The website Atlas F1 was a popular and comprehensive website dedicated to Formula One, which eventually merged into a partnership with Autosport in 2004. The site was well known for its excellent articles and insight into Formula One and maintained a loyal fanbase, who still enjoy browsing the ‘nostalgic posts’ maintained on the internet from the site’s former glory days.
In 1957, controversial Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand published her longest and best-known novel Atlas Shrugged, set in the indeterminable future and revolving around a society strangled by excessive government regulations. The best inventors and brightest minds in the world keep mysteriously disappearing, refusing to have their ideas watered down to mediocrity by the all-powerful beurocrats and declaring the State holds no right to tax away their wealth in the name of ‘fairness’. Throughout the novel, people attempt to answer the question ‘Who is John Galt?’, a phrase which becomes the equivalent of saying ‘I don’t know the answer’.
In GP Atlas: Shrugging.. there is growing discontent amongst the Formula One teams and fans as innovation upon innovation is banned by the FIA to slow the cars down and ‘prevent dominance’. This leads to a grid of cars which all look very similar, with little change in performance from one circuit to the next. Measures designed to help the poorest teams by cutting costs, such as engines and gearboxes which last for almost a quarter of a season, coincide with the longest ever run in Grand Prix history of the poorest teams not scoring a single point.
The series explores the efforts of a breakaway series with the goal of returning Grand Prix racing to the ‘Golden era’ of noisy cars with fat tyres, wacky designs and exciting tracks, at a price affordable to the fans. What can the new series learn from the mistakes made during the CART Vs Indy war? Will such a liberal rule-book ever work for real? And who is John Galt?
Disclaimer: Whilst real names have been used in this series to help tell the story, the opinions expressed within the series may not be those belonging to the persons mentioned, and ultimately represent the author’s view of current affairs in motorsport.
F1 is F1:
A man so wealthy he didn’t need to impress anybody with his choice of screensaver, Bernie Ecclestone sat in the FOM motorhome enjoying the air conditioning. The day’s date simply slid across the screen slowly changing colours and read ‘March 2nd’. The Formula One season was continuing to start earlier and earlier in the year and the races in the East were starting later and later in the day. It was hot outside in the tail-end of the Australian summer and the city of Melbourne was returning to work on the Monday morning after the race as their temporary circuit was packed away for another year. Finding this particular interview less tiresome than most, Ecclestone addressed the man sat opposite him.
‘…Your name is not one I’m familiar with, though?’
He may have been eighty-five years old, but Ecclestone remained as formidable as ever. Many were starting to think that he’d lost his edge, and started to go senile, but he was happy enough and smart enough to let them think that – more fool them for letting their guard down. He’d never lose control of Formula One and he’d never miss anything that was happening.
‘Hey Bernie,’ he’d been asked at the final round of the 2012 season, ‘Who do you think should be world champion this year? Alonso or Vettel?’
‘Well,’ he’d mulled, ‘I think the best driver this year has probably been… Lewis Hamilton’.
Not all the team bosses knew what to make of Ecclestone’s current condition, especially as he seemed to be just as sharp as normal in their ‘working meetings’, if a little irritable and set in his ways. But then, nobody would criticise him for feeling irritated at The Mail on Sunday suggesting one of his daughters was going to be given full control of the sport within just a few years.
They team representatives met with Ecclestone again the following weekend, on the morning of the Malaysian Grand Prix. Nico Rosberg had taken pole position and the build up to the race had proven undramatic; nobody had taken a fresh engine or needed to repair their gearbox, everybody from seventh down was starting on the medium compound tyre and Caterham, Marussia and Williams had dutifully all been knocked out in Q1.
Ecclestone took his place at the head of the table, facing FIA president Jean Todt at the other end and representatives from all eleven teams split on either side of the long negotiating table. Charlie Whiting sat to Ecclestone’s right, whilst president of the Grand Prix Driver’s Association Pedro de la Rosa was to his left.
‘So we’re happy enough to go through the motions?’ Whiting asked the table and circled the latest incarnation of The Concorde Agreement, which the FIA and FOM had agreed over a year previously.
