cars are Team Lotus when in fact they’re Group Lotus. Of course it does mean that DAMS, who this year ran the Renault F1 livery, can keep the Renault F1 livery and then we’ll have two Lotus liveries in GP2 – ART in Green and Yellow and DAMS in Black and Gold. Add in the fact that Team Lotus boss Tony Fernandes will be running his Air Asia team in GP2 next season, and I reckon he should field a Yellow and Blue livery reminiscent of the old Camel Lotus, and then we’ll have three Lotus liveries in GP2! Huzzah! He could even field Bruno Senna and Kazuki Nakajima if he wanted to bring the Camel Lotus and 1987 line-up back.

Back to F1 though… and here’s where it all gets a bit confusing.

Lotus Renault, as in Lotus Racing / Team Lotus, will continue to have its cars classified as Lotus in Formula 1 results. Lotus Renault, as in Group Lotus, will continue to have its cars classified as Renault in Formula 1 results.

Group Lotus has said that it has formed its alliance with Genii Capital and Renault because it wants to be successful in Formula 1 to help sell cars on the road, and that it does not see the point in making the expense of struggling from the back of the grid to the front. It wants immediate success.

But its concept is flawed, because as of right now and despite its 25% stake in the team, the results will show as Renault results, not Lotus. Lotus, at the Enstone-based team, is a title sponsor. It is not a constructor. The right, in F1 terms at least, to represent the Lotus name rests with Tony Fernandes’ team, and in Fernandes’ team sits the ultimate philosophy of Colin Chapman that success comes from hard graft. There remains a nagging cynicism towards the Group Lotus method of ponying off the results of an already successful team and expecting the world to believe it is anything other than what it is.

Group Lotus has admitted that its link up with Renault is the first part of a greater involvement in the sport, but it is when Group Lotus wishes to have the team into which it has invested show up as Lotus that we are going to have the biggest mess of all. It can’t switch its name from Renault without unanimous approval from the other teams under the current Concorde Agreement, and for as long as Tony Fernandes is present in Formula 1 that unanimous vote needed for the team to switch its name from Renault to Lotus simply isn’t going to happen. Perhaps that’s what Fernandes is counting on, either from the perspective of keeping his team name and forcing Dany Bahar and Group Lotus back out of the sport, or in succeeding in where some voices within the sport believe his intentions have laid from the start – namely to force Group Lotus into either selling to him, or into paying him over the odds for claiming back the Lotus name in F1.

Bahar and Group Lotus have also insisted that their link up with the Renault F1 team is proof that their view of Formula 1 is one of progression and of the future. But to that I simply ask this? Why then all this silliness with a retro livery? If you want to look to the future, then why dwell in the past?

And cynics will ask why the Union flag? It is Renault, a French team, which has been bought out in the majority by a Luxembourg company and in the minority by a Malaysian company…

However I feel that Union flag is justified, for if there is one sure thing in all of this it is in the capabilities of the team we used to call Renault. The team based at Enstone. The team which started its life as Toleman.

What the boys at Enstone have proved year on year is that it really doesn’t matter what they’re called, they’ve always done the job. As Toleman, Senna took the team to some remarkable highs. As Benetton they won championships. As Renault they won championships. Now whatever they are called, there seems little doubt they will be successful.

Perhaps the team should be called Genii. Perhaps it should be called, as was suggested to me today, Scuderia Enstone. I like that idea, to be honest with you. Because it is the boys and girls at Enstone that have stuck with it all through thick and thin. They are the constant and this deal has secured much needed funding and a growing and vital commitment for the team’s future. It is the staff at Enstone who make the team and they will be the ones to take the team back to the top, regardless of the name above the door.

Lotus, Lotus, the Beatles and a solution!

I had a lovely relaxing weekend not really thinking much about Formula 1, but instead weeping over the crucifixion of many classic Beatles songs on X Factor on Saturday night. The greatest, most influential band on earth were paid a “tribute” by the supposed up and coming musical talent of the UK which seemed, to me, more like a slap in the face to the genius of Lennon and McCartney.

Of course, the very fact we had a “Beatles week” on X Factor at all was thanks to a marketing campaign around the news that after decades of arguments, it would appear that Apple (the makers of computers, phones and mp3 players) and Apple (a record company established by The Beatles in the 1960s) have finally buried the hatchet as for the first time in history one can now download Beatles songs from itunes. Hoorah!

