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Theissen on Drivers

Mario Theissen, BMW’s Motorsport Director, has been talking of his decision to swap Villeneuve for Kubica earlier this year. He is unrepentant, saying that his job is to ensure the success of the team and, if he has the chance to put a faster driver into one of his cars, it only makes sense to do so.


Jacques Villeneuve in the BMW Sauber

Which is true but overlooks the matters of contracts. As it happens, Villeneuve did not sue for the contractual violation involved, presumably because Theissen asked him only to step down from a few races so they could try out Kubica – Villeneuve was not prepared to do that so it could be said that his departure was a mutual decision.

Which is fine as long as the team boss can come up with a request that his contracted driver cannot or will not accede to. It might be interesting to find out what happens when a driver is prepared to do anything to hang on to his seat; does the boss sack him anyway and take the financial consequences? And how good is it for the team to be paying out money in legal fees and damages, money that would be better employed in development of the car?

I suppose it does not matter too much when you have millions to throw around. But not that I am criticizing Theissen – I think his attitude is correct from a team perspective. I’m just pondering on what effect this might have on team and driver morale.

Also amongst Mario’s statements was the news that Heidfeld was asked to let Kubica through when the Pole came up behind him in the Japanese GP but the German driver refused to do so, in exactly similar manner to the Trulli/Schumacher situation in the same race. As I pointed out in my article on the Toyota incident, this cannot be good for the functioning of the team. Once a driver has denied a request intended to help the team, there is always a suspicion that he will do the same again.

It’s a difficult area. Naturally, you want drivers who are determined to experience success and who will drive to the best of their ability. No driver is going to enjoy letting his teammate through – the reflection on their respective talents is obvious, whether fair or not. But, when that personal ambition gets in the way of the team’s success, it becomes counter-productive.

Probably the best way to go about it is to soothe the injured pride of the driver being passed by making it clear that he has a problem with the car. Worn or blistered tires are an understandable reason for being slow, after all. And no-one gets hurt in the process.

Although I think Mario Theissen does an excellent job, this nagging doubt about the handling of his drivers is yet another reason why I favor Honda for the championship next year, rather than BMW. The Japanese manufacturer also has two drivers who are competing fiercely with each other but we hear no rumors of squabbles or disagreements emanating from that camp. And that makes them seem more focused on the job in hand.

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Jacques Villeneuve on Leaving BMW Sauber

In an interview with Autosport Magazine, Jacques Villeneuve has denied that there was acrimony in the split between himself and BMW Sauber. Apparently, the team wanted to assess Robert Kubica in a race situation and asked Jacques to step down for a while; he was not prepared to do so.

Jacques Villeneuve

Jacques Villeneuve

“After having been in F1 for 10 years and having won the championship and so on, even though it’s quite a few years ago, I wasn’t ready to stay home some weekends just to see how the other guy would go and to then be compared to him,” said Villeneuve.

Jacques has a point. As mentioned in my article, Driver Contracts, F1 team managers sometimes regard the driver as just another component that can be swapped in and out of the car at will. If we are now going to have a situation where the teams can “test drive” anyone in a race while the contracted driver waits on the sidelines, the balance of power shifts far too much towards the employer.

It is hard enough for a driver to stay in F1 already, never mind the long struggle it takes to get there. To expect the contracted employee (that’s what he is, after all) not to object when another driver is used in a race, purely so that the team’s choice of driver is made easier, is making a mockery of the whole business of contracts and team loyalty.

Is it too much to expect that a team makes its choice of drivers before the season starts and then sticks by it? All potential and existing F1 drivers have served a hard apprenticeship in other formulae, so it’s not as if the choice has to be made in the dark. Just occasionally, a driver will prove to be unsuited to F1 for one reason or another; but that’s life – nothing is guaranteed. And a contract is a contract, a document designed to protect the rights of both parties.

Jacques seems to have accepted the situation in a very mature fashion, even so.

