Formula 1: Red Bull working hard on ventilators - Christian Horner
Formula 1 is on shut down as a result of the coronavirus crisis, but Red Bull team principal Christian Horner says he's "busier than ever - there's a lot going on at the moment".
With the first eight races all called off, and more likely to follow, F1 has brought forward its summer break so as to be in the best state possible whenever racing can start up again.
Meanwhile, the UK-based teams have turned their attentions to helping out with the supply of medical equipment, and team bosses such as Horner are engaged in serious talks about how best to secure the future of the sport in the midst of a crisis that he says is far more critical than the 2008 financial crash.
In a wide-ranging interview, the first by a team boss during the sport's enforced hiatus, Horner discusses:
- The project to supply ventilators to the NHS;
- Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko's controversial remarks about wanting his drivers to catch coronavirus;
- Plans to postpone the radical 2021 regulations even further;
- Talks on safeguarding F1;
- Plans to revisit the controversy over Ferrari's 2019 engine.
F1's ventilator plan
As has been widely reported, the UK-based F1 teams have responded to the government's call for industries to help boost the supply of critical care equipment to help the NHS deal with the influx of coronavirus patients.
There are three work streams on various types of equipment, and the work is being co-ordinated by F1 under their chief technical officer Pat Symonds.
Horner says the response from engineers and manufacturing staff to help with what is known as 'Project Pitlane' has been "overwhelming".
"People like Rob Marshall, our chief designer, he has done a couple of all-nighters on this coming up with engineering solutions to issues they've encountered," Horner says.
"The key thing is getting these systems out there as quickly as possible.
"F1's ability to problem-solve is second to none and our ability to make rapid prototype parts is again second to none.
"So not just our team but all the teams have responded in a phenomenal way. I can only judge what's going on in our our facility, and the efforts that the engineering team and R&D and manufacturing have put into this have been exemplary."
The teams are unable to share many details of their work because the project is run by the government but Horner says: "Basically, we've been using the engineering skill of the relevant people to problem solve and knock out a few rapid prototypes and get it to the point of sign-off."
Those Marko comments
Helmut Marko caused quite a stir on Monday when comments he had made to Austrian television on Sunday night emerged.
Marko, the right-hand man of Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz and the person who picks the drivers across the senior team and junior squad Alpha Tauri, volunteered that he had proposed all Red Bull's drivers attend a fitness camp where - ideally, in Marko's view - they would catch coronavirus so they would be fit and healthy whenever the season can re-start.
As Red Bull's team boss, Horner was, it is fair to say, somewhat caught off guard by Marko's remarks.
Now, he says: "As Helmut pointed out, when he raised it, it wasn't received with support from within Red Bull. It was in many ways a throwaway comment before understanding the seriousness of the pandemic.
"Red Bull, yes, they have many athletes but the focus regarding all the actions that are going on at the moment is that this can affect young people, old people, vulnerable people. It is not a limited sector this applies to. So things like the ventilator project we are working on demonstrate how seriously we are taking this and how much effort's going behind it.
"Helmut's comments were made before understanding the severity. It has never been discussed or tabled as a serious suggestion."
How teams are handling the virus lockdown
Other than those working on the ventilator projects, all F1 staff whose work relates to car performance are on an enforced break at the moment.
This normally happens in the summer, but the teams agreed with governing body the FIA to do it now so that F1 is able to cram in as many races as possible once restrictions on global travel are eased. The 2020 season could well, as a result, extend into January next year, before the 2021 championship starts up again in March.
Teams can choose when, before the end of April, to take their three-week shut down, and Red Bull's began on Friday. In theory, it ends on 20 April, but Horner says he expects that to change.
"There will be a discussion during the break weekly, and I can only see it being extended," he says. "I can see it being extended to the end of April, beginning of May and then reviewed again. There will be a discussion among the team principals, FIA and FOM in the next few days."
In this period, the teams are also not doing any design and development work on their cars, and this, too, is likely to continue.
"It's the only fair way of dealing with it," Horner says. "It's a competition at the end of the day. What's right and logical at the moment is everybody abide by the same rules and the shut down, incorporate FIA conditions to it, until the teams are in a position to go back to work."
As for paying staff, Horner says: "Obviously, we're looking at what the government have communicated. All the teams again, all the HR managers between the teams are talking so there is as much consistency as possible.
