Back in Abu Dhabi I had a rather interesting chat with a colleague regarding BMW-Sauber and the Qadbak deal which, as we now know, was ultimately doomed to failure. Nobody ever really gave the Qadbak buyout a chance of working out, the involvement of Russell King stamping enormous warning signs and attaching blaring alarm bells all over it to anyone in the F1 paddock.
My colleague however suggested that there was another reason the deal wouldn’t come off, and it had to do with the diminutive but colossally powerful supremo of the sport, one Bernard Charles Ecclestone. Bernie, said my source, was fuming that his preferred choice of Sauber-saviours had lost out in the bidding process to Qadbak. It wasn’t the fact that nobody trusted Qadbak, it was more the fact that Bernie trusted someone else.
Bernie’s apparent choice of BMW saviours was Gravity, a management firm of pan-European reach based in Luxembourg which has on its books not only a few racing teams under the Gravity Racing International banner, but a number of pretty nifty drivers. GP2 hotshot Jerome d’Ambrosio is one such driver, as is Chinese racer Ho-Pin Tung, who received a last-minute call-up to take part in the rookie F1 test this week for Renault.
It is Tung’s last-minute call-up that has kicked off rumours surrounding Gravity, with Swiss Publication Motorsport Aktuell claiming that the firm is in talks with Renault over a potential take-over.
Now, if we assume that Bernie Ecclestone is backing Gravity’s attempts to make a move into F1, that he trusts them and believes they have the finances to do a proper stand-up job of taking over a team, then these reports need to be treated pretty seriously.
We know that Renault is wavering in its commitment to Formula 1 in the long term , with the manufacturer’s President Carlos Ghosn not doing anything to silence the rumours of a Renault pull-out with his recent comments that never mind F1 being important to Renault, he doubted it would remain important to anybody if it didn’t address a few environmental issues. Not the words of someone planning to plough money into the sport and give their new signing Robert Kubica a car worthy of his talents. Not the words of a man hoping to hang around in the sport, one would assume.
Over the last few weeks we’ve therefore seen a few different rumours over potential suitors. David Richards of Prodrive was in Abu Dhabi and seemed to spend some time hanging around the Renault part of the paddock. Was he interested in making a move for the team? The chat at the time was he’d be interested in a share option for 2010 before a full buyout in 2011, but it was never confirmed.
Also believed to be an interested party is Megafon, Renault F1’s Russian mobile telecoms sponsor. With Vitaly Petrov finishing runner-up in GP2 this year the Russian is hot property and with a brace of government backed Russian companies behind him is a favourite for promotion to F1 in 2010. No doubt the chance of him racing for a Russian team would be a dream for Russian sponsors, and Megafon remains linked with a take-over of Renault F1.
Tung’s run for Renault this week however has been met with much interest in the usually disinterested Chinese market. Motorsport Aktuell’s report suggests that Tung is only making the test run to try and bring some Chinese money into Gravity’s hands for a take-over of the Renault F1 Team. Gravity, says the publication, is linked with a venture capital firm named Mangrove, through which the team purchase would be made.
So is this Gravity thing serious? To be honest, there are enough factors pointing positively towards it to tell me it could be.
Gravity has taken on Eric Boullier, long time stalwart of the DAMS outfit, one of the most successful racing teams in the world at all levels of competition. As DAMS Team Manager he oversaw the team’s many successes over the past decade, but quit at the end of the 2009 season to move over to Gravity. Having achieved championship success in A1GP and GP2, why would Boullier have quit a well paid and high profile job unless there was a step up for him? And where does one step up to from GP2 other than F1?
I spoke to Boullier at the GP2 finale in Portimao when Flavio had first been booted from Renault and the Frenchman’s name had first been linked with the vacant Renault F1 Team Boss slot.
“There’s been no direct contact,” he told me, “but a couple of indirect ones. I know my name was put on a list within some talks by them and obviously if tomorrow somebody is doing direct contact I would be pleased to speak to them. It is Formula 1 and it’s a different world to GP2. I would consider it a lot if such an opportunity was offered to me.”
Could that indirect contact have been through Gravity, for whom he had pledged to work in the future at the end of his DAMS contract?
There’s another factor in the Gravity situation as well. The company recently signed up Jacques Villeneuve, who raced for Gravity in the Spa 24 Hours in a Mosler MT900R partnered by… Ho-Pin Tung! JV was to be seen nowhere but hanging around BMW-Sauber over the last few races of 2009, or at least for as long as the Gravity boys were negotiating the sale of the team. What odds that the eagle eyes in Enstone see a familiar Canadian knocking on their door anytime soon?
If these reports are true, Renault could be about to get the bailout for which its chiefs are desperate. A Gravity buyout could keep the team in F1, give it a young, passionate and hugely talented new Team Principal in Eric Boullier, a brace of talented young testers along the lines of d’Ambrosio and Tung, and the cherry on the cake… Jacques Villeneuve in an incredible return to the F1 cockpit to partner Robert Kubica in 2010.
Sound bonkers? Add up the component parts and it’s not as mad as one might at first assume. And with the way this winter is already panning out, it really isn’t the craziest suggestion out there.