If you're planning on visiting Istanbul for the forthcoming Grand Prix, there is just one piece of information you need to know, to make your visit far better than it would otherwise have been: everything you will be told, will be wrong.
It's not that the Turkish will deliberately lead you astray, will point you consciously in the wrong direction for their own amusement - the Turks are among the most honest, gracious, obliging hosts you could hope to find when visiting a new country for the first time, and they will go miles out of their way to make your stay more comfortable, more pleasing for you.
It's just that, despite their best intentions, their enthusiasm exceeds their helpfulness. That enthusiasm was the reason I found myself checking into my second hotel in as many days at one o'clock in the morning, surrounded by a number of Ukrainians chain-smoking and wearing sunglasses while the two Poles has the look of men who were surveying the surroundings for a blunt instrument to introduce to the heads of their hosts.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. A few weeks ago I got a call from the office asking if I wanted to go to Istanbul, courtesy of the Turkish ministry of tourism, as part of their preparations ahead of the first Turkish Grand Prix. Of course I wanted to go, I said. "Good. The flight is at six in the morning," was the response.
I should have taken that as an omen - who arranges for journalists to come and look at, well, anything the day before they're due to arrive? But the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Old Town - there was no saying no to that.
There was a young guy holding a piece of paper with my name on it when I arrived in Istanbul. Unfortunately, he couldn't speak English, but he kindly directed me to a bus and sent me on my way as he turned and walked back to the terminal. Upon arrival at my hotel, handily indicated by the bus driver looking at me, pointing to the door and shrugging, there was eventually another guy from the ministry of tourism to welcome me to Turkey.
It was only five hours or so before the rest of the group started arriving, from the Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Germany and an entire busload from Italy - Italian journalists do everything together, so it wasn't much of a surprise that they'd arrive for the tour en masse as well. Another hour or so and we were on the buses and heading out to have dinner, the Italians in one bus and the eastern Europeans and me in the other.
"How long will it take to get there?" one of the Poles asked.
"Oh, just half an hour," was the emphatic reply. After an hour he was getting restless, but from there it was only half an hour or so through the ever present peak hour traffic to get to the restaurant. We all piled out of the bus and walked up a laneway to the restaurant, which was clearly owned by someone in the ministry's brother in law - there was no other reason we could think of to have brought us all the way to this tiny venue.
But I didn't care - I was starving, and I'd been looking forward to the food in Istanbul since I'd been told about the trip. Turkish food is great - lamb and kofte and greens, a melting pot of eastern Mediterranean styles - and I couldn't wait to tuck in. Of course, being an official tour, our hosts had obviously decided for us that we would rather eat western style food, and we were brought out a selection of dishes I could have ordered in my local pub.
I've never understood the thought process of people who only eat western food wherever they are - surely the whole point of going somewhere else is to experience life, for however long, as it is in that country? If you go to, say, Shanghai and stay at the Four Seasons, how can you claim to have been to the city? You might as well stay at home and look at pictures on the internet.
Every meal was like this over the four days - I'd think to myself that this was finally going to be the proper Turkish meal I was looking forward to, and two hours later we'd get off the bus as another random family member welcomed us to his restaurant and brought out some chicken and chips. Of the many disappointments of the long weekend, this was probably the worst.
And it didn't need to be - on the final day the Poles and I went wandering around the dirt patch of a local park near our second hotel and there was a cafe serving food; we ordered and a giant tray of spiced meats and grilled peppers was brought out. It cost next to nothing and was, hands down, the best meal of our trip, merely through being a local dish.
Istanbul is a food city; walking around town your head will be turned almost everywhere by some wonderful smell wafting out of a small hole in the wall cafe selling good, cheap, exquisitely spiced food - you would really have to go out of your way to find bad food there. However, we were with professionals.
On the second day we woke up to find all of the windows of the supposed five star hotel reception knocked out. A crew had commenced building work, and it seemed that they had waited for our arrival before commencing, sending our official tour host into paroxysms of rage.
The expertise our guides had previously showed in restaurant selection also stretched to the tour of the city. Fifteen minutes in the Blue Mosque, twenty in Hagia Sophia (the biggest church, then mosque, on earth for most of the city's existence), then five hours in the Sultan's Palace ("now you must go into this room to see more presents given to the Sultan"). We had yet another desultory culinary experience, and then on the Grand Bazaar ("it is made up of 78 streets, and covers five square miles - you've got twenty minutes to be back here").
I'd be happy to never see the inside of the palace again, but everything else was incredible - the mosque is large, the people working there are welcoming and make jokes tailor made to your nationality as you remove your shoes, and the Hagia Sophia one of the most astonishingly large rooms you will ever stand in. As for the bazaar, they seem to have every single product known to man somewhere within the walls, although that didn't stop most of them trying to sell me a carpet.
The result was a day which was both exhausting and frustrating - Istanbul has so much to offer her visitors, and it would have been easier, and far more interesting, to just get a cab and then walk around ourselves, despite the constant gridlock of the streets.
"So how far away is the track?" asked the taller Pole, the one with the hair like Dracula, the next morning in the bus. "Half an hour or so?"
"Sure - how did you know?" the host replied, oblivious to the giggles. The two hours gave us a chance to take a nap after we were taken to what was referred to as "the second best nightclub in the world - if you don't like it, then I can comfortably say you don't like nightclubs."
Needless to say it wasn't up to the advertisement, unless your idea of a great nightclub is a room full of mafia guys and badly remixed Arabic music. Still, it was under the bridge and overlooking the Bosporus, so the view was great.
I was woken up as the bus went off the highway and onto a dirt track, which was quite surreal until I worked out that the driver meant to do it. Eventually the dirt track turned a corner and there was the Istanbul circuit, covered by workers and almost complete. It was worth the whole trip to see it - rising up and downhill, and featuring blind corners and tricky braking areas, it is an amazingly good track, and it didn't take us long to borrow a car to go around for a closer look. The track manager is understandably proud of it, stating: "we've had some comparisons to Spa - that can't be bad, can it?"
I can't wait to see cars racing on the circuit - in a season of flat, featureless tracks Istanbul will stand out from the rest for the racing it will create. And this year none of the drivers will have had any experience of the place, which will throw a much needed element of randomness to the proceedings.
With rain hanging menacingly overhead we left the circuit. By the time we got back in to town the sun was shining once again, just in time for an outdoor lunch with the chairman of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce. Of course. It was only later that we found out that, annoyingly, David Coulthard was flown into the circuit just after us - well, why would journalists want to talk to a driver after all? Clearly we were better off talking to a civil servant about how the dirt track will be replaced by a proper road before the race, and how many buses they are putting on from the city to the track.
Maybe it was because we were scheduled to see him the next day, when he took his Formula One car out for a spin across the Bosporus Bridge, spanning the gap between continents as he did. But that was all we could do - after his team put out a small fire licking out from the engine, a Turkish only press conference started, and Coulthard looked as bored as every other non-Turk standing in the President's front yard felt.
I stood and leant against the wall as the Poles ranted on. "Well, the good thing is that I never have to come back here," my Dracula-haired friend said after eating his fill. "I can't imagine ever wanting to be here again."
Unlike him, I will be back, and I can't wait. Istanbul is a great city - I saw lots of people enjoying themselves through the bus window, walking along the streets to the open air markets and the bars all around; next week, I'll be out of the clutches of the ministry and into the crowds. I'll be eating where I want, I'll be spending however long I want at places, other than the track, and I'm prepared to bet it will be one of the best race weekends on the calendar.
But I won't be expecting to get to the circuit, or anywhere at all, in half an hour.
The simple truth of being Damon Hill was no preparation for actually being Damon Hill - in fact you could argue that it actively worked against preparing him for what his name was going to mean, what it was going to stand for, what carrying his name was going to do to the man himself.
Talking to Hill for any period of time gives you a glimpse into the numerous burdens the man has carried, this refined, somewhat shy but polite man who wears still the numerous marks of an upbringing so different to those of almost every one who meets him, the marks that betray the many faces of a man who was thrust into a limelight not of his own making, a limelight that he loved and hated alternately in almost equal measure.
Hill grew up with a largely absent father figure, a flesh and blood human to observe and emulate or rebel against in person, firstly because his famous father Graham was off racing for a large part of his early childhood and later, tragically, because his father was taken from forever in the plane crash which claimed his life, along with those of various members of his nascent Hill Racing team, including promising young driver Tony Brise.
For so much of his life Damon Hill has felt the push and pull of his relationship with his absent father, rebelling against the image when he raced due to a perceived need to succeed or fail on his own terms, pulling back to protect his father's image when, for example, he drove the Embassy Hill car at the recent Goodwood festival, built by his father's team but never raced, when he stated: "I hesitate to make suggestions that would have deprived James Hunt of a World Championship, but I like to think this car could have won it, with Tony Brise at the wheel."
The inference being that he alone can go against the party line when it suits him; the rest of us must sing from the hymnbook of his father's success, no matter what the endeavour.
In retrospect, perhaps Damon Hill would have been better off trying to make his mark on the world in a different forum than his father - being without his father's natural extrovert nature, and keen to establish himself without reference to a template that fans and the press were always going to want to put him into, led to Hill sometimes appearing churlish or abrupt when dealing with both groups, the weight of expectation as his father's son adding to the pressures this naturally introspective man piled on himself.
But race he did, whether to prove something to himself, to his absent father, or through a combination of both forces. And he succeeded in his own fashion, taking 22 wins from 115 starts in Formula One, along with the 1996 World Championship, a stubborn determination making up for a lack of a publicly gregarious nature and helping him quiet the doubts from all quarters, including his own, that he would be able to match the records set by his father.
Of course, winning the Championship brought more attention, more fans, more pressure to bear on Hill. Sitting at a table at the Goodwood Festival, years on from those torrid days and looking tanned and relaxed, he could see why his mere presence could induce pandemonium. "I do understand it, because as you know Nick Mason is involved in motor racing, and I'm a Pink Floyd fan, so I can sort of relate to it - I like to sit next to him and things like that!
"You can understand it in other things, but I think there's definitely a freaky element to idealization of people or cars that can sometimes be disturbing - it mustn't go beyond reasonable bounds. We can all get a lot from investing in a sport that we love, but once it goes beyond a certain point it becomes a bit scary."
DC: You've been on the receiving end of that for years and years - it must be odd to be in that situation and to be the centre of all that attention.
Damon Hill: "I can tell you a good story about that - Tom Jones and Tony Bennett, who told me this story, came out of a hotel and there were screaming girls and people pushing and all of that, and they were screaming at Tom Jones. So Tony Bennett pulled Tom back and put himself in front, and they carried on screaming - he said look, it doesn't matter who you are, there just needs to be someone to scream at! And that's human nature - there is such a thing as mass hysteria.
"It's something that we pass through. The World Champion - it wasn't me that got the attention, it was the position of World Champion that gets the attention, and once you're out of that it goes away and all that's left is just a memory of it. And it's nice, because people remind you of the good times that they had watching you, and then it just sort of peters out and becomes manageable, but at the time it's too much."
DC: I remember watching you on television at Suzuka when you won it, and you looked as though you'd had a huge weight taken off your shoulders ...
DC: ... but when you were up for the British Sportsman of the Year and all those things you looked as though you were trapped again, as though everyone was looking at you again, but for a different reason ...
Hill: "Yeah, and I never really felt comfortable with that. Certain people are great with it - someone like Muhammad Ali is someone who sort of feeds on it and it somehow rebounds on to the people, but I always felt slightly ambivalent about the whole thing - perhaps I wasn't really the best person for it!"
DC: You say that it's the position or the title rather than the person, but someone like yourself or Alan Jones or John Surtees will get more attention, more people coming up to them to talk to them, than a Carlos Reutemann or any other driver who won a lot of races but didn't quite win the Championship.
Hill: "No, but then again that's I think the way it works - I think that's the difference between coming close and winning it. The rarity value is intrinsic in what Formula One is trying to create - every year it's got to come up with a new individual, singular - it's distilling the whole world of driving into one person and declaring that person to be The One, the messiah or whatever, and that's just the way it is.
"But hopefully I'm not too easily deluded to think that it's sort of anything more than it is - it's a very difficult competition, and it's fantastic to win it, but winning it does not declare anything about you other than at that time and place you beat everyone around you, and if you can do it time and time again like Michael Schumacher then ultimately you have to be regarded as pretty special."
After winning the title in 1996, with the knowledge that he was leaving Williams hanging over his head in the latter stages of the year, Hill chose to drive for Arrows. At the time he spoke highly of the possibilities the move held for him, but apart from one race there was no opportunity to show his abilities in the car. It was clear that he would need to change teams to have the chance to race at the front, but more than this Hill needed to prove to himself that he still had the desire to do so.
DC: Do you think that winning the title made you change what you wanted out of the sport at all? Was it a case of 'I've done this now'?
Hill: "It was a bit, and in some respects, well, I didn't have an opportunity, and I did think to myself there's possibly another Championship for me, but it would have needed me to get the McLaren drive in 1998. I didn't get the McLaren drive because I felt that the offer that was made didn't take into account that I'd already won the Championship - I felt it would have been wrong to accept it on that basis, bearing in mind that the number one driver at the time was Mika [Hakkinen], who had just taken his first race win at Jerez, and so if I'd gone into the contract that I was offered at that time, I felt it was pretty clear that it was declaring me not to be the wanted driver, which I felt would have been wrong."
DC: Do you regret not taking it now?
Hill: "No, I don't regret it at all, because what actually happened was I went to Jordan and won their first ever Grand Prix. I think there are certain things that are completely beyond your own control, and you can only do the best and the thing you felt was right at the time - a lot of it is out of your control other than that, and what transpired was I won in a Williams, I nearly won in an Arrows, and I did win in a Jordan, so I can feel that maybe there was actually a common denominator there amongst all those results.
"But once I'd lost that chance of becoming a World Champion [again] I think I was starting to question whether I actually wanted to keep doing it. To win a Championship is one thing - there's a strong validation to doing it if you're going to win a World Championship - but the argument starts to become less convincing once you know you can't win a Championship."
DC: Going to McLaren would have been a tough job, no question, and I wonder if because you came into the sport later than most people, and you already had a Championship, was it a case of 'I'd rather go and do something else'?
Hill: "No, I really wanted the Williams drive - oh, I called it the Williams drive, and I'll tell you why - really I wanted to work with Adrian [Newey] again, and I knew Adrian was backing me at McLaren, and I knew that if I went back to working with Adrian at McLaren I would have a really good chance of winning another World Championship, because we had a bloody good working relationship, so it's a shame really ..."
DC: You would have had to pull the team around you, though, which would have been a bit of a challenge.
Hill: "Well, for me I think Ron's approach to me was so ... diffident, is that the right word? Certainly he didn't give me a warm feeling - I'd been through one experience of not having a warm feeling, and I didn't want another one! And I thought that if you don't want me then we shouldn't do it."
DC: And EJ was standing there ready to give you a big hug!
Hill: "Yeah, and I though 'well you never know what could happen here' - with Eddie there's always a chance of being entertaining, and I thought I always wanted to do the best that I could, and that meant getting the best out of the people around you if I could as well, and I found the attitude and the mentality of the people at Jordan wasn't there yet. I think I had an affect on them, to a degree, for a while."
DC: What was the difference between 1998 and 1999? You did well, you got a win, and then it just went down.
Hill: "Yeah, '99 was just went fizzling down, and I wanted to get out - I would have liked to have stopped at the British Grand Prix but suddenly it got very political, and scarily potentially litigious, and I found myself sort of ... entombed, I was going to say. I'm very lucky that nothing did happen to me really, because I did want to stop."
DC: Was that all down to a clash between you and EJ?
Hill: "I don't know. I mean no, because I never really spoke to Eddie properly about it - I spoke to him briefly about this, but Eddie had ... Eddie wanted to make alternative arrangements, which meant that I wouldn't have been able to race or to stop my career when I wanted to, and I thought that he was being unreasonable. To me it seemed like he was being unreasonable - to not at least give me a dignified exit, and it didn't happen that way, so it's a shame."
It may not have been dignified, but it was an end. After fretting his way through the 1999 season, Hill slid off track from thirteenth position at Suzuka and lost his nose, came into the pits for the last time and parked his car rather than continuing needlessly, happy to have survived a year in racing for which he had clearly lost his appetite.
But what do you do when you're an ex-racer, when you no longer do the one thing that people associate with your name? "I just stopped and tried to think about what I'm doing, to try and recover from it, because it was only a seven year Formula One career but it was thirteen years before that trying to get there! It's a long time. I was in the lucky position of being able to stop and say 'what do I want to do?' - not many people get that chance."
DC: I've always imagined that for someone like yourself, someone who has focused his entire attention on something for such a long period of time, whether it's driving, cricket, whatever, that when it's gone there must be a huge piece of yourself that goes missing, like a large hole inside you.
Hill: "Did you watch that programme recently about ex-footballers, with that guy ... Alan Hansen is it? He did a programme about this exact problem with footballers, and what do they think about when they retire. No sportsman really thinks about what happens, and I think it's an enormous problem. As a sports person you can really delay growing up - you can defer all those things about yourself that you need to develop that make you become a complete adult - it is an extension of your childhood, no question, because you turn up and someone's got your boots for you and whatever else.
"I tried to do as much for myself as I possibly could, but nevertheless you don't develop proper working relationship skills because you're a one man band - you're a golfer, you're a tennis player, you're a footballer where you're in a team but you're just playing football, and you don't develop broadly. Someone like Niki Lauda is very much the exception, but then ... I don't want to name names, but it is very difficult to make the transition from being single minded to having a view as to where you fit in to the grander scheme of things. It can't always be all about you!"
DC: I've wondered about how you would deal with that, as you've always struck me as a more introspective type than most, particularly in racing. But with that said, once you retired you sort of went through your George Harrison hippy stage ...
Hill: "Yeah, yeah! You mean my mid life crisis kind of thing! I did all the things that I hadn't been able to do, because I was so committed to what I was doing, and I thought fuck it, I don't care - if I'm going to make a fool of myself I don't care, because I wanted to do these things, like go on stage at the Albert Hall and play guitar - how many people can say that!
"The funny thing about that was that the week before that I did a gig at the Queen Victoria in Godalming, which is a pub, and I think that was just beautiful to go from the Queen Vic pub to the Albert Hall - I think there's some sort of connection there. Or was it the other way around? Maybe I went from the Albert Hall to the Queen Vic, which is a fairly rapid fall!"
DC: Which was kind of like 1999 for you.
Hill's recent re-emergence into the motorsport world - his appearance at Goodwood, his refusal to join the nascent Grand Prix Masters series, his recent test drive of the GP2 car at the Circuit Paul Ricard - has all the hallmarks of a man finding his way back to a normal life after a long journey to a distant country. He's cut his hair short, now mostly grey but still recognisable from his racing days, and he's trimmed his moustache in a similar fashion to his father's, albeit with a goatee attached. His father's son, his own man.
But what does he think of motor racing now? After the self-imposed exile from his former life, does he actually get any enjoyment from it? "It would be wrong of me to deny that there is an enormous amount of it that I love - I had some amazing experiences as a driver, both from the point of driving, from being in a machine which was just incredible and right on the limit, and also from racing against some of the great names of racing, and also from the point of view of experiencing the events that happened in that time.
"It's a very thrilling thing, but I think there's a time and a place for it - when I look at Formula One now I slightly lament ... and of course you've got to be careful that you don't just appear to be someone who thinks things were better in their day, because things progress and they change - they're never going to stay completely the same - but I think that the element of the sport which has suffered the most, and has perhaps been a problem with regard to the appeal of the sport, is the diminishing of the role of the driver.
"And I don't mean just from a technical point of view, but from a political point of view, and from a charisma point of view. I think I came in at an end of an era, I think I was at that changeover era - before me there were the guys who were the same age as the team owners, who were not the same age as Bernie, because he was a bit older, but certainly were a similar age to Max who ran the sport and had some sort of admiration for each other.
"We've often heard about Frank and Alan Jones and the admiration they had for each other, but also Rosberg, Piquet, Nigel Mansell, and Lauda and Prost with Ron - they all had an ability to ... they all had political clout. After Senna died, and he had the most clout and he used it, it took a real turn, and Michael does not engage himself in any way in that dimension at all - he's quite willing to go along with whatever will protect him and his career. Very few drivers actually have the political clout to say anything - I mean, you've got Villeneuve, and maybe even David Coulthard now is being more outspoken - Irvine was good."
DC: Although he used to trash you a lot.
Hill: "Yeah, I know, but that's ... people will turn on the television. It is a fight - it's like a boxing match, and no one's going to turn up to watch two guys hugging each other! That was the entertainment - Piquet hated Mansell, Mansell hated Piquet, Prost hated Senna ..."
DC: And you - did you and Michael hate each other?
Hill: "Yeah! Well, when I say that I mean when you get into competition, to motivate yourself you have to really want to beat the other guy, and there has to be motivation, even though there's a respect there. People knew they were going to get a real fight, and you don't know now, because you don't know if they have to say the right thing otherwise they break contracts.
"You can't criticise the engine manufacturer now - I mean Ayrton was always going on about the engines, and the next thing you know the engine has about 200 more horsepower! I said something about the Mugen engines once - I said they're unreliable, they haven't got any horsepower, and they keep blowing up - and Eddie tried to have me in breach of contract!
"I said Eddie, this is for your benefit that I'm saying this, because they will pull their finger out, because they don't like having the finger pointed at them, and afterwards the engines got better and we won a race. I had to risk being in breach of contract with my employer! So that's changed, and I think that's something which is a crucial element, and the drivers, I don't think you can point at them and say it's their fault - it's not - it's the way that the sport is ... carefully governed."
Those last two words are delayed, weighed in his mind before being spoken, indicating a slight distaste at the form racing takes now. And, perhaps, he was slightly reticent to despair at the state of the sport now, being that he is reemerging into the motorsport world through his management of aspiring Formula Three driver Steven Kane.
The relationship is a curious one, and not entirely unlike that between Graham Hill and Tony Brise - Hill has spent a lot of time working with the Ulster born driver behind the scenes, coaching him and giving Kane the advantage of his many years of experience in the racing world, much as Hill senior did for Brise all those years ago after retiring from racing.
Hill himself clearly sees their relationship as something more than just a business relationship: "Yes, there is a management element, although that's not really why I'm doing it - I can recognise someone who is really hungry to win, that he's really hungry to get a chance, and so was I. It's bloody hard when you haven't got a way to get money invested in you, and so I'm trying to do what I can there."
DC: You've seen this guy and you think he's good, but do you also see it perhaps as a way of giving something back to the sport in general?
Hill: "Yes. I think it's too much to try and do something too broad, but this is something specific, where I've got my expertise that I can pass it on to someone. He's got his own way of doing things - I don't tell him what to do - but what I can do is recognise situations that are coming up for him and we can talk about them, and that seems to help.
"We'll see how it goes - I can't turn someone into a World Champion, only he can, and he has to have that thing himself and either he does or he doesn't, but at least with the problems that seem enormous to him now I can say 'there's an easy solution to that.'"
It was because of Kane that Hill recently tested the GP2 car, the first time he has driven an open wheel race car since Suzuka 1999, and he was full of praise for the series afterwards. It's hard to predict what Hill will do next - he seems to have come to some sort of peace with himself, with what being Damon Hill means, but that meaning is still inextricably entwined with the motorsport world.
He won't race again - he's made that clear often enough - but it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see him go into team management, an activity that rewards the kind of reflective thinking that Hill is known for, the kind that has led to a successful career for Frank Williams. It wouldn't be in Formula One - there is too much money, too much politics, too many egos involved - but perhaps, just perhaps, he'll think about being in the smaller paddock next door.
And, of course, his father ran a team too. Damon Hill is his own man, but his life has not been entirely without precedent, and it wouldn't be the first time he's followed in his father's footsteps to find out something about being himself.
Formula One is like a game of snakes and ladders - the object is to get to the end, get to the goal, but along the way there are things that can help push a driver forward to the goal, and there are things that can slide a driver backwards, down and away.
With just twenty racing seats in the series, just getting into Formula One is now a goal in itself, but the ultimate ambition of any racer is to take the title, as any of thousands of interviews will attest - any driver when asked will say that he wants to be the Formula One World Champion, whether his abilities are sufficient to the task or otherwise.
Ability will help you to get there, but luck will always play a part - every driver needs to come across a ladder in their career, all the while looking out for the snakes. Kimi Raikkonen had a manager he trusted to help him move up, but it wasn't until Peter Collins told David Robertson "you should take a look at this guy - he is good"; wasn't until Robertson paid for a year in Formula Renault; wasn't until he told Peter Sauber what he'd been told himself; - that the ladder appeared. Even talent needs a ladder, a step up along the way.
But we can't judge luck, we can't measure it against another's luck and make an empirical decision about its worth. What we can judge is talent, how it manifests itself, how it makes itself known.
Ferrari have come in for a beating this year for failing to live up to their recent past, for failing to dominate Formula One as so many people have become accustomed to them doing. In a way the team have been a victim of their own success, but the comparison needs to be against their competitors and not their history, and in that comparison Ferrari are coming out behind.
By racing in a version of last year's benchmark car, no matter that it's a highly modified version, and failing against the competition shows more irrefutably the levels of improvement in Formula One year on year than any collection of words could. Put plainly, the car that was the class of the field has been improved, but the competition has come up with new cars that make their own older ones look like a different, lesser, series.
So it's clear to see that Ferrari have found a snake - their modifications weren't good enough, nor those of their effectively exclusive tyre manufacturer Bridgestone - and the decisions they are making with the new car bear the hallmarks of plans made in haste.
The old car wasn't quick enough, but it was reliable and known - Rubens Barrichello pushed it onto the podium from a lowly start in Melbourne, through a combination of familiarity and dependability - while the new car, rushed to the racetrack to answer the improvements of the other teams, seems fast but fragile, lacking in the bulletproof consistency that has been a hallmark of Ferrari's cars this decade.
Perhaps it's to be expected that Ferrari would slide backwards one day - no team dominate a sport forever, no collection of people can excel permanently - but what of their drivers? Barrichello, once derided for his impetuous nature which manifested itself in wildly differing performances, has been fairly metronomic in his driving this year - he is not improved, he is not sliding back, he is driving at Barrichello level, which despite the thoughts of his critics is better than a number of his competitors week in, week out.
His drive in Melbourne from eleventh on the grid to second was flawless, an example if it were needed of the level Barrichello performs at after so long at the heart of the Ferrari machine, when the competition doesn't perform to perfection. His Malaysian qualifying was indicative of the reduced abilities of his team against the others, but nonetheless he managed to push his recalcitrant machine into the points before its untimely demise, while Bahrain was a further indication of the decline of his team.
Schumacher, on the other hand, has underperformed relative to his own, admittedly towering, history, even taking into account Ferrari's slide. Caught out by the weather in qualifying in Melbourne, the expectation was of a masterclass of overtaking and pure racing ability, such as he has provided so many times in the past.
