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.

Woah, what’s going on?

Sorry for the lack of blogging of late. What with new job, new child and the start of the world cup, I have been somewhat busy. No excuse, I know.

Anyway, I thought I’d just jot down a few thoughts that I’ve got running around my melon at the moment – as much to try and compartmentalise and make sense of them to myself, as much as to bring you some semblance of comment or opinion.

So, in the words of Marvin Gaye – Woah, what’s going on?

The issue of tyres in 2011 has become something of a mess. The basic synopsis is thus: The FIA and Michelin agreed terms, but the teams and Bernie weren’t happy that the deal had been done without consulting them. All of a sudden up crops Cooper/Avon and Pirelli with rival bids. Cooper/Avon is quickly dismissed despite the company’s links with Bernie, and Pirelli, new GP3 supplier in 2010, almost immediately appears to be the most likely choice. The tyres will be cheap, but the company won’t put as much into the sport in terms of trackside signage etc. Michelin’s bosses declare themselves somewhat upset that their sure deal has fallen through, and come back in at the eleventh hour in Turkey to try and salvage the deal. Their tyres will be more expensive, but they’ll provide more trackside signage of which the teams receive a cut.

Pirelli currently supplies the GP3 Series

Then there are the tech regs. We’re expecting tyres to stay at 18 inches for the next two years before switching to low profile tyres in 2013. Any new tyre deal will need to be run for a minimum of three seasons, meaning that whoever comes in will have to do so under an agreement that they will have to design two types of tyre. For Pirelli this will be something of an annoyance, but for Michelin it is all fairly simple as they still have the moulds for 18 inchers from their last F1 appearance, and they have low profile tyres in use in sportscars.

Then there’s the role of the FIA. It now seems clear that one of the reasons Jean Todt has been so quiet is that the role of the FIA President in Formula 1 has been enormously marginalised by the increased strength and power of FOTA. FOTA’s decision to wade into the tyre debate came after the teams felt the FIA President had overstepped his mark by as good as agreeing terms with Michelin before they’d even been consulted. Now there is the argument that the FIA should not be involved in the decision at all because with the teams paying for tyres this is a commercial issue. Not so, says the FIA, as the choice of tyres is a sporting a safety issue, and thus of course involves the FIA. But if it involves the FIA, then the FIA has broken its own rules as the supply deal was never officially put out to tender.

Interviewing Jean Todt on the Monaco grid
© http://www.sutton-images.com

I asked Martin Whitmarsh, FOTA Chairman, in Canada whether this was all essentially politics, and the FIA President stamping his feet, Rumplestiltskin style, in order to get himself heard for the first time in his Presidency. He simply gave me one of those knowing looks, smiled, and laughed, before giving me a beautifully neutral answer.

Whatever the political factors behind the decision, we now understand that the deal will be announced with Pirelli shortly.

All of which leaves us with little time to develop the tyres before next year. There has been much talk that the work will be carried out by Nick Heidfeld in a Toyota F1 car, as this is the easiest way to avoid any conflict of interests and any team gaining an advantage.

Ah, but hold on a minute. Nick Heidfeld is Mercedes’ tester. So what you ask? Well for some, myself included, the last thing anybody wants is a return to the days when teams become so engrained with tyre companies that a certain type of tyre was designed almost exclusively for that one team. In the 2000s it was Bridgestone and Ferrari, and the Ross Brawn / Michael Schumacher / Ferrari / Bridgestone combo reaped massive rewards. Today, in a car designed for someone else and on tyres designed for the sport rather than for him, Michael Schumacher is struggling to show us any sign of his apparent genius. Sticking Heidfeld on tyre testing duties would, I feel, be a massive mistake and a big step back to the days of old as it would hand an advantage back to Mercedes.

Will Mercedes and Schumacher benefit if Heidfeld runs tyre tests?
© http://www.sutton-images.com

You want a great tester, with a feel for tyres, no conflict of interest, and with relevant recent F1 experience, you call Anthony Davidson. Simple as.

And as for the Toyota… well here’s another interesting thing. Rumours in Canada were rife that one of the prospective new teams intend to use the 2010 Toyota which never saw the light of day as the basis for their 2011 car should they be given the entry. It’s a very sensible plan, and would allow the team in question to enter the sport with a firm foundation and what looks, from the photos we’ve seen, to be a very tidy car indeed. Simply take off the double diffuser, stick KERS back in, and you’re ready to run.

The team rumoured to be talking to Toyota about using their racer which never raced is ART, and it is just the kind of sensible decision I would expect to come from Nicolas Todt and Frederic Vasseur.

