Nigel Roebuck

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Reflections
– How McLaren lured Button away from Brawn
– Rally switch might be the remaking of Räikkönen
– Mercedes gets more say with team buyout
– Outside influences to thank for Silverstone deal

When his new building was still in the planning stage, Ron Dennis organised a competition among his employees: whomever came up with the best name for it, he said, would ‘get a grand’. Someone thought of ‘Paragon’, which my dictionary defines as ‘a model of perfection or supreme excellence’; it was adopted on the spot.

Nine years have passed since Dennis revealed to us the details of the planned edifice, including the thinking behind the name. “We’ve got a lot of partners and customers,” Ron said, “and if you’re Peugeot or BMW, using our electronics, driving into a place called ‘McLaren’ is a bit difficult psychologically, so we decided on a neutral name.”

I was disappointed when ‘Paragon’ was later discarded in favour of the more prosaic ‘McLaren Technology Centre’, which is accurate and functional, but devoid of any sense of Dennis’s favourite word, passion.

Not that there is anything ordinary about the building itself. Ron said it would constitute ‘the biggest building block in the future of the company’, and this is some building block – there is space enough to house nine Boeing 747s. Designed by Sir Norman Foster, it amounted to a futuristic complex, under whose roof would be housed every aspect of McLaren’s multi-faceted business.

Back in 2001 we put on waterproof boots (provided, of course) and trudged through the muddy wasteland on which the MTC would eventually sit. At the next visit we needed hard hats, too, for construction had started, but it was clear that Dennis’s original hope of opening for business in 2002 (Monday August 12, to be precise) would not be realised. The building became fully operational two years later than that, and the final cost is something you don’t talk about.

When you drive into the MTC – it even has its own dedicated road sign – you feel as if you’ve stumbled into a Bond movie, upon the set for the final fight scene in Blofeld’s HQ. I’ve been there many times now and it never loses its power to impress, but inevitably it is the first visit that makes you blink – the elegant shape, the lake, all that glass…

And there’s something else, too. Walk into the enormous lobby area, and you see the car that started it all – Bruce McLaren’s Austin Seven – and then a great many more, stretching away into the distance. Beyond such sights as a Denny Hulme Can-Am car, in the company’s original orange, a Johnny Rutherford Indycar, green and white, and the F1 Le Mans sports car, is a long row of Grand Prix cars, many of which have taken drivers – Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Mika Häkkinen, Lewis Hamilton – to the World Championship.

The impression you get is of overwhelming success, and over a very long period of time. And clearly that was not lost on Jenson Button when he walked in for the first time.

When word first began to circulate of a possible deal between Button and McLaren, I was a touch nonplussed, and not alone in that, for while it is not unknown for a World Champion to depart at season’s end, to take his number one to a different team, usually there is an element of force majeure involved.

Alain Prost, for example, won the title in 1989 and then left for Ferrari, simply because Ayrton Senna was contracted to McLaren for 1990 and beyond, and after two seasons as Senna’s team-mate, Prost had concluded that a third was untenable. Seven years later, of course, Damon Hill became World Champion – having learned a few weeks earlier (from a magazine scoop) that Williams had long before decided to replace with him with Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

If that ranked as one of FW’s more eccentric decisions, it amazes me to this day that Hill’s management then failed to place him in another front-rank team, so that at the first race of 1997 – Melbourne, where he had won the year before – he lined up 20th in an Arrows-Yamaha, for God’s sake! Damon finished that season with seven points, just the odd 90 fewer than in ’96.

This situation with Button, though, was different. As the second half of his season progressed, as the World Championship ground closer, we were mildly surprised to learn that no new deal with Brawn had been struck for 2010, but then it seemed to make sense for both parties to concentrate on winning the championships rather than risk the distraction of future contractual negotiations. There would be time for that. Both Ross and Jenson spoke of their hopes of staying together, and felt sure it would happen.

Then the saga began to develop a little. Jenson, went the word, was less than thrilled at the sort of retainer Ross was talking about for 2010 and beyond. It was known that he had taken a very substantial pay cut at the start of ’09, and done it willingly, for not so long before – after Honda’s unexpected withdrawal – he had stared at the prospect of unemployment and perhaps even the end of his Formula 1 career. When Brawn and Nick Fry succeeded in keeping the team alive, Button was handed a lifeline, and at a time like that money was of very secondary importance – many in the team, after all, faced unavoidable redundancy.

