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Customer Car Litigation Looms

The first F1 squabble of the year progresses apace. Having failed to reach agreement over customer cars in 2007 at their recent meeting, the team principals are getting ready for war. Since legal mobilization takes time, it is most likely that scrutineering for the Australian GP on March 18th will be the crunch point. Pity those poor scrutineers!

Duo

Bernie and Max

Good old Bernie Ecclestone was there to suggest a few compromises, all of which were rejected, but at least he tried. But where was Mighty Max? Surely he would have been able to devise a way forward, given his new ability to work in harmony with the manufacturers. But I forget – that is only true when the other side has the power to really mess with him; little players like drivers and independent constructors are beneath notice.

In fact, there does seem to be a widening rift between the two most powerful men in F1, in style at least. While Bernie runs around trying to settle arguments, Max remains adamant that everyone must bow to the whim of the FIA. And given Bernie’s recent criticism of the FIA, it is clear that he is not entirely happy with the way things are run.

The fact remains that, if Max had been there to give a clear ruling from the FIA on the legality or otherwise of Super Aguri’s and Toro Rosso’s plans for the coming season, the threatened litigation could have been avoided. Had SA and STR been told that the FIA will definitely not allow any customer cars to slip through loopholes this year, both teams might have backed down; and, if the FIA’s view is that the cars are legal, Spyker and the rest would know that any protest will be futile.

As it is, we are faced with the prospect of yet another F1 court case and a GP with results pending until a verdict is given. Everyone knows how bad this is for the image of the sport but nobody seems to have a way of stopping it.

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Gerhard Berger Tries Psychology

Apparently, Sebastien Bourdais is to be given another drive in the Toro Rosso while the contracted drivers, Liuzzi and Speed, are still waiting for confirmation of their seats this year. In an interview with Auto Motor und Sport magazine, Berger has been critical of his drivers’ performances in 2006, so it seems that I was wrong about the delay originating with Red Bull owner, Dietrich Mateschitz. My apologies to him, of course.

Gerhard

Gerhard plots his next move

But what is Gerhard up to? If he is genuinely dissatisfied with his drivers, it seems a bit late to be still dithering. There are no obvious winners left on the market and Bourdais is certainly not available for this season. Montoya has admitted that he did receive an offer from Toro Rosso and that it gave him a good laugh, the rumors of Mika Hakkinen returning to F1 in a TR have been firmly squelched, so who else is a possible? Robert Doornbos? That would be taking more of a chance than keeping Liuzzi and Speed.

This indecision seems so unlike Berger until you remember the tales of his practical jokes on Ayrton Senna. When dealing with Gerhard, things are not necessarily what they appear to be on the surface. And I think the wily Austrian is using a bit of psychology to motivate his drivers (Sigmund Freud was an Austrian, remember).

It is just not true that Liuzzi and Speed did not perform well last year. At almost every GP we were told that the TR’s V10 would not be able to compete with the V8s, only to see the cars perform far better than expected, especially through the speed traps. Liuzzi was rated highly enough for Red Bull to want him as a driver until Mark Webber came up for grabs and, as pointed out in my post, An American in F1 – Scott Speed, Scott was looking the better of the two towards the end of the season.

Gerhard knows better than anyone else how good his drivers are – he would not have fought so hard to keep Liuzzi from the clutches of Red Bull were it not so. This feigned dissatisfaction is a Berger ploy to get his drivers fired up for the coming races, to light a bomb under them, in fact.

And it will probably work. Both Liuzzi and Speed are no doubt well aware of what Berger is up to but they will still want to prove themselves to the world. When the lights go out for the start of the first race, I think Toro Rosso will have two drivers who are absolutely determined to show their boss that he was completely wrong about them – that they are instead the quickest drivers to be seen in F1 in a long time.

He’s a wily old bird, that Gerhard Berger.

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The New Brits

Anthony Davidson has been talking about his career and hopes for the future. His contract with Super Aguri is his first season-long chance in F1 competition and he wants to make the best of it. Five years as a test driver is a long apprenticeship.

Davidson

Anthony Davidson

As might be expected, Davidson thinks that customer cars will be good for the sport, especially as they will mean that new and smaller teams will not be sentenced to an extended period of being back markers, coming in two or three laps down on the rest of the field. Using chassis that have already been through extensive development, such teams could realistically expect to be competitive in a very short time and the spectacle for the fans would be better as a result.

