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Theissen on Small Teams

Mario Theissen has returned to the theme of “small is beautiful”, repeating his intention that the BMW team will not grow into a huge operation, as so many of the successful teams do. Historically in F1, this is the way to go, smaller teams being more flexible and able to react to change faster than the big ones.

Theissen

Mario Theissen

This may be at the heart of the problems confronting teams like Honda and Toyota, their overabundance of funding meaning that they can invest in so many facilities that confusion rather than focused development is the result. There is also that old theme of mine to be considered: passion. It is easier to inspire a few people with a single vision than a big operation with many departments and localities.

BMW seem to be getting everything right at the moment. Even though they remain very realistic, as is clear from Nick Heidfeld’s recent interview, they are clearly the team with the best chance of competing with the front runners, Ferrari and McLaren. If anyone is capable of beating those two this year, it must be BMW.

It has to be said that the reason for the effectiveness of the BMW team is Theissen himself. He is a model of the successful F1 team manager, being able to direct his personnel in a common direction, provide vision without straying into fantasy and dealing with the press without drama. Compare the turmoil and personnel changes in a crisis of Nick Fry’s Honda team with the steady, unflappable improvement at BMW Sauber. Any team becomes a reflection of its leader and the Honda management should make Ross Brawn an offer he can’t refuse if they want to get their team moving forward.

It’s a philosophy that all the manufacturers should consider. The corporate direction of an F1 team just doesn’t work, as has been demonstrated so often. Mercedes have had it right, although I detect a move towards greater involvement of management in McLaren’s affairs, and FIAT have had the sense to let Ferrari get on with it, until recently, at least. If Toyota and Honda finally get the idea, watch out!

This year has seen some big changes in the teams, with established stars departing and new faces appearing in many places. Looking further ahead, we may actually be witnessing one of those changes of era that come along perhaps once a decade. If BMW continue their drive to the front and McLaren and Ferrari suffer a decline caused by greater interference from their attached manufacturers, the whole shape of the grid could alter over the next few years. Is it possible that the battles of the “two thousand and something teens” will be between BMW and Williams-Toyota? And McLaren seriously embarrassed by the greater success of their B team, Prodrive; perhaps Ferrari in another period of chaos and internal conflict?

There is one thing for sure: change will always happen – it’s the only thing you can depend upon.

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Toyota Troubles

Toyota’s F1 team strike me as being the antithesis of Minardi in its heyday; whereas little Minardi oozed passion in abundance (and, at times, it was all they had), Toyota seem a passionless bunch, not quite sure of what they are supposed to be doing in F1. They have everything that Minardi never had – money, top designers, experienced team members, highly-rated drivers – yet they consistently under-achieve. I must conclude that they will never become a competitive team until they find passion somewhere, somehow.

Jarno

Jarno Trulli in Malaysia

Take Ralf Schumacher’s latest comments to the press, for instance. There seems no annoyance at the criticism leveled at his lackluster performances this year, merely a tired assurance that, when the car comes good, so will he. It does not even seem to occur to him that it’s the same old story we have heard repeated so often before.

Can you imagine Webber or Alonso in the same situation? They would not be holding back any caustic comments or accepting the status quo. Passion forces the unguarded statement from a man, ensures that occasionally he will stick his foot in his mouth.

Ralf’s statements are as bland and vague as if he had already proved his worth as the most highly-paid driver in F1; the reality is that we are still unconvinced of his talent. And the fact that Jarno Trulli is getting the best from the car while Ralf manages to fumble every race must raise questions in anyone’s mind. But not Ralf’s, apparently.

I detect rather more dissatisfaction in Jarno but he is too nice a guy to let much of it show. He is also perhaps more realistic than Ralf in assessing his own value in the F1 market – he knows that, if he fails to make a go of it at Toyota, the job offers will be thin on the ground thereafter. So he soldiers on, doing his best, and hoping that the team will eventually get it right.

Looking at the rest of the team, it is hard to say where this passionless attitude comes from. Pascal Vasselon, the senior chassis manager, is one of the most sensible people in F1 and is always worth listening to. Perhaps if he were more extreme, less realistic, we might see the flashes of emotion that mark the truly exceptional characters we have known in the sport.

And the car itself is a model of careful development, building upon what has gone before. What a pity that F1 is the one arena where that is not sufficient, where it is bold experimentation that can offer a chance of success, just as it also risks an embarrassing failure (just ask Honda).

It may well be that Toyota have found their level: always in with a chance of points but never a front runner. As the saga proceeds this season, it becomes ever more apparent that Toyota’s best chance remains to give up on the corporate team and put all their efforts into a small outfit that has the necessary ingredient of passion.

And that means Williams, of course…

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A Few Malaysian Points

Apart from the first lap, there was not a great deal of overtaking in this Grand Prix. And yet it was very interesting. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrated that McLaren have closed the gap to Ferrari. Even had the McLarens not got the jump on Massa and Raikkonen at the start, they clearly were as quick and would not have been left behind if the Ferraris had grabbed the lead. When the Italian cars had nothing in front of them, they went no faster than they had been going behind Alonso and Hamilton.