Ten months on, though, the world had changed again. Brawn GP had enjoyed a miraculous season, and Button was World Champion. Obviously more money was coming in, and Jenson – particularly in his new role – wanted what he saw as a fair share of it, as his manager, Richard Goddard, made clear.

It was at this point that the rumours began of a possible move to McLaren, and it’s fair to say that most F1 people assumed it was a means of putting pressure on Brawn. Such ploys are not unknown, after all.

As it was, though, on November 18 – just a couple of days after Mercedes announced its buyout of Brawn GP – McLaren confirmed that Button would indeed join Hamilton for the 2010 season and beyond. Sure was a busy week.

McLaren people suggest that Jenson was indeed bowled over by his first visit to the MTC, but still there was surprise – make that amazement – that he should have opted for a move. For one thing, Brawn (née Honda) had been ‘home’ to him for so long, and he had developed excellent relationships there. For another, he was moving to McLaren, which many consider ‘the Hamilton team’. More than one driver has said he would never consider going to McLaren while Lewis was in the other car.

This stems not from any personal animosity, but because there is a feeling that Hamilton has been part of the McLaren fabric for so long that anyone else would always be ‘the other driver’. It may be fair, it may not, but that is the perception. It was the same during the Clark era at Lotus, the same when Senna was at McLaren, the same – overwhelmingly – through Schumacher’s 11 seasons with Ferrari.

“For Jenson,” Jackie Stewart commented, “it’s like walking into the lion’s den, because Lewis has had three years in the McLaren team now. He has it his way. Jenson knew the culture at Brawn – at McLaren there’s a totally different culture.”

Hamilton has indeed been in the F1 team for three years, but he was part of the McLaren family for a decade before that, being groomed to become World Champion one day, his manager-father on site every step of the way.

On the evidence of the ‘Lie-gate’ Affair (and its consequences for others, including Ron Dennis), Anthony Hamilton is not backward in coming forward when it comes to his son’s interests, and of late there has been almost as much light-hearted discussion of the fathers as of the sons who will drive for McLaren in 2010. If Jenson and Lewis are different types in some ways, so more obviously are their fathers, John being the laid-back kind of racing dad who simply enjoys being at the Grands Prix, and makes a point of not getting involved.

This, to many F1 team people, is more than gold, and brings to mind a December day at Jerez in 2003 when both Nico Rosberg and Nelson Piquet tested a Grand Prix car – a Williams-BMW – for the first time. Their fathers, both of whom had won World Championships with Williams, were in attendance.

“Even before leaving Brazil,” a Williams man said, “Nelson had told Globo TV that we ‘were interested in signing his kid to a long-term contract’! At the test he was in the pit, wanting this, wanting that, demanding an extra run for Nelsinho on new tyres at the end of the day, all that sort of thing. Keke, on the other hand, just left Nico to get on with it and watched from the grandstand. We rather appreciated that…”

One of the problems at McLaren through the stormy season of 2007, some have murmured, was that the fathers of Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were too closely involved in the day-to-day politics of the team. Maybe yes, maybe no, but I can’t see John Button going down the same road; at heart he is simply the ultimate fan, of both his son and the sport, and he isn’t going to change now.

Many think Jenson mad to go up against Lewis in identical cars – and in a team he has very much made his own – when he had such a good thing going at Brawn, or ‘Mercedes Grand Prix’ as she is wrote now. For one thing, they say, he will find the culture of McLaren constricting for one of his laid-back nature, and perhaps they’re right. Certainly it will be interesting to see if the designer stubble survives.

On the track, too, the suggestion is that Button will be subjugated by Hamilton’s sheer pace, but I wonder if it will be as simple as that. Certainly Lewis is searingly quick, and, as Keke Rosberg has said, ‘Gilles brave’, but go back 30 years and think of the Ferrari team in 1979. Villeneuve provided the drama, the derring-do, the genius, if you like – but it was Jody Scheckter who won the World Championship, and why? Because he was quick enough when he needed to be, and, because he left a margin, he made fewer mistakes than his team-mate.

