StefanGP will not race in Bahrain

Zoran Stefanovic points at a model of a car that won't be racing in Bahrain.

With the GP2 Asia action at the Bahrain International Circuit all done and dusted, I’ve been on a bit of a fact finding mission in the paddock with regard to the StefanGP team, which has been hoping to be admitted into the Formula 1 World Championship and contest the opening round of the 2010 season at this very circuit in two weeks’ time.

And the news, at least from StefanGP’s perspective, ‘aint good.

Officials at the track confirmed to me that StefanGP’s containers, which the team stated on February 2nd it had sent to Bahrain, have not arrived at the circuit. Of course the containers may still be at customs awaiting their signing out, but the firmly held belief that the team’s containers of spare parts for their ex-Toyota racers were already at the Bahrain International Circuit are false. They are not here.

But perhaps the firmest nail in the coffin of the team’s hopes that they would be permitted to race should one of the new teams fail to make it, was an admission from another official at the BIC that they have received word from the FIA informing them to take StefanGP’s team profile, which had been prepared by the BIC on the off chance of the team’s participation, out of the media kits for the season-opening Grand Prix. According to this official, the FIA’s reasoning for this was that StefanGP “will not be racing in Bahrain.”

Seems pretty clear cut, doesn’t it?

StefanGP, car or no car, spare parts or none, Bridgestone contract or bare wheel rims, will not, it seems, be racing in Bahrain.

Their only hope now appears to be convincing USF1 to sell its entry to them and for the Serbian outfit to race as USF1, although at the present time that seems unlikely.

In other, much better news, however, it seems that Campos’ F1 entry is moving ahead at full steam. Dallara is working hard to prepare everything for the team’s debut in Bahrain, and the squad is expected to test at Varano next week, as the circuit rests just minutes from Dallara’s base.

Campos Out, Kolles In… Team Saved?

The future of the Campos Formula 1 team is set to be clarified by the end of the week, with sources close to the squad informing me that team founder Adrian Campos is set to part company with the squad after its takeover by former Jordan, Midland, Spyker and Force India boss Colin Kolles.

It is understood that Kolles has put up his own money to buy the team and to start to pay off the team’s debts to car designer Dallara, in order to get the team to the first race in Bahrain. As recent online rumours have stated Team Principal Jose Ramon Carabante will remain in place, although it remains to be seen whether Danielle Audetto will also stay at the squad as he and Kolles experienced something of a rocky relationship during Audetto’s time at Super Aguri when he and then Spyker-employed Kolles disagreed somewhat over the concept of customer cars.

All in all, it’s actually good news as far as the team is concerned as Kolles’ apparent investment and takeover may well have saved the jobs of a good group of people and assured one more new team’s place on the 2010 grid. A team name change so late in the day could prove difficult, although there are believed to be some pretty serious potential investors in the wings who might make the establishment sit up and take notice.

When Kolles’ name was first mentioned as a potential investor, it was done so alongside rumours of a Volkswagen takeover of Campos. Although Volkswagen denied the reports at the time, the company is not being so negative today, and is merely refusing to confirm or deny that they are in talks with the team. It may seem like a technicality, but it is actually a million miles away from their previous flat denial.

Volkswagen’s apparent and potential interest in F1 comes at a time when the majority of the motor manufacturers have pulled out of F1, and as such any new manufacturer entrant would be big, and hugely positive, news. Moreover, Volkswagen has a number of brands which could sit well within F1. From Volkswagen itself there is also SEAT at the cheaper end of the market. The company also owns the Audi brand and at the very top end, Volkswagen was of course involved in that most epic of cars, the Bugatti Veyron.

My colleague Joe Saward has today mused that SEAT would be a neat fit for a Spanish-based F1 team, and it is worth mentioning that Rally legend and absolute Spanish hero Carlos Sainz, who now races for Volkswagen in the Dakar, has been spotted at F1 testing checking out how things work.

To my mind however, it is Audi which would make the most sense for any potential Volkswagen involvement. Audi is a big brand and serves the car market from small city run-arounds to high powered supercars. From the A3 (read overpriced VW Golf), all the way up to the simply glorious R9, Audi is an aspirational auto brand, and one which would sit well in Formula 1.

Audi already races at Le Mans and in the DTM, and is a hugely successful marque in its own right. A transition to Formula 1 wouldn’t therefore be completely out of left field.

Now factor in these little nuggets… Colin Kolles runs Audi A4s in the DTM and Audi R10s at Le Mans and in the Le Mans Series.

Dallara designed the Audi R8, one of the most succesful racing cars in the marque’s history.

See where I’m going?

