F1: It isn’t bigger in Texas
IN THE nation where big is always better, Formula One did itself no favours by fielding the smallest grid in some time – 18 cars – in Austin this morning.
As well as losing Marussia and Caterham to financial administrators in the lead-up to the US Grand Prix, there was the threat of rebellion from three other strugglers who debated whether to use the occasion to draw attention to money inequities on the F1 grid.
It was just what ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone and F1 didn’t want as the European-spawned form of motor sport sought to use the spotlight on the Circuit of the Americas to show NASCAR-besotted Americans that grand prix racing is indeed premium entertainment.
A boycott was threatened as the three rebel teams – Lotus, Sauber and Force India – saw the chance to use F1’s global stage in a prime market to attract attention to their eternal struggle against the sport’s cashed-up giants at the pointy end of the grid. It was a serious piece of brinkmanship that extended into Sunday.
Ecclestone is known as the sport’s commercial rights holder, although in recent times private equity firm CVC Capital Partners has actually controlled how F1 operates.
But the issue the small marques have with Ecclestone and CVC is the distribution of revenues.
The smaller teams insist they are being financially strangled while Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes take a massive share of the £900 million ($A1.64 billion) dished out. The same big four also manage to attract the biggest sponsorship deals.
Over the weekend, in a rare show of mea culpa, Ecclestone admitted to British journalist Ian Parkes that the crisis was probably his fault. If he had his way, he would rip up all contracts and start afresh.
"There is too much money probably being distributed badly – probably my fault,” Ecclestone conceded.
The menace of boycott was real and there was high anxiety around the paddock until diplomacy and promises prevailed just 90 minutes before the cars went out to play on Sunday. Hopefully resolution will come before the Brazilian Grand Prix next weekend.
So 18 cars did start, a thin field to be sure, but not as bad as it may have been, and certainly way healthier than in 2005 when just six cars competed in a travesty of a GP at Indianapolis due to a tyre problem. It stunned the 130,000 crowd and wasn’t a good look, particularly as NASCAR routinely puts 43 cars on the track three dozen times a year.
At Austin race, Nico Rosberg stunned championship rival and points leader Lewis Hamilton by comfortably out-qualifying his Mercedes teammate to take pole, leaving the Saturday duel at nine-seven in the German’s favour.
The Williams-Merc pair of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa held row two, with Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull fifth ahead of the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso.
Ricciardo made another bad start (see, it wasn’t just Mark Webber!) and dropped to seventh as Rosberg took off. Our boy scrambled back to sixth before Sergio Perez got into Adrian Sutil, bringing out the safety car on lap one.
At the restart, Ricciardo pounced opportunistically, and quite brilliantly the West Aussie slid by Alonso to fifth.
He then moved ahead of Bottas during the first tyre stop, but was vulnerable to the Williams duo due to the Red Bull’s leisurely straight-line pace.
A spirited mid-race duel between world champs Jenson Button and Alonso probably had greater significance than many appreciated because the Brit is fighting for his F1 life, with the Spaniard tipped to take his seat at McLaren next year.
Right at the pointy end, Hamilton ambushed Rosberg to take control, with Massa still separating Ricciardo from the podium. Until Massa pitted for tyres.
Sebastian Vettel, having started from pit lane following a power-pack change, had an eventful race, yo-yoing up into the points and out again. Then back in.
Hamilton took the win to extend his points lead over Rosberg, while Ricciardo kept his podium after a another sizzling drive. His was a terrific effort to beat the Williams pair.
So that was the US GP, but there is much more to play out off track. Former FIA president Max Mosley believes more teams will be forced to drop out of the sport if measures are not taken soon to level the playing field between the big rich teams that spend $300-500 million a year and the tiddlers that battle along on $40 million or so.
Mosley says it’s too difficult for the lesser-funded teams to survive in an increasingly costly business.
Talking to BBC Radio5, Mosley said: "From a sporting point of view, the sport should split the money equally and then let the teams get as much sponsorship as they can.”
Should neither Caterham nor Marussia find new owners, F1 will have to confront the reality of a thin grid of nine teams and 18 cars for the 2015 season. Or maybe F1 will return to the old idea of three-car teams to fatten the starting numbers.
