The Ferrari Owners’ Club
of Great Britain

GRAND PRIX: Spa Francorchamps: Clean Win for Vettel

04-09-2018

Story by Tony Cotton

I hesitate to suggest that accountancy is now more exciting than F1 but in the run up to Spa and the race itself I’m sorely tempted.

The big news before Spa was of course the death throes of Force India. They had started around the Hungarian race with a winding up order being listed in the High Court. That would have killed the company.  However, Sergio Perez was owed money by them. With the amount of car damage he did, I would have expected he owed them, but nevertheless that allowed him to petition the court, apparently with the support of Mercedes and BWT, to appoint an administrator who would hopefully be able to sell the team on.

F1 teams have generally in the past either died or been sold as going concerns. In other words, the company has been bought, not just some of its assets. This is why if you look up Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd at Companies House you see it was formed as Tyrrell Racing Organisation Ltd in 1964, or Red Bull Racing Ltd as Stewart Grand Prix Ltd. But that didn’t happen to Force India. Most of the tangible assets were sold to the new company Racing Point UK Ltd, with the F1 entry remaining with Force India Formula One Team Ltd (ex Jordan Grand Prix Ltd).

What was so toxic about Force India? The team has performed well this year so there would be a good banking of prize money. Its entry must be worth something, as you surely can’t just stroll up (geddit?-Ed) and enter a Grand Prix. A look at the latest accounts available (December 2016) gives some hints. Total liabilities exceed total assets by £36m. The annual loss was £12m, but this was after a very generous £12m from HMRC (2015 £12m). Yes, if you pay UK tax you sponsored Force India due to the wonders of Research and Development tax credit rules. The company was dependent on support from a Luxembourg holding company. By comparison Williams have just filed their 2017 accounts showing an £8m operating profit and £47m net assets.  Their turnover was over 50% more than Force India’s £77m – a garden shed operation by F1 standards – so perhaps it’s understandable why nobody wanted the skeletons of the company.

Liberty must have found themselves with a difficult decision. By giving an entry to Racing Point (directors Lawrence Sheldon Strulovitch (Stroll) and Silas Kei Fong Chou) they’ve guaranteed a bit of strong midfield action, possibly some interesting crashes, and stopped the grid looking anorexic at the risk of devaluing an entry. Will that devaluation bite them in future? Or will it set a useful precedent when Renault or (say it quietly) Mercedes pull out?

Sadly, the whole saga once again makes F1 look silly. A team can be very good at what it does, yet fail financially. F1 is meant to be difficult, but it can’t be meant to be impossible on £77m a year.

Incidentally, I googled Mr Stroll and noted that as well as owning (with Chou) a few upper-middle fashion brands (i.e. I’ve heard of them but can’t afford them – Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Polo Ralph Lauren) he also owns/owned a 330P4, 250GTO, 288GTO and, bringing things down to earth, a Daytona convertible.

Qualifying

After that introduction, it would be embarrassing if Racing Point Force India F1 Team were rubbish. They weren’t. And better still Ferrari looked dominant if a little puzzling in their tactics.

Q1 knocked out McLaren, 50 years from Bruce’s first victory at Spa, and Williams, which is currently as expected. Kimi looked to be on form, nearly a quarter second ahead of Bottas. The new Ferrari engine seemed to be delivering, though they were also running a skinny rear wing which gave better sector 1 and 3 times, slower sector 2.

Q2 pruned out the lower second division leaving the grandees (Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull) and Force India, with Haas this week taking on the mantle of Ferrari number 2.  Significantly, towards the end of Q2 it started raining slowly, raining properly after Q3 started.  After an exploratory lap on slicks all but the Force Indias came in. They did so after a further hair-raising lap. Bottas, having spun at Blanchimont and with a penalty, didn’t go out again while Red Bull rushed to change to inters, gambling on it getting worse. It didn’t, and they weren’t able to stay out to the end unlike Vettel and Hamilton. It was a matter of perfect timing and it looked as though Seb got it right when he got an extra lap after his rival. But he was unable to match Hamilton who got pole by 0.8sec. A lack of KERS was thought to be the reason.

Kimi went too early, presumably putting in a “banker” for the team and then was made to sit the rest of the session out so finished 6th. He didn’t seem happy (how can you tell? – Ed) and it would mean he was in the middle of the start melee. Force India’s tactics (and a good car) put them 3rd and 4th.

Race

Two things to remember. Computers always go wrong. F1 cars have rear wheel brake-by-wire. These facts contributed to Hulkenberg locking up and shoving his nose under Alonso’s gearbox. Alonso launched into Ricciardo, taking off his rear wing, and over Leclerc. Ricciardo was pushed into Kimi, puncturing his right rear. Bottas also went into Sirotkin in an unrelated incident. Maybe the old downhill start after La Source had its merits.

Meanwhile at the sharp end, Seb drove past Hamilton on the exit of Raidillon, temporarily joined by the Force Indias.  Not only was the power helpful, but the lower drag and better traction out of Eau Rouge proved a perfect combination for Seb.  A safety car interlude followed during which Kimi’s wheel was changed and, at the loss of 2 laps, Ricciardo’s rear wing. Both would prove fruitless as damage to the DRS meant Kimi retired on lap 9. Surely a one-two could have been achieved after seeing the superiority of Sebs car if it had not been for the software-induced incident. For the record, Ricciardo lasted to lap 29 when he retired for engine conservation reasons, a points finish looking unattainable.

The restart caused a mild flutter as Hamilton challenged Seb into the chicane, but ended up doing him a favour as the resultant mild lockup upset the car enough to give Seb a bit of a start. Thereafter, that was it. Even at the tyre stops, Seb kept ahead, which gives a good indication of the fit of the Ferrari at Spa. Hamilton tried to pile on the pressure, putting in a couple of fastest laps before the pitstops, but Seb simply responded and left Hamilton to think about his tyre blisters. Throughout the race, the Ferrari was much kinder to its tyres than the Mercedes due to the effectiveness of the high rake concept on fast tracks. The always gracious (sic) Hamilton commented on Ferrari “trick things”, which probably means he doesn’t understand the idea of competition and development in engineering, or that some cars are well suited to a track layout.

Verstappen sliced through the field, with a couple of clean overtakes on Kemmel straight, to come to an eventual 3rd. Similarly, Bottas came through to 4th which considering he started 17th was an indication of attrition, Mercedes power, and talent.  And reminded us of another what-might-have-been if Kimi had been running.

Mr Stroll Sr must have been delighted that 5th and 6th place were occupied by Perez and Ocon. That they both had a clean race is possibly a sign that the team need all the points they can get, as whilst the drivers keep their legacy points, the new team doesn’t.  Also, I’m sure they would both like a job next year when “rising star” Lance Stroll moves in.  Only Haas outside the Big Three have scored more points in a single weekend this year. At Spa, however, Haas had Grosjean and Magnussen in 7th and  8th.

After the damage of the first corner and the safety car restart it was a race lacking in interest as far as spectacle was concerned. Some of the slicing through the field was impressively clean, but there was no soul stirring. The race showed that the SF71H is eminently suited to fast circuits, and that Mercedes don’t necessarily have the engine advantage they’ve long benefitted from. It could be a tense end to the season, but probably not an exciting one. Unless, like me, you get your excitement from Companies House.