Archive: money

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Are hopes for a Korean Grand Prix in 2012 disappearing down the plughole?

Last weekend saw the second Korean Grand Prix. Already there are murmurs that it may be the last. Autosport are today reporting that the Korean Grand Prix organisers are seeking to renegotiate their contract with Bernie Ecclestone in order to stem their losses. Good luck with that one.

Watching the Korean Grand Prix over the weekend, it was difficult not to draw a parallel with the Turkish Grand Prix. It seems to suffer from a lot of the same problems, with an extra few problems on top just to make sure.

Istanbul Park was notorious for being in the middle of nowhere and tough to access. The Korean circuit, located at Yeongam, appears to be similarly remote. Although close to medium-sized city of Mokpo, it is several hours away from the main hub Seoul. This has been the source of some grumbles from within the F1 fraternity over the past two years.

But more striking was the emptiness of the grandstands. It did not seem quite as bad as Turkey, but it certainly was a cause for concern and a topic of conversation over the weekend. It seems as though Formula 1 has failed to capture the imagination of the Korean public.

Apparently, almost no other events take place at the circuit during the rest of the year. So it is not difficult to imagine that the facility might be struggling financially.

A lot of surprise was expressed at how little has been done to the circuit since the inaugural race last year. Even then, the circuit famously faced a race against time to even be ready to stage the race at all. In the end, it is said that corners were cut, raising concerns about the safety of the race.

Drainage was poor, the newly-laid tarmac was slippery, leading to some of the worst visibility conditions in memory. Earlier this year, Fernando Alonso said, “it remains quite shocking what we did in Korea.”

Some elements of danger have clearly not been removed in the past year. The pitlane entrance and exit are both viewed as unsafe. I had expected the pitlane exit at least to be modified following the first race, but no.

I am staggered that such a patently inadequate design to both the entrance and exit has come about. During the BBC commentary, David Coulthard joked that Hermann Tilke must have had his YTS designers working on the circuit.

Hermann Tilke has come up with a lot of goofy circuit designs, but this problem takes the biscuit. How many failed circuit designs do there need to be? You really do wonder how he has managed to be almost the only person involved in designing or redesigning Formula 1 circuits in the past 15 years, yet still manages to come out with stuff like this.

The original vision was for a city to surround part of the circuit. But none of the city appears to be in place yet. Part of the circuit is even described as a “temporary street circuit”, though quite how can you call it this when the streets themselves do not even exist yet?

The circuit itself is nothing special in terms of racing either. At least Turkey had a good circuit, with its instantly-legendary quadruple-apex Turn 8. I was also keen on the last few corners, where there was often some great wheel-to-wheel racing. Korea International Circuit has none of that.

In a way, it was a shame that the Turkish Grand Prix has ended up being dropped from the calendar (although it remains on standby to step in, just in case any more races — Bahrain, the USA or Korea — fall off the calendar). But at least Turkey managed to get seven races under their belt. Korea has two so far. Would anyone miss it if there wasn’t a third?

Over the past week or so, rumours that big changes are afoot at Williams have been ramping up.

Last week when I saw that a German website had written about this, I prepared a simple but telling graph looking at the form of Williams over the years. But I refrained from publishing it in case my conclusions were overly harsh.

But today the team’s technical director Sam Michael has come out and said for himself that the recent performance of Williams is not good enough.

What I would not be happy with doing would be not changing anything – even myself. Even if everyone said everything is perfect, I know it is not. So, I am not happy with the job that we have done as a group. I would review that anyway – including myself. I don’t exclude myself from any of that.

I, as technical director, have chosen the technical team that works for me… They are all people that I have chosen to put in those positions, so if it doesn’t work then it is my responsibility.

This is refreshing honesty. It is no secret that Williams’s form has been disappointing in the last few years. But it has never been properly confronted.

In the light of Sam Michael’s comments, here is the graph. It tracks the Constructors’ Championship positions of Williams throughout its 32 years in Formula 1. Alongside the annual positions, I have added a five-year rolling average to allow us to see the longer term trends.

Williams Constructors's Championship positions

It is well-known that Williams has always been a highly successful grand prix team. The 1980s were a bit of a rollercoaster. The team mixed hugely successful years with a few more disappointing years. Overall, the trend has been for the team to hover around 3rd place on average.

Then came the mid-1990s, when Williams were truly dominant. This was the period where Adrian Newey was on board. It is almost impossible for the five-year trend to get any higher, as the team strung together an incredible seven consecutive top-two finishes.

It is no secret that Williams have never dominated in this way ever since Adrian Newey left in 1997. But looking at the trend, Williams continued to average around 3rd place in the Constructors’ Championship — if anything, still slightly better than the pre-Adrian Newey years. But in the middle of the 2000s, it begins to change for the worse — dramatically.

In fact, if you look at the trendline, with no other knowledge I think you could actually guess when Sam Michael became technical director. In case you haven’t spotted it, I have added a subtle hint that pinpoints the year.

Williams Constructors's Championship positions (with arrow indicating when Sam Michael became technical director)

This could well be a harsh assessment. Sam Michael seems to be well respected among his colleagues at Williams. But from the outside, it has long perplexed me why there hasn’t been more of a question mark over Sam Michael’s role.

