Giorgio Pantano… and why he deserves his shot.

It has filled me with huge pleasure to see the name Giorgio Pantano once again aligned with top level racing, announced as he was last night as the replacement for the unfortunately injured Justin Wilson for the next two IndyCar races.

It is easy to forget just what a mega talent Giorgio Pantano truly is… and so here, whether you’ve never heard of him or whether you’re questioning why he’s the right man to step into Wilson’s seat, is an article I wrote for F1 Racing Magazine, which was printed in January 2011.

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“When I arrived in go karts at the top level, racing in World and European championships, he was winning all of them. I thought that guy was very special, a very good talent.”

Fernando Alonso is not a man who hands out plaudits to rivals on a whim. A double Formula 1 world champion and one of the hardest racers of his generation, it must be a truly special driver who merits such words from a man recently voted as the best driver racing in Formula 1. But the driver of whom he speaks so highly is not one of his Formula 1 rivals. It is not a Hamilton, a Raikkonen nor even a Schumacher.

The man whom Fernando Alonso once referred to as “invincible,” is Giorgio Pantano.

From the second he first stepped into a go kart at the age of eight the people that mattered, the people who made things happen in motorsport, knew one thing and for once were all agreed. This kid was going to change everything. But the story of Giorgio Pantano was set to become one of the great tragedies of modern motorsport. Because today, devoid of budget and luck, Giorgio Pantano plies his trade racing in championships so far beneath his ultimate skill level it is tantamount to watching Picasso creosote fences. Talent. Epic talent. Completely wasted.

But it could all have been so different.

Giorgio Pantano was an enigma. A phenomenon. Between 1993 and 1999 he dominated the karting world in a manner never seen before or since. He took eight titles including three Italian, three European and two world championships. Pantano was the benchmark and the man everyone wanted to beat. Even today, his is a name which resonates within the minds of Formula 1’s current generation of superstars as being someone that extra bit special.

Nico Rosberg grew up with a poster of Pantano on his bedroom wall and remembers fondly the hero status in which he held the Italian. “He was probably the best of all time in go karts. At the time when I was growing up and getting into the international karting scene he was dominating everything.”

The top ranking International Super A title, however, was the one crown which eluded Pantano. He came close but was ultimately beaten to the punch by one of the fiercest rivals of his career, 2009 F1 world champion Jenson Button. “Racing in Formula 1 is obviously the pinnacle,” he smiles, “but for raw racing and forgetting all the bullshit, karting is the best. And Giorgio was great.”

Pantano won the German F3 title in his rookie year

Pantano’s progression from karts through the junior ranks of single seaters was astonishing. Under the management and financial aid of Danish investment banker Lars Christian Brask, the Italian moved to German F3 in 2000 and won the title in his rookie year. In 2001 he graduated to Formula 3000, the GP2 of its day. A race winner in his first season, in 2002 he missed out on the title by just two points.

By now Formula 1 was calling. He had already tested for Benetton and McLaren and impressed, and a call up to test for Williams at the end of 2002 confirmed that the pinnacle of single seater racing was interested in him.

“Probably for me it was too early in those tests because to be honest I had just arrived from F3 when I tested with Benetton,” Pantano reflects today. “I didn’t have enough experience to test a Formula 1 car. That was probably a mistake to start testing so early like that.

“But I believe the Williams test went very well for me. I was not driving at my maximum because I did not want to make any mistakes, just to learn lap by lap, not go off and have an accident. And I think I did a good job from my point of view.”

Jonathan Williams, son of Sir Frank and the team’s New Driver Manager, remembers Pantano’s test well.

“His adaptability to the car was good and therefore the speed that you would expect somebody within his experience bracket to deliver was good. I think overall it was positive but there’s always the argument that if you were über impressed, you might be moved to make something of it. Clearly he was very talented, but we just didn’t go on to develop a role from the test.”

