In contrast to Bill Doolittle's article in this issue, I feel that the silly season has started - and a touch earlier than normal. After reading the specialist motorsport press this week, the amount of unusual (or should that be usual?) stories made me suspect that perhaps some of our dodgy British beef had ended up in Monaco and been promptly devoured by the journalists and team bosses.
First news was the rumour that Jos Verstappen is being made available next season for the small sum of $5m. The common belief is that the price is far too much for Verstappen, despite his strong showing in the first few races of the season. Arrows owner Tom Walkinshaw is trying to secure Verstappen's contract for less by threatening to replace him with a pay driver before the end of the year. These seem to be rather stupid actions by both parties. The TWR run team needs a driver of Verstappen's quality for both this season and the next. Verstappen needs a quality drive, of the sort that the Arrows car can supply, for next season if he is to really prove he is a future world champion. But all this is just part of the usual dilemma of F1 team management; bluff, double bluff and ego nursing. All parties to the discussion want to end up with the best deal, but no-one will ever win if they argue pointlessly. First signs of the silly season surely? A famous story springs to mind. Ron Dennis and Ayrton Senna had been discussing the contractual arrangements for the Brazilian's drive at McLaren. The majority of the contract had been agreed, and it was down to the last $1m or so. There was a deadlock. Both Dennis and Senna, famed for their tough negotiating tactics, found themselves unable to let the other have the money. Ron Dennis decided that the recipient of the remaining dosh should be decided by fate and suggested tossing a coin. After Ron had explaining the rules to Ayrton, who had never heard of this before, the coin was tossed and Senna lost. He was a tad disappointed when he discovered that the amount was doubled, since the contract was actually for two years.
Anyway, I digress. Returning to this year, and the tabloid pundits, ever mindful of the press coverage that Monaco gets, used the post race articles to begin suggesting who was going where next season. Soon, every man and his dog were changing teams, and the dog was going to be paid the most! With Ralf Schumacher making his presence strongly felt at Monaco, and Damon Hill, Heinz Harald Frentzen and David Coulthard all rumoured to be entering this year's round of musical chairs, it looks like it's going to be another long mid-season of pointless rumour mongering. Many times, the proposal of limiting contract negotiations, until at least until the off-season, has jokingly been put forward by the media. After all, it would give us journalists year-round excitement. Any hope of a proposal to the FIA committees Bernie?
The rumours for next year then moved to a subject I have received a lot of mail about, Las Vegas. At Monaco, Bernie Ecclestone apparently met with representatives from the city. The proposed United States Grand Prix was beginning to look likely for the Strip in 1998, and Ecclestone confirmed that the race was a strong possibility but that, "We are talking. With Americans, you never know." Rumours were also rife of an Austrian Grand Prix for 1997, replacing the unpopular Hungaroring circuit. By the next week, the venue for the USGP was being touted as the new motorsports complex near Disney World, Florida. The temporary oval, which hosted the opening event of the Indy Racing League, is apparently about to be demolished and a more permanent facility constructed. Typically the representatives of the Disney corporation aren't giving out any hard facts, but the site is undoubtedly high profile, something that is a necessity if any proposed North American event is to be successful from the off.
It's also rapidly looking as if there will be a tyre war in 1997. Bridgestone and Goodyear both signalled opposition to the proposed tendering of the F1 tyre supply contract to one manufacturer. By having one control tyre for the field, the car's cornering speeds would hopefully be controlled, something that the governing body is keen to see. The FIA soon responded with a set of proposed regulations designed to control the performance of the competing companies products. The FIA's main concern regards the use of super-sticky qualifying tyres that could reduce lap times by several seconds. As such, they propose that the stewards of the race should be able to choose which tyres from the company each team uses, and which tyres each team uses for qualifying. The tyre companies would also have to supply one dry and one wet tyre compound for the entire weekend. In a month when many in Formula One have been divided as to the issue of tyre regulations and proposals, this is probably the most positive step taken yet. The teams would probably be keen to adopt the new regulations since it increases the competition without decreasing car safety. It also prevents massive extra costs to the team from regulation changes designed to limit the speeds of the cars that would be necessary if a uncontrolled tyre war were to occur.
Apart from tyres, many recent articles have been concentrating on other aspects of safety. With all the recent improvements in car safety, it seems strange that Ron Dennis has been quoted as saying that the modern F1 car is now neither sufficiently quick, nor challenging enough for the drivers. The McLaren team boss seems keen to see open tyre competition and feels that safety will not be a problem. Damon Hill, questioned about the cars of the early 1990s was a bit less extreme, "There was nothing like having a bit of horsepower. The 3.5 litre engines were more fun and the active suspension cars - the bigger tyres and extra grip - made those cars awesome. But I think the regulation changes have gone the right way. The cars are safer now, and they are not ridiculously fast in places where the only benefit was speed without making any contribution to racing." Whatever, it looks like the issues of tyres and improved safety will probably run for the rest of the season, or at least until some hard facts emerge.
The silliest gossip of the weekend had to be a rumoured head-to-head between ex-Ferrari team-mates Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. The British tabloid newspaper The Daily Mirror claimed that the powers that be were attempting to convince Ferrari to supply two cars for a $1m winner takes all affair, possibly run as a support to a Grand Prix event. As yet there has been no confirmation that the story is true from any of the parties involved, but there has been no firm denial either. According to Autosport, the idea became the topic of much amusing banter around the Monaco garages. McLaren boss Ron Dennis, team manager to both men at one time or another, suggested that there would be no contest, "Both could still win races but, if they were given two cars to sort out and then raced, the outcome would be well guessed." Alain Prost, who currently works for McLaren as a technical adviser, was apparently amused by the suggestions, "Is Nigel bored? I think I am a little bit more busy than he is now. But if it is fair, and I already had this with Nigel at Ferrari in 1990, I have no problem.". Prost has nothing to prove, as he decidedly outdrove Mansell during their time at Ferrari and now has a well paid, high-profile job with McLaren. The best line came from an individual who has worked with both drivers, "Hasn't Nigel had enough of being beaten by Alain?"
A final note. How many of you noticed the new Tyrrell suspension this week? The fins in place of the top wishbones are designed to reduce drag, thereby increasing the cars top speed. Whilst the idea is innovative, and has been approved by the FIA's technical delegate Charlie Whiting, it lies somewhat close to both the letter and the spirit of the regulations. I think that Harvey Postlethwaite must have had a king-size British beefburger before coming up with that idea. Or maybe it was all just a silly rumour...