That he struggled comparatively to his teammate was clear, but his part in the collision with Nick Heidfeld was amateurish at best, a possible indication that so many years at the front of the grid have dulled his ability, or appetite, for wheel to wheel racing in the pack. In Malaysia too he looked anonymous, following Barrichello at some distance while he was in the race, and then taking advantage of retirements to scrape a points finish.
Against this is Bahrain, of course, when a fast but fragile new car allowed him to compete from the front after qualifying, until his first car malfunction in years took him out of the event. The performance was what we expect of the seven times Champion, but not enough to outweigh the poor performances of the opening two rounds. While it is safe to assume that Schumacher will improve over the season, at present he has found a short snake backwards.
In comparison Renault have found a large ladder, and they are climbing it with gusto. Three pole positions, three wins and a commanding lead in both Championships are all the proof needed.
Fernando Alonso too has stepped up after sliding backwards last year in comparison to then teammate Jarno Trulli - his storming drive through the field in Australia was second only to Barrichello's equally meteoric rise, while his dominant performances in Malaysia and Bahrain point to a young driver who has found the maturity needed to pair with his already sparkling pace.
Giancarlo Fisichella's start has been markedly different to his teammate. A lucky result in qualifying gave him a race result on a plate in Melbourne, where the Italian's composure shone through - while his race looked simple on the outside, a quick look at the laptimes shows that, when needed, Fisichella could increase his performance at will to keep a steady gap behind him to his pursuers.
This composure abandoned him in Malaysia, however, when struggling with an ill-mannered car threw Fisichella into the clutches of the pack. There was no sign of his maturity in an ill-conceived attempt to keep a fast charging Mark Webber behind him, sliding through the dust off the racing line and into the chasing Williams. An awful second qualifying session in Bahrain is all that we have to look at for the weekend given his car problems in the race, but the season so far has been a slight backwards step from pre-season expectations.
Toyota's ladder has been almost as high as Renault's. While performance at the top is different to that further back - the fiercer the competition, the more difficult it is to take the fractional improvements on offer and utilise them to positive affect - the fact that Toyota have leapt out of the backmarker pack and are now competing towards the front is proof positive of a genuine rise.
Jarno Trulli, long derided for his lack of race results in underperforming teams until a stunning first half of 2004 regenerated his career, has improved again this year, running as comfortably at the front as he did all those years ago in Austria driving a Prost that had no business leading a race but nonetheless was.
A fortunate qualifying result in Melbourne flattered to deceive, with a tyre-chewing rear end pitching Trulli back into the pack, but the level of improvement both team and driver could force upon the car was an indication of the steps forward both have made. Top three qualifying results in the next two races were no flukes, and Trulli annexed second place behind a better car, and ahead of other superior vehicles, on talent alone. Results this year have shown the Italian has stepped up into the top flight of drivers.
On the other side of the garage Ralf Schumacher has seemed to be marching on the spot. It's a harsh representation, but for a man hoping to come in and dominate a team in the manner of his brother, he has been handed a beating by his less fancied teammate. Trulli has long been considered a master of qualifying, which has gone against him when his car wasn't able to manage the race performance he coaxed out of it in a fast lap, but the comparison in qualifying was always going to be a harsh one for Schumacher.
Unfortunately for the German, his race performances have been similar to those seen in his past; he looked ordinary fighting for position in the first two races, and while Bahrain was a marked improvement in that area he has always managed to compete on his day, albeit inconsistently. In a field full of ladders and snakes, young Schumacher has rolled the dice and landed on neither, but he will need to take a step up soon if he wants to be more than a speck in his teammate's mirror.
After an off-season more notable for the battle over the second race seat than for impressive laptimes, Williams bosses admitted that all was not well within the team in respect to pushing the car forward. Problems with the new windtunnel were the main culprit, and the team sheepishly confessed that a lot of the work would need to be reconsidered.
It was a surprising admission, yet more remarkable was the turnaround in performance between the last few tests and the first few races - for a team who were so harsh in their self-criticism, their performance looks worthy at least of podium finishes at present, which against recent times has to be seen as at least a slight step forward.
The question has been whether, after the much-discussed dispensing of former drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, Williams had the driving talent to push the team up the grid. Both Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld have looked impressive in their former teams while driving in the midfield, but what people wanted to know was could they transfer this talent into the front end furnace.
Webber has always looked as though he would end up in a front running team, and now it has come to pass. With a qualifying talent comparable to Trulli - he has put a wayward Jaguar on the front row of the grid - this season was going to show if he had a racing ability to match.
So far he has lost a spot at the start in his home race but was unable to find a way past a slower car on a narrow track, run at a strong, podium level pace and overtaken cars before being taken off in a racing incident, and defended strongly but ultimately futilely against a clearly faster car. Against this he has had a car with a detuned engine for at least one race, and been driving with a broken rib that just last week forced him out of a test early because of the pain. A push, then, but Webber will need improvement from both his team and himself.
Heidfeld and Webber seem to be alternating in performances - the German slipped backwards in Melbourne, was there to pick up the pieces after Webber dropped out of Malaysia, and was the innocent victim of an engine problem in Bahrain. While Heidfeld has been slower than his teammate, the gap is not huge, and if anything the competition between the pair has been entertaining to watch. However, like Webber, Heidfeld will need to improve his game if the team do.
On pure speed, McLaren have stepped up a level from an incredibly disappointing 2004, but the team haven't been able to show it when it counts. Third driver Pedro de la Rosa showed this by claiming the fastest lap in Bahrain, but changes to the tyres have meant that McLaren are as yet unable to generate enough heat into their rear tyres in qualifying to push the drivers up the grid and give them the opportunity to fight at the front. Until they solve this problem, the step forward is a small one.
Kimi Raikkonen's season with a misbehaving car last year has given him the ability to wait for a race to come to him, and the podium in Bahrain was due reward for his patience. His driving has been solid rather than inspiring, but car problems and wayward driving in Melbourne, and a tyre blowout in Malaysia, have conspired to make his results look less than they otherwise might. Bahrain was a good race for the Finn, but at present Raikkonen is largely meeting expectations, rather than exceeding them.
Teammate Montoya is not yet performing at Raikkonen's level - any driver new to a team can be expected to struggle slightly in his new surroundings, but for a man tipped for Championship glory the results have been disappointing. Montoya was unruly in Melbourne and appeared sluggish in Malaysia, running off the pace of his teammate despite picking up points in both events. For a top line driver in a pace-setting car his performance has not been up to expectation, although his off track injury ahead of Bahrain has denied us the opportunity to see if an improvement is underway.
Of all of the teams, BAR had found the longest snake, falling well away from their top line performances of 2004. BAR are the only team to have failed to reach the finish with either driver in any race, and when their drivers have been on track they have generally been down the order before the onset of car problems. In testing they've shown the pace they've been missing in public, but there are no prizes for winning outside of the races.
Given these problems is it hard to evaluate just how the drivers have performed - other than in Melbourne, where both drivers were pulled into the pits a lap before the end, Jenson Button has 51 race laps, Takuma Sato has 28, and fill in driver Anthony Davidson a mere two.
Button and Sato spent most of the Australian race sandwiched between the Sauber pair, while they both struggled in minor points positions in Bahrain before succumbing to car problems. Sato appears to have come to terms with his teammate's race speed, which indicates a small step forward, but with insufficient laps and an ill-performing car the only thing that is certain is that the team's current woes are not induced by their drivers.
In stark contrast, Red Bull have turned around the inadequate performances of last year's Jaguar to put the team far higher up the grid than anyone gave them any prospect of reaching. With a new management organisation, as well as a lot of change of personnel in the team, the improvement can't be attributed to any one thing, and the only question mark will be how long they will last against competitors with far more resources at their disposal.
David Coulthard is used to running at the front of the field and has used that experience to be one of only two drivers - the other being Alonso - to have scored in every race this year. In many ways, the move to Red Bull has done Coulthard wonders; he looks refreshed and happy, and that has translated into better performances on track. A fortunate qualifying session in Melbourne was filtered through experience into points, while some strong showings in the next two races point to a step up from the underperforming McLaren driver of last year.
Christian Klien has possibly made an even larger step up from the surly, wayward driver of 2004 - this year's model seems to have opened up and looks to be even enjoying himself after a year where he seemed at times to be in the paddock against his will. Two solid points' finishes were an indication of the move forward Klien has made, while a breakdown on the grid in Bahrain was merely unlucky ahead of handing over the drive for the time being to Vitantonio Liuzzi, rather than a reason to sulk. Their advertising seems to be true - in motor racing at least: Red Bull does seem to give you wings.
Sauber, having had their wings clipped when their sponsor turned competitor, are on a slide down the grid this year. Propping up the back of the grid is not where the team wanted to be when they commissioned the new windtunnel and supercomputer for their design team and, a lack of sponsorship notwithstanding, the sudden slide in performance is as alarming for the team as it is surprising for everyone else.
The most obvious change in a team who pride themselves on consistency is Jacques Villeneuve, whose loss of form is less blip, more nosedive, even after an erratic 2003. The Canadian looked lost at sea filling in for the final three races last year, and if anything has fallen back since then, admitting as much to reporters in Malaysia.
After a lucky break in qualifying in Melbourne he dropped like a stone in the race, finishing the race behind teammate Felipe Massa, who had started at the back of the grid. In Malaysia he was again off the pace before throwing the car off the road in the race, while in Bahrain he outqualified only the Jordans and Minardis before following his teammate around in the race. With question marks over his continued future in Formula One, it just remains to be seen how long the snake Villeneuve has found will stretch.
Massa is perhaps being flattered by the poor performance of his teammate, but it is hard to tell how well he is driving without an effective yardstick. His drive in Melbourne was impressive, jumping up to thirteenth on the first lap in a very heavy car and holding on for a tenth place finish, while a points finish in the ill-handling car in Bahrain and keeping Michael Schumacher behind him until his first stop in Malaysia were notable achievements. The results point to a small step up, but it is hard to point to more until he has some competition from the other side of the garage.
Behind Sauber is the second race, the effective Scholarship Class of Formula One. Jordan and Minardi are unable to hope for more than to race against each other this year, somewhat through problems of their own making.
Jordan have been sold to the Midland Group, who have stated that they will put in the bare minimum of funding this year ahead of a re-launch as Midland in 2006. They've been true to their word - all three drivers are bringing funds to the team, there is apparently no one looking for addition funds in the form of sponsorship, and with a large number of staff having left in the off-season, the team are relying on the input of a number of inexperienced ex-Carlin Formula Three mechanics and engineers, which has resulted in the inevitable slide backwards.
Narain Karthikeyan has achieved as much as could be expected - he has mostly kept his car on the road and has shown good speed relative to his competition. Qualifying 2.5 seconds faster than teammate Tiago Monteiro in Melbourne showed what he was capable of, and he wasn't overawed by the more experienced drivers around him on the grid. Malaysia was another solid race, while Bahrain saw a dip in form in second qualifying to drop behind Monteiro on the grid ahead of an early retirement. Apart from that lap, Karthikeyan has been a worthwhile addition.
Monteiro, on the other hand, has struggled with the car from day one. While the inability of his team to do anything more than field a car hasn't helped, he has been left behind by his teammate and is struggling for form. Monteiro has made the finish of all three races and been ahead of the Minardis when he did, but that's no great recommendation for a driver.
Minardi, as ever, have struggled at the back with cars that almost creak with age in the pitlane. After a dramatic first weekend back in Melbourne, where team boss Paul Stoddart went to court to ensure his team's entrance to the grid, the Italian team have gone on with their business and awaits the debut of the all-new PS05 in the hope that it will at least push them past the Jordan pair. It's hard to slide backwards from the rear of the grid, but they aren't stepping up either.
Christijan Albers was highly rated before arriving in Formula One but hasn't got much speed out of a chassis which, to be fair, was raced by Mark Webber as far back as 2002. He had car problems in both qualifying and the race in Melbourne, limped around to finish last in Malaysia, and finished behind Patrick Friesacher in Bahrain. While no one could expect miracles in a Minardi, he needs to at least match his teammate.
Friesacher knows all about the snakes and ladders of motorsport, having gained sponsors, lost sponsors, done the same with his management, and spent more time in Formula 3000 than was strictly wise. However, he is in Formula One at last and making the most out of it - he has outqualified his teammate twice, and outraced him as well. Some poor luck in Malaysia where he spun on oil deposited by an exploding BAR has been the only blot on his copybook so far.
But perhaps Friesacher's most important performance was finding the ladder into Formula One in the first place. By getting in he was given the chance to show that he can perform at the top level, and by default that many other drivers could too, if they had the possibility.
Which is what each of the drivers wants to do - having found the ladder into the sport, they are all hoping that their abilities are enough to keep them away from the snakes.
"Do you know Via Manzoni?" Peter Collins asked over the phone. "It's where the big Armani store is. Tonio wants to look at some clothes, so meet us there and we can sit down and have a chat." Already it was shaping up to be an interview out of the norm. Approaching the granite building I saw that familiar stride, all chest and legs like a boxer, topped by an infectious smile which is returned unconsciously by everyone he meets and an outstretched hand. Everyone who meets Vitantonio Liuzzi says the same thing – there is something about his enthusiasm that is contagious.
Walking through the store Liuzzi left a wake of people staring, not because he is famous, but because there is something about his aura that makes people look at him. He strolled quickly, purposefully, up the stairs and through the menswear department, seemingly looking at nothing until he suddenly stopped by a pair of gold trousers on a mannequin. "This is what I need for the awards ceremony tomorrow night" he announced, standing sideways to them and nodding his head in admiration.
"I would have thought you'd want a whole suit like that," I smirked, goading him on.
"You are right," he considered, "if I walk into a room with a suit like this people will stop and say 'ah, here is Liuzzi'."
Tonio Liuzzi may not be famous in the streets of Milan just yet, but he is famous in the Formula One paddock, and this fame comes from two things: his outrageous dress sense and his blistering speed. After only four years in cars he is already knocking on the door of Formula One, and there are a lot of team bosses there are ready to open it for him. His personal sense of style is seen as a breath of fresh air in a paddock full of non descript drivers who have been PR-ed until they are opaque, and speed never goes out of style.
Liuzzi was born in Bari, the hometown of his mother, about 300 km south of Pescara, where his Sicilian-born father moved the family shortly after the birth. Liuzzi's father was a traveling salesman, selling all manner of goods for a company that supplies kitchen and bathroom linens, and Pescara was seen as a good, central location from which he could travel all around the country but still spend as much time as possible with his young family.
Like every Italian boy, Liuzzi wanted to grow up to be a soccer player, and spent most of his youth kicking a ball around with his friends in summer and skiing in the winter. Like every Italian man, he is convinced he would have been a great player if he had just kept at it, but as it turned out he found something else that he was much, much better at.
At the age of 11 providence smiled on Liuzzi in the form of an innocent invitation from a class mate to come and watch him in action at the local karting track. At that time he had never heard of karting – he watched every Formula One race religiously, cheering for Nigel Mansell in the Williams every time he overtook someone, much to the chagrin of his Ferrari loving father – but he said yes, and promptly found his life laid out in front of him.
"This friend of mine brought me to the track for the first time," Liuzzi reflects, sitting down in a cafe and waiting for his juice to arrive, "and when we were there I fell in love directly with karting, from the very first time, and since the moment it went in my head I could not take it away. I forgot all the rest – soccer, ski, all the other sports or hobbies I was doing. I changed my mind completely in 24 hours, and thought karting is cool!"
That night Liuzzi went home transfixed, nagging his father incessantly until he agreed to take the boy back to the track on the weekend. "The first day we went to the track they wouldn't allow us to go on with rented karts, so he said "okay, I will buy this and that – one kart for me, one kart for him", and there we started together. But after one week he realised it was just for me, because I was always driving, driving and pushing him to go to the track, and for him it was just a hobby, just to enjoy his time.
"I had just the karting and my school, because my parents were telling me if I didn't go to school it was over for karting – it was a good excuse for them to push for school, but I was really just focused on karting! And that was my beginning; my father also liked it, because he had never done anything like this – he had a passion for motorsport, but had never run a car or a kart like this, and then everything was different."
For the next four years his life went on thus: a compulsory drag through classes he had little interest in before he could get back out to pound around the track. At the age of 15 his father, worn out from all the miles he put in traveling for work, came home one day with an idea. "He said 'okay, why don't we start a karting business?'" Liuzzi recalls, involuntarily smiling at the thought. "We were quite well involved in karting, and it could have been a good future for me if I didn't have a career in karting (driving), or if I was bad at it, then I had an excuse to stop and run my karting team."
Liuzzi had already signed to drive with CRG Karts, the company he was to remain with throughout his whole karting career, and his contacts helped in the set up. "I had a job for my future, because my parents realised that school was not for me – I mean I didn't want to become a doctor or a lawyer! Since karting went in my mind I forgot all the rest, and I said my future is in karting, in motorsport, so if I won't be a driver I'll be a mechanic or team manager or something for my team. So we said okay, let's start with this karting business."
His father was the salesman, but the junior Liuzzi ran every other aspect of the team; managing, tuning and repairing the karts, and talking to the drivers, of which there were usually seven or eight at any time; and he ran his team around his own burgeoning driving career. The team continues to this day, run by his family, and Liuzzi kept control of every aspect except sales himself until his car career started and the travel meant he could no longer be as active in the team as he wished.
The next year, in 1997, Liuzzi was to meet the man who would change his life completely. Peter Collins, the man who talked Lotus boss Colin Chapman into giving Nigel Mansell his first chance in Formula One when he was team boss for the team before moving on to the team manager positions at Williams and Benetton and later taking over Lotus himself, giving Mika Hakkinen his first taste of the big time, was at the World Karting Championships when chance put them together.
"I was actually working in karting, with (British Karting manufacturer) Tim Gillard," Collins reflects on the fortuitous meeting, "and I saw this strange guy with funny clothes walking around, and I said he's the guy with that fancy helmet. And I saw that fancy helmet in the lead of some races, so I took a bit more interest."
"The first time he was coming by, he said 'hello, I'm Peter Collins'," Liuzzi notes, "and he started telling me something about the race. He told me he was Peter Collins, but I didn't know who he was, because in that period if you told me it was Ron Dennis or Norbert Haug I wouldn't have known he was anyone, because I wasn't at all involved in motorsport. For me karting was my life – my dream was to be a karting World Champion and that was all – I didn't know at all what was the right way to grow up in formula cars."
The pair spoke whenever their paths crossed, and two years later at the European Championships Liuzzi's performance showed Collins that he was the real deal. "I heard there was a big commotion in CRG because there was a new chassis for everybody, new engines," Collins remembers, "and he (Liuzzi) wanted to drive that old engine, that old chassis and everybody said 'no, don't do it – you're crazy.' So anyhow, my driver was in the same class, and the racing started and he just" - Collins slaps one hand far forward on top of the other - "on the worst tyres for that weekend, he just disappeared.
"He won by 100 metres in a kart that they told him was no good, and with an engine they told him was no good. So then I thought okay, this is somebody who has quite a strong self belief, and then I saw the funny fishing hats and the shorts and whatever and I thought okay, he's original, he's different. And then we met a little bit and I liked the fact that he didn't know who I was, that he wasn't impressed by anything to do with motor racing – he was there because he liked driving. And I loved the way he drove – his karting technique was just fantastic, for me."
Collins tried to convince the Italian to move up into cars, which took quite some doing – Liuzzi had been able to buy a Mercedes from the money he had earned in karting, and cars meant leaving behind everything he knew.
Collins: "When we actually talked about working together he said 'I'd like to work with you' - I said 'but I don't have any money', and he said 'yeah, but I'd like to work with you'. I said 'I'm not good at getting money' – which he now knows! – and he said 'yeah, but I want to work with you', and I said 'yeah, but if I don't get any money maybe you won't get to go into cars, what will you do then? Your career will be destroyed', and he said 'I'll keep driving karts.'"
Liuzzi: "Yeah, it's true – I mean my life was karting, so I thought okay, if you want to try and make something with cars we can, and if it doesn't work out I can go back to karts, because I was really happy in karting."
Collins tapped into his broad array of contacts and found a cheap deal to run in German Formula Renault, with Liuzzi giving the proviso that he was also able to run in the Karting World Championships at the same time, the fulfillment of a long held dream. The karting title fell to him, the crown on a long line of category and age wins, while the Renault title went down to the last race, the result of a win and a number of podiums. That final race was rancorous, a squall of ignored black flags and innuendo about the opposition's treated tyres leading to the two second a lap deficit to the remainder of the pack, but the combination of a dream satisfied and another stolen pushed the pair up the motorsport ladder.
The results of 2001 were enough to draw the attention of Dr Helmut Marko, the man who was running the Red Bull Junior Team in Formula 3000 and adviser on the company's driver programme, and a deal was done – the company would arrange for Liuzzi to drive in German Formula Three the next year with a protege team, but any other money would have to be found elsewhere. It was good enough, and Liuzzi accepted immediately.
"It was really lucky we found Red Bull," Liuzzi notes, "it meant we did the best deal we could with Bertram Schaeffer, because his was the best team in Germany at that moment, but we had a big problem because we had the new version of Dallara, so for everyone (in the team) it was a new way, and we had a lot of trouble in Germany because I had a lot of connection problems with my team, communication problems. The boss of my team was a real dictator, and also he was in love with the other driver; he told me that he was the guy to push for the Championship, and he was always right, this guy…"
Liuzzi set out to prove him wrong, and ran ahead of his teammate in most races, but unfortunately the moves that worked so spectacularly in karting don't necessarily come off in cars. "Yeah, because the speed is much higher, and if you make a mistake in karting you just go on two wheels and you miss the corner by maybe one metre but you're still on the asphalt - in cars there is the problem that if you miss the corner by one metre at the end of the corner you are into the wall!"
Three pole positions and a win in San Marino was scant reward for his talents, the results of amending his driving style in a year that Mercedes entered the series and dominated the Opel powered cars, of which Liuzzi's was one. The highlight of the year was a test drive for Williams, the result of favourable reports from the team boss's son Jonathon after the Championship win the previous year, which Liuzzi describes thus: "In one word? It was an orgasm!
"In a few words it was the best experience of my life, it was a really great day. Unfortunately I had a few unlucky points, because I didn't have so much time to drive, and there were a few problems with the car because it was overused by Giorgio (Pantano) and I took it after one and a half days of fire, grass, of all this, so it was a bit used, the car! We had some problems with the fuel pump, we had to change the engine, there was a problem with traction control, and I didn't make that many laps as I usually have to do, and for sure the most important thing was to make kilometres.
"I know it was great opportunity that Williams gave to me, but for me it was important to see that I was able to drive a Formula One car because, you know, it's not a game – now sometimes it looks like a PlayStation with all the buttons on the steering wheel, but it's not so easy to drive a Formula One car well. For me it was important to see if I was able to keep the car on the track and to be quick, and at the end of the day, even if maybe I wasn't one second faster than (Juan Pablo) Montoya, I was okay – I thought that I could do better, because maybe I thought a bit too much about the risk of a spin and to damage the car, but of course for me it was important to make kilometres. In Formula One if you see the limit it's really easy to see the wall, and that would have been the end of my dream on that day."
The Williams opportunity was great, and it meant people in the main show was watching, but Collins knew that another year in an uncompetitive car would ruin the young driver's career before it had begun. The obvious move was to Formula 3000, where all of the drivers run the same chassis/engine/tyres combination, meaning that results come to the driver who can make the package work best, the driver who is better than the others around him.
"For me the first year of 3000 was really nice because I had an Italian team (Coloni), and I was feeling good because we had a lot of good times, and with the mechanics I had a really good feeling. To drive in Formula 3000 was quite tough because I was with some enemies from the past - I have been driving with (Giorgio) Pantano since karting, and also (teammate Patrick) Friesacher, so it was really nice to drive against them. It was quite a tough year because there were so many good drivers, but it was a really nice to find us all together again, and even if I was the youngest of them I had to show that I was not less than them, so I was pushing hard all the time.
"It was really nice because Formula Three is really different to Formula 3000, because in 3000 you can fight much better, and on the straight you won't see someone passing you on the outside when you just are waiting for the corner to arrive and you can't do anything – in Formula 3000 it is a much harder fight, the car is much bigger, wheel to wheel the car is much stronger so you can touch a little bit and have a much nicer fight, and this is what I love in cars."
The race in Hungary was the best example of this – having taken pole easily, Liuzzi walked away until the first mandatory pitstop, introduced at that race and botched by his mechanics, which threw him back into the pack and a massive scrap for third between Pantano, Ricardo Sperafico and a few others, which was settled at the last corner by Liuzzi until the FIA decided to throw a wet blanket on the results by penalising the Italian for causing an avoidable incident with Pantano. Second in the Championship became fourth as a result, but slowly everyone else in the Formula One paddock was becoming aware of his potential.
With the heat of Bjorn Wirdheim's triumph in the Championship still fresh, Arden was looking to continue the momentum, while Collins and Liuzzi were looking to step up to the title for 2004. It was a marriage made in heaven. "For sure I was the youngest of the more or less quick drivers at the beginning of the year, so I could have been one of the drivers to choose for the future. Pantano was quite old – not old because of age, but because of experience in the Championship – and Friesacher they didn't know (about) because he was not old, but it was already his third year of 3000. It's like hunger – you can take hunger to fight for the Championship, and maybe I was a little more hungry to win, and with a really good feedback from the first season." Red Bull agreed, and the deal was the first one done for the new season.
Expectation was sky high over the winter break, but Liuzzi went about his job as normal, working his way up to what he wanted. "Yeah, but expectation is from people who do not know everything. We knew about Coloni, that they were quick in the winter test, but for me it was important just to fit well with the car, to understand my engineers, my mechanics, to build a good relationship with them, and that was the only target for me for the winter test.
"In fact everyone was thinking a bit about this, because (Jose Maria) Lopez was always quickest in the tests, and the Coloni cars were amazing in tests, so I think everyone was not believing so much in me, or maybe they were nervous about me. But I knew exactly what I had in my mind and what I wanted, and I think maybe sometimes Christian (Horner, Arden team boss) was a bit nervous about this, because he was always seeing me quite calm and confident, and always watching Lopez! I think when we arrived in Imola for the first race he was happy because we showed that there was no problem!
"For sure it was really important for me to make the win (in Imola), because it was important to win again in my career, to show that I was able to win and have a strong race to the end and be the quickest in the race, in qualifying, and that there was something good in me – it was really important to me."
There was something good in him – in 11 races Liuzzi claimed 11 podiums, eight poles, seven wins, and one World Championship.
How do you take a highlight from a year in which every race qualifies as one? Liuzzi considers the question for a time, clicking each race over in his mind before answering. "Winning Monaco was the greatest period of my career, for sure, but my favourite I think is the period of Hockenheim and Magny-Cours, when it was really important (to do well), and it was really nice for me to hear many rumours about my future. In the period of Magny-Cours and Hockenheim we started some chat with Jaguar, and many people started talking about Ferrari, and maybe even if there was nothing true it was nice for me to hear, to be treated like one of the Formula One paddock, to be the new guy. It was really nice for me to be in that position."