With no open seat at Williams, Pantano had now tested for three F1 teams and had not been offered a ride. It’s pretty unsurprising that a perception had therefore started to form within the F1 paddock that, if he really was so special, surely somebody by now would have taken him onboard. But there had been real interest. Back when he tested for Benetton there was much talk that Flavio Briatore had wanted to take over the Italian’s management, but was rebuked by Brask. While hindsight is always 20:20 it seems that Pantano’s career could have been incredibly different had he just sacrificed that fabled 25% to Flavio.

And so it was that Pantano went back to F3000 for 2003 and again he won races. But over the next winter came the chance he’d been waiting for. An F1 drive. With Jaguar.

“Two days before I was due to go up and sign with Jaguar they called us and said that unfortunately Klien has come along with $10 million from Red Bull. I didn’t have that much money so we had to change. Two days before! That could have been a big opportunity for me. There was a big difference between Jaguar and Jordan. But Jordan was the only opportunity left and we went to see Mr Jordan, who was a very nice guy, and did a deal. But if I had known then what I know now about the situation at the team, for sure I would not have raced there.”

And so it was that Giorgio Pantano’s F1 debut came at the wheel of a Jordan. But by anyone’s standards, the EJ14 was not a good car. And Pantano struggled to adapt. In the first seven races of his F1 career he outqualified team-mate Nick Heidfeld just once.

Pantano’s engineer at Jordan, Dominic Harlow, believes that the Italian had serious potential, but that the step between F3000 and F1 had perhaps been too great given the limited testing Pantano was afforded before the season began.

“I don’t think anybody is ready for F1 when they get there in terms of what’s available to them in terms of set-up and what differences you can make to the car. To be honest the F3000 car back then was a heap of shit, so to come into something with all the electronics, a very high level of downforce and a dependency on aero and in a team that’s not particularly competitive, on grooved tyres in the middle of a tyre war… technically unless you’ve got degrees in engineering you’re not going to understand it.”

But there were other factors at play. Giorgio’s financial position had become rocky. The money for the deal had come partly from Brask, but mostly from his family and a new group of Italian motorsport faces who had started to take greater control of Pantano’s career behind the scenes, edging Brask out of the picture.

When Pantano’s money failed to show up before Canada, he was replaced with Jordan’s third driver Timo Glock who, after the Williams and Toyotas were disqualified from the race, was classified in seventh and scored championship points on his debut. Glock became the hero… Pantano, the underachiever.

He would get back in the car to race, but by the end of the European season it was obvious that the money had dried up. When Pantano’s family went as far as putting their house up as collateral against a bank loan, the Italian had some soul searching to do.

“The car was not good and then on the political side I am sure they wanted to push Heidfeld more than me. They wanted to sell him because BMW was coming with Williams. I decided to stop after Monza because I said ‘No.’ There is no reason to go to Japan or Brazil where I didn’t know the circuits and pay another million. No, I’m sorry. For my family I said, ‘No that’s it.’”

Eddie Jordan is philosophical about Pantano’s time with the team. “Some drivers are able to withstand any amount of pressure. I think with Giorgio the financial requirement that was made on his family, or what his family had obliged to provide, was always on his mind. For sure he was very talented, but things became a little bit difficult for him and I think that had a remarkable downward effect on his ability.”

Pantano’s F1 dream had collapsed around him, and as Brask suffered the financial after effects of 9/11, the Italian took management into his own hands from 2005. He moved to GP2 and was immediately a pace setter. He would become the category’s fourth champion in 2008 after setting up a win tally which, when combined with his F3000 results, took him above first Jochen Rindt and then Mike Thackwell as the most successful F1 feeder series driver of all time.

But after taking four years to win the crown and now aged 29, there were many who felt Pantano was past it and had missed his chance.

Pantano became GP2 champion in 2008

“People need to see what I did. The first year with Super Nova, we started in Imola very well and we could have won without the brake problems. From there I had problems all year with the engine, but I was racing not with the top teams all the time. I went with Super Nova, Coloni, Campos…”

It is a fair point, and one often missed by those within the Formula 1 paddock who chose only to look at raw figures rather than the larger picture. When he arrived at Campos in 2007 the team, much as with Coloni in F3000 back in 2002, had never achieved more than a podium. Pantano took Campos from a mid grid at best operation, to a race winning team. He and Campos took third in the 2007 championships, establishing a platform from which the squad would go on to win the teams’ championship in 2008. His team-mate that year was Vitaly Petrov.