The team has made many changes in recent years. They have switched engine manufacturers from BMW to Cosworth via Toyota. They have brought on board hugely experienced drivers (Alexander Wurz, Rubens Barrichello) along with promising rookies (Nico Rosberg, Nico Hülkenberg). And there have been lots of changes behind the scenes with the operation of the business. None of these changes have done the trick.

Now, with Williams enduring their worst start to an F1 season since their very first one in 1978, it is crunch time. They need to face up to their issues properly.

We know the problem is not money. After all, the team keeps telling us they have no money worries whatsoever!

Currently the team languishes in 10th place in the Constructors’ Championship, behind Lotus, a team that is not yet two years old. Indeed, in China, Pastor Maldonado was beaten fair and square by Heikki Kovalainen in the Lotus.

Amazingly, this position is up from the situation after Malaysia, when the team was also behind Virgin in the Constructors’ Championship. Virgin is another team looking carefully at its technical set-up, as Nick Wirth’s CFD-only approach fails to prove its worth.

Here, just for fun, is the graph of Williams’s Constructors’ Championship positions with their current 10th place for 2011 added.

Williams Constructors's Championship positions (including 2011 up to the Chinese Grand Prix)

Two influential figures in Formula 1 have begun to argue in favour of getting rid of blue flags in F1. The problem is that neither appears to understand motorsport.

Both are businessmen who are in F1 to make more cash. They both also happen to be involved in F1 teams that are stuck at the back of the grid, so are more heavily disadvantaged by blue flags.

Tony Fernandes and Richard Branson are the ones calling for blue flags to be removed from the sport. But it’s funny, because I don’t remember Mr Branson being so concerned about blue flags not being “fun” enough when he was backing the championship-winning Brawn team last year.

The pair seem confused. They try to justify their stance by talking about how exciting it would be. Apparently it would increase overtaking! Er, no. Fans at home don’t think that Lewis Hamilton in 1st place is racing with Sakon Yamamoto in 21st place — because he isn’t! The idea that people would tune in for this, or derive entertainment from it, is nonsense.

Worst of all, an F1 without blue flags would be wide open to corruption. If you didn’t like the team orders controversy of Hockenheim, you had better cross your fingers that blue flags remain in F1. Because it would open up a situation that would be like team orders on steroids.

Take, for instance, the 1997 European Grand Prix. It is a weekend memorable for many reasons. How about that moment when Norberto Fontana, a lap down, held up Jacques Villeneuve but allowed Michael Schumacher to breeze by?

As Martin Brundle pointed out in his commentary as it happened, Fontana’s Sauber car was powered by a Ferrari engine. What a coincidence! Or was it? Nine years later, Fontana claimed that he was asked to do whatever he could to help Schumacher win the championship. It is an allegation that was denied by Jean Todt and Peter Sauber, but the suspicion remains.

Now let’s say — for the sake of argument — you have a backmarker team that is disgruntled with its current suppliers of engines and transmission systems. It is in negotiations with one front-running team to supply better engines, and another championship-leading team to supply a gearbox and hydraulic system. It might make the negotiations go more smoothly if the backmarker team could do certain things on the track to benefit particular front-running teams.

I’m not suggesting that any team would do that. But the scope would be there if any unscrupulous team wanted to do so.

It is true that backmarkers can be unfairly disadvantaged by blue flags. But this is an occupational hazard of motor racing. It is the case that the blue flag rules have become stricter in the past couple of decades or so. It may be a good idea to relax the rules a little. But blue flags have been a part of motor racing since the 1910s.

To talk about “the days of Ken Tyrrell” is a bit misguided in my view. In those days, blue flags may have worked well as a gentleman’s agreement. But that was in the days when there were still gentlemen in the sport. Today it’s full of money men constantly looking after their self interest.

I can hardly believe we are already more than halfway through the Formula 1 season. It has gone by so quickly. Normally I look at the performances of the drivers at the halfway point. But this year I haven’t felt as able to keep on top of everything, so instead I will look at the constructors.

12. Hispania

Of the three new teams, Hispania have probably had the hardest job after taking over the Campos entry at the eleventh hour after it hit severe financial difficulties. Although their car is probably the slowest, it does not have the poorest reliability record, and as such the team currently sits ahead of Virgin in the Constructors’ Championship. Hispania have also acted quickly to sort out the problems with the Dallara chassis, and have hired big name designer Geoff Willis to sort out the mess for next season.

However, recent musical chairs involving their drivers have left a sour taste in the mouth. Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok are both well-liked drivers who have done an admirable job in hugely difficult circumstances, even though you might say neither is a potential future World Champion. Sakon Yamamoto is not liked very much, and is not terribly good as demonstrated in his previous two stints in F1. But the team appear to be desperate to get him into the car nevertheless. The process has been handled appallingly.

11. Virgin

On the track, Virgin is probably the least exciting of the new teams. Their reliability record is poor, and the speed is not particularly impressive, even if they occasionally manage to beat a Lotus every once in a while.

On the plus side, their controversial approach to design the car without the use of a wind tunnel has proved the doubters wrong, as the car has not been disastrously off the pace.