My one fear in all of this is how ART will be perceived if the team is given the nod for F1 in 2011. I fear that the media at large will come down hard on the FIA and on Jean Todt, claiming nepotism and a conflict of interests should his son’s team be granted a grid place in Formula 1. But any such suggestions will be made to score cheap political points. ART is, from what we know of the prospective entries, by far and away the strongest potential new F1 team. It has big funding in place, and in terms of class there is perhaps no other team at a sub-F1 level which has consistently proved itself to be so strong – be it GP2, F3 or GP3. There is no better team out there than ART.

But if ART end up using as a basis for their car, the very same car that was used to develop the new 2011 tyres, then again a conflict of interests will no doubt be called, and if it is overlooked then the relationship between Jean and Nicolas will again be questioned. It shouldn’t be so, but I fear it is just too easy for some to look at the shared surname and forget the individual achievements of each man on their own merits.

Nicolas Todt - a 2011 F1 team boss?
© http://www.sutton-images.com

What of the other new teams, I hear you ask? From the entries we know have gone in, only Epsilon seems to stand any real shot at a grid space. But for a team determined to build its car from scratch at its fantastic facility in Spain, a decent lead time is running short.

The chance of an American team making the grid in 2011 is also not completely out of the realms of possibility. I had a great chat with Parris Mullins, one of the men behind the still-born USF1 project, and the good news is that he now represents a group of big investors who want to start an American F1 team. Following the USF1 mess, the even better news is they don’t want to do it from scratch. Instead, they want to buy an existing team and to turn it, piecemeal, into an American team – Force India style. Bring in the sponsors, and little by little, make it American. Win hearts and minds, to adopt a well-used Americanism.

The two teams that we know are on shaky ground right now are Sauber and Toro Rosso. Sure, HRT has its problems, but with Colin Kolles on board and rumours that Geoff Willis wants to do a Ross Brawn on the team, they are looking OK. Instead it is two former race-winning teams that look the most in danger.

On present form, you’d have to say that Toro Rosso is the better option of the two, but the infrastructure at Sauber is pretty impressive. A big investment may yet be the only thing to save Sauber. The team launched its C1 (Club One) initiative in Canada which is a project to bring in sponsors who do not wish to have big branding on the car, but to remain anonymous. While my colleague Dieter Rencken has written a fascinating piece on this subject on his Daily Grapevine column on autosport.com, I have my doubts over the scheme. Afterall, haven’t we seen this before? Isn’t this simply the Honda earthdreams concept under a different name? Sure, in today’s economic climate big business doesn’t want to be seen to be frittering its money away, but those companies are unlikely to be sponsoring anybody right now anyway – their boards simply wouldn’t allow it. The days of something for nothing just do not exist. If someone, anyone, is putting money into a project, I don’t think anybody can be naive enough to seriously believe that they wouldn’t want an increased public perception of their brand in return. It didn’t work for Honda, so why should it work for Sauber? Perhaps that makes me naive. It’s certainly an interesting debate.

But the Americans may not be the only saviours on the horizon. With Sergio Perez a leading light in GP2 and Esteban Guttierez leading the way in GP3, the racing prospects of the Mexican nation are looking very good indeed. And with one of the world’s richest men, Carlos Slim, known to be interested in F1, could we yet see one of the struggling teams take on a Mexican flavour?

Sauber - problems on and off the track
© http://www.sutton-images.com

When asked about this back in Turkey, the repeated word from a high level source at Sauber was, quite simply, “We have a very good relationship and dialogue with Carlos Slim.” Is this why Guttierez remains under the wing of the team? Could we see a Mexican investment in Sauber? “Sauber Slim” anyone?

The driver market may be pretty well sorted for next season, but that doesn’t mean the news has stopped in Formula 1. There are still a lot of fascinating stories bubbling under the surface, and the next few weeks look set to be really rather intriguing.

The GP2 Season Preview

Jules Bianchi - championship favourite for 2010?
c/o GP2 Media Service

With the sixth season of GP2 set to kick off this weekend, I’m naturally very bloody excited as I’ll be doing the world feed commentary again. Love it! Anyway, here’s a little something I jotted down for this week’s issue of GPWeek… enjoy!

This year marks the sixth season for the GP2 Series and the final year of the championship’s second generation. It’s a last hurrah for the GP2/08 car and the last year for the championship on Bridgestone tyres before the changes are wrung for the launch of the GP2/11 next season. But the championship remains as relevant to F1 as ever, in 2010 providing all six rookies in the pinnacle of global single-seater competition.

