Archive: News

A deal has been struck between Max Mosley, Fota and Bernie Ecclestone, and the threat of a breakaway series has been averted. I think there were a lot of people out there who quite liked the idea of a breakaway series. Indeed, given the choice between Max Mosley’s rotten vision and a Fota-run series, I would have gone for the Fota series every time.

But a split would have been a calamitous situation. The new series, despite having all the big names and probably some decent circuits, would still have taken some time to find its feet. Plus, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Fota series would have got good television coverage. Don’t forget that for the vast majority of fans, television is the only way we can consume the sport that we love, so this is an essential element.

In a lot of ways, the roots of the current problem in Formula 1 lie with Bernie Ecclestone. Or, to be more precise, CVC. They are the ones who suck the money out of the sport in order to pay the interest on their debts. That is why F1 ends up visiting sterile circuits with minuscule crowds — because those governments will pay huge sums of money for the privilege of holding an F1 race. That is probably also the reason for the fervour over cost cutting. If the teams spend less, Bernie can get away with giving the teams less of the sport’s revenues, and giving CVC more of them.

But despite that problem with CVC, I can’t find it in myself to be too angry with Bernie Ecclestone. In truth, he has done a great job of promoting the sport, and F1 may never have appealed to me were it not for Bernie’s efforts. Sure, there are a lot of areas where he can improve, particularly on the dire online offering.

But under Bernie Ecclestone, the television coverage of Formula 1 has been revolutionised. He got his fingers burnt with the adventurous F1 Digital+ endeavour. But while those innovatory days may be no more (and it is notable that F1 is still not broadcast in HD), today’s FOM-produced World Feed (used for all races except Monaco and Japan) is based on many of those innovations and television coverage has improved immeasurably over the past fifteen or so years.

We seldom have to deal with relatively amateurish efforts from the host broadcasters. Just compare these two videos of the same incident as it unfolded live. One is from the FOM F1 Digital+ World Feed, and the other was from the host broadcaster. (To view them side-by-side ‘as live’, start the second video when the first video reaches 17 seconds.)

The difference in quality is massive. F1 Digital+ caught the accident live so viewers knew immediately what happened. This was no coincidence. It happened because a system of sensors around the circuit could detect when cars were running close together, and coverage automatically switched to those cars in the expectation of some kind of incident unfolding. Later, replays from multiple angles enhanced the viewer’s understanding of the incident.

Meanwhile, the host broadcaster cut to Ralf Schumacher climbing out of his car ten seconds after the incident originally started. And it was a long time until viewers found out that the accident also involved Jacques Villeneuve — and there was only one angle of the incident. Note also how Martin Brundle had to rely on the superior coverage which he could see outside his commentary box window to tell viewers that Villeneuve was unhurt.

The Australian host broadcasters were not dummies. They just did the best job they could with the resources they had at their disposal. “Bernievision” was only good because of heavy investment and years of experimentation.

Bernie’s television operation was pretty impressive even in 2001, though not all of the innovations remain in today’s coverage. But it is thanks to Bernie Ecclestone that today’s coverage is more like the first video than the second one. A Fota-run championship would not have had such a slick operation going from day one, and the fans would have been worse off for it.

(For more on the amazing “Bernievision”, check out these decade-old articles on GrandPrix.com: Inside Bakersville and Inside the F1 digital television centre.)

Then there is the question of whether it would have had any coverage at all. The BBC would have been scared off, and television executives would have been confused. They want the World Championship, whether or not an alternative series is better in the eyes of the fans. Take, for instance, the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, which I hear is better than the FIA’s World Rally Championship. Not that I’d know, because the former is ghettoised on Eurosport while the FIA’s weak WRC gets terrestrial coverage.

No matter if it has all the current teams and good circuits — signing up to show a new series is a risk which television executives wouldn’t want to take. The prospect of the best F1 series being on some pay channel and having no terrestrial coverage was a real one. That aspect of the breakaway scared me.

On the other hand, the proposed breakaway presented the opportunity to create a great new version of Formula 1, unshackled from the financial needs of CVC or the warped politics of Max Mosley. Fota had some crazy ideas, but they carried out market research and were far more receptive to the views of fans than the FIA have ever been.

I particularly liked the idea that the new series could have been particularly focussed on attracting an American audience. The FIA Formula 1 Championship has dumped on US fans time and again, and today there is no race in North America even though it is a major market for the manufacturers.

There would also have been a careful look at ticket prices and the fees circuits have to pay to hold an F1 race. No-one (apart from Bernie apparently) likes to arrive at sterile circuits with a dozen people in the grandstand. It comes across on television too, whether or not FOM’s cameramen are instructed to avoid shots of empty grandstands.

I could feel the atmosphere of the passionate British crowd on the television. The difference could hardly be more stark from the previous race at Turkey, where the crowd was around 10% of the size. And Silverstone is a circuit that Bernie wants to move away from.

Even the little things that are wrong with F1 could have had the magnifying glass applied to them. Such as, why can’t a driver keep the same number for his whole career. In other categories such as Nascar or MotoGP, a driver’s number becomes part of his legend, every bit as important as, say, his helmet design. Even in the history of Formula 1, the number 27 car is almost synonymous with Gilles Villeneuve. Imagine the marketing potential too. But in the clinical world of Formula 1, driver numbers are determined by the positions of last year’s Constructors’ Championship.