Both drivers have shown flashes of brilliance. But you sense that Timo Glock in particular would be capable of more if only he had decent equipment.

10. Lotus

Lotus have very quickly established themselves as the fastest of the new teams. But it has not all been plain sailing for them, and their reliability record needs improvement. I also wonder how much better they would be doing if they had two better race drivers than Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen, although the experienced line-up is probably ideal in a development sense.

The next target for Lotus is to start beating the established teams on a regular basis. But with Williams and Sauber both having made significant improvements recently, it is difficult to see how they can make much headway beyond battling with Toro Rosso. Whatever, next year will be important for Lotus — anything below ninth in the 2011 Constructors’ Championship would surely be a disappointment. But that just shows how far they have come already.

9. Williams

Although they have begun to make strides up the grid in the past few races, the fact remains that this has been another disastrous year for Williams. They have spent much of the season battling at the wrong end of the grid, counting Sauber and Toro Rosso among their rivals.

Perhaps the most worrying thing is that when you hear the likes of Patrick Head and Sam Michael try to explain the team’s performance over the past few years, they seem to be at a loss, except for vaguely talking about money being an issue. Williams lack answers.

Rubens Barrichello has been doing more or less the sort of job you would expect him to do. Meanwhile, promising rookie Nico Hülkenberg has not shown as much promise as you might have hoped. This has been coupled with a heavy dose of bad luck. I hope the second half of the season is better for Hülkenberg, of whom I am a fan.

8. Toro Rosso

I am finding it difficult to draw any firm conclusions about Toro Rosso yet. They have had some very poor showings indeed. But on the plus side, you must remember that this is their first year as a ‘proper’ constructor, designing their own chassis. On this basis, this season must be regarded as a success, even if they have not always been as quick as they may have liked.

Both Jaime Alguersuari and Sébastien Buemi are continuing to improve. Alguersuari has shown some real flashes of brilliance, and has impressed me a lot this season — particularly in a couple of battles with Michael Schumacher!

But with a more anonymous season, Buemi has been keeping his nose clean and has picked up the majority of the team’s points haul so far. That is mainly due to his assured performance at Canada, where he did well standing his ground as he briefly led the race as the pitstop phase was shaking itself out.

7. Sauber

After a promising winter testing season, the start of the actual season itself was deeply embarrassing for Sauber as they totally failed to convert pre-season promise into real race results. The car was not only frightfully slow, but it was also horrendously unreliable, making Sauber easily the worst of the established teams.

A question mark also hung over the choice of drivers, probably the riskiest on the grid. The decision to opt for Pedro de la Rosa, who had not raced since 2006, was bizarre — and I am a fan of de la Rosa! Meanwhile, Kamui Kobayashi was a man whose entire reputation was built on two races in odd circumstances.

The good news is that Sauber have turned the corner. de la Rosa is not making a fool of himself, and only needs more luck now in order to start scoring points. Meanwhile, Kobayashi looks set to become a points-scoring regular now. His performance in Valencia was absolutely superb, and he backed this up with another solid performance at Silverstone.

Sauber have also acted quickly to improve the car, making the decision to hire James Key early on as the car’s deficiencies became clear. The improvements he has made since joining the team can be seen vividly in the results.

Yesterday, I began looking at this year’s new F1 teams. This was following Ferrari’s controversial blog post and the news surrounding some of the new teams that has dominated the F1 news websites.

Yesterday I looked at the good aspect of the process — the relative success of Lotus and Virgin. Today, I turn my attention to the bad and ugly sides.

The bad side of the process

Campos’s fall from grace

It is unfortunate for Campos. At first they were regarded as among the most credible of the new teams. But unfortunately the money seems not to have been coming in. It looks as though the team has been saved. This week, as part of the process, its name was changed to Hispania. And today the car was finally launched.

But the car won’t get any proper running until it arrives in Bahrain for the first race, which doesn’t bode well. The last time a Formula 1 team turned up to a race without having tested was Lola in 1997. Running up to six seconds off the pace, the Lola remains one of the worst F1 cars of recent years.

Campos had previously run a successful GP2 team, and had signed a big name driver in the shape of Bruno Senna. For whatever reason, though, the prospect hasn’t brought in the sponsors.

Up until very recently, the driver line-up was still uncertain. For a period, it seemed as though Bruno Senna wasn’t safe. I do wonder if, counter-intuitively, Bruno Senna has been hindered by his name.

I have an immense amount of admiration for Bruno Senna. For my money, he was the class of the GP2 field in 2008. Yet, look at the other GP2 drivers from that season who have made the transition to F1 on more solid foundations: Lucas di Grassi, Romain Grosjean, Sébastien Buemi, Vitaly Petrov. Now you can add Karun Chandhok to that list.

I guess teams avoided hiring Bruno Senna for fear of being accused of only signing him up because of his name. So instead, shaky drivers like Jaime Alguersuari get parachuted in.

Hopefully Bruno Senna will be able to make something out of this mess. Considering he was unable to race for ten years in his youth due to his family’s wishes, he has done an amazing job to become as good as he is.

The situation at Campos / Hispania has been messy, and it’s clear that the team almost failed to make it. But it looks as though things are coming together. The new team principal Colin Kolles has experience in running a lean team from his Midland / Spyker / Force India days. Meanwhile, former Red Bull and BAR / Honda technical director Geoff Willis is also linked to the team.

