Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

How driver negotiations work: Mercedes GP - The untold stories behind team principal decisions

Published by Stuart Codling

You say tom-ah-to, I say tom-ay-to. In amongst the epic quantity of gun-jumping that took place in advance of today’s Mercedes-Benz announcement, two news sources led with differing predictions of who would drive for whom in 2010. Auto Motor und Sport placed Nico Rosberg and Jenson Button at the newly rechristened Mercedes GP; the venerable BBC went for Rosberg and Nick Heidfeld.

Intriguing as the possibility of a Michael Schmidt vs Andrew Benson deathmatch would be (on stilts! With pugil sticks!), it’s a tricky one to call. Schmidt is one of the most hard-nosed newshounds in Formula 1 and his consumption of bananas is second only to Ross Brawn; and although Benson has been pilloried for posting links to utter tat on the BBC’s website, don’t forget that it was he who broke the news that Damon Hill was to get the boot from Williams. So let’s delve into the murk behind these speculative stories. As ever, it’s a fascinating tale of wheels within wheels.

Time was when negotiations between a team principal and a driver would be transacted in person or by phone, often with the driver’s manager as the medium. It could take months. There would be arguments. There would be haggling. Each party would play off potential suitors against one another. Eventually they would settle on a mutually agreeable rate. Famously, Ayrton Senna and Ron Dennis once settled one of their protracted contractual tussles on the toss of a coin.

Now that we all march to a rolling news cycle, the internet has introduced a wealth of new stratagems for the savvy negotiator, especially if they like to play dirty – as all the most effective driver managers do.

In recent weeks we’ve seen David and Steve Robertson publicly flirt with Toyota as part of their campaign to ensure Kimi Räikkönen gets a healthy stipend at McLaren (although they’ll be regretting pinning their tail to that particular donkey now). John Howett obligingly issued an on-the-record quote to the effect that he’d love to pay Kimi an exceedingly large amount to bring his winning pace, if not his winning PR sensibility, to Toyota. The news went round the internet faster than you can say Ctrl-A-Ctrl-C-Ctrl-V. In due course, somewhere in Woking, a phone rang…

Jenson Button’s manager, Richard Goddard, has been playing a similar game for a couple of months now. It’s a tricky pursuit, because controlling how news is disseminated on the web is like trying to take a firm grip on a conger eel, but play it right and it’s win-win all the way, even if the news outlets who unwittingly become your shills are second rate. It’s all in the phrasing.

In previous weeks we’ve been invited to feel sorry for JB because he has to pay for his own dry cleaning. Last week Goddard let it be known, also via the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, that Jenson had visited the McLaren factory.

“Let’s face it, everyone likes to feel wanted,” he said. An innocuous enough sentence, but in the hands of unscrupulous amateur hacks who are hungry for clicks it is potential dynamite. Thus followed the Planet-F1 headline: “Goddard: Button feeling unwanted by Brawn GP.” With a little help from the Twittering classes and a spot of Ctrl-A-Ctrl-C-Ctrl-V from other sites, the story was soon everywhere, even though it bore scant relation to the words Goddard actually uttered.

For these reasons, quotable people who work in F1 are usually very careful what they say. Over the weekend, the Times followed up the factory visit story, fleshing it out with some well-sourced advance details of today’s Mercedes announcement. It was interesting for many reasons, not least because it contained an on-the-record admission from a McLaren spokesman that Jenson had been in town: “Having just arrived at Heathrow, Jenson made a small detour to Woking to say hello.”

My old boss is a smart cookie. He knows when a denial is pointless (a separate Times piece, carrying Martin Brundle’s byline, kicked off with a claim that Jenson was there for two hours and met both management and a senior engineer) and when an “I can neither confirm nor deny” will be taken as a “Yes”. The soundbite confirmed that McLaren are in the game without actually committing the team to a position, and its wording was supremely difficult to beat out of shape if you were of a mind to try to spin a story out of it. He could easily have appended the hashtag #upyoursGMM.

Driver negotiations generally don’t fall within the PR department’s remit, so it’s fair to assume that the other salient details in the Times story came from the Button camp rather than the McLaren spin machine. But this isn’t a one-player game – and that’s where Nick Heidfeld comes in. He may be a middling talent but he’s a free agent and he was born in the right country to be a plausible prospect for a Mercedes seat.

But why would any front-line team employ a driver who has next to no PR value, even in his own country, and who has failed to parlay a race-winning car into a race win when he had the chance? The answer is that they probably wouldn’t, and yet here we are reading that Nick Heidfeld is to drive for Mercedes GP. It smells like a bluff to me. You can read it as Brawn saying to Goddard, “Just because we’re about to take delivery of a stack of Benz wonga, it doesn’t mean we’re going to buckle to your salary demands.”

It’s ironic that the money for the windtunnel that shaped the BMW that provided Heidfeld with his best chance to win a grand prix came from Mercedes – to buy Kimi Räikkönen out of his Sauber contract when Mercedes chose him over Heidfeld in 2001.

In spite of Kimi’s well-documented battles with unmotivation and the bottle, he has a world championship to his name. Heidfeld? Michael Schumacher he ain’t. Even the sturdy burghers of his home nation are wont to ask, “Who are you, anyway?” Mercedes declined to employ him in 2001 and he has done nothing in the interim to convince them that decision was wrong. Auto Motor und Sport knows that, whether they’ve been tipped the wink or not.

Of course, I may be wrong. But let’s not call the whole thing off.