In short, the breakaway could have been a great opportunity to fix everything that is broken with F1. I doubt the breakaway would have been a true ‘split’, and it probably wouldn’t have had the same consequences as the Cart / IRL split. It was pretty clear from the fact that the FIA never released a finalised 2010 entry list that the FIA didn’t have a 2010 F1 Championship to speak of, and Fota’s would have been the only show in town.

That, I think, is why the deal must be seen as a victory for Fota. It has turned out to be a powerful organisation that did after all have the ability to at last stand up to Max Mosley’s dictatorial authority.

There is a part of me that suspects that the FIA as an organisation simply isn’t fit for the purpose of overseeing motorsports. We will eventually see how things develop with Max Mosley’s successor. I think today is just the starting point though, and we will see some more loose ends being tied up in the coming months. There will be power struggles there too, I am sure.

It looks like these negotiations will in fact be handled by Michel Boeri. That in itself is interesting because he is the promoter of the Monaco Grand Prix. It was reported that he would take the Monaco GP with him to the Fota camp if the breakaway went ahead.

What we need now, most of all, is someone in charge of the FIA who is not a glorified politician, constantly interfering. I remember Maurice Hamilton making the point once that everyone knows who Max Mosley is, and many people can tell you that Jean-Marie Balestre was his predecessor. But not many can tell you who Balestre’s predecessor was (for you history buffs, on the Fisa side it was Pierre Ugeux, and in the FIA it was Paul Metternich). Yet the sport still ran.

It sounds like from now on there will be more checks and balances in place, with the F1 Commission being given more of a say from now on. No doubt Fota will continue to play its role too, and I think it would be best for everyone if Williams and Force India re-joined and USF1, Campos and Manor all joined too. That way the teams, who create the sport, can have a say in its governance too.

Speaking of the new teams, I think as we sit here today, with much of the damage repaired, the biggest shame of this episode is that two capable teams have been denied a place on the entry list as a result of Max Mosley’s petty politicking. I think many of us can’t wait to see Prodrive finally get a chance to enter F1, and Lola were a promising prospect too.

No doubt the FIA actually had a tough choice to make, as according to Joe Saward at least the Manor Grand Prix team is actually a seriously strong prospect. With costs set to be cut and a more stable future for F1 promised, and with that troublesome Max fellow out of the way, at least we know there are capable teams that are ready to fill any potential gaps that appear.

This morning the FIA has published the entry list for the 2010 Formula 1 season. It was widely anticipated to be a huge news story, and the entry list certainly raises a lot of questions.

The first thing to note is that all ten currently existing teams are on the list in some form or another. Five of the Fota-aligned teams are at the bottom of the list and have asterisks next to their entries. Conditions are still attached to their entries, so their participation in the 2010 season depends on how talks between Fota and the FIA proceed.

There is a deadline of 19 June for the situation to be resolved. That will no doubt be another big news day as the FIA will have a few extra teams up its sleeve ready to take the place should any Fota teams pull out.

Provocatively, the FIA has entered three of the Fota teams — Ferrari, Red Bull and Toro Rosso — and listed them as unconditional entries. These three teams all signed agreements with the FIA and FOM back in 2005 — the last time a breakaway was on the cards. Ferrari feel that its agreements with the FIA have been broken already, therefore it does not have an obligation to enter in 2010. Ferrari have reiterated that they have no intention of participating in the 2010 season unless its conditions are met.

Meanwhile, Red Bull feel that the FIA has reneged on its assurances that customer cars would be allowed. This is a matter upon which Red Bull’s agreement was apparently based. Red Bull have made clear that they have no intention of taking part as either Red Bull or Toro Rosso as things stand.

No matter what contracts have been signed by whom, you do have to wonder exactly how the FIA intends on forcing teams to participate when they have absolutely no intention of doing so. What is to stop Ferrari or Red Bull from competing half-heartedly in protest, sending out underdeveloped cars and a small team who are uninterested in taking part and fail to qualify, or retire after lap 1?

It wouldn’t exactly do much good for Formula 1′s image. I guess the FIA are banking that such a stunt would be bad for the image of Ferrari and Red Bull too, which would put them off doing it.

The most uncontroversial element of the entry list is the inclusion of Williams and Force India. Both teams were recently “expelled” from Fota as they felt obliged to submit unconditional entries due to previous commercial agreements.

The three new teams are USF1, Campos and Manor. This is a surprise to me. I — and I think most others — expected the three teams to be USF1, Prodrive and Lola.

USF1 were always going to be a dead cert. They had announced that they would enter the 2010 season even before there was a suggestion of a budget cap being in place. Indeed, the team has shrugged its shoulders over the idea of a budget cap. It is perfectly content to participate without a budget cap, which rather undermines Max Mosley’s contention that no new teams will enter without a budget cap.