For the final year of its second generation, GP2 is down to the 24 car starting grid which it ran in its inaugural season due to the very public financial issues suffered by the Durango team. Although GP2 Asia team Meritus looked ready and willing to take Durango’s space, GP2 thought it better to ride out one season with a slightly depleted field before opening the whole thing up to tender for the start of generation three in 2011.

But of those that remain there is real strength in depth. Reigning champions ART will be hoping for back-to-back titles as F3 EuroSeries champ Jules Bianchi hopes to follow in the footsteps of Nico Hulkenberg and Lewis Hamilton and follow up his F3 success with immediate GP2 championship glory. But he won’t have it easy. iSport and their line-up of Valsecchi and Turvey look to be the team to beat after GP2 Asia. While Bianchi looked ragged and impetuous at times, Valsecchi seems to have matured well and Turvey appears to have a level head on his shoulders.

Van der Garde and Perez form a potent line-up at Addax, and the Mexican may well enter the title battle if he can get a decent run of results going. For Van der Garde, as for fellow elder statesman Pastor Maldonado at Rapax, it’s a return to the last chance saloon: championship or bust this season. Without the title it’s a season of GTs on the horizon. Even with the crown, F1 now looks a distant dream for them both.

Others to watch out for? Charles Pic was without doubt the unexpected stand out of the GP2 Asia season, and it will be interesting to see how the Renault F1 re-branded Dams team fares without its longtime leader Eric Boullier.

On the whole, it looks like it could be a classic season. Bianchi enters the fray as the drivers’ favourite, but the man under the most pressure to perform. How he handles that pressure, and how his rivals go about mounting a challenge to his assumed championship run, will form the making or breaking of GP2’s sixth season of competition.

ART Grand Prix
1. Jules Bianchi
2. Sam Bird

Five seasons down, and with three drivers champions and three team championships to their name it’s fair to say there hasn’t been another team to hold a candle to the consistency of ART in GP2 history. But this year, above perhaps all others, there is a feeling that the championship really is a must. The arrival of Jules Bianchi has ramped up the pressure on ART as he isn’t just the reigning F3 EuroSeries champ, but the favoured protégé of team boss Nicolas Todt. Bianchi is quick, no doubt, but his Asia performances were often wild and he will need to rise above his eagerness to impress. Sam Bird meanwhile is an odd one: quick in qualifying, but falls apart all too often in race trim. Both need to add consistency to speed.

Barwa Addax Team
3. Giedo van der Garde
4. Sergio Perez

The team formerly known as Campos had a rocking and rocky 2009 as first Romain Grosjean and then Vitaly Petrov took charge of the squad and pulled it into a well-fought championship battle against ART. Repeating that feat in 2010 and going one better to grab the crown is undoubtedly the order of the day, as is evidenced by the squad’s strong line-up of two experienced drivers. The team leader role however may fall to the younger Perez, who has been desperately impressive in his GP2 career to date and who gelled so well with Addax in his Asia campaigns. Van der Garde meanwhile made heavy work of his 2009 season with iSport in a clearly quick car. He took wins, but not as many as he should have done. He’ll need to up his game big time if he wants to fight for the title.

Super Nova Racing
5. Josef Kral
6. Marcus Ericsson

A massively risky move for Super Nova, who in 2010 take on two rookies after the decision to run two experienced drivers in 2009 gave the squad its highest placing since the very first GP2 season in 2005. Kral and Ericsson both had their moments in Asia, but rather than giving them time to gel, the team issued a statement mid-season to state it was replacing Ericsson with Jake Rosenzweig to try and improve its results. Although it later clarified that Ericsson was only ever intended to run in Abu Dhabi, Super Nova would have done better to have kept both rookies in the car for the full Asia season. Both drivers have potential, but top three in the teams championship may be an unrealistic expectation for drivers in their first year.