The challenge now is to turn these chats, and his unmatched Formula 3000 season, into a seat in Formula One for 2005. "I hope that someone will leave a seat to me, that someone will trust on me. I'm really happy about what Sir Frank (Williams) gave me with the test, because it was in a difficult moment in my career and they gave me such a big present; it was really important to me. And also this second present for my victory from Mr. Sauber was important to me, to see that people still believe in my potential. I'm a person who, when I believe in someone, I always give my best."
The test in Jerez went better than many expected: over a mere 37 timed laps his times were almost identical to those of Michael Schumacher after the German switched to the same tyres on a dusty track. Schumacher, an admirer of the Italian since being beaten by him in a karting race at his home track in Kerpen in 2001, has watched many of races this year, and he made a point of spending some time with Liuzzi between stints at the Spanish track.
The Sauber engineers were impressed with the Italian's abilities on what was only the second time he had ever sat in a Formula One car, leading Technical Director Willi Rampf to comment that Liuzzi had "coped with the driving and the different set-up possibilities astonishingly soon." Liuzzi himself was more modest, noting that "the car was really nice, it had an excellent balance and was really good to drive, and I really loved the fifth gear right hand corner down the hill. Unfortunately the track went off quite badly in the afternoon, which is a shame, but it was a really, really positive day."
His performance, overshadowed as it was by the recent signing of former World Champion Jacques Villeneuve for the race seat at the team for the next two years, impressed many with its maturity, and Collins has spent a lot of time speaking to teams up and down the Formula One paddock, all of them looking into his availability for next year. He is certainly a popular man – during the interview his phone rang incessantly, from people such as Gianni Morbidelli and radio stations in Spain – and it is the combination of his personality, speed and unique dress sense which draws people to him.
Does he think that Formula One would change him? The reply is immediate: "I think because of sponsors you have to change a little bit, but I won't change as much because it's part of myself, it's part of me. I've never had that kind of personality; now I think you see many other drivers that look like they are going to work in the bank or things like this, and I'm not this kind of guy – I cannot do it – I hate to wear a smoking (Italian for suit) or a tie. I am myself, and for sure for the sponsors I have to change a little bit, but this is Liuzzi."
Vitantonio Liuzzi is ready for Formula One – in the next few months we will see if Formula One is ready for Vitantonio Liuzzi.
The race weekend in Hungary was proof, if any was needed, that the current crop of team bosses have lost track of what is needed to run a racing series, a seemingly simple process that is at risk of getting lost amongst recrimination and self interest while the future of the sport is uncertain, and the current season was encapsulated by the snorefest shown on television sets worldwide. Changes to the series have been clearly necessary for some time, and to that end FIA President Max Mosley announced in April plans for sweeping changes to the make up of the cars that compete in the Formula One Championship, to the dismay of various team bosses up and down the paddock.
Mosley initially pointed to changes that he would make in 2008, at the expiry of the current Concorde Agreement, and then gave the teams an ultimatum - come up with a workable alternative which will significantly slow down the cars in racing trim for the 2005/6 seasons, or he would use Article 7.5 of the Agreement, which allows changes to be enforced unilaterally by the FIA on safety grounds.
The Technical Working Group (TWG) - comprising the Technical Directors of each team - has had four months to come up with a workable alternative to Mosley's recommendations, and in those four months they have agreed upon precisely nothing. And, when you consider the inevitable debates the team principals will run though before signing off on a new agreement for the chassis, engine, tyre and qualifying requirements necessary to race next season, the delay looks farcical. The potential of these changes is incredible, but they need to be made as soon as possible to allow the teams to dream up the cars that will carry the immediate future of the sport.
Like everything in Formula One, the meetings of the TWG are generally kept confidential; everything is carried out away from the prying eyes of the media and the public, so when the official FIA press conference was held on Friday in Hungary, it was a glimpse into the soul of the entity that is supposed to decide what the future of the sport will be, and it wasn't pleasing to the eye. After the press conference a journalist noted that if you ask one question to six people you will probably get six answers unless they are Formula One people, in which case you will get thirteen. It was a fair summation.
When asked what the forthcoming regulations would compromise of, Ferrari's Ross Brawn stated, matter of fact, that "the diffuser is changed to produce less downforce, the front wing is lifted up, the rear wing is moved forward and there's one set of tyres for the whole race."
Brawn went on to determine that "the aerodynamic regulations are virtually agreed. I'm pretty certain they're the regulations which will go through, because I believe five or six teams have now written to the FIA saying that those are the regulations they want, and therefore there is no other process in place for an alternative set of regulations.
"I think the tyre regulations are in place, because Michelin and Bridgestone have written to the FIA and jointly asked for a solution, which the FIA accepted. I think the only debate as far as I am concerned is the engine regulations, where two teams in particular are objecting to the proposals. But in terms of building a car and knowing how the tyres are going to be run next year, we think it's clear." Renault's Pat Symonds agreed with Brawn, and it seemed that all was running smoothly.
Except that Minardi's Paul Stoddart didn't see it this way at all.
"Now wait," he interjected. "It has not been agreed. Ross is saying five or six teams - it requires eight votes in the technical working group to get it through, and that's the problem we have time and time again." Eddie Jordan weighed in, noting that he was completely unaware that six teams had agreed to the full set of regulation changes, and agreeing with Stoddart that, as ever, the stumbling block was going to be the team principals agreeing to the changes. And they should know.
It was shaping up to be yet another in a long list of disagreements between the team bosses and the engineers who provide them with the tools to go racing, and it was an indication of a familiar problem in Formula One - if the engineers, who are hot-wired to compete and defeat each other in their day to day lives, can agree with each other about what is required, then why can't their bosses?
Let's take a look at what the TWG has agreed upon. The amended chassis seems to be okay, with Symonds noting: "I don't think we have any problems. I think this will apply to all teams; it has been under discussion at the TWG for a while, and from it the principles were well established and the detail really didn't cause much discussion. So I don't think there are any problems there."
Brawn agreed and, noting the safety concerns of the FIA, stated: "I think there is a reasonably substantial reduction in downforce that will reduce cornering speeds, and certainly move in a direction of slowing the cars down. So I think it is pretty clear what is going to happen, and on Sunday morning we have a Technical Working Group meeting to just go through some details, I believe they are going through some details, and I think most people now are building their cars for next year."
Naturally enough, Stoddart disagreed, living up to his reputation. "The first thing is that we are not preparing and getting ready to build a new car and there is a simple (reason) for that: we cannot afford to make a wrong choice. Here we are at the Hungaroring, traditionally a bit of a watershed race where people announce drivers, engines and are well advanced on their design and build programmes for the following year, and we haven't got a clue what the regulations are."
Brawn noted that, after Michelin and Bridgestone met and discussed a common goal for the forthcoming season, the issue of tyres was settled, incorporating a reduction of sets of tyres for a race weekend and one set of tyres for both qualifying and the race, as well as the same prime and option specifications for all customer teams. For such a vital component of a Formula One car there was remarkably little argument from Stoddart or Jordan, although Sauber's Willi Rampf, looking uncomfortable at being drawn into discussing concepts usually dealt with behind closed doors, voiced a word of caution.
"On the tyre side," Rampf said, "we don't exactly know what the tyre regulation will look like, but if the tyre regulation does change the strategy for next year - say one and two stops instead of three stops - this would obsolete the different chassis concepts, and when we are in the design phase fuel cell volume is something you cannot change during a season. So we have to make a best guess what is the fuel cell volume for next year."
Getting the tyres specifications right is vital - so much now flows from tyre technology that any error will be fatal to a team's chances in the race. Refueling was brought back into the series in 1994, and it changed the face of modern Formula One, and one set of tyres for qualifying and the race will have an equally radical effect - Symonds noted that "if the qualifying procedure goes in a particular way I can tell you at a race like here in Hungary you would be looking at a one-stop race, and simulations say that you go to lap 49 here. If you can't overtake on this track, and you have only one pitstop that's two thirds of the way through the race. I don't think it is very exciting, and I think we have to be very careful of that."
To take that one step further, if fuel cells can be built to accommodate it, the inability to change tyres could result in races without pitstops – why give away time in the pits if you have to run the whole race on the same tyres? These are potentially very exciting changes to the series, but obviously the car designers need the time to come up with a design that can accommodate these changes, and with nothing yet decided this time is dribbling away.
A word of caution should, however, be noted - Symonds was clear on one particular problem that could arise: "I am very worried that if we do go to the single tyre rule that we will produce a show that I don't think will be as good as the show we have now, and I think that is something we need to be very careful of. People say they want to see overtaking, they want to see a change in the order of the races, and it may not happen so much with a single tyre."
Brawn seemed to think that the chassis and tyre regulations are agreed, or as agreed as they can be right now. "The FIA have said this is a proposal we are prepared to accept because we think it's a good proposal, and unless you can come up with an alternative proposal, which requires eighty percent, then this is the one by default that we are going to apply. So six teams have written to the FIA and said we are going to go along with your proposals. So by definition there can no longer be a majority for an alternative proposal. So as far as we're concerned, it's done."
The six teams mentioned are the six represented in the press conference, and yet if they could disagree as much as they did on Friday, then what chance is there of them convincing Ron Dennis, Frank Williams and the Japanese manufacturers to go along with them, especially when it comes to something as contentious as the format of the engine that will be run?
The current plan, apparently agreed by the group of six, is two fold - for 2005 the existing 3.0 litre V10 engines are to have their life expectancy extended to two race weekends, with a 2.4 litre V8 to replace it the following year. Initially this was to be raced next year, but the lead time necessary was such that the interim step was brought in.
"I think on the engine we are in broad support of the two main proposals," Brawn noted. "It is just the timescale makes it quite expensive to do it. Obviously over a longer timescale it would have been a little bit more economic, but I think the 2.4 V8 is necessary to reduce the speeds of the cars, and I think the two-race engine ultimately will make it more economic for the teams with smaller budgets to operate so we need to support it."
It's clear to see why the six teams supported the proposition - Ferrari have enjoyed engine superiority for some time, and extending the life of the engine should be no problem for them, or their customer Sauber. Renault have a noted power deficit, so they aren't going to lose much, while Cosworth are already used to extending the life of their engines via their deal with Minardi.
What isn't clear is how they are planning to convince the other suppliers to go along with the plan. BMW's motorsport director Mario Theissen has already given his thoughts on the matter: "what I can say is that we're questioning the change to a two-race engine format for next year, because that would require a design change and would mean you have to drop some of the work already done. If we went to a two-race engine format now, everybody will have to rush to get something done for next year. You couldn't do a reasonable job - so I would expect more engine blow ups."
More ominously Burkhard Goeschel, main board director at BMW, has stated: "we are committed to motorsports, (but) it's not a question of Formula One. If Formula One is going another way which is not congruent to our ideas and values as BMW, then we would change to another kind of motorsport. We want to race in the top league, that's the only question. If it is attractive and interesting for us we will stay in Formula One. But if it is not, then we won't do it."
Perhaps Brawn is right when he says that six out ten means there can be no chance of an alternative eighty percent agreement, but if one or more of the others drop out of the sport then where does that leave their agreement? Or, as Mosley pointed out about the team principals' meetings when he announced his short lived retirement earlier this year: "people often agree things and then they go away after the meeting and change their minds completely, and that means you've wasted a day." What is to stop one or more of the six changing their minds and flopping over to the other side?
Unfortunately one issue that the TWG can't address, one that is of vital importance to the design of the cars but it outside of their remit as it falls under the sporting regulations rather than the technical, is the question of qualifying. The common perception in the paddock is that the current format isn't working, and an alternative format has been put forward by Jaguar's Tony Purnell, which involves two mini races worked out with a lottery draw for the grid, with the results being aggregated to form the grid for the main race.
This proposal seems overly complicated, and certainly difficult for the fans at home to work out, as well as having ramifications on engine and tyre life – a far more simple alternative would be to run one session on a Saturday, in reverse order of the results from the previous race, so that potentially each lap is quicker than the previous and takes provisional pole, generating interest throughout the hour.
But the major issue for the TWG is to know what kind of a qualifying format they are gearing their new car designs for, so they can agree on the regulations. As Symonds noted: "it's all very well saying let's get the technical regulations sorted and then we can get on and design our cars, but that is not actually the case. The sporting regulations will always have an influence on car design and, very specifically, the qualifying regulations will and, being even more specific, whether or not you start the race with the fuel you qualified with. It really has a fundamental bearing on how you approach the strategy of the race and, hence, the simple design parameter of how big you want your fuel tank."
Right now there are more questions than answers, and as Jordan repeated endlessly: "It is just preposterous to think that a set of rules and regulations for next year's Championship are not clear and defined at this moment in time."
Purnell made a defining comment about the nature of decision making, between the TWG and the team principals, in Formula One when he said: "I was thinking of the comment that it is too democratic, but really it's more like the communists with their committees. You know committees never decide anything, and what we really want is a dictator, but a benevolent one, that we vote in every three years or something, because that is how practical democracies work. Any democracy which works like the team principals' meetings will be doomed to failure."
To the unfamiliar, Formula One may seem like a dictatorship presided over by Bernie Ecclestone, but the Briton is principally involved in exploitation of the commercial rights of the sport. That he has done a spectacularly good job within his remit is self evident, but comparisons that have been drawn between him and, say, the France family in NASCAR are very wide of the mark.
In NASCAR, the regulations are handed down from on high, after a brief period of consultation with the participants, and are then written in stone and unarguable. Unfortunately there is no single person responsible for this aspect of Formula One, and over the years this had led to more disruption in the sport than any other area.
Letting the teams decide how to run the series is a ridiculous situation – self interest rules the day every time, and agreement is accordingly almost impossible to achieve. Mosley, for his part, recognised this and has tried to rectify the situation by pushing through his ideas under the only avenue available to him – the safety clause of the Concorde Agreement. Whether it will work is not yet clear – it is one thing to have, allegedly, six teams agreeing to a change of the regulations, but all it will take is for McLaren or Williams to fundamentally disagree and attempt a legal challenge on these changes actually being for safety and the whole house of cards could collapse on itself.
But where does that leave the current mess? Pat Symonds noted that "our problem of today, I believe, is pretty well there. I am quite sure the technical working group will effectively ratify these proposals on Sunday, and I'm sure that there will then be further argument, but strictly speaking, once that's done, those are the rules. Now, I know that perhaps that's an idealistic view and that there are certain team principals who have a lot of say, a lot of influence and they can turn things round, but we're doing everything we can to resolve this situation, and think we're behaving responsibly and professionally."
At the end of Sunday all of the major players left immediately after the processional race, and I managed to catch Symonds as he was leaving for the airport. When I asked him if the TWG had signed off on any of the regulations he said no, not yet. "So for all of the emotions and floral language of the press conference nothing is changed, nothing is resolved?" I asked.
All he could do was nod and smile, embarrassed, as he walked towards the car park.
That Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen are being considered by some fans and, perhaps, some teams for a drive next year - in what will see to the biggest driver shake up in years - speaks volumes about the inherent conservatism of the sport today. Both drivers won a Championship or two, of course, but Hakkinen has been out of racing for three seasons (some would say four, given his 2001 season), while Villeneuve has missed one year and hasn't won a race for seven.
In a sport where you're only as good as your last result - witness Jarno Trulli shifting from being the new hero for winning in Monaco to being apparently unable to renegotiate with Renault for next year after one bad result in France - these periods away from the sport should be fatal. It shows up a strange characteristic of modern Formula One, and it's not a pleasant one - one mistake makes a driver a fool forever unless you are bathed in the soft lights of a Championship, no matter how long ago it came to you.
By a remarkable coincidence, the majority of the race seats in Formula One are up for grabs for next year. At the start of the year the following drivers had a contract for 2005: Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello at Ferrari, Jenson Button at BAR, Fernando Alonso at Renault, Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya at McLaren, and Felipe Massa at Sauber.
To this list you can now add Ralf Schumacher, Mark Webber and Giancarlo Fisichella, as these drivers have since signed contracts with new teams (Toyota, Williams and Renault). The latter two had existing contracts with their teams, but had a get out clause to move up the grid when opportunity knocked.
As of the start of August there are a remarkable ten seats still available for 2005, and the silly season is in overdrive pumping out rumours of which drivers will fill them. Not so long ago this many vacancies on the grid would have guaranteed a number of new drivers being given the opportunity to confirm the promise they've shown in the junior categories on a bigger stage, but the current state of Formula One mitigates against that happening again.
And the reason for this is money.
The amounts of money that are being spent in Formula One today are astonishing - there are now four teams who have an annual budget in excess of 400 million dollars each (Ferrari, Renault, Toyota and McLaren), and obviously the higher the budgets go the higher the expectations are for a return on those funds. Most teams now literally cannot afford to take what they consider to be a risk.
Which is why this year's driver market looks like nothing so much as a shuffling of the deckchairs on the top deck of the ocean liner - drivers like David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher may not win Championships (and their careers to date suggest as much), but equally they are regarded as solid drivers who won't make too many mistakes and may even, on their day, claim a win or two, and as such have an appeal to those controlling the purse strings of Formula One.
It is also why the names Hakkinen and Villeneuve can come back into play - both men have managed to beat Michael Schumacher to the title in the past, and in a year when the German has won all bar one race, that is a big positive for both men, even if it is questionable as to whether either could repeat the feat on return to a sport that has already moved on since they last sat in a car.
Hakkinen, apparently bored in Finland after two years away, has asked his good friend Ron Dennis for his advice (and blessing - there was a contract in place that gave McLaren first call on the Finn's services should he return) on a potential move to Williams. Villeneuve was forced to sit this year out when no one picked up his services for 2004, and is known to be keen to return.
Given the inherent conservatism of those pulling the purse strings in Formula One, both former Champions have a chance at a return, but should they? Should the series welcome with open arms a man who wants to return because he's bored, and another who no team boss thought worth signing last year? Both are certainly well known, and would bring in a lot of publicity, but is that enough to justify holding somebody who could potentially do a better job out of the series?
The other side of the money equation is that it is now almost essential for a young driver to have access to large amounts of it to get into Formula One - if the large teams are too financially conservative to bring untested talent into the sport, then the corollary of that is the small teams need funds from anywhere they can get it to try and keep up with the spending spree going on around them; this means that drivers are seen as a legitimate source of revenue.
Giorgio Pantano was seen as one of the stronger drivers below Formula One, and yet it took him three years in the holding bay of Formula 3000 before he found enough money to buy into a Jordan seat. It wasn't money well spent - the car looks evil, and his career is effectively finished after one season in the big time unless his manager can find more backing. Both drivers at Minardi brought a budget as usual, but unusually Jaguar second driver Christian Klien had his way smoothed by Red Bull's Euros.
There are a large number of drivers outside of Formula One looking for a way in, and the vast majority of them are simply not up to the job - those who suggest that anyone could drive the modern cars well simply hasn't had any access to the cars in any form. The modern Formula One driver has a very specific style that he needs to adapt to in driving the cars, has to have a remarkable level of fitness and ability, as well as a phenomenal work ethic to keep up with the demands that come from 18 races as well as testing and public relations demands. It is much more than a full time job - it is a life.
This doesn't mean that there are no drivers worthy of a chance at the big time, but few of them now have access to the amounts of money required to buy their way into Formula One. One advantage of the new rules regarding third drivers on the Friday of a Grand Prix weekend is that it has given a chance to younger drivers to prove their ability in a Formula One car against a known quantity. Bjorn Wirdheim proved his racing credentials by claiming the Formula 3000 championship last year, and this year has done a solid job in the same team as a driver who is being tipped for future glory - anyone who has read his column oin Atlas F1 will have seen his approach is positive and, more importantly, is working.
Timo Glock, the young German who is the third driver for Jordan fresh from European Formula 3, may not have had high hopes for his year considering the lowly position of his new team, but fortune smiled on him with the misfortune of teammate Giorgio Pantano, when a storm in a teacup kept the Italian out of the race in Canada and gave Glock his chance at a race seat - he grabbed it with both hands and, through a combination of good driving and good luck, brought home two valuable points on debut.
Both men have proven their abilities to drive a Formula One car, and are clearly strong racers that would be worthwhile additions to the field. However, they run the risk of falling into the testing ghetto - Anthony Davidson is young, personable and bloody fast, and yet he is now in his third year as test driver for BAR despite a junior racing record that is actually superior to friend and team leader Jenson Button.
Davidson's long term manager Didier Stoessel has now sold part of his contract to management double act David and Steve Robertson (managers of Kimi Raikkonen and on/off/on again for Button), acknowledging that he can only praise his client for so long before it falls on deaf ears, and that a fresh voice (or two) was needed. There are ongoing talks with a few teams, but a lack of budget is, again, doing him no favours if he wishes to avoid falling back on his existing testing contract for next year again.
Outside of the Formula One paddock Italian Vitantonio Liuzzi has dominated this year's Formula 3000 Championship, winning all bar one race and leading commentators to compare his dominance to that of Michael Schumacher in the senior paddock. At his only Formula One test to date, in late 2002 with Williams, the team were astounded that he was able to sit in a car he had never been near, at a track he had never driven, and be able to run within a second of Montoya after just a few laps.
Even further afield Richard Lyons, the young driver from Northern Ireland who is hoping to follow in Eddie Irvine's footsteps, has claimed five out of six poles in this year's Formula Nippon, the Japanese equivalent of Formula 3000 which used to be a particular favourite of up and coming drivers (Irvine, Ralf Schumacher, Mika Salo and Ralph Firman have all come through the ranks of Nippon) but perhaps isn't getting the publicity it once did. That he has achieved this with a team whose performances in the past have been Minardi-like makes it even more remarkable.
Are there any guarantees that any of these young drivers could step up into a Formula One race seat and perform? No, but equally there are none that Hakkinen or Villeneuve would either. Wirdheim, Glock and Davidson have strong racing credentials as well as a year or more under their belts in Formula One cars and have learnt all of the circuits - these are strong credentials for any young, keen driver to be given a chance to prove themselves in the top flight.
The advantage that Wirdheim and Glock have is that their existing teams are aware of their abilities, and both teams will have at least one race seat available next year. The disadvantage is that neither team is exactly flush with funds right now. With ten seats available there is everything to play for, and as Wirdheim's manager Christian Horner noted it is just a case of “banging on doors, pointing at his record and showing them the laptimes from this year.” And hoping that talent will suffice in place of budget.
Liuzzi has generated a lot of buzz in the Formula One paddock, aided in no small part by manager Peter Collins (the former team boss of Lotus). “Tonio's results this year have been good, and we are certainly looking for a race seat in Formula One,” he noted in Germany, “but do we turn down a testing spot? It all depends on the team.” As Collins noted, his results certainly justify giving him a chance. That he has some backing from soft drink giant Red Bull isn't doing his case any harm, either.
Lyons is being promoted by former F1 driver and paddock regular David Kennedy, who has stated that he will be looking for his charge to be given at least a Formula One test later this year, after which it will be clearer as to his abilities in the senior category. Don't be surprised if this test is with Renault, who have a sponsor in common with the Ulsterman - sponsors are always looking for some return on their money.
With the above drivers, and others like Jamie Green and Nico Rosberg making names for themselves in European Formula 3 below them, there are drivers outside of Formula One who are more than worth looking at. If fiscal conservatism dictates that young drivers need to prove themselves in a Formula One car before being given a race seat, then the third driver Friday sessions are a perfect answer for wavering team bosses to both have their cake and eat it - give them a shot on Friday, and if they work out move them up a year later.
The sport's fans are its lifeblood, and the only way it will have a future is to introduce some new names from time to time to give the fans someone new to get excited about. In a period when the sport could use a shot in the arm to reignite interest - if two of the last three seasons have been judged as boring by the existing fans, what chance is there to bring in new ones? - it would be the worst thing that could happen to the sport if its next collection of heroes are priced out of the game.
Michael Schumacher has stated in the past that he will continue to drive until he stops enjoying it, or a young driver comes along and beats him. Would an older driver have the incentive to beat him, or are they looking for one more paycheck and a year away from the couch in front of the television? In a year where so many seats are available, perhaps it's time to look for motivation, as well as economical wages, from the guys pushing up from below.
Ten years ago, no less than 14 teams - that's 28 drivers - were entered for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. In the ensuing period, at least half a dozen teams have fallen by the wayside and Formula One's exclusivity is now threatening to disappear up its own fundament. It has been obvious for all to see over the last couple of years - with the demise of Prost and Arrows, as well as the constant instability of Jordan and Minardi - that something needs to be done. Urgently. Unlike in previous years, there's no one outside looking to come into Formula One under the present conditions, but should things change, one man is ready, willing and able to take on the challenge of forming a new Formula One team.
Christian Horner is used to winning, and as team principal of Arden International, he's had plenty of opportunity to do so. The team, which was formed in 1997 to allow Horner to further his driving career before moving solely into a managerial role, won the European Formula 3000 Team Championship in 2000 ahead of a move into the FIA competition, which the team won in 2002 and 2003 while providing the environment for Tomas Enge to win the Drivers' Championship (later revoked after recording a positive drug test) ahead of Bjorn Wirdheim's title last year.
Starting as they mean to go on, Arden had a 1-3 result in the first race of the 2004 F3000 season at Imola in the hands of Vitantonio Liuzzi - the Italian's debut win in Formula 3000 - and Robert Doornbos respectively. Arden are currently at the pinnacle of the junior category, and that looks to be continuing in the foreseeable future.
Success breeds success, but whereas in the past a team which ran well in the junior categories would be able to progress up the ladder much as their drivers did, in the last few years there have been a number of obstacles put in the way of any would-be modern Bernie Ecclestone or Max Mosley, both of whom moved into team management after a relatively unsuccessful driving career by buying some cars and forming a team to go racing.
Horner has proven that he has what it takes to run a successful motor racing team, and he has been quietly positioning his team with an eye towards the big game. Ahead of the Formula One team principal's meeting in Monaco next week, at which Mosley has stated initial discussions will be raised regarding moves to bring more teams into the Championship, Horner has laid out his ideas on how he feels such a move could, and should, be made for the benefit of Formula One.
Christian Horner: "Arden is a team that's young, ambitious, and has been reasonably successful over the last couple of years, in effect winning the First Division. At the moment there's no way we can move into the Premiership due to the entry criteria that exists; really only a major motor manufacturer could afford to commit the bond required [of $48 million] and the huge design, development, production and running costs that are associated with Formula One at the moment.
"However, if that criteria were to change and there was an opportunity to run a customer car - a year old car - and the entry bond were to disappear, then for us as a team we would, I believe, be in a reasonable position to look at moving forward, with a budget that was sensible and a known factor. Because if you bought, for example, a Renault or BAR or Williams, if they were prepared to sell them and as that car finished the Japanese Grand Prix, and then you ran that with a limited development programme as a race team, and with a sensibly priced engine - which would obviously have to be what the package was previously - then you could do a pretty respectable job, and far more cost effectively.
"If you look recently at the teams that have come in to Formula One and failed, they've all over-exceeded themselves on the design and build side of the car - Pacific, Simtek, Forti - in an effort to be competitive they've over-exceeded themselves to try and build a competitive car, which ultimately hasn't been, and then they've had no money left to run it. If you were able to run as a race team, it would not necessitate the four to five hundred people involved to manufacture a car, and I believe you could do a pretty reasonable job.