Campos will probably be a solid operation. The team will be headed up by former Formula 1 driver Adrián Campos, who has been a successful team manager in lower formulae. The original Campos Motorsport won the first three seasons of the precursor to World Series by Renault, winning the championship with Fernando Alonso in 1999. In later years, Campos concentrated on GP2 and became one of the best teams on the grid, winning the 2008 Teams’ Championship. Adrián Campos sold that team which is now known as Addax.

Manor is an alliance between Manor Motorsport and Nick Wirth, two solid names. Nick Wirth was a major force behind Simtek. When the team collapsed, he went on to work at Benetton.

Manor Motorsport has a strong pedigree in lower formulae, having run successful British Formula Renault, British Formula 3 and F3 Euroseries operations. Its Formula Renault team is probably most famous for having run Kimi Räikkönen in the year before the Finn took the unbelievable leap all the way up to a full F1 race drive. It also housed Lewis Hamilton when he won the British Formula Renault championship.

All three of these new teams are pencilled in to run with Cosworth engines, although James Allen believes that USF1 is considering switching to Toyota. The use of Cosworth engines is no surprise. Max Mosley’s threatened standardised engine was the Cosworth lump, and their engine which was used by Williams in 2006 is more-or-less up to date with the current regulations.

I find it highly surprising that Prodrive have not been given the nod. The last time the FIA invited new teams to enter F1, Prodrive was the team that succeeded in gaining the place. However, when the FIA decided to ban customer cars, Prodrive were unable to take that slot which has remained vacant ever since. David Richards knows what he is doing, and had a long-term aim to bring the Aston Martin brand to F1. It seemed to be everything the FIA was wanting, but seemingly that is not the case.

Lola also must have felt pretty confident about getting an entry. Although their last foray into F1 in 1997 was an unmitigated disaster, there were commercial reasons behind it and there was no reason to suggest that they would repeat the mistake. Lola is a classic name which fans of motorsport recognise. And unlike ghostly entries using the names “Brabham”, “March” and “Lotus”, this classic name is the real deal.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Prodrive and Lola are options for the FIA to fall back on in case talks with Fota fail. The ever-present threat that a manufacturer may pull out without warning is also there.

Another notable aspect of the entry is that Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Brawn are all currently without engine deals. But with the manufacturers threatening to jump ship, it probably doesn’t mean much anyway. But it does add further credibility to the idea that Red Bull is angling for Mercedes engines for next season.

F1 politics-watchers will be intrigued to read the news today that Williams have become the first of the current teams to confirm that they have submitted an entry for the 2010 season. This is an embarrassment for Fota, as it makes mincemeat of the organisation’s President’s assertion — which was only made on Friday — that none of the current teams would enter unless the FIA promised to change the 2010 technical regulations.

Indeed, Luca di Montezemolo practically made it the defining policy of Fota. It must be disconcerting for him to see that already one Fota member has undermined this.

The Williams team’s explanation is interesting though. Their CEO, Adam Parr, has gone out of his way to point out that Williams is still fully aligned with Fota:

The unity of FOTA is of paramount importance to Williams. Yesterday we joined the other members of FOTA in writing to the FIA (International Automobile Federation) to request a continuing effort to find a compromise concerning the regulations for 2010.

We believe that under the leadership of (Ferrari president Luca) di Montezemolo and (Toyota motorsport president) John Howett, FOTA has extracted some very significant concessions from the FIA.

These include not only the procedural aspects of the budget cap but also other elements that will enable the higher budget teams to participate.

But explaining the team’s decision to enter the 2010 Championship, contrary to Fota policy, Mr Parr has essentially said that Williams felt that it had no option but to enter the 2010 World Championship:

Williams has — and has always maintained — that we have a binding contract with both FOM (Ecclestone’s Formula One Management) and the FIA to participate in the world championship from 2008 to 2010.

Presumably if Williams has a binding contract, so do other teams. I assume the binding contract is the Concorde Agreement. In a way, therefore, it is unsurprising that it is the manufacturer-backed teams who are standing up to the FIA the most. Williams can’t really afford to breach a contract. But manufacturers have enough money — economic downturn or not — to buy their way out, just as Honda essentially did.

But if it is the case that all these F1 teams are contractually obliged to participate in the World Championship in 2010, why is the FIA asking them all to re-enter?

I know that not many people are thinking about this just now, especially as attention has turned to the diffuser debate. But I have only just found the time to write about it here. You may have seen me mention this elsewhere, including in the comments to this blog. But I haven’t yet included it as a separate post.

I first mentioned this in a comment to one of the posts below. Afterwards I decided to write a comment about it on James Allen’s blog. He then saw fit to use my comment as the foundation of a separate post which he called “Fresh insight into McLaren case“.

He had mentioned that the WMSC may find it difficult to prove that anyone other than Dave Ryan and Lewis Hamilton was involved in the decision to lie to the stewards at the Australian Grand Prix. But I remembered an interview that Martin Whitmarsh had with the BBC’s Ted Kravitz which I found very interesting. You can watch the video here, but it is only available to UK users. In case you can’t see it, I have transcribed the relevant part below:

…there’s some debate about whether it’s a 3rd place at the moment given that Trulli fell off and re-passed under the Safety Car…

[Ted Kravitz asks him to expand on this.]