‘I’m not signing this,’ Ecclestone said suddenly, rejected the amendments the teams had asked for. ‘A one year deal isn’t good for Formula One; it’s not stable. I gave you all the option to just put this in place for the current technical regulations with a working group to be conducted next season,’ – he got up and laid his own copy on the table.
‘We’ll try again this time next week at the Chinese Grand Prix. You can sign up or lose your places, I don’t have a preference as to which,’ and he left.
Christian Horner sighed and rubbed his rapidly aging face. ‘What are we going to do?’ he asked the remaining fifteen people.
‘I’m going to go and commentate on Sepang’ de la Rosa said, excusing himself as Whiting followed.
Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali looked to Todt. ‘What would you do in my position, Jean?’
‘Surely, I would sign it. Where else will you go?’
‘We’ll sign,’ McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh volunteered quite readily, ‘We have a promise to our sponsors and to our fans to race in Formula One.’
‘We’ll sign too,’ Horner said, sitting up and indicating Toro Rosso’s Franz Tost.
There was a pause.
‘We’d like to sign,’ said Mike Coughlan, representing Williams, ‘this remains in the best interests of our stakeholders, we think – to be involved with Formula One, that is. But we have to make sure that this remains an engineering-based series representing engineering-based firms, and at a cost that is viable to independent teams like ourselves.
Graeme Lowdon permitted himself a wry smile, ‘Ah, how many tyres? How many engines? ‘Who is John Galt’?’
‘Do not mention that name!’ Todt said as he banged the table in frustration.
‘So, just four teams have signed up to the Concorde agreement and the Chinese Grand Prix has been and gone with a Mercedes victory for Lewis Hamilton –Jamie, which of the four teams do you think he’ll be at next year?’
Come the sixth round of the championship at Monaco, one extra team had signed the Concorde Agreement in Lotus, and talk of the breakaway series had taken a back seat compared to the controversy of Caterham’s new driver – Sergio Canamasas.
‘I know that Jaime Alguesari had never been round a corner in an F1 before he made his debut,’ David Coulthard told the viewers of BBC television, ‘But Sergio Canamasas hasn’t even sat in an F1 car with an engine running – and now he’s here trying to learn all of that whilst going round Monaco. You know, this is the problem with such limited in-season testing and how difficult it now is for new drivers to learn how to drive these cars and how to race these cars, and I think it’s going to be dangerous.’
Caterham’s owner Tony Fernandes defended the decision, ‘Fundamentally we’re a small independent team and we do rely on some financial backing from our drivers to survive. Geido wasn’t able to provide sufficient sponsorship to continue in the championship and Sergio holds the correct license. It’s very exciting for us to have a driver making his debut at this very important race and we think he’ll do well.’
BBC reporter Lee McKenzie kept asking questions, ‘And why wasn’t Sergio run in the car at one of the test sessions, so that he could practice?’
‘You know, at that time, we were still confident Geido would still be in the car so it made sense to run him and Charles at the test. Testing opportunities mid-season are limited, and quite rightly because it is the role of the FIA as the regulator to ensure the poorest teams can afford to compete in the sport of Formula One, just like it is the government’s role to ensure the economy is managed properly’.
McKenzie continued: ‘And what do you think, then, of the FIA banning Red Bull’s new gearbox, dubbed ‘the flat-shifter’, for next season? As Red Bull customers that’s likely something that would have benefited you?’
Fernandes sighed: ‘As I said, it’s the role of the regulator to ensure the wealthiest teams don’t just run away with the championship and spend their way to success. So when you get something like this that doesn’t improve the show for the fans in any way, and just gives one team a huge advantage, it’s the right thing to do to ban it.’
And how about the Concorde agreement – does the fact that Bernie and yourself are involved in Queens Park Rangers together change anything?’
‘No,’ Fernandes smiled slightly awkwardly, ‘I don’t think it’s relevant’.
The new gearbox was saving the already-strong Red Bull RB11 over three tenths of a second per lap around the tight and twisty Monaco circuit, and despite a rare scruffy lap that saw him kiss the barrier at Tabac multiple-champion driver Sebastien Vettel qualified on the front row, just behind team-mate Daniel Ricciardo. But when the new gearbox broke on the Australian’s car as he came out of the tunnel on lap seven Vettel calmly drove away from the pack to claim an easy win. Fernando Alonso outperformed his Ferrari once again to finish in second place, with no challenge coming from Jenson Button in third or Lewis Hamilton in fourth after the two British drivers had to turn down the pressure on their Honda engine and Mercedes gearbox respectively to ensure they lasted not only this race and the next race, but the one after as well.
