Ferrari gives the game away

One big family - Hockenheim 2010
© http://www.sutton-images.com

There will no doubt be a lot of media chatter today and in the short break before we arrive in Hungary about what happened in today’s German Grand Prix. I don’t want to go on too much, as there’ll no doubt be a million articles like this, so I will keep it short.

I won’t debate the merits of whether it was the right decision, because of course Fernando is ahead in the championship and the team’s considered best shot for the title. I’d wager Felipe could fight for it too, but as we’re into the second half of the season, the team has to make a choice.

Here’s the thing, though. Team orders have always been a part of Formula 1, but that doesn’t make it any more comfortable to witness when they are played out in such blatant fashion.

We know it goes on in code over the radio, via “botched” pitstops or preferential treatment for one driver over another, but we also all thought, or rather hoped, that the regulations had been changed to stop this kind of thing from happening so blatantly on track; to stop teams from manipulating the race in a style that short changed F1′s billions of fans around the world. They had, but this time it didn’t work and Ferrari is set to feel the wrath not only of the World Motor Sport Council, but of this sport’s global, passionate and very vocal fanbase.

Ferrari will, and is, claiming innocence in the affair.

But I ask you this. If the team felt it had done things by the book, why the need for the shambolic post podium podium? Why did Stefano Domenicali (in whom I will admit I have huge respect), see it necessary to drag his drivers, one of whom clearly did not wish to be there under such circumstances, onto the top step of the podium to share the win?

And why, in the post race TV scrums, was Felipe Massa in posession of the winning driver’s Bridgestone cap, clearly marked with “1st”?

In one moment with that laughable podium show of “unity” Ferrari showed the world just how embarrassed it was about what it had done to its driver and to its fans. That one moment simply oozed with an overwhelming sense of guilt.

Remind you of anything?

Rubens Barrichello lifts the winner's trophy after team orders robbed him of victory - Austria 2002
© http://www.sutton-images.com

Michael Schumacher and the England Football team

Fabio Capello - Silverstone 2009
© http://www.sutton-images.com

Fear not hearty England fans, Michael Schumacher has not replaced Don Fabio as manager of the national team. Things may be bad in South Africa… but they’re not that bad.

I was watching breakfast TV this morning, feeding my three month old daughter, when I saw Mary Portas, a British retail adviser, being asked for her opinion on where the England football team was going wrong. Seemed an interesting choice for an opinion on footy, so seeing as it is apparently open season for random people to be sticking their oar in, and given that I’m a sports reporter (albeit a motor sports reporter) I figure sod it – here’s my tuppence.

Right now, all I seem to be hearing is that England’s footballers are some of the highest paid sportsmen in the world, and as such they really should be sucking their guts in and getting on with the job at hand. They should be doing what they’re paid to do and should leave their egos at the door. They’re representing their country and have been given a huge honour. They’re not playing with the passion which wearing that shirt represents.

But haven’t we made a rod for our own backs here? If a footballer has a massive ego, isn’t that thanks, in no small part, to his massive salary? By turning footballers into demi-gods, have they not been set up on a pedestal from which they feel they can act in any manner they wish? That the normal rules don’t apply to them? That they are, in some way, above normal consideration?

Now I can’t answer yes or no to that question, as I don’t work in football. I work in Formula 1. But the impression that one has, as a fan of the sport and of the England football team, is that this might not be too far from the truth.

Certainly it was one of the reasons given for bringing in Don Fabio Capello, a hard task master who would pull the strings tight on the team, cut out the excess, deflate the egos, and get the players back to playing football.

Only, it all seems to have backfired, doesn’t it? The players aren’t playing with passion. They’re not playing as a team. They don’t look like they want to be on the pitch, they don’t look happy and they don’t look competitive.

And, if we’re completely honest, maybe (and I know this flies in the face of popular opinion right now) it is because they have had their egos dented. Perhaps, just perhaps, they need their egos fluffing. They need their perks, they need to be told they’re the greatest, and then maybe, just maybe, they’d play like they really were the greatest rather than holding the apparrent view of being no more than the Average Joes that Capelllo’s rod of iron seems to have instilled within them.

To my mind, the England football team is like Michael Schumacher. The talent is there, and it is clear to see – but it is a precocious talent, and one which needs be wrapped in cotton wool.