We’ll have to wait and see if the Dallara chassis is any good. But while Campos were unable to pay the bills, there can’t have been too much work being done on it.

USF1: Another kick in the teeth for American F1 fans

The situation is even worse for USF1. Regarded very early on as a clown-like team, things have gone from bad to worse. It has to be said that Peter Windsor often comes across as someone with a rather child-like over-enthusiasm. Apparently we can add child-like naivety to his list of qualities too.

It seems as though Peter Windsor was genuinely the last person in the world to twig that USF1 wouldn’t arrive in Bahrain with a car. Stories from disgruntled USF1 employees have been leaking out for weeks now. The verdict on his management of the team, along with that of his business partner Ken Anderson, is damning.

With just weeks to go until the first race in Bahrain, USF1 was left with no car, and having done no testing. Peter Windsor was allegedly in tears when he broke the news to its sole announced driver, José María López (a driver who, incidentally, has not raced an open-wheel single-seater in anger for four years). He has apparently been lying low, having not been seen at the factory recently.

This week, when USF1’s employees were finally put out of their misery and told that the game was up, neither Peter Windsor nor Ken Anderson were present. When considering also the news that USF1 apparently had offers to save the team, but the shareholders rebuffed all of these efforts, I begin to assume that this entire exercise was all about ego, and nothing to do with any of the patriotic clap-trap they came out with.

Yesterday, the FIA finally kicked them out of the championship, too late for a more credible team such as Lola or Prodrive to be brought in. That didn’t stop one shady outfit from sniffing around though…

The ugly side of the process

Second hand car business Stefan GP

Serbian outfit Stefan, led by Zoran Stefanović, originally attempted to enter F1 along with the other teams last summer. It was not viewed as credible by anyone. It was noted that the way Stefan went about securing an entry was rather unconventional. For instance, they did their best to upset the FIA by complaining about the entry process itself — which won’t exactly get you in the FIA’s good books.

However, fast forward to this winter. Quietly, Stefan has secured the intellectual property to Toyota’s car, with the manufacturer having recently pulled out. Clearly, actually having a car is a fairly good weapon in an F1 team’s arsenal, particularly considering that certain teams (not naming any names, but I’m talking about USF1) did not even have a car, despite having been preparing for at least a year.

With the shit hitting the fan at USF1’s factory in Charlotte, Bernie Ecclestone was apparently trying to help Stefan make it onto the grid in an attempt to keep the field full. The trouble was that, despite having a car, Stefan still wasn’t terribly credible.

Their preferred form of communication was by bizarre press releases bemoaning everyone and everything in broken English. And when they attempted to test their car a couple of weeks ago, everything was all set, apart from the minor fact that they forgot to arrange a tyre supply!

And I hardly know where to begin with the drivers Stefan are rumoured to have been talking to — the likes of Jacques Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher. Michael Schumacher’s comeback is cynical enough, but at least he is talented and has the ability to come back after a few years away. Jacques Villeneuve couldn’t even spend half a season away in 2004 without coming back even worse than normal.

All-in-all, this entire process hasn’t been F1’s proudest moment. And Formula 1 in recent years is littered with bad news. Here is hoping that Jean Todt will manage to bring some sense into the FIA’s processes. I won’t hold my breath though.

Update: Read more about the dodgy Stefan operation.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, Ferrari have raised eyebrows by choosing to speak the truth about the new teams in Formula 1:

This is the outcome: two teams will limp into the start of the championship, a third is being pushed into the ring by an invisible hand – you can be sure it is not the hand of Adam Smith – and, as for the fourth, well, you would do better to call on Missing Persons to locate it.

This week, that fourth team — USF1 — finally threw in the towel, after weeks (indeed, months) of speculation. And this evening they have been officially removed from the entry list. But I’ll discuss USF1 in further detail later.

However, this news once again shines the spotlight on the new teams, and the FIA’s process for selecting them. Right from the beginning there was controversy surrounding some of the choices. There is also the fact that new entrants were seemingly forced to use Cosworth engines.

It is worth remembering that there were at least two highly credible entries that were rejected by the FIA, to the surprise of many. David Richards and his Prodrive operation has been looking at entering F1 for years, and indeed had a slot on the 2008 grid until the future of customer cars was thrown into doubt. Lola were another highly credible entry with the ability to field a strong car.

So, what’s going on with the new teams? In this short series of articles I will take a brief look at the five main protagonists — Lotus and Virgin (the good side of the process), USF1 and Campos (the bad side) and Stefan (the ugly side).

The good side of the process

The Lotus position: last?

Lotus driver Jarno Trulli openly admits that the team expects to turn up at Bahrain four seconds off the pace. And yesterday Heikki Kovalainen back-pedalled from comments attributed to him that this year’s Lotus is worse than the Minardi he tested in 2003. The Finn claims the comments have been taken out of context.

Nonetheless, for my money the Lotus team has good long-term prospects. The jury is out on Mike Gascoyne’s abilities as a technical director. He is well regarded and appears to do a good job, but critics point out that he has never produced a World Championship-winning car.