“You saw quite a big improvement on the car when he started to work with Campos. I think he always knew exactly what he wanted. He always knew what to do.”

Having seen his former Jordan team-mate Timo Glock graduate back to F1 as GP2 champion at the end of 2007, Pantano expected the same call to come his way in 2008 after he, too wrapped up the crown. It was a call which never came.

“I think there are some people who hate me because I’m too quick, probably,” he grins. “Listen, in all my career I won everything. Wherever I went, apart from Formula 1, I won in every category. You need to tell me, who is in Formula 1 who has my CV? There is nobody. So, why am I not in Formula 1? This is also my question. Yes I won the title in the fourth year of GP2, but people need to see where I went in GP2 and what I did at those teams. I didn’t go to race with iSport or ART.

“But to be honest, for me to win the GP2 championship was a disaster. Because nothing happened. I can’t race in GP2 again because I am a champion. So put me in Formula 1. And if I’m not in F1 then let me race again in GP2.”

So why didn’t the call come from F1? To some extent, there wasn’t really a seat available and certainly not one into which Pantano could have stepped without serious backing, something which has always hampered his career. Pantano has always had to sit tight and wait for people to call him, and he has often jumped into the first seat, and often not the best seat, available. Because for Pantano driving something, anything, is better than driving nothing at all.

But there also appears to be an opinion of Giorgio Pantano in the Formula 1 paddock which is that, as Christian Horner relates, “just because you’re a karting world champion doesn’t guarantee that form will carry into Formula 1.” There is a perception that he was incredible in karts, but lacked the intelligence or the work ethic to be competitive in F1.

Furthermore, there are many who believe he can’t set up a single seater, instead choosing to drive around a car’s problems rather than adapting it to iron out its creases.
But as Chip Ganassi, who ran Pantano in two Indycar races back in 2005 says, “That would surprise me to hear that. That was somebody that either had a really bad car in Formula 1 or doesn’t know much about Giorgio… or people.

“Not only was he diligent technically, he was also very professional. No baggage, no Hollywood, just down to business. And fast. Smooth fast. He was fast in a way that didn’t look fast… a lot like Dario Franchitti.”

It’s a view shared by the man who took Pantano to his GP2 crown, Racing Engineering Team Principal, Alfonso de Orleans Borbon.

“Along with Sebastian Vettel, Giorgio was by far the best driver we ever had. He had a very good technical background and we were actually very surprised because of what we’d heard. He was always quick no matter what happened. If someone hit him and the tyre was sideways he’d keep on driving the car no problem. But at the same time, when he came in, Giorgio would always come back with specifics. They’d look at the data and he was on the spot every time. He was one of the best we’d ever had technically.”

The loss of a supposedly talented driver to Formula 1 is nothing new. You see it year in, year out. Drivers don’t get the breaks, they lose their sponsors, or people simply discover that they’ve reached their peak before getting to the top. But Giorgio Pantano was different. He wasn’t ever just another driver. For his entire career he was the driver. He was the benchmark in every category he ever stepped into. He still is.

To many people in this paddock Giorgio Pantano remains one of the greatest lost talents of his generation. It has been said that if a kid with half of the ability the Italian showed in karts turned up today and did what Giorgio did, there would likely be a bidding war between the F1 teams like we have never witnessed. He would be nurtured step by step, financially supported, well managed and groomed for a future as an F1 world champion.

Pantano is, then, perhaps still something of an enigma: one of the fastest drivers of his generation, but a man and a racing driver misunderstood by the sport he always saw as his natural home. How sad it is that such misconceptions have turned a driver, who could have helped to shape the modern era of the sport, into a minor footnote in Formula 1’s rich history.

“I don’t want to think about Formula 1, because I see my future now in America and if I go there I want to stay there,” he sighs. “I won’t come back.