Michael Schumacher wins in France 2004
© http://www.sutton-images.com

Michael is the most successful driver in F1 history, but most within the paddock doubt that he is of a similar level in terms of out and out talent to the greats of old – the Clarks, Stewarts, Prosts, Sennas etc… Why? Because he had it put on a plate. He had a team built around him of designers who gave him the exact car he needed to suit his style. He worked with Bridgestone to create tyres that perfectly suited his style. He had a strategist who understood how he raced cars. And he had a team-mate who would be utterly deferential to his need to win at all costs. Ferrari was team Schumacher. And it worked. He wiped the floor with the opposition and dominated the sport in a manner never seen before and in a manner we may never see again.

This year, he’s back – a little older, a little rusty, but you don’t lose the talent that brings you seven world titles. He is, however, driving a car designed for Jenson Button which is being hastily modified to suit his driving style, but which has thus far not found the Schumacher sweet spot, and on tyres which have been designed for the sport rather than for him. And he is struggling.

And there’s the parallel with the England football team. They’re playing in a formation that doesn’t play to their individual strengths. Their best players are out of position. Their egos have been dented. They have lost their belief. And because of that, they are struggling. They may not have the talent of the greatest teams in history, but if, like Michael, everything is built around them to give their talent the best shot at showing itself, then surely the rewards will be reaped?

Which begs the question of why the team is so disillusioned with Capello’s style of management that they had to call crisis talks. If you’re in charge of a team, why would you not play to their strengths? Because being a hard ass can only get you so far.

Why play a formation that the players don’t like? Why play Steven Gerrard in a position in which he feels uncomfortable? Why leave Joe Cole out of the team when the players recognise him as one of the best playmakers the team has got?

It’s like Ferrari in the mid 2000s sending out Schumacher for a wet race in Monaco with Monza wing levels, slick tyres, and boots that are three sizes too small.

David Beckham (with JB and Victoria Beckham) - Silverstone 2007
© http://www.sutton-images.com

Personally, I don’t think Capello is quite as good as he’s made out to be. It seems as though his style just doesn’t gel with the players, be it because they’ve got massive egos that aren’t being fluffed or because of something far deeper. Personally though, I think the England team needs a manager who shares the passion of his players – and that means an Englishman. The team needs someone who understands football, but also understands the modern footballer. It needs a strong character, but one with empathy for the men he leads. In short, I think it needs David Beckham.

One of England’s strongest, most hard working and charismatic captains, the sight of him suited and booted and shouting at the players from the bench has, oddly, not looked out of place at the world cup. Instead, it seems almost natural. Like he’s always been there. Because with England seemingly lacking any real direction on the pitch and a seeming confusion over who the captain is and, after John Terry’s quotes yesterday, whether the team even feels as though it has or needs a captain, perhaps its captain should be its best captain of the last decade, Beckham himself, directing play not from the field itself, but from the dugout. The man’s taken stick for not being the sharpest tool in the box in the past, but a more intelligent football brain you will rarely find.

And as assistant coach, I’d appoint James Corden. Yes, James Corden. Why? Because the man’s a legend. He IS the voice of the fan. He IS the enthusiasm that has been so lacking from the team in the world cup. He IS the ego fluffer, the man who would believe in the impossible, who would reflect every fan in every pub in the land and rouse the spirits of the boys. Half time team talk? Give it to Corden. Yes he’s more noted for his comedy turns, but he’s a brilliant writer, his live TV shows he’s got a quick wit and a perfect feeling for situations as they arise, and a more fervent supporter of the team I doubt you will ever find.

So yes, I would pick Corden and I think he’d be amazing. He’s been to a few F1 races over the last few years and he always seems like the kind of guy you’d want to go out for a beer with. A genuinely good bloke. He seems to have a good relationship with the England players, too. He’d put them at ease, build up their spirits and then hand them over to Beckham to deliver the footballing genius that would see us achieve all that we dream. And if the team needed a boot up the posterior, who better than a man who is the embodiment of the ultimate England fan? And you know they’d go back out with a smile on their faces, even after a bollocking, and play with some joy.

So never fear. If England slump out of the world cup on Wednesday and Don Fabio walks away, it may not be the worst news in the world.

