Two questions that have plagued the pundits of the F1 paddock this season: Where will Brawn GP find funding for next year and beyond? And where will Nico Rosberg land next? A rumor now making the rounds might provide an answer to both.
According to a report in Auto Motor und Sport this week, Mercedes Benz is planning on acquiring a majority stake in Brawn GP by 2012. This would surely signal an end to their partnership with McLaren. The Woking team currently enjoys a contractually exclusive arrangement with the German carmaker, but it has been suggested that an effective workaround might be the acquisition of Brawn shares by AABAR of Abu Dhabi, currenrtly a major shareholder of Daimler AG, the parent holding company of Mercedes. While this might seem to violate the spirit of the McLaren deal, which isn’t set to expire until the end of 2011, in Formula 1 a contract is a very elastic thing indeed.
According to this scenario, Brawn could be seen in silver livery as early as next year, with Nico Rosberg replacing Reubens Barrichello. Neither Barrichello nor Rosberg have inked contracts for next year, and neither Brawn nor McLaren have announced their 2010 lineup. Most observers have assumed that the drivers’ market wouldn’t really open up until Fernando Alonso announced his plans for next year, but perhaps the Spaniard’s decision will be only one of the dominoes that will set things in motion. Surely, if Mercedes is really terminating their McLaren partnership, Lewis Hamilton will start scratching his head in a serious way.
The obvious question here is, why would Mercedes leave their long and successful partnership with McLaren? There are three possible answers. First of all, Mercedes currently have only a minority share (40%) in the TAG McLaren Group. If the Brawn arrangement panned out, they would have a majority stake. The 25% balance of shares, if retained by Ross Brawn, would leave the team boss in a similar position to that of Peter Sauber, who held a similar portion of ownership in that team after the sale to BMW (hence the retention of Sauber in the official team name). This would effectively give Mercedes the abilty to run the team as they saw fit, without having to worry about a Mclaren veto.
Secondly, in recent years McLaren management has become embroiled in a varietiy of public embarrassemnts. There was the scandal over Ferrari data (“Stepneygate”), there was the rather puzzling way in which Fernando Alonso’s brief enure at the team was handled, and, most recently, there was Lewis Hamilton’s “Liargate” incident at the Australian GP. The Hamilton incident could have ended in real tears, but they were lucky. As for the Ferrari scandal of two years ago, that cost the team $100 million. Presumably, Mercedes wouldn’t have taken that so lightly.
Finally, there is the issue of customer engines. Apparently Mercedes are happy to supply them to both Brawn and Force India this year, and would like to extend the pipeline to Red Bull beginning in 2010. According to reports, McLaren are not happy about this. Given the success of Brawn GP this year, as well as the recent near-win by Giancarlo Fisichella in the inferior Force India chassis, it isn’t surprising that McLaren would be unhappy at the prospect of Red Bull getting their hands on the German powerplants. Red Bull have been very competitive as it is with the inferior Rebnault engines.
Of course, this is all still speculation. But if it should come to pass, then the major question left unanswered is, who will supply McLaren with engines? Would they be reduced to customer status? In the current environment, with manufacturers’ participation dwindling, there simply aren’t that many factory deals to go around.