Formula One - On And Off Track Week 15

Berthold Bouman, F1 correspondent

Story Highlights

  • Bahrain decision expected this week
  • The strangest story in Formula One
  • Susie Wolff-Stoddart to join Williams

Bahrain decision expected this week

Indeed, Bahrain seems to have become the weekly soap of this column, but since last week new developments have taken place that cannot be ignored. The latest news is that a decision on the Bahrain Grand Prix, scheduled for April 22, will be made tomorrow or on Friday, as the FIA has scheduled a meeting with all the teams while they are in China.

Meanwhile, the Bahrain International Circuit have accused the international media of mud throwing and also Lotus has been under fire after two representatives of the black and gold team visited the Gulf state last week and sent a report concerning the current status of Bahrain to all Formula One teams.

Bahrain hosted the season opener in 2010
Bahrain hosted the season opener in 2010

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Chairman of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Zayed Al-Zayani has responded to the reports that indicate violence around the capital of Bahrain, Manama, has intensified over the last weeks. A frustrated Al-Zayani said, “"What has been happening is that armchair observers -- who have not been sufficiently interested or committed to investigate the situation for themselves -- have been driving this debate, at the expense of those neutral parties who have taken the trouble to investigate the situation at first hand.”

And he continued his tirade, “This, combined with the scaremongering tactics of certain small extremist groups on social networking sites, has created huge misconceptions about the current situation.” But he said, a few people have visited Bahrain the past few weeks, and Al-Zayani urged the Formula One community to listen to those who have seen the current situation with their own eyes, clearly hinting at the visit of the two Lotus representatives.

Al-Zayani commented, “I therefore urge all stakeholders in the sport to listen to those with an informed, educated view of the situation and to form their views on the facts of the situation, as presented by neutral first-hand observers.” This provoked a reaction of Lotus, as their report was supposed to be confidential, but parts of it were leaked to the media.

One paragraph that was published says: “Yes there is a need to keep the circuit and the teams secure and they are doing this and they feel very comfortable about the arrangements. If there is going to be protestation then it will be confined to peaceful protests -- you will maybe see some banners being waved and maybe some tyres on fire but that is all that they expect. We came away from Bahrain feeling a lot more confident that everything is in hand and to be honest if it wasn't for a few more police you wouldn't know any difference from the last year we were there.”

Lotus denies the report in fact means the team supports the race as Al-Zayani wants the media to believe, and hastily issued a statement yesterday. “Earlier today, the Bahrain International Circuit issued a press release attributing quotes to our team showing support for the Bahrain GP,” the statement said. “These quotes were part of a full internal and confidential working document that was also sent on a confidential basis to all Formula One team managers last week.”

The Lotus team also stressed the FIA is the one to make the ultimate decision, “The Lotus F1 Team is one of 12 contestants of the Formula One World Championship and we would never try to substitute ourselves for the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), which is the only party entitled to determine if a Grand Prix should go ahead or not, and we endorse the FOTA (Formula One Teams Association) statement that was issued earlier to this effect."

FOTA Chairman and McLaren Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh
FOTA Chairman and McLaren Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh

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The FOTA have also finally taken their stance, although they only represent seven of the 12 teams, they therefore do not represent the opinion of Ferrari, Red Bull, Sauber, Toro Rosso and HRT. The FOTA denies they could cancel the Bahrain Grand Prix, “There's been some media speculation recently to the effect that the teams may seek to cancel this year's Bahrain Grand Prix. That wouldn't be possible. Teams are unable to cancel grands prix. We race in an international series called the FIA Formula One World Championship, and it is therefore for the FIA to offer the teams guidance on these issues.”

So that at least is a clear statement from the FOTA, the FIA has to make the decision whether the Grand Prix in the tiny Gulf state should be cancelled or not. But rumors the teams want to cancel the race are gaining momentum, as they have concerns about the safety of their personnel and also fear the race -- with media from all over the world present -- could be targeted as a platform for protesters.

The FIA had already said they were ‘constantly monitoring and evaluating the situation in the Kingdom of Bahrain’, and they confirmed if the race takes place they will guarantee the safety of the teams. “The FIA is the guarantor of the safety at the race event and relies, as it does in every other country, on the local authorities to guarantee security. In this respect we have been repeatedly assured by the highest authorities in Bahrain that all security matters are under control,” the FIA said in a statement.

FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone said he cannot cancel the race because he has a contract with the FIA and vice versa, but nevertheless thinks he cannot force teams to travel to Bahrain. “If the teams don't want to go, then we cannot make them,” he said to the UK Times. Teams also have contractual obligations according to Ecclestone, “Commercially they have to go, but whether they decide to or not is up to them. We can't say 'you've got to go' -- although they would be in breach of their agreement with us if they didn't go -- but it doesn't help.” He also admitted only the FIA or the organizers of the Grand Prix can cancel the race.

