Jan 27, 2010

F1 and North America

Formula One continues to talk about doing things to make the sport more accessible.

There's also no doubt that it is desperate to gain traction in the lucrative North American market. And the Formula One Teams Association is trying, but it's more than apparent that they have lots of work to do.

While F1 is the thing to see in Europe, apart from a small circle of die hard fans, grand prix racing gets less coverage than five-pin bowling on this side of the Atlantic.

One huge reason is that, in general. F1 insiders simply do not understand the expectations of North Americans when it comes to their sports.

In particular, F1 doesn't get the racing media over here, you know, the main conduit of the sport to the fans. The biggest problem is that F1 simply does not understand the kind of access that's expected by media to get the stories to their listeners, readers, and viewers.

For example, NASCAR and IndyCar both have a weekly teleconferences during the season and they try to keep a good supply of them going in the off season too. Apparently, F1 teams are doing this periodically now, but only to selected media. I have yet to get an invitation to any F1-related teleconference.

But it's more than that.

North Americans expect their sports heroes to want to be seen and heard.

It's not out of the ordinary for an NHL player to do an interview going into overtime in a Stanley Cup final game. Or for an NHL player to talk to a sideline reporter after a big touchdown. NASCAR has a driver be the "in-race" reporter" and answer questions about the race and strategy posed by the telecast crew during cautions.

On the other hand, F1 keeps this kind of thing to a minimum. It's all based on Bernie Ecclestone's idea that if you make F1 exclusive and expensive enough, and the drivers are on pedestals like demi-gods who don't speak to the minions who pay their salaries, then more people will want to go to races and be part of the club.

While F1 feels that snobbier is better, that kind of thing just turns North Americans off.

The result is that journalists rarely get one-on-one time with F1 drivers. And F1 drivers don't talk to reporters on the phone. In a decade of writing about motorsport, I have only had one F1 driver call me for a telephone interview (Olivier Panis for those of you wondering).

The accepted F1 excuse is always that there is not enough time for the drivers to accommodate every request. And we are not talking about Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton here. This goes for all the drivers on the grid, not just the big stars.

I say: Really? Then why can Jeff Gordon do it most of the time? I'd wager that he gets as many, if not more, media requests than any F1 driver.

But I digress.

The reason for this post is that McLaren has made a step in the right direction and decided to launch its 2010 car online. Yes, this is a good start.

Unfortunately, the brain trust at the team may have wanted to think about that pesky thing called time zones when they planned the timing of their event.

Had they taken the potential North American audience into account, my guess is that they would not have scheduled it at 11 a.m. English time.

For those of you in North America wondering about the conversion, that's 6 a.m. EST and 3 a.m. PST on Jan. 29.

I suspect that many might get up that early for a race, but perhaps not for a car launch. But for those wanting to get up to see the new McLaren unveiled, the launch is available here

UPDATE: Add Ferrari to the list. Their launch will also be streamed live online at 4:30 a.m. on Thursday (Jan. 28). You can find the Scuderia's launch here.

Hope you aren't too sleepy...

Warning: This is a spoiler

My latest effort for Red Bull International:

It was supposed to be a simple tire test and an opportunity to try out some new ideas. Instead, the No 83 Red Bull Racing NASCAR team got a sneak preview of the new spoiler that will likely replace the rear wing on the Car of Tomorrow (CoT) this season.

Announced a few days before Brian Vickers and his No 83 crew headed to the Texas Motor Speedway for a scheduled tire test, NASCAR decided to scrap the rear wing, which most fans simply hated, and put a spoiler back on the trunk of the car.

As luck would have it, the Red Bull driver was one of the first NASCAR regulars to test the new device.

More at: RedBull.com

Jan 25, 2010

Toyota says goodbye to F1

Toyota has put together a package for its fans which includes an eight-minute video retrospective featuring footage of key moments in its F1 adventure.

The company left F1 after eight seasons of never really getting it together.

Toyota was thought to have spent upwards of $3 billion on its F1 program but never got to the top step of the podium for all its efforts and expense. That reality plus some tough times for car makers in general led to an axing of its grand prix program late last year.

This special Toyota website is its last marketing and communications effort related to F1. Fans need to click on the banner 'A Virtual Goodbye to Formula 1' to look back on the manufacturer's time in F1.