Alonso

Alonso’s race

Naturally, Jean Todt denied that this had anything to do with the tightening of the test for flexible floors, that it was merely that McLaren had found more improvements since Melbourne than Ferrari had, but I think there is more to it than that. The BMWs were able to run at Ferrari pace, as shown by Heidfeld keeping Massa at bay, and there was a string of cars just behind this pair; did everyone improve more than Ferrari?

Some of the loss of Ferrari’s advantage can be explained by Kimi’s reliability worries. He was obviously content to hold station rather than risk the engine and would have been better advised to take the penalty and show us the true pace of the Ferrari with a fresh engine, I think. In spite of his determination to pamper the engine for points rather than a win, he was able to stay with the McLarens; with a new engine, he could have bullied his way through to fight for the lead.

The Finn’s face in the post race press conference spoke volumes – he is with Ferrari to win the championship and, if that means sometimes he has to go a little slower and let Massa have the glory, he is prepared to do it. And the glow around Felipe is beginning to fade; this was a race that he expected to win but threw away in frustration when he lost his lead at the first corner. It is Raikkonen, not Massa, that Alonso will have to fight for his third championship in a row.

A little further back, Williams entertained us with a great drive from Rosberg that deserved better than retirement and a charge through the field from Wurz. Hopefully, the car will get even better and we can enjoy the sight of a Williams battling for the lead again.

The performance of the Renaults and Hondas was interesting, both racing much better than they qualified. This would indicate that their main problem is in adjusting to the Bridgestones, rather than fundamental flaws in the design of the cars. If they can get on top of the tire problem, they will leapfrog into the top ten, I think.

And give Fisichella his due: he is doing a far better job than his much-hyped Finnish teammate, driving the car as fast as it will go without drama and taking the points on offer.

Toyota performed their usual disappearing act, Trulli circulating anonymously in the final points positions while Ralf managed to find his way back to keep the tailenders company. If anyone drives like Fisichella’s reputation, it is the Toyota team!

Note that Super Aguri were not so impressive in Malaysia – they have slipped a little and now run with their natural competitors, the Toro Rossos. This is a trend that is likely to continue, since their car becomes ever more out of date as others develop their later designs and get them to work with the tires. Expect Toro Rosso to get better and better, however, as Red Bull get the RB3 sorted out and drop a few hints to their second team.

Finally, I have to say it: Scott Speed finished well ahead of Liuzzi. Yes, tell me that Vitantonio had a little argument with Sato that spoiled his race – the point is, Scott didn’t. He ran consistently with a gaggle of allegedly better cars throughout the race and brought it home in the end. Staying out of trouble is part of racecraft too, Gerhard…

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Williams and the Future

The customer car row continues to heat up, with Frank Williams pointing out that the concorde agreement for 2008 is not yet a done deal and Gerhard Berger promising to fight the matter in the courts if necessary. One can understand Frank’s point of view – as the last truly independent constructor in F1, he sees his future as threatened by the arrival of customer teams that will be, in effect, B teams for the manufacturers.

FW29

Williams FW29

It does seem that the FIA have chosen to take the B team route and abandon the independent constructor by doing so. This quote from a Reuters article is very telling:

“We’ve signed a Concorde Agreement for 2008 and while it hasn’t been clarified, we’d never been told that customer teams would be included in it,” said Williams.

“That was until (International Automobile Federation president) Max Mosley very charmingly said to me over lunch in December: ‘You do realise, Frank, that your business model is history now?’

“I said ‘What do you mean?’ and Max said: ‘From now on, it’s manufacturers and B teams’.

That makes it pretty clear where Max’s thoughts are heading and he usually gets what he wants. And Prodrive’s Dave Richards agrees that this must be the future:

“Frank is talking this up for one reason only,” the former Benetton and BAR boss told the magazine.

“He can see that his business model — employing 600 people to build a racing car without manufacturer assistance — won’t stack up in the future.

“The business is changing. We need teams at the back given the same cars as Ferrari and fielding promising young drivers. That’s the spectacle we want to see.”

It seems that Frank is swimming against the tide and can expect no help from the FIA in his argument with Toro Rosso and Super Aguri in 2007. Spyker are in a similar position in spite of being owned by a manufacturer; the company is small and has to buy in engines from Ferrari so it looks likely that they too will be defeated by the costs at some time and have to throw in their lot with one of the big boys.

Like it or not, we are seeing the last days of the independent constructor. Unless the FIA changes its mind, the manufacturers and their sidekicks will be the only teams in F1. Frank and Spyker’s Colin Kolles will fight to the last, no doubt, but, even if they win in the courts this year, in the long run they will lose.

It may well be that Williams’ best hope for survival is the one I suggested way back in July 2006 – to become Toyota’s B team. If the new Williams FW29 maintains its impressive form into the 2007 season and they continue to beat the Toyota factory team, it would make a lot of sense for the Japanese giant to merge the teams and save itself a lot of money and embarrassment.

What Spyker will do, however, is anybody’s guess.

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