"Even if it were a stay of execution prior to having to build your own car - and I understand that was one idea that was kicked around, whereby they give you a three year period to establish yourself. But if you look at that, for me it would be the perfect way to enter because you start with a blank sheet of paper. Presently the only way to go in is to buy your way in, and this with perhaps packages that aren't ideal, whether it be financial or whatever. So to start with a clean sheet of paper, to do it on your terms, for Arden would be a major move forward from where we are now, but one that I believe we would be up for the challenge."
DC: let's break it down a bit. The first thing is the buying of the chassis; you have to find a team that is prepared to do that. Do you think in this day and age that is viable?
Horner: "It depends; if they change the Constructors' Championship to where there is more than one team that can win points for a Manufacturer, then why couldn't Renault or BMW or even Mercedes have a junior team with junior drivers? Renault are one of the manufacturers who are very proactive about working with young drivers, and they have several talented youngsters on their programme, whether it be (Franck) Montagny, (Heikki) Kovalainen or (Jose Maria) Lopez, and BMW are beginning to look similarly through their categories.
"So firstly it would have to be a chassis/engine package; there's no point taking a Williams chassis and trying to mold a Cosworth engine into the back of it. And ideally you'd work as a customer and have a strong relationship that included engineering support and whatever. If you look at the way that the World Rally Championship works and the customer teams that are running with cars that are a year old or with specifications behind, that works and it's working well.
"Even in Moto GP; you've got customer teams that are running very, very competitively; I think (Max) Biaggi is on a customer bike effectively, but he's running well and challenging for race wins. It could be done, but there has to be a motivation for the current teams to do it, and the current manufacturers to support it."
DC: you make a good point about the engine and chassis being made to work with each other, although of course there was the famous ten million euro engine deal last year which never happened. Surely it would be even more difficult to get an engine/chassis deal?
Horner: "Yes, and we are a long, long way away from it, and there is a colossal amount of discussion that needs to take place with the FIA, the current teams and the manufacturers. But if something could be structured in that way, with engines at around the figure that was mentioned last year, then chassis are a moving target.
"I mean, what is a second hand Formula One car worth? I guess it's worth whatever someone is prepared to pay for it at the end of the day, with what they perceive is the design time that's gone into it. That's a big unknown at the moment when you try to piece together costings, but if there was incentive for the current teams to do it, either with the drivers programme or engineers or even just more information during the weekend and with Manufacturer's points at stake.
"I believe that Formula One needs new blood; all the guys that are in there at the moment are getting older, and at the moment there's no way that a young, ambitious team can move forward, and something has to change for that to happen. At the moment there's only one manufacturer who can afford to come in, and other than that there's no one hammering on the door that can afford to be there."
DC: There have been junior teams for Formula One in Formula 3000 before, for example Jordan and Super Nova, but this is really taking it a step up.
Horner: "It's a quantum leap from there, but in Formula 3000 we have ninety percent of our personnel who have worked in Formula One, or gone on to work in Formula One. It's a people sport, and if you get the right people, the right mechanics, the right technicians, the right engineers and the right engineering support then I don't see why you couldn't do a pretty respectable job.
"Okay, you're not going to be moving forward with development like the big teams are, but if you take a well sorted package and you run that, and you fine tune it with a limited amount of development over the year, I'm pretty sure you could do a respectable job. If you took last year's Renault or McLaren for example, you'd still be running ahead of Jordan and maybe even be in the realms of a Toyota or a Sauber. I think you could do a reasonable job."
DC: The entry fee into Formula One is $48 million, and the reason that came in was the folding of the smaller teams that you've mentioned, which was seen as a reasonable step at the time. What would you say to the FIA about that?
Horner: "Well if you eliminate the colossal overhead of the production and design of the car, with the windtunnel time and all the finite analysis and the investment that goes into creating the cars and just run as a racing team, then you're starting with a known factor; you haven't got this big unknown of production and design and so on, and you could then work within a budget. It would potentially be more workable than having this huge monkey on your back, and having a payroll of four hundred people at the end of every month."
DC: Of course the deal with the $48 million is that they pay it back to your at $2 million a month, so their argument is that it's a big hit up front but ultimately it comes back to you.
Horner: "Sure, but that was at a time when they could afford to be choosy about the teams that they had, and I think the problem at the moment is that if you had one or two manufacturers withdraw from the F1 Championship then what is the void going to be filled with? The teams would either have to run third cars or allow new teams to come in, and ultimately teams don't last for ever. But from our point of view we're a young, ambitious team with nothing to lose in setting ourselves a target like that and then working to achieve it. The interest that's been generated from it already is amazing because you're not selling a Formula 3000 championship; you're selling an international sport that is reaching a colossal international audience."
DC: The other side of this is that $48 million sounds like a colossal amount of money, but if you have the right money manager they could find you the money at reasonable rates, and the repayments plus interest could ultimately just go back to them, with overheads.
Horner: "Yes, but I don't think there is any team or company that could pay that bond, and that would have to be addressed. There needs to be a criteria for coming in - and maybe demonstrating your ability and so on in an FIA championship should be a criteria so that it's not just someone who appears from nowhere and says 'right, we're going to be a Formula One team'. So there has to be substance behind it. And maybe a promotion and relegation system or something along those lines could be considered. Something has to change."
DC: Looking at the budget, the amount you need to go racing in Formula 3000 is very small in comparison to a Formula One team; there is a lot of money that would need to be raised to step up.
Horner: "It's all relative at the end of the day; to find 2.5 million euros to run a competitive Formula 3000 team is probably as hard as finding 35 million euros or whatever it would take to run a customer Formula One team. But what you are selling in Formula 3000 is limited; there's limited TV, there's limited exposure; it's an industry provider rather than offering a commercial return, whereas with Formula One you have got a global audience that's marketable, basically. If you look at the budgets of the current teams they're just colossal, and you can't achieve those without manufacturer support, but I think a realistic budget would be achievable."
DC: What do you think a realistic budget would be?
Horner: "It's so difficult to quantify that at the moment, because it depends on so many factors that would be involved; what the deal is on the car and the engines would obviously be a huge part of the budget; what benefits - if any - you would be entitled to on travel and television revenue. So it's a very difficult question to answer until you have all of the facts in front of you."
DC: And you can't have the facts in front of you…
Horner: "…until they've gone to the next stage of their discussions. I'm just pleased that they're talking about it, and all we can do is keep winning, keep our profile high, and keep looking for opportunities to move forward.
DC: As it stands, only the top ten teams get revenues from television and travel money at the end of year; there's ten teams now, so one more team coming in means one team misses out. I guess the answer to that is it relies on the existing teams to say they are prepared to give up a bit of money to extend the funds to all teams.
Horner: "It's very difficult for me to comment on that at the moment, because that's something the commercial rights holder and the FIA have to sort out with themselves and with the teams."
DC: Have you spoken to Max Mosley at all about this issue?
Horner: "We've had a couple of discussions over the last twelve months where I've asked the question how do we progress, as we've won this championship in 2002 and 2003 and we want to go forward, and he's always been very supportive. So yes, it's a subject that we've discussed on a couple of occasions."
DC: Do you see anything moving forward in the foreseeable future that would allow you to run along these lines?
Horner: "I think they've got so much ground to cover that I don't think there'll be any swift answers, but as I said before, the positive thing is they're talking about it, they're looking at ways for new teams to enter Formula One. Now obviously that has its downside for the existing teams, because if you put more than ten in there it possibly devalues the effective franchise that there is at the moment. So it has to work for everybody, and we'll just have to watch and see what develops."
DC: I can see that anything over twelve teams may devalue the existing teams, but anything between ten and twelve doesn't really; the Concorde Agreement was set up around twelve teams, and if you're the eleventh then it doesn't really take away very much.
Horner: "No, but at the moment to enter Formula One you really have to buy a current team. By adding another team you add another potential team that could be for sale, and I imagine the last thing they want to do is flood the market with teams. But as I say it's great that they are discussing it, and hopefully it will move forward a little, albeit I doubt very quickly."
DC: How long do you think it would take if, for the sake of argument, Max Mosley says, 'I've read this article and agree with your thoughts' and the teams then somehow all fall in line and agree to all of the changes - then how long would it take to set up a team in Formula One?
Horner: "Twelve months."
DC: To do all of the deals that would be necessary to get there?
Horner: "I believe you could do it in twelve months."
DC: What would be the process you would go through if you were told you could go for it?
Horner: "Obviously the first stumbling block is the financial investment, in order to get the thing up and running. [Russian oil company] Lukoil, for example, is a previous partner of ours and would have been the perfect type of company to get involved in this kind of project. So you've got to identify and bring in the right kind of financial partners and the right structure, and then you've obviously got to piece together the terms of the deal of what chassis and engine package and what association with a manufacturer or team you're going to have. I mean obviously you wouldn't be too keen to buy a second hand Minardi at the moment."
DC: All things being equal, you have a customer car and engine, you don't have to have a design department for three years, you don't have a lot of the requirements many of the existing teams have; what would you say is the ideal size of team you would need to run?
Horner: "I think you need a race team and a marketing team basically to support the commercial side, and you could do it with between 55 and 60 people. McLaren probably bring that many people to an event. But if you look at it and you're running cars, you're not designing them and so on, and then you could do it with 55 to 60 people."
DC: This is on track and in the factory?
Horner: "Yes. Your race team would also be your test team, because you're doing limited testing, and from the numbers that I've looked at as a race team you could do it with that amount of personnel."
DC: And just slowly build it up over the next three years?
Horner: "Obviously you'd have to, if the criteria were in three years you have to design a car, you've got three years to build a design team and so on. But yes, at an initial entry stage you could be operational at that number of personnel, and obviously at the moment in the part of the world where we're based (Banbury, Oxfordshire, in the middle of the so-called British Motorsport Valley) the industry is in recession and there are a number of very good people on the market.
"And in taking a good young team that had the balance of experience and youth in there, and two good drivers, I think you could do a reasonably good job. You already know the package you're starting with, and you'd be just fine tuning and as I say evolving that package rather than bringing in aerodynamic updates at every event and all the other vast costs and spending that the other teams currently endure."
DC: the other side of this is that you won't be bringing aerodynamic advances to each race, but the other teams will, so you'll be standing still.
Horner: "You need varied packages, for low downforce, high downforce and so on, and within your budget you would need some development costs. Obviously teams don't build cars with umpteen spares and so on, so there is still the servicing of those cars, because the last time I heard there was something like six hundred life components on those cars, so you've still got to have your relationship with your suppliers to the team or the manufacturer you're going to work with, in order to manufacture parts and components.
"But if you take Renault as an example, their car this year is obviously a step forward from last year, and they know last year's car inside out. If they had two good drivers in that car then they are getting twice the information than from just two race cars. And also they're able to look at a Montagny or a Kovalainen or a Liuzzi for example, and under pressure; it's like Manchester United have got their A team and their reserve team, and they can cherry pick the ones that they want for their A team."
DC: common wisdom in Formula One says that if you stand still you are going backwards. If the senior teams are moving ahead race by race with aerodynamic advances, then…
Horner: "…Yes, you would start closer and then you'd be trying to refine that package, and, yes, ultimately you would diminish a little. But you would map into your programme one or two or three updates throughout the course of the year."
DC: but where are these updates going to come from?
Horner: "Well that's the thing; that's where you've got to have a relationship with a manufacturer, with a team to move it forward. Otherwise you take a package and you keep fine tuning it."
DC: but another team is not going to want to advance last year's car; they're going to want to advance their own car. Are you then going to find yourself needing somebody in design to refine the package?
Horner: "You could go to a design house; you go to a Lola or a Dallara or whomever and say 'this is the package we want, can you design it?' There are so many questions and variables that are out there, but certainly if you can start with four cars that are built and are a known quantity, then you'd be starting from a hell of a starting point compared to a blank piece of paper and having to design and build something yourself."
DC: the teams now build anywhere between seven and ten tubs a year, but you're not going to want to buy that many, surely?
Horner: "Well you'd buy whatever stock you could; if you could buy four rolling chassis and a load of spares and components then that's the type of package you'd be looking to take on."
DC: I imagine the engine side wouldn't be as much of a problem for updates, as there are already customer deals in existence and they get advancements throughout the year; it's just the chassis side.
Horner: "Yes. There's a big question mark about it; we've only just started discussing the topic in this type of detail, but it would be a hell of a starting point to turn up in January with the cars that finished Suzuka in November, for example. A team probably has maybe half a second in the new chassis throughout the winter, and the rest probably comes from the tyres. They're quoting times of two second gains (this year), and I'm sure not all of it is coming from the car; I'm sure a lot of that is coming from the tyre. So if you can refine and fine tune that package then how much will there be to come out of that?"
DC: they are talking about control tyres from 2008, which takes away another variable.
Horner: "Quite possibly. As I say, I'm just delighted that they're talking and considering ways to bring new teams into the Premier League. All we can say is we're a team that wants to move forward and we're using Formula 3000 as our shop window, and we want to use it as a springboard into something else. At the moment it's impossible, but if those criteria change, then we're in a perfect position to take a look and have a go at it. We're young and ambitious, and we want to go forward.
"I don't see myself staying in Formula 3000 or its replacement, and I have no motivation to be here for the next ten years. We've won, we've consistently won, and now is the time to move forward. It's just finding the opportunity to do that."
Every Saturday afternoon on a race weekend, Jaguar Racing hold a media briefing at their motorhome with driver Mark Webber. This almost invariably clashes with the start of the Formula 3000 race, and Webber makes a point of watching the start and the first few laps on the large screen at the back of the room before getting down to business, primarily because he still enjoys watching motor racing, not just participating in it.
The F3000 race is shown live in almost every motorhome in the Formula One paddock, and yet Webber is the only notable Formula One people I have seen watch any of the races. Are the young drivers and their teams wasting their time? The whole point of Formula 3000 is to be under the noses of the senior personnel in the F1 paddock, to have them pay attention in the hope of furthering their careers. But if no one is watching Bjorn Wirdheim claim the championship at the German Grand Prix, then is it all in vain? "I don't know," Webber – who raced in F3000 in 2000 and 2001 - states as he stares at the screen, "I could see him in F1; he's done a really good job.
"I don't know what's the right way to get into Formula One - we've all got here in different ways. Formula 3000 is a very frustrating category in a lot of ways, but it's very good for you to deal with the pressure. When I was doing it you had one qualifying session and the race, but technically it's quite strange - you don't learn too much on that front, but you learn the tracks and you learn how to deal with pressure."
For Webber, however, it seemed to be a chore that had to be done for his paymasters. "I was treading water really. I didn't really want to do it - the most I learnt was in Mercedes and Renault. I don't think what I did in F3000 helped me massively. Monte Carlo was good, winning a few races keeps putting it on the map. It complimented my test programme very well with Renault, and that was the main reason we did it. I wasn't very keen on doing it but we thought it was very good to stay race sharp, and Formula 3000 at the time was over thirty cars, was quite competitive." The four race wins he achieved in two years couldn't have hurt his career, either.
Formula 3000, and Formula Two before it, has traditionally been seen as a finishing school, as the last port of call for a young driver to prove his worth to the Formula One teams so as to claim a spot on that grid.
The grid has generally been made up from various junior category champions and race winners, and any driver who shines against this competition should have done enough to prove his worth. Or so the theory goes. "There are very, very good drivers who find their way into F3000," Webber confirms, "but there's a lot of guys who sink unfortunately – it's a bit of a strange one to judge who's doing well and who's not, and it's very difficult to dominate.
"It's good for (learning) the circuits, and there's quite a bit of pressure in qualifying - you've got your sets of tyres and things as in any junior category. But it's a bit messy at the moment to be honest."
The following is the list of drivers who have won the Formula 3000 championship since its inception in 1985:
1985: Christian Danner
1986: Ivan Capelli
1987: Stefano Modena
1988: Roberto Moreno
1989: Jean Alesi
1990: Erik Comas
1991: Christian Fittipaldi
1992: Luca Badoer
1993: Olivier Panis
1994: Jean-Christophe Boullion
1995: Vincenzo Sospiri
1996: Jorg Muller
1997: Ricardo Zonta
1998: Juan Pablo Montoya
1999: Nick Heidfeld
2000: Bruno Junqueira
2001: Justin Wilson
2002: Sebastien Bourdais
2003: Bjorn Wirdheim
In that list there are no Formula One World Champions, and there are only three drivers to take Formula One race wins (three to Montoya, one each to Alesi and Panis). Discounting Wirdheim, who is still competing in F3000, two of the former three champions have not raced in Formula One, with the other one needing to bring money with him to get a seat in back of the grid Minardi. Muller, the only driver to ever claim the F3000 title in his debut year, has never had so much as a sniff of a drive in the senior categories - the closest he got was test driver for BMW when they were preparing to join forces with Williams.
So how relevant is Formula 3000 to Formula One? There is no question that the drivers get to learn the circuits (at least the European ones on which they race), and the tight nature of the timetable of an average race weekend mean that they have to learn to deal with the pressure that brings, but the lack of technical changes available to the car means that there is little work a driver can do in the area to affect his race - something that is vital in the senior category.
Formula 3000 is a control series, meaning that there is one chassis supplier, one engine supplier, and one tyre supplier. The advantage of this approach is clear – the biggest difference is the person driving the car, and therefore whoever wins the most races should be the best racer. The input a driver can make is at present restricted to a few different settings on the cars wings, and lack of technical input on the cars is a feature of the control series theory, but this could be rectified with ease as a result of discussions with the chassis manufacturer Lola, if not for the current chassis then certainly for next year's model.
The first problem that needs to be resolved is the lack of depth in the grid – there are currently only sixteen cars from eight teams competing in F3000, and only a few years ago there were grids of around forty cars. The worldwide economic downturn has certainly had an effect on the number of people competing in championships everywhere – even Formula One is down to twenty cars – but it is clear that the cost of racing in Formula 3000 has to be reduced. It currently costs an estimated one million dollar (US) per driver per season, and with a learning season a necessity before challenging for the title a driver needs to find effectively two million dollars to run in the series.
It has been suggested that bringing in other chassis and engine manufacturers would drive the costs down for the teams, but this is a false economy – competition between manufacturers may mean that they offer initial discounts, but it would also ensure that they spend more money to beat their opposition on track, which will ultimately be reflected in the end price to the team. The only true way to reduce costs would be to ensure the involvement of a major auto manufacturer, as a series sponsor and an engine supplier, to reduce or eliminate the major cost centre in racing.
But is there enough incentive for a major manufacturer to invest in the series? If a company like Renault or Ford had invested in the series in past years they could have used the successes of Montoya, Heidfeld, Webber or Wilson in their advertising and claimed a part in their ultimate success. Likewise, they could run an ongoing campaign in support of the series, to promote their position in the junior category.
Which brings us to promotion. In most markets around the world, Formula 3000 receives little to no exposure on television, which is ultimately how most fans see (and learn about) a series. The notable exception to this is in the United States of America, where the cable channel Speed TV gives more time to the series than to Formula One. A part of this is the involvement of an American driver (Townsend Bell), but the major reason is that the channel has little else to show at the time of the race, and has a longer lead time (and more access to the teams) than for the Formula One race.
It is clear that more television exposure would mean more interest in the series, and the FIA can play a part here – by rebadging the series as Formula Two it would clear up the position the series holds on the motorsport ladder for the man on the street, and a campaign extolling the virtues of seeing today the stars of tomorrow would further help this process. If there is more interest in the series, then the television rights will be sought more earnestly, which would give more publicity to the series and their sponsors (both the manufacturer and those supporting the individual drivers), which would create more interest from young drivers wanting to join the series, which would promote the racing itself, which would further increase interest in the series.
Is the solution to Formula 3000's woes as simple as renaming the series? No, but it would be a start. More interest in the series, and reduced costs for those wishing to compete, would create an environment where there is another genuine series for race fans to be involved in, and a lot of the questions around the series could be resolved fairly simply.
Speaking to a wide array of people involved in this series, it is obvious the will is there, but they need the support of the FIA, the manufacturers, and race fans in general - every one of which should want to see F3000 back up to the heights it enjoyed only a few years hence.
The F3000 Champion
Born on the 4th of April 1980, Bjorn Wirdheim's interest in motor racing grew out of following his father's progress in the GT Series around Europe at a young age. He started karting at the age of 10, was the Swedish Formula Ford champion at 17, progressed through Formula Palmer Audi to the German Formula Three championship, took pole and third overall at the Macau Grand Prix, finished as rookie of the year and fourth overall in his first year of Formula 3000 in 2002, before taking three poles, six fastest laps and two wins on the way to claiming the championship this year, with two rounds remaining.
Formula 3000 champions don't pop up fully formed overnight - they're grown over time. Drivers almost never win the championship in their first year, and Wirdheim is no exception to the rule. In Formula Three, a driver can win right out of the box because of the vast differences in chassis and engines, but F3000 is a control series – the cars are effectively the same across the grid, and the range of drivers moving up means that experience counts.
"It takes a while to get to Formula 3000," Wirdheim says. "You normally go from Formula Three to Formula 3000, and I think you gain a lot of experience, not only of the European circuits but also because it's a quite difficult car to drive.
"It's necessary to have one year learning [in F3000], and it's been a little bit easier for me this year than it was last year because we went straight into qualifying last year – we now a free practice session first. The circuit was usually quicker in the first two or three laps in qualifying and then it would go a second or so slower because of the Formula One rubber. But now there is a free practice, so it makes it a little bit easier for the newcomers."
The raison d'etre of Formula 3000 is to put as many fast young kids together in the same cars in front of the Formula One paddock and let them fight it out. In a control series the quickest guy usually wins, and with it being on many of the same circuits as the main show it allows the drivers to learn the tracks at the same time as they show their abilities in a car halfway between those in F3 and F1, albeit without the technical tweaks of either.
"Well I think for sure you want to learn more than you learn in F3," Wirdheim states, "because in F3 you can change a lot more things on the car and you are free to develop the aerodynamics and so on. So I think for that reason F3 might be better, but on the other hand F3 is a more powerful car and there was a huge difference the first time I drove a F3000 car compared to a F3 car - it's half the power of a Formula One car. I think if they could increase the power and make it a little bit cheaper to rent the engine then it should be a better alternative."
And the cost of the series is the biggest problem for any young driver trying to get into Formula One. "At this moment it's far too expensive. Fortunately I made a deal with Christian (Horner, Arden team boss) last year that if I score more than 25 points and finish better than fifth in the championship he would reduce the budget for this year - if it wasn't for that then I wouldn't have been able to continue. So I think it's far too expensive at the moment. I know they're trying to do something about it - they're trying to get some other manufacturers to provide engines at a better price."
With only sixteen cars currently on the grid, it's clear to see that the economics have kept the hopefuls away from F3000, with many running into the arms of alternate series. "It's a lot cheaper to run in other formulas," Wirdheim says. "For example, the Nissan World Series. Those cars are not as quick as the F3000 cars but they're still good cars. And then there's the Renault V6, although that's not really on the same level."
But how much weight does the F3000 championship give a young driver trying to break into Formula One? Everyone has a different answer to this, but Wirdheim see it thus: "It should give you more than winning the F3 championship. In F3, it's unlimited testing – you can test as much as you want – but it's not like that in F3000. In F3000 you are very limited; we did six days before the start of the season, and we did two hours of testing at Snetterton, and that's it. That's why it's so important to do a learning year before challenging for the title in the second year.
"Apart from the official six days before the season, we're allowed fourteen hours of running with the engines, and it's quite expensive if you do a lot of mileage with the engines, so we've only done two hours and there's no more testing." Which brings it back to being all about the driver, and how he adapts to the changing conditions on the day, to his ability to show he can win despite the limits placed on him.
The factor that separates Formula 3000 from the other similarly powered series is that if a driver gets it right, he does it in front of the Formula One paddock. "I think one of the best things is that it gives you quite a lot of credit if you win the championship," Wirdheim states, "because people recognise that it's a difficult formula to win, and then also because it's held before the Grand Prix all the people in the Formula One paddock know what I've done this season, which is good for me."
But is it enough? The list of F3000 champions is littered with drivers who have failed to make any impact on the big game, with only Juan Pablo Montoya having scored more than one Formula One win to date. Wirdheim is realistic enough to know that winning the championship is no guarantee of Formula One success: "I have a few tests lined up at the moment, Formula One tests, and if I do well enough there I'm sure there will be an opportunity to go for a race seat. But it's not enough to prove that you're a good driver - you have to prove that you're an extremely good driver, in all areas.
"I'm happy, because at least I get a chance to prove myself, and then we'll just have to wait and see what happens. But I don't have the financial backing I need to be sure to get the seat in Formula One, and that's not the way I want to enter Formula One either – in that case I'd rather go and do something else.
"So the next step would be Formula One or CART, and if you're a good driver in F3000, like Sebastien Bourdais - and what he has done this year [in CART] has generated a lot of interest in F3000 from the CART teams - if you prove to be a good driver in F3000 then there's a big possibility you can get a free seat in CART. But it's not a guarantee for getting into Formula One."
Ultimately F3000 needs to raise its profile – it's not enough to rely on running in front of the Formula One teams and hoping they notice. Substantial changes need to be made to improve the series, and ultimately the chances of the drivers graduating into the big league.
"I would make it the official feeder series to Formula One, so you have to do it to get into Formula One," Wirdheim says. "And I would make sure to lower the costs and try to get backing from a manufacturer to supply cheap engines, and maybe also to change the chassis to make it more cost efficient, because at this moment spares are really expensive – the car is really cheap, but the spares are just too expensive!
"I think it could be done for sure, because if you get backing from a car manufacturer to supply engines for the car at a good price it would be a lot better, and then there would be more drivers. The third thing would be to allow the teams to develop the cars a bit more, so you could change the wings and everything." Because a little technical know how couldn't hurt when trying to get into Formula One.
The F3000 Team Boss
Christian Horner formed Arden Motorsport in 1997 as a one-car team to allow him to compete in that year's Formula 3000 championship. Growing into a two-car operation the following year, with Horner stepping out of the cockpit and into management at its conclusion, Arden has steadily grown since that time. Following their win in the Euro 3000 constructors' championship in 2000, Arden took both championships in Formula 3000 in 2002, although Tomas Enge's championship was later revoked after a positive drug test. This year the team has already won the drivers' championship with Bjorn Wirdheim, and is in a strong position to follow up with the constructors' title.
Getting the man on the street interested in Formula 3000 is a tough sell – it used to be that the junior category to Formula One was Formula Two, and anyone interested in seeing the stars of tomorrow would know where to look. With an increasing number of series available, and with confusion surrounding the series as it stands, Horner thinks it's time for a change.
"As far as the people's minds are concerned, I think the confusing factor about Formula 3000 is its name," he starts. "Your average man in the street understands where Formula Three is in relation to Formula One, but when faced with Formula 3000 will raise the question where does that fit - is it above, below or whatever.