Jan 22, 2010

Buemi seeks out the ice

My latest story for Red Bull:

What’s that old expression about going to the mountain if it won’t come to you? That’s exactly what Sébastien Buemi needed to do last week when Canada’s winter failed to deliver the goods.

Buemi and his Toro Rosso crew brought a Red Bull grand prix car to Montreal for a planned January 16 Frozen One ice run on the old Olympic basin that lies next to the paddock at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Unfortunately, unseasonably warm temperatures in Montreal left the ice too thin to support an F1 car.

He said: “I was more surprised than disappointed as I had heard how cold it can get in this part of the world and was interested to see how a country deals with being frozen all winter. And, yes, I hope to do a lot more laps when I come back in the summer for the race.”

More at: Red Bull International

Jan 21, 2010

Patrick's NASCAR experiment under fire

My latest column for the Globe and Mail:

While she may be attracting lots of attention with a part-time move to the NASCAR Nationwide Series this year, not everyone in the stock-car world is throwing open their arms to welcome Danica Patrick.

The media darling already created a fuss with her late-December Automobile Racing Club of America test at the Daytona International Speedway, which brought out dozens of reporters and photographers, as well as NASCAR president Mike Helton.

None of it has impressed former NASCAR driver turned television analyst Kyle Petty. The son of Richard Petty - the all-time wins leader and seven-time Cup champion - didn't pull any punches when asked at a NASCAR event last week about Patrick's signing with JR Motorsports to run selected Nationwide races in 2010.

More at: Globe Drive

Jan 19, 2010

The case for retuning the F1 testing ban

Stefano Domenicali has come out in support of more testing days for Formula One teams.

The Ferrari boss believes that the reduction of testing to 15 days this winter simply does not give the teams enough track time. The change was instituted as a cost reduction measure.

The loss of testing in season limits the teams' ability to try out new ideas to improve their cars, which could make them more competitive and improve the show.

In addition, Domenicali indicated that the cost savings is really not being realized anyway.

"We need to consider the money we are saving compared to the additional money that we are spending at races as a result," said Domenicali. "If you take money away from one place, you spend it in another."

But it could be argued that this is also a safety issue, he added.

"We need to think about safety, young drivers and allowing drivers to test if there is the need for a replacement in the middle of the season, as happened last year."

The evidence is pretty clear on that front.

Romain Grosjean had a tough year at Renault after taking over from the sacked Nelson Piquet Jr. at the European Grand Prix.

Luca Badoer was just awful in the Ferrari as a sub for the injured Felipe Massa.

Giancarlo Fisichella moved to Ferrari for the final few races and struggled big time due to the lack of time in his new ride.

Even championship challenger Rubens Barrichello may have benefited from increased testing last year after he took half a season to come to grips with the Brawn's stopping system.

Testing would have helped the Brazilian get more out of the car prior to the team adopting new brake material that gave them a different feel. Once that happened, Barrichello was As it stood, the car favoured Button to that point and allowed him to stretch his lead in the championship. Not great for the show.

Maybe a simple solution is a cap on spending for development purposes that includes a fixed amount the teams must claim for each test day, rather than a limit on the days allowed. That way, each team could decide how it spends its development cash whether at computer screens using computational fluid dynamics, trying things out in the simulator, or testing at a track.

This could also help the smaller teams that may not use all their days as they could be hired out by suppliers to test new components while also trying some things they may not under their budget plus they'd also earn some income.

Sounds like a win for everyone.

Jan 11, 2010

Stupid, stupid, stupid

OK, so we have a new president at the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA).

Remember that Jean Todt's election rallying cry was about bringing new ideas, a new spirit of cooperation with the teams and new ways of doing things all designed to improve the sport from inside out?

So, why then would Todt allow an appeal the French Court's decision last week to overturn the World Motor Sport Council's (WMSC) lifetime ban of Flavio Briatore?

F1 fans will recall that the WMSC kicked former Renault team boss Briatore out of F1 for life for his role in the crash gate scandal. That episode saw then Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jr. crash deliberately in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix to ensure that Renault teammate Fernando Alonso's fuel strategy would deliver a win.

Pat Symonds, Renault director of engineering at the time, was given a five-year ban, which was also quashed.

