Well, since my last post the soap opera has raced through at least two more episodes…
Episode 1 – Friday
A contempt of court hearing commences in Court 15 of the Victoria Supreme court building. Counsel for Van Der Garde alleges that the Sauber team, having cancelled Van Der Garde’s contract with the Contract Recognition Board in February, are refusing to re-activate it, despite being informed on March 2nd by the arbitrator that he still had a valid contract. Without a current contract, his application for a Superlicense cannot be completed. For this and other reasons, counsel begins to outline his contention that Sauber is committing contempt of court by preventing Van Der Garde from driving for the team at the race weekend. He outlines what will be their request that the court issue a draconian order for contempt, involving the sequestration of team assets, and the possible committal of Monisha Kaltenborn to jail.
While his lawyers continue the contempt of court hearing, Giedo van der Garde shows up at the racetrack in Melbourne to claim his seat. His paddock pass initially fails to work, but eventually he is let into the paddock. Then, with advisers and camera crews in tow, he arrives at the Sauber garage, He enters, and amidst conflicting reports as to whether he has a seat fitting scheduled, or whether a seat ftitting will even take place, he borrows the race suit of Marcus Ericsson, who is only fractionally shorter than him. The suit is quite clearly a tight fit, but Giedo parades around the paddock in it for a few minutes, before handing it back and resuming civilian garb.
Meanwhile, back in court, the contempt of court hearing enters a recess as the court demands information from the Sauber team (namely, a list of their assets) which can only be supplied by their team manager, who is busy due to…a practice for a race.
Back to the racetrack…the Sauber team does not run at all in Free Practice 1. The drivers get into the cars, and the engines are even briefly started, but nothing further happens, and after 30+ minutes the drivers get back out again, and it becomes apparent that Sauber will not run in this session.
Van Der Garde leaves the circuit, having ensured that he was present and available at the start of FP1 to take his rightful seat in a car.
Sauber does run in free Practice 2, their cars turning a wheel under power for the first time this weekend.
Meanwhile, back at court, the hearing re-commences, but is soon adjourned until Saturday morning, as it is announced by the judge that both parties have entered negotiations for an agreed settlement. The first sign of sanity breaking out?
Episode 2 – Saturday morning
The hearing re-commences in court, but it is immediately announced that the parties have reached an agreement that means that Giedo van der Garde will not drive or attempt to drive for Sauber in Australia. The parties will continue to negotiate a full and final settlment after the Grand Prix weekend.
So…what does this all mean?
Firstly, contrary to some headlines, there has not been a settlement. All that has happened is that Sauber has, probably by making concessions, persuaded Giedo van der Garde to stop trying to drive for the team in Australia, and he and his lawyers have also withdrawn their application for an order of contempt in the Victoria courts. Van Der Garde still reserves the right to claim his seat in subsequent races (starting with the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2 weeks’ time) and, until there is a full settlement of the dispute over the contract, Sauber is still potentially subject to court orders and (if it fails to comply with them) contempt of court rulings.
The cynic in me says that Sauber, which until Friday morning was playing a game of careful, non-provocative non-compliance with the court order, may have been reminded by FOM that while publicity out of season is fine and dandy, an F1 race weekend is about the show on track, and courtroom soap operas undermine the show on track.
The realist in me concludes that (a) Giedo Van Der Garde and his advisors realized that there was little chance of him driving this weekend, mostly due to the Superlicense issue, and (b) Sauber realized that further non-compliance would inevitably result in an order of contempt, probably resulting in the sequestration of its on-track assets, which would prevent it from joining the FOM transport process to Malaysia. This would then require it to freight its equipment separately to Malaysia at great expense, requiring it to pay money up front that it may not have.
Hence the negotiation and announcement of what is merely a temporary truce. (Rumor in the sport is that Van Der Garde has been paid $3m by Sauber for breach of his contract to drive in Australia).
If common sense persists, we may get a full settlement before Malaysia, which will end the elaborate games of legal Whack-A-Mole that we have seen in Australia. However, if insufficient sense materializes, the process of Van Der Garde obtaining local court orders and then attempting to get into the car could continue. He certainly has the money to pursue this course of action, and he has an aribitration ruling, and Australian appeal court decisions in his favour. Sauber, on the other hand, will soon run out of options, to the point where its cars and equipment could end up impounded in a foreign country, which would effectively end its existence as an operating entity. Its sponsors right now are also probably yelling down phones “sort this damn mess out”.
The main impediments to a settlement, apart from possible intransigence by one or both parties, is that Sauber may not have the money in the short term to pay compensation to Van Der Garde for breach of contract. The team is, by all accounts, very short of cash. To be fair, they are not the only team rumoured to have cash flow issues. Lotus and Force India are also short of cash, to the extent that all three teams have been granted advances from FOM of their 2014 prize money payouts to help them in the short term.