It will surprise me, I must say, if Hamilton is often behind Button on the grid this year; rather less if there is much between them when it comes to championship points. I somewhat doubt, for example, that Jenson would have gone off at the Curva Grande on the last lap of the Italian Grand Prix, trying to be second rather than third. Gilles perhaps, Jody no.

Then there are the rule changes for this year, most notably the ban on refuelling, which most technical directors expect to work in favour of smooth drivers, who will be kinder to their tyres in fuel-heavy cars. Another point that could work in favour of the Prost-smooth Button.

Still, however, there remains a degree of mystery as to quite why Jenson decided on the switch. At one stage, when negotiations with Brawn were still in progress, Richard Goddard’s remarks indicated that the problems were financial, that his boy was entitled to more than Ross was offering. Later, though, when Button had confirmed his move, Nick Fry suggested that money had not been the problem, that the Brawn offer was actually in excess of that from McLaren. And such was confirmed to me by a McLaren man.

Perhaps it was a mix of things that changed Jenson’s mind. Maybe he suspected that, even though the team will continue to be run by the folk with whom he worked so well, ‘Mercedes Grand Prix’ will not be quite the same as ‘Brawn GP’. Maybe something clicked in his head when he took in the enormity of the McLaren Technology Centre, the sheer body of achievement behind a fabled team. And maybe he bore in mind, too, that McLaren started 2009 with a sow’s ear, yet somehow was able – through a season in which testing was banned – to be winning by July. In the Honda days, after all, he become accustomed to bad cars that stayed bad.

And, of course, there was the element of ‘a new challenge’. I’ll grant you that this is the reason invariably offered by anyone taking a new job, but perhaps Jenson isn’t being disingenuous – perhaps the notion of going up against Lewis strongly appeals. As I said, I don’t expect it to be as one-sided as some are suggesting, and it isn’t often that a team like McLaren comes calling.

It is a quite remarkable situation when you think about it: the two most recent World Champions – both of them British – in the same team. No surprise that Vodafone was so keen that a deal be brokered.

That said, already folk are predicting there will be problems because, well, because aren’t there always problems when, in the words of Frank Williams, you put two bulls in one field? No one anticipates a repeat of the Senna-Prost feud, but it’s almost inevitable there will be tensions because Grand Prix drivers, however mild their public demeanour, tend to have towering private egos, and after every race – every practice session – observers quietly put a mark against your name.

It’s the same with money. “I always said that Ayrton Senna would have driven for $100 a year, if that was the going rate,” said Ron Dennis a few years ago, “except that he’d have wanted $101, simply as a measurement of him being the best. People are like that. You measure yourself in financial terms – yes, it affects your lifestyle, but primarily it’s a reflection of how good you are. The best people get the most money – that should just be common sense.”

Alain Prost put it much the same way: “After a few years at the top level of F1, money doesn’t mean that much – except as an indication of your worth. Every time you do a new contract, it’s like a mark on an examination paper…” Ego, then? “Er… yes!”

These things can rankle. In the ’60s Chris Amon wasn’t too worried about what he was paid by Ferrari – until he discovered that Jacky Ickx, who joined the team after him, was getting rather more. Similarly, it used to nettle Juan Pablo Montoya that Ralf Schumacher was (unfathomably) paid appreciably better in their Williams days.

Still, the deals are done, and everything is in place now, as Button and Hamilton prepare to take on Alonso’s Ferrari, Vettel’s Red Bull, Rosberg’s Mercedes et al. “Lewis and Jenson,” said Martin Whitmarsh, “are both World Champions. They know what it takes to win, and I’m sure they’ll both be motivated to push each other to deliver even greater results. It’s my job positively to harness that competitiveness for the greater benefit of the team. It’s a proposition that some teams might find troubling, but which we are absolutely relishing – it’s a very nice problem to have. My job is to manage that racer’s instinct – they’re there to race each other, and the only instruction they’ll receive from me is to respect each other on the track. Other than that, they’re free to race.”

On you go, boys.