Fat Burner Racing Engineering
7. Dani Clos
8. Christian Vietoris

Racing Engineering struggled with tyre wear in 2009, which was odd given that the team’s lead driver, Lucas di Grassi, was not only one of the smoothest and most consistent drivers ever to race in GP2, but because he had also carried out a large majority of the GP2/08’s development work. That di Grassi couldn’t fight for the title will leave Racing Engineering wondering what chances it has in 2010, but it has brought Dani Clos back for a second season and that parity (one of only four drivers to stay put from 2009) could pay dividends. Vietoris looked quick in GP2 Asia, winning early on, but he also looked impulsive and took himself out of too many races in his eagerness to lap backmarkers.

iSport International
9. Oliver Turvey
10. Davide Valsecchi

As GP2 reaches the end of its second generation, could we be about to see a repeat of the final season of the first three-year generation when iSport made good on its solid first two seasons to dominate and take the double crown? Its GP2 Asia form marks it out as the definite favourite, but when one considers how competitive Dams looked in the 2009 Asia series only to be left behind in the main series, Asia should not be taken as the firmest indication of form. Valsecchi and Turvey however do form a strong partnership and iSport has reported one of the best working relationships since they ran Glock to the title. Valsecchi is now one of the most experienced drivers in the field, and the championship is his sole aim. Turvey meanwhile is a quick learner and will push his team-mate all season. Confidence is high within the team that this is iSport’s year.

Renault F1 Junior Team
11. Jerome d’Ambrosio
12. Ho Pin Tung

Dams gets a new name and a new lease of life after what turned out to be a hugely disappointing season in 2009. After dominating the preceding Asia series, neither Kobayashi nor d’Ambrosio could mount a championship challenge last year and the team slipped off the radar. The Belgian remains with the team this season, as Dams is renamed the “Renault F1 Junior Team” and runs in the famous yellow and black of the F1 team. D’Ambrosio, like team-mate Tung, is part of the Gravity driver line-up, and are Renault F1 reserve drivers. Ironically though, while all this looks very positive, Renault has taken one of Dams’ strongest assets in Eric Boullier. Dams’ former team manager now fills that role at Renault and as F1 witnesses his handiwork in RF1’s competitive turnaround, one wonders the negative effects his departure might have on the GP2 team.

Rapax Team
14. Luiz Razia
15. Pastor Maldonado

The team formerly known as PiquetGP aims to get its GP2 aspirations back on track by signing up one of the out and out fastest drivers on the GP2 open market. Pastor Maldonado may have his detractors and he may still cut a controversial figure for his, shall we say, questionable racecraft, but on his day there are few out there who can drive as fast, particularly in Monaco. Razia scored a win last year and has been snapped up by Virgin F1 as their third driver. Both drivers are experienced, but there’s a nagging doubt that either has the consistency to mount a title run.

Arden International
16. Charles Pic
17. TBA (Rodolfo Gonzales likely)

After yet another season in which early promise ultimately came to naught, Arden International’s ultimate boss Christian Horner bit the bullet at the end of 2009 and parted company with his long time technical chief Mick Cook. The results were instant. Charles Pic’s pole position in Abu Dhabi was Arden’s first since 2005. With a young team of engineers led by Campbell Hobson, Arden has a new direction and a new feeling of confidence in itself and its new driver. Pic could yet be the dark horse of the season. He impressed hugely in Asia, and it will be fascinating to see how he fares in the big league. With Arden back in its traditional F3000 livery, there’s a real feeling that 2010 could see a return to the old days of regular race wins and fighting for championships.

Ocean Racing Technology
18. Max Chilton
19. Fabio Leimer

Ocean hit the ground running in 2009, as the replacement for the disappointing BCN squad which currently resides in history as the only GP2 team to never have won a race. Chandhok so nearly won for Ocean in Monaco, but it was in Spa last year that things really turned around when Parente took the team’s first pole and followed it up with a dominant race win. For a team in its first season, getting a victory was a huge effort and the Portuguese outfit under the leadership of former F1 driver Tiago Monteiro quickly established itself as a team to watch. For 2010 they’ve opted for the risky two-rookie line-up. Both are young and will be on a steep learning curve but Leimer has form. Don’t underestimate these boys. They won’t win the title but could grab some podiums later in the year.

PPR.com Scuderia Coloni
20. Alberto Valerio
21. Vladimir Arabadziev

Every year you want to say something good about this team, but every year you end up struggling. The component parts have been there for some time, but the constant changes that have affected team management have always seemed to affect ultimate competitiveness. With Zanarini and Fisichella now firmly out of the picture, the return of the Coloni name to the squad for a full season should give the team its core pride back, and Paolo Coloni and Dino Luisso will want to get back to the successful F3000 and GP2 days of old. With Valerio as lead driver that won’t be easy. He’s a lovely bloke but an accident waiting to happen on track. Yes he got a win last year, but his errors are far too frequent. His team-mate however is the promising Bulgarian Vlado Arabadziev. Already a race winner in AutoGP in 2010, keep an eye on this kid.