This is all relevant to the looming row over Super Aguri’s intention to use a development of the Honda 2006 car this season, of course. Things are quiet for the fledgling Japanese team at the moment but are bound to heat up if Toro Rosso lose their battle to run a variation of the Red Bull RB3 in 2007. Gerhard Berger seems confident of winning that one so there may be a good chance that SA will get their way too.

Naturally, Davidson wants SA to succeed in their plan as it will give him a good car in which to make his mark in F1. He deserves such a chance in view of his long wait and previous brief debut in a Minardi. Customer cars are coming, like it or not, in 2008 so I think no harm will be done by allowing them this year. It wouldn’t be the first time that rule changes have been instituted ahead of their projected time – we already have a standardized tire formula even though it was not due to happen until next year.

I think the teams protesting about SA’s and TR’s cars are over-reacting anyway. Neither team will suddenly shoot to the front of the field as a result of using good chassis; it will take time for them to get used to the cars and tune them in for optimum running. And even Adrian Newey has been trying to deflate some of the hype surrounding his RB3, pointing out that it is unrealistic to expect it to be a world beater right from the start.

Let the second teams have a decent chance, say I, and then we’ll get some really competitive races. And we might even get to see how good Davidson is.

Another Brit whose stock is increasing is Gary Paffett. If Prodrive are to be a sort of B team for McLaren/Mercedes next year, they will need drivers. Gary’s position as a McLaren test driver puts him in pole position as one of Prodrive’s line-up. Ideally, they would want an experienced driver as number one (David Coulthard maybe?) and Gary could slot in as the young hotshoe. On his past record, he would be ideal for the task.

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Spyker Protests

Colin Kolles of Spyker is orchestrating the protest against Toro Rosso’s and Super Aguri’s plans to run cars based on their owner teams’ cars next year. So far Ferrari, McLaren, Toyota, Williams (who first mentioned the problem) and Red Bull (surprisingly) have confirmed their support for Spyker’s initiative.

Colin

Spyker’s Colin Kolles

We might wonder why Red Bull have agreed, since their RB3 is rumored to be the basis of Toro Rosso’s car for 2007, but it is all in the interpretation of the rules, apparently. Section 3 of the Concorde Agreement states:

A constructor is a person (including any incorporated or unincorporated body) who owns the intellectual property rights to the rolling chassis it currently races, and does not incorporate in such chassis any part designed or manufactured by any other constructor of F1 racing cars except for standard items of safety equipment, providing that nothing in the Schedule 3 shall prevent the use of an engine or gearbox manufactured by a person other than the constructor of the chassis.

Much hinges on how you translate that phrase “owns the intellectual property rights”. It is used to avoid the potential loophole implicit in defining a constructor as one who builds the chassis – nothing would prevent a team “borrowing” the plans of another constructor and building an identical car in their own workshop in that case. That was pretty much what happened with the first Arrows car, that Shadow claimed (correctly, as the courts decided) was a copy of their design produced by the engineers who had left their employ to form Arrows in 1977.

But the term “intellectual property rights” remains the weak spot that might be tested by Super Aguri and Toro Rosso. TR’s Gerhard Berger is maintaining that their car will be designed in-house but the rumors of its RB3 foundation persist. No smoke without fire, they say. Super Aguri and Honda are keeping quiet, perhaps hoping that the protest will come to nothing or that TR will fight the battle and win.

At the moment, it all looks to be heading towards a court case, just as with Arrows all those years ago. None of the protagonists want it to end up there and arbitration has been mentioned as the way forward. No doubt it is, but it will be quite an achievement to get all the parties to participate, let alone agree to abide by any result.

So why all the fuss over something that is due to change in 2008 anyway, when customer cars will be allowed? Essentially, it’s about competitiveness in the coming season. Teams like Williams and Spyker had a hard time this year racing against Honda and there is no way they want to see Super Aguri leapfrog over them with a development of that chassis. And the reputation of Adrian Newey, designer of the RB3, is such that everyone fears the Red Bull of 2007; to have a TR equally as quick would be adding salt to the wound.

It’s a hard one to pick sides on. On the one hand, natural tendencies to support the underdog suggest that SA and TR be left to get on with it. But rules are rules in the end; whether we like it or not, Kolles is right.

The best answer would be for SA to look at what they have already achieved with a development of an old Arrows chassis and build on that by designing their own chassis from that experience. And Gerhard should surprise everyone by revealing an in-house TR design that beats the RB3!

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