The chess game
MAY 24, 2002
The Mole thinks that the 2002 season is a pretty silly one for Formula 1. The huge success of Ferrari on the race tracks of the world means that there is not much to say about the racing and so the happenings in the paddock have had to suffice for the hungry media. Thus issues such as the Prost Grand Prix TV money and Ferrari team orders have been blown out of all proportion to their real value.
And now as we get into the time of year when driver negotioations for next year must take place it looks that this year's Silly Season will be the silliest yet. There were lots of interesting and apparently strange stories in the course of the Nurburgring weekend and The Mole's team were having trouble making much sense of it all and so The Mole took out a chess set in order to teach the youngsters about how the game is played. The pawns represented the drivers.
The strangest report in Germany was that Jenson Button had been to Jaguar Racing and that he is out of Renault next year. For The Mole the story did not sound right but there is no doubt that Button did go visiting Milton Keynes. Jenson has long been the blue-eyed boy of the Renault bosses. Why, The Mole asked, would that situation change? Button does not appear to have done anything wrong and so the only possible explanation was that there was must be an external force pushing him out of the door.
But what external forces could be involved?
The only obvious conclusion was that there must be a better option available to Renault. Or it could just be part of a negotiation over money which will be resolved with Button staying where he is. But when The Mole thought about it, that seemed unlikely because Button is in no position to argue about money and so unless his management team has a low IQ there would be no reason for the story to be leaking out. There was also something about the reaction from the Button camp that made The Mole feel that perhaps it might be true.
The only "it" that The Mole could come up with was Jacques Villeneuve. And this is where the second rumour from the Nurburgring came into the story. Jacques is not a happy man at the moment at British American Racing as the team is making public noises about the need for him to make a decision about whether he wants to make more money or whether he wants to make progress. David Richards has made it clear that he will abide by the contract that exists but if he pays Villeneuve what the contract states he should be paying him there will be no money left to do any research and development. This has been presented (very neatly) as a choice that Jacques must make and so Jacques will be to blame if he refuses to compromise on the dollars. Richards cannot fire Villeneuve (unless he wants to pay him a great deal of money) but he can make the current situation less attractive than it is.
If Jacques decides to go for the money he will get one more year in F1 and that will be that because the voices in the paddock will condemn him for racing for money alone.
Jacques is being squeezed and he does not like it. But squeezing Villeneuve towards Renault is a clever thing to do because the Renault men have always wanted him. Button and Trulli are nearly big names but Villeneuve is a former World Champion. On top of that he speaks French and he was the last Renault World Champion in 1997. Add to this the fact that he cannot hope to get the kind of money that is in his BAR contract and so Renault could be looking at getting a star on the cheap. Villeneuve would get a better car, Renault would get a star and BAR would get a financial break. Working with Flavio Briatore may not be everyone's cup of tea but Renault is a team going in the right direction at the moment, with the solid support of an automobile manufacturer and a technical team which is assembled and doing good work. BAR and Honda may move forward but they have a long way to go and will need at least three seasons (if all goes well) to get to a position of being winners. It is probably more realistic to say five years. And five years from now Villeneuve will be getting close to retirement.
Jacques is now 31. The babies of the 1960s are gradually disappearing from F1 and being replaced by the babies of the 1980s. Villeneuve will probably be in the top six next year in terms of age and by the end of 2003 he, David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher will be the senior citizens of the sport.
Time waits for no man.
If he wants to be in the top six on the race track, Renault is the best option available.
If Button has to go the best place for him is probably Jaguar Racing. He is young and British. Jaguar may be saying that all is hunky-dory but one does not have to be a rocket scientist to see that now is the right time for the team to clear out its current driver line-up. Eddie Irvine and Pedro de la Rosa are the oldest and seventh oldest drivers in F1 at the moment and neither has exactly set the world on fire of late. The car was been slow and horrible and the team needs a change of drivers not only to save money but also to give the team a bit more credibility as Button is a rising star rather than a fading one and his presence might inspire the Jaguar staff to aim for greater things.
Button would be happy to earn half what Eddie Irvine is currently getting and Jaguar would save money.
The man for whom this all makes the most sense is Flavio Briatore, the proprietor of FB Management Ltd of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. This company has a number of F1 drivers under contract and wants to place them away from one another because it makes no sense at all for a company to have two of its clients in the same team. If that were to happen one would, inevitably, undermine the value of another so it is best to have the three clients in question (Jarno Trulli. Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso) in three different places, fighting against neutral yardsticks.
With Button and Trulli staying where they are at Renault FBM Ltd would be struggling to find decent work for its clients. Alonso needs to race having spent a year on the bench and Webber is ready for better things and he has no intention of sitting out a year. This explains why recently we saw Alonso in a Jaguar and why this week Webber will be seen at the wheel of one of the green cars. But they will not both end up there. The Mole feels that the perfect solution for everyone would be to have Button and Alonso at Jaguar; Webber and Panis at BAR and Villeneuve and Trulli at Renault.
And, The Mole would like to point out, that this line-up would add a little spice for the F1 show so the company holding the commercial rights is also going to be happy.
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