As the crowd formed along the starting straight in front of the podium celebrations in the royal box, the various engineers who socialised together began to mutter about this new gearbox, which would soon be perfected and see Red Bull finishing first and second every time they saw the flag. There was nothing for it, even if the gearbox would be banned the following season, the teams had to invest in such technology for the remaining races of the year if they were to have any hope of staying competitive. If that meant writing off millions of wasted dollars come the end of the season, then so be it.
‘Mr Coughlan!’ a voice called as the Williams director headed for the car that would take him to the airport, ‘Sorry, if I may – what do you think will be key to taking Williams back to the top of the sport?’
Coughlan smiled, knowing that back in the factory the entire Williams operation was focussed on something that could truly revolutionise the energy-conscious world of Formula One more than any new gearbox could even imagine. ‘Williams has always been a team of great innovation; that’s ultimately the key to what makes Formula One Formula One and what makes a racing team a racing team. We’re developing what you might consider a secret-weapon and we think our advantage in this particular department will be key to our future success’.
On the Tuesday after the Monaco race the FIA released a new statement, declaring that the ‘flat-shifter’ gearbox was being banned immediately.
Martin Brundle sprinted down the grid, desperate to find someone before the Canadian Grand Prix that didn’t speak exclusively in French.
‘Bernie! Bernie! Quick word, ‘Sky sports F1? – A lot of rumours about this place, are we coming back next year? How about New Jersey?’
‘Let’s see, Martin, maybe we’ll finally get that North-American double-header here, and maybe we won’t. Maybe there’ll just be two North-American races next year and they’ll both come at the end of the season. I wouldn’t like to say. Everyone knows what they have to do for us to have a Grand Prix, it’s up to them if they do it or not. In the end, places like India didn’t and places like Russia still haven’t, and that’s why we aren’t going there right now’.
Still honouring the request of the FIA to produce tyres which necessitated ‘on average, two-point-five stops-per-race’, Pirelli continued to cause controversy during the race in Montreal as drivers found the super-soft tyre lasting for less than ten laps at a time. Kimi Raikkonen was lucky to escape uninjured after a blow out on the very fast back-straight put him into the concrete wall by the side of the circuit, and he only just avoided being hit head-on by Nico Rosberg as eventual winner Romain Grosjean pitted for the third time half-way through the race. As the Lotus team celebrated, Toto Wolff headed back to the Mercedes garage as the team’s problems with tyre wear continued. This had been a particularly important race for Mercedes, he’d told a journalist, because along with the race in the USA this was their best chance to exhibit themselves as a successful brand in North America. ‘You know,’ he’d remarked dryly to a close personal friend, ‘I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the boards of directors bankrolling all this soon get their teams to build cars just for the races where sales matter most. Do you remember when Toyota used to do glory-runs in Japan? It’s the same principle, and right now the number of relevant markets hosting races is dropping rather alarmingly’.
Come the next round at the Silverstone circuit in England Pirelli were threatening to terminate their contract with Formula One early, complaining that it was damaging their road-tyre brand. Not only were the poor quality tyres making the engineers dissatisfied, but the marketing departments were having their own nightmare after the latest memo from FOM declared that the conditions of entry to the championship now included a ban on featuring competitors to Formula One’s ‘associated brands’ in all the team’s commercial activity. It was the first time the departments known as the ‘bean-counters’ had been not only invited, but hurriedly welcomed, into the meeting of the Formula One Teams Association, the night before the race.
‘What about our association with Hankook tyres in the DTM?’ asked the head of Mercedes’ sponsorship team.
