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Surprises in Testing

With little else to focus on, the spotlight moves to Bahrain and the first day’s testing for the nine teams that made the trip. Ferrari are fastest and Massa quicker than Raikkonen, confirming both the team’s position as pre-season favorites and the increasing expectation that the Brazilian will beat the Finn. But what’s this – Button next up? Have Honda been “doing a Red Bull” to impress some visiting dignitary?

Apparently not, for there in fifth spot lurks Barrichello. It must be that Honda are making progress with the new car and we are beginning to see its true potential. With McLaren and BMW still right up there, we could be in for a real dogfight of a season – a fine way to celebrate Michael Schumacher’s retirement.

Super Aguri

Davidson and Super Aguri

Renault and Red Bull must be worried, however. They may claim that the times mean nothing because they’re still learning the characteristics of the cars and getting them set up right, but the same is true for the other teams. With everyone getting to grips with their new cars, they are all going to go faster, leaving the Renault-powered teams that much more to do.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is the speed of Davidson in the interim Super Aguri. I begin to wonder if this team’s real talent is in taking old machinery and making it more competitive than it ever was in its heyday. And, if that is true, they might get the Honda 2006 chassis to perform wonders – reason indeed for Spyker and Williams to be concerned. In fact, if SA can continue to beat Renault and Red Bull, there might be a long line of legal writs awaiting the Japanese team at the Australian GP.

It is to be hoped that the threatened litigation fizzles out when it comes to practice in Melbourne, however. Lawsuits do nothing for the image of the sport and only make lawyers richer. Given the lateness of the launch of the SA and Toro Rosso cars for 2007 and their lack of testing therefore, it is unlikely that they will do better than make up the tail end of the grid – in which case, it hardly seems worth anyone making a fuss over the legality of their cars.

Never mind the hype and speculation – let the races begin!

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Super Aguri and the Shadow of the Past

One thing about F1 can always be guaranteed: the off season will be enlivened by some controversy or other. This time it’s the Great Customer Car Row and we have been entertained by Gerhard Burger’s determined assertion that Toro Rosso owns the intellectual property rights to their car for 2007; the fact that Red Bull also owns those rights to a car that looks identical is neither here nor there, apparently.

Riccardo

Riccardo Patrese in the 1978 Arrows A1

But the ’tis/’tisn’t scenario can wear pretty thin after a while and, right on cue, Nick Fry arrives on stage to enliven the show with his denial that the new Super Aguri is really last year’s Honda. Ummm, yeah, okay Nick, so when are we going to see it?

There is a delightful thread running through Super Aguri’s part in the performance, however. Remember that last year SA were running an aging Arrows chassis – to which they had bought the intellectual property rights, quite correctly. And this brings echoes of history to my mind, shades from Arrows’ past when, just like SA, it was a new arrival on the F1 scene.

The year was 1978 and Arrows turned up for the races with a car that seemed suspiciously similar to the Shadow team’s entry. This might have been coincidence except that the Arrows designers were refugees from a big bust-up in the Shadow camp the year before. Shadow cried foul and took the matter to court, eventually being vindicated by a verdict that decreed that Arrows could no longer run their copycat car.

By that time, Arrows had designed a new car and so was able to continue racing; but it seems ironic that the distant inheritors of an Arrows product should be embroiled in so similar a kerfuffle. Are we talking some sort of F1 version of “the curse of the pharoahs” here?

Now that I have raised this specter from the past, I would like to mention something that puzzled me then and might have implications for the coming season. The driver of that first Arrows car, the A1, was a young Italian named Riccardo Patrese and he would have set an amazing record if the Cosworth engine had been a little more reliable. He was on course to win Arrows’ first race when the engine expired, thereby preventing what would have been a phenomenal debut for the new team.

For the rest of its brief career, the car remained very competitive, Patrese showing up amongst the leaders in almost every race. But the Shadow cars were nowhere, continuing the slide that was to end in their demise a few years later. One of their drivers was Clay Regazzoni who was no slouch and should have been able to give the inexperienced Patrese more than a run for his money – yet he finished the season in 16th spot, Riccardo in 12th.