A statement issued by the FIA said: "It was unanimously agreed that an appeal would be prepared. The FIA will take whatever measures are necessary to ensure the continuing integrity and safety of the sport."

Really? Does anyone happen to know how dragging the sport through an embarrassing and lengthy appeal of a shameful incident will help improve its integrity? We all know that keeping such things in the spotlight go a long way to bolster reputations, right?

A more prudent course of action would be to accept the court's decision and quietly move ahead with the introduction of licences for major players in the teams, much in the same way drivers have to get a superlicence. Then, the FIA can simply refuse to grant said paperwork to Briatore. Case closed and no more scandalous revelations in court.

This would also mark a break from the FIA's former ways where anyone who was bold enough to challenge previous president Max Mosley would not just be corrected but also ground under the heels of the federation at every opportunity. Just ask former Minardi owner Paul Stoddart.

More worrisome is the fact that former FIA president Mosley took it upon himself to be the point man for the federation after the court overturned the ban.

"Remember, the court did not find that Briatore was not guilty. They just didn't like the procedure we used. But it's a very preliminary judgment," he said last week.

"Aspects of it are just extraordinary. Symonds actually admitted in writing that he was guilty and yet they found in his favour. But that's only because they are not looking at the substance, they are just looking at the procedure."

Remember that Todt was a hand-picked successor, something that made many worry that his presidency would merely be a front and Mosley would continue to be the real force behind the FIA.

Now, if Todt wants the F1 community and fans to believe the Mosley era is over and that a new dawn has begun, perhaps he should ditch the appeal, not deal with challenges in the same heavy-handed manner as before, and find a method to keep his predecessor from speaking for the federation.

If he doesn't, the feeling that Mosley continues to run things in the back rooms of the organization will not go away any time soon.

USF1 co-founder Windsor visits the spin room

It looks like USF1 will have two pay drivers in its cockpits this season, Argentine driver José María López and British racer James Rossiter, something it's boss Peter Windsor promised would not happen.

Although the team’s co-founder Windsor vowed go on talent alone as well as push hard to get a U.S. driver into a race seat, it seems that will be put on hold for 2010. While Rossiter’s finances are not yet known, it is thought López has an $8 million sponsorship deal behind him.

When asked by the official F1 website about pay drivers, Windsor gave a curious answer.

"Well, it depends what you mean by ‘pay drivers.’ Is Fernando Alonso a pay driver?" he said.

"I think we need to be pretty careful about what we are talking here. Those drivers who have done very well in their career have sponsors and companies who like to be associated with them, whether it is Alonso with his bank [Santander] or Michael Schumacher who has had sponsors throughout his career."

Windsor went on to explain that part of the decision stems from the economic climate which means that it is difficult to predict where the money is coming from over the next five years.

That said, even the most casual F1 fan can likely see the difference between Alonso and Schumacher vs. López and Rossiter. Windsor should know better too.

On one hand there are two supremely talented drivers with multiple world championships who have earned every bit of their success on and off the track with incredible performances at the highest level. On the other, well there's a couple of guys who never made the grade but can bring lots of money.

So, perhaps then he's simply suggesting that pay drivers bring certainty to the equation.

"All we can do is look at what is available," he continued. "We are a start-up team so we have to look at every opportunity. If there are companies out there that have associations with a driver because they have been supporting him for quite a while, or representing a country, or whatever, obviously we have to look at that. Providing the driver can do the job as well."

Now whether Charlotte-based USF1 will actually make the grid in Bahrain is another question altogether.

Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport is reporting that the team applied to the FIA for permission to begin its 2010 season at the Spanish Grand Prix in April rather than Bahrain. If true, it would mean that the squad would miss four events – Bahrain, Australia, Malaysia and China. This comes a week after Windsor vowed the team would line up on the grid March 14 in Bahrain.

A number of racing insiders continue to snicker when the team is mentioned. One former F1 driver told me that nothing is happening at the USF1 headquarters and he doubts the outfit will make the grid.

And since Windsor has done most of his media work through selected F1 journalists he knows well in the paddock from his reporting days with SpeedTV and his time with the Williams team, getting any real information out of the squad remains difficult at best.

One item that has been confirmed is that the team asked the FIA for special permission to test its car at the Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama next month rather than fly to Europe for its first run.