Trident Racing
22. Johnny Cecotto Jr.
23. TBA (Adrian Zaugg likely)

Second from bottom was not in the game plan for Trident Racing in 2009, especially as the position gave them the unenviable place at the bottom of the pile of pride for Italian teams (with the obvious exception of Durango which failed to make the end of the season and will not race in 2010.) The Asia series this year was notable not for any major success, but more for the team’s choice to run 39-year old Plamen Kralev who was, quite frankly, an embarrassment. One hopes the money he ploughed into the team will allow it to take on more worthy drivers with slightly smaller wallets in 2010, and the team’s choice of Johnny Cecotto Jr is a sound one. He’s young, hungry and has promise but he will need a more experienced team-mate to show him the way and help Trident regain its form.

DPR
24. Michael Herck
25. Giacomo Ricci

Never thought we’d be saying this but DPR was one of the stand out teams of this winter’s GP2 Asia Series. There were those within the paddock who cruelly likened their success to filling a room with monkeys and typewriters. Give them long enough, so their detractors said, and they’d write Shakespeare. Others said there simply wasn’t the quality in the Asia field this winter. But in the cold light of day, it now seems clear that all it boils down to DPR actually doing a pretty good job. That the team is still called DPR grates many, as there is nothing about the team that has anything in common with Dave Price’s outfit, and one hopes that if the team survives the selection process for 2011 it will be renamed. For 2010, Herck is still error prone but improving with every race, while Ricci really came of age over the winter. Championship contenders? No. Race winners? Incredibly, DPR might just be.

Durango F1? Don’t make me laugh.

The Durango 95 purred away real horrorshow...

Just when you thought you’d seen the last of bizarrely far-fetched F1 bids, this week’s news that Durango has applied for the vacant 13th grid slot for 2011 should have you spitting out your cornflakes.

For all of you fellow Stanley Kubrick fans, I’m afraid to inform you that the Durango of which we speak is not the Durango of “A Clockwork Orange” fame. The Durango 95 car stolen by Alex and his droogs in the movie was, in fact, an M-505 Adams Brothers Probe 16, of which only three were ever made.

No, the Durango of which we speak is the Italian former GP2, F3000 and Endurance team which has, in its past, achieved a relative level of success.

Why then, should I consider this bid to be somewhat fanciful? After all, isn’t GP2 supposed to provide the future of F1? Well yes, it is… only, Durango is no longer a part of GP2 having been forced out of the championship when it ran out of cash.

Durango’s fall from grace last year hit its peak on September 5th, when Il Gazzettino reported that Durango was being investigated for criminal tax evasion and fraud, and that it had been using a system of companies which constantly changed their names to issue bills with inflated figures in order to reduce costs and lower the payable tax. Indeed, it was claimed in Il Gazzettino that the system put in place at Durango had seen unreported revenue of more than €12 million, false invoicing amounting to €11 million, unpaid tax of €3 million and a reduction of base tax to the tune of €16 million. All of this came, so the article said, at the end of a one year investigation.

Durango’s time in GP2 was not short of controversy. From as early as Imola 2006 the team was in hot water for contravening regulations by manufacturing their own parts rather than using Dallara’s spec equipment. In Imola it was only the car’s skirts that were the issue, but when Lucas di Grassi’s rear wing fell off at Silverstone later that same season, Durango was excluded from the weekend and sent packing from the paddock after it was discovered the team had sought to cut corners by conducting a botch repair job on structural parts of the car, rather than returning those parts to Dallara for an official repair.

Talk of Durango’s corner cutting came to the fore once again just last season when Stefano Coletti was involved in a huge shunt at Spa, when his GP2/08 went straight on at Eau Rouge. A paddock insider that weekend whispered to me that Coletti’s steering column had “snapped like a piece of balsa wood,” although I could find no evidence to substantiate this claim from anyone at GP2 or Dallara.

When the championship arrived at Monza for the next race however, Durango only had one car at its disposal and there were two contrasting reasons given for this, depending on who you spoke to: namely that Durango didn’t have the money to repair the car, or that the car was so littered with botch repairs that Dallara had impounded it as being too unsafe to use. Again, I found it impossible to find an “on the record” response as to which of these was the accurate version of events but rumours that it was the latter refused to disappear.

The team was ultimately forced out of that weekend and did not race at all.

Stefano Coletti - Spa 2009 © GP2 Media Service

Durango missed the final two rounds of the 2009 Main Series, missed the entirety of the 2009/2010 GP2 Asia series and will not compete in the 2010 Main GP2 Series. They have, however, found the funds to launch an F1 team… or so Durango’s boss Ivone Pinton told the team’s website.