And it got me thinking, and thus I tweeted: If Apple and Apple have kissed and made up, there’s hope yet for Lotus and Lotus. All you need is love!

And so my mind flipped back to Formula 1… and Lotus.

Autosport.com yesterday carried a fantastic interview with Mike Gascoyne, in which he described himself to be “perplexed” by the entire Team Lotus Vs Group Lotus mess. I, for one, couldn’t agree more.

Gascoyne makes many salient points in the interview, which I heavily suggest you read, but perhaps the one with which I agree the most is the following: “They seem to have announced that they’re going to join every racing series around the world, and the only question is who’s going to pay for it?”

“Because they seem to want to do every racing series that there is, and for a loss-making car company, that seems to be slightly perplexing. But if that’s what they want to do, good luck to them.”

Now I’m not overly fussed over who is going to pay for Group Lotus’ foray into motorsport, but I agree with Gazza in that Group Lotus’ motorsport strategy seems to lack any semblance of structure or sense.

It is as if they’ve just looked at global motorsport and said, “Ooh that looks fun let’s do that. And that looks good too. And that. Yeah, and that too.”

A Lotus? No, that'll be an ART...

And so it is that we now have a bonkers situation in which Group Lotus is due to sponsor Renault in Formula 1 next season, ART in GP2 and GP3 and KV Racing in Indycar. But why? I mean seriously, think about it… what’s the point in all this?

Did anybody give Lotus any credit this year when Takuma Sato ran their colours in Indycar? Did the results show Takuma Sato in a Lotus? No, they showed Sato in a KV Racing car. Next season, when I commentate on GP2 and GP3 will I call the ART team Lotus? No I bloody won’t. Because I don’t call Addax, Barwa. I never called Racing Engineering Fat Burner. So why should I rename ART, with six glorious years of GP2 history and a double championship in GP3 anything other than ART? Why should I suddenly start naming them by their sponsor?

And in Formula 1… when have you ever heard McLaren referred to as Vodafone? Ferrari as Marlboro? Williams as AT&T? So why will anybody call Renault Lotus next year? Simple answer is, they won’t. Quite apart from the fact that the public good will in the paddock surrounding Lotus rests very firmly with Tony Fernandes, I have never known anybody name a team by their sponsor rather than the team name.

I first got an inkling that the Group Lotus strategy was messed up when they announced they’d be sponsoring ART in GP2 and then all the Renault F1 chat began. Because, if Dany Bahar had thought about it, if they went in and invested in Renault F1, they’d get the exposure of a GP2 team for peanuts because DAMS carries the Renault livery in GP2. So they’ve gone and wasted all that investment in ART when they could have had it for a fraction in DAMS. I mean, it is a small thing, but it just shows there’s been very little forethought in what Group Lotus is doing.

Group Lotus has been riding off the back of Team Lotus ever since the Malaysian’s and Proton bought the company and suddenly realised it didn’t include the motor racing arm of the Lotus brand. There’s an excellent website on the history of the subject here.

What I do not understand is why Group Lotus has come in all guns blazing, when it could quite simply and for a fraction of the cost and the hassle, formed an official alliance with Tony Fernandes, Mike Gascoyne and Team Lotus whereby the car building arm of Lotus could have benefitted from what the racing team was doing. What we have right now suits neither.

So are the Malaysians trying to force Fernandes into buying Proton and Group Lotus? Frankly Fernandes isn’t that stupid. He won’t get forced into something he doesn’t want to do. And if that is what they’re trying to do then I can just see Fernandes digging in his heels even harder. He’s a very clever man and a very passionate man, and I think he is going to fight this thing until the bitter end. And I hope he does. Because he’s got huge support. Factor in also that Fernandes has paid an as yet undisclosed sum to David Hunt for the right to use the Team Lotus name next season… money which could have been spent on R&D… money which for a small team is critical.

The history of Team Lotus is the story of innovation and excellence. It is a story of mavericks, of legends and heroes. It is not the story of short cuts or ponying off other people’s work. Simply calling a team Lotus does not make it so.

Lotus Racing showed in 2010 that it was serious about Formula 1, serious about motorsport and serious about the heritage and history of the name that it was proud to carry. It wanted to be appraised on its own merits and make its own way.

