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Formula 1 gossip

There are no Grands Prix until the middle of March - so what is it that the Formula 1 teams are doing during the off-season? Well, they are gossiping, but they are busy as well getting ready for the F1 season which kicks off on March 14 in South Africa.

Most of the wealthier teams have picked their drivers and are now busy producing new cars and testing new technology. Further back on the grids the choice of driver is dependent on who can bring the most money to a team. This is why every year there are newcomers to F1 as enthusiastic youngsters arrive with sponsors willing to splash out to see their driver in a Grand Prix car - after three seasons that attitude is gone, so a new driver has to make his mark quickly or else find money to pay for drives. It would nice if teams could chose the best drivers available - but the need money to run them. This sometimes explains unusual moves between the teams and strange names at the back end of the grid.

On the face of it McLaren has only one driver (Michael Andretti). All the other big teams: Williams (Alain Prost and Damon Hill), Ferrari (Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi), Benetton (Michael Schumacher and Riccardo Patrese) and Sauber (JJ Lehto and Karl Wendlinger) are all settled on their drivers.

In the middle-ranking teams Footwork (Derek Warwick and Aguri Suzuki), Ligier (Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell), Tyrrell (Ukyo Katayama and Andrea de Cesaris) and Scuderia Italia (Michele Alboreto and Luca Badoer) are settled. Minardi is close to confirming Christian Fittipaldi and Fabrizio Barbazza and Eddie Jordan has signed Rubens Barrichello and is expected to have Thierry Boutsen joining him shortly.

This leaves Larrousse and March as serious teams which have still to confirm drivers. Pacific (Bartels), Bravo (Jordi Gene) and Brabham (Carlos Guerrero) have all named one driver but it is unlikely that all three will have the money to compete.

Larrousse is in an interesting position because of Ligier's decision to hire two British drivers. Knowing that Ligier is funded by French government companies, Larrousse may try to exploit the fact that Ligier has apparently ignored French drivers such as Erik Comas, Paul Belmondo, Olivier Grouillard and Yannick Dalmas. Gerard may sign two of these, get money from Elf - a longtime Ligier sponsor which also supports several of the drivers named above and paint his cars in Ligier blue, thus enhancing his position as a leading French team.

March's position is confused because it has just been sold. Originally there were plans to run two paying drivers - or more - but if the new owners have the money and are serious and realistic about F1 there are several good and experienced drivers who may not have a drive: Thierry Boutsen, Bertrand Gachot, Gabriele Tarquini, Pierluigi Martini and Eric Van de Poele to name just a few.

So how is it with so much talent around that one of the best drives in the business - a McLaren seat - is still available. And why did Frank Williams sign up a driver with only two Grands Prix behind him?

Williams is an interesting case. It is not a poor team, but nor is it the richest in the F1 paddock. It had a dominant car in 1992 - car which everyone wanted to drive. That is the ace in the F1 card game. If you have a car that can win, drivers are not as expensive to hire. They all want winning cars. Williams signed Alain Prost early in 1992 for the 1993 season. Alain was smart and did a deal early. Nigel Mansell who had the best drive in F1 wanted a great deal of money to stay on and Frank Williams was not willing to pay it. Nigel decided not to stay in F1. When he heard that Mansell was leaving Ayrton Senna offered to drive for Williams for nothing, but Prost had an agreement which meant that Ayrton could not join him. This was because when they were team mates at McLaren in 1988 they were too competitive to be able to work well together and it turned into a very destructive relationship.

Williams had to look elsewhere for a new driver. There were long talks with Mika Hakkinen but rising F1 stars tend to quickly become expensive, so Williams went for a 'cheap' option. He signed F1 newcomer Damon Hill, who would probably drive for free if offered the drive. Hill was cheap and as Williams's test driver had thousands of miles of experience driving a Williams. It is a risk but Williams now has money available which would normally pay the drivers to be spent on investment in new technology and research.

The situation at McLaren is very different. Team boss Ron Dennis wants Senna, but no-one knows if Senna wants to stay at McLaren. Certainly the relationship between Senna and Dennis at the end of last year was not very good. But Senna is still the best driver in the world and Dennis wants him. Dennis can only offer Ayrton a good financial incentive and a good car. If that is not good enough for Senna, he will not drive. At the same time Ayrton has no other choices. He can drive for McLaren or take a year away from F1, he does not have any levers in the negotiations to push up the price as all the top F1 seats are already taken. Unless he has decided to take a year off or race in Indycars in 1993 Senna will now probably try the new McLaren-Ford when it is ready and will then decide what to do. If the car is good and Senna really cares only about having competitive machinery he will sign. In reality, however, the question of money will probably arise with Senna trying to push up the price and Dennis trying to keep it as low as possible. This is where Dennis is likely to have a strong hand as it seems that he has some form of agreement with Mika Hakkinen, who is ready to take the drive if Senna refuses it or it the Brazilian asks for too much money. If Senna decides to drive Mika will either return to Lotus or become McLaren's test driver for a year, with a guarantee of being employed in the future.

But what about Hakkinen and Lotus? The atmosphere between the two cannot be very good as Hakkinen has been talking to Williams and McLaren. The Lotus team management says that Mika is under contract to them. Hakkinen's manager Keke Rosberg reckons this is not the case. F1 often has situations like this and that is why there is an F1 contract control board in Lausanne, Switzerland to adjudicate disputes. This body has copies of all the F1 contracts - without the financial details - and can thus rule independently if there is a dispute. If it is proven that Lotus has a contract with Hakkinen, McLaren must pay Lotus to release the Finn. Otherwise the Finn must drive for Lotus.

There are lots of rumours about Zanardi, Comas or Gachot replacing Hakkinen, but Lotus insists it is keeping Hakkinen. This is because the team cannot admit to talking to other drivers while Hakkinen is still under contract. If Lotus is seen to hire a driver to replace Hakkinen without the problems with Hakkinen and McLaren being solved, Lotus will break the contract and Hakkinen will be free to go - and Lotus will lose the possibility of getting money from McLaren to release the Finn.

F1 gossip is, as you can see, a complicated business.

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