…At the end, under the Safety Car, Trulli fell off onto the grass and Lewis had no choice but to go past him. He was not on the racing circuit. Trulli then re-took the place under the Safety Car, which ordinarily you wouldn’t do.

I know that the FIA are looking at it at the moment and doubtless we’ll have a ruling in due course.

For me, the interview is very misleading. It is “technically true”. But Martin Whitmarsh leaves the BBC’s viewers with the distinct impression that Jarno Trulli was in the wrong — that he had overtaken Lewis Hamilton of his own accord, not having been invited to do so. The key point is that the version of events relayed by Martin Whitmarsh to the BBC’s viewers is more or less identical to what we understand Dave Ryan and Lewis Hamilton told the stewards.

This means one of three things. One is that it is an entirely meaningless coincidence, though it would be quite a remarkable one. Second, both Dave Ryan and Martin Whitmarsh independently came up with the same cover story. This in itself would say something bad about the culture of McLaren.

The third possibility is that a version of events — the McLaren party line, as it were — was constructed very soon after the race. In this scenario, Martin Whitmarsh was in on it, and Dave Ryan has become the fall guy. If this is the case, McLaren are guilty as sin and the decision to scapegoat Dave Ryan is reprehensible.

A lot of journalists sensed that Martin Whitmarsh knew more than he was letting on. The BBC interview only adds to this impression. The interview throws the spotlight straight back onto Martin Whitmarsh. What did he know about the situation? Did he instruct Dave Ryan — who by all accounts I have heard is a well-respected person within the paddock — to lie to the stewards?

A lot of the conversation on James Allen’s blog has centred on Martin Whitmarsh’s use of the word “ordinarily” in the sentence, “Trulli then re-took the place under the Safety Car, which ordinarily you wouldn’t do.” I noted in my original comment, “Yeah, you wouldn’t do it… unless the guy in front pulled over!”

I was surprised that the BBC themselves hadn’t made more of the interview. Perhaps they had forgotten about it. I note with interest now that the Telegraph is reporting that the FIA have requested a copy of the interview from the BBC.

I must point out here that I sincerely hope that any further punishment the FIA hands out to McLaren is not too over-the-top. I should think a fine (considerably less than ONE HUNDRED MEELION DOLLARS) or the removal of Constructors’ Championship points for a few races would suffice. After all, what McLaren did may have been unsporting. But they did not do anything downright dangerous, like a certain man who drove a red car was fond of doing from time to time and never got more than a slap on the wrists for.

One news story that began to develop late on Saturday night in Melbourne was that Williams had lodged a protest against Ferrari and Red Bull. Nothing appears to have happened on that front yet, so I assume that everyone has gone to bed and it will be sorted in the morning.

There isn’t a lot of information out there about the protest. Grandprix.com suggests that the protests surround aerodynamics around the sidepods. By this, I assume we are talking about the strange structures that have sprouted up just in front of the sidepods. Ferrari use them as an elaborate mirror stand, but it’s clear they serve an aerodynamic purpose.

These strange structures were noted at the time. But it was pointed out that they were perfectly within the rules, even if they went against the “spirit” of the rules, which was to get rid of such weird and wonderful aerodynamic devices. This leads me to wonder if Williams are simply being a bit mischievous in their protest against Ferrari and Red Bull.

The recent fuss kicked up by Ferrari and Red Bull (and Renault and BMW) about the “diffuser three” is similarly contrived. I don’t understand the technical regulations all that well, but everything I have read suggests that the controversial diffusers are perfectly within the letter of the law. What is at question is whether they are within the “spirit” of the law.

Are Williams simply sending out a message to the complaining teams — giving them a taste of their own medicine? “We can play this game as well. Your cars aren’t within the spirit of the law either.”

Update: I had missed that Williams had withdrawn their protest just before midnight. There is still no explanation, but the fact that they have withdrawn the protest make it all the more likely that Williams were just being a bit cheeky.

Update 2: Interesting quote:

Williams recognises the possibility that in this area there could be more than one interpretation of the rules and therefore does not feel it appropriate to continue with the protests.

The FIA published the final entry list for the 2009 season which contained a few changes to the previous versions.

The change that grabbed the headlines (okay, created a tiny ripple) was the fact that Brawn have been assigned car numbers 20 and 21. The FIA have decided that Brawn is technically a new entrant, seemingly because Honda had a commercial agreement that it would participate in F1 as Honda.

Force India moved up the grid as a result and have been assigned numbers 18 and 19. The two Toro Rosso drivers, Sébastien Bourdais and Sébastien Buemi have swapped numbers so that the more experienced of the two has the lower number — an uncontroversial practice.

But I am fascinated that Ferrari have seen fit to swap the car numbers of their two drivers. Team can allocate their numbers in whatever way they see fit (with the exception of number 1). But clearly Ferrari have made a conscious decision to demote Räikkönen.

For his entire Ferrari career, Felipe Massa has been the “second” driver, at least as far as car numbers go. This is also reflected in his pay packet, which is allegedly significantly lower than Kimi Räikkönen’s.

This year it’s different. Räikkönen’s contract may ensure that he still gets paid the megabucks. But this year he will have to race in the number 4 car, while Massa takes number 3.