As the fans stayed at the circuit into the early evening, oblivious to the political war threatening to tear their beloved sport apart, Jenson Button addressed a crowd on the Telmex stage. ‘I don’t think you’ll see a breakaway championship, no. I think it isn’t logistically plausible, and that’s before you get to the fact it won’t do Formula One any good at all to be split down the middle. You won’t get circuits able to host races because of their contracts with FOM, and the same will be true of broadcasters. Teams know that they need a competitive, fan-friendly series to race in or else they won’t enter, and that’s very difficult for a new championship to guarantee. Without any guarantees, who’s going to come on board and provide sponsorship? Personally I expect when we come back here in twelve months time all eleven current teams will still be here, and so will at least sixteen of the drivers. The FIA’s doing a great job of running World Motorsports at the moment and things like talk of us hooking up with the touring cars or the sports cars for a round or two next year are really broadening our horizons and offering more for the fans. It’s very exciting indeed. As for ‘Who is John Galt?’ – Personally, I don’t know, but I guess you’ll find out when he speaks tomorrow evening, assuming he shows up’.
Button would get pushed off the road on the first lap of the race the following day as his bad luck at his home Grand Prix continued. Lewis Hamilton meanwhile took the flag in his Mercedes Petronas entry, chased home by long-time rival Fernado Alonso’s Ferrari claiming another second place.
‘Jenson said last night he thinks we’ll all be back here this time next season, Lewis, do you think so too?’ interviewer James Allen asked in the post-race press conference.
Hamilton smiled, took a sip of water, and shrugged, ‘Who is John Galt?’ he asked in response.
Galt himself did not choose to be seen, but only to be heard. He spoke on a webcast displaying a scrolling, panoramic view of the world’s great race tracks past and present.
‘For twelve races this season and for years before you have been asking: Who is John Galt? This is John Galt speaking. I am an engineer, a worker, a racer. And if you wish to know why the pinnacle of motorsport is in crisis, I am the man who will now tell you.
Ecclestone sat in his office, he didn’t fume because that wasn’t his style. Instead, he calmly sent an email to all of the teams mentioned on Galt’s list informing them their places would be now opened up and offered to new teams.
‘Teams greater than you have come in to my office and pointed a gun to my head, and just like them you don’t have the balls to pull the fucking trigger’ he said on the phone to Coughlan, once Williams were the only team to have not committed themselves to either series for the following year.
‘… And lots going on in fact Enoch, in the build up to our Silver-heim-goring edition of our F1 Rejects podcast!’
It was an otherwise-inconspicuous mid-week morning when Rach F1 broke the news. Someone on the inside had a rumour that Adrian Newey had quit Formula One. His office at Red Bull had been found deserted but for a drawing of the rear wing and diffuser, now banned, from an earlier incarnation of the team’s car. The sponsorship decal on the rear wing read ‘Who is John Galt?’
The news sent shockwaves throughout the entire motorsport world. If Newey was leaving then this new series had to be something that was to be taken seriously. In Monaco, teams signed up for the following season had sent their representatives to another meeting with the Formula One Technical Working Group, desperately trying to establish rules for the following season that would prevent domination of a single team.
‘To be honest, taking Newey out of Red Bull will help all of us catch up straight away,’ somebody from Sauber joked, ‘but beyond that, we really need to reduce the costs of racing further, or small teams like ourselves will be unable to continue operating.’
There were small mutterings of agreement. Red Bull’s representative was busy on his phone texting head office as senior management discussed how best to spread their bets and ensure they had involvement with the WPMC and Formula One. The meetings around the world ran for hours on end.
‘Then it’s agreed,’ said the FIA’s representative as evening set in over Monaco harbour. ‘Twelve teams shall compete next season and there will be four engine manufacturers. The best performing engines at each race will receive a weight penalty for the next race to ensure no one engine dominates the championships, and to create equal sample sizes all manufacturers shall be required by the rules to supply the same number of teams. The representative of Red Bull gulped; Ferrari would not entertain the thought of supplying their biggest rival, Renault were signed up to provide Lotus and Caterham with power, and Honda were already partnered with McLaren. For Red Bull, Toro Rosso, and now Arden, to ensure not taking points off each other they would all need to be signed up to use the same supplier, and use that supplier’s full quota of three teams. As the Red Bull management began to sweat, Craig Pollock rubbed his hands with glee and told his staff at PURE to put their new engine into production.
Back in Monaco, Jean Todt tried to maintain a relaxed atmosphere as he sat outside a café, trying to ensure it was only Formula One that was falling apart.