And if we stay in… any chance Beckham and Corden could stage a coup d’etat? I know, it even has a French name. And if they can kick off in the middle of a world cup and tell their football association where to go, then why on earth can’t Les Rosbifs?

Jenson Button and James Corden
© Sport Relief

Rossi and a Russian

Quick post today, as I’ve got two little snippets of rather interesting news.

First up, I was in Barcelona yesterday to see Mr Felipe Massa who was testing the F2008. He was on great form, as always, and was clearly enjoying being back behind the wheel. However it was something about the man who had been running at Barcelona for the two days before Felipe took over at the wheel that I thought you might find interesting. According to the Ferrari Corse Clienti chaps, Mr Valentino Rossi was so fast that he equalled Kimi Raikkonen’s best 2008 qualifying lap in the same car around Barcelona. Sure Rossi had slicks at his disposal rather than grooved tyres, but the track was still pretty moist and slippery, although drying rapidly, on Thursday when he set his best lap.

Impressive? You bet your ass that’s impressive, and it’s little wonder that stories of Rossi wanting to cross over to F1 have resurfaced again since the end of the test.

Second up are the rumours I am hearing coming out of Enstone which say that Russia’s Vitaly Petrov is very close to the second race seat alongside Robert Kubica in 2010. There were reports earlier in the week that Petrov was in consideration for the job, but as things stand I understand it’s now between just him and an F1 driver with recent experience. (Recent being 2008, so that appears to wipe JV off the list of candidates.)

My sources could be wrong, of course, but from the lay of the land it looks as though F1 may get its first Russian next season, no doubt with a huge amount of backing from both the Russian government, which has backed Petrov for many years, and through current Renault F1 sponsor MegaFon.

Schumacher’s comeback test

Michael Schumacher © http://www.sutton-images.com

There’s a lot of noise at the moment following a report in Britain’s The Mirror newspaper, claiming that Michael Schumacher is on the verge of conducting a test in a GP2 car in Abu Dhabi, as part of his preparations for an incredible return to Formula 1 in 2010 with Mercedes.

The article was written by Byron Young, all round epic bloke and bloody good journo, and given how far ahead of the game he’s been on this whole Schuey comeback thing, you’ve got to take this story seriously because his sources thus far have been utterly impeccable.

With recent quotes from Ferrari’s Luca di Montezemolo stating that Schumacher had told him there is a “very, very, very strong possibility” of him coming back to F1 with Merc next year, it seems that the German’s presence in the sport in 2010 is all but a formality… or is it?

Let’s not forget that it was only a matter of months ago that we were last talking about a Schumacher comeback; one which, ultimately, was curtailed by injuries the German had sustained in a bike racing accident. The basal skull fracture he picked up meant that his vision became impaired whenever he went over a bump in his test at the wheel of a Ferrari F2007. And when you consider that at racing speeds an intolerance of a few millimetres in the road surface will feel like a speedbump, his entire F1 test must have been one blurred nightmare.

His need to test before agreeing on the Merc contract, therefore, must be for safety and medical reasons for if his injuries have not healed to the extent that both he and his manager Willi Weber hope and believe, this comeback ‘aint going anywhere.

But is he going to be testing a GP2 car? To be honest, it is not as simple as it might at first seem.

GP2 regulations are quite clear in regard to testing. Teams may only run their cars in group test sessions, and the next one of those isn’t until March, one month after F1 testing resumes. What about the old cars, then? Well they’re also a no go. The 2005-2007 iteration of the GP2 car is now the GP2 Asia car, and as such is subject to the same testing regulation. The next GP2 Asia race is in February…again, after F1 testing resumes.

All of which leaves one option… a special, one off test, organised by the GP2 organisation itself for Schumacher to drive the GP2 development car. Interestingly, Schumacher would be following in the footsteps of one of his oldest rivals, as GP2 organisers placed 1996 F1 World Champion Damon Hill in the original GP2 development car back in 2005.