*******

Had McLaren been able to reach an agreement with Kimi Räikkönen’s management for the Finn to return to his old team, there would have been no possibility of a move by Button, but in the end talks floundered.

It had been clear that once Ferrari had decided to terminate Räikkönen’s contract a year early, so as to bring in Fernando Alonso as soon as possible, that a move back to McLaren was the only F1 possibility for Kimi, given his pronouncement that he was interested only in driving a car that could win races.

Had Ron Dennis still been at the tiller, Räikkönen would not have contemplated a return, so poor had their relationship become by the time he left for Ferrari at the end of 2006. Kimi, as we know, is a free-spirited individual, and some aspects of his way of life were not a snug fit with McLaren’s driver template.

In the post-Dennis era standards have remained high, but there has been a certain relaxing of the ambience, and thus Räikkönen was amenable to the idea of going back whence he came. No deal, however, could be readily struck, and when J Button came into their orbit McLaren folk found they didn’t really mind too much.

As soon as Jenson signed, it was announced that Kimi would take a sabbatical from F1, which was another way of saying that no competitive option remained open to him. Momentarily it was said that he might be tempted to fill the vacancy left by Button at Mercedes Grand Prix, but there was no indication of interest from that quarter. Hence Räikkönen makes a Montoya-like move, clear away from F1: next year he will compete in the World Rally Championship in a factory Citroën.

Personally I’m sorry that a talent like Kimi’s should be lost to Grand Prix racing, even if it proves only temporary. That said, from everything I have been told, it really isn’t surprising that ultimately the talks with McLaren went to dust.

Räikkönen has long been managed by the Robertsons, père et fils, and there was a certain discrepancy in their statements explaining the breakdown in negotiations with McLaren. “They couldn’t afford Kimi,” said David. “It wasn’t in his interests to race for what they were offering, so he’s going rallying instead.” “Kimi’s not interested in the money,” said Steve. “I mean, of course money’s part of it, but he doesn’t need it. He wants a car where he can show his talent. ”

What is one to believe? Back in the 1980s, chatting to Keke Rosberg, I mentioned that somebody or other was contemplating a move, but was adamant it had nothing to do with money. Keke laughed: “Don’t ever believe anyone in F1 when they say that – trust me, it’s always about money…”

In the case of Räikkönen, it appears that money was at least part of the problem, and – call me naïve – that might not have been expected, for already he is being paid a fortune not to drive for Ferrari next year, and McLaren was his only realistic hope, a point surely not lost on Martin Whitmarsh.

“Obviously, after McLaren couldn’t get Kimi,” Steve Robertson commented, “they looked at what they thought was the next best option.” But that wasn’t quite how most people saw it. McLaren, after all, signed the reigning World Champion – and Räikkönen, for all his fundamental ability, was hardly the hottest property in F1 by the end of 2009.

This can happen to a driver. No one, after all, needs to be reminded of the abilities of Ronnie Peterson, on his day as fast as racing has known. But by the end of 1977, after three indifferent seasons with three teams, folk were not exactly waiting in line to sign him. When he linked up with Colin Chapman again, for ’78, he regained his motivation, became once more the Peterson of old, and it’s not impossible that Räikkönen could have done the same at McLaren this year. But when Ronnie went back to Lotus, he had to ‘bring money’.

No question of that in this era, of course, but still there was no getting away from the fact that Ferrari had dropped Räikkönen in favour of Alonso, after three years in which his form had been patchy, to say the least. Yes, he was brilliant in the second half of 2007, and narrowly won the championship, but the last two seasons were largely a disappointment: in ’08 he won two races – but Felipe Massa won six. On occasion Kimi still looked like the driver he had so often been at McLaren, and certainly he drove exceptionally well after Massa’s accident last year, when Ferrari’s hopes rested upon him, but as a Maranello man said to me at Monza, “Six great drives in two seasons… It’s not enough”.

