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The Circuit Circus

I see that the Imola authorities are going ahead with their plans to improve the circuit in spite of the San Marino GP being dropped from the calendar for 2007. The hope is to get the race back in 2008 but I cannot help but feel that it is a forlorn hope at best.

Imola

BMW Sauber at Imola

With Bernie Ecclestone trying to get the Silverstone organizers to agree to an alternating race with France (and, of course, the BRDC is not interested in such a plan), things look pretty bleak for Imola’s chances. There is a limit to the number of races that can be run each year (18 seems to be the maximum) and Far Eastern countries are lining up with money in their hands, desperate to get into the game. India is next to get a GP, in 2010 we’re told.

Simple mathematics indicates that, if you add a new race to the calendar, somewhere another has to be dropped. And it is Europe that suffers, inevitably, since it has by far the most races. No circuit in Europe can be confident that the ax will not visit at some time in the future.

Traditionalists (like me) can bemoan the loss of old and great circuits but the facts of modern life dictate that the oldest and best are the most likely to go. “Safety” is invariably the excuse to get rid of them because that is their greatness – they present a challenge to the driver and demand a higher level of skill to achieve good lap times.

But we all know that the real reason is money. It is costing the owners of older circuits millions to keep their tracks updated to the latest FIA specifications and this makes it almost impossible to balance the books. Already it costs a small fortune to go to watch a GP – in the future the gate fee will only increase. And that means many potential spectators will stay away – after all, they can see the race on television for a fraction of the cost. The resulting squeeze on the organizers’ finances gets worse as a result.

So how do the new circuits manage? The answer has to be that a GP is seen as a status symbol for the nation and the government helps with cash injections. Notice that half of the Turkish GP’s FIA fine this year was paid by the Turkish government – they want to retain their race because it has benefits beyond mere money; there is national pride to be considered.

In Europe, F1 has been around too long for its subsidiary benefits to be recognized by governments. It’s a case of familiarity breeds contempt. It would be hard, too, for a European government to justify huge expenditure on a GP to its constituents – too many of them could not care less about the sport.

So the spread of F1 to far corners of the earth will continue and fewer old circuits will be used in the future. But, just occasionally, the traditionalists get the last laugh – and here’s an item that made me smile:

F1 Racing-live reports that practice for the A1GP race in Beijing has had to be suspended because the cars just could not negotiate the hairpin. Total chaos ensued on the first lap, it seems. How ironic that all the money and hype has been insufficient to produce a circuit that cars can actually drive around…

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Raikkonen’s Indiscretion

Amidst all the fuss about Michael Schumacher’s retirement and the Alonso/Renault championships, one little snippet of news about Kimi Raikkonen put a huge grin on my face. It seems that Martin Brundle, interviewing the Finn for ITV, asked about Kimi missing Pele’s presentation of a gold trophy to Michael Schumacher. Ever a man of few words, Kimi responded with a “Yeah”.

Ron Kimi

Ron Dennis and Kimi Raikkonen

Obviously amused at Kimi’s lack of concern over the matter, Brundle suggested that he would get over it. The Finn’s response blew Martin and live feed viewers away: “Hey, I was having a sh*t.”

Oh blessed moment of reality intruding upon the rarified world of F1! Suddenly we recall that this is the man with the reputation for wild nights in nightclubs, in complete contrast to his deadpan public utterances. Ferrari are getting themselves a character.

Now there’s a thought to give one pause. Could there be a greater difference between the Ferrari number ones of 2006 and 2007? Michael is probably the greatest exponent of press-handling ever seen in F1; Kimi is a public relations bomb waiting to explode.

This surely has to be a worry for the team that Michael built. Yes, they are getting probably the fastest guy on the grid but he will not be quite the same team player as his predecessor. And I can see trouble in store as a result.

Imagine Ron Dennis’ reaction to hearing of Kimi’s statement to Martin Brundle – a loud guffaw would be inevitable. But Jean Todt (if he’s still there next year)? Or Montezemolo? Somehow I can’t see them being very amused. Ross Brawn would probably shrug it off but strong rumor puts him on sabbatical for a while at least.

Historically, Ferrari have always been a difficult team for a driver to win over. Lauda managed it and Schumacher, obviously. Gilles was their darling. But other great drivers have departed in a huff: John Surtees, Jean Alesi, Alain Prost, to name just a few. It seems to me that, unless Kimi starts winning races immediately in 2007, a certain tension will develop in the Ferrari camp. And, once that happens, everything could fall apart.