“To be honest, only Formula 1 doesn’t want me. And that I have never understood.”

A stupidly simple safety car solution

SLS 63 AMG, Safety Car (C197) © Mercedes Benz

Safety cars, delta times, when to pit, who gets a penalty, who doesn’t get a penalty, when should we race, when should we slow… it’s all getting a bit silly, isn’t it?

The thing is, it’s actually a very easy problem to solve. Which probably means that the solution Formula 1 eventually comes up with will be even more convoluted than the original regulation it was intended to clarify. But it needn’t be.

Here’s my idea to solve the problem. And it really is simple…

As soon as the “safety car deployed” message is shown on the race control screen, the pitlane will be closed to all cars, other than those carrying substantial damage which risks either the car in question or poses a potential danger to others on track. With refuelling no longer an issue in Formula 1, there is no longer the prospect of anyone running out of fuel and thus there is no longer a requirement for the pitlane to be kept open under the safety car. This was the only reason that closing the pitlane for safety reasons under the safety car had been rethought in the first place.

Once the safety car has been deployed, the track will go under full course yellow and all cars will be limited to running at a maximum speed of 200kph. This can be easily monitored at race control, could easily be stuck to with a pitlane speed limiter style button on the steering wheel, and will take out the need for the confusing and overly complicated delta time scenario.

When the safety car leaves the pits, it will wait by the side of the track or circulate slowly until it picks up the race leader. All cars will drive straight past, without waiting to be waved through until the leader is picked up. They will know when to pass and when to stay behind the car with a simple system of lights – let’s say for the sake of argument a blue light will flash to indicate to the drivers that they should pass, changing to the orange/yellow light as and when the race leader pulls into view. Failing that, the safety car will simply wait to leave the pits until the lead car is entering the final corner.

And that’s pretty much that.

It’s not rocket science. It’s just common sense. Pure, simple and uncomplicated. Race order is maintained, nobody gets an advantage, so nobody should be able to complain and Charlie can concentrate on race incidents rather than having to waste his time sorting out safety car transgressions which needn’t be and shouldn’t be as big an arse ache as they currently are.

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.

Something awesome and your chance to win it.

One of the great privileges of my job is that I am occasionally sent books to read and review. My office has, over the years, started to resemble a rather ramshackle motorsport library more than it does a working space conducive to intelligent thought and I am delighted to report that at the start of this week, the library grew once again.

The tome which arrived at my door is truly a book that all self respecting motorsport fans should consider purchasing, because to my mind it ticks all the boxes a book can tick. Beautifully written, gloriously illustrated, and printed to an exceptional level of quality, “Art of the Formula 1 Race Car” has instantly placed itself among my favourite motorsport books.

Its 208 pages are filled with some of the most stunning images of racing cars you will ever see, as the story of Formula 1’s history is told through its most beautiful cars. And that’s one of the things I like the most about this book – it’s not necessarily about the most successful cars, just the ones whose aching beauty has set them apart from the competition. The quality of the photography at the hand of James Mann also gives us a detailed look at the engineering excellence of these creations, all of which are the real deal, the proper racers and not museum replicas. Indeed, the very first car profiled, the Alfa 158 is THE car driven by Guiseppe Farina to victory at the very first Formula 1 Grand Prix in May 1950.

From there, we are taken on a beauty-driven ride through F1’s past, stopping to gaze at the Maserati 250F, the Mercedez-Benz W196 streamliner, Lancia D50, BRM P57, Brabham BT20, Lotus 49B, Lotus 72, Tyrrell 003, Tyrrell P34, Ferrari 312T3, Williams FW07, McLaren MP4/4, Leyton House CG901, Jordan 191, Williams FW14, Ferrari F1-2000 and finally the McLaren MP4-23. Some list, I’m sure you’ll agree.

What marks this book out from your regular coffee table F1 photo album however, is Stuart Codling’s wonderfully written commentary. Stuart perfectly captures not only the stories behind the concept, design and realisation of these magnificent cars, but also manages to provide a history of their racing careers whilst also reflecting the heartstring-pulling passion which their sumptuous lines evoke. And with expert analysis from design legend Gordon Murray, you’re pretty much in F1 heaven.

