Formula One - On And Off Track Week 46

Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent

Story Highlights

  • Abu Dhabi - Testing parts or drivers?
  • Ecclestone testifies in Gribkowsky case

Abu Dhabi - Testing parts or drivers?

The traditional end-of-the-season Young Driver Test days started yesterday at the Abu Dhabi Yas Marina circuit and will continue until Thursday, giving young promising drivers a chance to show what they can do with a Formula One car. Well, at least that was the idea behind the concept when it was introduced, but it now seems testing those drivers is nothing more than a good excuse for teams to test parts for the 2012 season, instead of giving the youngsters, and many have paid over 200,000 Euro for a few hours in the cockpit of their dreams, a chance to get used to a 2011 specification Formula One car.

Robert Wickens, Team Lotus Renault
Robert Wickens, Team Lotus Renault

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Williams can be proud of being the first team to test a 2012-spec exhaust system, which was tested by Valtteri Bottas, a 22-year old driver from Finland who won the 2011 GP3 Series for the Art Grand Prix team. He was in fact already Williams’ official test driver in 2010 and 2011, so he is not really new in Formula One. Williams has plans to test other parts and especially aerodynamic parts, which was confirmed by Mark Gillan, Williams’ Chief Operations Engineer.

Nevertheless Bottas totally enjoyed his day out in the Williams FW33-03, as he had previously only conducted straight line tests, which is allowed under the current FIA regulations. “I really enjoyed my first time driving the car on a proper track today. It didn't take too long to get used to the car but there were still a few new things for me. There is much more downforce and power than the cars I am used to driving, but I really liked it and I think the day went well,” Bottas said.

Ferrari has been confronted with the so called ‘fluttering’ of their new front wing design, which attracted the attention during the last two races, very embarrassing for the Maranello-based team, and they are therefore determined to find a solution before the Brazilian Grand Prix, and decided to continue the development of this wing during the test days in Abu Dhabi.

Lucky driver for Ferrari was of course Frenchman Jules Bianchi, who already joined the team in 2009 and has become Ferrari’s official protégé when he entered the Ferrari Driver Academy, and he is also Ferrari’s official test and reserve driver. He already drove the scarlet red car during the Young Driver test days at Jerez in 2009, in Abu Dhabi in 2010 and this year the 22-year old driver is again present at Abu Dhabi. He will be in the car all three days, and completing an extensive testing program is Ferrari’s main objective. Bianchi commented, “I would say it was a good day, especially this morning when we worked mainly on aerodynamics," he said. "From a driving point of view it was not particularly fun to do, however it was very important for the team and is part of the job of being a test driver.”

Jules Bianchi, Test Driver, Scuderia Ferrari
Jules Bianchi, Test Driver, Scuderia Ferrari

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Also Lotus Renault uses the opportunity to test new parts with driver Robert Wickens, who earned his drive in Abu Dhabi after winning the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 Series. Lotus Renault described Wickens’ test as ‘additional track time for test and development work’, the 22-year old Canadian reported yesterday, “It was a constructive day and we worked well going through the program that the team had set out.” Wickens is one of the very lucky guys, as he will on Thursday be back behind the wheel of the Marussia Virgin MVR-02, as he is the team’s official test driver.

Sauber boss Peter Sauber had his doubts about the term ‘young drivers’, “I think it is not so much a 'young driver' test,” he said after the Abu Dhabi race this weekend. Not only referring to the fact not drivers but parts are tested, and certainly not young is 30-year old Briton Gary Paffett who will be testing for McLaren, as he has done before on numerous occasions. “I think he's still young enough to be in Formula One,” McLaren’s Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh said with a smile, but it is more likely the all-British team just wanted a very experienced driver to do the intensive testing program and the resulting data they so desperately need to prepare for the 2012 season.

Mercedes had Briton Sam Bird in the car, and Team Principal Ross Brawn admitted it is actually testing parts his team is interested in. “In our case, the priority is the technical program,” adding, “We've got Nico [Rosberg] for the long term and we are not right now in the market for a young driver.”

Birds’ comments confirmed Brawn’s claim, “We did some good work today as the team began on-track preparations for the 2012 season. It's fantastic to be behind the wheel of a Formula One car again, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself out there. I'm looking forward to the next two days and making a contribution to the team's work for 2012.” So, there will no driver test at Mercedes either; just preparations for the 2012 season.

Also Max Chilton tested for Force India yesterday, and testing parts was the main course on yesterday’s Force India menu. Oliver Knighton, Force India’s Race Support and Strategy Engineer commented, “The morning was spent acclimatizing Max to the car and we also ran several test sensors to gather some more data with a view to Brazil next week and for 2012. In the afternoon we ran through a 2012 tyre program, which has given us some interesting information for the rest of the week.”

For Chilton, only 20 years old, it was his first experience in a Formula One car, “I had been looking forward to this moment all my life and it definitely exceeded my expectations. The performance of the car is just amazing, especially the downforce and traction, which are mind-blowing!” And the Briton added, “The design of these cars is incredible and it's left me wanting much more. It's scary how quick you can go through the high-speed corners, but the car is really well balanced and it feels very calm.”

