Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Astana Woes

One of the few other "sports" I follow is Formula One car racing.

F1 is the epitome of car racing. It may not be the most this or that (want more crashes? tune into NASCAR), but it's the highest level of racing. Something like 30-odd racers hold the Super License required to race F1, teams have to pay a huge fee just to be in the sport, and everyone has to develop their own cars. You even have to pass crash tests and use pump gas.

Well, sort of. You're allowed to buy engines from another team now, but the rest of the car is pretty well unique.

The F1 scene is actually pretty interesting now because the new rules (which led to cars that admittedly looked pretty odd, at least till the look grew on me) turned the whole F1 world upside down. F1 now has slick tires again (like most other racing series).

2009 to the left, just to be clear. Click to get the whole picture.

Previously the cars cornered too fast, so the rulemakers decided tires should have less traction. In 2009, they decided to dramatically decrease allowable downforce, and let slick tires back in the picture.

They also allowed teams to use a hybrid drivetrain, one that stores power generated by slowing the car down.

Yep, hybrid F1 cars.

Not to save gas but to get more power. A car so equipped can use 6.7 seconds of "boost" each lap limited to 82 HP.

The result of all these rule changes? The top contenders from last year languish at the back while former mid-fielders are fighting for the wins and the season championships.

It's sort of like if Lotto suddenly had a hard time winning a classic, and... Oh, wait. They haven't won a classic, have they? Okay, it's like if Boonen suddenly couldn't ride the cobbles.

One of the fairy tale stories in F1 is the current dominant team, one that goes by the name "Brawn".

Is Brawn short for Brawny? Are they sponsored by a paper towel company?


Brawn is actually an individual named Ross Brawn. His earlier claim to fame was his link to a certain Michael Schumacher. Under two different teams, Brawn helped the teams earn 7 Driver's Championships (overall season best driver) and about as many Constructor titles (for having the best cars in the overall season - each team has two cars).

7 titles. One driver. One director.

Sounds like a certain cycling duo, doesn't it?

Wait, it gets better.

In '07, Brawn took a leave of absence. It happened to be when his star driver hung up his shoes. It's unclear why he did this, but after a year off, he ended up signing a contract for the definitely-midfield Honda team.

The Honda team was, unfortunately, like the Mets of US baseball. Highly funded with no results worth speaking of, an embarrassing situation. Kind of like the weekend racer with a $12,000 bike but he gets dropped a lap or two into each race.

You can't help but feel kind of bad for him. I felt bad for Honda. I felt bad for their two drivers, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello.

Button is a relatively new driver, coming of age if you will, perhaps a Contador type of racer. He would do stunty kinds of things like drive a street car around some track, and then let a wanna-be journalist drive the same car around the same track. (Button demolished the journalist's time, btw, and the journalist said as much.)

Barrichello was Schumacher's lieutenant, loyal to a fault. Once he pulled over literally a few hundred meters from the fhinish in order to let Schumacher pass him to earn maximum points. Schumacher actually had Barrichello get on the top podium, a gallant gesture, but everyone disapproved. It illustrated just how uncomfortable everyone was with the situation. It's like Lance having Hincapie stand on the podium at the Tour. It's just not done.

Anyway, Brawn went to Honda, and he had two good drivers - the young upstart and an aged veteran who happened to study under the Master.

Then the car economy (and everything else it seems) tanked. Honda, unwilling to spend the millions and millions to sponsor a losing team, decided to pull out.

Here you have a rich F1 team where the sponsors suddenly pull out their support. To be fair there had been some warning, and Honda said they'd pay the bills until the team found a new sponsor. Honda actually paid for the development of the 2009 car in 2008, a car that would race under whatever new team sponsor came on board.

Ultimately the team couldn't find a sponsor. To continue the team, Brawn paid a symbolic one Euro to buy the team.

Then the team went on a rampage, using the infrastructure so thoughtfully set up by Honda.

Right now, Button leads the championships with 31 out of a maximum earnable 35 points. His teammate Barrichello is in second. Brawn (the team) leads the constructor's championship by 22.5 points (50 to 27.5). A dominant performance.

This, in case you haven't guessed, is the point.

Substitute "Astana" for "Honda" and you'll start to see a potential picture.

Astana, it seems, has more money problems than I thought. They have a strong team, with two huge names (Lance and Contador) along with a bunch of almost-huge names (Levi and Horner pop into mind right away, plus that Brankovic sounding guy). They have "the" director, Johan Brunyeel, who's acknowledged to be a "master tactician" (a common description for Brawn).

And they have money problems.

However, they already have a ProTour team license, along with riders who have followed the blood passport program, experienced mechanics, and all the ancillaries that go with a ProTour team. This is like Honda's situation just before they sold the team.

Last year I predicted that when Lance came back to racing, he'd have his own team. He didn't, though, because he wanted to race with his old director, Bruyneel. Bruyneel couldn't leave Astana so Lance joined them too.

But now Lance and Bruyneel have the option of buying out Astana, maybe for a symbolic Euro. They'd have some obligations, like replenishing the $2 million in the UCI account. But then he and Bruyneel would have the run of the team.

A turn-key team.

And they can go on a rampage.


andrew said...

Hmm... Virgin doesn't sponsor a cycling team yet, do they?

Yokota Fritz said...

Lance is rich, but does he have enough to support the team by himself?

Aki said...

I don't think Lance would sponsor himself per se, but he's mentioned that he has sponsors lined up, ready to go.