Formula 1 and the real world

February 17, 2011

The news that the situation in Bahrain appears to be getting worse and with F1 testing due to take place 3rd-6th March and the Grand Prix on the 11th March it seems that F1 is becoming caught up in the political shifts that are occurring in the middle east. If you combine that with the Gribowsky affair in Germany and the potential of a connection to the various dealings that went on when F1 was acquired by CVC Capital Partners in 2006 then it appears that F1 is once again getting in the headlines for non-sporting reasons. However, the good news I hope is that the teams themselves find a way to formally agree a realistic reduction in costs and that the Williams flotation goes well. The fact that such a well established F1 team is going to the market and opening itself up for wider scrutiny is I think a good thing, and if the Williams float goes well we may see others following their approach.

Advertisements

I was interested to see that WilliamsF1 are planning a public flotation. Flotations and F1 have not traditionally gone that well, with Bernie’s Formula One Holdings flotation of March 1997 ending in disarray, and starting a series of transactions which resulted in the commercial rights to F1 being controlled by CVC Partners. it is interesting to reflect that one of the reasons for the failure (but certainly not the only reason) was a dispute between Bernie and three of the F1 teams who had refused to sign the Concorde Agreement. These three teams were Tyrrell, Mclaren and… Williams. But now of course we are in different times and if the teams are really able to get their costs down in line with the early nineteen nineties, as FOTA has declared within the Resource Restriction Agreement, then this would make an F1 team potentially a very attractive proposition. When you also consider the way Williams have developed their hybrid technologies (assuming this is included in the flotation) it could make for a rather lucrative investment.

Just a brief post to celebrate the return of Williams to an F1 pole, their first for almost five years. It made me realise how much we’ve missed them from the top of the grid. Nico Hulkenberg is a new talent who has melded himself into the team very well. He spent many weeks in composites and other areas at the Grove base (yes, really working, not a PR stunt), a great example of how to really commit himself and build up team spirit. It would be fantastic to see him and Rubens (who also qualified sixth) do well in the race. Fingers crossed.

Joan Villadelprat is characterised in F1 terms as someone who knows his onions. In his journey from mechanic to team manager Joan has worked for McLaren, Ferrari, Tyrrell, Benetton and Prost. He is now hoping to make the final step on the ladder, first climbed by Ron Dennis, to become a team principal with his Spanish based organisation Epsilon Euskadi running an F1 team in the 2011 championship. In a recent interview with Autosprint, Joan expressed his concerns about the timing of the 13th team for 2011 – as an FIA announcement is not due until the end of August, by which time the new team will have precious little time to design and build their F1 car for 2011. What is also interesting is that Joan comments on the level of funding he feels is needed to run a competitive team.

Team operating budgets are an interesting topic,given that the teams do not generally publish such figures, or if they do heavily disguise them, estimates range wildly as to what these actually are. For example in 2009 the Black Book estimated Ferrari’s budget as USD404million and McLaren at USD377 million, with the smallest budget being Toro Ross at USD112million. In contrast Formula Money, estimated Ferrari at USD371million and McLaren at USD484million, with the smallest budget being Force India with USD120million. One thing that appears to be agreed, certainly among the teams themselves, is that these figures need to come down. In 1992 Williams employed 190 people, in 2008 it was 540, in 1992 they won the world championship, in 2008 they finished 8th.

When Virgin committed to Virgin Racing they did so when the FIA intention was to impose a budget cap of £40 million for all teams, excluding drivers salaries and a few other costs. This never happened and so Virgin decided to keep their own budget cap in place in the hope that other teams would have to come down to their level. The Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) agreed that costs should come down and that they should aim to be back to 1992 levels by the end of 2012, although how this would be measured and policed remained unclear.

Back in August 2009 Auto Motor und Sport published a piece claiming that the exact details of the cost cutting would remain a closely guarded secret, but that the number of staff travelling to Grand Prix was going to be capped at 45 people, which would have consequences for the drivers physio’s amongst others – it was interesting to see that at the start of 2010 the drivers were protesting about the absence of their physios on the grid (rather than at the Grand Prix) – so whether this was linked to some form of agreed reduction is open to question. The article also said that team expenditure, excluding driver and top management salaries and marketing costs, would not exceed Euro 100m in 2010 and Euro 50m in 2011. It is therefore interesting that in commenting on team budgets Joan suggested that if a team wanted to develop a competitive car then Euro 100m was needed to avoid the team ”..having to start over from zero every year.” This is bad news for Virgin as it implies that the 2011 budgets will not be down to Euro 50m as suggested by Auto Motor und Sport, although they may well be limited to Euro 100 million as suggested by Joan Villadelprat, who, whether or not he becomes a team principal, still knows an onion when he sees one.