Oh… and wouldn’t it just look a bit special, too? Huge thanks to Kim Stapleton for letting me use his incredible mock-up of an Audi F1 car.

Ev-One 2009 Audi F1 Concept Livery
© Kim Stapleton

OK, I’m just speculating because there is, as yet, absolutely no confirmation that Volkswagen really is talking to the team… but there are enough links there to make you think that these rumours might actually have some substance to them.

Either way, I fully expect to see Colin Kolles confirmed as the new owner of the Campos F1 team by the end of the week. It’s hugely sad for Adrian Campos himself, who is a man I like very much. He had a dream to go racing in Formula 1, and if it is ultimately the case that his dream has had to end then I, for one, will be very sad that it has come to such a conclusion. He’s a racer, pure and simple, and similar to the guys at USF1 one feels that if the size of their hearts were only matched by the extent of their wallets then we’d have two mega little teams in F1 this year.

Kolles’ takeover may also have other ramifications. Bruno Senna was signed up to the original Campos team, but had to bring no money with him on the basis that the team could use his image and name to attract sponsors to the squad. They have failed in this regard, and given that Senna’s contract was with Adrian Campos and his team, one wonders how stable that deal will be with the team’s new owner. Frankly I think they’d be crazy to get rid of him. He’s fast, he’s young, he’s got bucket loads of potential and he’s also hugely marketable in the right hands.

All this comes on the day that we are hearing that USF1′s base in Charlotte is up for sale. There is talk that a rift is starting to appear in the team between those pulling their weight and those who are not, and I understand that Peter Windsor is making his way over to Europe to try and find a solution to save his dream before all is lost. Peter’s worked his backside off trying to make this team happen, and I really hope it all works out, even if it’s not the 100% pure American squad which he’d hoped for.

Even the usually smug StefanGP’s not having a great time. Despite team owner Zoran Stefanovich saying he’s on the verge of announcing his drivers (he’d do well to get an F1 entry first), we’re hearing he hasn’t paid Toyota for their car yet and as such all of those goodies could be back up for sale soon as well.

Expect these stories to develop quickly, as with less than a month to go until Bahrain, there is very little time to get deals done.

Lola and the struggles of the newboys

Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone
c/o http://www.sutton-images.com

There are a lot of stories doing the rounds today about the futures of the Campos and USF1 teams, as questions continue to circulate as to whether either of them will be racing in Bahrain or, for that matter, whether we’ll see them at all in 2010. After FIA President Jean Todt admitted that the Concorde Agreement allowed for teams to miss three races before they would be kicked out of the championship, the FIA yesterday went on the offensive telling teams that there would be no excuses for missing even a single event.

Of course the sad thing in all this is that we really shouldn’t be terribly surprised to see the new teams struggle. The FIA’s failure to force through the 2010 budget cap under which it had accepted the new teams’ entries has undoubtedly shortened their prospects of not only success, but of their very survival. It seems to me to be pretty incredible for the FIA to allow no excuses for new teams to miss races in 2010, given that it was the FIA who promised a budget cap that failed to materialise. One would have thought that it would serve the FIA’s purposes to try and protect its new breed, rather than to grant them life and then leave them out in a blizzard to freeze.

One must now seriously question the due diligence process conducted on the FIA’s part of the prospective new teams, and how it was that of the numerous proposals put forwards, so many strong admissions were passed over in favour of teams which we can now quite clearly see did not have the funding in place to make a decent go of things. Because, and here’s the thing, we’re not even talking about big budgets here… we’re talking about that 40 million budget cap. As things stand, it would appear that neither USF1 nor Campos are even close to that magic number because even if the budget cap had come in, it now looks unlikely that the teams in question would have been able to make it.

That said, one must also say that these new teams have, perhaps, massively underestimated the challenge from both a sporting, technical and commercial perspective.

All of which must leave the likes of Prodrive and Lola, teams who know the challenge and could have risen to it, feeling pretty sick. Here we had two racing companies with a rich history, strong commercial and technical teams, and the funding to do things properly. Thanks to the manner in which the new teams were chosen however, both have now pulled their hats out of the ring and would likely be unable to fill the void should any new team fail to make it.

All we and the FIA are left with is StefanGP, an unknown quantity in racing and business terms, but an organisation which has filed a complaint against the FIA with the EC and employed Mike Coughlan, a man with an almighty black mark against his name in the FIA’s eyes, to work at the squad. Seems incredible the FIA would even give the team the time of day, doesn’t it? But what other option do they have?