“After the mishaps of last season we went into action full force to seek new partners for our racing activities. It did not take long to realize that the interest could be raised only when there was talk of Formula 1, therefore we have pushed in this direction and today I can say that, enter the maximum formula, we have the support of two large international groups. So while remaining with their feet on the ground, because for now it is only a serious attempt, I would say that after working many years to train future champions, now is the time to work hard to push to the top as the Durango team. “

While I understand that it might be easier to drum up support for an F1 effort than a GP2 effort owing to the much higher levels of exposure in F1, what I do not understand is how a team which could not make a go of GP2 could even consider that they have what it takes to make a go of F1. After the USF1 debacle, and the StefanGP mess, the FIA will likely be wary of any and all 2011 proposals, and the due diligence on Durango is likely to be even more extensive than on most, given the very public financial issues which affected the squad so recently. Plus I’m pretty sure that if the team has found some money, then the first knock on their door is going to come from GP2 for unpaid bills and the serious fines that they will be contractually obliged to pay for two missed races and two entire missed championships.

Formula 1 cannot afford any more embarrassment from new teams falling by the wayside. That Campos / Hispania made it to the grid is nothing short of a miracle, and the aforementioned USF1 / StefanGP balls up did little for the sport’s image. As such, I wonder how seriously Durango’s bid will be taken.

When we have seen the likes of Prodrive, Lola and Epsilon passed over in favour of unknown entities which failed to make the grade, you can see why Durango would chance their arm. What have they got to lose?

But in all honesty you’d have to say that, regardless of the financial partners they might have got on board, so incredible does a Durango bid for F1 seem that it almost makes StefanGP look like a serious operation.

A fitting end for the GP2/05?

GP2 parc ferme... why not full of F1 liveries?

Just a quickie to follow on from the post I wrote this morning… because when I was at GP2 myself and Marco Codello came up with a concept which we never thought would really ever see the light of day, but which we thought would be a great tribute to the series… and with the GP2/05 now being decomissioned, I thought I would share it with you.

The concept was simple… bring back all the boys who graduated to F1 through GP2 and put them back in GP2 cars. Now that the GP2/05 is out of regular use, and seeing as all the boys drove them at one time or another, they’d be perfect.

We’d do a one off show day at, let’s say, Jerez. Nice technical track, the boys all know it well from F1 testing, and GP2’s been there for a good few years testing itself so the teams would have good data at their disposal.

Each GP2 car would be painted in the livery of the F1 team for whom the driver now races, or in a livery of the drivers’ choice if they no longer race in F1.

We have a morning of testing, with a half hour proper GP2 quali before lunch.

The afternoon would then consist of two short races (15 or so laps) with TOTAL reverse grid from quali for the second race.

Can you imagine it? 17 GP2 graduates, 11 of them current F1 drivers, in identical cars, all gunning it to prove once and for all who was the best GP2 driver of all time? If you wanted to make it up to a full grid of 26, you could always bring back Franck Montagny and Allan McNish who developed the original car and a hand picked selection of GP2 race winners to add to the mix. And of course, you’d have to bring back the most succesful driver in GP2 history who was cruelly overlooked by F1: the legend that is Giorgio Pantano.

Fans could come and watch, and ticket sales could go to charity.

As we agreed at the time, it was a lovely idea, but not one we’d ever realistically ever see. Would the F1 teams allow their boys back into GP2 cars for a one off weekend? Would the F1 boys stake their reputations on it? Who would win the argument over which engineers they had… I can’t see Rosberg, Hamilton, Grosjean and Hulkenberg agreeing over which two would get to be back with ART. Although I think the ART boys could probably manage four cars pretty effectively.

Funnily enough, I think the majority of GP2 graduates would actually really enjoy it. We’d get to see the battles we never experienced because of the generational divide and give the GP2/05 a bloody good send off at the same time.

I know it won’t ever happen… but I just thought you might like to know that the idea had, at the very least, been discussed.

Saying farewell to an old friend

The first GP2 car is taken for its shake down run by Franck Montagny. 20 July 2004

This weekend saw the motorsport world bid a fond farewell to a car which has formed the bedrock of the careers of half the current F1 grid, as the original GP2 Series car completed its final race.

The GP2/05, designed by Dallara, powered by a 4l V8 Renault engine assembled and maintained by Mecachrome and run on Bridgestone Potenza tyres (grooved for its first season in 2005) made its track debut in July 2004 at Circuit Paul Ricard when Frank Montagny gave it its initial shakedown. Over the next few months, he and Allan McNish conducted the development work on the car which would race in the very first season of the GP2 Series when it was launched in 2005.

