The off-season’s top stories

Well, it’s 2011 and the new F1 season is only 67 days away from kicking off. In the absence of any track action, it has been left to the talkers and the management to wax lyrical about the possibilities for next season. It is a mouth-watering prospect: champion Vettel defending, Webber in full form, Alonso charging and the two McLarens never far behind. Here, forumula1.com takes a look at the other big stories during the close season.

Lotus-Renault/Team Lotus/Lotus Racing/Proton what?
One of the more distressing stories for the purist over the close season has been the furore over the name of Lotus. A battle which started last season, its principal combatants are Tony Fernandes, the owner of the 1Malaysia team who raced under the name Lotus Racing in 2010, and Malaysian car company Proton, who own Group Lotus and the rights to the name ‘Team Lotus’. In late December, Proton announced a tie-up with the existing Renault team, and a picture did the rounds showing a Renault with some faux JPS-style branding which was supposed to remind people of the glory days of Lotus, the mid-to-late seventies and early to mid-eighties. This is all just very sad, and it still has not been resolved. To many observers’ minds, Fernandes and Mike Gascoyne at 1Malaysia had been doing a superb job of continuing the Lotus legacy. They had the maverick engineering genius in Gascoyne and their happy-go-lucky approach to racing seemed to recall an earlier, less plasticky era. They also had the blessing of Clive Chapman, son of Lotus founder Colin. But the wrangling over the name and the possibility of there being two Lotus teams on the grid next season just seems to be a bit rubbish, really. Let us all hope that it is resolved sensibly before season’s start.

Ferrari shake up engineering department, but Domenicali stays
Ferrari’s catastrophic pitlane call in Abu Dhabi seems to have triggered this reshuffle of the engineering department in the famous old team. Pat Fry, who used to be a McLaren man, has become head of race track engineering, replacing the Australian Chris Dyer. There is no suggestion that Dyer has been sacked, despite the role he may have played in that call to pit Alonso. Rather, Dyer is thought to have been moved sideways within Ferrari. Another appointment is Neil Martin, another ex-McLaren man, to the post of head of Operations Research (your guess is as good as mine). The main story here, though, is the stay of execution of Stefano Domenicali. Many Ferrari fans I’ve spoken to during the holiday believe Domenicali to be too much of a politician rather than a racing man, and a fair few seem to blame him for Ferrari’s failure to win the title in 2010. This may be a little unfair, but the sentiment is there that he is no Jean Todt or Ross Brawn. The jury’s out on him for 2011.

Renault retain Petrov for 2011
Lotus-Renault are to keep Vitaly Petrov for 2011, despite a rocky start to the Russian’s F1 career during 2010. His rookie season has already been analysed in this column, and the verdict can only be repeated: his performances in 2011 must justify the faith shown in him. There is no doubt that he could be an excellent driver: many drivers we now think of as greats had far worse debut seasons than he did, and that drive in Abu Dhabi was mature and skilful. But the money he may or may not be bringing to the team through endorsements or support will count for little if the on-track showings do not pass muster.

Karthikeyan returns to F1 with HRT
Narain Karthikeyan is to return to the sport with Hispania for 2011. The Indian, whose stint at Jordan in 2005 could favourably be described as forgettable, has been racing in Le Mans and other series. His path to the seat is believed to have been oiled by the Tata group, whose support the HRT team desperately needs. There are still a number of question marks over this whole story. Firstly, whether or not the HRT team will survive the whole season in 2011. Secondly, whether it’s really worth hiring a driver who brings money to the team in the place of a talented but less well-supported driver like, for example, Karun Chandhok. Thirdly, who will go into the other seat at the team: the candidates include Christian Klien, who is suspected to have financial backing and did a reasonable job in 2010; Sakon Yamamoto, who is reported to have money behind him but did not set the world alight in 2010; Bruno Senna, whose name is a pull but may not have done enough performance-wise in 2010; Vitantonio Liuzzi, who is thought to be being ushered out of Force India; Nico Hulkenberg, a pole sitter last season; and Chandhok himself. Drivers like Pedro de la Rosa have mourned the situation down the grid, which seems to be that money talks. But the F1 world is as it is, and the cream will rise to the top eventually, you would think.

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