My question is this: given that the Shadow and the Arrows were almost identical and that both used the Cosworth DFV, why was the Arrows so much the better car? Presumably the disruption suffered by Shadow when half their team defected may have crippled their ability to fight, but it still seems strange that a new team, also hampered by impending lawsuits, could defeat them so comprehensively.

It is all water under the bridge now and we might never know all the political and legal manouvering that went on at the time. Who cares now, anyway? I have one final thought, however.

We are told that history repeats itself; if that is true, is it possible that Super Aguri could prove quicker than the new Honda in the coming season? Highly unlikely, I know, but it would be deliciously ironic, you must admit…

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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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Pat Symonds on Customer Cars

Renault’s engineering director, Pat Symonds, has added his voice to those expressing doubts about the idea of customer cars in F1. Like Mario Theissen of BMW, he feels that the legalizing of customer cars in 2008 will create a situation where there are only six manufacturers running two teams each and that the championship could be manipulated as a result.

Pat

Pat Symonds

But just a cotton-picking minute there – that’s two representatives of the manufacturers who fear that their companies will exploit the new rule to favor one driver, thereby winning the championship. Apart from the fact that this is unlikely since, if one manufacturer does it, they all will and that will cancel out any advantage they might have gained, why is it the potential manipulators who are suggesting such a scenario? I hear no complaints from the small teams who apparently face such a dismal future as the pawns of the big guys.

It seems to me that there is more going on here than meets the eye. The potential for devious tactics is not the real reason for the manufacturers’ doubts – that is just an excuse to justify their objection to the rule change. We must look elsewhere to find the motivation of the manufacturers, methinks.

Is it possible that they have looked at the history of F1 and fear the inventiveness, speed of reaction and dedication of small teams? To supply a chassis and engine to a customer team and then find that their customer has devised a tweak that makes their version of the car quicker would be unbearably embarrassing for a manufacturer. It is not beyond possibility.

So let us say that the big boss takes a walk down the pitlane and instructs his customers that, from now on, they must let the supplier’s lead driver win or the supply of chassis and engines will dry up. Well, we all know how leaky F1 teams are – it would not be long before the news made its way to the press and the resulting row would be far more embarrassing to the manufacturer than losing an occasional race to its own products. The Norberto Fontana revelation of last year may have been squashed very quickly by Peter Sauber but doubts linger in many minds, I’m sure.

The argument doesn’t float. In reality, the manufacturers don’t want their task of winning to be made even more difficult by the addition of small teams with competitive cars. It is hard enough already to beat the other manufacturers without having to consider the challenge of customer teams as well.

The suggested collusion by manufacturers raises another possibility that has not been mentioned. If they are prepared to stoop to such underhand dealing, what is to prevent them getting together and deciding to share out the championship between them? It would ensure that no manufacturer enjoys a long period of domination and hogs all the publicity as a result; if they take it in turns to win and get the marketing benefits, everyone is happy and avoids the possibility of never winning, something that they must all dread.

The fact is that the presence of small teams in F1 actually makes the possibilities for collusion much less. They would not be a part of any share-out of the spoils and will ruin any such attempt merely by competing to the best of their ability. And the customer car rule is the one remaining lifeline to such teams – without it they will be consigned to a Minardi-like existence, scrimping and scraping to get enough money together to continue for one more season.

So I’m sorry, Pat, but I just don’t believe you. You have one thing right, however:

“If you say that in 2008 you can do it (run customer cars), then does it really matter about things being pushed forward a year,” he said. “Many other rules have been pushed forward a year, is it really a big deal?

“On that basis, you would say it is a storm in a teacup. But it is easy for me to say that from a Renault perspective. If I was Spyker, I would not be at all happy about it. Rules are rules.”

Spyker may be complaining about the Toro Rosso and Super Aguri cars for the coming season but I haven’t heard that Colin Kolles objects to the 2008 rule change. Maybe that’s because he knows that Spyker haven’t the resources to compete with the really big manufacturers and might have to buy in a customer chassis themselves in future. They are already buying engines, after all.

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