Matters of moment, November 2013

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Formula 1 driver racing a six-year-old up and down a shoe shop – on a spacehopper. As sponsor PR stunts go it was certainly “memorable”, as Mark Webber put it with Saharan understatement. The Aussie can at least console himself on such occasions by the paycheque he receives, but there’s clearly much about F1 he won’t miss when he walks away
from Grand Prix racing at the end of this season.

Despite the odd circumstances, Mark was in typically good humour on this Thursday evening in Oxford Street. Four days earlier he’d made the podium at Monza, remarkably for the first time, standing beside a Ferrari driver high above the bellowing masses of the tifosi. Not a bad way to finish your last F1 race in Europe.

It helps that Webber is clearly at peace with his decision to quit F1 in favour of Porsche, sports car racing and the Le Mans 24 Hours for 2014. But make no mistake: there is no hint of complacency here. Sure, F1 is as intense as it gets, but there is nothing easy about the challenge he’s taken on. And he knows it.

“There are snapshots in my mind that go towards what’s ahead, which is great,” he said of his new adventure.

“To go to Porsche at this embryonic stage… it’s very early, it’s raw, they’re going back to take on the greatest endurance race in the world, one where they have been the benchmark in terms of victories. Now they’ve got to go back and make their presence felt again – which means winning. That will take time, but they’ve got great people in place, and the factory drivers they’ve got on the inside are phenomenal.”

Between Monza and this PR event for Red Bull Racing sponsor Geox, Ferrari had announced Kimi Räikkönen as Fernando Alonso’s team-mate in 2014.

As someone who counts Fernando as a friend, we couldn’t help but ask how he thought the Spaniard would be reacting to the prospect of his first fellow world champion team-mate.

“I think Fernando will see it as a positive thing,” Mark responded. “It’ll help him get a bit more out of himself on Saturday afternoons.

On Sundays, there’s no question he’s brilliant in the races. On Saturdays, Kimi will lift him to another level.

“He will also see it as an opportunity to do well against Kimi. He will backhimself in this situation. But he has to be careful on the technical [side]. Kimi we know is a phenomenal guy, but it’s going to be interesting to see if Fernando feels the work rate within the team is going to be even. It’s a big technical challenge next year, both drivers will have to put a lot into that and I don’t think Fernando will be too happy if it’s all just one-sided. But I don’t see many downsides. It’s all just DEFCON Red… and they’ve got 12 months to make it work. I don’t think Fernando’s going to be too patient from the performance perspective, no matter who his team-mate is.”

As a sports fan, Webber is rubbing his hands at the prospect of these guys going toe to toe. “F1 fans follow the sport because of the drivers, and that’s what’s still important,” he said. “It’s going to be a tasty finish to both their careers. For both Fernando and Kimi, at the end of next year they’ll be in thetwilight. It’s coming round pretty quick.
As for Ferrari, it’s almost like they’ve put all their money on red at the casino, and said ‘okay, bang, this is either going to work or it’s not’. If the car isn’t competitive it will fizzle out. But if the car is quick it’ll be good fun.”

To those with F1 blinkers, Webber is about to be lost to motor racing. The truth for the rest of us is that he’s not going far – thank goodness. Sports car racing’s gain, we reckon.The irony wasn’t lost on me. One day I’d been sampling nearly two and half tonnes of Rolls-Royce Wraith, complete with bottomless 6.6-litre V12 and remarkable supercar performance; the next I was watching the launch of the world’s first all-electric racing series, contemplating kilowatts, wireless charging and zero-emission motor sport. Every day’s a different story around these parts.

Andrew Frankel offers a definitive review of the new Wraith on page 36, while my summary of the new Formula E starts on page 70. The only commonality is that both offer sporting performance where traditionally it’s rarely been found. In the case of the Rolls, Andrew suggests perhaps it shouldn’t be. As for Formula E, we remain open-minded over an innovative concept that will inevitably be greeted by scepticism among purists.

FIA president Jean Todt put in an appearance at the Frankfurt Motor Show in support of the new series. He needs some support himself at the moment, following news that he has a challenger for his job as election time looms on December 6. David Ward is a former Labour Party spin-doctor who subsequently worked for Max Mosley during his presidency of the governing body, and intriguingly played a “key role” (his words) in the election of Todt back in 2009. He has now resigned from his post as director general of the FIA Foundation to stand against the man he once backed.

Ward claims to be a reluctant candidate – although he needs 26 member nominations by the middle of November for his bid to be confirmed – and says he is doing so only because of the lack of a club president who is willing to put themselves forward. He has issued a 20-point ‘agenda forchange’, which concentrates largely on “governance issues and how the FIA’s management, transparency and accountability can be improved…” Inevitably, the mud-slinging has started, Ward (right) filing a complaint to the Foundation’s Ethics Committee “that the FIA’s current presidency has been using FIA resources to try to predetermine the election outcome even before the process had begun”. Expect more to come.

Todt remains in a strong position to retain his role, but this destabilising challenge from an old Mosley ally will add another dimension to the ongoing power struggle that simmers just below the surface of Formula 1.

Meanwhile, CVC Capital Partners, the private equity group that holds a controlling stake in F1, continues to make eye-watering returns on its $1 billion investment. According to The Financial Times, it eventually expects to reap seven times what it sowed in Grand Prix racing, thanks to the remarkable generosity of Mosley, who signed away the sport’s commercial rights to Bernie Ecclestone all those years ago.

So we can’t help but wonder, when will Todt, Ward or any other potential FIA candidate ever address this pillaging of wealth from a sport that’s deserted the circuits, clubs and race teams that really need and deserve it? Answers on a postcard, please.

Damien Smith

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