Damon Hill tests GP2 © http://www.sutton-images.com

Of course, I am sure that the guys over in Abu Dhabi would love to have Schumacher test out there, but the logistics don’t quite stack up for me. To my mind, putting Schumacher into the GP2/08 development car at Circuit Paul Ricard is by far the most sensible and achievable option. The car is probably the closest to F1 speeds available at such short notice, and I can’t see GP2 organisers turning down the opportunity of putting Schumacher into the car. The PR potential is staggering. The car is kept at the Oreca base around the corner and could be ready to run by this afternoon if required. Plus, at Ricard it is possible to alter the track to replicate different types of circuit – low downforce runs with long straights, high downforce runs with multiple corners and fast changes of direction… if Schumacher wants to test out the strength of his neck on differing tracks, there’s nowhere better in the world than Ricard.

Michael’s own people told me that they have “given up commenting on rumours” and a spokesperson for GP2 said that the current story was “a really nice rumour.” Nobody’s saying no, which suggests to me that talks are happening.

This Schumacher comeback really is on, then. The wheels are in motion. That said, just as his mid-season comeback was ultimately curtailed by ill health, so might his full time 2010 return. Personally, I really do hope that his injuries have healed and that this GP2 test,if indeed it happens, simply confirms rather than concludes this incredible story.

Michael and Mercedes

Felipe Massa’s kart invitational at the weekend provided evidence, as if it was ever needed, that Michael Schumacher simply doesn’t understand the concept of driving at anything less than 120%. Asked to come along and have a go by his long term pall Massa, the 2009 running of this annual event had an extra symbolism as it was the Brazilian’s first foray into competitive racing since his monster shunt at the Hungrian Grand Prix.

With the niceties over, Michael proceeded to wipe the floor with everyone in the first race. I think someone must have had a word with him after that, because Felipe managed to get the result he needed in the second race to take the overall combined victory. Everyone say ahhhhh.

It was the same at the Race of Champions, though. Stick Schumacher in a car, any car actually, and he’ll not only be competitive, he’ll be staggering. As the famous saying goes, there’s life in the old dog yet.

Massa’s karting event also showed us that Michael either likes playing games with the media or is seriously thinking about making a comeback to F1. Once again he refused to rule out making a return just as he has done since rumours first cropped up, and just as both Norbert Haug and Nick Fry avoided the issue when quizzed about Nico Rosberg’s 2010 team-mate.

And here’s the thing. It makes sense for Norbert and Nick to dodge the issue because it gives the new Mercedes team massive headline potential. It ensures the team remains the biggest news in F1. From a PR perspective, having Schumacher linked with the team is invaluable. By simply refusing to comment on the rumours, the suggestions of what might be simply compound and evolve. It makes sense for Merc to be doing it, but why would Michael do the same?

One of his biggest personal backers, Shell, are a Ferrari team sponsor. So why piss them off, knowing full well that the new Mercedes team will have backing from Mobil 1? If this is a negotiation tactic in his talks over a new Ferrari contract, it is a dangerous game. But maybe Michael doesn’t really want to stay at the Scuderia.

We know that all is not as once it was at Ferrari. Gone are the days of Mr Jean Todt, and into his place has stepped a new regime. The Domenicali era has little in common with the Todt-Schumacher face of Ferrari. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the arrival of a certain Fernando Alonso to factor in to the already complex situation. Exactly what Michael does at Ferrari and to what extent he plays a role with the F1 team has never been more in question.

We should not be surprised, therefore, to learn that Mercedes has reportedly offered Schumacher the chance to play any role he wishes at the team. If he doesn’t want to race, he can be whatever he wants and, one would imagine, would be free to name whatever price he wishes. Again, the PR of Mercedes stealing the legend back from Ferrari would be vast. If Mercedes really does want to establish itself as a German super team, Michael Schumacher’s involvement with the outfit would give it unrivalled gravitas in Germany.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that Schumacher and Mercedes have gone racing together. Almost 20 years ago, at the end of the 1990 season, Schumacher joined the Mercedes Junior Racing programme, and raced the Sauber Mercedes C11 and C291 in the World Sportscar Championship and Le Mans, coming fifth.

But the big question is whether or not Michael Schumacher, seven time F1 champion, would be willing to make a comeback. What sense would it make for him to do so after three years on the sidelines? He has achieved everything there is to achieve in Formula 1, and his reputation will live on forever. Why risk all that hard work on a foolish venture which could end in misery?