BATHURST 12 HOUR: Flush grid for sports car enduro
IN THE week that Mark Webber blasted V8 Supercars for staging its 2015 official test against the rival Bathurst 12 Hour for GT cars, happy organisers of the sports car enduro have an embarrassment of riches – entries have raced past the 50-car mark.
And it’s still 100 days out from the race, set for February 8.
Such is the ongoing interest in Australia’s international endurance race that event organiser James O’Brien has relaxed the old 55-car grid cap.
Initially the cap was imposed due to the limited overtaking opportunities across the top of Mount Panorama, when the field comprised a large number of slower vehicles. With the field now comprising a majority of GT vehicles, the need for the cap is reduced.
Before entries formally close in mid-December, O’Brien expects to confirm an additional four cars in Class A (GT3) and has received inquiries from prospective runners in other classes.
The 12 Hour, a resounding hit with drivers, entrants and spectators this year, has grown remarkably since its rebirth, and has attracted network television coverage next year.
Nissan has confirmed its works-supported Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 squad will again represent their NISMO Global Athlete Team program for the second year.
Along with Nissan, exotic European brands Aston Martin, Bentley, Mercedes-AMG, Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, Audi and Porsche will chase outright honours.
Craft Bamboo Racing will field a two-car Aston Martin team, the Hong Kong-based team confirming a double-barrelled Vantage GT3 attack with a driver line-up that will include the return of two-time race winner Darryl O’Young.
More diversity appears in the entry following the confirmation that Cor Euser, the impressively credentialed Dutch owner/driver, has entered a Lotus Evora GT4 in Class C (GT4 vehicles).
Euser has raced at the highest level for years, including competing in Formula 3, F3000, Indy racing and the Dakar Rally.
The addition of Euser’s Lotus takes the GT4 entry to four cars and the total GT grid to 38.
The 12 Hour’s class structure has been streamlined, with five classes now appearing on the official entry list – the three GT categories plus two classes for invited vehicles.
OUTLAWS: Schatz is champ but Aussie Madsen shines
DONNY Schatz has wrapped up the World of Outlaws sprintcar series in another dominant season in which he won 26 points-paying feature races.
But accolades to Sydney’s Kerry Madsen, fourth in the season’s standings after the gruelling 94-race Outlaws championship (two nights were rained out), which started back in February and concludes next weekend.
It was the third consecutive year that Madsen finished among the top 10 in the WoO Series.
The Outlaws raced all over North America from Florida to Ontario, Canada, and from New York State to California.
Madsen won six main events during 2014 to emphatically show the Americans that he’s a genuine championship contender.
This weekend will also mark the retirement of the greatest ever, 20-times Outlaw champion Steve Kinser, who at 60 managed to score a win in his farewell season.
MOTOGP: Casey Stoner completes two-day test in Motegi
AUSTRALIA’S retired two-time MotoGP world champion, Casey Stoner, last week competed a two-day test in Japan with Honda Racing Corporation – the first time back on a MotoGP machine since October 2013.
But don’t read anything into Stoner’s return for this session at Motegi. It was part of a commitment made to Honda to take a selective testing role.
Stoner spent time with the 2015 Honda RC213V machine on the current specification Bridgestone tyres, testing various items including engine development and different set-ups.
He also spent time on the Michelin tyres that will be used by regular Honda riders Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa in 2016.
“It took some time to get used to riding the bike again after a year off it,” Stoner said. “But everything felt good, I got back into the swing of things pretty quickly and we just got on with the testing program HRC had planned.
“Day one went pretty well, testing both Marc and Dani’s set-ups on the 2015 prototype machines and, analysing these side-by-side, we found some interesting differences and useful data. We also did some engine development and some other new items Honda brought for this test.
“Then today we spent some time on the Michelin tyres for 2016. All in all it was very positive two-day test and we completed a lot of laps.”
Sign up here to receive the latest round-up of Wheels news, reviews and video highlights straight to your inbox each week.
Want free access to 5 years of Wheels archive content? Sign up now!