It might seem like a small thing, and in a way it is. But it’s very interesting that earlier entry lists had the drivers swapped around with Kimi as driver number 3 and Massa as number 4. This means that at some point over the winter, Ferrari have made the decision to officially make Räikkönen the number two driver, at least as far as the FIA entry list goes.

The entry list was published on the same day as Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali gave an interview to La Gazzetta dello Sport which James Allen analysed:

You don’t need to be a genius at reading between the lines to get what Domenicali is saying here. A repeat of last year’s performance would signal the end of Kimi at Ferrari.

Is the number swap another subtle hint from the Ferrari team that Räikkönen must improve or else?

Today the World Motor Sport Council met to make its decisions and already F1′s bloggers and Twitter users have been voicing their opinions. Here are some of my more in-depth thoughts.

Points

The points system for 2009 has been amended, and the result is a compromise between Bernie Ecclestone’s controversial ‘medals’ proposal and the current points system. Basically, the current 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 system will remain in tact, but the Drivers’ Championship will be awarded to the driver with the most wins.

I have long been in favour of a radical change to the points system, and I am quite receptive to a “medals-style” system. But many other fans were not so keen.

This compromise solution isn’t one that I have seen suggested before. But on the face of it, it seems like a fair enough compromise. I would still prefer a more radical change to the points system, rather than having the championship automatically going to the driver who has had the most wins. But this could have been much, much worse.

Testing

From now on, teams will be allowed three young driver training tests between the end of the championship and the end of the year. I believe that such tests were unlimited before (correct me if I’m wrong). This represents yet another barrier to the young drivers that Max Mosley purports to be helping.

Straight-line testing is also facing further restrictions. Between 1 January 2009 and the end of the championship, teams will be allowed only eight days of straight-line or constant-radius testing. As pointed out by @sidepodcast on Twitter, this could leave McLaren in trouble given the amount of straight-line testing they have already done this year.

I’m not opposed to limits on straight-line testing. It seems fair to limit it just as other testing is restricted. However, applying this retrospectively does seem to be rather underhanded, and is especially unfair on those teams that took advantage of straight line testing a lot over the winter. Is it yet another FIA anti-McLaren conspiracy? Don those tin foil hats! Say what you like about Max and Bernie, but they sure know how to stir up a fuss!

Qualifying fuel loads

The weights of all cars after qualifying will now be published. This will give the geeks (like me) a lot of interesting data to analyse on a Saturday evening. But I’m not sure how this will improve the show. Personally, the suspense surrounding a driver’s fuel load is the only good thing about having race fuel loads during qualifying. I quite like not knowing when the leaders are going to take a pitstop.

People talk about F1′s script writers. Well now we will have a “spoiler” long before the race has even begun. This is a shame.

I assume this is a response to those who lament the fact that qualifying no longer shows who the fastest driver is. But the real solution to this would be to get rid of the ridiculous race fuel load idea altogether. It has never worked, and it adds nothing to the show.

Tyres

Just a small one this. Wets are now officially “intermediates” and extreme wets are “wets”. This seems rather uncontroversial to me, because I normally refer to inters and extreme wets. Since inters became such good all-round wet weather tyres, this problem has existed, and it’s good that the FIA has tried to inject a rare bit of clarity into the regulations.

Media

Drivers will now have to make themselves more available to sign autographs. And there will be no running away in a fug of embarrassment after a poor performances. All drivers must make themselves available to the media for interview after the race or after they have retired.

Senior team personnel will also have to make themselves available to TV crews. Fota had proposed a similar idea anyway, and it’s a good idea to ensure that the fans get more out of the sport.

Changes to the 2009 Technical Regulations

You what? Yes, apparently the FIA have changed the 2009 Technical Regulations, details of which will be published later today. Haven’t they left it a bit late?…

The batshit-crazy zone

Mind your step. This is where we enter the realms of nonsense. It wouldn’t be the FIA without a nice dose of nonsense, and they certainly haven’t disappointed this time round.

From 2010 onwards there will be a budget cap of £30 million per season. But it’s a voluntary budget cap. So to give teams an incentive to stick to the magic limit, the FIA will allow these teams to have more technical freedoms. Essentially, there will be not one but two sets of Technical Regulations. Maybe from 2010 onwards the sport will become known as “Formulae Ones”, “Two Formula Ones”, “Formula One.1 and Formula One.2″.

In all seriousness, I think this is a recipe for disaster. For one thing, the FIA reckons it will be able to work out when “the cost-capped cars have neither an advantage nor a disadvantage when compared to cars running to the existing rules.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I quite like the idea that in F1 some cars are better than others. It’s called competition. It’s what sport is made of. And too often motorsports go down the route of trying to equalise performance between the cars by restricting the best cars. Then that series goes down the pan (hello, BTCC). That’s because people watch motorsport for the competition between teams and drivers. The moment you try to neutralise that, you start to alienate the core audience.

Besides, it’s all very well to do what they do in Touring Cars and add extra ballast to race-winning cars. But it’s a different thing altogether to try and work out how to manipulate cars when they are being run to separate sets of regulations. The FIA can’t even create one decent set of unambiguous technical regulations, never mind two of them, and with the aim of having the two types of cars performing equally!

