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F1 contracts: Don't rock the boat

Maurice Hamilton November 11, 2013
Even Ayrton Senna got himself in a contractual dispute after signing with Lotus for 1985 © Sutton Images
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I was not alone in being surprised when Kimi Räikkönen walked through the paddock gates on Friday morning at Yas Marina. His no-show for the media rounds and team briefing the previous day suggested that he either had a hangover or he was not best pleased with life at Lotus following the radio exchange during the Indian Grand Prix, not to mention a significant shortfall in his bank account. It's one thing to take grief from your employer and quite another to be unable to turn a deaf ear and salve the indignation by thinking of the money.

Apart from anything else, the inability of Lotus to keep Räikkönen on side (regardless of his perceived track indiscipline four days before) when they desperately needed him to win dollar-earning constructors' points was a very public indication of how severe the team's cash flow problem seemed to be. We now know for certain that Räikkönen has raced his last grand prix for Lotus, as he heads for back surgery in Salzburg this week rather than the US Grand Prix in Austin.

The abrupt end in the driver-team relationship is a great pity because I thought the partnership worked well, Kimi revelling in the absence of corporate demands while simply turning up, doing his job with a competitive car and then, rucksack on his back, returning briskly to his private world. That seemed fun to start with but the smiling indulgence has sadly and quickly turned into inexorable indignation on both sides. As these things do from time to time.

What's the betting on Fernando Alonso being the next to slide down the slippery slope of F1 contractual life? It was summed up by my Italian colleague, Pino Allievi, when he described the change in mood at Ferrari: "Is like a marriage," said the man from La Gazzetta dello Sport. "You 'ave the 'oneymoon and then it goes into another phase. It's still love - but a different kind of love."

It's not new, of course. Drivers and teams have fallen out of love ever since the first pen was put to contract. We've seen Alain Prost fail to complete the 1991 season after Ferrari didn't take kindly to Alain publically comparing the F643 unfavourably with a truck. And things were never the same at McLaren after Juan Pablo Montoya fell off his bike while playing tennis.

But when it comes to a driver being put in his place, I don't think I've ever seen a contract disagreement more vivid than at Monza in 1984 when Ayrton Senna received a reality check he least expected.

Senna was in his first F1 season with Toleman (later to become Benetton) and, in his mind at least, the time had come to move on from the apprenticeship that had served him well to something bigger and better.

JPS Lotus made an offer that Senna accepted. The problem was, he failed to mention it to Toleman believing, with a mix of naivety and arrogance, that the team from Witney would understand.

The only thing Alex Hawkridge understood was his team's three-year contract with Senna included a buy-out clause stipulating a certain sum had to be paid, even before any negotiations took place. Not only had Senna failed to pay, the mismanaged dealing had been exacerbated hugely when Lotus issued a press release revealing their plans for Senna in 1985 and stating rather patronisingly that '….he [Senna] will, of course, continue to drive for Toleman for the rest of the season.'

I don't think so. Senna was suspended forthwith. There would be no racing for the Brazilian that weekend at Monza. Doubly unfortunate was the fact that this would be the home grand prix for Sergio Tacchini, the Italian sportswear company with whom Ayrton had a personal sponsorship deal.

So there he was, dressed to the nines in an immaculate white tracksuit and wandering the paddock like a lost soul with nowhere to go and nothing to do. To say he was stunned wouldn't make a start. "I don't want any more aggravation," he murmured pathetically. "I just want to go motor racing."

Then came the final wound. Stefan Johansson took over Senna's car, finished a rousing fourth and would have been on he podium but for a bearing failure. We'll never know how frustrated Ayrton must have felt as, still a picture of tragic elegance in Tacchini gear, he commentated on the race for Brazilian TV.

That's the difference between Senna and Räikkönen, of course. Kimi would have long since disappeared and be partying somewhere with all his clothes off.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live
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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live