Stuart’s one of the best writers in the business, and his first book has been a long time coming. I would advise any and all F1 fans to check out his blog, and to invest their hard-earned on his rather brilliant book.

However, if you’d rather not pay for one at all, then you’ll be very pleased to hear that I was accidentally sent two copies, and Stuart has agreed that I can give one away to the readers of my blog. Hurrah!

If you’d like to win a copy of the book, simply reply to this post and let me know your opinion on the single most beautiful F1 car ever designed. It can be one of the ones from the book, or one which you think has been a staggering omission from the list. Let me know your reasons on why you love it so much and find it so beautiful, I’ll narrow the list down to my top five and get Stuart to pick his favourite from that list. Et voila, we’ll have a winner.

Shall we say all entries to be in by chequered flag at the Chinese Grand Prix?

Lovely.

Hey Lewis, Calm Down! JB’s an old smoothie!

Eh, eh, eh! Calm Down, Calm Down!

The Australian Grand Prix provided us with a few pretty major graphic illustrations. It wasn’t only that opening an F1 season at the appallingly redesigned Bahrain International Circuit is a shocking idea, because for my money what today displayed in no uncertain terms is that Lewis Hamilton ‘aint going to find 2010 quite as easy as he thought he was going to.

His post race strop pretty much summed it all up.

“I think I probably had one of the drives of my life and unfortunately, due to the strategy, I was put further back and then I got taken out by Mark Webber,” he told the BBC.

OK Lewis, calm down. Because, if we’re being honest, you kind of made your own bed on this one.

Before this season had even begun, the removal of refuelling had already been picked up within the F1 community as a facet of the new era of Formula 1 which could work against Lewis. Notoriously hard on his tyres, the 2008 world champion’s driving style does not naturally lend itself to having to preserve one’s rubber for as long as possible. On the flip side, his new team-mate and 2009 world champ Jenson Button is renowned for his smooth, almost effortless driving style which would, so we presumed, give itself more easily to the new regs.

JB won today’s race because of two major factors: Firstly, it was Jenson and Jenson alone who took the gamble to pit when he did for slicks. Second, it was Jenson and Jenson alone who pushed when he knew he could on his tyres, and yet still held enough in reserve to make them last until the end of the race.

So when we heard Lewis on the radio to the team in the middle of the race, cursing them for making him pit for a second set of slick tyres, and then slamming that very second set when he’d knackered them, we’re left with a very easy comparison. Because if his team-mate had managed to make them last the distance, why couldn’t Lewis?

Lewis Hamilton - Australian GP 2010
© http://www.sutton-images.com

“I’m happy with the job that I did. I think I honestly drove my heart out today and I think I deserved better than what I ended up with, but I’ll keep fighting to the next race.

“All I know is the guys do, always, a fantastic job, but the strategy was not right,” he said after the race. “Everyone else in front of me did one stop and for some reason I did two.”

Lewis always likes to talk up his role as a team-player at McLaren, but his post race sentiments reflect the dented ego of a man who has had his feathers very much ruffled by a driver whom he had perhaps failed to size up accurately. Most people expected Lewis to completely batter Jenson this season and maybe Lewis expected as much himself, so seeing Button take McLaren’s first win of the season will hit Lewis where it hurts. It will hurt even more as today’s race was won not only through Jenson’s superiority in the smooth driving stakes, but also through Jenson’s experience and confidence in making the right call at the perfect time.

Lewis has been criticised in the past for relying too heavily on the team to make decisions for him, and last season’s whole fall-out from the Australian Grand Prix came about because, as Hamilton himself has gone on the record to state… he did what the team told him to do.

When Lewis was asked who had been responsible for the call to stop a second time, he replied: “I don’t know, we’ll find out.”

