Stefan GP set to make history (if the FIA lets it happen)


In recent weeks there have been a flurry of media reports about Stefan GP, the prospective F1 team which hit the headlines in August by making a complaint to the European Commission over the FIA's selection process for the new teams which enter the sport next year. Since then, all has gone quiet on the complaint front but, Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt says that behind the scenes Stefan GP's F1 plans are reaching a crossroads and, as usual, it all comes down to funding.

First it came to light that Stefan GP, which is run by Serbian Zoran Stefanovic, was looking to buy Toyota's slot and this seemed like a perfectly sensible solution. Then, when that fell through, it was reported that Stefanovic was persisting nevertheless with getting into F1 in 2010, slot or no slot. This sounded strange but Stefanovic soon clarified to say that he would aim for 2011 if his team couldn't enter in 2010.

So far so good but then an astonishing report started doing the rounds earlier this week claiming that Stefan GP would test its F1 car throughout 2010 if it fails to get a grid slot for next year. If it does indeed do this it would make history in F1 since you have to think long and very hard to name any team in the sport's 60 year history which has designed, built and tested a car without having a slot to race in. There is very good reason for this.

Designing and building an F1 car costs tens of millions of pounds - money which will go straight down the drain if the car never races, and if the team in question has no grid slot, then this is far from a remote possibility. It's no coincidence that F1 has never even seen billionaires or car companies designing, building and testing cars without the guarantee of a slot to race them.

You often find investors standing by prospective teams, waiting in the wings to pour money into R&D and production as soon as the team gets the green light but it is truly remarkable to find backers which are prepared to take a punt with no guarantee that the fruit of their efforts will ever see the light of day. So if Stefan GP can pull this off it would certainly be pioneering, particularly during the current economic climate, but even if it succeeds it will still have a hill to climb.

Stefan GP seems to be in somewhat of a catch 22. This is because the cost-conscious FIA may well take a very dim view of a team which has no slot but is trumpeting that it is designing, building and testing a car regardless. This could lead to it not being awarded a slot, even if one becomes available, which would leave its investors wincing and would smear egg all over the face of the reporters who originally heralded the team's ambitions.

Indeed, amongst the headlines of 'Stefan GP still pushing for F1 entry', 'Stefan GP still seeking 2010 grid slot' and 'Stefan GP planning to test F1 car' the one question which isn't asked is where Stefan GP's funding is coming from.

Given that even car companies and billionaires have shied away from the idea of fully preparing an F1 car without having an F1 slot, it makes it all the more important for Stefan GP's backers to have deep pockets. One doesn't have to look too far to find examples in F1 of projects which have failed because they lacked funding.

Indeed, ironically, one publication which has given pages and pages of coverage to Stefan GP's plans, without covering the question of its funding source, then again, this is the very same organ which for months trumpeted Simon Gillett's ambitious plans for Donington with headlines such as 'Donington will deliver'. Say no more.

What Stefan GP needs to do more than anything else is demonstrate that it has the financial support to pull off an ambitious plan like creating a car which may never see the light of day. It seems like a heck of a risk and Sylt tried to get to the bottom of it when he spoke to Stefanovic on Friday night.

Sylt first broke the news of Stefanovic's complaint to the EC and has stayed in contact with him ever since. Unlike other outlets which presumably thought that the finance to create an F1 car essentially for fun would magically fall into Stefan GP's lap, Sylt quizzed Stefanovic about his backers. However, perhaps understandably, Stefanovic would not state at the moment where the team's money is coming from.

Sylt is confident that if the team gets a slot then Stefanovic will be able to get the funding in place to get it through the season. True, it will require investors to wait patiently but with Stefanovic's AMCO engineering business background he seems better placed than several of the new teams which do have grid slots for 2010. However, getting investors to commit to funding a team without a slot may be just too tough.

Until it can be confirmed that Stefan GP has funding for the design, building and testing of its car, regardless of getting a slot, it remains to be seen whether it can pull it off. Indeed, until then, all the reports about the team testing and ploughing on in F1, slot or no slot, don't seem to be doing its business case any good.

If Stefanovic can follow up the feat of getting investors with the feat of getting a grid slot then he will be making history twice. However pulling off the latter is as tough as pulling off the former since there are other outfits which have funding and could join F1. For example, on 26 June this year, Joan Villadelprat, president of Epsilon Euskadi, another of the rejected applicants for 2010, wrote to former Renault F1 boss Flavio Briatore asking "if FOTA could send me a personal letter of support stating that Epsilon is considered to be a real candidate to be admitted as a F1 team for 2010 season and beyond."

Villadelprat wrote that "during the selection week, I had people on the phone telling me the three teams that would be selected." He added that "I did not believe this but on Friday when it happened I was dumbfounded." Villadelprat then says in the letter that "our investor/sponsors were extremely disappointed and signalled their intention to withdraw. They have a lot of trust in me and I think I have managed to convince them that the selection process was "political" a result they have not withdrawn but have adopted a wait and see approach."

The bottom line is that, as the recent debacle over Qadbak and the sale of Renault to Genii have shown, the difference between getting or losing a slot is having confirmed finance (not the amount of testing the team has done). However, Stefanovic could get an unexpected windfall to help him on track.

His complaint to the EC claimed that "AMCO Corporation was forced by the FIA to sign with Cosworth," and so "AMCO wants the FIA 2010 selection process for new teams to be reviewed in an anti-trust investigation and declared 'automatically void'."

One media outlet reported this week that Stefanovic has "dropped a complaint it lodged with the European Commission." Evidently the author of the report is not aware that once the EC has been notified of an alleged breach of competition law it proceeds for obvious legal reasons. Indeed, just over a week ago the EC's Competition spokesperson Linda Cain told Sylt that the complaint "is still under investigation."

The worst case scenario facing the new Cosworth-powered teams is that the EC may open proceedings over the matter and, even at this stage, it could put a question mark over their entry. Perhaps tellingly, Stefanovic says that he isn't planning to use a Cosworth engine if he gets a grid slot. It could be his shrewdest move.

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Published: 20/12/2009
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