Ferrari people liked Kimi, and appreciated his raw talent, but they did not think him a man to develop a car, nor one with the motivational qualities to which they had become accustomed with Michael Schumacher. Alonso, although unable to take the wheel of an F1 car until the New Year, paid two visits to Maranello after the end of the season, pounding round Fiorano in 458s and 599s, familiarising himself with everything. “Already,” a team member murmured, “Fernando’s been here more than Kimi has in the last two years…”

All this being so, it took considerable chutzpah for Räikkönen’s managers now to carry on as if they had Nuvolari on the books. In the dealings with McLaren, there were also difficulties other than fiscal: Räikkönen’s distaste for PR commitments is well known, and he can hardly be blamed for that, but it’s part of the modern F1 driver’s life, and one of the reasons why they get paid telephone numbers even in this financial climate.

Räikkönen also wanted to do the odd rally, and that, too, was not something for which McLaren had enthusiasm. On his only WRC outing in 2009, in Finland, Kimi predictably impressed with his speed and flair, but eventually he had a sizeable shunt, and although unhurt, could so easily have broken a finger or something. No F1 team is impressed when one of its drivers injures himself ‘having fun’, as Juan Pablo Montoya discovered in 2005 when, at the very start of his McLaren career, he fell off his tennis racquet and had to miss two Grands Prix.

So now Räikkönen goes off to the WRC, and in a competitive car. Will he one day return to F1? Of course it’s not impossible, but at this moment neither is it certain, not least because he is a down-to-earth bloke, and I fancy he’ll find the ambience of rallying more to his taste than the more precious world of F1 racing. A ‘new challenge’, as Button has put it, is certainly what it is, and I suspect that Kimi’s motivation will be higher than for some little time.

*******

AJ Foyt did Le Mans just once in his life, in 1967, and – sharing a Ford MkIV with Dan Gurney – he won it. Similarly, Juan Pablo Montoya’s single Indianapolis 500, in 2000, ended in Victory Lane.

I enjoy statistics of this kind, I must say. There is an element of ‘been there – done that’, both these drivers coming in from another planet and plundering the race that mattered most. When I interviewed Foyt, he admitted to a pleasurable feeling of ‘payback’ at Le Mans, for in that era the Indy brigade suffered much at the hands of ‘foreigners’ at the Brickyard, and AJ – the most American American you will ever meet felt that most keenly.

There was no element of ‘payback’ in this Grand Prix season just past, but there was an echo of Foyt and Montoya, in the sense that the history books will for ever record that Brawn GP competed in just one World Championship – and won it. As Ross said, “It’s sad to see the team in existence for only a year – but what a year!”

Brawn, as we know, became a team owner by accident, by circumstance. Certainly he had wished to be a team principal, and perhaps, had the two parties been able to reach agreement after his sabbatical in 2007, he would have taken on that role at Ferrari and remained there for the rest of his career. As it was, such a deal could not be worked out, whereupon Ross accepted the offer of a similar job with Honda – who then pulled out of F1 only one year after the association with him began.

In this calamitous situation Brawn and Nick Fry, as we know, decided that they were not going to give in without a fight to save the team. Honda, it must be said, behaved impeccably, providing the wherewithal for at least temporary survival. But if the new outfit were given the name ‘Brawn GP’, Ross knew he had no wish to be a team owner forever. If the right bidder came along, he would get a sympathetic hearing. And the right bidder did, of course.

When Honda headed for the exit, Brawn approached Mercedes for supply of engines, and McLaren – like every other member of the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) keen to help Ross’s team to survive – did not use its right of veto to prevent the deal going through. Mercedes people, for their part, were only too delighted to take on a third customer, not least because this increase in capacity took away the worry of possible redundancies.

Putting a Mercedes engine into a car designed for a Honda was not ideal, of course, but needs must, and while the solution was by no means a lash-up, Brawn conceded that in certain aspects it wasn’t as elegant as he might have wished. Once the Brawn-Mercedes took to the track, of course, that seemed not to matter much, for Button and Barrichello were at once numbingly quick, and Jenson, as we know, won six of the first seven Grands Prix.

Ross’s reputation notwithstanding, everyone was taken aback by the superiority of his new car, and that included the gentlemen of Mercedes, who were understandably disappointed by the lacklustre form of McLaren’s latest, the MP4-24, but gratified that their engine was winning anyway.