To make matters worse for F1, another new team, Campos Meta, appears to be on the brink of folding. Reports have former A1GP boss Tony Teixeira swooping in to take over the Spanish outfit.

At this point, Campos will not make the February test slated for Valencia. Word in the paddock is that the team’s relationship with chassis developer Dallara is strained, possibly due to a cash shortage at the Spanish outfit.

Stefan Grand Prix has been mentioned as the replacement if Campos folds.

Jan 10, 2010

Back on track

My latest story for Red Bull...

After the Red Bull crew finally enjoyed some downtime and relaxation over the holidays following a long NASCAR season, things are humming again at the team’s Mooresville, North Carolina, headquarters.

Although last season ended only a few short weeks ago at the mid-November Miami-Homestead finale, the Red Bull team has just over a month left to prepare for the 2010 season and the opening Daytona 500.

In between, Brian Vickers and the No. 83 crew will head to the Texas Motor Speedway Jan 19-20 for a Goodyear tyre test, along with fellow Sprint Cup drivers Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, and Kurt Busch.

More at: Red Bull International

Jan 8, 2010

The stories to watch as racing season revs up

My latest Globe and Mail column...

With the 2010 season-opening 24 Hours of Daytona only weeks away, there are many interesting stories already developing in the racing world.

There will always be dramatic events that no one could have predicted, such as the Crashgate scandal that rocked Formula One in 2009 and David Donohue winning last January's 24 Hours of Daytona on the 40th anniversary of his late father Mark's only Florida triumph.

That said, here are some stories that racing fans might want to keep an eye on in 2010:

See: Globe Drive for more

Jan 6, 2010

Holy baptism by fire Batman

Jean Todt’s first test as newly elected president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile is not to be taken lightly.

In a hugely embarrassing decision this week, a French court overturned Flavio Briatore’s lifetime ban from international Motorsport handed down by the World Motor Sport Council last year in the Crashgate affair.

It was revealed last summer that Renault team bosses conspired with driver Nelson Piquet to stage a crash to ensure his teammate Fernando Alonso's strategy would deliver a win in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix.

Now that the French court ruled the punishment illegitimate, the former Renault boss likely intends to pursue legal action against the Piquet family.

But he laid the blame for his lifetime ban squarely at the feet of Todt’s predecessor, Max Mosley: “The fact that the World Automobile Sport Council had been utilized to deal with a personal agenda aimed at pushing me out of the world of competition left me no other choice.”

This is important because several other incidents were dealt with in a similar fashion, with Mosley

To make matters worse, F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone has his arms wide open for Briatore’s return.

“I said at the time that even murderers don't get life sentences these days and the court seems to agree,” Ecclestone told the Daily Express newspaper.

“He is welcome to come back to the paddock. He was a great character in F1 but I am not sure if that is what he wants to do now. I think he will move on from that. It's good for him but it is not good for the FIA when you read the verdict.”

For its part, the FIA released a statement which made it clear that it feels the grounds for the ban were valid: “The Court has rejected the claims for damages made by Mr. Briatore and Mr. Symonds and their claim for an annulment of the FIA's decision. In particular, the Court did not examine the facts and has not reversed the FIA's finding that both Briatore and Symonds conspired to cause an intentional crash at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix.”

Many feel the FIA may simply take pragmatic approach and rectify the problem which apparently led to the overturning of the ban, which is the fact that it does not licence team personnel in the same way it does with the teams and drivers.

This is something it hinted at in its statement.

“The Court did question the FIA's authority to impose bans upon Mr. Briatore and Mr. Symonds for procedural reasons and because they are not FIA licence holders and, according to the Court, are therefore not subject to any FIA rules … In addition, the FIA intends to consider appropriate actions to ensure that no persons who would engage, or who have engaged, in such dangerous activities or acts of intentional cheating will be allowed to participate in Formula One in the future.”

This is far from over…

Jan 5, 2010

It was a very good (and bad) year

My latest column in the Globe and Mail looks back on the big things that happened in racing last year:

The 2009 racing season saw several interesting episodes, new and repeat champions, scandals, classy moves and great performances.

But some things stood out a bit more than others. Here's a short list of the best and worst of 2009 to start the conversation about who and what made it a memorable year.

More at: Globe drive