"I think the best thing that can be done in the interim is to address the name and rebrand it to Formula Two, which would state where it was in the motorsport pecking order. Obviously Formula Two existed successfully for many, many years and petered out when costs escalated out of control and there were two manufacturers who were competing vehemently against each other. Formula 3000 has obviously been established for eighteen years but maybe now is the perfect time for a rebranding of the name."
There's more to the series success or failure than just the name, of course. "In terms of what can it do to make Formula One look at it more closely, I think Formula One do look at it in the driver that I both represent from a team and managerial point of view (Bjorn Wirdheim). His performances this year have opened doors in Formula One, and in any other championship they wouldn't have opened the same doors because he's competing at ten Grands Prix under their noses, with every European event this year, so the positive issue is that it's associated with Grand Prix weekends and plays an important role in that. I think maybe seventy percent of the current F1 drivers have come through Formula 3000 at some time in their career.
"The downside is that the costs are high for what we have at the moment, which is a 450bhp car; the engine costs are too high, and the chassis costs are too high. In a competitive marketplace we need to be competitive with other formulas, and what we need to see is the formula clearly ahead of its rivals in performance, promotion and cost. I think if that were to be addressed through natural process there would only be one formula that fed Formula One."
The problem that keeps being pointed out in Formula 3000 is the lack of any technical learning for the drivers - the regulations are so tight that there is little that the drivers can do to affect the setup of the car. "It would be good if there was a variance of aerodynamic packages maybe, high downforce and low downforce configuration," Horner agrees, "but what it does teach them is to look at themselves and extract the most out of themselves.
"In our case, Bjorn Wirdheim has been with us for two years, and the car that he was running at Hockenheim is probably a whole of front wing different compared to last year, but he's going at most circuits a second quicker. It's coming from himself - he's forced to extract the most from the tyres, the most out of the car, the most out of the package that he has, and it really disciplines the drivers immensely because they don't have any excuses to hang their hat on.
"I think if we had a quicker car, if we had a bigger engine with softer tyres and a pitstop and a bit more downforce for the car, you're automatically going to go a bit quicker, maybe different brakes. The biggest difference when drivers get out of this car and step into a Formula One car is the braking capacity. So they're all things that would improve what we currently have, and I think there are moves afoot to address this for the future. So I don't think there's anything wrong with what the formula is - the only thing that it lacks is some promotion."
Promotion is the bete noir of every junior motor racing series in the world. The junior categories, including Formula 3000, are the cradle that supports tomorrow's Formula One stars, but there is little interest outside of real motor racing aficionados. Money always has to be found to allow people to go racing, but one step removed from the Formula One circus perhaps this money could be found within the industry. "For me I think it's just a great shame that we've got a tremendously valuable spot here on the Grand Prix calendar - Porsche pay for their spot but we don't, we're here at the generosity of Bernie Ecclestone to allow the formula to be here.
"What would be great would be to see a manufacturer recognise the value of this slot, badge or label the formula, which would in turn reduce costs, introduce a prize fund, and with all of the marketing hype that goes with a manufacturer programme that would automatically deal with the media side of things, because at the moment there's no media representative for this championship really. And it just needs that kick, that push forward on it, and it lends itself perfectly for a manufacturer to get involved.
"And it would be right for a manufacturer to have recognition; the benefit of that is that if they'd supported in previous years they could already have the marketing tool by now that Montoya would have stood on the podium eight times or whatever it was, Heidfeld the same, all the other guys, Alonso, Justin Wilson, it goes on and on and on really. The benefit you would think is logical, and it would be great to see it happen."
There really needs to be a bigger show to keep people's interest in the series, though. As recently as 1999, Nick Heidfeld took the championship from a field of over forty drivers, and with the grid dwindling to sixteen at present, this is clearly a problem that needs to be resolved. "Well I think there's two or three teams that are actively showing interest in coming into the championship – maybe as early as the next race at least one of them will make it. What can be done to encourage them? The current prohibitive side to it is there's only one more year left on the current specification – maybe if that specification was changed in advance of 2005, or maybe extended, it would be something to persuade a team to invest in the short term in equipment that wouldn't be potentially obsolete in twelve months' time."
Away from the racing, Horner believes that the FIA does not use the championship as much as it could; with the number of changes made to Formula One each year it makes sense to test them elsewhere first, and F3000 would be a willing test pilot. "If I was the FIA I'd say okay, to race in Formula One you've got to achieve an international A licence through our international Formula Two championship" he laughs, "although unfortunately I don't think that's feasible. And, if I was the FOM, I'd use Formula 3000 to compliment Formula One more.
"There's sixteen or seventeen Grands Prix a year, and there's twenty five circuits; why not use us in addition to the ten or twelve races a year - our season's very short - why not send us to Bahrain a year early, or China a year early, to make sure that they can host, promote and run an event prior to the big boys coming into town? We could have run the HANS system a year in advance and addressed any of the early problems there. We could have run a different qualifying format, we could run the Handford rear wing to see if that improved racing. It could be used as a test bed in certain respects for Formula One.
"And what I think could be more beneficial to Formula One - not just from a driver's perspective as a training ground but as an engineer, as a technician, as a truck driver - is the format of the race weekend. It would be great to see the F3000 race on a Sunday morning – ideally the new drivers take two years because of the relative lack of running time they get during the race weekend, and if there was a little more running time, and maybe if we were to introduce a pitstop into the race so that more strategy came into play, then the teams could be more involved in that as well. And I think it would address the learning curve the drivers are faced with before they go into Formula One."
The F3000 Rookie
Born August 6th 1981, Tonio Liuzzi was bitten by the karting bug at an early age. Beginning his karting career in 1992, he won the Italian championship the following year and pushed up through the ranks, winning races in the various karting categories before claiming the European karting championship in 1999, the world championship in 2001 (in which year he narrowly missed the German Formula Renault title at the last round), with a stint in German Formula Three (and a one-off test drive for BMW Williams) leading to his debut in Formula 3000 this year, where he is now the rookie of the year.
After a successful junior career Liuzzi needed to consider his next move, and with his manager Peter Collins he chose to come into Formula 3000. It was a good choice, as he is currently battling for second in the championship in his debut year, following in the footsteps of Nick Heidfeld and Juan Pablo Montoya who both managed the feat.
"I think it was really the best choice we could have done," Liuzzi avers. "After last season in Formula Three we had a really good experience with one of the best teams in Germany, and after that I thought Formula 3000 was the best category for me because I saw it was really competitive, it's on the weekend with Formula One – I thought it was the best choice.
"The category is really good, and this new car they developed this year is a really well balanced car and better than the one before. I think there is a really good level overall, the cars are all more or less the same, so you can have a big chance to show what you can do in this category. I saw last year in F3 that if you don't have the right combination of car and engine it was really hard to win. I think this category shows your best potential."
Liuzzi is sold on the potential of Formula 3000, although not blind to its flaws, and he rates it the toughest category he's raced in, as well as the most useful: "being in the weekend with Formula One helps a lot, and you have more or less the same cars, the same engines, the same chassis, so you have only to work on the set up of the car. It's good that we're with Formula One, and we hope that they look at us.
"The races are really long and they teach you a lot, because they are half the distance of a Formula One race - 150km - and after Formula One it is the longest race in single seaters. You also have to be really fit because even in the new car the steering is really heavy. You need a lot of fitness and strength because it's an endurance race – thirty laps – these types of tracks are not easy, and if you are under pressure you will feel it a lot. The first time I raced in Imola I was thinking I was ready physically, but the race was really tough.
"The worst part is that there are not that many cars because of the price of the series. I think the teams and the manufacturer charge too much – we are with Formula One and it's really an important category, but if you look at the other three litre categories they are less expensive, even if they have a similarly developed car – the Super Nissan is cheaper, and Dallara did a really good job with the car. I think they just used the potential too much, and they put the price so high, and I think it is just this that is making Formula 3000 go down a bit."
Liuzzi is one of the few drivers in the Formula 3000 paddock to have already driven a Formula One car, and it was his test with Williams that led him to realise the necessity of F3000. "We need something because there is too big a step from Formula Three to Formula 3000 because of the difference in power – the Formula Three does not breathe, and the Formula 3000 you start to feel the power because there is a lot of torque, the top speed, and it's really nice to drive. When I drove it the first time I felt a lot the power, because when you jump in a higher category you feel it straight away, and it was really nice.
"I think at the end of the day Formula 3000 is a good medium step between Formula Three and Formula One. I always remember my Formula One test like a dream, because sometimes I don't realise I did it and I have to look at my pictures and say ‘oh shit, that was me!'
"When I sat in it and put on my helmet I was really excited, went out and for half a lap was quite slow, a bit of throttle, and after that I went on the throttle and I went flat out on a straight. The car went second third fourth fifth and I wasn't able to keep the car straight - the car was right and left and I thought ‘whoa - I can't drive this!' - it was like a crazy horse and I wasn't able to keep it straight; I couldn't imagine how the corner was going to be!
"The power was amazing - the car was driving me around as well and it was really strange. But in Formula One, with all the electronics around, it gives you a lot of confidence. The Williams was really comfortable, and after three or four laps I was already feeling confidence, I wasn't scared of the speed, was sure of the brakes.
"But the first two or three laps were incredible – I wasn't sure I could drive the car, and my head was like speeding in someway and I thought it was too much. But soon everything becomes normal. And when I drove Formula One it was the same feeling as when I changed from F3 to F3000, the same feeling for the first few laps after which it was becoming natural."
Unlike some of his contemporaries in the paddock, Liuzzi is not convinced that horsepower is the be all and end all for Formula 3000. There are moves afoot to increase the power of the cars, make them ‘more relevant' to the Formula One experience, and most feel it would be an improvement, but there is more required than to just stick a larger engine on board. "For sure it is what everyone is trying to do, to increase the speed and power is the idea for the future, to put an engine of 650hp - it would be great for us.
"I think Lola can work to make a better car – I think this one is good, but they can work to make more grip, and maybe from Avon to get better tyres. We had a race where there was a difference in the second set of tyres, and this can make you unconfident because you never know what set of tyres are a bad one, there could be a bigger selection.
"But I don't think we need a stronger engine, because this one is good enough for the show and a good race – for sure I would like to have an 800hp engine to be closer to Formula One because that's the dream for everyone, but of course it would be even more expensive and we don't need it at the moment."
Liuzzi has had a good first year in Formula 3000, and expectations will be high for him next year. At the moment he is shutting this out, concentrating on the things that F3000 can teach him in his driving, preparing himself for what he hopes lies ahead in his career.
"F3 and F3000 teach things, but in Formula One you can never go sideways on the throttle. Formula 3000 teaches you to drift a lot, and the techniques to do this, and in Formula One you need all this experience and then you are ready to know which is the best way to drive Formula One because it's really technical in some ways - in a corner you have a lot of downforce but the corner speed is really quick so you have to be really technical, put the tyres in the right place, the apex in the right place. The traction control works really often and sometimes it's not good that it works, so you have to find the way to not let it work when you don't need it.
"I think Formula 3000 helps you a lot in the reflexes, how to drive the car drifting sideways, because there's a lot of real power; you don't have traction control so you can let it drift for twenty, thirty metres, and I think this helps a lot. And also in the physical condition, because after Formula 3000 you are nearly ready for Formula One, apart from the neck which you need to work a lot, because the Formula One car is really light compared to the Formula 3000 car. In Formula One you have traction control, and in Formula 3000 when you are over the limit you have a car that goes sideways, and if you go sideways in Formula 3000 you lose time so you find the small line not to cross."
From the bulk of evidence he's learnt where that line lies. Liuzzi clearly loves his involvement in the series – about the only change he sees as vital would be a change in the timetable, something that would make sense to the overall racing weekend from the perspective of the fans.
"I think for sure they have to change the system of the weekend," Liuzzi concludes, "the spectators are interested because of Formula One so maybe they could have switched with the Porsche (Supercup) – I don't think Porsche is at the same level as Formula 3000. They are good and important drivers, but I think because we are single seater in some ways we are more important to create the new talent of Formula One. I think they could put the Formula 3000 race on Sunday just before the Formula One race. And for sure work out a way to reduce the price."
The F3000 Driver Manager
Growing up as a motor racing fan in Sydney, Australia, Peter Collins took any work that would allow him to further his involvement in the sport, including time as a press officer at the Warwick Farm circuit. Moving to the United Kingdom via a spell in California working with Dan Gurney's AAR team, he moved swiftly through the ranks, working as team manager for Lotus (where he brought in a young Nigel Mansell), Williams, and Benetton (where he brought in BMW, Gerhard Berger and Johnny Herbert) before taking over Team Lotus (where he hired Mika Hakkinen). Since the closure of the team, Collins has worked in driver management, consultancy for a variety of teams, and he is currently a writer for F1 Magazine as well as Vitantonio Liuzzi's manager.
Peter Collins is a big believer in Formula 3000, and it shows. He talked his driver Vitantonio Liuzzi into the series, a move that it starting to show dividends, and he thinks it will only improve despite the relative decline in the series recently.
"I actually think it's in a healthier state than people realise," Collins starts, "because, yes, the numbers are down on last year, one team has fallen away this year, but you have to look at motorsport with a global view - this year was the first year I think in the history of the Indianapolis 500 where they struggled to get 33 cars, and that's the one race in the world where there's never a struggle to get sponsors. So when you have only 33 drivers entering to run in the 500 you know that there's a global economic problem in the motorsport industry.
"Formula 3000 has survived this year, and I think it's actually produced some good racing and some good talent. Part of Formula 3000's historical problem is that it was conceived as a drivers' formula where there was a level playing field, so equal engines, tyres, chassis, and it's suffered a little bit because people with a vested interest in creating legends of their own, like F3 teams and engineers, will tell you that Formula 3000 is rubbish because it's not technical. It is actually just as technical and difficult to make your 3000 car better than a F3 car because you're not actually allowed to make any different parts.
"Formula Three teams like the idea of being able to manufacture their own parts and add little tweaks here and there, but the reality is from my experience working in F3 and F3000 with various drivers is that the F3 teams don't actually have as deep an understanding of the aerodynamics as a F3000 team, because in F3000 if you don't understand aerodynamics you don't get the points.
"I actually think it's a very good formula, and if you look at it in terms of the performance capability it's a 400+ horse power V8 engine, it's a 550 odd kilo car, reasonable level of downforce and grip, and it's the equivalent of a driver going to Formula One in the early eighties, so it's fantastic training. And I think if you ask some of the Formula One teams they'll say, yeah, it provides a level of power training that you don't get in F3. I think F3 at 200hp to Formula One at 950hp today is just too big a step."
The biggest question for young drivers is how relevant is the series to getting into Formula One, which is after all the ultimate goal. There are a few series around which are comparable, but Collins doesn't see them as being in the same league as Formula 3000.
"Renault V6 is a long way away - they're around 350bhp, and the car is ten seconds slower at Monaco and Barcelona, so to me it's not even in the same range. Formula Nissan I think is not bad, but in all honesty those formulas tend to attract the drivers who can't afford to be in this arena. To win at this level, or even to be in the top six in Formula 3000 you've got to be bloody good – it's tough – you've only got to look at the qualifying times in Germany.
"If you actually go through the teams there's a lot of drivers who got to Formula One through Formula 3000, and there's actually quite a few who created their careers through Formula 3000. [Juan Pablo] Montoya was nothing in F3, just another driver who won a couple of races in the championship.
I was a bit skeptical before this year, but I know for example with Vitantonio Liuzzi was apprehensive about doing Formula 3000 because he thought the F3 car was great, it had a lot of grip in the quick corners and it had a lot of feeling, but after he'd done a few tests in Formula 3000 he said this is a very difficult car to drive really fast; to drive it really fast you have to drive it really, really well, and if you work hard you don't find a few hundreds like you do in F3, you get big chunks of time; you can find half a second in a corner.
"So for me that was a very relevant comment – if you drive these cars well you'll get the time, if you don't you won't, and that's what it should be about. I believe it should be a drivers' formula, not an engineer's formula, which is what F3 has become, and who makes the nicest replacement roll bars or uprights or rockers – the difference is production."
Most people put the cost of running in Formula 3000 as the biggest problem with the series, and the lack of cars at present seems to indicate this. Collins, however, feels that it's money well spent. "I think that it needs to be a little more spicy; it needs a bit more grip, a bit more power, needs more revs, and more cars would be better certainly but that is symptomatic of the current economic climate.
"The real price for Formula 3000, a sensible budget would be about 850,000 euros – that's not massively expensive when you consider a ten round F3 series with two races at each event is around 650,000 euros. It's not a massive difference, not for what you get, not for when you're racing at a Grand Prix. With F3000 you race at Monaco with a powerful car, big car, heavy car, which is fantastic preparation for an F1 Grand Prix, and better than you'll get anywhere else."
Not that there is nothing he would improve if he could – no motor racing series is perfect, or even claims to be. "I think there are things that can be done – if the costs can be reduced, which is possible, if there could be somebody who took a financial interest in it and supported it and promoted it that could help, and I think there's potential to make the whole thing more appealing to young drivers.
"Unfortunately, I think one of the main problems is that few people get the real story of what Formula 3000 does give you – nobody talks about the exposure in front of the Formula One teams. I know from experience what it's like, how they react to what they see on the televisions at the circuit, and I guarantee you they won't watch another race between the Grands Prix. So it's the only race they'll watch apart from the Grand Prix, so that a fantastic advantage. It's very difficult for people to understand the importance and the value of competing at a major sporting event and the atmosphere, and the psychological pressure that brings – you only prepare for that by actually experiencing it, so it's the ideal situation.
"And it's a level playing field, and for me that is one of the most important things, particularly this year with the European (F3) championship which now has a constructors' cup, and you have Mercedes, Opel, Mugen and Toyota developing factory engines – is that going to develop the best driver necessarily? If you've got one engine that's fantastic - the guys on that engine are going to be the guys that are doing the winning, and what does that say about the other guys? Does that mean they're not good drivers? They shouldn't progress? It doesn't, does it?
"A feeder formula in motorsport should be about producing the best driver. I'm a great believer in karting, where even a private entry can get very good quality equipment and can compete strongly, and skill shows. Formula BMW – incredibly equal opportunity. Last year in the series in Germany there was not one protest – that means that everyone accepts there's no way of cheating the car, and there was some fantastic racing.
"So for me control formulas are the most sensible thing because you're limiting the variables – okay, you've still got an engineer and a team involved, but you've taken a lot of the variables out and it's down to the driver and the rapport he builds up with his race engineer, how good the guy is and the chemistry between them, and that's what you've got to learn to go racing anyhow. So I think for me it comes down to the fundamentals – an even playing field, fantastic circuit experience, environment experience, connection with people who are operating at the top level."
The F3000 Pundit
Simon Arron is the voice of Formula 3000 – he is the FIA's official interviewer at the F3000 post-qualifying and post-race press conferences. He regularly covers Formula 3000 for Motosport News, does translation work for the FIA and other clients, is the editor of the Grand Prix Year annual, and is a freelance motorsport journalist with clients including the Daily Telegraph and The Times.
"I think Formula 3000 is suffering generally at the moment," Arron plainly states, "simply because motor racing is supposed to have a pyramid structure, with the chaff being sorted out as guys move up from Formula Ford, Formula Three or whatever, and you're supposed to have something sitting below Formula One which is an academy for guys for the future. At the moment you've got Formula One with twenty cars, and you've got Formula Nissan V6, you've got Formula Renault V6, you've got Formula 3000, and you've got the Italian based Formula 3000, so there's a dilution across the board – you've got four categories at about the same levels attracting different drivers.
"And if you took the top five or six drivers from each of them you could have a healthy 24 car grid in Formula 3000 – it was only 1999 when there were 42 cars and twenty odd teams in F3000, and now there are eight teams, sixteen drivers, and some of them are struggling and changing drivers every second or third race. Partly through circumstance you have a glut of powerful 450bhp style championships, a lot of it through the economic downturn. It's not as healthy as it's been – when it started there were between fifteen and twenty cars on the grid, and it's currently at its lowest ebb competitively since then; not a great thing.
"That said, I do think there are some very good drivers doing it, and I do think it's the training formula for the Grand Prix stars of tomorrow. It is ultra competitive, there is no mechanical advantage to be had, it is the shop window for the drivers because they can't do anything to the cars - the only fluctuating factor is the drivers. It's the same as the other formulas out there, but this one supports the Grand Prix; the drivers get the chance to experience the discipline of a Grand Prix weekend and see how the whole Grand Prix structure works ten or twelve times a year. They get that opportunity, and they learn the Grand Prix tracks. So it's got a hell of a lot going for it."
But the obvious problem is there are only twenty cars currently competing in Formula One, and the odds are overwhelming that most of the incumbents will stay, leaving the Formula 3000 drivers out in the cold. "The problem is that in the late eighties you had 35 people in Formula 3000, and eight of them would graduate to F1 at the end of the year – they may have graduated into back of the grid teams but they'd still graduate - and they'd get the opportunity that Justin Wilson's had at Minardi this year, or that Mark Webber had at Minardi last year, or Fernando Alonso had at Minardi in 2001. There were far more opportunities back then, but that was simply a sort of square peg round hole thing, it was simple mathematics - there were 48 grand prix cars to target.
"Now there are only twenty seats, and drivers do hang around a lot longer than they used to - and part of that is the sport has become safer so there are far fewer injuries or worse, and careers do tend to go on longer. I don't know how many countries currently have a top level Formula Ford or Formula Renault championship, but if you multiply that by however many, there are at least 400 or 500 kids who are between 16 and 20 who think they can make it into one of these twenty seats, and it just doesn't fit – they're doing well if they get up half a million pound level and that's the end of that. It's just simple maths at the moment as much as anything."
Which leaves the obvious question of why do the drivers bother if there is no light at the end of the tunnel? Beyond a love of motorsport, there has to be something for a young hopeful to aim towards. "I would like to see the governing body organise something – the Formula 3000 guys have organised a prize this year to go out and test a ChampCar, and not all of them want to go to CART but it's something, and they regard it as a worthwhile prize because up until this season a CART seat was something that was worth having.
"It'd be nice to see the FIA or the FOM or whoever arrange an end of season F1 test for the top three in the championship, or even just the championship winner – just something that is a guarantee. I don't see how there is a feasible way of creating a conduit to take the top guys – you can't just guarantee the champ here into Formula One, because there are commercial interests; nice though it would be, it's not a practical proposition.
"But I can't believe it's too difficult for the FIA or the FOM to persuade the top three teams during the test period or during the test ban to make a one or two day exemption for them to make an offer to the leading Formula 3000 drivers. It's something that gives a kid the opportunity to do a proper job under proper testing conditions, maybe with a test driver there as well, as a benchmark."
What about the cost of competing in F3000? "It is expensive – without having a commercial partner it's very difficult," Aaron says. "Having just one supplier of everything does keep things cheaper than it would be with two supplies – it just does.
"The spares thing would be cheaper because Dallara would say 'we can do the spares cheaper and spares would cost x' and Lola would come in and say 'buy our chassis because spares will cost x less 10%' - that would help drive some of the costs down, but at the same time the costs involved with windtunnels and development costs and whatever is going to increase massively. Whereas at the moment Lola has a car which is not 100% spot on, but it doesn't matter if everyone has got the same car. And that's in a 50,000 UK pounds car whereas back in 1995 in the old Reynard and Lola cars they cost something like 120,000 pounds, and that was eight years ago. I think that tells you the benefits of having a control chassis formula, and it's the same with tyres.
"The spares are expensive but the cars are cheap, so don't damage it and it won't cost much to fix it. I do think the control thing is quite good - I was against the idea a few years ago but now I've come to believe that it does make life easier for anyone watching it because if they have the same kit then the one component that makes the most difference is the one wearing gloves and a crash helmet, and therefore if he wins eight out of ten races he's probably the best – it aught to be a good shop window for the Formula One teams because the teams can't buy a technical advantage. If this is the ultimate 'spend whatever you want' formula then fine, but before you do get there I think you need to cap costs just to keep things as realistic as possible.
"I think the championship has all the strengths at the moment – they just have to fine-tune it. And by that I mean the F3000 people themselves. Getting more commercial investment might be a pipedream really but obviously everyone would like to see a commercial backer because it would make life easier.
"Nissan boast about being competitive and spectacular and say look at all the Formula One drivers they've got. But they're failed Formula One drivers, they're failed Formula 3000 drivers, it's a field of people who are all outrageously quite good but they're not on the way up, they've been close to Formula One or into Formula One at the back but fallen off the ladder, and they're not going to get back up there by doing Formula Nissan. I know for Justin (Wilson) it was a salvation there, but for him it was better than sitting at home playing PlayStation.
"But the ideal target is to get F3000 back up to what it was in late eighties / early nineties when you had thirty odd cars and they were all driven by guys who had an impeccable track record, one or two rich Italians excepted. This year you can look at someone like Liuzzi and there's something of a spark about him, and Wirdheim is obviously very, very good, but there aren't that many in the championship that people are saying ‘oh wow' about – there are maybe three or four that people might say have potential to be good, strong Formula One drivers. In 1988 or 1989 you could probably identify sixteen or eighteen people in the top twenty who, if given the right break, had the ability to become a Formula One driver, and a good strong solid Formula One driver."
The F1 Team Boss
David Richards' first love was rallying – he watched stages of the RAC Rally as a child and was smitten. While studying to be an accountant he entered the British National Road Rally championship as a co-driver, winning the title in its first year. Seeing this as his future he went professional, joining Lancia and the Ford, winning the World Rally Championship (WRC) as co-driver to Ari Vatanen in 1981. He quit the sport at the end of the year to form David Richards Autosport (later Prodrive), first as a sponsorship consultant and then as a team owner in rallying. Over the years his team won the Middle Eastern Rally Championship, the first WRC win for a privateer team, the British Touring Car Championship for BMW, the WRC Driver's title (with Colin McRae, in 1995) and three WRC manufacturer's titles for Subaru. In 1997 he was appointed CEO of Benetton Formula, quitting the next year after failing to persuade the team to sell shares to Ford, bought the rights to exploit the WRC in 2000, and took the role of CEO at British American Racing in late 2001.
David Richards is the only team owner in the Formula One paddock who has ever promoted a race series (the World Rally Championship), and as such if any of the ten men currently controlling teams understands the problems of the junior category it's him. In addition to this, he has helped Christian Horner's Arden team throughout its history, with their headquarters nestling in a section of Prodrive's large complex in Banbury, Oxfordshire. Further to this, BAR has recently announced that they are testing both Bjorn Wirdheim and Townsend Bell, teammates at the aforementioned Formula 3000 team, with an eye to the future and to gauge their abilities.
DC: How do you see Formula 3000 – what is the state of it from your perspective?
David Richards: "The problem with Formula 3000 is that it's a fairly expensive series to get into – it has the benefits obviously of appearing alongside the F1 Grand Prix, on the right tracks and everything, but when you compare it to some of these single makes series now, -the new Renault series or even the Nissan world series - you do have to wonder where it really fits in on the spectrum of things.
"I've been one who's advocated for many years that it should be a condition to get a superlicence that you have to do a year in Formula 3000, and you're actually on the same tracks there. Because it's very hard today for us as teams to compare where the real talents of drivers are when you're looking at them right the way through from like the junior BMW series through the Nissan world series through Renault and then Formula 3000, and where are the real talents of those people? But if you actually did have a situation that everyone was forced into one formula before they could get into Formula One it would be a great advantage for us all."
