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.

A thought about Lola…

So, while sitting in the car this afternoon, something hit me about the Lola entry… or rather the pulling of their entry, to Formula 1 in 2010.

Initially perceived by many of us to have been one of the strongest proposals for entry to the 2010 F1 World Championship, it was a genuine surprise to see that it, along with Prodrive, did not make the FIA’s initial list of entrants for next season.

Many pundits, myself included, believed that Max Mosley had kept these two very strong entries in his pocket to act as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with FOTA, having gained wind of the fact that two manufacturers were potentially thinking about quitting F1 at the end of 2009 anyway.

But today we hear that, rather than waiting another 48 hours to see how the politics plays out and whether they’d get an entry to F1 in 2010 afterall, Lola has pulled out of the running, making the shortest of statements in which they reaffirmed the great expense they had already gone to in preparing for next year.

That cost is not just financial, but personal. Lola has been on a recruitment drive over the last few months. Martin Birrane was at the A1GP finale in Brands Hatch and reportedly approached many of the paddock’s leading lights over his 2010 F1 entry – amongst them a number of very well known names with recent F1 experience who, I understand, have been hard at work in Huntingdon over recent weeks.

Why would he pull his team out of the running, when it looks increasingly likely that there won’t be a resolution on Friday and we may yet lose a few F1 teams from the mix for next year? Why, after all that work and money, just pull the plug when Lola stood a very good shot of gaining the F1 entry it wanted?

And then it hit me.

What if Lola’s not just been talking to Mr Mosley? What if Lola’s also been in touch with Mr di Montezemolo? And what if FOTA’s proposed championship was a greater lure than what might remain of F1 if Mosley wins the fight and the FOTA teams all pull out?

The FOTA teams will need to replace Williams and Force India if they wish to keep a 20 car field and only run two car teams.

Could those two teams be the two F1 entries we thought Max was using as political pawns?

If this whole thing goes tits up on Friday, and we really do see a FOTA championship in 2010, might we also see Lola and Prodrive alongside Ferrari, McLaren Mercedes, BMW, Renault, Toyota, Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Brawn?

It’s only my own personal musings. But it would make one hell of a strong championship.

And a much more interesting one for sponsors than what would be left of F1.