Dave… Uh, monseiour; it is your job to ensure the World Rally Championship is restored to being a major international series, it is why you were hired. ‘ow feasible is it that you should work with this new championship, this ‘WPMC’ whilst working with the FIA?’
Before he revealed himself to the public, Galt continued to conduct his business privately with those he was associating with. Sat around a big table with representatives of the twenty circuits lined up for the first season, they began to talk money.
‘Obviously, I understand that this is a big risk for you all, to come and support my series so early on. So for this first season when the championship is unproven, I am offering you all a simple proposal; a million dollars each for a WPMC Grand Prix, all on one-year deals which can be renegotiated after the race or during the season. I have secured Television broadcast deals with just over one-hundred networks around the world, who will broadcast your circuit around the globe. In exchange, you keep all ticket takings, as well as the right to title sponsorship of your Grand Prix. The support car package is split down the middle between our official support races, and events which you can charge for the opportunity to appear on the billing of a major race meeting.’
At a packed press conference in Hong Kong in the week leading up to the Singapore Grand Prix, Galt finally revealed himself to the press, enthusiastically giving a presentation running over the calendar and explaining who had won broadcast rights to televise the series.
‘We’re offering a very competitive package to the broadcasting companies and to the teams as well. Cars that fail to qualify for the main race each round will take part in a sprint ‘shoot out’ on the Sunday morning, with the top three finishers earning places in the main race – this guarantees TV time even for the lower teams and, in the event of no qualifying race, cars which failed to qualify will feature prominently in the pre-race programming features. It’s amazing and truly inspiring to see how many circuits are currently being built all over the world – raising employment levels and economic activity – but it’s no secret we’ll remain open to some current F1 circuits moving to our championship when their contracts expire, as long as that’s most suitable for all consenting parties.’
Hamilton retook the Formula One championship lead with victory around Singapore, stating after the race that he was especially glad that the WPMC had a night race on its inaugural calendar. ‘Hong Kong looks like a really cool place to be and I can’t wait to drive the new track there early in the season,’ Hamilton said after the race.
By now the entry list was starting to look impressive, although Galt confirmed that not all teams would be at the first race since there would be no compulsion to attend all of the rounds. Five teams had already announced that they weren’t planning to contest the season opener at Shamh-al-Sheikh’s impressive ‘first indoor race circuit in the world’. Dallara would be providing chassis to three other teams, whilst Honda were hoping to again field a works single seater team for the second half of the year. Nick Wirth had resurrected his Simtek squad from the mid nineties and was aiming to be on the starting grid ‘as soon as possible’, a sentiment shared by Peter Windsor’s second attempt at an all-American F1 team (historically inspired with the name All American Racers) and Geoff Willis’s first solo project after he bought the rights to the name of ‘Arrows’.
Spotting a trend towards retro team names, Richard Dutton took the difficult decision to remove his own Fortec name from his entry, instead fielding ‘Hesketh Racing’ to immediate fanfare. Less noticed than many other traditional names, Toyota also saw potential in the new series and commissioned a new car which would aim to contest the entire championship with Japan’s own kamui kobayashi at the wheel, partnered by Vitaly Petrov.
‘Finalising our sporting regulations has been a difficult task, for sure,’ Galt wrote on his official blog, part of the WPMC website, ‘Our main aim is to provide top value for money for the fans attending races and watching broadcasts all around the world. Our main goal was to get as much track action over the race weekend as possible, and at the moment we’re still finalising the various support race packages who will be joining us throughout the season.
Galt was running a tight ship. He knew his fledging series could not afford to waste money during its infancy and that it had to attract investment, and offer something to the world that Formula One could not. Three small central offices, in the tax havens of Bermuda, Andorra and Hong Kong, each with just a handful of staff, allowed the series to be open for business twenty four hours a day and seven days a week. Each location would also feature on the calendar for the first season of the new series, which offered a full and diverse schedule to all the broadcasters. In the United Kingdom, Channel 4 Group saw the GPMC as a fantastic way to launch their new channels known by the brand Sport 4, and announced that every Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the race weekends would be shown in full on a dedicated channel, including all the support races. The GPMC sessions and pre-races would also air on the main channel itself. In an attempt to capture audiences quickly, the season would begin in the last week of February, one week before Formula 1. Although the GPMC race in Hong Kong would take place on the same day as the Malaysian Grand Prix it would begin well after the Formula 1 race finished, and the first time the two series would air at identical times would be when the Formula 1 Spanish Grand Prix took place at the same time as the GPMC’s event in Malaysia.