DC: What would you say are the strengths of Formula 3000 as it stands at the moment?
Richards: "Well, clearly the venues and the equality of the cars. But I haven't, to be honest, followed the technical side as much as I should do, although people tell me that there are other formulas that actually are far more relevant in terms of their learning if you like towards Formula One."
DC: So I guess the technical side of things would be the biggest disadvantage?
Richards: "I don't know if it's the biggest disadvantage – it's probably the overall cost of it at the moment – you can't get away from that."
DC: As a Formula One team boss, how much would you look at Formula 3000 with an eye to bringing someone onto the team?
Richards: "Oh, very much – you can't get away from the fact that every Saturday afternoon we see them flashing past our garage! And so it's on our doorstep and you do have the opportunity of meeting them, so that's a relevant point. And we do have a very close association with Arden, who's a 3000 team we set up and started with Christian (Horner). So we follow it with interest, but likewise we follow a lot of other series with interest as well. "
DC: Because they race in front of you ten times a year, how close are the Formula 3000 guys to Formula One? Do they come and knock on your door, do you go and talk to them…
Richards: "We see them a lot, and there's a lot of transfer from the test programmes for Formula 3000 drivers as well, so obviously of all the series it would have to be closest, albeit some of the manufacturers have their own linkage with their series – BMW with their programme, Renault with theirs and so on. For us, where we have no other feeder series through Honda, F3000 is of the more natural routes if we were to look at a driver for a test programme to put someone in."
DC: You ran the World Rally Championship – what do you think Formula 3000 could do to improve the promotion of their series?
Richards: "You know you can't summarise that in one sentence – it's a lot of activities you'd need to do around it, whether it's the promotion of television coverage of it through to the individual personalities that are involved in it. You have to ask the question, who is promoting Formula 3000? And if you answer that, you answer the question for yourself."
DC: Interestingly, there is more promotion of Formula 3000 on the American Speedvision television network than Formula One, which is different to anywhere else.
Richards: It's because Townsend Bell is driving in F3000, I would suggest – he's the link there, and the promotion is around the individual driver, and if there was an American driver in Formula One I think the situation would be reversed. It really is around the following of the individual drivers."
DC: Put yourself in the position of the person at the FIA or FOM who is responsible for the overall package of Formula 3000 – what would you do to promote Formula 3000 as a series itself and also tighten the links between it and Formula One, which is the obvious goal for the drivers?
Richards: "Well as I said the first thing I would do is make it a condition of entry into Formula One; that you'd have to do a season in Formula 3000 before entering F1. I think that would actually direct people into that way and add value to Formula 3000 straightaway. And I think that would precipitate a lot of the other promotional activities around it."
The F1 Driver Manager
Jonathan Palmer, a fully qualified medical doctor in his native Britain, vindicated his move from medicine to motorsports by winning the British Formula 3 championship in 1982 and the European Formula 2 crown the following year. His Formula One career started at RAM in 1984, followed by two years at Zakspeed and three at Tyrrell (where he took the Jim Clark trophy for best placed non-turbo car) before moving into a testing role at McLaren. Palmer partnered Murray Walker in the BBC commentary booth for two seasons before establishing Formula Palmer Audi, and ambitious junior racing series which brought a young Justin Wilson to his attention. Palmer has guided Wilson's career through Formula 3000, where he won the championship in 2001, Formula Nissan and into Formula One, where he debuted this year with Minardi before moving to the Jaguar team.
The value of Formula 3000 could hardly be lost on Jonathan Palmer – he won the series as a driver when it was still known as Formula Two, and he guided Justin Wilson into the series, originally as a prize for winning Palmer's own Audi-powered series before picking up some sponsorship to allow the driver to compete, and claim, the title in 2001.
"I think it's a pretty good proving ground," Palmer notes. "It's obviously a spec formula - you've got a spec chassis, spec engines, spec tyres - clearly the team makes a difference, and that's something the driver can influence in terms of contributing to the engineering of the car.
"But I think the other thing that can be seen is that winning the championship is obviously no passport into Formula One; it's a combination of things, but getting some money together is an important part of it. Usually getting some money together to come to a Formula One team is very important. But I think Formula 3000 is still the best formula to try and prove yourself in, to try and get into Formula One."
The reasons why F3000 is traditionally seen as a proving ground for Formula One (which currently has thirteen drivers who have competed in the series or its Japanese equivalent Formula Nippon) are many, but Palmer see it thus: "I think the strengths are that it's a spec formula with spec engine, tyres and cars, it's pretty well controlled, and I think an important part is that the races do take place in front of Formula One at the Grand Prix weekends. Most Formula One people have a little bit of a passing interest to see what's going on, and can tell you the two or three top people running in it, if not more than that, but that's often enough. So those two things are the most important in terms of it being a value to drivers as a means to get to Formula One.
"Of course the weakness is cost, and clearly the grids are pretty small these days and I'm sure that cost is a big factor in that. I think as a driver proving ground that's probably the only weakness – the cost of doing it."
The problem with bringing costs down is that there is no clear way of doing it – nobody wants the costs to be as high as they are (reputedly 850,000 euro a season per driver), and if there was an easy way to bring them down it would have been done already. Palmer ponder the question before continuing: "I haven't run a Formula 3000 team, so I don't know precisely where the money goes, but obviously one element of costs is the travel and accommodation following the Grand Prix circuit. But I don't think there's much you can do about that – supporting the Grand Prix probably justifies the costs that it incurs being part of the Formula One package.
"I think things like engines are fairly expensive in the overall scheme of it – I think they have 450hp and I understand teams are spending around 120,000 UK pounds a season for that amount of horsepower, and that's an area where costs could come down substantially with a different engine deal. And probably there are a number of other ways you could bring the costs down. I suppose one of the key things it could benefit from is a title sponsor, and for there to be value for a title sponsor it needs better television coverage – if you had better TV coverage you've got a better chance of bringing in a title sponsor to put in some significant money. There's not one simple way of driving costs down - you've got to do it a number of ways.
"But you've really got to make it more appealing to sponsors. At the moment Formula 3000 is like most motor racing outside of Formula One, it's not really financially viable, and the benefits of sponsorship don't come anywhere near the cost of doing it - it's massively more expensive - or that the benefits of sponsorship and the value of the sponsorship doesn't come anywhere near the cost of running the cars, and that's a fundamental problem that Formula 3000 and a lot of motor racing has. Therefore it relies on drivers who can bring along some funding out of philanthropy, good will, support for the driver, rather than because it's financially viable.
"The biggest thing obviously is TV. If Formula 3000 could get a better TV package it could encourage more sponsorship, and if it's truly going to thrive in the harder financial times; Formula 3000 is no more expensive than it was three or four years ago. When Justin first did it there were 39, 40 cars – 42 actually, I think – but then there was more money about, and there's not now. But then it's affecting a lot of motorsports, so we're in a bit of a dip in popularity of grids on all sorts of things." And this dip is affecting all categories – there are after all only ten teams remaining in Formula One.
The above notwithstanding, Palmer still believes Formula 3000 is the right path to follow for a driver trying to get into Formula One, although he can see how that may not always be so. "I think it is still the formula of choice, but if the grids keep going down at the rate they are it'll be more questionable - you need to be beating a fairly big field for it to be meaningful, and it's down to sixteen cars now. It wouldn't get any less before it starts to seriously undermine the credibility of winning it. But I think for all that, it still has a reputation; I'm sure a driver given the choice would rather go to Formula 3000 than Nissan Dallara or Super Renault.
"You do have other formulae, but I think beyond that the most important moves that anyone could make - be it teams, the FIA, potential sponsors or anybody else - is to drive the costs down. The thing that's really going to make these formulae, that's going to affect their importance as a feeder into Formula One, is going to be getting good grids so that the teams are going to be more interested in any formula if it provides a better indication of driver talent, and one of the key things you've got to do for that is have a big field. And if you've only twelve or fourteen cars in it, it's not looking particularly strong as a differentiator of driver talent. So I think the primary issue is an increase in the grids, and the most important thing to increase the grids is to drive the costs down."
Much of it depends on the actions of the FIA, the governing body of the series, and what direction they want to take to ensure its survival. If the FIA came knocking on Palmer's door for suggestions, here is what he would say: "I think what I would do is discuss with some teams exactly where the costs are, and I'd aim to keep the costs of competing down to about 250,000 UK pounds, and I think if you could do that then that's the most important thing.
"I hear talk about 650hp V10s, and it all sounds very exciting - it sounds great, but I think when you have more power you drive up the costs, so unless someone was picking up the costs of the engines or contributing, I'm not sure that'll be very helpful. But if a manufacturer became involved that'd be good. But again it's not going to be cheap - when you think that at the moment it's 120,000 UK pounds for 470hp whereas in Formula One for 850hp it's fifteen, twenty million dollars shall we say, on that basis it looks very cheap.
"I think perhaps the reality is nobody's really cracked the challenge to make junior single seater racing, that is under Formula One, actually stand on its own two feet commercially."
Meet the Teacher
Very little is known about the dark art of sponsorship by the average fan, and consequentially its importance to the sport is downplayed by most. But, if you don't have the money, you don't go racing - it really is as simple as that. The marketing departments of the ten teams in Formula One are the most vital components because they get the money, and everything else flows on from there. Atlas F1 needed an expert to make it all clear, to teach us all there is to know about the art of selling.
It had to be Jim Wright.
One of the most influential money men in the Formula One paddock, 43 years old Wright is the Head of Marketing for the BMW Williams Formula One team, and is responsible for all sponsorship servicing, merchandising and licensing. If you follow the money trail, you'll find him at the end of it doing another deal for the team.
Born in Reigate, Surrey, and now married with two young children, Wright has a long involvement with the combination of money and racing - starting off with tracking down sponsorship for Belgian driver Thierry Tassan (now the race commentator for Belgian TV) before a brief period of running "my own little Formula Ford team", as he calls it.
Wright had his first taste of Formula One in 1981 when he worked for the ATS team for a year. He then became commercial manager for Eddie Jordan Racing, working with the team for five years through their Formula Three and 3000 programmes before setting up his own business in 1986, a motorsport consultancy, where he focused on finding sponsors, managing drivers and coordinating national series for eight years. A chance meeting on a train changed that.
"I met [then Arrows team boss] Jackie Oliver on a train," Wright recalls, "and he said 'would you ever come and work in Formula One?' I said I'd love to - that's what I've always wanted to do. So I got an offer to come and work for him in an acquisitions role, but I wasn't sure [about it]; Arrows didn't have the best of reputations then - they never have had, have they? - so I phoned Richard West, who was at Williams as head of marketing at that time and I'd known for some years, and I said 'what do you think?'
"Richard said, 'Jesus, you're actually thinking of giving up your own company?!?' I said 'yes, I am'. So he said 'don't go and work for Arrows - come and work for me'."
Wright accepted the offer, and the following year, as West moved on, Wright himself moved up, taking over the role which he has held at Williams ever since. And, despite the fact that his name is not known to many of the fans, he is considered by far one of the strongest and most involved men in Williams - and in the F1 paddock as a whole.
In fact, WilliamsF1 have come a long way since Frank Williams and Patrick head set up the company in Didcot, Oxfordshire, in 1977. One hundred and eleven wins, 122 pole positions, seven World Driver' Championships and nine Constructor' Championships make them the most successful team, on a per race basis, in the history of the sport. The success continues to this day, and the team is in strong positions in both Championships this year. To cap it off, the team has been making headlines this year with new and innovative sponsorship deals, further contribution to an image of success.
"Yes, we're doing well - on the track and off the track, so there's a good feeling and buzz about the place," Wright says. "But when you work for Frank and Patrick you're always reminded that you're only as good as your last result."
Appearances can be deceiving, and for all WilliamsF1's success they do not have anything like the resources some of the other teams enjoy. "You saw last week - Ferrari had four cars [testing] in three different locations. To support that from a position of having personnel, engines, chassis, spares - whoa! - we couldn't do that. I mean, we ran two cars on four days, which are eight-car days. They did twelve car-days last week alone! In one week, twelve car days!"
Can Williams hope to match such an effort? "Pfft," Wright smirks. "Not a hope in hell. No way.
"People write about us and they perceive us as a big team, and we are in comparison to a Jordan or a Sauber or whatever, but I think people don't understand how big a gap there is between us and Ferrari and Toyota in terms of personnel and resources - it's a massive gap. And McLaren as well - McLaren are way ahead of us in terms of resources and personnel.
"You know, in football parlance, it's Aston Villa taking on Manchester United or Liverpool or Chelsea, and I think it's easy to think of us as one of the big teams - and I guess we are relative to the others - but we ain't the size of the big ones. People say, 'oh, Williams have gone off the boil', 'Williams haven't won a championship since 1997', blah blah blah, but no one says 'they're doing a good job with the resources they've got', and you know, the gap is huge - we're not talking five million dollars between us, we're talking tens and tens of millions of dollars in income between us, and that's terribly difficult to make up."
Think Outside the Box
Most of the smaller teams have been complaining this year about the cost of going racing, and FIA President Max Mosley made a swathe of changes to the rulebook to try and save all the teams a few dollars. With the world economy tightening its belt, new sponsorship opportunities would seem to be few and far between. This notwithstanding, Wright and his team have managed to bring a few new sponsors into the team over the last six months - most notably NiQuitinCQ and Budweiser - seemingly bucking the economic trend of the recent past.
But how hard is it to find money for the teams these days? Says Wright: "Well I think the first answer is that it's hard not just these days; it's always been tough to find money. The kind of money that we need to look for is millions of dollars, and those decisions aren't made lightly. I think increasingly, over the last five years certainly, there's so many checks and balances within companies now that you never convince one guy and he says we're going to do it and the deal's done."
Wright is most likely alluding to the case of Jordan versus Vodafone that is now awaiting the decision of the High Court in London. The Jordan team are suing mobile phone giants Vodafone for $150 million UK pounds, claiming that Vodafone had a binding agreement to sponsor Jordan Grand Prix, after global branding director David Haines told Eddie Jordan 'You've got the deal'. Vodafone deny there was any binding contract.
"Ultimately," Wright continues, "if you can convince one guy - and it's normally a marketing director - he then has to go to the other board members and convince them that it's the right thing to do. And that's the tricky part, because quite often we're not given that opportunity to make that presentation, so you're reliant on someone to do that for you second hand. And a question could be asked from the board, or a negative response from the board, and if we were there we'd probably have a good positive reply to it, and you sometimes find yourself in that situation where deals break down because you're not able to communicate to the other decision makers.
"To answer the question, it's always been difficult to find money. At the moment, yes, it's more difficult, but it's difficult to find money in any form of advertising medium - ask the guys who are selling advertising on any television station in the world and they'll say it's more difficult. But I think what this means is that you've got to have more initiative, you've got to think outside the box not only in terms of which companies you are approaching, but also in how you make that approach.
"You have to try and make it easy for them by thinking through why they may say no and have the answers for them. And the way we do it is that we have a team of three guys in acquisitions, and they are responsible for going out and selling. These days I don't do very much in the way of selling, but some of the deals where I had a personal dealing, like some of the sponsors that I brought in, and some of the new leads do still come to me and I will follow through on them. But ultimately it's three guys who work on it, and they work flat out."
With the sheer variety of business sectors that have been or are involved in Formula One, it is a difficult task to track down a new one, but with the pending removal of tobacco sponsorship the marketers have had to search for alternatives. The Allianz deal was one such solution found by Wright, although pitching a sport involving cars at speed and potential crashes to an insurance company was not an easy sell. "Well you're right, and on one of the occasions we were looking after them at the Nurburgring, Pedro Diniz had his massive shunt at the first corner, and we though 'oh my God'.
"But you know, he stepped out of the car and he was unhurt, and we said 'there you go, that's precisely what we're talking to you about - this is a risk management'. And we were talking about developing a risk management image for Allianz which was based around safety in Formula One, and you'll notice all of their exploitation work is to do with safety of cars, safety of drivers, safety of circuits. One of the things they provided to journalists this years was the lexicon of safety - A is for Armco, G is for Gravel Traps, K is for Kerbs and so on.
"I can't pretend it was an easy sell - it wasn't, it was very, very hard - and we also tried to involve the FIA, because the FIA is obviously the governance of safety, and we were keen for them to get involved. And they did to begin with, but some of the other teams complained that the FIA was helping us to get sponsors. I find that small minded, because here we are bringing in a new category of sponsor to Formula One, and there are a lot of insurance companies out there."
Wright did such a good job of selling Formula One to Allianz that they have now extended their sponsorship to include on-track signage at a variety of the circuits, although naturally he feels this is not of much value to a sponsor. "We would contend that the on-track signage is not something that we would support - we have evidence to show that that doesn't work. Paddy McNally, who does sell on-track signage, probably has research to show it does work.
"I think what it does do is give people in the corridors of the companies that take on-circuit advertising a warm feeling, because they turn on their TVs and they see the circuit advertising, and because they are looking out for it they see it and say, 'okay, that's great, it's massive', and maybe also at a time when we weren't winning races that gave them a feeling of comfort.
"I think there was also a lot of corporate one-upmanship going on in Germany at the time, with Deutsche Post taking a lot of on-circuit advertising, and if Deutsche Post did it, Allianz should do it. But certainly we can prove through research that the value of circuit advertising is zero - it's wallpaper. I mean, you watch a football game, can you honestly tell me who was on the perimeter boards?"
You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get
Most sponsorship deals are initiated in-house, with the team doing their research and then making a pitch to the company they decided on. If you don't ask, you don't get. The initial research is demanding and time consuming, but there is no better way of preparing for the approach.
"Yeah, it's reading the Financial Times, marketing publications… and the web is obviously now a fantastic tool, because any company you can think of that might be interested, if you read that such and such a company might be interested in promoting its product on a global basis you can instantly jump on the web and you've got a handle on who this company is. You've also been able to work out if there are any clashes with any of your existing sponsors, and it even tells you who to make an approach to - the World Wide Web was a godsend to sponsorship seekers.
"We have to also deal with agencies; we don't have any exclusive arrangements with agencies - never have done, never will. There are literally a handful of agencies who we deal with on a regular basis, but you have to be careful because one, you have to pay a commission on an agency introduction and we don't like paying commissions, and secondly you are at the mercy of the agency because obviously the agency wants to make as much money as possible.
"So we could be offering x percent commission while other teams further down the grid will be offering far more generous commission terms, and some agencies will be swayed by that because they're going to make more money so they will persuade the client to go to a team that perhaps is paying them more commission but is not necessarily best for the client. You have to be wary of that, but we would be naive to think that we can cover every corner of the globe and every possible sponsorship opportunity, so we have to be [open] to agency introductions, and we have to have a good reputation with agencies and work with them. But clearly we'd prefer to do it ourselves if possible."
One of the problems with sponsorship agents is that there are so many of them, and some may not be all they appear to be. "There's quite a few [agents], but there's not many who have actually done deals.
"It's interesting because BusinessF1 did a review of sponsorship agents, and if you read that at least three agencies there claim to have got the Compaq deal for us, and yet we don't pay, and never have paid, a single penny in commission to any agency for the Compaq / HP deal. So work that out. So what I'm saying to you is that there are many people who claim to be involved in Formula One sponsorship, and claim to have links with this sponsor or that sponsor - in reality I think very few of them do."
Moreover, in-house approaches or sponsorship agencies are the way to go for deals; the days of a company making a cold approach to a team are pretty much over. "Do companies ring us up and say they want to sponsor us? A few, but they tend to be companies who either don't know really what it costs to sponsor in Formula One these days, or they're companies who you probably wouldn't want to be associated with. The sponsors that you see here" - Wright indicates towards the sponsors logos on the wall of the Williams motorhome - "there's not one of those who rang us up and said 'we want to sponsor you'."
Moreover, in all forms of sales the potential for having a proposal refused is high - salesmen have to develop a notoriously thick skin to survive in the business. Marketers are salesman with a different product, and the risk remains, but Wright suggests there are ways to negotiate a no.
"I think because we're experienced, and the sales group is a very talented and experience group of people. They wouldn't have a machine gun effect - they wouldn't just pump out dozens and dozens of sponsorship proposals each week - it's more a rifle effect.
"But I have to say that at least 80% of your proposals that go out would initially be [answered with a] no - certainly initially. But you'd expect that, I think; I think in any form of sales, no matter what you're selling, it's 80% or more. We've never sort of measured it. You get a feel for what's right and what's going to fly, you develop a nose for it - it's a bit like Inspector Morse, who has a nose for 'this guy did it', and he goes to his boss and he'll say 'where's the evidence, Morse?' And he never had that evidence but he had a nose for it, and then he'll work on finding that evidence. And we're a little bit like that, in that we have a nose for it.
"Allianz is a good example: the guys had a nose for it being right for Allianz, the timing was right, they needed international expansion, and they said 'no' but they kept working on it until they said 'yes'. And I think that's the case - they felt we were going to crack this company and they kept working on it, and that's exactly what happened. So I think you have to develop that, and you develop that in your targeting and therefore your approaches, and if you do that then the waste or the chances of a rebuffal become smaller."
Work the Deal
The timing of a deal is different depending on the company the team is dealing with, but a long lead period of a deal brewing is the norm rather than the exception. "These days the normal gestation period is well over a year, and it's quite normal that the first answer is no. But you try to plug away at it, you try and find out why it was a no and if there was a particular reason for it being a no, and you try and overcome that. If you take Allianz for example, that took over two years to crack, and twice it was no. But we knew that it was a matter of time with them, of convincing them and overcoming the hurdles.
"Compaq, obviously now HP, that was eighteen months. Budweiser was only a couple of weeks, but the difference there was Budweiser had already made up their mind that they wanted to come into Formula One, and had made their approach to Ferrari. We heard that perhaps all wasn't going well with Ferrari, and our guys moved in and made a move, and because the decision was already made to come into Formula One it was all pretty straightforward. But that's unusual - from a cold approach you really have to think in terms of over a year."
And the reason for these long delays between first approach and completion? It all comes back to the money. "Because you're talking about a major marketing decision to come in and spend millions of dollars, or tens of millions of dollars in some cases, to then commit to go in a particular direction for what would normally be a period of at least three years, and probably more like five, it is a big decision for any company to make.
"And clearly people don't have that kind of money just lying around - budgets are planned - and so therefore if you start to talk to someone in March then clearly the budgets have already been planned for that year in most cases, and really if you talk to them, you are talking already for 2004. In some cases if you don't start talking before September then budgets have already been set and then you are talking about 2005.
"So that's one reason, budget planning reasons, but also because it has to be such a thoughtful decision from a company. NiQuitin is probably a good example. We came up with the idea and made the approach [to them] in August, and we managed to track them and set up a meeting in Monza, which was remarkably quick; we were very, very fortunate to be able to do that - the set of circumstances were already in place because they were already in Milan doing a seminar. We got them to Monza and made our proposition, which was 'look, this is a sport that's had thirty years of tobacco messaging - it makes eminent sense for you to come in with smoking cessation products and anti-tobacco messaging'.
"And they got it immediately - they just saw it and said 'yeah'. And it still took from there until April to conclude the deal, and that was because of budgets and convincing people that this was a good thing, there were regulatory problems to overcome, etc. That was fairly straightforward and remarkably quick - from August to April - bloody quick."
Because of the massive amounts of money involved in sponsoring a top running team, there will always be some problems internally for the companies to actually find the budget, and it is something that a team has to be aware of. Often a company will have a number of existing sponsorship programmes in other areas which will need to be looked at again, or even replaced by the Formula One programme. "It's a question of priority, and if a company commits to a programme like this then it's a high priority programme, largely because of the scale - it's clearly a worldwide programme, it's clearly a high expenditure programme - so I think that it's a case of either doing that or other things.
"In order to make a decision 'yes, let's go to a Formula One programme', other things probably have to be sacrificed. What Formula One does, is deliver a global programme, but it also delivers local programmes too, because each of the geographical areas have their slice of Formula One, either through having an event or through having a driver come to their region. There are so many things you can do, so the great selling point of Formula One is that it's a very flexible marketing platform, which clearly is very appealing."
The key to helping a company find the budget to put together a sponsorship programme is these geographical areas - almost no multinational company has a centralised sponsorship budget, and as such it means negotiating with the various regions to pull a budget together. "That's right, and it takes a lot of coordinating. Sometimes you'll find that companies actually don't have a central marketing or a central budgetary control, and that's bloody difficult because then you're in a position whereby you've convinced them of a strategy, and let's say they're in the European / Middle East / Africa region - which is quite a common geographic area for many companies, and then they say 'yeah, we want to do this but we couldn't justify the costs on our own'.
"You've then got to get the Asia / Pacific guys involved, and we'll have to get the South American guys involved, and the North American guys involved. First off you start to wince then, because with the North American guys it's doubtful that they'll get Formula One - Formula One just isn't on the radar in North America. So you think, 'well, we're going to struggle to get anything out of them'. Asia Pac - yes, they have a lot of races there, but you're dealing with enormous time differences and you have to go through the whole convincing process again.
So that's yet another hurdle you've got to overcome - sometimes you can get a concept in, and one division saying 'yeah, we want to do this' but the other divisions saying 'no', and they could be more interested in golf or athletics or whatever, and you just don't know."
Marketing vs Aerodynamics
In a fight between the marketers and the aerodynamicists, the money wins every time - maybe not immediately, but long term the money men will have their way eventually. Aerodynamic changes can affect the look or visibility of a sponsor's logo, which can cost a team money - this cannot happen for a sustained period in today's Formula One. Here's how sponsorship can change the look of a car: "Obviously tradition plays a part, because you've got research from previous years, but regulations change and the aero guys will stick a fence here or a little winglet there and that will render what was previously a pretty good position pretty poor.
"But you have research that tells you certain areas work, and what we've been working very hard at behind the scenes is to change some of the technical regulations so that our sponsorship works. If you look at the moment at the rear wing; at most of the circuits teams run a forward mounted guide vane in front of the main elements of the wing, and that has completely stuffed the visibility of the rear wing in the last four or five years. Because, since some bright spark came up with that, you've got a completely flat plane here right in front of the vertical planes, and obviously the vertical planes are the ones where you see the sponsorship recognition, and a flat plane blocking that.
"And okay, you put repeater stickers on there, but getting that all to marry up is very difficult, and you noticed it last year when we switched from Compaq to HP it just looked awful on the rear wing, because they've got a circle and a lozenge shape and if you put it on a vertical surface[it looks] fine, but when you've got a horizontal surface in front of it, then trying to get it to match up from all angles is a disaster. That's one of the reasons why they've changed to 'invent' on the rear wing this year.
"And for next year, through our work, we've managed to get them banned. So the rear wings will now just have the vertical elements and it'll be similar to how we race in Canada, the kind of circuit where the downforce you need you don't want to have a turning vane in front of it. And we're delighted with that - absolutely delighted. We've got bigger engine covers next year, and bigger rear wing end plates, and that's something which Williams, and McLaren in particular, have forced through.
