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Stefan GP rumours take gloss off Sauber deal

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The deal which will see control of the BMW Sauber team handed back to its founder is a good one for the sport. Qadbak was/is a mysterious faceless organisation that had little connection with F1 (bar the fact that Russell King, the crook behind it, once tried to setup the Dubai F1 team) and the rumours that have swirled around them in recent days mean it’s probably for the better that the deal was cancelled. Peter Sauber, however, is a well-known figure, and it will be great to see him and his cigars back in the paddock, hopefully with a car in either black or blue and turquoise once again.

However, the rumours that are gathering pace at the moment suggest their entry may not be the formality that was previously expected. Toyota’s withdrawal was supposed to pave the way for the Swiss team to return after missing out on a slot due to the “mistake” of not signing the Concorde Agreement. The problem is that Toyota don’t want to be sued for signing the Concorde and then quitting a short time later, which Bernie could well do if he really wants to. Thus, they are looking to offload the entry, along with their prospective car for next season, the TF110, and including much of the race operation. This could potentially include Toyota’s young protege Kamui Kobayashi, who wowed fans and pundits alike with impressive performances in his first 2 F1 GPs in Brazil and Abu Dhabi. They are selling this all off at a knockdown price much as Honda did last year. The plan is rumoured to be to keep the Cologne plant as a going concern, albeit with less employees and without actively being involved in racing at this point, but they will help with the development of the car should someone take up their offer.

The talk is that the prime candidate for this is that old chestnut Stefan GP. Zoran Stefanovic’s team, who, as explained earlier in the year here, made a bid to enter F1 in 1998 with the hopeless old Lolas from the previous year, missed out on an entry and launched an official complaint to the EU about the way the selection process was carried out. But the ‘team’ are still interested in entering F1 and Stefanovic is believed to be close to a deal with Toyota about the entry and/or car designs and/or team. This would mean that Sauber would still be on the sidelines next season, providing Stefan made it to the grid.

So what are Stefan’s chances? On the one hand, an obscure group of Serbians who once tried to enter F1 with old Lolas that failed to qualify for their only event sounds like a recipe for disaster. I agree that it doesn’t sound like becoming the Eastern European Ferrari any time soon. But you have to give them a chance. Stefanovic is a wealthy man – how wealthy I do not know but he’s been around racing for years, racing himself in the Serbian Touring Car Championship in ex-BTCC Super Tourers. He may not be a Mallya or Mateschitz but nor is he poor. He has made his money through his own company, AMCO, who make parts for a number of different things, including cars, bikes, aircraft and rockets, so he may not be lying when he says he has facilities like windtunnels. If one wanted to be cynical, this has conveniently led to a lot of healthy publicity for the company! It’s also been suggested that the Serbian government is backing the project.

Stefanovic also holds a trump card in Mike Coughlan. Yes, the former McLaren and Arrows designer is now disgraced in F1 circles due to his significant involvement in Spygate, but that still doesn’t take away the fact that he was and no doubt still is a talented, experienced designer. If Zoran isn’t just plain lying, having Coughlan onboard does give them a bit of credibility, albeit a tainted one due to Coughlan’s departure from the F1 scene. It will be interesting to see the reactions in F1 if they do end up getting a gridslot towards Coughlan, because I can’t see anyone being particularly happy – especially, for instance, Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, who received bans for their involvement in Crashgate, something Coughlan didn’t get.

So what are their chances? Well, it depends on how much of the rumours are true. Stefanovic has acknowledged he has been in discussions with Toyota and that their aim is still to make it into F1 next year, but hasn’t said any more than that. If all the rumours are true – that they’ve got the money and facilities, they’ve got government backing, and they’ll buy Toyota’s entry, car and race operations – then it could lead to a very interesting situation. It would essentially be the Toyota Racing team, with a potentially decent car to boot, only under the ownership of a Serbian – they’d have a very good chance of becoming the best ‘new’ team next year, albeit not that new. The situation would become more clouded if you take one or more of these parts out – e.g. if they don’t buy the TF110, instead choosing their own Coughlan-designed car, it’ll mean they’ll probably be down the back with Lotus, Campos, Virgin and US F1.

I know a lot of people will now be hoping they fail and Sauber get in. I think this is quite judgemental – it does smack of a bit of an amateur operation on the surface, but this may essentially be the Toyota team under new privateer ownership, so what’s the issue? Everyone complained that Toyota didn’t have a clue what they were doing, so let’s see what the same team can do under someone new – they could surprise people. If all goes as is rumoured, they could produce some major shocks, especially if Toyota have built a great car – it would be a shame if they have and it never gets raced.

And anyway, even if they do end up being pretty hopeless and dodgy, then it’ll add an extra dimension to next season. Super Aguri were a great little team to support, especially in the early days when all they had was a 4 year old car. Everyone loved Minardi. The Andrea Moda story is hilarious. Luca Badoer’s comeback this year, although frustrating to watch, created a lot of debate and was fun to watch. For F1’s sake, Sauber probably have more potential and would be ‘better’ for the sport (although where Peter is getting the money from is still a mystery), and it would be harsh if they were left out because of this, but Stefan would be more entertaining and probably more valuable in some ways – I’m sure a credible outfit from Eastern Europe could do wonders for the sport there. I’m backing them all the way. I hope they make it, and if they do, I hope they do well and silence the critics.

However, that’s not to say I don’t want Sauber in. Of course I do – they’re a great little team with a heritage and the last thing I want to see is up to nearly 400 people lose their jobs because of BMW not signing the Concorde Agreement when they should have and Toyota weasling out of being fined by the FIA. But the rules are that the teams with entries should get priority. If Stefan GP buys Toyota Racing’s 2010 entry, then they are entitled to line up on the grid next year, and Sauber, who do not have an entry, are not. That’s the way it works. But I can live in hope that the FIA and FOTA (read Williams and the other 2 teams that blocked this being done initially) instead choose to allow a 14th team on the grid next year – unlikely at this stage, but possible and definitely the favourable outcome for the fans.

And finally, removing Stefan GP from the equation, there is the fact to consider that Toyota are willing to sell their operation to a new owner. Anyone who has the money can buy the team, providing they have their own base to set up in, and pay Toyota to do the design work. Surely there’s a great opportunity there for a young team to expand or a company to invest in their own team as Red Bull did with Jaguar – and what a team to buy.

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Written by James Bennett

November 27, 2009 at 20:21

Posted in F1, F1 rumours, F1 teams

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