Despite some very public problems in its debut weekend at the San Marino Grand Prix (namely the electronics going haywire in practice and the brakes wearing out in the first race), the racing was exciting and the competition fierce. Brembo had heard rumours of the inadequacies of the initial brake supplier and had brought enough brake pads and discs for the entire field to Imola, storing them in a truck in a nearby carpark. When the problems arose in the first race, a Brembo representative asked the series organisers if they fancied switching supplier. They did. With reliability issues pretty much resolved with Mecachrome a few races into the season, GP2 established itself as unmissable racing.

Nico Rosberg was crowned the first champion in 2005, beating Heikki Kovalainen and Scott Speed to the crown and all three were promoted to Formula 1, starting a trend which has seen 17 drivers promoted to an active F1 seat since the championship began.

For the record, they are: Nico Rosberg, Heikki Kovalainen, Scott Speed, Alexandre Premat (F1 Practice Session), Nelson Piquet, Ernesto Viso (F1 Practice Session), Lewis Hamilton, Timo Glock, Lucas di Grassi, Vitaly Petrov, Kazuki Nakajima, Bruno Senna, Karun Chandhok, Sebastien Buemi, Romain Grosjean, Kamui Kobayashi and Nico Hulkenberg.

Of those 17, 11 remain in Formula 1 in 2010.

It would also be remiss to forget the tens of drivers who have received positions as test drivers at F1 teams, be it on a season-long contract or simply a one-off test, as a result of their results in GP2.

And all of them, without exception, have raced the GP2/05. For while the original car raced in the main series for three years, creating champions out of Rosberg, Hamilton and Glock, the car was then shipped off to Asia to compete in the GP2 Asia Series between 2008 and 2010. There simply isn’t a driver to have been promoted from GP2 to Formula 1 who has not competed in a field of GP2/05s.

The car, which was designed around a concept of ground effect rather than over reliance on body aerodynamics, was created not only with the specific intention of training the future drivers of F1, but to provide overtaking and an exciting show. Even today it remains fast and relevant. Despite racing with a detuned engine in the Asia series, its laptimes on its final weekend weren’t far off those being set by the new teams in F1… not bad for a six year old racer.

With its Main Series replacement, the GP2/08, due to be used in Asia for the 2010/2011 championship when its own replacement (GP2/11) is unveiled for the 2011 Main Series, Sunday was thus the last time we’ll see the 05 race. It has given us six seasons of racing which I and many colleagues will never forget. It has also stood the test of time, providing a safe racing environment throughout its life.

But, alas, after 94 races, six champions and some of the best racing I’ve ever seen, the GP2/05 will race no more. Whether they are to become museum pieces or sit in the teams’ factories is, as yet, unclear. But if anyone’s thinking of holding a track day with one, please let me know… I’d move heaven and earth to get into one, even if it was for just the one lap.

I hope that wherever they end up, they take pride of place. Because without them, today’s F1 grid wouldn’t contain half the talent it does.

The GP2/05 Champions

Nico Rosberg - 2005 Champion

Lewis Hamilton - 2006 Champion

Timo Glock - 2007 Champion

Romain Grosjean - 2008 Asia Champion

Kamui Kobayashi - 2008/2009 Asia Champion

Davide Valsecchi - 2009/2010 Asia Champion

Virgin Racing to launch Driver Academy

The Virgin Racing 2010 Line-up © Virgin Racing

For me, one of the most interesting things to come out of today’s Virgin Racing launch in London was an admission from some of the team’s leading managers that it was their intention to create an Academy to nurture driver talent for the future.

“We’re hoping to have some kind of Academy that Marc Hynes will be directly responsible for,” Sporting Director John Booth admitted when I quizzed him on the subject. “It probably won’t happen next year [2010] but that’s our direct aim: to develop our own drivers for the future.”

Hynes, who won the British Formula Renault and F3 title with Booth’s Manor squad, has been a driver coach for the Yorkshireman’s outfits for some years and Booth indicated that, while it has yet to be finalised, there is a plan in place for the Virgin brand to extend its reach to the Manor GP3 squad.

Virgin Racing’s new Team Principal Alex Tai confirmed the plans for the racing academy.