"Because, clearly, you've got sponsors saying 'look, that rear wing you sold us is not doing a lot for us - at certain circuits it's great, we love it, but other circuits it's just not working for us - and next time around I don't think we're interested in buying that position'. So you say 'hold on a minute, we've got to do something about this'. So Ekram will go to Ron (Dennis), I'll go to Frank and say 'we've got to do something about this bloody rear wing. And it's the same for everyone, so let's get rid of the things'. So what, we lose two percent, three percent downforce, but if everyone loses that…"
Which means the aerodynamicists hate it whenever Wright comes walking down to their end of the office. "Yeah, of course they do! This big engine cover that everyone's got to have for next year was a horror for them, because for the last few years they've been making these engine covers smaller and smaller and smaller, chipping away at it and making the whole car tiny, and obviously getting aerodynamic advantages that way. Then we've come along and said 'no, we need a big engine cover, massive', and they don't like it, but at the end of the day they know that there's no racing without the money coming in, so they understand. And it's the same for everyone."
The term clutter was developed to describe the effect of something being overbranded, where too many sponsor logos are added and as a result they bleed into each other, causing a melange of unrecognisable colours. Look at the side of most Nascar vehicles for an example of this. Clutter is the enemy of a team's marketing department, and WilliamsF1 have been at the forefront of amending traditional on-car signage to minimise the effect. "If you look at research of the visibility of cars with a lot of clutter, then the brand recognition of individual sponsors is pretty poor because of the clutter.
"The way we've structured our deal with BMW is to identify a certain number of positions that can be sold, and you might look at the car and say 'why haven't they put a sponsorship sticker there?' and that's because that area of the car is deemed fallow - it's not for sale. BMW are paying us a lot of money to have the blue and white colour code, to call it the BMW Williams Formula One team, and to have a restricted number of spaces for sponsorship. And that's a right we sold them, and in return they are giving us a lot of cash.
"But what that means is there are fewer brands that can be associated with the team, and the way the livery is designed there is a framework around each sponsorship and there is an exclusion zone around each sponsorship so you don't get this clutter, you don't get sponsors bleeding into each other and this confusion. So it's part common sense, and part because of the deal we have arrived at with BMW. It is difficult, and we have lost deals because of it. We've also had to accept that some sponsors will pay less because they can't have their corporate colours - FedEx is a prime example.
"But that said, I think people do accept that the blue and white and the BMW styling has produced a modern day icon - I wouldn't claim it's in the league of the black and gold JPS [Lotus], but I think it's certainly envied, and it's a very distinctive styling which has been admired. And I think the benefit - and this is something we talked about earlier - is having a limited number of brands within the team, and having those brands in a clear space with an exclusion zone around it to create clear visibility, and what they lose on colouring they perhaps gain on placement and clarity and recognition. So it's a balance. It's tough, but I repeat that BMW have paid for that right, so we gain there, we lose there."
Is colour coding the future of sponsorship in Formula One? Probably; many of the teams are already looking towards a similar move for their on-car signage, if they haven't already. "Well I think they have. McLaren - it hurts me to say it! - probably were the forerunners of this, and they have done a fantastic job and I'm full of admiration for Ekram Sami (Head of Marketing for McLaren) and the work he does. Ferrari have a different approach, but I think they've realized having hundreds of stickers on the car without clear, defined areas doesn't work, so they've had to clean it up over the last few years, but it probably still looks a little bit messy in comparison with our car or McLaren.
"I think that the other teams will follow, but it's difficult because if you go off in a particular direction and say 'that's what we're going to do' and then someone comes along waving a cheque at you and says 'I'll go with you but only if you break that rule', if you're struggling for money then you have to take the cash. And we have to take the cash - we have to find the money.
"The difference with us is we're operating from a higher platform, and we go into battle - or negotiations with sponsors - saying this is a prerequisite. Budweiser is the most recent example, and one associates Budweiser with red, but actually if you look at the bottle or can Budweiser is actually written in blue, on white - it's just the surround that is red.
"So what we say is 'on the car it's got to be blue and white, and these are reasons why, but in your communications, your advertising, your poster sites or whatever, you can clearly introduce the red colouring as long as the car remains faithfully blue and white'. And most smart marketing people accept that, and realise the value of it, and they may negotiate a better deal by saying 'look, we can't have our full corporate colours here therefore we're going to devalue it and pay x, because that's the value we put on it', but that's a compromise you have to reach."
Deliver the Package
Ron Dennis once commented that there was an unofficial rate card to sponsorship in Formula One, whereby it was a simple process to work out a sponsor's bill by looking at where their branding appeared on the car, adding up the total spots against the rate for them, and pressing the equal button on the calculator. But the array of services now offered to potential sponsors has thrown the rate book out the window. "I think it's more complex than that - we don't just sell a position on the car, we sell a package of rights.
"Take a company like Accenture; they don't need branding because they're not selling their services to a consumer market, but they want a hook to hang their hat on. So the programme we would sell to Accenture is based far more on corporate hospitality, advertising rights to use the name, fame, image and reputation of the team, access to key personnel, and using Accenture's service within our business to highlight their skills, and they then clearly follow that through with public relations and advertising. So branding to them is of little consequence.
"Change to Allianz - Allianz wanted to make their brand internationally known; in Germany it's got 95% recall, everyone knows who Allianz are, but outside of Germany up until a few years ago no one had ever heard of Allianz. So branding is important to Allianz, and the other thing that's important for Allianz is for the message which is all about risk management, hence their focus on safety issues. They're an insurance company - insurance is about risk management. So the package of benefits which we would sell to Allianz would be very, very different to those of Accenture.
"So I don't subscribe to a sidepod's worth this, front wing end plate's worth this, whatever - we prefer to look at it and figure out who we are trying to sell to; what actually would suit them? Do they want small visibility or high visibility? What package of benefits would be needed to go with that?
"Another example of this would be Veltins, who we had for five years, and in terms of corporate hospitality they had virtually nothing, so the resources we had to apply to that side of it were minimal, but what they did want was large branding spaces. So we structured the deal according to that, and as such the rate card has to move.
"In simplistic terms, when it was just tobacco money, they were only interested in exposure - never mind the quality, feel the width - just any TV, camera, press, and get the brand on there as bold as you can do. And they've since tried to create a little bit of lifestyle to create an image for that brand, but it's about exposure. That's very, very simple and easy to do; any mug could do that.
"With non-tobacco companies getting the exposure but getting the message across is very, very complex, and getting the correct messaging across for HP is very different to getting the messaging across for Allianz. And so it means that we have to apply a far greater resource in my opinion for a non-tobacco sponsor than for a tobacco sponsor. I guess that some of the other teams, when they actually do come out of tobacco, will have to understand that."
Wright is very careful to ensure that there are no potential clashes between the various sponsors, and to that end the team will never have more than one sponsor from a business field at any given time. Having ensured that, the potential for the various sponsors to pick up business from each other is enormous, and adds value to the sponsorship deal.
"There's two points here. First, there's the point of exclusivity - and every sponsor that we sign with has a clearly defined business group in which they have exclusivity: Castrol is lubricants, Petrobras it's fuel only. Now, Castrol is owned by BP, so clearly if we allow them to have a wider remit then you'd find BP using the image of our team in their forecourts, which they're not allowed to do because we sold that right to Petrobras. And, equally, Petrobras make lubricants, but they're not allowed to associate their lubricants with our team because that's Castrol. So we ring-fence the sponsor's business group and give them exclusivity in that area.
"The second point is what the other sponsors feel about [a new sponsor] - say, Budweiser - coming in. Well, we would forewarn them that this is likely to happen, we would even make introductions before, and we have what we call a sponsor workshop on a regular basis where all the sponsors sit together and they will discuss different areas for mutual cooperation and collaboration.
"Let's take Budweiser as an example - at the next sponsorship workshop they will be given the opportunity to stand up and say 'right, we've come into Formula One, these are the main geographic areas that we are interested in and this is what we are trying to achieve through the association. We will be doing TV advertising; we will be doing print campaigns'. And what we'll do is say 'how can this work for the other sponsors?'
"Let's take some examples: for BMW it may be very interesting at the trade fairs - like the Frankfurt Motor Show or the Detroit Motor Show - to have a Budweiser bar there and Budweiser provide the beer free of charge; more exposure for Budweiser, and for BMW they've got a partner coming in which is high profile and giving them beer at those motor shows.
"Let's take another example: the recent swap we did with Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Gordon - well, we might do that again, but it might be Dale Earnhart Jr, a Bud driver, and Ralf Schumacher. And it then may become a jointly funded programme with both Budweiser and BMW paying the costs rather than BMW, who incurred all the costs last time.
"Let's give another example: Budweiser may say that South America is actually a key market for them in terms of sales expansion, and we would be very interested in working with Petrobras - who have a lot of retail outlets, and I mean thousands of outlets across Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. So I might put the two of them together and say here's an opportunity for both - from Petrobras' point of view they could get Budweiser in there and make good profit from selling Bud, and from Budweiser's point of view there's an opportunity to increase their distribution in four countries which they earmarked for expansion.
"That may work even further, and at the Brazilian Grand Prix you might get Budweiser and Petrobras contributing to a major forecourt promotion across 7,000 gas stations in Brazil, promoting the BMW Williams F1 team with on-pack promotions on Budweiser exclusively sold through Petrobras retail outlets.
"That hopefully answers your question on that one - that's the kind of things we'd look to do."
Name, Fame, Image and Reputation
Exploitation of rights is the current growth area of sports marketing, and simply put it's a package sold to sponsors which allows them to use the imagery of the team in their marketing campaigns. Recent examples include television commercials for HP, Allianz, Vodafone and Shell, which all included footage of the Williams or Ferrari cars being driven by the current race drivers, as well as the various tobacco companies having pictures of their cars placed in tobacconists.
There is a huge potential in these type of deals, and it is a difficult area to negotiate, as Wright explains: "it's horses for courses - some teams or some sponsors will want to leverage the sponsorship right through to point of sale or even to the point of packaging and labeling on the product; others will want to use the imagery of the team in TV advertising or whatever. I think it depends on who the company is and what their marketing objectives are, and we would sell them a rights package based on what their objectives were.
"And there are other things which we can include - we could include, for example, personal product endorsement from the drivers, and that's something that Castrol uses, for example; they've used it for two years with Ralf, and this year they've just switched to Juan Pablo, and you'll see Juan Pablo actually endorsing Castrol products. That's another avenue, but that's a right we've sold them because we've identified with them and said 'look, you could actually benefit from having our drivers endorse your products at the point of sale', and then you ask which territories are you talking about, because clearly if it's worldwide in all forms of media, all forms of communication, that has a value; if it's in certain countries or certain territories in limited forms of media - say, just in print - then that has a different value. So it's complex."
Which brings us to pricing. The biggest problem with exploitation of rights is that there are few guidelines to compare to in the paddock, which means looking towards other sports for a model: "I think what we've got to do is look at ourselves as a sports brand and compare ourselves with football, golf, tennis, whatever. And you have to look at what David Beckham could charge - Castrol is a good example, because he endorses Castrol in Japan, and you have to say that if David Beckham can command this kind of fee for endorsing this kind of product in this territory then on all territories and in all forms of media, TV, radio, newspapers, whatever, that gives you some kind of guideline.
"And then recently we came across a little bit of information about Luis Figo with Coca Cola in certain territories, and you sort of put all that together and from there you would come up with realistic proposals to put to your sponsors. But it's a matter of recognising that we are a sports brand and realising that our competition is not just the other nine teams in the paddock but that any sponsor can spend its money in golf or tennis or football or the arts or whatever, making that comparison and coming up with something that's plausible."
The most recent sponsor Wright brought onboard with WilliamsF1 is Budweiser, who were introduced to the paddock at the Silverstone Grand Prix. Various reports put the value of the contract at 50 million UK pounds for a five-year deal, which seemed extraordinary for such a small on-car signage. "I think you have to be careful about what you're defining as 50 million," Wright warns.
"That sum was quoted in Marketing Week - they broke the story four weeks in advance of the deal being officially announced, and they clearly have put a figure on it - that figure may be accurate or it may be inaccurate.
"But the point to remember here is, what does that include? Is that just a rights' fee to the team? No. Is it a rights' fee plus exploitation money over a five-year period? Maybe then it would start to make sense. So I think you have to be careful what you are talking about - it's like saying that Rio Ferdinand cost Manchester United 18 million pounds. He costs a lot more than that, because then he's on 70 thousand pounds a week in wages on top of that, so the real cost to Manchester United is far bigger than 18 million.
"So I think you have to be careful with what you're defining as the value of the sponsorship - and most sponsorships, especially of that nature, you would have a big exploitation budget in order to leverage the sponsorship."
The major sponsors of a team are fairly obvious to all - their logos are branded on the car and team member's clothing - but there are far more companies that assist the team in a variety of ways. These deals can be just as difficult to put together as the major sponsors.
"We essentially have three forms of sponsorship - on-car or on-driver sponsorships or something with visible branding; official suppliers that don't have branding on the cars or drivers but have branding within a team context; and then what we would term promotional partners, and they have further restrictions and no branding."
In the case of Williams, some examples of official suppliers include Western Union, Oris watches and Nike; promotional partners include Xilinx. Both provide goods and services to the team, and the remuneration can be either financial or in services. But without branding, it is a difficult thing to establish a price for.
"It's still a sizeable sum of money that we would charge for that, because, remember: the only thing we have to sell is our name, fame, image and reputation. So with a technical sponsor, official supplier or promotional partner we still are selling our name, fame, image and reputation in some shape or form, and there is a value to that. If we diminish that value then we're not being true to ourselves, and we're also undermining all the major sponsors' investment. So we protect that very, very carefully.
"The kind of companies that perhaps want to be involved as an official supplier and have a technical association may be smaller companies, so to them the kind of money we are charging is a lot of money, and at the end of the day they want value for that money. Whether you are the smallest sponsor or the biggest, you still want value for that money - there may be different degrees of value, but it's still value. So we have to work hard on those, and I think we have to put the same kind of resource into finding an official supplier as we do for an on-car sponsor - sometimes it's even more."
To Steal or Not to Steal
The paddock is seemingly awash with technical spies, people who spend their time looking into and assessing new technical innovations on competitor's cars with a view to stealing the idea for their own team. All of the major team principals have complained about this practice at some time, and yet it persists to this day. Given this, it is not much of a stretch to suggest that there are financial versions of these people, whose job is to look into potential deals being done with a view to breaking into it to their own end.
"I'm sure there are - one of the things we learnt some time ago is not to take potential sponsors to races because word gets out very quickly that such and such a team are entertaining company X. They may not go around with branding of that company on their clothes, but you tend to find out; you tend to find out through a hotel room or a plane ticket or something."
Given the vast sums of money needed to run a team competitively, there must be a lot of temptation to try and step into someone else's deal, but Wright insists that it is not necessary: "In the first week of working with Frank he said to me, 'if you're as good as I think you are, you will never take a sponsor from another team', and that quite surprised me, but then it shouldn't do because he's come from the bottom and he had sponsors stolen from him.
"Frank, probably only with Ron Dennis, has a real feel and responsibility for the sport and for Formula One, and you see them on many occasions talking about this, and about the sport as a whole. Frank genuinely doesn't want to see the small teams suffering by us pulling a sponsor from them to our team.
"That said, if a sponsor was looking to move on we would make a play for them, but we would have to prove to Frank they are definitely out of wherever they are, that they're going.
"One such case was FedEx, which had been with Ferrari for three years, and we knew that Vodafone was coming in and we'd heard that FedEx, Telecom Italia, Mobile and Tic Tac were all being squeezed out. So on that occasion we said to Frank 'look, they are out of Ferrari and we want to make a go for them', and he said 'okay, fair enough'. And we went for FedEx and we got them. So that's fair game. But approaching a sponsor that is with another team and under contract, we would not do."
Is this just case of being holier than thou, or is it a case of there being an unwritten rule that all teams won't approach existing sponsors? "I think other teams would, and they do - our sponsors get approached fairly regularly by other teams, and we know about it. But as long as you're doing a good job and looking after that sponsor then there's nothing to fear.
"There are other occasions when a sponsor decides to come into Formula One and then goes shopping within the paddock, and that's normally when an agency is involved and the agency will walk them up and down the pitlane. But it's a pretty undesirable situation, because there will inevitably be other teams who offer them more branding, or a cheaper package for the weekend.
"Quite honestly, if that happens, my approach would be to say 'look, we're the wrong team for you because if you're comparing 50% of a Jordan with 20% of our cars then we haven't sold the value of coming with us properly, or you haven't understood that'. I'm not being derogatory there to Jordan, but clearly teams that haven't had the same success are not getting the same kind of share of voice" - the term used to denote the amount of timed exposure for the car on television during a race - "and if you've got a team that are getting five or six percent share of voice and you've got 50% of that car, is that better than having 10% of a car that is getting 17-18% share of voice?"
But it's not just the sponsors of existing teams that Wright will refrain from pursuing. There are many potential sponsors not in Formula One that are clearly going to be inappropriate for a team, but further to that there are others that will not be accepted by the team's partners and have been laid down as such in contracts.
"Referring to our BMW agreement, there are a number of product categories that we've said we're not going to touch, and that's in our contract - number one is tobacco, because we declared that we didn't want to be with tobacco and BMW doesn't want to be with tobacco; hard liquor - beer is a soft drink in Bavaria so that's fine! - but we would never sign a hard liquor contract.
"The obvious ones - pornography, religion, that kind of stuff - those we obviously won't touch. Then you get into the theoretic marketing associations where you say: is it appropriate for a company of this nature, selling these types of products; does this fit with the kind of image we've created here? What we've created here is a portfolio of sponsors who are industry leaders in their sectors, and if you then went into another business sector and took a company who were right down the bottom end, would that fit? So you might then say no, it doesn't make sense. So that becomes more theoretical then."
But what of legitimate companies who are market leaders but may lead to the other sponsors having philosophical problems with the link? It's a grey area, and as such Wright would err on the side of caution: "Let's say Viagra. We'd probably say that's not right, and that would probably cause offense to some of the other sponsors, so we wouldn't do it.
"And again, I'm going to use Jordan as an example: at the height of the Benson & Hedges sponsorship and when they had tits and bums draped all over the car, I think you'll find that MasterCard said 'we don't like this, this isn't right for us, it isn't fitting the image that we are trying to portray', and MasterCard left. But I guess Eddie has to say it was right for Benson & Hedges, that's what they wanted to do, they were the bigger sponsor - some you win, some you lose."
Keep Them Onboard
Sponsors leave a team for any number of reasons - their initial goals were met (or not) and the contract is finished; the company wants to move into other areas of marketing; or even that the team want to change their sponsorship slate for their own reasons. Ferrari rid themselves of a number of smaller sponsors last year and replaced them in a stroke with Vodafone, but this is not an approach that Wright necessarily agrees with.
"I don't really recall anyone we've booted out; that's not the way we do business. What we try to do is work with companies, and if you sell them a deal for a number of years then we will stand by that deal, and if someone came along offering more money for that position well we'd obviously try to keep them and put them in another position, or defer them for a year or whatever until the contract ran out. But Frank, the way he does business is a deal is a deal, and if it's signed that's what we did and we deliver it. We would never ever renege on a deal - that's something we would never do."
The other side of these comments is that sometimes sponsors need to renegotiate or renege on a contract for reasons not of their choosing, for example if the economy turns and the company's fortune flounder. Most teams have suffered this problem at some time over their existence, but there is an alternative to letting them walk away and leaving a team empty handed.
"If a company had been an on-car sponsor but were struggling or going through hard times and were not really able to stay in that on-car position or whatever, we might offer them the opportunity to downgrade, and one such example is Reuters, who had done three years with us on-car.
"Their business had gone through some lean times, their marketing focus had also changed, and they said 'we'd like to be with you but we can't justify the level of involvement'. So we said 'okay, why don't we look and come back to you with a revised package', and that's what we've done and they're still with us - they've signed for another three years. And that's great, we get to keep a sponsor for six years and that's fantastic.
"We really do pride ourselves on our ability to work with our sponsors, and the reverse of that is Petrobras - they started with us as an official supplier back in 98, and look at them now - they've got major branding within the team, they're a major partner of the team, and that's because we worked with them and brought them up. And clearly we're delivering more value, giving greater resources, greater benefits, but they've scaled up their investment with us as they've seen how it can work for them."
One problem that can arise with sponsors is when they associate themselves more with a driver than the team, as this can bring about a potential conflict of interest between the sponsor and the team. An example of this can be seen with the Jordan team - when they sacked German driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen it is thought that sponsor Deutsche Post were very unhappy, and certainly they did not renew their contract with the team at expiry.
It's a problem that Wright is adamant his team will not face: "we avoid that at all costs, because we have to have the best drivers regardless of creed, colour or religion. We do not discuss this with sponsors when considering drivers for the next year." This is not to say that he will not discuss potential problems with a sponsor, particularly in the face of media discussion.
The media is currently in a frenzy over Juan Pablo Montoya's future, with reports suggesting he could move from Williams to McLaren as early as next year. Wright will no doubt contact the sponsors to keep them up to date with events, so that they present a unified front.
"From the outset we try to make a situation where our sponsors don't have a knee jerk reaction. For example, (German tabloid) Bild published some pictures of Budweiser's logo on the car before the official announcement, and we asked them to leave it to the team to deal with it.
"We inform our sponsors before any announcement so they are informed - it's a matter of trust, and they realise we act in a responsible way. It comes down to a lot of communication, both one on one and in the quarterly sponsor workshops."
Use the Colours
Most of the teams are identifiable by their colours - Ferrari is red, McLaren is silver, Jordan is yellow, and so on. The move to blue and white reflected BMW's racing history (and, to a small measure, WilliamsF1's own), but this move has molded the team into an identifiable package, a brand, which has a flow-on affect on the team's merchandising and branding. It helps make the team itself easier to sell.
"I think it's the future of sports marketing, and in some areas we're well ahead of some of our competitors in this.
"If we compare ourselves to football again, in sponsorship we're miles ahead of football in terms of understanding, but conversely I think some football clubs have been well ahead of us in merchandising and licensing. We're catching up, and we've made mistakes - we first started trying to tackle merchandising and licensing as early as 1997 when we first started a concerted effort on our M&L programme. We made mistakes but we learnt from our mistakes, and I think we probably have the most sophisticated M&L programme now in the Formula One paddock.
"And that helps form a brand - the imagery of the team, the blue and white colour code, the portfolio of sponsors and then the merchandising and licensing, which is carried through to point of sale, carried through to the fans around here and whatever - all that builds up this brand identity. And we've been careful to preserve that, and to encourage it, to the point now where that's identifiable.
"There was a survey recently of the ten biggest sports brands in Europe, and unsurprisingly Ferrari was number one overall, the major football clubs were there - Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus - and we were sixth; we were chuffed with that, really chuffed.
"But there's more to come - we're working with good partners in BMW who are helping us in that area; all of our merchandising range is sold in every BMW dealership in the world, and that accounts for a large part of our merchandising sales. And every year we continue to refine our merchandising and licensing capabilities - this year, 2003, we've ventured into UK high streets and we've had a deal with Halfords and Marks & Spencers, and that's been pretty successful, particularly the Halfords one - it's exceeded our expectations, and more importantly it's exceeded Halfords' expectations.
"We're now in the high street, selling products with the Williams F1 brand on it, and if you'd asked me five years ago if that's possible I'd have laughed. But I think there's credibility in our brand, and because of that there's certain implications whereby putting our name to a product helps it sell, gives it a value. No one's cracked the global high street yet, and again I'll compare us to football - if you go into any shopping centre in the UK, Europe, or South America you will be able to find football strips for sale, replica football strips. And you can't do that with Formula One.
"Will that come? I'm not sure, because football is more tribal than Formula One, and I think a lot of fans come to a race without a particular allegiance to a driver or a team - they come here because they just want to see Formula One, as they do for tennis or golf. I think it has become a little more tribal recently, and that has to do with the brands becoming stronger and the identity with certain drivers - and people like Michael Schumacher staying with a team for ten years and whatever helps build that.
"But I think the major breakthrough will come when the major sports brands - Nike, Adidas, Puma or whatever - come to Formula One and say 'right, we've done football to death and there's little or no room for expansion here - Formula One's the next one'. And if they got hold of it and starting running Formula One then I think you'd see a different story. They won't do that with any tobacco-sponsored teams - there's too many problems with regulations - and I think it's generally harder to do with Formula One. If that came then I think you'd see a major difference; I think you'd see a big leap for Formula One."
A Word From Our Sponsor
Tony Ponturo, Vice President of global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch, was at Silverstone for the launch of the new sponsorship agreement with BMW Williams.
DC: What was Budweiser actually looking for when you decided to sponsor a team in Formula One?
Ponturo: "It started with the fact that we were growing our business internationally. We realized that even though we're a strong American heritage beer, we have to start doing things and act in an international way - you need marketing properties that appeal to an international market. We have the World Cup, but that's only every four years and as big as that is we were only about to take advantage of that in a small timeframe.
"So we've been doing our homework and looked at Formula One for about three years now, and we realised the popularity of the sport, that it crosses many, many countries in interest, and that as we use sport as a platform for our marketing communications to beer consumers it fit. And even though there is a perception that Formula One is kind of high end - you know, there is the paddock club and everything - all you have to do is walk around the track and you'll see a lot of hardcore fans that look more like beer drinkers than champagne drinkers!
"So we felt that this was clearly our consumer base, and sort of the last leg in a sense is that it's every year rather than four years, so it gave our country managers around the world a very attractive marketing tool to communicate Budweiser as we go out each time."
DC: You said it took three years to make the decision to go with Formula One - what was involved in that timeframe?
Ponturo: "Well that's sort of when we started thinking that, okay, we're growing an international business; we may not be there yet from the threshold standpoint in the sense of market share and growth, a sense of more than one or two countries doing well and we wanted a broader breadth of countries. There wasn't anything magical about that timeframe other than that's when we started talking about it.
"We went to a race in Monaco just to understand what the opportunities were, and then out of constant communication someone said maybe it's time. And our country managers were saying 'we could use some more (help)' - if you use the UK for example, we have a very high image, we're an American import with a premium price, and that has created a great business for us, but how do we go to the next level of growth? And now you have to start bringing things to the consumer, hopefully that are relatable, and it just started seeming like the time was right."
DC: Formula One has a very large fan base, but also a reasonably intelligent one - was that something that particularly appealed to you?
Ponturo: "Certainly outside of the US, because I think there's two different plays here - as an imported beer with a premium price you're fitting a certain image and a certain niche, either from an aspirational aspect or certain people fit that personality that the brand projects. In the US we sort of want to be all things to all people, and if you reverse it out the import business in the US is attracting consumers who are or have a sophisticated image, that are high end, and they look at some sports that (others) are not interested in.
"So as passionate as the NASCAR fan is in the US, someone who may be a beer drinker but may not be into NASCAR but has quietly been passionate about Formula One - and I think we're learning, because we don't have all the answers yet, that there's a lot of people out there in the US who are Formula One fans.