Lotus are at pains to point out that they have had just five months to create this F1 car. That is nowhere near long enough to produce a competitive package. In the long term, they could be headed for a respectable role in the midfield.

The driver line-up of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen is unadventurous, but at least it is credible. Trulli and Kovalainen have both won just one race each, and neither is particularly convincing during the race. But at least they are two established and experienced drivers.

Virgin’s CFD gamble

Virgin — the Richard Branson-backed F1 entry of Manor which has been highly successful in lower formulae — has taken a gamble by exclusively using CFD to design the car, without ever having put the car in a wind tunnel. The car has been blighted by several reliability issues, while typically lapping five or six seconds off the pace. If testing form is anything to go by, there is little for the team to be optimistic about.

On the plus side, they have a credible driver pairing in the former Toyota driver Timo Glock and experienced GP2 racer Lucas di Grassi. Perhaps more important, given the current climate, is the fact that the team appears to have been highly successful in attracting sponsorship. I guess sponsors are magnetically attracted to the golden Virgin brand.

Lotus and Virgin are the two teams that are described by Ferrari as “limping” into the start of the championship. That is the best side of the new teams. The other two new teams, Campos and USF1, have both teetered on the brink of collapse. But that is for the next article…

This the accompanying article to my contribution to this week’s edition of The Pod Delusion. Parts of it are based on a previous article, What is STV playing at?

You can listen to the full podcast below.

In a recent episode of The Pod Delusion, Mark Thompson spoke about the good old days when ITV was still a federation of regional television stations. He outlined how, in England and Wales over the past ten or fifteen years, ITV’s regional diversity has given way to a bland umbrella brand.

But not all of the nooks on the ITV network have succumbed to the juggernaut. Four of the ITV regions are still independently owned, and three avoid using the ITV brand. In the Channel Islands, Channel Television still owns the franchise, even though it uses ITV1 branding. But in Northern Ireland, viewers are greeted by idents for UTV. And where I live, in Scotland, the two ITV regions operate as STV.

I can say with authority, given that I live here, that the reality of regional broadcasting on Channel 3 is not quite as rosy as Mark Thompson would like to remember. It certainly is not as quaint and charming as the ITV we remember from our youth — and, incidentally, it was delightful to hear the idents and jingles during Mark’s report.

Sadly, STV is a bit of a basket case. Apparently strapped for cash, for the past year or two it has been embroiled in a dispute with ITV plc that has only served to disadvantage viewers. ITV is trying to gain money that has been allegedly been owed by STV for over ten years. Meanwhile, STV is dropping as many ITV programmes as it can get away with in an apparent attempt to stop owing any more money.

This means that many of the ITV network’s most popular drama programmes have been dropped by STV. This has left Scottish viewers with no options if they want to watch some of the best British commercial television programmes.

Publicly, STV say this is all a brave stance for regional broadcasting in Scotland. That does not really explain why most of the replacements have been cheap imports, films and repeats. As amusing as South Park may be, it is not exactly an adequate replacement for the likes of Kingdom. Incidentally, South Park is seemingly supposed to count as Scottish programming because, in the words of STV director of broadcast services Bobby Hain, it is “mischievous and cheeky… just like the Scottish people.”

Bobby Hain often singles out Al Murray for particular criticism. He reckons that Scots cannot relate to a comedy cockney landlord, forgetting that there is in fact nothing Scots enjoy more than laughing at English stereotypes.

This strategy certainly is not being done for the benefit of the Scottish people. We can tell this because the ratings have largely fallen through the floor. Infamously, STV once ditched Agatha Christie’s Marple in favour of the film Blue Crush — because crap surfing movies set in Hawaii are really Scottish, right? It was a disaster for STV. You could almost have squeezed the viewers into a large football stadium. With just 6% of Scottish television viewers watching it, this made it the least watched of the five main channels in Scotland.

STV have recently broadcast Fitz, the woeful 1990s American remake of Cracker. Presumably they have done this because it is supposed to count as Scottish, despite the fact that it is American. In fact, Fitz more accurately describes what STV viewers go through when they realise that their favourite programme has been replaced by a low budget michty-me, jings, crivvens and help ma boab bag of shite.

Because when STV are showing “regional” programming, it is a parochial embarrassment. One of the programmes it’s pushing most is The Hour. Imagine a cross between The One Show and Live From Studio Five, with a twentieth of the budget and presented from a shed. That barely describes the horror.

In the evenings, STV broadcasts STV Casino. This is the sort of gambling programme I railed against in a previous edition of The Pod Delusion.

More ambitiously, STV sought to find out the Greatest Scot. Among the nominees for the title was John Logie Baird, the inventor of the television. What Logie Baird can’t have foreseen was that his compatriots would be unable to watch anything decent on it.

Soon enough, STV will run out of “Scottish” topics to make programmes about. What next? The History of the Word ‘Outwith‘? Barry Ferguson’s Greatest V-Signs? Susan Boyle’s Ten Favourite Ditches?

Maybe there will be a celebration of the Scots language and / or dialect, with a version of Countdown played in the Scots tongue. Sadly, the only exciting action would be a Buckfast-fuelled brawl surrounding the precise spelling of words like ‘airse’ (‘erse’?) and ‘bawbag’ (‘ba’bag’?).