That it now stands to lose its name because of some stupid marketing ploy which doesn’t make any sense in the wider world and just makes Group Lotus look petty and bitter, is a huge shame. There are a lot of people in this sport who are more than a little disgusted with the manner in which Group Lotus has approached this entire subject.

But if Bahar and Group Lotus want to go down this path, I have an idea… all Fernandes and his team need to do is to bring in a title sponsor which has a name that is, by some huge coincidence, the same as the name they look set to lose.

Lotus Bakeries in the UK and Lotus sanitary products come instantly to mind. Both logos would look great in gold against a black background as per the JPS stylings the team has said they’ll be forced to adopt next year with Group taking the green and yellow to Enstone. Group Lotus could not claim a naming conflict as neither company is motorsport affiliated. The companies wouldn’t even have to bring any money – simply supply the team with biscuits for their coffees or toilet paper for their motorhome. Lotus gets to call itself Lotus and there’s nothing Group Lotus can do about it.

A silly idea? No more silly and petty than what Group Lotus is doing, and I know which outfit would get the most support for its actions.

Whatever happens next year, I know which team I’ll be calling Lotus.

Petrov’s Renault Seat is Not 100% Secure

Vitaly Petrov’s Formula 1 dream today hangs in the balance after his father admitted that the loan he had personally secured to pay the first instalment of his son’s €15 million deal to race for the Renault F1 team in 2010, had been put on hold.

Speaking to the Russian media, Alexander Petrovic has revealed that despite approaching 500 of Russia’s largest companies for support, his son’s management have come up empty handed. Indeed, it is Petrov’s father himself who has promised to pay the first instalment of €7.5 million to Renault (securing the money against his own property), after the team agreed to hand Petrov his F1 debut on the proviso that half the seat’s €15 million value be paid at the beginning of March 2010, with the remaining €7.5 million to be paid in July 2010.

“Vitaly’s manager Oksana Kosachenko, who has taken care of my son for the past nine years and through whom we came to Formula 1, immediately began to look for sponsors,” he told sovsport.ru. “The leadership of Renault met us, and allowed us to pay the money in two instalments, delaying payment of the first until March and the second until July.

“Oksana visited 500 large Russian companies, but was refused everywhere! When I told Vitaly we could not find the money and that he would be better to forget about Formula 1, he started to cry… as a child he never cried, but with this shock he could not help himself.

“Thank God, at the last moment my friend – the Chairman of the Board of Directors of one of the St. Petersburg banks – did not refuse to issue a credit for €7.5 million. To do this, I had to lay the property.”

Alexander however has admitted that, as of yet, he has still not received the loan and that if the money fails to arrive before March 1, his son may lose his Formula 1 drive.

“The first seven and a half million, we still have not received. The bank extended the consideration of an application for a loan – the money is huge. If, before the first of March we do not make the first payment, Vitaly can be changed to another pilot.”

Petrov’s signing to Renault came amongst speculation that his ride was being funded by Russian oil and gas corporation Gazprom, however Alexander told mk-piter.ru that this was incorrect.

“It would be better it were true! But, unfortunately, this is just fiction. If in fact, Gazprom had sponsored us, then the car would have their inscription.”

Petrov Snr hopes that messages of support from high ranking government officials, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will help his son’s cause in not only oiling the cogs to facilitate the payment of the first instalment, but also in procuring the necessary funding to ensure that his son is able to meet the full terms of the payment schedule in 2010 and complete a full season in F1.

“We have one hope: the chairman of the Government Vladimir Putin. President of Federation of motorsport Russia Victor Kiryanov and Sports Committee Chairman of the State Duma Anton Sikharulidze Vladimir Vladimirovich wrote letters asking for help.”

Renault to Announce Petrov as Kubica’s #2

Vitaly Petrov © GP2 Media Service

The Renault F1 Team is set to unveil Vitaly Petrov as their number two driver for the 2010 Formula 1 season, after the Russian today concluded a deal in which he will bring an estimated €10 million to the squad.

Sources close to the team have told me that Petrov, who finished runner up in the 2009 GP2 Series to fellow 2010 F1 graduate Nico Hulkenberg, had a seat fitting yesterday (Friday) at Enstone, and put pen to paper to ink the deal which will see him become the first Russian F1 race driver in history, this afternoon (Saturday.)