“We have got plans to do that,” he replied when I put the question to him and Sir Richard Branson. “We don’t want to announce them now, [as] there’s [already] a shelf load of information that’s being thrown out there. We want to make the sport more accessible and we don’t want to just make it accessible as a sport, as a participant sport, for people who are rich kids. That’s not a democratisation of the sport. We’re looking at ways now to try and open up that to give the ability for drivers from all backgrounds, and from all sexes and from all countries, to be able to access the sport, we want to be able to provide that opportunity. Now this is something that every new team says when they come in to the sport, so before we start talking definitively how we’re going to do it, we’re going to pressure test the system and make sure it works and then we’ll come out with these plans. But this is a young driver academy for both sexes and for all economic backgrounds.”

With Booth seemingly under the impression that the Virgin brand could extend its reach to his new-for-2010 GP3 Manor team, and with Virgin Racing’s testers Alvaro Parente and Luis Razia both admitting today that they were hoping to compete in the 2010 GP2 Series with some form of backing from Virgin, this could be the “pressure test” of which Tai spoke.

It is also worth mentioning that with Durango recently revealed to be out of the 2010 GP2 Series, there will be at least one team slot in GP2 up for grabs for the 2011-2013 championship, which could yet be completed by a Manor/Virgin team if its GP3 plans and link to its 2010 testers pays off. With the Virgin Racing Academy due to come into being in 2011, the timing could be perfect.

Today’s the Day

Will iSport and other new teams enter before the midnight deadline?

Will iSport and others enter before the midnight deadline?

This is it then. Friday May 29th. Deadline Day.

The prospective F1 teams of the 2010 championship have just over 12 hours (at the time of writing) to decide whether or not they will submit an entry… new and old teams alike. And if the existing teams are having a tough time making up their minds, just imagine how tough it must be for the new teams.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we are in Paul Jackson’s position. As head of iSport International you have a very tough decision to make. You currently operate a GP2 team on a rough figure of £5 million a season, and you have been working all winter on trying to find the backing to pull your annual budget up to the FIA recommended £30 million for a budget capped F1 entry.

A few weeks ago you were told this figure would rise to £40 million but that, regardless, you would still be afforded certain dispensations if you agreed to fall under that budget cap that would help you compete in Formula 1.

Now you’re not so sure. With just over 12 hours until the deadline for 2010 F1 entries shuts, there is absolutely no guarantee that the regulations as they stand today will stand by the time you enter the sport in 2010. Furthermore you don’t even know if Formula 1 as you know it, the Formula 1 with Ferrari, McLaren, Renault etc, will exist next year. You’ve had your entry mocked by the grandees of the sport and the very suggestion that you might consider putting an entry forward for Formula 1 cast aside as belittling the great name of the sport by some of those team bosses who would be your peers next year.

As the deadline looms, FOTA has apparently made suggestions to the FIA that next season should be run on a 100million Euro budget cap, on the provision of the sharing of technology between the bigger and smaller teams (similar to the current arrangement between McLaren and Force India,) with a budget cap of 45million Euros being brought in for the 2011 season. It’s not quite a reversion to customer cars for next year, but it’s as close as you’re going to get. It’s a one year deal, though. In 2011 you need to build your own car.

So do you risk it? Do you risk running a team on £30-40 million in 2010 when your rivals are spending three times that amount, on the off chance you’ll be able to compete in 2011? Sure, Bernie’s cash incentive will help, but with the financial world in crisis, is this the time to be taking such a huge risk? Afterall, teams like iSport, as teams like Williams, exist only to compete. They don’t make cars to sell them. They make cars to race them.

But maybe this has been FOTA’s plan all along. That by failing to reach a decision, they have effectively shown the FIA it isn’t as powerful as it thinks it is as with so much confusion over the 2010 regulations, there is the possibility that by midnight tonight only USF1, Campos, Williams and, we are hearing this morning, Prodrive-Aston Martin, will have submitted entries for the 2010 championship.

Knowing that it can’t run F1 on four teams, the FIA will have to either extend its deadline for entries, or slap fines on those who enter later on. Perhaps the FIA will be forced into a two-tier penalty scheme, whereby new teams are given a small financial penalty for late entry and those FOTA members who have caused this confusion by their reluctance to accept the FIA’s plans are handed a hefty fine.

Or will the FIA capitulate to FOTA’s suggestions and effectively smash any chance the new teams have got of competing?

Today’s the day when we learn if Max Mosley really is as politically strong-willed as his rhetoric has suggested. Can he really afford to stand up to the manufacturers? Can he really afford to lose them in favour of the promotion of the smaller independents?

If he stands his ground the small teams can not only afford to enter, they can afford to compete. If he capitulates now and gives in to FOTA, not only will the small teams stand no hope at all, but Mosley’s own position of power will have been seriously affected… if not terminally.