This new found love for “local” programming really is rich coming from STV. This is a station that, just a few years ago, would do anything to avoid showing locally produced programmes. It transparently sought to meet its quota of regional programmes with cynical late-night repeats of Weir’s Way and extra editions of Scotland Today Interpreted For The Deaf.

This all makes me wonder just what the ‘S’ in STV stands for. Is it ‘Scottish’? Or is it ‘stultifying’? ‘Stupid’? ‘Sellotape’? In fact, I think it’s probably ‘shite’.

Mark Thompson’s idea is a nice one, but is based on a rose-tinted view rather than the reality we Scots have to live with just now. It is true that something needs to change in order for ITV to survive. But the solution to that is surely obvious when you think about it — they should bring back Blockbusters.

After weeks of speculation, it is set to be revealed today that Michael Schumacher has signed a three year deal with for Mercedes. The rumour first surfaced when Eddie Jordan opened his notoriously big mouth. Everyone laughed at the time, but as the weeks went on it became clearer that the prospect was serious.

By my reckoning, this is the first major decision taken by Mercedes since they bought the Brawn team. I feel that it is very revealing about the way a manufacturer approaches Formula 1, as opposed to a privateer team that is in it for the racing. While the lure of attracting the sport’s biggest name must surely attract any team owner, only a manufacturer would set their sights so firmly on the notion.

After all, aside from his reputation, there does not seem to be much going for Schumacher. At 41, he will be the oldest F1 driver since Nigel Mansell in 1995 — and we all know how that went. And it is difficult to think of someone who has taken a sabbatical of three years and made a successful return to F1.

Furthermore, I would have thought that after the embarrassing spectacle of the summer, when Schumacher threatened to return to race for Ferrari before deciding he wasn’t up to the task, he everyone concerned would have learnt their lesson. Michael Schumacher is struggling with what are now quite well-documented fitness problems.

His neck issues are now well publicised. James Allen revealed earlier this year that Schumacher also had problems with his back towards the end of his career in 2005.

With so many question marks surrounding his abilities, I find it difficult to see the justification for expecting Michael Schumacher to be truly competitive. There is no doubt that Michael Schumacher is the most successful driver of all time, certainly as far as statistics go. But the conditions surely just aren’t right for him to make a competitive return.

Yet, as we can all see, the prospect of Michael Schumacher returning to F1 generates a tremendous amount of publicity. It makes little sense in terms of racing, but in terms of marketing the possibility is apparently irresistible.

In other words, Schumacher is coming back to F1 for all the wrong reasons. And Mercedes have signed him for all the wrong reasons.

This move seems to be little more than a crass marketing stunt by Mercedes. Brawn would not have made this decision. Nor would any team other than Ferrari. Even Ferrari went off the idea after this year’s shenanigans.

I must say that I am disappointed in Mercedes. Throughout their involvement in F1 in the past couple of decades, they have seemed to be a very sensible operation indeed. They were a world away from the attention-seeking but ultimately hollow nature of other manufacturers, notably Toyota and Honda.

But as soon as they have been released from the leash of McLaren, Mercedes have revealed their mad side. This is a decision made by money-men, and I would be amazed if this approach doesn’t end in tears like it has done for Toyota and Honda.

I am also stunned at Michael Schumacher’s decision to bite. Just a few months ago he was talking about his flirtation with replacing Felipe Massa as though it was a moment of madness. Now he has let the blood rush to his head again and is putting his considerable reputation on the line.

It also reveals his supposed passion and love for Ferrari to be just as shallow as his sportsmanship. As soon as another company will promise to stuff more money into his wallet, he will move like a shot. Very passionate, very romantic!

This whole thing comes across to me as the world’s most public mid-life crisis.

I must confess to being rather perplexed by Toyota’s stance in the driver market over the past couple of months. It may be correct that neither Jarno Trulli nor Timo Glock have the potential to truly set the world alight. But neither are they complete disasters. In fact, they are both rather competent.

Even though he has a tendency to fade away during races, Trulli is very quick over one lap and brings with him a wealth of experience that very few alternative drivers would be able to offer. He has also had a couple of highly impressive results this year, including an convincing 2nd place in Japan. But, fair enough, he’s a poor racer, so I could understand Toyota ditching Trulli in favour of another experienced driver or an exciting young talent.

But to, at the same time, appear to be absolutely desperate to also get rid of Timo Glock seems absolutely bonkers to me. Glock’s real talent remains to be seen. He has never won a race, and he tends to qualify poorly — but often races extraordinarily well. In this sense, he is almost a mirror-image of Trulli.

It is worth remembering, though, that Glock is still relatively young and therefore has a lot of potential to improve. I thought his 2nd place finish in Singapore was a hugely promising sign, in addition to some other impressive performances this season.

Yet, Toyota appear to be totally nonchalant about his potential, even on the back of that result in Singapore. Ever since then, they have contrived to replace him with Kamui Kobayashi, a Japanese Toyota protégé but an unknown quantity. He supposedly had a cold in Japan, so was replaced during Friday Practice at Suzuka. But no-one saw that Glock had much of a sniffle.