For me, this just stinks. The FIA would be able to penalise cars for very little good reason, other than something vague about equalising performance. Decisions would probably be made in smoke-filled rooms, obscured from the fans’ view.

Believe it or not, F1 just got even more political.

Fota today announced its plans for the future direction of Formula 1. Perhaps predictably, the announcement is a mixture of the sensible, the radical and the downright crazy.

Fota carried out a “global audience survey”, with participants from 17 countries and encompassing committed fans of Formula 1 as well as marginal fans and those who don’t watch F1 at all. So there is clearly an eye on trying to expand F1′s appeal without alienating the existing fanbase. The key findings of the survey are not too controversial and I expect most fans will be nodding sagely as they read the list:

  1. F1 isn’t broken, so beware ‘over-fixing’ it

    Quite right. Amid all the doom and gloom, we are all fans for a reason and that reason is because we love the sport. It is worth remembering that there isn’t much wrong with F1. Indeed, most of what is wrong with F1 stems from ill thought-out rule changes over the past decade or so.

  2. F1 needs to be more consumer-friendly

    There is little doubt about this. F1 fans are somewhat short-changed compared to other fans. Internet coverage is woeful while the fact that HD broadcasts are not yet available is nothing short of a scandal. You cannot escape the feeling that Bernie Ecclestone simply should be doing a better job catering to the fans.

  3. Major changes to qualifying format are not urgent

    For all the hand-wringing about the qualifying format, the reality is that it’s the race that matters. Attempts to make qualifying more entertaining over the past few years have only backfired, and the last thing qualifying needs is yet another strange new format. The grid would be more meritocratically formed by ditching the ridiculous “race fuel load” concept.

  4. Revisions to the points-scoring system

    There is a clear consensus that the current points system simply does not reward winners enough. The only thing that has prevented a change so far has been disagreement over what the new system should be.

  5. Evolution of pit stops and refuelling

    There is a hint that refuelling should be banned (which is will be from 2010 onwards anyway), which makes sense given the dramatic reduction in overtaking which has occurred since 1994. Pit stop strategy does add an interesting dimension though, and it would be wrong to do away with pit stops altogether.

As for Fota’s actual proposals, my reaction is more mixed.

In general, Fota are promising a more fan-friendly environment. The technical and sporting changes must be approved by the FIA first (so you can be sure they will end up being a mess anyway). But as far as I know there is nothing to stop the teams from deciding among themselves to create a more fan-friendly environment. So it is very promising to see that this is exactly what they are promising.

Fota’s suggestion of increased media access to data is a must, and I can’t wait to see what the teams will reveal to the fans this season. Nominating senior team spokesmen is also a good idea. In my view, teams are sometimes quite good at talking to the media during races. ITV certainly managed to get a lot of senior figures doing live interviews during races over the years. But to guarantee this sort of access is of course a good move.

By now, further technical restrictions (such as increasing the life of engines, gearboxes and so on) are expected and uncontroversial. The move to reduce the use of exotic materials will no doubt reduces costs considerably without spoiling the show. But beware any moves that will make F1 seem too much like a spec series. Originally kers was supposed to be a performance differentiator. Already, just one year on, all sides seem determined for there to be a standard unit. What a mess.

I am unsure about a further reduction in testing. Fota has proposed a 50% reduction. This will save money, but there are a host of disadvantages which I have already outlined in my previous post on the subject.

Fota’s proposed new points system is 12-9-7-5-4-3-2-1. Put simply, this is not enough. A two point difference between 1st and 2nd place is far too low. Three points is hardly any better. In my view, 1st place should be worth around double what 2nd place is worth.

I am sceptical of the move to share data about starting fuel loads. The real solution is to get rid of race fuel loads in qualifying. But to publish the starting fuel loads would spoil the surprise element of the strategy, which is the only decent aspect of refuelling. Tyre compounds are already public via the medium of strange green markings on the tyres, so I’m not sure what Fota are proposing that’s different.

The suggestion that one point should be awarded to the constructor that makes the fastest pitstop during the race is absolutely stark raving bonkers. Fast pitstops are rewarded anyway by on-track advantage, and should not count for anything else. I can already envisage Force Indias and Brawns that are well out of the points coming in for unnecessary pitstops, stopping for a quick half-second wipe of the visor or something, just in order to make the fastest pitstop. What a joke. I’m amazed this idea is even being taken half-seriously by Fota.

I am not so sure about the reduction in the duration of the race to 250km (from the current 305km). The key findings note that “the current race format is not viewed as fundamentally broken”, and that concepts such as sprint races would debase the F1 experience. As such, it is completely unclear on what basis Fota wants race lengths reduced. It is completely contradictory.

I wouldn’t rule out shorter races completely. It is true that often very little happens after the final pitstops have shaken out. But 90 minutes is a good length for a major sporting event and part of the essence of Formula 1 is that there is the element of endurance to it.

I think it would be a good idea for there to be a mixture of different race formats throughout a calendar. Nothing too radical. But there’s nothing wrong with having some races shorter than others. And why not have some races where refuelling is allowed, and others when it is banned? Different drivers could demonstrate their varying skills, and different cars could take advantage of their peculiar characteristics.