As such, I would expect him to be officially announced as a Renault driver and Robert Kubica’s team-mate at the launch of Renault’s new yellow and black car, the R30, at Valencia tomorrow. Doing the deal early is good news from the perspective of both the team and driver, as it will allow the rookie some much needed testing mileage.

The Vyborg Rocket, as he is known in Russia, (because he comes from Vyborg and is pretty quick) or Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” as he is called by others (because he looks like Alex from “A Clockwork Orange), began his racing career in 2001 in the Lada Cup championship in his homeland before making the switch to European-based single seaters in 2003 when he took part in the Formula Renault UK Winter Cup. He continued in various Formula Renault championship in 2003 and 2004 for EuroNova Racing before returning to Russia for a bit more Lada action in 2005.

Come 2006, Petrov was back in Europe and back with EuroNova, winning a race in the Euro3000 championship before making a mid-season switch to complete the 2006 GP2 season with DPR, making his debut in the F1 feeder category at Hockenheim.

For 2007 he linked up with Campos Racing in GP2, partnering Giorgio Pantano and the duo helped turn the back-of-the-field team into a regular points scorer and, by season’s end, race winner. Petrov took his first GP2 win at the season finale in Valencia.

In 2008 Petrov stuck with Campos but struggled to find form. Many suggested he had only shone the season before due to Pantano’s input at the team, and it took the mid-season arrival of Lucas di Grassi to turn the team’s fortunes around. Petrov again won in Valencia, this time at the new street track, but although only taking part in half of the season it was di Grassi who finished the season as the best placed Campos driver.

Last season, Petrov was again racing for Campos, this time as the re-named Barwa Addax team following the squad’s purchase by Alejandro Agag as Adrian Campos went off in search of his F1 team dream. The Russian was teamed with championship favourite Romain Grosjean, and the duo appeared evenly matched in the opening rounds. When Grosjean was promoted to a full-time f1 race seat at mid-season, Petrov became the team’s main challenger and duly took the fight to Nico Hulkenberg at ART. Although Hulkenberg was quite clearly in a class of his own, Petrov had some impressive races, once again looking majestic in Valencia.

It does seem interesting that in his last three seasons in GP2, Petrov has been teamed with three drivers who were not considered good enough for Renault, but who all beat him in equal machinery. Pantano tested for Renault in its former incarnation as Benetton but was never given the shot at a race seat, di Grassi was a long suffering RDD reserve but never afforded the opportunity with the big boys and was passed over for both Piquet and Grosjean, and finally the aforementioned Grosjean, who was collateral damage in Renault’s disastrous 2009.

What, then, stands Petrov out? Well, there are probably about 10 million very good reasons why Renault should have picked Petrov. I have heard that his sign on fee was in the region of $15 million, which equates to around £8 million or €10 million. He has long been backed by the Russian government, and stories over the last few weeks also linked Gazprom (a one-time Minardi sponsor) with Petrov’s push for an F1 seat, alongside some other pretty heavy-weight Russian companies.

But I don’t think this is all about cash, although I’m sure it can’t have hindered his chances. Petrov is quick. Whether he’s super quick I’m yet to really figure out, but I know for sure he’s not Hulkenberg quick. As such I doubt very much that he will set the world on fire. Then again, I didn’t think Kobayashi looked much cop in GP2, and look how exciting he was in his first F1 races! Make no mistake, however. Petrov is no idiot. He’s not some Take Inoue who is going to tool around half a week off the pace and crash into the safety car. He’s a racer, and a hard one at that.

Petrov does represent one of the largest nations on earth, and with Bernie known to be keen on a Russian Grand Prix, Vitaly’s move into F1 won’t harm things on that front.

He’s also a really good guy. His English was pretty stunted for his first few years in GP2, but over the last season he really came out of himself. He has a wicked sense of humour and if he’s allowed space to flourish, he’ll be a great addition to the F1 field.

Rossi and a Russian

Quick post today, as I’ve got two little snippets of rather interesting news.

First up, I was in Barcelona yesterday to see Mr Felipe Massa who was testing the F2008. He was on great form, as always, and was clearly enjoying being back behind the wheel. However it was something about the man who had been running at Barcelona for the two days before Felipe took over at the wheel that I thought you might find interesting. According to the Ferrari Corse Clienti chaps, Mr Valentino Rossi was so fast that he equalled Kimi Raikkonen’s best 2008 qualifying lap in the same car around Barcelona. Sure Rossi had slicks at his disposal rather than grooved tyres, but the track was still pretty moist and slippery, although drying rapidly, on Thursday when he set his best lap.