Bernie Ecclestone
Bernie Ecclestone

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According to Ecclestone, FIA President Jean Todt will travel to China to speak with the teams, “I've spoken to Mr. Todt, we keep in close contact, and he's going out there, so we'll have a chat then, and we always meet with the teams.” It has also been rumored that Ecclestone wants to organize a press conference at the Grand Prix where the Bahrain opposition ‘can get their message across’, but it remains to be seen whether the Bahrain government would agree to such a press conference.

And about the security of the teams, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry advisor John Yates, a former assistant commissioner in the London Metropolitan Police Service, said authorities aim to provide adequate security. “It is very much hoped that the policing will be low key and discreet. People can be assured that if problems arise, then there will be a plan to deal with that as there would be with any public event in the world,” Yates said.

And he added, “If people want to protest lawfully and give proper notice, as they have to, then they will be allowed to protest. But you can't have a protest that shuts off every road and doesn't allow people to get to the Grand Prix circuit. That would be absurd. If someone chooses to invade the circuit, what an incredibly stupid and reckless thing to do. Anyone who invades the circuit is putting themselves in danger, putting the drivers in danger, putting potentially other spectators in danger. That will be clamped down on and properly so.”

The February 14th Youth Coalition, one of the Bahrain opposition groups, has warned teams, sponsors and spectators they cannot guarantee their safety and also warned they will consider the organizers of the event to be a part of the “Khalifi bloody and criminal system.” And it has been said before in this column: the question is not whether Bahrain is safe for Formula One, the question is whether Bahrain is safe for the people of Bahrain.

The strangest story in Formula One

One of the strangest, if not most bizarre stories in Formula One of the past decade is without a doubt the story of Lotus versus Lotus. An incredible story that started in 2010 when Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes entered Formula One with his Team Lotus. So far so good, many were pleased to see the historic Lotus brand name back in the pinnacle of motorsport, but the problems started when Renault at the end of 2010 announced they would enter the 2011 season under the name Lotus Renault GP.

Both teams claimed to own the right to use the Lotus name in Formula One. This fight also developed into real-life soap, both parties fiercely defended their claim which was confusing and amusing at the same time. Confusing for the spectators who were confronted with two Lotus teams in 2011, amusing for the media who could not get enough of the ongoing battle between Lotus and Lotus.

Emerson Fittipaldi, 1972 and 1974 F1 World Champion drives the 1972 Lotus 72D
Emerson Fittipaldi, 1972 and 1974 F1 World Champion drives the 1972 Lotus 72D

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Lotus was originally the name of the by Colin Chapman founded Formula One team, the Briton’s legendary Lotus team won six drivers' championships and seven constructors' championships before they in 1994 were forced to withdraw from Formula One after financial problems.

Fernandes defended his case by claiming he had bought the rights of the ‘Team Lotus’ name from the brother of 1976 World Champion James Hunt, David Hunt, who in his turn had bought the rights of that name after Lotus’ demise in 1994. At the time Fernandes also had the support of the Chapman family.

Renault claimed the rights to the name as they were sponsored by sportscar manufacturer Group Lotus, who in their turn actually was in the hands of the Malaysian car manufacturer Proton. Confused? You will be more confused at the end of this story.

Clive Chapman, son of Colin, suddenly changed his course and later in 2011 supported Group Lotus and Renault, as he in a press release stated Group Lotus was “the ongoing Lotus entity created by Colin and Hazel Chapman.” A massive blow for Fernandes, but as said, the Malaysian had obtained a license to use the name Team Lotus and was therefore sure he was on the right side of the law.

As both parties could not agree and because the FIA was just as confused as the Formula One fans, the dispute was heading straight to court, in this case a London High Court. Even more surprising was the ruling of the British Court, the judge ruled Fernandes could keep the name ‘Team Lotus’, and the Renault team sponsored by Group Lotus could still use the name “Lotus” in Formula One.

The soap continued, as both Lotus teams duly claimed victory in the court case but the dispute really reached its boiling point when both Team Lotus and Lotus Renault announced they would race in the old and famous black and gold Lotus livery in 2012. Lotus versus Lotus continued for the remainder of the 2011 season, again some found it a disgrace, some were confused and others were just amused.

Caterham nose cone
Caterham nose cone

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But that wasn’t the end of it, for seemingly inexplicable reasons Fernandes decided to abandon his black and gold livery plans again in favor of the usual green and yellow livery. Fernandes obviously had a Plan B and indeed, at the end of 2011 he, much to everyone’s surprise, announced he had acquired the UK-based Caterham sportscar manufacturer, a company that builds … replicas of the famous Lotus Seven.

Team Lotus would change its name in Caterham for the 2012 season, not only that, Fernandes also announced he had sealed an engine deal with Renault for 2012, and would race with the same engine and gearbox plus KERS unit as his archenemy in 2012 named Lotus F1.

Meanwhile, Renault had sold their majority stake in the team to the Luxembourg-based Genii investment company, owned by Gerard Lopez, who thus is now effectively owns the major part of the Lotus F1 team. Lopez had big plans, it cannot be denied, the Lotus F1 in the black and gold livery looked like a treat, and to make the picture perfect he hired Kimi Raikkonen who had left the sport in 2009. The Finn made no bones about it and showed the Lotus is a quick car and Lotus now aims to become a regular podium scorer. That was the end of the story one would think.

