Is F1 Road Kill?

AGUANGA, CA, September 21, 2004 – Keeping up with the battering ram that is Michael Schumacher in Formula One has been difficult for the nine teams chasing the German and Scuderia Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello.

As the Ferrari duo keep amassing win after win, it’s got to be disheartening for the balance of the field trying to gain foothold in what is intended to be the highest level of motorsports in this known universe.

Without being on the track right now in their 17-race 2004 season and with three left to run, the F1 troops manage to make news.

This past week, in addition to running test dates in anticipation of off-shore races in China, Japan and Brazil, the denizens of the F1 community have been busy making changes to current lineups in anticipation of a real challenge to Schumacher and Ferrari next year.

Well, some of them, anyway.

After testing for Mild Seven Renault F1, Jacques Villeneuve will drive the final three races in lieu of Jarno Trulli, who intended to leave the team anyway and go to Panasonic Toyota, where he was announced last week as teammate to Ralf Schumacher for the 2005 campaign.

Shortly before Trulli was named to that seat, Mild Seven Renault majordomo Flavio Briatore declared him out of the seat for the last races.

Last week Ralf Schumacher had his first stint behind the wheel since June, when an accident at Indianapolis Motor Speedway gave the younger brother of Michael a three-month headache from which to recover. Apparently he’s okay now and his tests with BMW Williams F1 at the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit last week went well.

Schumacher will, then, finish out his season for Williams and depart for Panasonic Toyota with Italian Trulli, whose assignment for the balance of the season appears to be “sitting it out.” For now, anyway, but that, too, is subject to change.

Back to Villeneuve, the 1995 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner, 1995 CART champion and 1997 FIA Formula One titleholder. Out of a ride since the final race of last year when he left B.A.R. Honda, ceding the seat in the Japanese Grand Prix finale to Takuma Sato (who continues with the team), the French Canadian has spent much of his time shopping the talents that got him to the top.

No teams appeared ready to buy. Villeneuve earned a reputation as a whiner, pain-in-the-arse driver during his tenure with B.A.R., making accurate complaints about the competitiveness of his car and lack of development. Of course once he was gone from the team, they suddenly appeared to step up to the plate with podium drives by both Sato and Jenson Button this season.

The latter driver, of course, is hoping to leave the team and go to the first F1 home of Villeneuve, BMW Williams as teammate to Mark Webber, the Australian who catapulted from Minardi to Jaguar to Williams – without winning a race.

While Villeneuve will compete at Mild Seven Renault for the final three races of this season, he’s got a completely different package for the 2005 campaign. Jacques will be driving for Sauber Petronas next year, and that combination might give the mighty Schumacher a run for the money.

Money isn’t the reason Villeneuve wanted to get back into the fight; apparently he feels he’s got unfinished business. Jacques will have to make do with far less than he once received; the budget balance may be sent to engineering. Now that Sauber has a state-of-the-art wind tunnel at its disposal, this team might step it up.

As for Jenson Button, his future is tied up in the FIA’s courts, as the Contract Resolution Board will meet next month to decide the validity of the Brit’s signature on both his B.A.R. and BMW Williams pedigree papers. In either case, Button gets a good opportunity to get that elusive first win in F1.

And then there’s Jaguar. Or maybe not. The top-heavy team that emerged from tiny Stewart Grand Prix equipe will soon be dissolved.

Not only is Jaguar for sale, but so is Ford‘s engineering and engine-building company Cosworth Ltd, which has furnished F1 engines under three different monikers to three diverse non-winning teams this year: Jaguar, Jordan Ford and Minardi Cosworth.

Confused by the nomenclature? I’d bet Ford operatives in Dearborn were, too. For that reason, among many others the parent company has decided to part ways with Jaguar F1, with Cosworth Racing, Jordan and Minardi as it tries to recoup falling racing and overall fortunes.

Stating that Ford is “putting our Formula 1 businesses up for sale” in a restructuring move that is as well swept as any F1 shop floor, Jaguar chairman Joe Greenwell also insinuated the WRC rally team could easily be disbanded in this divestiture process.

In the Jordan and Minardi camps, the idea that Ford won’t be taking the majority of the monetary shortfall that occurs when F1 engines are built and “sold” to clients like these two teams comes at a difficult time.

Both backmarkers have been trying to bring their fortunes a wee bit higher and/or putting themselves up for sale. Eddie Jordan, in particular has been shopping his team for more than a few years, to little avail.

A lot of this maneuvering has to do with Max Mosley and his latest FIA edict to change the current state of Formula One. While Mosley would like to see 2-meeting race engines (or longer) rather than the current mandate that engines last a single race weekend, many of the manufacturers don’t think it’s the right thing to do.

A return to V8 power mills has been placed on the table for 2006 by Mosley, a change the current lineup of engine makers doesn’t really cozy up to.

Ford’s and its wholly owned subsidiary Jaguar’s decision to depart Formula One doesn’t say anything good about the series or its direction. With spiraling costs, lessening competition and the likelihood that other teams might have to be dissolved by the decision from Dearborn, F1’s health is in major question.

No number of musical chairs swapping amongst drivers can lessen the impact of this newest move. The big question is whether Formula One can survive the loss of Ford.

While – in the modern era – Formula One always has endured when other major players have left, this might be a tougher burden to bear for the remaining teams, who would have to add entries to make the 20-car requirement. That won’t bring costs down one Euro and it certainly won’t increase the enjoyment of F1 by racing fans following teams as well as drivers.

Ford’s departure from the F1 landscape smacks of road-kill. And we all know how awful dead meat stinks after a few days.

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