F1 Business Diary 2015: the Austrian Grand Prix

Nico Rosberg produced a superb drive to win at the Red Bull Ring but the race was overshadowed by complaints about rules and power units.

The headline story of the Austrian Grand Prix was a landmark win for Nico Rosberg over world champion team-mate Lewis Hamilton. The German overtook his pole-sitting colleague on lap one and produced a dominant drive – a rare occasion in the past two years where a Rosberg victory has not been marked by a Hamilton retirement or a moment of dubious generalship from the garage.

The recurring theme, however, was of a sport struggling for confidence in its current standing and future direction, with the engines – or power units – at the core of the debate.

Ecclestone's lament
“I was talking to some engineers the other day and I told them that I was always pretty good at selling used cars, and I still am, but I told them they have given me a crap product to sell,” said Bernie Ecclestone, allegedly, to the AFP on Friday.

Ecclestone would later attempt to distance himself from that statement, describing it as a “bad quote”, and insisting that any issues he had with Formula One had more to do with its problematic power units than anything else. But even if they did not quite represent the 84-year-old's 'Ratner moment' – with the Daily Telegraph, inevitably, moved to draw comparisons with Gerald Ratner – owner of an eponymous discount jewellery chain whose products he derided as 'total crap' in a 1991 speech, prompting the company's collapse – the comments hung over the weekend.

The traction that the criticism gained spoke of a championship where many feel the time has come to reconsider the rules and the nature of the racing. Mercedes' Niki Lauda said the sport had “basically been regulated to death down the years”, while two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, who endured another torrid weekend in a season where he is yet to score a point, encapsulated what many had been thinking in a pre-race interview.

“I would probably change many things – better not to say. The technology is too complex, especially for the people at home,” he said.

“They want to see cars crashing and overtaking each other and fighting for position, not saving tyres and saving fuel, and talking about DRS and tokens and penalties. The penalties we have are very difficult to understand. There are things that are too complicated and some of the rules are made by engineers and mathematicians and grandmother at home doesn’t care about these things.”

McLaren pay the penalty
Alonso was speaking soon after learning of an improbable 25-place penalty for the race after falling foul of engine reliability rules. Team-mate Jenson Button was hit with a similar punishment, meaning that two world champions would start on the back row of the grid, and take a hanidcap into the British Grand Prix early next month.

If that proved an embarrassing turn of events for the McLaren team, it was perhaps even more so for Honda. The Japanese carmaker's much-heralded return to McLaren's side – reviving memories of the team's Prost-Senna golden era – has had a nightmarish start, with repeated engine failures costing the two high-profile pilots very dear.

With remarkable timing, and as if to underscore the reputational threat to the company, Honda president Takihiro Hachigo was at the Red Bull Ring to check on the slow progress of its Formula One project. Hachigo only began his new job officially on 15th June.

Alonso did enjoy one piece of good fortune when he and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen walked away from a frightening collision early on the first lap.

Red Bull charging out?
When the return of Formula One to Austria was originally announced it was expected that the race would very much be about Red Bull Racing. At that point, the Austrian energy drinks brand, which also puts its name to Austria's circuit, was thoroughly enjoying its time in the sport, with its team closing on a fourth consecutive double of driver's and constructor's championships. Few could have imagined then that their home debut would be followed a year later with talk of a valedictory appearance.

So it was a sign of changed times last week when Dietrich Mateschitz, the Red Bull owner who so scarcely speaks in public, dropped a heavy hint in a conversation with Autosport about the company's continued involvement in Formula One, which is said to be in doubt due to the continued underperformance of Renault's power units.

“We will not endure a third season in these circumstances,” said Mateschitz, who has ruled out a switch to another engine supplier amid rumours of a switch to Volkswagen. “Last year we at least could secure second in the world championship and score three wins, but this season we are nowhere.”

He added: “There [must be] a commitment from Renault that they want to improve significantly, that they can do this and thirdly that they can finance this.”

Ecclestone, who met Mateschitz in Spielberg over the weekend, has played down the risk of Red Bull's departure.

London calling
The Italian Grand Prix is the latest of the grand European races to suffer the threat of eradication from the Formula One calendar, with Ecclestone prepared to think the unthinkable if Monza cannot come up with a suitable financial package for a new contract from 2017.

According to motorsport.com, the former home of the San Marino Grand Prix, Imola, could be ready to step in. Imola mayor Daniele Manca reportedly met with Ecclestone in London last week.

The eyes of the motorsport community will be on the British capital this weekend as Battersea Park hosts the finale of the inaugural season of the all-electric Formula E series, which comes a week ahead of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. As the cost of staging Formula One races continues to create uncertainty about the viability of some historic races, the double-header will provide an interesting comparison.

It will, no doubt, be the subject of much discussion at the Black Book Race Forum, which will take place at the Honorable Artillery Company on Tuesday 30th June. Formula E chief executive Alejandro Agag will be among the speakers, as will Silverstone managing director Patrick Allen, and beleaguered McLaren chief Jonathan Neale.

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