Then, since his qualifying crash the following day, he has been forced to sit out as a result of “cracked vertebrae”. But eyebrows are raised as Glock happily walks around the place. Phantom colds and injuries — it is almost as though Toyota’s doctor has been slipped a tenner to fabricate reasons for Glock to sit out the rest of the season.

Of course, Glock’s impact was mighty hefty, so he could well be injured and sitting out as a precaution. But it is very convenient that it should open the door for precisely what Toyota appear to have wanted, which was to put Kobayashi in the car ASAP.

Toyota have been in a strange position during this year’s Silly Season. They have been positioning themselves rather oddly. Experienced journalists are reading between the lines and saying that it’s because they will not be in F1 next year, despite having committed until 2012 by signing the Concorde Agreement. This is further underlined by the fact that Williams’s engine deal with Toyota has been terminated a year early.

Joe Saward has an excellent post today analysing the situation. Toyota leaving F1 is the worst-case scenario. The best-case scenario seems to be having a reduced budget next season. Since at least September, there has been talk of the Toyota F1 team having a massively slashed budget for next season.

For a number of months, Toyota boss John Howett has been talking down the chances of Jarno Trulli racing for the team next season. The claim is that Trulli is asking for too much money.

Why a team that is so low on money would go on to court Kimi Räikkönen of all people remains to be explained. Räikkönen has openly scoffed at the offer, by ruling out every team bar McLaren as a destination for next season. Quite right too. Räikkönen would be better off driving a bus than driving a Toyota F1 car.

No doubt Räikkönen is a better driver than Jarno Trulli or Timo Glock. Despite question marks over his motivation, at least Räikkönen has proved that he can do it. But let us face it — Toyota are living in a dream world if they think they can attract a driver of Kimi’s calibre for a cut-down price.

I was flabbergasted to read what John Howett had to say about his current drivers, who I think have done a good enough job this season:

We like Timo very much, he did a great job, but still we have a car that is more regularly capable of being on the podium and much closer to the top this year. We are not delivering, and there are things beyond the team and the chassis itself.

It is not difficult to decode Howett’s message. Don’t blame the car, blame the drivers. That is despite the fact that Toyota — in their eight seasons in Formula 1 — have never even looked close to having a car capable of winning an F1 race.

I also think that it is a bit rich of Toyota to complain about its drivers. They have always behaved a bit strangely when it came to their drivers. This is the team that did away with the promising partnership of Mika Salo and Allan McNish after just one season, for no good reason. This is the team whose most sophisticated driver choice was to hire a boy called Ralf then parade around the place saying “Schumacher drives for us!”, which at least pleased the marketing men.

Jarno Trulli is rightly miffed about John Howett’s stance.

Now I don’t know whether Toyota really wants to retain me or not. And with someone trying to denigrate me through the press… I’ve read many incorrect things about me. I haven’t spoken with the team about my contract for at least two months. So, either someone is playing dirty or maybe this person has been misquoted. But I keep calm and good.

Meanwhile, while Timo Glock has been lying in his “sick bed”, negotiations with Toyota for a drive next season are said to have completely collapsed.

So what are Toyota playing at? Do they seriously believe that replacing known quantities such as Trulli and Glock with the likes of Kobayashi, Nakajima or Sutil will pave the way for a more successful future? If so, I am sure they are the only ones in the world who believe it.

If Joe Saward is right, and this is all a final desperate attempt for the Toyota F1 employees to keep the gravy train running, they are surely only ensuring a bigger death a year or two down the line.

If Toyota leave, good riddance I say. Throughout their entire existence, I have found them to be easily the least likeable team on the grid by a long shot. Their behaviour this season has only further underlined my impression that Toyota is an entity that has no place in F1 and wouldn’t succeed in a million years.

Apologies I’m so late on this one. I have had a busy and tiring week.

On Monday, before the outcome of the WMSC meeting was known, I decided to think about what the outcome might be. Was there any punishment — even zero punishment — that I could not imagine the FIA handing out?

I couldn’t think of a scenario that was outside the realms of possibility. I suppose we are so used to the FIA Random Penalty Generator that you genuinely might as well have a lucky dip.

For the same reason, it is difficult to get too angry at the state of affairs. Because the other question I asked myself before the verdict was delivered was: is there any punishment that anger me? Honestly, I could not think of one.

This case is so complex, with so many factors, and there are a lot of ways to look at it. Particularly given that everyone involved in the conspiracy had already been dispensed with through natural business decisions, it’s difficult to see what further punishment is necessary. At the same time, there is an understandable need for the FIA to send some sort of message that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated.

As it was, when the penalty was announced, I was certainly interested. But there was nothing to get too angry about. Many journalists felt that Renault got off lightly. I noticed a few in the media pointing out that just two years ago McLaren were hit with a ONE HUNDRED MEELION DOLLARS fine after one staff member’s wife went to a shop and photocopied the Haynes Ferrari manual.

Deliberately crashing a car is no mere intellectual property theft — it is a major safety issue. It goes without saying that someone could have been killed. So there does appear to be a mismatch between McLaren’s “espionage” fine, and this relatively light punishment for Renault.

That just further underlines the ridiculousness of the McLaren fine. It was the McLaren punishment, not the Renault punishment, that was wrong.

