The fallout from the collision between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton on lap two of the Belgian Grand Prix has ramped up an already gripping battle for the Formula One world championship – Bernie Ecclestone, we can be sure, will be delighted at how things are shaping up ahead of his double-your-points Abu Dhabi finale in November.
But the aftermath of Sunday's race has also shone a spotlight at the lack of experience at the top of the Mercedes team. This is Rosberg's first world championship battle but it is also the first time Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe, the team's most senior executives, have faced the white heat of a title run-in and the attendant media attention. On Sunday there were signs of strain. 42-year old Wolff has garnered a strong reputation as the team's frontman this year – he described Sunday's collision as “unacceptable” – but he is a relative newcomer to the sport. The Austrian bought into the Williams team as recently as 2009, during a period when the British team was struggling, and switched to his current team and executive director role in January 2013, where he is responsible for all Mercedes-Benz’s motorsport activity. Lowe, ten years older than Wolff, joined Mercedes last year, after a long period at the technical helm of the McLaren team – his 2014 role, however, has a substantially higher profile than anything he has experienced before and it was noticeable that he left the media work to Wolff on Sunday. Niki Lauda, the non-executive chairman of the team, has, of course, been there and done it, and is the go-to man for a juicy quote. However, now, more than ever, Mercedes top brass in Stuttgart must crave the steadying but firm hand of Ross Brawn to manage what has turned into a toxic battle between Rosberg and Hamilton. Brawn, team principal between 2010 and 2013 and of course a man well versed in running successful championship campaigns, elected not to continue with the team over the winter. That followed Lowe's arrival to steer the technical effort and the appointments of Wolff and Lauda, who were both handed shares in the British-based Mercedes Formula One operation. His absence was more noticeable than ever at Spa.
Shuffling the back of the pack
The parlous state of finances at the back end of Formula One was laid bare in the build-up to the Belgian Grand Prix, with a driver change at Caterham and, technically, two driver swaps at Marussia. Both teams require funding from their drivers. For Spa, Caterham's new owners opted to replace Kamui Kobayashi, who has brought only modest funding to the team from donations made by his fans in Japan, with 32-year-old German Andre Lotterer. Lotterer, a three-time Le Mans winner with Audi, is a fine driver and Caterham said he had been called up to offer a new perspective on the struggling car, but it is believed he also brought some much-needed cash – the logos of Hype, an energy drink company founded by former Formula One driver Bertrand Gachot, were noticeable on his race suit throughout the weekend. Caterham insist that Kobayashi remains a member of the team and that Lotterer's appearance was a one-off but, as it seeks extra financial support under its unidentified new owners, it is believed that Red Bull and Mercedes are willing to pay for young drivers to fill the seat for at least some of the remaining seven Grands Prix this year. Red Bull is keen for Carlos Sainz Jr. to make his Formula One debut in 2014, while Mercedes youngster Roberto Merhli, a 23-year old Spaniard, was noticeable by his presence in Spa as a Caterham guest. The underfunded Kobayashi, who spent Sunday posting moody photos from Paris on his Twitter account, may struggle to find a way back in.
The Marussia mystery
At Marussia, meanwhile, it was a messy start to the weekend, to say the least. On Thursday the team announced that Max Chilton, who has been with the team since the start of 2013, would not race in Belgium due to 'contractual issues' and would be replaced by American debutant Alexander Rossi, Marussia's reserve driver. Shortly afterwards came a statement from The Sports PR Company, the British agency which has handled Chilton's public relations since April last year, which said the British driver had 'volunteered to step out of his race seat…to allow the team to attract much needed funds by selling his seat'. The statement added that 'Marussia are currently in talks with several new investors and it is expected the situation will be resolved before the next race in the F1 calendar at Monza'. It is no secret that Chilton’s Marussia seat is funded by a group of private investors led by his father Grahame, a former vice-chairman of insurance giant Aon. The common assumption was that their latest payment had not reached the team, something denied by a Chilton camp unwilling to reveal any more. The team was similarly guarded, especially when it was announced, midway through first practice on Friday morning and with Rossi on the track, that Chilton had been reinstated for the weekend. Rumours swirl that an American consortium may have an interest in buying the team, while there has also been speculation that the Chilton family may take a stake in the Russian-owned squad. Whatever, the Spa kerfuffle hardly helped the image of Chilton or the team.
From Russia – with love?
Sebastian Vettel travelled from Spa to Sochi's Olympic Park where, on Monday, he drove the first laps of the circuit which will host October's inaugural Russian Grand Prix as part of his ambassadorial role with Red Bull Racing title sponsor Infiniti. Vettel seemed as impressed with the layout as the FIA's race director Charlie Whiting was with the overall facility during a visit earlier in August. He has given the venue the green light and although there are still understandable concerns about Formula One pitching up in Russia given the current political situation, Bernie Ecclestone will not be countenancing a postponement. Speaking to SportsPro recently, Sergey Vorobyev, the deputy general director of OJSC Center Omega, the company promoting the Grand Prix, said he expects a sell-out crowd of 55,000 for the first event on 12th October. Around a third will be Sochi residents, a third will come from Moscow and St Petersburg, and a third from other Russian cities and further afield. “The Russians proved, with the Olympic Games, that Russia and the city of Sochi can host amazing, beautiful, unforgettable and safe events,” Vorobyev said, “and it will be the same with Formula One.” He added: “There is no chance to give the first impression twice, so we will give a perfect first impression. This is the goal.”