I suppose there could be a risk that teams will start constructing special cars (with different fuel tanks, weight distributions, etc) for different race formats. But how about having a limit on the number of chassis that each team can use in a season? After all, it worked for engines.

It has to be said, unintended consequences are never far away in the world of F1 rule changes. For just one example, take a look at how quickly aerodynamic flick-ups have resurfaced, despite their supposed banning. Skate fins? What on earth?

Now we are presented with a number of oddities that have come about as a result of this season’s new testing restrictions. In-season testing is banned completely. Each team is limited to 15,000km, but according to James Allen it looks as though no teams will top 10,000km, because this year’s testing events have been so heavily disrupted. Teams that go to Portugal and Spain get relentlessly rained on. Those that go to Bahrain are treated to sandstorms.

Moreover, what little testing time there is has been eaten into by the need to test 2010-spec tyres. The bans in refuelling and tyre warmers coming into effect next season will put different demands on the tyres. As such, Bridgestone need to get data so that they don’t end up barking up the wrong tree as they develop the new tyres. But with no opportunity to do this later on in the season, some teams (McLaren and BMW) have had to sacrifice some time from their already tight pre-season test schedule.

Now McLaren’s test driver Pedro de la Rosa has expressed concerns that the lack of test time is actually dangerous for reserve drivers. Should a reserve have to come in for some reason, he will be thrown into the deep end, straight into the action having had little experience of the car. That would be bad enough in a normal year, but with the radical rule changes that have come into force this season you can expect out-of-practice drivers to be even rustier.

Now it is becoming obvious that the testing restrictions are damaging the careers of young drivers. All winter, it had looked as though Rubens Barrichello’s chances of retaining his seat at Honda / Brawn were close to zero. Reading some reports, you’d believe that Bruno Senna was practically a shoo-in.

Now it looks as though Barrichello has been given the nod, leaving Senna with nowhere to go. The ever-excellent Grandprix.com trailed the possibility a few days ago, noting that “Barrichello is a better bet [than Senna] as his experience will be useful in a year when there is little opportunity for young drivers to learn how to drive F1 cars.”

From this perspective, it looks like Honda / Brawn have made the right decision here. Moreover, Barrichello outperformed Button last season, and it would have been a real shame if Barrichello’s career ended with a snub. Mind you, there is the risk that Barrichello will have a David Coulthard-style final season of doom, and we wouldn’t really want that.

But what now for Bruno Senna? Holding out for an F1 seat, he has more or less ruled out staying in GP2 for a third season. Indeed, it is difficult to see what he could achieve with another year in GP2. Drivers who spend too long in a category like GP2 tend to have their potential stunted.

In a sense, this is a predicament which is yet another symptom of the serial mismanagement at Honda which has deteriorated this winter to extreme levels for obvious reasons. Senna sounds pretty frustrated over this situation, and wouldn’t you be?

But any other year it would be no big deal. Senna could sign as a test driver for one year, as countless other drivers have done before, and spend the season racking up the miles on the test track in preparation for his first full season. And should he needed to replace another driver mid-season, he would have experience required of him.

Failing that, he could have gone on to make a decent career as a test driver. It may not have the glamour of a race role, and you can bet your bottom dollar that all test drivers yearn to race. But it is, at least, a decent income earned from driving cars — and they can always hope. People like Luca Badoer, Marc Gené, Anthony Davidson, Alexander Wurz and, yes, Pedro de la Rosa, have all made a decent living out of testing F1 cars. Felipe Massa started out at Ferrari as a test driver, and today he challenges for Championships.

Now what? All Bruno Senna can do is twiddle his thumbs. He can always suffer the humiliation of going back cap in hand to a GP2 seat. But this could backfire on him, and all the best seats have already been filled.

Could this be one reason why there is only going to be one rookie this season? Sébastien Buemi is the only newcomer to F1 this season, but he has done plenty of testing for the Red Bull teams and he is filling a vacancy that David Coulthard voluntarily left behind.

Remember when everyone was certain that Renault were not going to re-sign Nelsinho Piquet? Then, out of nowhere, they signed him for another season. Is that because, for all his faults, he at least has experience that the likes of Romain Grosjean and Lucas Di Grassi now cannot hope to attain?

Let us not forget another major FIA-instituted change for 2009, which is yet another instance revealing the lack of joined-up thinking inside the FIA. This season sees the inauguration of Max Mosley’s Formula Two project. Remember, this new feeder series was supposedly invented specifically to make it easier for young drivers to reach F1.

Well, it’s all very well adding yet another “second-top” rung in an already-cluttered world that contains GP2, A1GP and World Series by Renault among others. But the top rung now has a fundamental crack that will cause the ladder collapse when a driver reaches it, sending him — and his career — crashing to the floor.

There might be an allowance in F1 for “young driver training”, but this is no more than a fig leaf. A “young driver” is someone who has not tested on more than four days in the past 24 months. How is a young driver supposed to progress with such scant “training”?

Max Mosley likes to use F2 to make out that he is opening doors for young drivers. The reality is that this door leads drivers up the garden path. There have seldom, if ever, been as many feeder series as there are today. An F1 team can take their pick from 20+ GP2 drivers, countless A1GP drivers, anyone from WSR who takes their fancy and goodness knows how many F3 drivers. F2 isn’t needed, especially now that young drivers will find the welcome mat at F1′s door cruelly swiped from their feet.