For all Brawn’s winter tribulations, it probably wasn’t a fair fight at that stage, for Ross had devoted most of 2008 to preparing this car, while McLaren – like Ferrari – had been involved in a World Championship scrap through to the last race. There were fundamental rule changes for ’09, and when the season started neither of the big hitters was in a state of satisfactory readiness. Come to that, neither had the controversial ‘double diffuser’.

Throw into the mix the fact that intra-season testing had been newly banned, and the extent of McLaren’s plight falls even more sharply into focus. Simply put, more than in any previous season the likelihood was that if you started with an uncompetitive car you were going to be stuck with it through to November.

As it turned out, McLaren transformed a much under-developed car if not into a gem, then at least into an occasional race winner, and in its way the team’s achievement matched any that had gone before. Lest we forget, at Silverstone in June Lewis Hamilton started on the back row of the grid; at the Hungaroring, in late July, he won – and won well.

By then, though, the World Championship was Button’s to lose, and amid all the political turmoil prevalent in Formula 1 through the summer there bubbled away in the background suggestions of an ever-closer relationship between Brawn and Mercedes, this not simply because Ross’s team had done a better job than McLaren, the company’s ‘official’ partner in Grand Prix racing.

What Brawn GP offered was the opportunity for Mercedes to go into business for itself, to race under its own name. At precisely the time BMW’s board unceremoniously opted to take its leave of F1, Mercedes, its biggest natural rival, was bucking the trend, looking to increase its involvement.

For years it had been no secret that Mercedes people were not totally happy with the company’s role in F1. Yes, the partnership with McLaren had been outstandingly successful, but it always had its limitations in the sense that

Mercedes could never be seen as more than an engine supplier, albeit one with a special relationship. Such as Renault, BMW, Toyota and Honda raced against McLaren-Mercedes.

Over time there were suggestions of a McLaren buyout by Mercedes, but that was not the way Ron Dennis and his fellow directors wished their company to go. For all that, however, the relationship remained strong, and on more than one front: the production line for the Mercedes SLR, for example, was not in Germany, but in Woking.

Marketing reasons aside, though, Mercedes folk had other reasons for wishing to race under their own name. As an engine supplier only, they had no real ‘voice’ – were not party to the Concorde Agreement, not entitled to membership of the FOTA, and so on. Equally they had no say in the matter of driver choice – while at the same time McLaren had rights of veto when it came to other teams using Mercedes engines. When Honda took its sudden leave of F1, as we said, Ross Brawn had need of another engine, and McLaren commendably raised no objection.

More recently, though, when Mercedes was keen in future to supply Red Bull (and therefore Sebastian Vettel, the new German hero), McLaren apparently gave it the thumbs down. If that caused displeasure, so – very much – did the forthcoming McLaren road car, the MP4-12C, which does not have a Mercedes engine but rather one of McLaren’s own manufacture, and which will compete directly with the ‘gulling’ Mercedes SLS.

All these things being so, it was perhaps no surprise that Mercedes should opt to reduce its involvement in McLaren, to sell back its 40 per cent shareholding and to go for a 75 per cent buyout of Brawn, which will – under the name of Mercedes Grand Prix – continue to operate in the same way, with Ross running the show.

At last Nico Rosberg will get his hands on a competitive F1 car, and perhaps… perhaps Michael Schumacher will join him.

At this point, a week or two before Christmas, I have to say it will surprise me if Schumacher, his 41st birthday looming, decides on a full-time return, but I don’t dismiss it. Michael’s reverence for Ross Brawn is a matter of fact, and if the question of a comeback were not being at least discussed, one has to wonder why was not Rosberg’s team-mate – originally reckoned to be Nick Heidfeld – announced long ago?

A thought: would Ross have let Rubens Barrichello go if he’d known he was going to lose Button? I somewhat doubt it.

By the time this is read, Mercedes may well have announced a full driver line-up. Whatever, it seems to me right and proper to celebrate the expansion of a major manufacturer’s involvement in F1 at a time when most of the others have scarpered.

*******

It may be true, it may not, but word reaches me that Jean Todt played a role in brokering the agreement between Bernie Ecclestone and the British Racing Drivers’ Club, which led to the announcement of an extension of the contract to run the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, and for the next 17 years, no less. That will take us through to 2026, by which time the BRDC will be celebrating its 98th birthday (and, for that matter, Bernie his 96th).