The fact that the call came at all, and that Lewis either didn’t feel confident enough or have the wherewithal to overrule McLaren if he truly felt confident enough on his original set of rubber, shows us that Lewis either still lacks the experience to make his own calls or that he may have to look back on this race and admit that the team was right to make the call because he’d knackered his tyres.

Either way, slamming the team isn’t going to help matters. It just smacks of sour grapes on a day when the newboy to the team got one over on him.

The public face may be one of all smiles at McLaren, but I guarantee it will not be long before the cracks start to appear if Jenson’s confidence, maturity and smooth driving style keep reaping the rewards that they did today.

P.S. Apologies that I haven’t posted in a while… but my Daughter Sophie said hello to the world last Thursday morning. She is gorgeous, and she and her Mum are both doing fantastically. My attention has, naturally, been with them.

The future…

Following yesterday’s announcement, I’ve had some lovely messages from you guys and quite a few messages asking what my plans are with regard to the gigs I’ve had over the past few seasons. So I thought I’d just write a quick piece to fill you all in on my plans for the year ahead.

Working for SPEED is a tremendous honour and its a job I can’t wait to sink my teeth into. The guys over in the States have been very understanding about the fact I’m about to become a father, and they’ve given me the first few races off to be with my wife and new baby. As such, I’m due to make my debut on SPEED in Shanghai.

I want to make sure that I give 100% to my new role, and as such I have handed in my notice at GPWeek. I have had the most amazing two years at GPWeek and have taken enormous pride in watching it grow from a concept to a popular and well-read weekly magazine receiving 10 million page hits at its peak in 2009. I want to thank Keith, Chris and all the guys at the magazine for the best couple of seasons and to wish them well for the future, and I hope I’ll still be able to write bits and bobs for them over the season.

I will, however, continue in my role as commentator for FOM on the world feed of the GP2 Asia and GP2 Main Series in 2010. It’s a job which combines well with my new role at SPEED, and I can’t wait to see how the F1 feeder series plays out in 2010 in what will be its sixth season of competition. Should be a thriller!

I’ll be continuing with my blog, and updating it as often as I can… I know it’s not as regularly updated as some of the others, but quite frankly I don’t think you need my opinion on every miniscule happening in this sport. I’ll just give you my views on the stuff that interests me and the stuff I’ve delved into to try and find the real story.

Combined with that, I’m still a freelance journo so I hope to pick up bits and bobs throughout the year, such as the two features in the March issue of F1 Racing mag on Massa and Senna which I hope you all enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing them.

Thanks to you all for your continued support, and to all of you in the States who are avid SPEED viewers, don’t hesitate to let me know what you love about this sport and what you want to see from me in paddock and I will do my best to search it out for you and bring you the side of the sport that you want to see.

Overall, I’m really looking forward to the year… as this lovely Q&A conducted by SPEED will hopefully explain…

SPEED: Joining a well-established broadcast team, what do you hope to bring to the table to establish chemistry with Bob Varsha, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett?

Buxton: First up, I’ve got to admit that I’m just massively excited about the whole thing. It’s a huge honor to be joining the SPEED team, and in particular to be doing so at the start of what could be an incredible era in the history of Formula 1. I’ve been a fan of this sport my whole life and have been lucky enough to work within it for the better part of the past decade. I’d like to think that the passion and enthusiasm I have for F1 has come across in what I’ve done in the past and that those traits will define what I bring to the SPEED team both this year and into the future. Working with Bob, David, Steve and all the guys behind the scenes at SPEED is the sort of opportunity you just don’t get every day. And with F1 back in North America at Montreal, a lot of talk about the return of a US Grand Prix and so many young talented American drivers coming through the ranks, it’s a really great time to be joining SPEED.

SPEED: As the literal “eyes and ears” on the ground at each event for SPEED, what type of storylines attract your attention?

Buxton: F1 is a bit of a soap opera at times. As a journalist it’s what makes the sport such a joy to report on. There’s always something going on in the background, and I won’t shy away from doing my best to get to the heart of every issue. That said, I don’t think that my job at SPEED is simply to report the news. Far from it. As one of the lucky few who can actually get into the F1 paddock, I think that probably my biggest responsibility is to open it all up to the American fans: to invite them in, sit them down, introduce them to a few people and show them what’s going on. It’s the fans that make this sport, so my job is to give them the access they deserve.