Conscious of the need shared by all the teams and sponsors to feature in important and emerging markets whilst providing great racing, Galt undercut Formula 1 and poached the Indian Grand Prix to become the second race of the season in his new series. Engine supplier Honda, keen to hold a presence in both championships, promoted the two Japanese Grand Prix at their Suzuka circuit, with the GPMC in late March and Formula 1 in mid-October. Unable to break the long-term contract already signed, Formula 1 could not leave Suzuka behind. Using the same technique, and aware that Formula 1 could not afford to lose more teams, Red Bull slotted their GPMC Austrian grand Prix in to the middle of May, two months before the Formula 1 cars were due to visit. Meanwhile, tired of continued delays and provisional dates that were later cancelled, the Russian and New York Grand Prix took up slots on the GPMC calendar, since the New Jersey circuit was ready for use and Moscow Raceway wished to best its rival, Sochi.
As architect Howard Roarke worked flat-out to get the newly commissioned circuits designed in time, Galt walked through the pleasant sunshine to his Bermuda office, and tried to make his guest feel at ease. Ready to launch their calendars that evening, for both it was just a question of finalising the last few details and then confirming the news to their respective excited partners.
‘Then it is settled, we shall form a unique double-headline event at the Toronto and New York Grand Prix with both series running on Sunday afternoon in July, and the GPMC finale in November will feature many drivers from your Indy Car series guesting in the event at Laguna Seca’. Galt sent the finalised calendar to each of the teams, along with a note explaining a rule amendment that would come into effect as of the second round of the championship in India.
‘In order to promote track time for young drivers, Friday practice sessions will offer teams the opportunity to run extra cars and drivers. Each team shall be offered the chance to run one extra chassis not driven by a race driver for $4000, with each additional non-racing driver being charged $1000. If there are still fewer than sixty cars, split in to two sessions of thirty, due to run on Friday, then additional chassis-positions will be auctioned off to the highest bidding teams in the style of a Dutch auction. All money raised from additional Friday running will be donated to charities’.
In the spirit of the competition, there were no official pre-season testing events, and teams were instead left to make their own testing arrangement as they saw best. Whilst this made comparing a lot of the teams difficult, a buzz began to grow amongst the motoring press anticipating the start of the new championship. Many drew parallels between the CART Vs Indy battle that had torn US open wheel racing apart, but Galt vowed that he had learned from their mistakes.
Many were expecting the teams who had transferred from Formula 1 to run away with the first season, but as the test sessions went on it soon became clear that there were lots of interesting, innovative designs that had been drawn completely ‘fresh sheet’ and had new ways of looking at car design forgotten in contemporary Grand Prix racing. All eyes were on Adrian Newey at Lola, who had a good development budget to work with thanks to their Telmex sponsorship. Elsewhere, in-season engine development would make a return, and add another dimension to the championship. Keen to demonstrate the unrestrained rules needn’t result in unsustainable budgets, the engine suppliers quickly found an excellent way to cut costs for the teams, which a representative of Renault enthusiastically explained during a pre-season preview show.
‘With only a limited number of engines per driver in Formula 1 each season, teams found themselves registering units and then having to transport them round the globe at considerable cost, not to mention robbing the fans of great racing action when the revs got turned down at the end of each race. Now that there are no engine restrictions, we’ve found ourselves able to travel to each race with a transporter full of track-ready engines that we can simply sell to teams at the track should they need or wish to purchase a new one. It brings the transport costs down considerably and means teams don’t have to pay for their full engine supply in one go and then endure the cost and inconvenience of having to register each unit’. When the entry list for the first event in Egypt closed and was released a week before the event, nine different engine companies were represented amongst the eighteen teams filling the thirty-six car entry list.
As the final preparations were put in place Galt added some personal finishing touches to his temporary office. He looked at the timetable for the weekend and, imagining the underground paddock areas filling up over the coming days, he smiled to himself with pride.
By: Josh Wood