Raikkonen has made no secret of the fact that he is moving to Ferrari because he wants to win races. I have heard no mention of a lifelong love of the Italian team or anything like it, something that is almost required of new Ferrari drivers. Maybe I’m wrong but it looks to me like a recipe for disaster.

Another interesting item was the news that the Turkish GP organizers have asked that their appeal against the FIA fine be withdrawn. Obviously, they’ve been reading my blog

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Drivers and Circuits

Huh, glad I didn’t touch the Fontana confession of yesterday – Peter Sauber has denied it already. And anyway, there is plenty of anti-Schumacher/Ferrari press around already, with Coulthard coming out in support of Alonso’s charge of bad sportsmanship.

Coulthard

David Coulthard

Instead, let’s talk circuits. Imola looks set to be included in the schedule for next year, although it seems Bernie Ecclestone may be squeezing a bit more money from the organizers for the favor. With the announcement that improvements to the circuit will commence in October, the circuit has cleared the major obstacle to the race’s inclusion, however.

In contrast, Suzuka has accepted that it will not hold a Grand Prix in 2007 and is hoping for 2008 instead. So F1 loses its only figure-8 circuit, even if just temporarily. I do sometimes wonder why it seems to be only the good circuits that come under threat of exclusion; maybe “interesting” equates to “dangerous” in the minds of the FIA delegates.

And then there is Turkey, of course. Amazingly, the organizers are now muttering about appealing against the $5,000,000 fine imposed on them for politicizing the awards ceremony. I would have thought their best plan was to pay up and shut up, especially as the Turkish government will foot the bill. They are insisting that it was not planned that Mehmet Ali Talat present a trophy but that makes it seem that the dignitaries drew lots after the race to see who would do the job. Doesn’t seem very likely to me.

Perhaps someone should warn them that the FIA does not take kindly to its decisions being questioned and are more likely to increase the penalty on appeal than to forget the whole matter.

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Decisions from the FIA

The FIA has issued a press release detailing its plans for the future of F1. Much of the document is concerned with the intent to force greater fuel economy in racing, to spur research and development in this area, in fact.

Istanbul

The drive to limit the amount the teams can spend on development continues, with the engine freeze brought forward to cover 2007 as well as 2008. But more time has been given (to 2009) for the FIA to develop new rules on aerodynamic advances. Interestingly, it is specified that 18 races will be held in 2007, whereas only 17 are listed in the FIA’s calendar. This must surely give renewed hope to the Imola officials that their circuit will be used next year.

Essentially, the document tells us nothing new; it merely confirms previous suggestions and makes them official. Another and more recent press release is a bit more controversial, however.

The FIA has ruled in the matter of the politicizing of the awards ceremony at the Turkish Grand Prix. The decision is brief enough to quote in its entirety:

WORLD MOTOR SPORT COUNCIL
2006 TURKISH GRAND PRIX – PODIUM CEREMONY
19.09.2006

The World Motor Sport Council has found against the National Sporting Authority of Turkey (TOSFED) and the Organisers of the Turkish Grand Prix (MSO) on all counts.

The organisations have been fined a combined total of $5 million.

That’s a huge fine to you or me but, to TOSFED and MSO, it must amount to chickenfeed, especially as they were in danger of losing their race completely. Remembering how Jerez lost its right to hold Grands Prix in 1997, I cannot help but feel that the FIA is demonstrating massive inconsistency here. Here’s what the Wikipedia has to say on the subject of the Jerez ban:

The track itself was banned from hosting FIA-sanctioned racing again after an incident where the mayor of the town disrupted the podium ceremonies. The people chosen to present the trophies were dependent on the race order, with Daimler-Benz chairman Jurgen Schrempp only willing to make a presentation to a McLaren-Mercedes driver. As the McLarens of Häkkinen and Coulthard passed Villeneuve’s Williams on the last lap, this would have meant he could present either the trophy for first or second position or the winning constructor trophy. There was some confusion due to the late changes in position and whilst the Mayor and the president of the region presented trophies, Schrempp did nothing. FIA president Max Mosely later announced “The disruption caused embarrassment and inconvenience to those presenting the trophies and therefore, no further rounds of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship will be held at the Jerez circuit.”

Embarrassment and inconvenience, hey? What, no misuse of the award ceremony for political purposes? It seems to me that it may be a case of one rule for the rich and another for the poor.

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