Schumacher himself has admitted that his anticipated but ultimately failed comeback with Ferrari in 2009 was born more out of passion than common sense, owing to the basal skull fracture he sustained in a bike racing accident. But the fact that he had even put himself through the immense stupidity of testing an F1 car knowing how severe his injury was gave us an insight into the brain of Michael Schumacher. For here is a man who lives for the thrill of competition. And without it, he is stagnating.

Schumacher had his Formula 1 career taken from him before he was truly ready to throw in the towel. Backed into a corner by Ferrari’s signing of Kimi Raikkonen, he had a tough choice to make of either quitting to allow his apprentice Massa to race on, or to stay on himself and ruin Felipe’s career. In the end he chose to step aside, and just to make double sure that he wouldn’t go back on his promise, Ferrari didn’t even let him make the announcement himself. They issued a press release as he was on his slowdown lap at Monza in 2006. Watch the replay of that post-race press conference with that in mind and you’ll see it in a whole new light. Those aren’t the reactions of a man emotional to be announcing his retirement. That’s not the forthright, strong, self-assured Michael Schumacher who never apologised to anyone for any one of the questionable things he’d done in his career on or off the track.

That was a man who’d had the rug pulled from under him.

Formula 1 remains unfinished business for Michael Schumacher, and that is why I think there may just be a chance that this comeback is a serious prospect. Yes he’d be 41, but Gabriele Tarquini just won the WTCC title at the age of 47. Fangio won his last F1 title at the age of 46. Sure it was a different era, but ask yourself this. Is Michael Schumacher not one of the most talented drivers this sport has ever witnessed? Like him or loathe him what nobody can deny is the man’s staggering skill.

And, while you’re at it, ask yourself this… how incredible would it be to have Schumacher back in the mix? With Button and Hamilton at McLaren, Alonso and Massa at Ferrari, don’t tell me you wouldn’t salivate over the prospect of Michael Schumacher in a Mercedes (Brawn). All that’s missing is Kimi, but a Citroen C4 probably won’t be hugely competitive in F1 next season.

Force India’s confirmation that Adrian Sutil will stay on alongside Tonio Liuzzi next season takes one of the Germans out of the equation for the superteam at Mercedes. All that’s really left on the table are the services of Nick Heidfeld and Michael Schumacher, if Ross Brawn is to be taken at his word and we assume that the team is looking for experienced F1 drivers, and we listen to Norbert Haug and assume that they need to be ones with German passports.

Yes there are other drivers out there, notably Robert Kubica who reportedly has room to wriggle out of his contract at Renault, but do any of them match up to Michael Schumacher?

His management team have confirmed to me that Willi Weber’s comments regarding Michael’s health are correct and that the seven-time world champion will be fit enough to return to an F1 cockpit by the end of 2009. Testing restrictions mean he’d only get seven days of testing under his belt… but come on people… it’s Michael Schumacher.

Is it too much to dream? Is it a step too far? Is this all just some big PR stunt?

Frankly I hope not. Because it’d be absolutely brilliant, wouldn’t it?

Schumacher WILL replace Massa

Schuey's back baby! c/o Sutton Images

Schuey's back baby! c/o Sutton Images

It’s official.

The most succesful, and arguably the best, F1 driver of all time is set to make a remarkable comeback to Formula 1, two and a half years after hanging up his helmet.

“The most important thing first: thanks God, all news concerning Felipe are positive. I wish him all the best again,” he said on his official website.

“I was meeting this afternoon with Stefano Domenicali and Luca di Montezemolo and together we decided that I will prepare myself to take the place of Felipe. Though it is true that the chapter Formula 1 has been closed for me since long and completely, it is also true that for loyalty reasons to the team I cannot ignore that unfortunate situation. But as the competitor I am I also very much look forward to facing this challenge.”

The decision to place Schumacher into the vacant seat left after Felipe Massa’ horrendous freak accident in Hungary, can not have been a difficult one for Domenicali and di Montezemolo to make. Between them, it’s been 15 years since either of Ferrari’s test drivers competed in F1. Add into the mix a competitive Ferrari, a need for a positive piece of PR and the need to stick a rocket up Kimi Raikkonen’s backside and it’s a brilliant placement.

Odds on Bernie’s pretty stoked too. Valencia was set to be a low-turnout event anyway, and with Alonso’s Renault team barred from competition, it had looked like the next race would be a bit of a non-event fanwise. But now? Oh now I’d say it’ll be a sell out.

