Renault is evaluating as many as four potential offers to purchase its F1 team before the 2010 world championship campaign, according to commercial rights-holder Bernie Ecclestone – with ex BAR-Honda chiefs David Richards and Craig Pollock believed to be at the head of the queue.
Since Renault President Carlos Ghosn openly doubted whether F1 will continue to 'be very important for anybody if it doesn't answer some of the concerns that surround [it]' [see separate story – click here
], it has been widely assumed that the French manufacturer will no longer be a fixture on the grand prix grid next year, at least not in an official capacity.
However, in order not to transgress its duties under the binding Concorde Agreement – by which earlier this year it pledged its commitment to the sport until at least 2012 – Renault must find a buyer to take over the reins, or else risk facing legal action à la
Toyota, which after departing the fray elected to retain its Cologne-based F1 operation for other purposes rather than sell it on.
The obvious option would have been for Renault to pass over control of the Enstone-based outfit to long-time figurehead Flavio Briatore, but – pending the outcome of the Italian's appeal at least – the 'Singapore-gate' race-fixing scandal appears to have somewhat put paid to that.
Such a scenario has ostensibly left two key bidders battling it out, in the shape of Richards' independent Prodrive operation – which has been on the fringes of the top flight for some time, but was overlooked for entry in 2010 despite appearing to be the most viable of the hopeful newcomers and has insisted that it will only make the leap should it make economic sense – and Luxembourg investment fund Genii Capital, run by the founder of both Gravity Sports Management and technology investment company Mangrove Capital Partners, Gérard Lopez.
The car maker's executive committee met in Paris earlier this week to deliberate the situation, but it is understood that there are differing views on how best to proceed. The current Renault F1 management is believed to favour Richards, championing the Welshman's experience, expertise and proven record in motorsport allied to the fact that the former World Rally Championship (WRC)-winning co-driver has led the team before, in-place of Briatore back in 1998. A Prodrive takeover would also enable the Renault name to be withdrawn from competition with immediate effect, remaining as solely an engine-supplier.
However, Ghosn is more inclined towards the Genii/Gravity/Mangrove consortium offer, which would assume full financial control of the Oxfordshire concern, incorporate the Renault Driver Development (RDD) programme into Gravity Sports Management and retain the Renault name for at least two more years.
Moreover, this bid has the blessing of Ecclestone, and French sports newspaper L'Équipe
reports that the Formula One Management (FOM) chief executive is endeavouring to parachute BAR founder Pollock back into F1 in the role of team principal – though how that would affect 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve's hoped-for comeback [see separate story – click here
], given the French-Canadian's fall-out with his former manager, remains unclear. Adding to the intrigue, Gravity Sports Management member Ho-Pin Tung became the first Chinese driver to get behind the wheel of an F1 car when he was invited to try out for Renault at Jerez last week.
A crunch board meeting is likely to resolve the issue next week, and whilst revealing that he hopes a deal can be done soon, Ecclestone hints the options may not be limited merely to Prodrive and Genii.
“Richards is up against more than somebody,” the 79-year-old billionaire told British newspaper The Times
. “There is the Gérard Lopez group, there is David Richards and then there are another two people. I don't think there is any big rush to get something done, but the sooner the better for everybody. I hope it can be done within the next ten days, and before everybody breaks up for Christmas.”
Should Renault indeed choose to sell a controlling stake in its team to one of the interested parties, it could throw the F1 2010 driver market into disarray once more, as the move would automatically liberate Robert Kubica from his contract and enable the former Canadian Grand Prix winner to switch camps to Mercedes Grand Prix. The ongoing uncertainty regarding the occupant of the second cockpit at Brackley next season is widely believed to be the product of Mercedes playing a waiting game to see how the Renault situation unfolds.