Today the BBC has announced further details of its F1 coverage, which will start in just a month’s time. We already knew who would be presenting the BBC’s F1 coverage, but today we have found out more about just what the BBC will be offering the viewers this season.

Television coverage

The BBC have released full details of the television schedule for the whole season. All of the races and qualifying sessions will be broadcast on BBC One, with the exception of Brazilian qualifying which will be broadcast on BBC Two (as it will clash with Final Score). Races at unsociable hours will be repeated in full later in the day, just as ITV did.

Highlights

What is interesting is that the hour long highlights package will be broadcast on BBC Three. But it will be much earlier than ITV’s offering. While ITV begrudgingly broadcast their highlights as late on Sunday night as they could possibly get away with, the BBC promise to broadcast highlights at 1900 on the day of the race, with the exception of Brazil of course when it will be broadcast at 2300.

Practice sessions

In addition, all practice sessions will be covered on BBC Red Button. This is fantastic news. In 2008 ITV provided live coverage of Friday Practice — but not Saturday Practice. Moreover, ITV only showed it on the internet, meaning that it was a poor quality offering. The BBC will now give fans the opportunity to watch practice sessions at television-standard quality for the first time in the UK.

Red Button

There will also be a number of interactive offerings. On race day, viewers will have a choice of three streams:

  • The FOM World Feed (what we’re used to getting), with the option to choose between BBC One or Radio 5 Live commentary.
  • Rolling highlights
  • A split-screen offering, with the FOM World Feed, on-board action and a leaderboard (the FIA timing screens?)

After the race has finished, there will be an hour-long interactive analysis programme with Jake Humphrey, David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan.

Internet

All sessions will be broadcast over the internet on the BBC’s website. Users will have the ability to choose from a number of different streams — everything that you can get on television, and perhaps more? Moreover, at least one feed will be offered in “extra-high quality”, which the BBC say will be “near-televisual quality video”. There will also be live text coverage, and visitors will be offered the opportunity to vote and discuss the big talking points of the race.

All coverage will be available to watch again on the BBC iPlayer. Users will be able to download videos within 7 days of broadcast, though downloads will self-destruct in a plume of smoke after 30 days.

Website

The BBC are promising that a much-needed relaunch of their F1 website will take place before the season begins. We are promised blogs from Jonathan Legard, Andrew Benson and Jake Humphrey as well as one from an “F1 mole” (hmm, that rings a bell…). Murray Walker’s video review of each race has already been well publicised, but we are now also promised videos and text columns from Martin Brundle and Mark Webber.

If the BBC get this right, it could turn out to be one of the very best F1 websites around. It sounds very promising.

Radio coverage

There is a separate press release concerning radio coverage. It had already been confirmed than Anthony Davidson will be the co-commentator on Radio 5 Live, alongside David Croft. This is mixed news for a number of reasons.

First of all, it should be pointed out that the BBC has pulled off a major coup by signing Anthony Davidson for the entire season. The driver still clings on to hopes that he will get a race drive. But with empty seats in short supply, it looks like Davidson has chosen to develop his career as a commentator.

Davidson has had a few stints as a commentator, on ITV as well as on BBC Radio. He is very good at the job in my opinion. He seems almost as natural behind the mic as Martin Brundle. He effortlessly explains to the listener what a driver is going through, and his technical knowledge of the current cars will almost certainly be second to none among commentators throughout the world.

Sadly, this means that Maurice Hamilton will no longer be a regular commentator on Radio 5 Live. This is unfortunate as I enjoy listening to his comments and opinions. I am sure we haven’t heard the last of him though. I hope he stays involved with some of the podcasts he has worked on in the past — particularly The Inside Line, which I have praised a number of times here.

Otherwise, though, the Radio 5 Live team remains the same. David Croft is perhaps not the best commentator around, but he is a likeable presence with a great enthusiasm for the sport. I’m particularly looking forward this year to watching practice sessions on BBC Red Button, where the commentary will be provided by the Radio 5 Live team. Practice has always been an enjoyable listen, in a Test Match Special sort of way.

There is also good news on Radio 5 Live’s Friday night preview show, 5 Live Formula One. Martin Brundle and David Coulthard will make regular appearances discussing the latest issues in F1. I can’t wait to hear what the pair will come up with. Both are colourful analysts of the sport, and they have worked with each other for many years, so the chemistry will no doubt be super.

What’s missing?

Rumours on message boards had suggested that there may be the option to watch highlights of each Grand Prix all day after the race. But there is no mention of that in the press release.

It looks as though there will be no HD coverage after all. This is a major disappointment. The BBC have hinted in the past that they would jump at the chance to broadcast F1 in HD, so this looks like it’s Bernie’s doing.

And where is the information on the support races? This is what I was most looking forward to learning about today, but looking at the BBC’s press release you wouldn’t know they even existed. I would be gutted if GP2 didn’t end up on terrestrial television, after the races were shown live on ITV4 last year. I am hoping that red button coverage will be announced at a later date.