Posts Tagged ‘ Renault

How to get the best out of Nick Heidfeld

Amid much speculation as to who may replace the injured Robert Kubica at Renult/Lotus for at least part of the 2011 season, the driver often inexplicably known as “Quick Nick” threw his hat into the ring with a brisk performance during testing at Jerez over the weekend.

Heidfeld has always been a bit of an enigma to me: a tricky interviewee, on account of being rather shy, and on track a somewhat hot-and-cold performer in the Fisichella mould.

Given a sub-standard car Heidfeld, like Fisichella, could turn on the style. I was watching at the Esses during the truncated Sunday-morning qualifying session at Suzuka in 2004 (Saturday’s activities having been cancelled on account of an impending typhoon) and Heidfeld was remarkable in the Jordan. The car was pretty awful; Heidfeld seemed to be cajoling it into changing direction through sheer force of will alone. He was a second and a half quicker than Timo Glock, who was driving the other car.

I saw very little of this determination once he got his foot in the door at Sauber, where the general feeling was that he had a tremendous ability to work with the engineers to develop the car, but that this capacity was almost completely offset by his lack of a killer instinct while racing. He just seemed to be happy enough to be driving a quick car.

Should this factor in Renault’s decision-making process? Perhaps it should. At Sauber the driving arrangement worked because Mario Theissen hit on the perfect way to get the best out of Heidfeld: structure his salary according to results, so he was on a low flat fee but with a considerable points bonus. Heidfeld, therefore, delivered a succession of solid points-scoring finishes in strict accordance with the timetable Theissen had laid out for the team – that is, get in the points occasionally in the first year, get on the podium in the second, then start winning in the third.

At Sauber, though, the other seat was occupied by someone who genuinely did want to win races: Robert Kubica. Indeed, when Kubica replaced Jacques Villeneuve in 2006 Heidfeld immediately upped his game. This won’t happen at Lotus/Renault with Vitaly Petrov driving the other car…

Briatore: justice has been served (sort of)

To wails of angst in many quarters, Flavio Briatore yesterday succeeded in overturning the lifetime exclusion from motorsport imposed on him and Pat Symonds by the FIA World Motor Sport Council. The judgement seems to me to be fair and proper.

Let me clarify. I have no great sympathy for Briatore and have little liking for what he represents: a vacuous ethical continuum inhabited by overly wealthy and out-of-touch old men. He is the epitome of the grasping plutocrat who seeks success and personal enrichment above all else, and it was this mindset that led him to a dark place in September 2008.

Some people will tell you that the end justifies the means. And yet, even if the goal in question is winning a grand prix, no reasonable person could sanction a means by which a driver is permitted or compelled to recklessly endanger their own life as well as those of the marshals and spectators. From this angle the matter of whether Nelson Piquet was the originator of the stratagem, or whether Briatore and Symonds coerced him, is irrelevant.

To my mind the original punishment fitted the crime. What the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris found yesterday was that the FIA had no power to impose that punishment on Briatore and Symonds because they were not FIA license holders. This was the argument Briatore had put forward before the WMSC hearing, and was so confident in that he did not turn up for the hearing itself.

The WMSC’s verdict was, at best, a fudge – and one that was motivated by political expediency. Under Article 123 of the International Sporting Code, Renault F1 was responsible for the actions of its employees. It escaped punishment because it took rapid and severe action in mitigation; but one doesn’t have to be too cynical to observe that the last thing the sport needed at that time was to lose another manufacturer. Thus the verdict, which in its legalistic agility and its attention to detail bears the stamp of the outgoing FIA president, Max Mosley:

As regards Mr Briatore, the World Motor Sport Council declares that, for an unlimited period, the FIA does not intend to sanction any International Event, Championship, Cup, Trophy, Challenge or Series involving Mr Briatore in any capacity whatsoever, or grant any license to any Team or other entity engaging Mr Briatore in any capacity whatsoever. It also hereby instructs all officials present at FIA-sanctioned events not to permit Mr Briatore access to any areas under the FIA’s jurisdiction.

It is therefore not a ban, as such, but an edict to all involved in motorsport to send Messrs Briatore and Symonds to Coventry. Even so, it is what it is: a clever piece of linguistic legerdemain, but ultimately a fudge.

I know I’m slightly unfashionable in my belief that Max Mosley did much to improve motorsport during his tenure. But he frequently demonstrated an unpleasantly patrician and autocratic mindset – one that drove him to deploy his considerable intellect with a steamrollering flourish.

No person or body should have the power to impose a punishment that is not properly enshrined in law. This is a fundamental principle of justice. The FIA must take the opportunity to provide itself with the mechanisms to punish miscreants fairly and transparently. In its statement yesterday, it suggested that something may be on the cards:

The FIA intends to consider appropriate actions to ensure that no persons who would engage, or who have engaged, in such dangerous activities or acts of intentional cheating will be allowed to participate in Formula One in the future.