Will we see the Porsche badge back in Formula 1?

There’s an interesting piece in the June edition of F1 Racing which suggests that Williams are less than happy with the performance of their Cosworth engine this year and are exploring a link up with Porsche.

It is clear that Williams are, so far, not delivering the kind of performance you would normally expect from the Grove based team, and given the strong racing tradition within the company, I’m sure they’re not too pleased with it either. As they are the only established team to be using Cosworth power this year, it is difficult to get a clear benchmark as to how much the engine is impacting on their performance. Certainly the Renault (Red Bull and Renault) and Mercedes (Mercedes, McLaren and Force India) power units appear to be strong, and although Ferrari have been doing well with their own cars, the only established teams yet to score a point are Toro Rosso and Sauber, both of whom use Ferrari customer engines. Of course aerodyanmics are the biggest driver of performance these days, but although the engine designs are effectively ‘frozen’ they can make a difference in terms of overall power, the way the power comes in when the throttle is used (driveability), reliability, shape – to help aerodynamics – and also the centre of gravity which can impact on handling. The F1 Racing article suggests that there are concerns with the driveability of the Cosworth engine and also its ability to maintain optimum performance with increased mileage. Apparently Cosworth are working on these issues and hope to have improvements in place for the Turkish Grand Prix.

Porsche have a fairly chequered history in F1. They entered a full works team in 1961 to take advantage of regulation changes to use a 1.5litre V6 engine, they remained until the end of 1964, shortly before the regulations changed again to permit larger 3.0 litre engines, but were not really able to enjoy much success during this period, they did win one race – the 1962 French Grand Prix at Rouen. They came back as an engine supplier in 1983 when their power units were used in the McLaren F1 car and branded Techniques Avant Garde (TAG) as this was the sponsor who funded the project. This relationship ended in 1987 when Ron Dennis had persuaded Honda to move to McLaren away from supplying – guess who? – Williams.

So why is there speculation about Porsche and Williams now? Well it seems to be one of these ‘by association’ links. Williams Hybrid Power (WHP) was set up by Williams to develop their KERS system for 2009, using a electro/mechanical (generator/flywheel and electric motor) system rather than the electrical (generator/battery and electric motor) system adopted by the other teams. However WHP is also a stand-alone operation which is looking to commercially exploit this F1 based technology for other applications. Recently they have collaborated with Porsche to produce the hybrid system for the new 911 GT3 R Hybrid race car. This was announced at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show in March and the car recently lead the field at the Nurburgring 24 hour race before succumbing to engine problems. Porsche clearly believe that hybrid technology is consistent with their high performance products and are using Williams’ F1 technology to develop this. However, it is unlikely that Porsche would entertain the idea of supplying an F1 engine in the short term with F1 engine regulations being very restrictive. However the FIA is currently working on new engine regulations from 2013, which are likely to emphasize hybrid technology, so this could be something for the future, and may provide an opportunity for Porsche or other VW group brands. However for the time being it looks as though Williams will have to hope that Cosworth make some progress in terms of catching up with Renault and Mercedes.

 

Could 2010 be Mark Webber's year? (seen here with co-author, Richard West)

Winners

Red Bull Racing. The Milton Keynes team who started life in F1 as Stewart Grand Prix and then became Jaguar Racing, have demonstrated their ability, not only to produce a very fast car at the start of the season, but also to make a major development step for the first European Grand Prix, and have effectively left their main rivals – Ferrari and McLaren trailing behind them. Barcelona is a good indicator of car performance and on that basis their rivals will be very concerned as to whether they can break the Red Bull dominance before it is too late.

Mark Webber. Webber has, up till now, been the nearly man, almost there, but never quite making it, often eclipsed by his young German team mate. At Barcelona he dominated both qualifying and the race. Remember last year he was still recovering from a broken leg, perhaps this likeable, forthright Aussie could really take it all the way in 2010.

Michael Schumacher. Schumacher looks to have turned things around at Mercedes GP. He drove a great race in a car which has dropped back from the top three (see losers). His pass on Button, as Jenson came out of the pits, was classic Michael, he saw his chance and went for it, Jenson wasn’t happy, but then who would be?