"And as we have looked over the years to broaden the personality of Budweiser, to say this brand does have a place in a more sophisticated environment. We're starting to use some non-sports things for this as well, like trying to tie in on entertainment things like sponsoring the Academy Awards and things like that, that this Formula One is kind of the same personality - high end, a little bit above the crowds, sophisticated.
"When you're tying in the sponsorships in many respects you are tied into the personality of that sponsorship, and I think it works for both sides because I think what we have felt from the BMW Williams people is that we bring a personality to the sport because of our heritage and our traditions. I think both sides feel they can benefit from that sponsorship."
DC: What was it that brought you to BMW Williams? It's a fairly open secret that you were in talks with Ferrari, but what made you come across, and how did the deal change?
Ponturo: "We did talk to Ferrari as you say and then obviously BMW Williams, and we felt that all the pieces of the sponsorship and the partnership had to work. Simply put, and probably the biggest motivator other than our respect for Frank Williams and his team - and we were incredibly impressed with his people - but they from the start were very impressed with wanting us to be a part as well, and they really wanted our marketing benefit as well.
"That intrigued us a lot, because there has to be a comparability and a respect for how you're going to market this brand, and also the combination of other sponsors; we are a beer company, how is that all going to work. And we just felt that their vision and their openness to say 'we want you to put point of sale up', 'we want merchandising', 'we want television commercials'. BMW, HP and FedEx - speaking to them - are looking forward to that additional exposure as well. You put that all together - the vision, the partnership, the people - and it all just made sense for us to go with this team, and it's been underlined ever since we signed the deal."
DC: I love the concept of sponsorship workshops that Jim told me about, where you can all brainstorm ideas together, and I guess that must have had a lot of appeal to you. But, I must say I was surprised at the size of the logo on the car - does that reflect that there was far more to the deal than just the exposure on the car that brought you over?
Ponturo: "I think that for the dollar investment we came in with the value on the cars and on the drivers sleeves was fair value relative to the costs of sponsorship in Formula One. The additional value we see is how we can market that association - we've already spoken with Jim about how we can do other cross promotions with the other motor racing programmes.
"They did the exhibition with Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo, and that was sort of a fun thing, and we sit here with Dale Earnhart Jr and Brandon Bernstein within HRA, and I guess Juan Pablo wouldn't mind going down a dragstrip at 300 miles an hour either, so how do you sit down and have some fun with that? And of course with HP and FedEx there are ways to think creatively about how to use it. So, as you said, that's some of the stuff that intrigued us - we liked the fact that there's some fellow partners.
It's a bit of a disconnect from what people have known us for - it's a red car and you own the whole imagery - but I think in the perspective of what we were willing to invest today in Formula One that's the proper value of what you are going to get from what we invested, and then how we all work together to market this is the key. In our minds this is a 25 year play - when you get into Formula One you're not looking to get out even after the five year deal ends. So I think this is a very, very good step and where it goes no one really knows, but maybe in years six to ten the look or appearance on the car will be what people are more familiar with (laughs)."
DC: Does this represent a dip of your toe in the pool, to see what it's like, and then go from there?
Ponturo: "Yeah, I think one of the attractions for us is that you build up a partnership that you're going to build on, and in five years our business will be different and hopefully it grows and you'll see this as a bigger piece. So how you expand will be open to conversation, but from our standpoint we're not getting ahead of ourselves - this is something that will only grow, not diminish."
DC: One thing that intrigues me is the fact that all sponsorship on the Williams car must fit in with their blue and white colour scheme. Obviously, Budweiser is a red brand, albeit with blue writing. So how did that fit in with your ideas?
Ponturo: "Well, there was some apprehension, and we brought the conversation to them that 'wouldn't a red Budweiser look very nice on the car?'. Obviously well before we came into the picture the feeling was that blue and white was the theme, and to their credit it simply was a non-starter for them, so I think as a company we need to say 'okay, do all the other attributes outweigh the fact that Budweiser won't be red on the car?'
"What they were very open to was work red into anything you want as long as the car is blue and white, and that's were we'll bring in the red from a sense of point of sale, outdoor and magazines that we do, and I know that we want to work very hard to do a television commercial too - we've done something very quick for this weekend, that basically pieces together some footage and introduces Budweiser as a new sponsor, but that's something we're going to take great time with when we develop this.
"Because, you know, we want to respect the tradition of Formula One, the position of Formula One and the fans, who have probably been far more involved and interested before we are. And there are going to be people looking to see how we use this property and so we're going to want to put our best foot forward from the initial stages."
DC: I'll be interested to see how it works, as yours is the most notably different of the sponsors logos, but for what it's worth I think the blue and white clears up a lot of the clutter
Ponturo: "It seems that it's sort of an all for one thing, in other words lets make the whole thing work together, and obviously they've thought this out. So even though there's no doubt that BMW and HP and probably even FedEx have invested more in this team, we walked into this feeling that there was a 'how do you get your value out of this as equals' and that again was one of the uniqueness of this team - we weren't having to feel like we were earning our stripes the first day, it's more like you're one of the team now, and let's all work together to make this happen."
DC: As the newcomers to Formula One, how does this place strike you operationally? It's clearly different to anything you're used to back home
Ponturo: " I think you respect an organization that's been very successful and has a lot of heritage, and the last thing you want to do is come in and sort of be the know-it-all, because in this sport we're not, and coming back to respecting BMW Williams colour scheme you don't sit there and be a bully - first of all it's not going to work, and secondly you just accept it and move on.
"I think we feel very strongly, and I think it's worked for us, that it has to be a partnership and about building friendships, and that it's ultimately sell the beer - the product is not an expensive product, and it's something that people can change their mind about not only every day but every hour if they want to, and so you've got to project an open and honest image.
"We continually learn that the consumer is a pretty smart person and he'll catch on pretty quickly, particularly as the new generation comes through and they've been bombarded with advertising and marketing and everything going on and they weed through pretty quickly the imposters, and I think if you speak to the major sports in the United States - whether it's the NBA or football or baseball - they'll say for what these people spend they're maybe our most cooperative sponsor. I think we're smart, and I think we know how to get the right value out of it, but I don't think we're a prima donna."
Last year's Monaco Grand Prix was the first time journalist Mike Doodson did not attend the famous race at the principality since 1967, and the first Grand Prix he didn't attend in two decades. Falling ill, he watched the race at home in England, on the Sky digital coverage, and once the race was over he drove to his office and submitted a race report, as he always does. "But I finished it a couple of hours before I'd have finished it if I was at the Grand Prix, and I got an early night's sleep!" he exclaims, which perhaps suggests that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone had a point when he told the journalists, some 8 years ago, that they'd be better off staying at home and watching the Grands Prix on his television feed. "He said: 'You'd get more information from me than you do from the bloody teams'," Doodson recalls, laughing.
But Doodson himself is living proof that history is not written by those who stay at home and watch the TV. With 500 races under his belt as a Formula One journalist, Doodson is among half a dozen other journalists who have been covering the sport for over three decades. Along with a few dozen others who have already notched up several hundred Grands Prix Doodson is, by and large, responsible for how the fans perceive Formula One, the races, the teams, the drivers. He is the historian and the messenger. And, above all, he is - still, one should add - among the sport's greatest fans.
Doodson's career spans across countries and publications: he began writing for Britain's Motoring News in the late 1960s; he worked with Autosport in the seventies; edited Motor Magazine until the early eighties; was part of the BBC F1 coverage team during the Murray Walker and James Hunt days; and in between was even the first uniformed team press officer, when he worked for the Lotus team during the 1972-1973 seasons. Nowadays, his articles can be found in newspapers and magazines in India as well as Colombia, but he is perhaps most recognised in Australia, where he writes for Auto Action, as well, of course, at his home land, England.
Fashionably for Formula One, where half the headlines are about the off-track controversies rather than the on-track racing, Doodson's first race out of 500 remains open for debate. He was sent to the 1969 French Grand Prix to cover the race for Motoring News in place of Dennis Jenkinson. But he never got to publish his report from that race, and the first Doodson-signed race report came in fact only at the beginning of the 1970 season.
"Jenks wasn't supposed to be at the 1969 French Grand Prix," Doodson explains, "but he submitted a report which had been compiled, one suspected, from the newspapers in England. He always said he was there, but we found his name in the results of a vintage motorcycle sprint, so I think it's safe to assume he wasn't at the 1969 French Grand Prix.
"But we decided that does count [as first of 500], because that race was actually a low point in Formula One: there were only 13 cars in the race, and so you could safely say that from the moment I appeared in Formula One the whole thing took off until it reached the present pitch! Mind you, I am not saying I'm responsible for Formula One's success - I suspect a small Englishman with grey hair and more money than I have could probably take credit for that."
Doodson is a funny guy. Sitting with him for over an hour in the media centre's coffee room at the A1-Ring could easily be the highlight of a young journalist's weekend. He has many anecdotes to offer, all in a typical old-school British sense of humour that is often poignant and dry. It's no surprise, then, to find out he was in fact educated to become an accountant - rather than a Formula One journalist.
"Yes, I did actually qualify as a chartered accountant," he says, "but I've been interested in racing since my father took me to Aintree, which was near our house, in the mid-1950s. I just fell in love with the sport straight away - I saw racing cars and thought, God, that's better than cricket or football!"
Q: You know, a lot of the drivers said the same thing - they caught the bug when they were children, going to the circuits with their father. So why did you turn to writing instead of driving?
Doodson: "Well I did turn myself to driving, actually. I bought myself a little U2 car - like a Lotus 7, front-engined, with a lot of standard production parts on it. I built that with a friend in my spare time - it was a second-hand car, and I knew the bloke who'd driven it, in fact I've seen him drive it several times and fallen in love with the car. But I really shouldn't have bought it because I couldn't afford it and I bankrupted myself virtually building that car.
"And then I took it out to Aintree, on a Tuesday evening. As I was braking for this corner on the club circuit, the entire Chevron works team went past me - among them Tim Schenken, driving a Formula 3 car, and Peter Gethin, driving an F2 car. They were both just cruising around, but the moment I hit the brakes, they passed me and just braked about 50 metres in front of me. I realised there and then I wasn't cut out to be a racing driver. And anyway, since the bank manager was about to foreclose on me I thought the best thing to do was sell the car."
Doodson had a spell as a marshall during his accountancy studying days, and became a full-time motorsport writer when his friend and Motoring News journalist Andrew Murray offered him his seat as the F2 correspondent. "That's the job he offered me," Doodson recalls, "and it didn't take much more than a nano-second to make that decision!"
Those Were the Days
In Austria, Toyota marked Doodson's 500th Grand Prix with a formal reception, and Doodson looked awkward with the shoe on the other foot. "I've never been interviewed before this weekend," he says, feeling slight discomfort at having to answer questions rather than ask them. "And besides, the whole idea of [celebrating] 500 Grands Prix raises a few insults, because people say '500 Grands Prix?!? You must have been covering races in the sixties!' And I'd say, 'yes, I was'. And they'll respond 'I had no idea you were that old!'"
Well, the 61-year old Briton is not that old, but in a sport that relies on memory and continuity his 32 years of experience and his natural ability to articulate stories with sheer fascination, make him a prime story-teller, far more interesting, sad to say, than any of the current drivers around.
"Well no other driver could match it, because no other driver's been around for 500 Grands Prix," he says. "But, you can find people here that are far more interesting than me. If you could get Patrick Head to sit down for that period of time, you'd get a lot more interesting stuff from him. And let me say that if you told Patrick Head, 'please can we talk for 10 minutes?' and you get him headed in the right direction, he'll end up sitting and talking to you for 45 minutes. Of course, if he thinks you're asking clever questions which are going to be used against him or his team, then he will give you the 10 minutes he promised and walk away. But if you show an interest in him and ask some intelligent questions, he can't stop himself."
Frankly, neither can Doodson - and those who listen to him are richer for that.
Q: OK, let's go back in time. How was the paddock back when you started covering Formula One? We always hear of how different the paddock is today
Doodson: "Well, if you look at the actual paddock of the French Grand Prix in 1969, the circuit was public roads and somebody said 'hey, that would be a good place to run a race, has anybody got a flag?' - and it was almost literally that. There was a small grandstand which probably had room for 300-400 spectators. The others just wandered in from the countryside, they just stood there on the side of the road, often a few feet away from the competing cars. It's just unimaginable by today's standards. It seemed entirely natural at the time.
"The paddock was on a slope, and it was volcanic earth which was so sharp that when they brought the cars up from the paddock to the pits, they had to fit them with rain tyres or otherwise they'd have punctured all their tyres. The pits consisted of a few concrete sheds - you could get three people in from each team if it rained, and many of the pits didn't even have roofs, because they probably fallen in. It really was ramshackle, that's the only way to describe it.
"Then, the first time I went to the Canadian Grand Prix, in 1971, the press room consisted of a log cabin without any doors, a beaten earth floor, and the communications consisted of three pay-phones on the wall and a Telex machine that was permanently occupied. But of course, at the same time, I would say there was a good turnout if there were 50 journalists and photographers in any one Grand Prix - quite often it was fewer than that."
Q: So do you now, 30 years later, get nostalgic?
Doodson: "No, I never get nostalgic. You get nostalgic for things that you could have done better in the old days. You make mistakes and some of them you remember - but I have a very selective memory; I tend to remember all the good things and forget all the bad things. OK, yes, you get nostalgic for some things - I get nostalgic for this place, the old Osterreichring. I like this place, I like the idea of a circuit in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cows. And it's just like it was when I came here for the first time in 1970. And we won't have it again, it's gone."
Q: Still, there's always this romanticising of 'the good old days' - and the inevitable suggestions that nowadays it's more commercialised, less of a sport
Doodson: "Well, you have to weigh one thing off against the other. In the old days, when I started, there were so few journalists that you could be friends with all the drivers. You certainly knew them. And there was a year where I think I knew the name of every single mechanic in the pitlane. But at the same time that you were friendly with the drivers, you were also always worried because there was a good chance they wouldn't be there after the race; they would be dead. These days you're not close to the drivers, because they're protected by all these ghastly PR teams, and they're all more likely to be there after the race than you are!"
The fact that this interview is being published on an Internet website - 'the new media' - is a sign of the times for Doodson. He was in Formula One when fingers pounding on type-writers was the dominant sound in the press room; he's seen the first fax machine introduced in Japan (and preferred to travel to Tokyo to use a Telex machine, because he didn't trust that new invention called 'telefax'); and he's been there when laptops were first brought into the media centre, where nowadays hundreds of journalists from around the world occupy private phone lines, ADSL cables and cellphones aplenty. But the gist of the profession remains the same for him. Perhaps because 'profession' in itself is not what it's about.
"I think if you look at the different language groups you'll find that the British journalists are different from most of the others, insofar as the majority of the British journalists - I set aside the 'fleet-street' guys - are like me: they are enthusiasts," he explains. "They are people who went to motor races as kids, fell in love with it and never wanted to let go of it. Whereas a lot of the foreign people, the continentals, tend to be people who trained as journalists - and very few Brits have trained as journalists, I can't think of any actually - and who therefore can turn their hand to any kind of sports reporting.
"I've got a friend in Brazil who thinks nothing of covering a swimming match or an athletics meet - and then he shows up at the Grand Prix, and does an equally good job at them all. But I don't think he has the same affection for motor racing as I do."
Doodson is particularly loyal to the heritage of motor racing coverage of his homeland, which he sees as the true historians of the sport. "All the best books about the history of Mercedes or Ferrari or Maserati or Lotus or Brabham have been written by Brits," he exclaims. "One or two great books were written in foreign language, but most of the history of motor racing is safe in the hands of the Anglo Saxons."
Q: Yet Ron Dennis once famously told the press, 'we make the news, you only report it'...
Doodson: "Yes, and it was pointed out to Ron on that occasion that when McLaren is just a name in the official receivers' ledger, who will be writing the history of the team? We will. The British press. We get the last word; we always get the last word.
"Having said that, it's not a fixed rule because I can think of several journalists in each of the other languages who are just like me - they do it because they love it. And the other thing, of course, that's come in lately is the Internet. There's a new type of journalist working on the Internet; and they all seem to be living in Tel Aviv or Patagonia, and they're all bigger motor racing experts than I am!"
Q: You don't seem to be very impressed with the Internet...
Doodson: "Well, the Internet gets the information around very fast. But what I regret to see is that a lot of it is drawn directly from the teams' own press releases, which of course reflects only what the teams want you to know. The trouble is that the drivers spend so much time in briefings and being protected by their PR people, that you often don't get a chance to find out what's really happening.
"I had an experience this year when my magazine wanted me to do a story with Mark Webber. I rang up his publicist and made an appointment - we made an appointment in a pub, on a Saturday at lunchtime. And the day before I went, I got an e-mail from the Jaguar press officer saying 'would you please be so kind as to give me a list of the questions you're going to be asking Mark Webber.' So I wrote back to her saying: 'one, in the 32 years I've been doing this job I've never yet submitted a list of questions to anybody and I hope you forgive me if I don't start now; and secondly, even if I agreed to supply the list I wouldn't be able to because we're going to have lunch in a pub and I shall ask the questions as they come up!' And that was the last I heard from her.
"The end result: we had a very nice, old-fashioned pub-lunch with an old-fashioned mate-to-mate type conversation. He was happy - I paid the bill - I was happy, my editor was happy. I think even the Jaguar PR person was happy. Why couldn't it all be like that?"
Q: Another aspect of this, I suspect, is the fact that senior people in Formula One seem to have absolutely no qualms about lying time and again, and there's no accountability for it. You can ask Eddie Jordan if he's going to replace Sato and he'll deny it, and sure enough a couple of months later Sato leaves Jordan. Or ask Niki Lauda if Pedro de la Rosa remains in the team and he'll say yes, only to fire him a month later...
Doodson: "Well, you acquire experience over the years as to who are the people you can believe and who you can't. And I'm not going to identify anybody, but you have named one or two people whom we know are congenital liars. I'll give you another example of a congenital liar - somebody who lied throughout his relationship with me - and that was Ken Tyrrell.
"In 1970, a week before the Gold Cup, I heard that Ken Tyrrell would be running his own built car. So I rang him up and asked him. And he gave me a flat denial, and we published it on the front page of Motoring News, and the day after it was published, at the paddock in Oulton Park, was a brand new Tyrrell-Ford. So we knew going in that Ken Tyrrell, when it came to important things like that, would tell a lie. So you mark his card in your brain. And I got on extremely well with Ken Tyrrell and we had some wonderful interviews, and I believed what he told me. It was just on important things like that, when it was in his interests to keep something secret, he had no qualms at all about telling a lie.
"Ron Dennis once said to a colleague of mine, who accused Ron of lying, 'well of course I was going to lie, a billion dollars was involved.' This business of sassing out lies and whether you should trust people or not is entirely down to what previous experience you've had with these people, and I'm afraid you're only going to acquire that the hard way."
Mon Ami Piquet
Like many of his other veteran British colleagues, Doodson published a few Formula One related books, most notably was his very personal book on Nelson Piquet - a driver he readily admits remains his all-time favourite, "because he actually had a life outside motor racing," he explains.
"You can study Senna or Schumacher, and their obsession makes them rather uninteresting as human beings," he says. "And I like human beings. And for that reason I like Nelson. There was much more to him than he let on - he didn't hide it, just that a lot of people didn't bother to find out what he was like. No other British journalist ever bothered to sit down with him and get to know him."
Q: Is that because the Brits hated him because of the Nigel Mansell rivalry?
Doodson: "Well, there was an obsession with him, because they saw him as being the evil lad who upset our darling Nigel. And at that time most of the British press still hadn't seen through Nigel Mansell - who may have had his quality as a racing driver, but had his shortcomings as a human being.
"Nelson, though, was one of the cleverest drivers that I ever met. He used to win races by doing all the work before the race ever started. He got his car properly set up; he had the engineers on his side and that's where he put his human qualities to work. Most of the engineers who worked for him absolutely loved him."
Q: If Piquet was your favourite driver, what was your favourite team?
Doodson: "The same thing, really - for me the best team that there ever was, was the Brabham-BMW team of 1983, when BMW came back to win the World Championship from almighty Renault.
"At the beginning of the year I made a bet with Eric Bhat, the Renault PR man, that Nelson would win the Championship that year, while he said Prost would win it, and the wager was 50 dollars. We got towards the end the year and while at dinner, with Alain 14 points ahead in the Championship and clearly about to win it, Eric was taunting me - so I said 'alright then, if you're so sure let's increase the bet'. He said, 'ten times?' And I said 'OK, 500 dollars'.
"So I had 500 dollars riding on the final race of the season, and I won it. I was getting married about four days later and I didn't have 500 dollars, I can tell you..."
Q: How about your favourite driver among the current crop?
Doodson: "I like Montoya. I like his attitude. There are others I like too, but I don't know drivers as well as I used to. I met Cristiano da Matta properly for the first time at this race, and he seems like a nice kid. But I'll go for Montoya."
Q: Most memorable race?
Doodson: "Well, the Brazilian Grand Prix this year takes a bit of beating, doesn't it?
"But there was an Australian Grand Prix in 1991 which lasted for 14 laps, and that was pretty hectic too for the same reason, you know - rain. But if you set the climatic conditions aside I would have to say the South African Grand Prix of 1983 and me winning 500 dollars."
Q: How about your least favourite race, the race to forget?
Doodson laughs. "I've forgotten them!"
Q: Who isn't around anymore, that you miss?
Doodson ponders the question for a moment, then requests to think about the question a bit longer. A few moments later, though, he says: "I miss [F1 designer] Harvey Postlethwaite (who died in 1999). He was not only a very good engineer, but he was also a top rate human being. Terrific sense of humour, terrific sense of tolerance. He loved cars and he was like me: he loved all the old-fashioned things that the Flavio Briatores and one or two of the others in this world couldn't care a stuff about.
"He felt passionately about motor racing. And you know, I invited him to one of my birthday parties and he showed up, with his wife! That was the sort of person that he was... if I invited Ross Brawn to my birthday party, I don't think he'd show up actually. So yes, I miss Harvey."
My Beating Heart
Being a Formula One journalist isn't always as fun as it seems - the frequent travel makes one's social life somewhat unstable, and many journalists and team workers have dropped out of the circus through the years. It makes Doodson's perseverance all the more astonishing, but he readily admits that F1 is, to a large extent, his own social circle.
"For motor racing journalists, a lot of the social life is at the races," he explains. "Nearly all of us travel with a group of friends and stay at the same places. It's very predictable."
Q: How do you maintain a family life like that, though?
Doodson: "My first wife actually worked with me in F1 for three years, so we had a good time traveling together, and thoroughly enjoyed our time together. But yes, of course it does place pressure, especially if you have kids. My first daughter was born one month before the 1987 season started, which seemed like a fair deal. But the second one was born 10 days before the Japanese GP of 1988 and I went off three days after she was born and phoned home as soon as I arrived in Tokyo to discover she'd got Jaundice. So I felt a bit helpless not being there to look after her...
"Still, it always surprises me how priorities change over the years. For example, Autosport's Mark Hughes took paternity leave when his children were born. So in other words, it's getting to be a job rather than a passion. Mark would probably deny that and say it's a passion for him too - and he does write passionately about the sport - but people have got different priorities now than they did when I was becoming a father."
Q: Nevertheless, with you doing this for so long, it does beg the question what is it that keeps you coming back? What keeps you interested in it?
Doodson: "What else am I going to do?? They changed all the accountancy laws in England twice since I qualified, and I wasn't a very good accountant anyway. Well, it's a good question - what keeps me coming back - and I've been asking myself the same thing recently.
"But I think the thing which I liked then and I still like now, is the companionship. Motor racing attracts exceptional people at all levels - whether it's the drivers at the top, or the engineers who look after them, or the managers who look after the teams, or, dare I say it, even the people in this press room. The people are exceptionally talented and it's great to mix with them."
Q: How much longer do you expect to do this, then?
Doodson: "You know, when I started this business I told my dad I'd probably be a GP reporter for a couple of years, and I've made a point and said, 'the moment the race starts and my heart's not beating fast, I've got to stop'."
Q: And that has yet to happen...
Doodson: "Actually, it did happen once! It happened at the 1979 French Grand Prix at Dijon, which is a circuit with very poor facilities.
"There was a room where we could work, but there were no TV sets and there were no windows, you couldn't see anything in the press room. There was also no place for us to stand around the track, except for an open space on the outside of the first corner, and you could stand there, and you could see the cars come up the hill along the straight and go into the pits, so you could keep a lap-chart pretty accurately. And all through Friday and Saturday and Sunday morning, nearly all of the journalists stood out there, at the outside of this corner.
"We went there on Sunday afternoon for the start of the race, and 10 minutes before the race started, the bleeding French police arrived and told us we were not allowed to stand there. So when the race started there was a huge fight between the journalists and the gendarmes about where we were going to watch the race! And once the race had started, the French - with typical decidedness - just melted into the background, and I realised the race had started and my heart didn't get going and I thought, 'oh dear, I'm probably going to have to be true to my principles and give up motor racing!'
"But that was actually the race in which Arnoux and Villeneuve were banging wheels for second place for the last three or four laps - and that made up for missing the start, because I can tell you my heart was going pretty strongly by the time!"
Q: Does your heart still go like that, pound at every start?
Doodson: "Yes, yes, still. There's nothing more exciting on earth than 20 cars with 800 horsepower and the 20 best drivers in the world all ready to do battle, down to the first corner. I'll never get tired of that."
Sidebar: The British Press Vs. Michael Schumacher
With Mike Doodson taking such pride and patriotism in the British Press, it was the perfect opportunity to find out, once and for all, why the British press hates World Champion Michael Schumacher so much.
"Why do you think it's the British press?" Doodson snaps, when asked.
Q: Well, I don't think I'm alone in getting that impression. In fact, I think Schumacher himself once stated as such
Doodson sighs. "All right then," he says in a stern voice, "I'll answer your question.
"I said that the history of motor racing is safe in the hands of the Anglo Saxons, and I think I'm right there. I think there is more history of motor racing written in English than in any other language. And let's face it, because we're not professional journalists, we're fans, the Brits tend to be the most senior people in Formula One. Therefore, we've seen more great drivers than most of the other nationalities. Therefore, when we evaluate the drivers we are perhaps in a better position to isolate or identify their flaws. And I think it's safe to say the British press are agreed that Schumacher is a seriously flawed driver.
"He seems to make a lot of mistakes, too. How many times did he spin here [at the A1-Ring] on Friday? And he was nearly off the road yesterday, in Saturday's qualifying. That raises question marks about him. And there are other question marks about him and his team, which I am not going to go into now, but as time passes, things emerge. Not everything emerged about what happened in 1994, but we all have a pretty good idea.
"But if there's one thing that's wrong with Michael Schumacher is that he has no sense of motor racing history. Senna, for example, had a fantastic sense of history. And when Juan Manuel Fangio showed up at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991, that gave Senna even more incentive to win the race. He wanted to win the race in front of the man he admired more than anybody else, and he did - it was a very emotional win! Somehow I don't see that happening with Schumacher."