But last week Lotus GP again dropped a bombshell when Lopez announced that Group Lotus would no longer sponsor Lotus F1, as the Proton mother company had sold Group Lotus to DRB-Hicom, another Malaysian automotive company, and Proton also would not take up their option to buy 50 per cent of the team. Lopez said that Genii have taken over that option themselves, “There is no option from Group Lotus to buy into Formula One now -- that option was taken over by us. There was one, but we have taken it over now.”

Lopez also lost a seven-year sponsor deal, which was thought to be worth £100 million. But he is not worried about it, recently he reeled in Microsoft and Unilever as new sponsors, and the door is still wide open for another title sponsor. In a statement Lopez added, “We are happy to carry the Lotus name as we believe it is a good name for Formula One. We funded the team last year and the year before for whatever delta was missing. We would prefer to have sponsors up to the full amount -- but if we have to fund it then we will fund it.”

Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus F1 Team
Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus F1 Team

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And yet another twist in this story, as many feared the name Lotus would, after such a long struggle, disappear again from Formula One, Group Lotus announced that although there is no ‘financial arrangement” between Group Lotus and Lotus F1, the name Lotus will remain in Formula One until 2017. “The F1 team uses the strength of the Lotus name to promote themselves, and in return Group Lotus benefits from F1 exposure and the ambassadorship of its drivers,” Group Lotus said in a statement.

And this must be one of the strangest sponsor deals in Formula One ever, Group Lotus is no longer financially sponsoring Lotus F1 but the team will nevertheless keep endorsing the name Lotus until 2017… for free? That must be the deal of the century!

Susie Wolff-Stoddart to join Williams

A few weeks ago this column already reported Spanish female driver Maria de Villota had joined the Marussia team as test driver, today Williams announced Susie Wolff, formally named Susie Stoddart before she married Toto Wolff last year, will join the Grove-based team as a development driver. Wolff, 29 years old, born in Oban, Scotland will join Sir Frank William’s team and will as a development driver frequently be at the wheel of the simulator.

“Susie will join Williams as a development driver, in which capacity she will assist us with the development of our simulator and other technical challenges,” a very pleased Sir Frank said. “ And he added she will also be at the wheel of the real Williams FW34 this season, “Susie will also undertake some aerodynamic testing of the FW34 and a full track test in the coming months. Susie will also attend a number of races with us.”

Susie Wolff to join Williams
Susie Wolff to join Williams

Photo by: Satoshi Noma

“I should add that, as Susie is married to Toto Wolff, a Director of Williams, her appointment was carefully considered and then approved by the Board, with Toto recusing himself from the process,” Williams said, meaning Susie’s husband Toto Wolff had nothing to do with her appointment as development driver.

She doesn’t need that either, she is a successful and talented racing driver. Like all drivers she started her career in karting, then moved to single seater racing, in this case the 2001 Formula Renault Winter Series. She made her debut in the full Formula Renault UK Championship for DFR Racing in 2002 and 2003. In 2003 she was awarded with the BRDC McLaren Autosport Young Driver of the Year Award and was also elected BRDC Rising Star of the Year.

She did another season of the Formula Renault UK Championship in 2004, and in 2005 moved on to the prestigious British Formula Three Championship in which she finished 5th overall after having sealed three podium finishes.

In 2006 she moved up to the German Touringcar Series (DTM), she felt very much at home with the Mercedes team, this season she will participate in the very prestigious and very popular DTM series for the 7th successive year.

Susie Wolff in her pink Mercedes
Susie Wolff in her pink Mercedes

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Wolff about her new Williams job, “I would like to thank Sir Frank for giving me this opportunity both on and off the track. I must also thank Mercedes Benz AMG and HWA for supporting me to take up this new experience with Williams. And she further commented, “Formula One is the ultimate challenge for any racing driver and it offers me the chance both to apply and to improve the skills I have developed racing in DTM. In return I shall be offering some of my own technical insight and experience –- coming from a different discipline – and helping the team engage with its partners.”

Ecclestone was also happy with the news, as it is no secret one of the 81-year old Formula One boss’ wishes is to have a female driver in Formula One, “If Susie is as quick in a car as she looks good out of a car then she will be a massive asset to any team and on top of that she is very intelligent. I am really looking forward to having her in Formula One.”

Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One - On and Off Track”

Formula One - On and Off Track week 14

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Kimi Raikkonen , Emerson Fittipaldi , Susie Wolff , Maria de Villota , Toto Wolff , Jean Todt , Bernie Ecclestone , James Hunt , Martin Whitmarsh , Gerard Lopez , Colin Chapman
Teams Ferrari , Mercedes , Team Lotus , Sauber , McLaren , Toro Rosso , Williams , Lotus F1 Team
Tags bahrain, bouman, ecclestone, featured, fia, fota, lotus, wolff