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Earlier this month, news broke that the FIA’s Safety Chief and Deputy Race Director Laurent Mekies will leave his post to join Ferrari, reporting in to Technical Director Mattia Binotto.
The move sparked fierce debate amongst teams, similar to that provoked last year when it was announced that the FIA’s F1 Technical Director Marcin Budkowski was leaving the governing body to join Renault.
In both instances, some teams argued it was compromising to have someone switch allegiances so quickly, with Red Bull boss Christian Horner saying that after the Budkowski switch, all teams agreed that an employee should take 12 months gardening leave ahead of such a change.
When asked about Mekies’ move, Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene bullishly defended his team’s actions and suggested there was no such agreement in place.
“There is nothing wrong with that,” he said. “We were respecting absolutely local law, the Swiss local law, where Laurent was hired. Afterwards we went even further than that because we gave him six months of gardening leave.
“However, having said that, what we have discussed before is that we have signed a confidentiality agreement that means we are not allowed to discuss or share in public what we discuss there.
“Having said so, I heard comments related to a supposed or so-called ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ and I think they are comments because a ‘gentlemen’s agreement under labour law is illegal. I thought they were comments, just comments and no more than that.”
Arrivabene admitted there was a discussion with other teams, but insisted no agreement had been made and instead it was left with the FIA’s lawyers to come back with a proposal.
Horner, however, rejected that assertion: “For me it is a big deal because the disappointing element about this is that we have a thing called the Strategy Group where the FIA, FOM and all team principals attend and we discussed the Marcin issue where there was great unrest about a key member of the FIA going to a team - in (this) case it was Renault,” he said.
“Renault diluted that by putting him on an extended gardening leave but then ensued a conversation about it being unacceptable – every team found it unacceptable.
“Of course you are dealing with employment laws across different states and different countries and to try to police legally something like that, it was agreed in the room that all the lawyers in the world couldn’t come up with a contract to police it.
“But there was an understanding and a clear statement by the teams to say, right, let’s have a clear position that there should be at least a period of 12 months in the garden for a member of a team going from either FIA/FOM to a team or from a team to vice-versa.”
Arrivabene responded: “Yes, because we gave a mandate to the FIA – to the lawyers of the FIA – to check national law and come back to us at the next Strategy Group. This is what the FIA is going to do at the next strategy group, which is on the 17th of April.”
Horner hit back, revealing that it was Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne who was pushing for a three-year period of leave. “What’s most disappointing about it is that it was Ferrari, or Sergio, who was pushing for a three-year period,” he said. “On one hand you get a team pushing for a three-year gestation and then a few weeks later we are in this situation. It makes discussions in that forum a waste of time.”
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, sitting between Horner and Arrivabene, said it was “not a big deal” as Mekies is not exposed to the same technical information as Budkowski. “First of all, I didn’t see any gentlemen in the room when we discussed it,” he joked. “Second, it’s completely different to Marcin.
“They are both intelligent engineers, but Marcin was involved in issuing technical directives just a few weeks before he decided to join a team and had a lot of inside [knowledge] and Laurent was involved in a totally different activities that are not as sensitive, in my opinion, as with Marcin’s. He is joining the team in seven or eight months from now and for me it is not a big deal.”
Lawrence Barretto [Senior Writer, F1.com] says...
Heated discussions between team bosses are not unusual. But they rarely happen in public. However, on Friday afternoon the press conference burst into life as Arrivabene and Horner squabbled about what was or was not said at the last Strategy Group meeting.
What is certain is that the subject of gardening leave was discussed. What is less clear is what was formally decided.
Arrivabene confidently insisted Ferrari had broken no rules. From his point of view, there was no gentlemen’s agreement. His team spoke to the FIA and the lawyers and were clear that making a move for Mekies was fair game. As Horner responded with an alternative description of events, Arrivabene shook his head.
It was an entertaining back and forth, with neither side willing to back down, and all the while Wolff sat in the middle watching. The longer it went on, the more detail Horner divulged.
Depending on who you speak to elsewhere in the paddock, the versions of events differ. One source said the matter was debated at great length and, while time periods were discussed, no gentlemen’s agreement was made.
Another source insisted that not only was the discussion had, a unanimous agreement was made for a 12-month cooling-off period. The truth is probably somewhere in between, particularly as getting all teams to agree on anything is typically an impossible task.