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An FIA controversy: What's all the fuss about the technical chief and why are F1 teams so angry?

The sort of story that could only ever develop in Formula 1...

It's an F1 controversy involving the resignation of the FIA's technical guru, the confirmation of his move to Renault, and the outrage of rival F1 teams.

But what's the background to this story? Come this way...

Who is Marcin Budkowski?
While Budkowski had only been in his most recent role with the FIA for eight months, the aerodynamicist has been building a fine reputation in Formula 1 ever since starting his journey with Prost Grand Prix in 2001.

The Pole joined Ferrari a year later and after supervising wind tunnel development at Maranello until 2007, he moved on to McLaren and took up several technical roles before becoming the team's Head of Aerodynamics in 2012.

However, his rise with McLaren was soon cut short as part of the huge changes behind the scenes ahead of a Honda partnership, with Red Bull's Peter Prodromou drafted in as their new aero chief at the end of the 2014 season.

And so, Budkowski moved on to the FIA to become the Technical and Sporting coordinator for F1's governing body - seen as an eventual successor to the likes of Charlie Whiting (race director) and Jo Bauer (technical delegate) in the future. Indeed, Budkowski took the technical chief role previously held by Whiting in February this year.

Marcin Budkowski: Career in profile

Year Team/company Role
2001 Prost GP Aerodynamicist
2002-2004 Ferrari CFD Aerodynamicist
2004-2007 Ferrari Aerodynamics Project Leader
2007 McLaren Senior Aerodynamicist
2008 McLaren Team leader - trackside Aerodynamics
2009-2012 McLaren Project leader - Aerodynamic development
2012-2014 McLaren Head of Aerodynamics
2014-2017 FIA F1 Technical and Sporting Coordinator
2017 FIA Head of F1 Technical Department

With that, Budkowski has been in a privileged position when it comes to current and future research and development ideas from teams, with Red Bull chief Christian Horner pointing out that "extremely recently, he's been in people's wind tunnels and looking at intimate details of next year's cars."

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"Only two weeks ago we were talking to him about suspension systems," Horner added to Sky F1.

Being transparent with the FIA and giving them access to R&D and planning is common practice for teams and certainly not alarming in isolation - but tensions were soon to rise prior to the Malaysia GP as Budkowski's resignation was confirmed.

While news of his departure was a surprise but not anything to particularly concern teams - bosses were shocked to learn, allegedly in an email from Whiting, that Budkowski would be on gardening leave for just three months. And they were furious to hear reports that Renault had lined up the 40-year-old to join them at the end of this notice period.

If that timeframe is correct, Budkowski could in theory then start a new job at the end of the calendar year - and thus potentially make a significant contribution to next year's car - all the while armed with critical information about Renault's competitors. It's a situation teams fear, and want to avoid.

Renault's announcement
Prior to Practice Two at the Japanese GP, Renault confirmed that Budkowski was joining them as an Executive Director - but crucially did not specify when he would start his new role.

'Budkowski will be responsible for overseeing all activities related to the development and production of the chassis,' a team statement read.

"Marcin's mission will be to continue the growth of Enstone in order to allow Renault to join the leading teams by 2020 by relying on personalities whose skills are no longer to be demonstrated, like Bob Bell, Nick Chester or Rob White," said Renault chief Cyril Abiteboul.

How have the teams reacted?
It would be fair to say they're not best pleased.

The bosses of Ferrari, Red Bull, Williams, Mercedes, McLaren and Force India - all part of F1's Strategy Group - came together for a hastily-convened meeting on Friday at the Malaysia GP, and while a proposal of a £150m budget cap was thought to be on the agenda, Budkowski's future was also discussed.

By coincidence, Renault are not a member of that Strategy Group.

"We'd take major issue with that if he does end up at another team," Horner later said in a press conference. "Marcin is a good guy but the problem is he's been privy to everybody's most intimate secrets from the past and the future. He has all that knowledge in his head - and to expect him not to use that is pretty naive.

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"It's vital the teams have faith in the governing body and they can share their technical secrets, in confidence that information doesn't end up with a rival team."

Toto Wolff shared a similar view. "I don't think it's correct because he's had access to a lot of information," the Mercedes chief explained. "Especially from Mercedes so he will tell everybody else."

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"It's a no-go," Toro Rosso's Franz Tost told Sky F1. "They know all the technical details from different teams and this is a big advantage for the team that they join because they get all the latest technical information."

The key sticking point appears to be the length of gardening leave, with Horner claiming a delayed start to the new job would "take all the emotion out of it".

"A three-month notice period and for him then to turn up in a competitor team is entirely inappropriate," he insisted.

Wolff added: "I personally get on well with Marcin and we wish him success for his career, that is clear, but we need to look at the timings. It's important to have a certain stability and understanding how quick somebody can leave the FIA and join another competitive team."

A later start date would indeed negate several of the issues and bosses explained that the "industry standard" gardening leave is usually around 12-18 months. However, it has been claimed that Swiss law prohibits stopping an individual from working for longer than three months. The FIA's headquarters are in Geneva.

So what can teams do?

"What we can do is not to share any more information with people from the FIA," was Tost's proposal, while Horner issued a word of warning.

"I think we can make our feelings pretty clear to the FIA," he said. "Let's assume he does go to Renault, the problem is that if that something that looks like something from a Red Bull or Mercedes or Ferrari ends up on their car in the first six months of next season, it could actually end up being a problem for the team that ends up employing him."

Renault's response...
In a revealing interview on the Malaysia GP Race Show with Sky F1, Abiteboul said Renault had to be "aggressive" and were not in F1 "to make friends".

"We want to be one of the top teams by 2020," the Renault chief said. "It is far away, but given we know what needs to be done, if you look at the 1.5-second gap between the midfield and the top teams, it is a big jump. And that is why we need to be aggressive in what we do to be there by 2020.

"In the sport you are not here to make friends. Obviously there are ways to do things, but it's a case for any engineer - and Enstone badly needs to grow.

"When we took the place it was 475 people, it is now 620 people. It is no secret that those people need to come from somewhere, and we need to go chasing from some of the other teams."

Still, Abiteboul was insistent that Renault intends to play by the rules and wants to respect teams' IP [intellectual property] rights.

Image: Budkowski (left) with FIA's F1 head of communications Matteo Bonciani

"I want to make it clear that Renault has a very clear track record of being extremely fair and loyal," he said. "So whatever we will do we will do it in a very loyal way and fair way towards our competitors."

And it also must be stressed that, Renault have done nothing wrong by agreeing a deal with Budkowski.

"Is this opportunism from Renault?," noted Sky F1's Ted Kravitz. "They are acting above board. If they're told that this guy only has a three-month gardening leave package then you go for it. A lot of other teams would."

While that may be true, teams have reportedly already written to FIA president Jean Todt and F1 chairman Chase Carey to discuss the implications of Budkowski's departure and next move.

Whatever happens, expect this saga to rumble on for a while yet...

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