SPEED: Are you doing anything specific to prepare for this new role?

Buxton: I am very aware of the size of the shoes I’m stepping into, but it’s a challenge I can’t wait to take on. I’ve watched Peter at work for many years, and over the past few months have gone back over much of what he produced at SPEED. But I’m not Peter, and I think the only way that I can approach this epic opportunity is to just be myself and bring SPEED’s viewers the side of the sport that I see and that I love. When you look at the majority of driver line-ups on the grid, it’s clear that there’s a new generation sweeping through Formula 1. There’s a vibrancy brought about by a set of people I’ve worked with both in junior formulas and in F1 for many years and with whom I believe I share much in common. It’s a new sport, with a bunch of young drivers who aren’t afraid to speak their minds and tell it like it is. We’re due for an insane season and the start of an incredible new era of competition. I’m really looking forward to being a part of it all on SPEED.

Someone’s got a new job!

Me, very happy with the announcement of my new job at SPEED.
Photo c/o Drew Gibson

Someone’s got a new job… Me! (Oh, and if you can’t tell from the press release, I’m really looking forward to it!)

Here’s the press release:

The familiar faces of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett once again will lead the SPEED/FOX Sports Formula One broadcast team as SPEED rolls into its 15th year as the exclusive U.S. cable broadcaster of the FIA Formula One World Championship, beginning with live coverage of the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on March 14 at 7:30 a.m. ET. One face, however, will be new to the U.S. viewing audience.

Will Buxton, the 29-year-old founding editor of GPWeek magazine, will report from the grid, replacing Peter Windsor, whose efforts remain focused on his start-up US F1 project.

“First up, I’ve got to admit that I’m just massively excited about the whole thing,” said Buxton, who will join the team shortly after he and wife Emma welcome their first child. “It’s a huge honor to be joining the SPEED team, and in particular to be doing so at the start of what could be an incredible era in the history of Formula 1.

“F1 is a bit of a soap opera at times,” Buxton added. “As a journalist it’s what makes the sport such a joy to report on. There’s always something going on in the background, and I won’t shy away from doing my best to get to the heart of every issue. That said, I don’t think that my job at SPEED is simply to report the news. Far from it. As one of the lucky few who can actually get into the F1 paddock, I think that probably my biggest responsibility is to open it all up to the American fans: to invite them in, sit them down, introduce them to a few people and show them what’s going on. It’s the fans that make this sport, so my job is to give them the access they deserve.”

According to Varsha, the SPEED team is welcoming its newest member with open arms.

“It’s always a good sign when a job interview turns into a ‘bench racing’ session that goes beyond the appointed time,” Varsha said. “That’s what we shared with Will when he visited our SPEED studios. Despite being the youngest member of our lineup, he’s a veteran of television and print with experience of both Formula One and GP2. I look forward to working with him on what should be another thrilling and unpredictable grand prix season.”

Buxton, from Great Britain, served as the GP2 press officer from 2004 to the end of the 2007 season, and was sole communications/media representative for 2006 and 2007 He has been covering single-seater racing (F1, GP2, F2 and F3) since 2002.

Westbury Gillett will fill in for Buxton for the first few races of the season.

In 2010, SPEEDtv.com will increase its Formula One offerings, highlighted by a new fantasy game — SPEED Fantasy Racing: GP Edition — and a selection of video clips from practice, qualifying and race coverage. In addition SPEEDtv.com will introduce an enhanced stats package and continue with RaceCast timing and scoring from all sessions, as well as providing Matchett’s popular post-event “Chalk Talk” wrap-ups.

SPEED will air 15 races live, complete with practice and qualifying coverage, and for the fourth year, FOX will air four consecutive events, beginning with the Canadian Grand Prix, using the same on-air team. Practice and qualifying for those four events will be live on SPEED.

For the full release and TV times click here.

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.

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.”