Impressive? You bet your ass that’s impressive, and it’s little wonder that stories of Rossi wanting to cross over to F1 have resurfaced again since the end of the test.

Second up are the rumours I am hearing coming out of Enstone which say that Russia’s Vitaly Petrov is very close to the second race seat alongside Robert Kubica in 2010. There were reports earlier in the week that Petrov was in consideration for the job, but as things stand I understand it’s now between just him and an F1 driver with recent experience. (Recent being 2008, so that appears to wipe JV off the list of candidates.)

My sources could be wrong, of course, but from the lay of the land it looks as though F1 may get its first Russian next season, no doubt with a huge amount of backing from both the Russian government, which has backed Petrov for many years, and through current Renault F1 sponsor MegaFon.

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.

Flav and the FIA: Round 2

Tomorrow morning Flavio Briatore will begin his fight back against the lifetime ban imposed upon him by the FIA World Motor Sport Council for his part in the 2008 Singapore scandal.

His appeal against the decision will be heard at the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, at the Palais de Justice. Justice has been handed out on this site since medieval times, and the Palais was once the seat of the French parliament.

But will Briatore get the justice he craves and that he believes he deserves?

Little is known about what Flav will argue but his options appear limited. We know, thanks to leaks to the press, that he will seek €1 million in compensation and to have his lifetime ban from FIA competition overturned. We know that he will argue that the case had been decided before it had even been heard and that he was made a scapegoat for the situation due to the personal vendetta of Max Mosley. But, as I said, how he hopes to argue this is, and may remain due to French judicial procedure, a mystery.

One of Flavio’s strongest arguments may well be the simple fact that both Nelson Piquet Jr and Pat Symonds were offered immunity to testify against Briatore. This could quite easily be argued to signal that the FIa was only intent on prosecuting Briatore and could give credence to his claims of a witch hunt. That Symonds ultimately chose not to take that offer, however, led to his own downfall. He will also be arguing his five year ban tomorrow.

Briatore and Symonds will try to argue that the case was heard without them being present, despite both of their testimonies to FIA investigators being used in the hearing at the WMSC. Had they wished to have been present to represent themselves, they could easily have done so. Their choice in not attending may thus stand their claims of a decision in absentia void.

Personally however, I do not believe that Briatore expects to win his case tomorrow. Frankly I don’t even think he wants to.

Had he wanted the decision overturned, he could have appealed in the first instance to the FIA’s International Court of Appeal. A body separate and independent of the WMSC and one filled with legal minds, he could easily have argued his case here and stood a good chance of being reinstated.

He has gone a different route however, taking his appeal through the French court system. But why? And why do I think he will lose?

He will lose because if he wins, the regulation of sport… any sport… could fall into chaos. Sporting bodies have always been and must continue to be free to punish those who break their rules.

We are not, for the most part, talking about legal issues when it comes to sporting penalties. Take the Bloodgate controversy in English rugby. While it is not illegal to bite down on a blood capsule, the fact that a player in a match of rugby did so to initiate a “blood replacement” led to him being suspended and his manager and physio being banned from the game for a period of some years. The Renault Singapore scandal isn’t too dissimilar.

So what happens if Flavio wins tomorrow? It essentially tells anyone who has been handed a penalty by a sport’s governing body that if they want to get it overturned they should appeal the decision through the courts. Can you imagine what that would do to world sport? Every yellow card, every red card, every sending off, every touchline ban, relegations, promotions, points dockings… every sporting penalty in every championship on earth could be appealed through the courts. It could create an enormous mess, and one which effectively strips the world’s sports’ governing bodies of any real power to govern their own sports.

But, as I said, I don’t think Flavio even wants to win this one. For me, tomorrow’s case was always one he was going to lose, and I think he knows that.

Flavio has gone the route he has because he expects to lose the case so that he can appeal to a higher body. And ultimately, when all other appeal courts in France have been expended he will take the case to where he really wants it to be heard… and that is the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

He will take his case to the highest court in Europe and he will argue that the FIA has stripped him of his basic human rights. In doing so he will seek to further discredit the reign of Max Mosley at the FIA, and to smash any chances Mosley might have had at entering European Politics, if indeed that is where Max had wished to end up after his FIA Presidency, as has been rumoured for many years.