“This time there wasn’t really bitterness, it was just matter of fact. This has happened, OK, it doesn’t make me happy, I don’t want to work my butt off for the rest of the season if it’s like that, and then to wait until November and maybe there would be a decision for the year after.”

That is what I always liked about Jacques – he was straight and honest, sometimes quite controversial, but never afraid to speak his mind. F1 could do with more like him.

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Driver Contracts

The recent speculation over possible contracts arranged to get Kimi Raikkonen to drive for Ferrari, with special clauses in a Renault deal and three drivers signed for Ferrari, makes one wonder about these highly-valued documents. Now that drivers sometimes don’t complete a contracted season, witness Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya, it seems that any signed agreement can be changed when one or more parties feel like it.

Of course, failure to fulfill a contract has led in the past to large amounts of money changing hands but this seems to be changing. I heard of no monetary deal over Jacques’ departure from BMW Sauber and, although Ron Dennis has muttered about charging any NASCAR team a bundle should they use Montoya before the end of the season, that has not happened yet.

It would seem that contracts in F1 are less binding on the signatories than they used to be. Maybe that is a good thing; I have always felt that sportsmen are treated more like property than employees in some contracts and it is good to see that they can assert their independence when they really need to.

F1 Racing-live has reported some comments of Jenson Button’s that are quite revealing on the matter of contracts and driver loyalty. Commenting on his past wavering between the Honda and Williams teams, Jenson admits that he made mistakes but points out that drivers need to be selfish when considering which offer of a drive to accept.

Jenson Button

Jenson Button

Button insists that successful sportsmen must be selfish, ‘otherwise you are never going to achieve’. He continued: “It’s either sit there and never win a race, or fight for it and go on to win a race or a championship.”

It is slightly ironic that Jacques Villeneuve was Button’s sternest critic at the time of his Honda/Williams wrangles, suggesting that the Briton lacked team loyalty; Jacques has found out recently just how much loyalty a team can have for a driver. It would be unfair to judge drivers too harshly when the teams are able to swap them in and out of the car as they see fit.

All things considered, I guess it’s just more evidence of the increasing “professionalism” of F1. If you land a drive with a team, you had better produce the goods (and what driver wouldn’t do his utmost to stay in F1?). And, equally, if your team does not give you the equipment to succeed as a driver, just keep an eye out for a seat in another team.

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Looking Forward to Istanbul

At last we approach the end of the Great Mid-Season Break, when nothing but speculation drives F1 and we debate the tiniest details of old news in an effort to ward off our withdrawal symptoms. Rumor has merged Mercedes and McLaren, sacking and then re-hiring Ron Dennis in the process, popped Jacques Villeneuve out of his seat at Sauber BMW and plugged in Robert Kubica instead, created a superteam at Ferrari with Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen as joint lead drivers, and had an all-Spanish driver team at McLaren.

Okay, some of these have turned out to be true but, in general, we won’t know the truth until Monza, at least. And had there been some racing to concentrate on, most of them would have passed virtually unnoticed. So it will be good to get back to the real thing this weekend in Istanbul, especially as it is that rarity amongst new circuits, an interesting and varied course with plenty of passing opportunities. Any circuit that is likened to Spa has to be a good one.


The Istanbul circuit

Now the battle between Ferrari and Renault can begin again after their joint embarrassments in Hungary. I will stick my neck out and suggest that Ferrari will retain their advantage for the next two races but thereafter the pendulum will swing back Renault’s way. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

There are dark horses to consider too, teams who have solved their early and mid-season problems and now look increasingly competitive. McLaren is always one of these but Honda and Sauber BMW look as though they could get in there and steal a few points as well.

But whatever happens, it will be a huge relief to the fans when the engines burst into screaming life again on Friday. The real meat of F1 is the racing and all the politics, driver swaps and logistical struggles mere seasoning. And a diet of sauce alone can get pretty boring over three weeks.

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