The Lola MB01 in the windtunnel c/o Lola

Should any new team fail to make it and the FIA be able to admit another team into Formula 1, Lola would seem to be the best option. That said, I have it on pretty good authority that although the team stands by its mantra that they exist in “a state of readiness” to jump into F1 should the call arrive, it would actually take Lola the better part of six months to be fully prepared. Not only that, but without the budget cap I doubt very much that Lola would wish to become involved with F1 at all.

Having been turned down in the initial process, I understand that Lola even went as far as to contact USF1 at the tail end of last season to offer support with the design of their Type 1, given that Lola had a 2010 car fully designed and ready to rock. USF1, however, is understood to have turned down the offer. When I was over in Charlotte, NC, a few weeks ago, all that existed in the USF1 factory was a single tub. If rumours leaking out of FIA sources are correct, the team hasn’t even booked its crash tests, let alone passed them.

I believe that Lola still wants to be in Formula 1, but only if the price is right and should the timing be such that the team can join the sport without endangering its business and its reputation as it did back in 1997. For that reason, I can’t see Lola now selling the IP to its 2010 F1 car, even if USF1 did come knocking.

With the preparation the team put into its 2010 F1 programme, Lola is an even stronger business and racing team than it was 12 months ago and, ironically enough, could be in an even stronger position to make an F1 debut in 2011 should a space open up, than it would have been in 2010.

Whitmarsh – FOTA and McLaren willing to help new teams.

Martin Whitmarsh © http://www.sutton-images.com

McLaren’s Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh has pledged that Formula 1 will do all it can to help the sport’s new teams succeed, as the financial and sporting future of at least half of F1′s new entrants looks to be in jeopardy with a matter of days to go until pre-season testing gets underway.

His comments come just a day after Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo reignited the discussion surrounding the provision of customer cars to new teams in order to aid their transition to F1.

“I think we, as McLaren and myself as chairman of FOTA, recognise that we will do all we can to demonstrate that new entrants are possible in F1,” he said at today’s launch of the McLaren MP4-25.

“It is clearly tough for the new teams to come into the sport. We know how difficult it is, with all the experience and resources we have, to be ready for the start of the season. So it must be very difficult for any new team. I don’t think we should apologise for that. F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport and if it was easy for anyone to get out their chequebook and go motor racing at the highest level next year, then we would really not have been working as hard as we should have been as established teams.

“We don’t want any team to fail, we should be doing all that we can within the F1 community. I think FOTA has been a coming-together of all of the teams for the first time in the history of F1. The spirit that exists in F1 is unique now, certainly in my 20 years of experience in the sport. So I think we will do what we can, but ultimately if there are teams that just don’t have the capability or resource or underestimated the task of being at the highest level of motorsport in the world, then some you can help and some you can’t.”

Whitmarsh maintained that McLaren remained open to the possibility of supplying customer cars, but expressed his surprise that none of the new teams, save for the as yet still mysterious Stefan GP, decided to take up the option of buying Toyota’s completed 2010 racer.

“I think philosophically McLaren believes that it is important F1 entrants develop their own cars, however, we are pragmatists and we have demonstrated in the past a willingness to provide customer cars. We remain willing, but I don’t know we are ready to do it quite before Bahrain if a team needs it.

“Ironically quite a lot of these teams had an opportunity to acquire a Toyota chassis. Toyota built two cars that were available from Christmas, and I am rather surprised that some of them did not do that – they rather looked a gift horse in the mouth. That was, perhaps, the wrong decision but nevertheless they had their own reasons for that decision. We have to see in the coming weeks or months whether we can help those new teams to be there to add to the flavour and diversity of F1.”

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.

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.

Summerton Talking to USF1

jontrack

Jonathan Summerton is in negotiations with the USF1 Team to join it in its inaugural year of F1 in 2010.

The 21 year old American, whose podium at the weekend has moved him up to second position in the Indy Lights Championship, has raced against a number of current F1 racers and testers and fared well against such opposition as Romain Grosjean, Sebastien Buemi, Kamui Kobayashi and Kazuki Nakajima.

In an exclusive interview with GPWeek, Summerton is introduced as a leading contender for the USF1 drive next season, and confirmed he was in negotiations with the team.

“I have been in touch with Peter and Ken quite a lot and it’s definitely somewhere I’d love to be,” he says in this week’s GPWeek Magazine. “Hopefully everything comes together with the team and the driver. It would be a dream come true making it to Formula 1 and being able to show that it can be done without a budget, to say the least. The last four years have been a hard push at times to even find a ride and luckily each year I’ve been able to find something. To be able to make it to the pinnacle of motorsport, to be able to race against all those guys I raced against in Formula 3 EuroSeries, and to do it with an American team, too, would be great.”

To read the interview go to www.gpweek.com now and turn to page 28.