I am a believer in individual responsibility. I am not keen on the idea of an entire team being punished for the acts of one or two rogue individuals. If there are repeat instances, and there appears to be a culture of bad behaviour within a team (and by that I don’t just mean that the FIA President slightly dislikes the team boss), then you can go and punish the team. But for a one-off crime carried out by an individual, it is right to punish that individual.

In that sense, it is right for the FIA to focus on the individuals involved in this case, even if the media wanted to report on an embarrassing punishment for the Renault team. The fact is that there are hundreds of good people working for the F1 team, and countless people working for the manufacturers, who are just as badly let down as anyone else. Renault’s defence in the WMSC meeting was that it was as much a victim as anyone else, and it is an argument I have some sympathy with.

As one British politician might say, Renault have been tried in “the court of public opinion”. They have already been found guilty and paid the price. The penalty already handed out to Renault as a car manufacturer has been an unimaginable amount of bad publicity which could well have an impact on its sales. After all, even for people who know nothing about F1, they are bound to have heard something about this story and the one name they will remember in relation to it is “Renault”. Anyone buying a car just now may well have this influence their decision, even if it is subliminally.

For the Renault F1 team, not only have they lost two of the most important members of the team, they have also lost two of their most important sponsors, including their title sponsor. Okay, so ING only had four races left anyway, and going by previous history Mutua Madrileña will follow Alonso wherever he goes. But anyone thinking of inking a deal with Renault will be having second thoughts, and will almost certainly be able to pay less for the privilege of having their logos displayed.

In relation to this, I note that during the WMSC verdict, Max Mosley declared that this was nothing to do with Renault the company, only Renault the F1 team. Given that the team faces a permanent ban, suspended for two years, I wonder exactly how the “F1 team” is defined.

Perhaps there is already an official answer for the FIA (though knowing them there probably isn’t). But if, say, someone like David Richards came along and bought the Enstone-based team, is that still Renault F1? If there is a Brawn-style scenario, is that the same team? It today’s Renault team the same team that entered as Toleman and competed against Renault in 1981?

As for the three people implicated — Nelsinho Piquet, Pat Symonds and Flavio Briatore — I would be surprised and disappointed to see any of them involved in motorsport again. The punishments for Mr Briatore and Mr Symonds seem fair to me. Although Briatore’s lifetime ban is, on the face of it, draconian, if he was implicated as the WMSC appear to believe then I see no reason why he should be allowed to work in F1 again.

Reaction to this has been mixed. Different drivers have different views. I find it interesting that the drivers who are sceptical of Briatore’s involvement have all been closely involved with Briatore in the past and are sure to know his character and if he is capable of plotting such a scheme. Fisichella and Trulli have both driven for him, while Mark Webber is positively glowing about his experience being managed by Briatore.

Jarno Trulli’s comment is, in a way, a backhanded compliment: “Briatore knows little or nothing about strategy, it’s weird that he would be the one who paid the highest price.”

That is interesting when you consider that Pat Symonds still maintains that it was Nelsinho Piquet who came up with the idea to deliberately crash a car, something which is backed by the mysterious Witness X. F1 Wolf points out:

Graham Stoker questioned Mr. Piquet about this “discrepancy” during the hearing (about 19min25sec mark of the recording). Nelson Piquet replied in line with his previous statements and then Mr. Philips, his lawyer, came to Piquet’s defense ridiculing the possibility that 20 something guy, a junior driver in a team could have come up with such strategy. And that was it, no more questions on this topic.

Well, the question is not about who came up with the strategy. We know the strategy came from Mr. Symonds, nobody seems to dispute that. The question is, who came up with the idea to deliberately crash the car.

It seems very possible that Symonds may have mused that Alonso’s only chance to win the race was for a Safety Car to come out early in the race. Who is to say that Piquet did not at this point suggest crashing the car?

Whatever, I am disappointed in the fact that Piquet was given immunity. For me, he is the biggest criminal in this situation. Neither Symonds nor Briatore had the power to crash the car. Piquet was the driver. The steering wheel was in his hands; the throttle was underneath his foot. Piquet was the man with the power to say: “no”.

Caron Lindsay argues that Piquet deserves some sympathy because of the amount of pressure he was under. No doubt his situation was unusual, not least because his team boss also happened to be his manager.

But as I have pointed out in a previous article, Martin Brundle (another person who has driven for Briatore) is not convinced that Piquet was under an inordinate amount of pressure. Piquet’s main defence appears to be that he was worried he was going to lose his job. How many drivers has this applied to in the past? Even this year, Sébastien Bourdais was on the verge of losing his job all season until it finally happened, and he managed to avoid deliberately putting other people’s lives at risk.

I would also suggest that if Piquet can’t handle pressure, racing in Formula 1 is probably not the right profession for him. It seems as though Piquet is a fragile character, and you can’t criticise him for that. You can’t really help this sort of thing. But if you are in such a poor mental state that you decide it would be a good idea to crash, you can’t really have that in F1.

Maybe his heart wasn’t in it. Piquet is a proud name, and the events of the past few weeks have clearly been conducted in large part by Senior. It seems to me as though Piquet Jr was as much a victim of pushy parenting as anything else.