Charles Pic, Virgin Racing
Charles Pic, Virgin Racing

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Equally impressed was GP2 driver Charles Pic, who tested for Marussia Virgin. “Today I had my first run in a Formula One car, so it was a very special day but with a lot of new things to learn. The high speed corners and braking were things I had to adjust to, but I felt my acclimatization went well. I'm very happy with this first step,” the 21-year old Pic reported.

Not just three days of ‘free’ testing for teams, but also an opportunity to make some money, Swiss GP2 driver Fabio Leimer admitted he and his sponsors had spent a small fortune to drive the Ferrari powered Sauber C30, but were more than happy to pay for a few hours behind the wheel, and for the 22-year old driver it was also an unforgettable experience. “I learnt a lot for my future. I wasn't only impressed by the power of the car, as actually I didn't expect it to be so nice to drive. It is so stable and smooth when riding the kerbs compared to a GP2 car. I was a bit worried about my neck before the test, but this wasn't an issue,” he declared.

Also newcomer Team Lotus carried out an aerodynamic and tyre testing program, with Venezuelan Rodolfo Gonzalez behind the wheel. “We ran some aerodynamic tests which took half of the morning, with many small adjustments and set-up changes, and then ran tyre tests on the 2012 Pirelli tyres. I'm very happy with the car, and the team have been absolutely fantastic and given me a lot of help today,” the 25-year old driver stated.

Toro Rosso mentioned in their test reports yesterday, “Clearly, with no on-track testing until February once this session is over, for Scuderia Toro Rosso and all the other teams taking part, the test is also a very important chance to assess various elements aimed at the 2012 season.” Which again means testing is more important than the driver, in this case Stefano Coletti.

Stefano Coletti, Scuderia Toro Rosso
Stefano Coletti, Scuderia Toro Rosso

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For the 22-year old Monegasque an experience to remember, as it was his first time in a Formula One car. “I finally got to drive a Formula 1 car for the first time. I found it an amazing experience, from the speed, the huge amount of downforce and the way the engine power pushes you along. Nothing I have driven so far in my career has come close to the feeling I got driving a Formula One car,” he reported after the end of the first day.

Frenchman Dani Clos tested for HRT and reported, “I'm very happy with how the test went today. The first thing I had to do was adapt to the car as it's been three years since I last drove a Formula 1 car and the leap from GP2 is quite notable. In the morning we carried out various aero tests and I think we extracted a lot of information that will be useful for the team.”

But the luckiest man on the Abu Dhabi circuit was without a doubt Jean-Eric Vergne, official test and reserve driver of the Toro Rosso team, who was offered a drive in the championship winning car of sister team Red Bull. It will be no surprise the 22-year old Frenchman topped the time sheets yesterday, again demonstrating the superiority of the by Adrian Newey designed RB7.

Vergne commented, “That was a fantastic day for me. Driving the World Championship-winning car is just great and I liked every lap I did out there. Knowing there are two more days still to do, just makes me smile more. It’s a great opportunity from Red Bull Racing; I’m trying to learn as much as possible and get as much as possible out of it.”

Jean-Eric Vergne, Red Bull Racing
Jean-Eric Vergne, Red Bull Racing

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And finally, Pirelli, who use the Young Driver Test days to evaluate their 2012 rubber compounds, again, in season testing has been banned and the next opportunity to test tyres on track will be the pre-season testing days in Spain in February 2012. “We're already well underway with our preparations for 2012,” Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery said. “Together with the information we accumulate during the young driver test, we're gathering plenty of data in preparation for next year, where we will see a reduction in lap times between the compounds to hopefully make racing even closer,” he added.

All in all a good day for drivers and teams, but perhaps the FIA should put an end to the testing of new parts during the Young Driver Test days, and only allow teams to run cars and parts they have previously used during the season, and not do development work for the next season. Although understandable, letting drivers pay for their own test seems to have become a bad habit, and if this trend continues, drivers without rich sponsors but blessed with the right talents, will be sidelined for the wrong reasons and will never get their first taste of the pinnacle of motor sport: Formula One.

Below are the unofficial times of the first day at Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi Young Driver Test, Day 1, Tuesday, November 16

Pos Driver Team Time Laps
1 Jean-Eric Vergne Red Bull-Renault 1:40.011 83
2 Jules Bianchi Ferrari 1:40.960 85
3 Robert Wickens Lotus Renault 1:42.217 78
4 Fabio Leimer Sauber-Ferrari 1:42.331 67
5 Gary Paffett McLaren-Mercedes 1:42.912 41
6 Max Chilton Force India-Mercedes 1:43.016 81
7 Valtteri Bottas Williams-Cosworth 1:43.118 71
8 Oliver Turvey McLaren-Mercedes 1:43.502 35
9 Sam Bird Mercedes GP 1:43.548 51
10 Rodolfo Gonzalez Team Lotus-Renault 1:44.022 87
11 Stefano Coletti Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:45.278 87
12 Dani Clos HRT-Cosworth 1:45.329 68
13 Charles Pic Marussia Virgin 1:46.930 30
14 Adrian Quaife-Hobbs Marussia Virgin 1:47.292 32

Ecclestone testifies in Gribkowsky case

FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone has been involved in a bribery scandal, pivoting around German former banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, who has been arrested in January and since then has spent his time in a German jail. He has been charged with bribery, embezzlement and tax evasion concerning the sale of Formula One in 2005. The German worked for the German BayernLB bank who at the time owned a major stake in Formula One. Ecclestone was accused of bribery as Gribkowsky receive a sum of 32 million Euro from the now 81-year old Formula One boss.

