JULY 27, 2004
Rumours from Renault
The word of the street at Renault F1 this morning is that Mark Smith is leaving the Enstone team. Smith joined Renault in January 2001 on a five year contract and so should be staying until January 2006. Renault F1 has a rather odd system by which Tim Densham and Smith design the F1 cars on alternate years. Densham designed the R23, Smith designed this year's R24 but Densham is due to design the R25 next year. This means that Smith would in theory spend 2005 designing the R26 for the 2006 season, despite the fact that his contract will run out before that car ever races. There is little motivation in such a situation and as other teams will probably have been sniffing around at Renault because of the competitiveness of the current car, it may be that there are better-looking offers out there for the obviously-talented Smith. One option would be Toyota where Mike Gascoyne would love to have a chief designer he knows from two previous teams. Several other top teams could also be looking for a new chief designer because of disappointing cars.
An outside chance would have to be Jordan Grand Prix where Smith cut his teeth as one of the three original members of the design office back in 1990. If Smith was lured back to Jordan (the team does not have a Technical Director at the moment) it would back up rumours which suggest that Jordan has done a deal with the Al Maktoum Family from Dubai and now has the opportunity (and the money) to completely rebuild his team.
Such a move would also be sweet revenge because Renault F1 took Mike Gascoyne away from Jordan in similar circumstances back in 2000.
In all probability Smith would have to sit out a few months of "gardening leave" which would mean that he would be unable to design a car for 2005. In the past, however, we have sometimes seen engineers keen to move quickly and trying to prove that their existing employer has somehow broken their contract. If that is shown to be the case, they are free to leave immediately. It usually depends on the exact wording of a contract and while we not able to read such documents there is one obvious point which would seem to be a bone of contention at Renault F1. In November 1999 the team announced that Tim Densham "will succeed Nick Wirth as Chief Designer". When Smith joined Renault the team was very careful to point out that he was "to join the technical team" without giving him a title but this season the team announced that the R24 had "been conceived by a team led by Chief Designer Mark Smith".
If Smith and Densham both have contracts saying they are the Chief Designer of Renault F1 a lawyer would argue that by definition both men can leave because neither one is actually doing the job he was hired to do. If the contracts say that they are "Joint Chief Designers" it would be another story.
This is pure speculation and it is hard to imagine that a man with Flavio Briatore's keen eye for legal niceties will have allowed such a situation to occur.
Nonetheless, the rumours about Smith are interesting and we will watch developments with interest.
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