It was at Silverstone, on the Friday morning of the Grand Prix meeting in 2008, that the FIA – with wanton cruelty – put out a statement. ‘Following discussions with Formula One Management,’ it read, ‘the FIA can confirm that the British Grand Prix will be maintained on the World Championship calendar. From 2010 the new home of the British GP will be Donington. We understand that the development programme planned for Donington will achieve the very high standards we and FOM expect from a modern F1 circuit. Finally, British F1 fans will get the Grand Prix venue they deserve.’

There followed comments from Ecclestone: ‘Finally the uncertainty is over. A contract has been signed with Donington Park, and the future of the British GP is now secure. We wanted a world-class venue for F1 in Britain, something that the teams and British F1 fans could be proud of. The major development plans for Donington will give us exactly that. A venue that will put British motor sport back on the map.’

The Donington owners, it was revealed, would require not less than £100 million to bring their circuit up to F1 standards – before so much as thinking about the annual fee required by Bernie to bring his circus to town. It’s fair to say that the immediate response in the paddock was… let’s be polite, and call it sceptical. That very morning I chatted to a member of the inner circle. “Donington, then?” I said, and he gave me a look. “We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see…”

Then I asked Ecclestone if it truly were feasible for everything to be readied at Donington in time to run the British Grand Prix in 2010. “Don’t ask me,” he replied. “I’m not a civil engineer.”

Nor a banker, he might have added.

Whatever else, Bernie was adamant that F1 wasn’t ever – ever – coming back to Silverstone after 2009. “If Donington doesn’t come through, there won’t be a race in Britain – I’ll sign a contract with another country.” (Which he has duly done, of course, in the shape of South Korea, yet another country with long cultural links to GP racing).

At Silverstone this year Ecclestone’s tune had changed a touch. “We’ve got an agreement with Donington,” he said, “and I hope they can do all the things they’re supposed to do – if they can’t, then for sure we’ll be back to Silverstone…”

And lo, we are. To British enthusiasts, all that matters is that our Grand Prix has survived – and at the only circuit capable of satisfactorily staging it. Word is that someone at CVC exerted pressure on Ecclestone to reach an accommodation with the BRDC, this not the consequence of an attack of altruism as much as a realisation of the colossal PR damage to F1 which would result from the killing of the British Grand Prix.

I’ll confess, though, that I was surprised by the scale of the new agreement, for 17-year deals were once unheard of. And hand in hand with it went the announcement of investment, to the tune of £40m-plus, in new pits, paddock and the like.

For endless years Bernie has ranted about Silverstone’s primitive facilities, saying that unless the place were to be significantly tarted up it would lose its GP. The BRDC, for its part, argued that if only his fee were lower – allowing it to make a decent profit from the race – investment would be possible. The stalemate seemed without end.

Fortunately the BRDC decided some time ago (in the face of fierce opposition from some of its members) to allow outside investment to come in, and it is this – on the back of guaranteed continuity, of a 17-year deal – that will enable Silverstone to have its required makeover.

If Todt indeed had a part to play, that is a promising pointer to the manner in which the new FIA president intends to operate. And there are others, too, if the decisions taken at the December meeting of the

World Sport Council in Paris are any guide. While I was disappointed by the revised World Championship point-scoring system – 25-20-15 puts no more premium on winning than did 10-8-6 – I was greatly heartened by news of changes to the FIA stewards’ panel.

For many years now the conduct of the FIA stewards at races has invited justifiable censure, and nothing was ever done about it. Nor did anyone like it at all when Max Mosley installed his own ‘man at the races’ as non-voting chairman of the three-man stewards’ panel.

As of now, that position disappears, and there will be a smaller group of permanent stewards on which to draw. These will sit with ‘experienced former F1 drivers to provide a permanent panel of three FIA stewards, together with one steward representing the National Sporting Authority, to deal with F1 at each Grand Prix’.

The hope is that these changes will lead to greater consistency, when it comes to judging on-track controversies, and also to a speeding up of decision making. All sounds very encouraging to me. The dithering uncertainty and erratic judgement of many FIA stewards has been a scandal for way too long.

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