However, after first denying he had anything to do with it, Ecclestone then claimed he had been blackmailed by the German, and was actually forced to pay the 32 million. Last week was the first day of the trial before a German Court, and Ecclestone had been ‘invited’ by the German authorities to travel to Munich to make an appearance as a witness, and give evidence in the Gribkowsky scandal, which has kept the German media busy for months as it is one of the biggest corruption cases in decades.

Bernie Ecclestone
Bernie Ecclestone

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Gribkowsky’s defense claims the 53-year old received this money as a ‘legitimate consultancy fee’, but it is clear that 32 million is just a little bit too much for a consultancy fee. Last week in Munich Ecclestone repeated his claim he was ‘shaken down’ by the banker because he had threatened to give the British HM Revenue and Customs (the British equivalent of the US IRS) false evidence about Ecclestone’s financial affairs, which could ultimately cost the Briton as much as 2 billion Euro of unpaid taxes.

Ecclestone claims Gribkowsky ‘fell in love with Formula One’, got greedy and Ecclestone said last week, “He liked the lifestyle, he made it quite clear that he wants to leave the bank.” And even mentioned the banker and his ex-wife Slavica had become ‘drinking partners’ when they met each other during Grand Prix weekends. After Gribkowsky threatened to reveal Ecclestone’s financial affairs, Ecclestone decided to pay him. “I really at the time did not have any alternative,” he told the court last Thursday. “I was under the impression that he might have given some information to the Revenue in England which I did not know much about. If he had done and the Revenue had investigated and been successful it would have been extremely expensive. I thought if I give him the money, it might help to keep him quiet ...”

But in order to prove the banker blackmailed him, Ecclestone had to tell the court what it exactly was Gribkowsky was blackmailing him with, and Ecclestone came up with a nice story about the Bambino Holding, which according to Ecclestone is run by his ex-wife, and not by him. But Gribkowsky knew better and blackmailed the Briton to reveal the ‘scam’ to the British HMRC, which would cost him and Bambino a lot of money.

Bernie Ecclestone with wife Slavica and daughters Petra and Tamara
Bernie Ecclestone with wife Slavica and daughters Petra and Tamara

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In order to prove he had nothing to do with Bambino, he came up with a whole story about the recent marriage of his youngest daughter Petra and shed some light about his ex-wife’s ‘extravaganza.’ “Let me tell you something. When my youngest daughter said she was getting married I thought as father of the bride I should pay for the wedding,” Ecclestone told the court.

“When it was suggested how much they would be spending on drinks I thought it was absurd. So I managed to upset my daughter and my wife. Only later did I learn that it cost in excess of £12 million which I did not find out about until later, paid by my wife, and I did not find out from her,” he explained. It is believed Ecclestone came up with this story to illustrate he has no say in his ex-wife’s spending, and does not control the Bambino Fund either, as the fund is set up in his ex-wife’s name. Although the fund contains the majority of Ecclestone’s assets, the Formula One boss claims it is not controlled by him, but by his ex-wife. And of course he claims that as if it would emerge he in fact is in control, he would have to pay over 2 billion Euro unpaid taxes as a result.

Yes, money makes the world go round, Ecclestone seemed reasonable happy with his two days as a witness in the bribery case, and afterwards immediately flew to Abu Dhabi in his private jet. Ecclestone hasn’t been charged with anything yet, but the Gribkowsky case will probably drag on for months before the German Court will give its final judgment, the German banker faces 10 years imprisonment if found guilty, and Ecclestone could be looking at a 2 billion Euro bill from the UK HMRC.

Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and off track”

Formula One - On and Off Track week 45

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Ross Brawn , Peter Sauber , Gary Paffett , Rodolfo Gonzalez , Robert Wickens , Stefano Coletti , Sam Bird , Fabio Leimer , Oliver Turvey , Max Chilton , Bernie Ecclestone , Adrian Newey , Dani Clos , Adrian Quaife-Hobbs , Charles Pic , Jules Bianchi , Valtteri Bottas , Martin Whitmarsh , Jean-Eric Vergne
Teams Ferrari , Red Bull Racing , Mercedes , Team Lotus , Sauber , McLaren , Force India , Toro Rosso , Williams , Virgin Racing
Tags abu dhabi, bouman, ecclestone, featured, yas marina, young driver test