As will Spa, and that most glorious of homecomings at Monza.

In other news BMW said they were pulling out of F1. I’ll deal with that more tomorrow.

Having spoken to a number of people in the know over the weekend, I left Hungary feeling that no matter how bonkers it sounded, Michael Schumacher would be making his F1 comeback in Valencia. And now I just can’t wait to get to Spain.

Bring it on.

Ferrari not very ‘appy

So Ferrari’s had its court case against the 2010 regulation changes thrown out, and the good folk at Maranello are not very happy.

Following a report on autosport.com in which a number of prospective new-for-2010 F1 teams was unveiled, Ferrari’s frustration has boiled over… resulting in a news piece on their official website that has got everybody in the F1 media centre here in Monaco giggling like school kids.

(For maximum effect, read the following in an Italian accent)

“They couldn’t almost believe their eyes, the men at women working at Ferrari, when they read the papers this morning and found the names of the teams, declaring that they have the intention to race in Formula 1 in the next year. Looking at the list, which leaked yesterday from Paris, you can’t find a very famous name, one of those one has to spend 400 Euros per person for a place on the grandstand at a GP (plus the expenses for the journey and the stay..). Wirth Research, Lola, USF1, Epsilon Euskadi, RML, Formtech, Campos, iSport: these are the names of the teams, which should compete in the two-tier Formula 1 wanted by Mosley. Can a World Championship with teams like them – with due respect – can have the same value as today’s Formula 1, where Ferrari, the big car manufacturers and teams, who created the history of this sport, compete? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to call it Formula GP3?” Link

Toys… pram… thrown.

Wonderful stuff.

Vive la Revolution

The fallout over the FIA’s plans to introduce a £40 million budget cap in 2010 continues unabated today as Renault has become the latest team to announce its intentions to pull out of Formula 1 at the end of 2009, joining Toyota, Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Ferrari in its disillusion with the 2010 regulations.

But this is all just politicking, right? There’s no real danger that F1 2010 could be run without Renault, without Toyota… without Ferrari?

Those who assume so are quite wrong.

These are troubled times for the world of motorsport, and for the automotive world as a whole. Financial belts are being tightened the world over and Formula 1 can no longer continue at the levels of expenditure to which it has grown accustomed. So why has the notion of a budget cap caused such unrest? Part of the problem lies in the “two-tier” system of competition that the FIA has decided upon for 2010. But the greatest problem of all is the emergence of FOTA as a powerful force in F1 politics.

As far as the FIA is concerned, the tail is now wagging the dog and it is time that the normal order was restored. But just as the FIA moves to take its position of power back from the teams, so the teams themselves can now see the power that they hold as a united body. With both parties emboldened to stand their ground, we are facing a civil war between two factions who each know the power they hold and where neither one of them will be willing to show the slightest sign of weakness, nor give an inch in any potential negotiation.

Formula 1 last underwent a revolution back in the early 1980s, again a time of financial and political upheaval. The FISA/FOCA war as it was called almost 30 years ago gave us the system of governance we have today. It gave us a constitution, of sorts, under the Concorde Agreement. It gave us Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone as the power brokers and ultimate rulers of the sport.

Formula 1 today faces new dilemas and new issues, and the old Concorde Agreement is in dire need of rewriting. But as the FIA, Commercial Rights Holder and the teams stand their ground, there is no sign of a new constitution being written. Under increasing pressure from their boards, the car manufacturers have had to ask themselves if the sport is giving them fair reward for their services, and if they should stay involved. Over the past few days, Formula 1 has received its answer.

With just two weeks to go until the deadline for entries to the 2010 championship, Formula 1 finds itself at an impasse.

If the FIA buckles to the demands of the manufacturers, then the governing body of the sport will lose any semblance of authority.

If the manufacturers buckle, the FIA will be empowered to force through any regulation changes it sees fit in the future.

Thus the battle lines have been drawn. While FOTA President Luca di Montezemolo is set to meet FIA President Max Mosley next week, the result of the meeting will not resolve every issue that currently stands between the warring bodies. 

The threat of division in Formula 1 is very real indeed.

The FIA may have opened up three new spots on the 2010 F1 grid, but as things stand now, it has to face the very real possibility that it may struggle to fill even the ten that exist today.