Virgin Racing. Virgin were actually outqualified by Lotus, and therefore seem to be losing their fastest of the new teams tag, however they did achieve their first finish for both cars, and given that one of them doesn’t have a fuel tank big enough to finish the race on full performance I thought it was worthy of recognition!

Losers

Mercedes. We should not forget that the new Mercedes team are effectively a rebadged Brawn team, who were themselves a rebadged and downsized Honda team. Although Ross Brawn has worked his magic and brought focus and direction to the team, the 2009 Brawn car was so good partly because they halted development of the 2008 car very early in the season. So they have never been able to develop a car during the season at the same rate as McLaren and Ferrari. The fact that their upgrades for Barcelona moved Schumacher ahead of Rosberg will be small comfort as they have effectively fallen back from the big three and face an uphill battle to get close to them during the remainder of the season.

Williams. Williams had brought forward some of the upgrades intended for Monaco to use in Barcelona, unfortunately it seems that they did not deliver and Rubens Barrichello did not make it through to Q2. Although he was able to get 9th place in the race, this still leaves Williams well below Renault and Force India in the midfield pack and only marginally ahead of Toro Rosso. The biggest concern must be the failure of the upgrades implying that they have yet to find the right direction to improve performance on the track.

Nico Rosberg. Nico’s performance in the first four races has undoubtedly silenced many of those who felt he did not have what it takes to be a front runner. However Barcelona could be a watershed in his dominance of the Mercedes team with Michael looking more at home with the car.

F-Ducts. The much publicized F-Duct appears to be doing exactly as Lotus’s Mike Gascoyne predicted and using up a lot of time and money as the teams try to find a solution, with not much to show for it on the track. Ferrari’s system requires the driver to use their left hand to cover a tube in the cockpit, I wonder what other anatomical challenges are being placed on drivers in order to create the F-Duct effect – it’s probably better not to know. Either way the F-Duct cars of McLaren and Ferrari were no match for the Red Bulls whose drivers had the simple task of operating pedals, steering wheel and gear changes. The teams have agreed that the F-Duct will be banned for 2011, so it has to be the final loser from the Barcelona Grand Prix.

Ferrari were one of the teams to get their KERS system operational in 2009

Sir Frank Williams is one of the grandees of Formula 1, with the departure of Ron Dennis he is certainly the elder statesman amongst the team principals. Frank’s continued presence at Grand Prix mean that we sometimes forget that he is one of world’s longest surviving quadriplegics. He severed his spinal cord between cervical vertebrae C6 and C7 in a car accident in 1986 and has been paralysed from the shoulders down and confined to a wheel-chair ever since. The Superman actor Christopher Reeve survived for less than ten years as a quadriplegic after a horse riding accident in 1995, Frank is still going strong after nearly twenty four years. Even so life is not straightforward for Frank, he cannot cough, sneeze or laugh, he needs constant nursing care and even activities you and I take for granted, like talking, take a lot out of him. Therefore when Frank makes a statement it is not something he does lightly and he recently made a statement about KERS – The F1 Kinetic Energy Recovery System that allows F1 cars to store energy created while braking in a battery and then apply a short power burst of around 80hp when the driver needs it by means of an electric motor. KERS was used in 2009, but only McLaren and Ferrari were able to get their systems competitive, it could also be argued that the failure of the BMW system was one of the reasons why they pulled out of F1 that year. Williams went down a different technological route, developing a mechanical rather than an electrical system which uses a flywheel to store the energy, they have also set up a separate business – Williams Hybrid Power with which to exploit the technology. Williams clearly believe that KERS is here to stay.

It was agreed amongst the teams that they would not use KERS in 2010, but if it is to come back in 2011 then agreement between the teams needs to be secured pretty quickly. The fact that Sir Frank is making a statement (in support of KERS) suggests that (as expected) there is not full agreement amongst the teams as to whether or not KERS should come back in 2011. Of course the biggest argument against is that it will increase costs with the teams having to engineer in KERS to their new cars, it is inevitable that there would be some level of cost increase, but F1 has already worked through the expensive bit of developing systems that work, the argument is more likely to revolve around whose system is used and when it is introduced. In my view it can’t come soon enough, F1 cannot afford to be seen to be behind the times technologically, yes it is about the show and the racing, but technology is a big part of the F1 brand, without which it would not be the wealthy sport it is today. Jean Todt has emphasized that his FIA Presidency will place emphasis on strategic issues with sustainability being pretty high up the list, it will be interesting to see if he is able to find a way forward to ensure that KERS remains. Let’s hope sense prevails and we see the return of KERS in 2011.