I will not be surprised in the slightest if Flavio loses his appeal tomorrow. Afterall, if my hunch is right, it’s exactly what Flavio wants.

USF1 signs J-Lo… apparently.

There is a lot of talk doing the rounds today that Jose Maria “Pechito” Lopez has signed a contract to race with USF1 in 2010. If true, it will mark an incredible turnaround in the Argentine’s career and will bring to the sport a hugely likable character.

J-Lo’s single-seater career began in 2001 with an assault on Formula Renault 2.0, winning the Italian championship in 2002. In 2003 he moved up to Formula Renault V6 with DAMS and again stormed to the title. In 2004 the Argentine continued his association with DAMS, driving again in FRV6, making a one-off run in the FIA GT championship and moving up to Formula 3000 with CMS.

His DAMS association saw him move up to the new GP2 Series with the team in 2005, finishing on the podium in the first ever race at Imola and taking a win in only the second weekend of the inaugural season in Barcelona. He struggled with consistency after that point however, and scored only one further podium for the season eventually finishing ninth in the championship chase.

For 2006 Lopez moved to Super Nova and again struggled for consistency. As with 2005 he took three podiums but this time finished the season 10th. Perhaps the most telling moment of his season came at the Nurburgring. He was leading the Sunday race by a country mile and was completely unchallenged, until Timo Glock, who had recently switched teams from BCN to iSport began cutting down the gap to the race leader. With two laps to go the gap was still relatively healthy… a good few seconds. Lopez had it in the bag.

But then, on the last lap, Timo Glock flew past a half asleep Lopez, took the win, relegated Lopez to second and pretty much anihilated the Argentine’s reputation at the same time. Super Nova was unimpressed and dropped him for 2007. Nobody else wanted him either. Not in GP2. And certainly not in F1.

The 2006 season also saw the end of his deal with Renault. He’d been brought in as one of the earliest RDD boys, alongside the likes of Kovalainen and Kubica and despite his huge experience testing F1 cars for Renault and three seasons in an F1 feeder category, his inconsistency had dropped him out of favour and his F1 dream appeared at an end.

While fellow RDD boys Montagny, Kubica and Kovalainen all made it to F1, Lopez was thrust into ALMS and eventually the Argentine Touring Car championship, of which he was crowned champion last season.

But now, it seems, he will finally get his dream and his shot at F1. J-Lo is understood to have signed for USF1 with a downpayment of around 80% of the budget the team need from him to secure his seat. It is understood there is no time limit on him finding the remainder of the cash, as his credentials are bona fide thanks in no small part to his backing from former F1 star turned Argentine politican Carlos Reutemann, and his money is well-backed from high profile Argentine companies.

The question still rests over his consistency at the highest levels of competition however. Personally I like the guy. Always have. And I think he’s quick, too.

His performances in GP2 might not have been outstanding, but he was saddled with the comparative competitive deadweight of Fairuz Fauzy as his team-mate for both 2005 and 2006. That said, when he was in a good position, all too often he didn’t make the most of it – that ultimate example of losing the win in Germany the one that still stands out as completely unforgivable.

On his day he was bloody fast though, and held the GP2 lap record at Circuit Paul Ricard for a good few years. Considering that the championship conducts about 75% of its testing at the track, the fact that his time stood for so long evidenced just how speedy he could be… when it all came together.

It’s just that it didn’t come together all that often.

Renault however really have marked themselves out for not maximising the talent they had at their disposal through the RDD. They threw away Montagny and haven’t won a championship since dumping him as their development driver. They binned Kovalainen after a season in which Flavio had crushed him. They let Kubica go and have only just got him back. And then there’s Lucas di Grassi, for so long on the RDD books only to be continually overlooked.

So is Lopez another one of the great talents that Renault churlishly let go? Time will tell.

Pechito is a cracking guy, and if he does end up in Formula 1 next season it will be fantastic for him and for the sport. He’ll give it his all, and given the diligence and speed he showed in his F1 testing duties with Renault he could be a great addition.

He’s been out of competitive single-seater action for three seasons though, and one has to question the ultimate sense of USF1 taking such a gamble in its debut season.

But, as i said… time will tell.