Amen to that. The more transparent and straightforward the legal process, the less likely it is that those such as Briatore can attempt to shift the terms of debate. Throughout this case he has ignored the ethical dimension of his conduct and concentrated solely on protesting that Mosley is pursuing a vendetta against him. This is what statisticians and philosophers call the Motivational Fallacy: failing to engage with another person’s argument by calling into question their opponent’s motivation. Slippery politicians do it all the time.

If there is anything less edifying than an ageing plutocrat, it is the sight of one publicly handbagging another. The learned fellows of the Tribunal de Grande Instance clearly believed this, too, and awarded Briatore a pitiful fraction of the €2million he was claiming in damages.

Is Flavio lobbying for a pardon?

I never spent much time chasing Flavio Briatore around the paddock; not because I found him odious, but because I couldn’t understand a word he said. I’m not the only one – an F1 high-up once told me that for similar reasons, whenever Flavio telephoned him he’d just say yes to everything.

Still, he was a fascinating character, and one of F1’s chief power brokers by dint of his friendship with Bernie Ecclestone and his network of F1 driver management contracts (not to mention his lucrative involvement in GP2 and related businesses). Besides keeping him plugged in to an inordinate number of revenue streams, this made him a far more influential figure in F1 than many people give him credit for.

It is for this reason that he has embarked on what appears to be the fools’ errand of launching a civil action in the French courts against the FIA. His lifetime ban from motorsport was calculated not only to deny him income but chiefly to exclude him from that which he held most dear: his seat at the top table of international motorsport; and his status as second only to Ecclestone among F1’s movers and shakers. Acquisition of money and dispensation of power; shorn of these facilities, he is just one of the little people.

The court will reach a judgement early next month and it is tricky to predict the outcome. He was caught bang to rights in the race-fixing scandal and failed to turn up at the World Motor Sport Council meeting that determined his fate; and yet it is possible that his claims about the punishment being excessive – and motivated by Max Mosley’s personal desire for ‘revenge’ – may find a sympathetic ear (not on this blog, since you ask).

It says much about the arrogance of power that Briatore thinks he can erase the stain of his loathsome conduct. He doesn’t trouble himself with what the man on the street thinks. What matters to him is to regain some grip on the reins of power: the who-goes-where of the driver market and the what-goes-where of engine, chassis and tyre contracts.

So I was interested to hear in Monaco last week that the French court may not be Flavio’s final port of call. Some say that he and his people are already lobbying the new FIA president for an official pardon.

Stranger things have happened. Remember Richard Nixon?

A great time to buy in to F1

Earlier this year I went over to the World Touring Car Championship race at Porto. I caught up with a driver who I haven’t seen in years, and amongst other things he told me that in recent months he’d been snapping up repossessed houses for around 50 per cent of the market rate.

“The banks are desperate to get rid of them,” he said, “because they’re desperate for cash. They need liquidity more than they need the paper value of the asset.”

I pointed out that property values could fall further in the short term.

“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “The opportunity is now. They aren’t thinking about the future, because it’s less important to them than shareholder value – they don’t want a rout next time they release some figures. When the panic’s over the bargains will be gone.”

Similar thoughts have been playing through the minds of the investors who are presently jockeying to pick up the Renault F1 team, should Renault decide to sell (I was told last week that the decision is still pending). As the weakened manufacturers have fled the sport to focus on shoring up their balance sheets, the better to defend their share prices, visionary entrepreneurs have sniffed opportunities; although sometimes, as in the case of Qadbak, the difference between entrepreneur and huckster isn’t immediately obvious.

Yesterday’s news that Lloyds Development Capital has taken a stake in the Virgin F1 team underlines the fact that the panic is now over in the banking sector. It was also a nimble piece of news management (hardly surprising, given that Virgin F1’s comms chief used to work at Honda and therefore knows a thing or two about firefighting). Banks and bankers are still reviled and reports of them spending money – especially if, like Lloyds, they’ve been bailed out by the British taxpayer – may not be greeted warmly. The timing of the announcement makes it a small element in the hierarchy of today’s launch.

This is a good time to be investing in Formula 1. The background mood of optimism in the market is characterised by the price of F1’s debt, which is currently trading in the region of 90 pence in the pound. Back in July, at the height of the FOTA breakaway threat, it was around 50 pence in the pound.

In buying Brawn, Mercedes have obtained a championship-winning F1 team for far less than British American Tobacco and Honda paid for pretty much the same outfit when it was still a midfielder. They will now derive all the benefits from having their name above the door while spending far less – partly thanks to the resource restriction agreement. Dr Dieter Zetsche, Mercedes’ chairman, has claimed that from 2011 the annual budget will be a quarter of what it used to be.

So the recent talk about Anthony Hamilton throwing his hat into the ring with Renault F1 may not be too hard to believe. After all, as my WTCC snout pointed out, if you’ve got cash these days then why leave it buried under the Swiss Alps when there are bargains to be had?