"It's very positive the teams are communicating in a positive and proactive manner. It reminds me very much of the 2008 financial crisis but this goes way beyond that."
Is F1 under threat?
No races means reduced income, although exactly how much teams will lose can't be known because of the huge uncertainties involved.
F1's three main income streams of race-hosting fees, broadcast rights and sponsorship are all going to take a hit, so it's easy to look at this crisis and be pessimistic about the future of the sport. But Horner believes F1 will pull through.
"F1 is a very strong business and it's got enormous heritage," he says. "F1 will survive this. Whether all the teams survive this is another matter, and it is the responsibility of all the team principals to act with the interests of the sport and all its participants (in mind), to do our best to ensure all 10 teams come out the other side.
"The difference in 2008 was we were still racing, there was still a calendar, there were still events. You could see the issue more clearly, whereas here we are more blind," Horner says.
"When will we start racing again? It's a different scenario. 2008 had its pressures and the people in the room at that time - Ron Dennis, Flavio Briatore and so on - were thinking about the interests of the sport and it is crucial we do that collectively at this time.
"The world is a different place at the moment. Of course revenue is hit very hard. We don't know how hard it will hit F1 yet.
"All the teams have been reacting responsibly and collectively. Obviously some teams are more exposed than others, particularly the small ones, and it's important that we try our best to protect the F1 community as best we can."
F1 has been owned since early 2017 by US group Liberty Media and as a business is leveraged quite extensively with debt, but Horner says he believes this is not a major concern.
"To be honest, the Liberty structure is quite complicated and you can only imagine that Live Nation, the owner, is also taking a hit on the events business," he says.
"But they have deep pockets as well. And they have always taken a long-term view on this. I think they will do whatever is needed to ensure the sport continues."
More rule changes on the way
Back in 2008, F1 responded to the financial crash by introducing a series of measures that controlled costs.
The same is going on now. It has already been agreed to delay the major rule changes that were planned for next year, with the idea of making the racing closer, until 2022, and racing in 2021 with this season's cars. And Horner says the new rules are now likely be deferred by a further year until 2023.
"The most fundamental and important thing is taking away the necessity to spend in order to be competitive," he says. "So, freezing parts of the car. The monocoque's already agreed. We're looking at front suspension, uprights, wheels, all the associated parts for that, gearbox internals, probably 60% of the car other than its aerodynamic surfaces and that being frozen for this year and next year.
"We're also talking about pushing back a further year the new regulations, because in my mind it would be totally irresponsible to have the burden of development costs in 2021.
"There seems to be reasonable agreement but it needs ratifying by the FIA to push back those development costs into 2022 for introduction in the '23 season.
"The most important thing we need now is stability. Because the one thing we know is that whenever you introduce change you introduce cost, and stability right now and locking down as much of the car as possible is the most responsible way to drive those cost drivers down."
There is also talk of lowering the budget cap that is due to come into force next year at $150m, but Horner says he believes this is not as important as other issues.
"There is positive and healthy discussion going on among all the teams to be responsible. And it's not just about the cap.
"The cap is a ceiling. It is almost secondary as far as I'm concerned, it is reducing the cost in order to go racing. With, let's say, 60% of the chassis frozen for the next 18 months, that will have a dramatic effect on reducing the operational costs of a Grand Prix team, whether that be for Red Bull or Williams."
The Ferrari controversy
Getting through the coronavirus crisis has become the overwhelming priority for everyone in F1, but that does not mean people have forgotten other issues.
One that has been put on the back burner for now is the controversy over the confidential settlement reached by Ferrari and the FIA after an investigation into the Italian team's engine last year.
Mercedes have backed away from that topic, leaving Red Bull leading the group of teams demanding more clarity over what was in that settlement.
Horner says that once the coronavirus situation is under control, he will be going back to FIA president Jean Todt looking for answers.
"At the moment that is secondary to the issues F1 is facing," Horner says. "We want to deal with everything I've just discussed and then that will be picked up and addressed at a later date.
"We have raised some questions to the FIA. What I would say is that a confidential agreement regarding the technical compliance of a competitor's car is obviously something that raises questions. And I'm sure at the relevant time we will have a conversation with Jean to try to understand why and what that agreement consists of."