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Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 14.17.08The Mercedes GP Petronas team is riding high in Formula 1 at the moment – except for Toto Wolff, who ended up yesterday in hospital in Vienna after he crash heavily while taking part in a 100km cycle ride. The drivers were not involved this year but rather the entire engineering group and according to reports the group was cycling on a road close to the River Danube near Vienna when someone fell and others crashed into one another. Wolff landed heavily on his right side, breaking his wrist, his elbow, his shoulder and his collarbone. He also suffered concussion. Susie posted a photo of her rather chastened-looking husband with his arm in a sling.

“My husband the hero!” she tweeted. “As we know, boys will be boys…Looks like I am on nurse duty for the next few weeks.”

Toto intends to be in Budapest at the weekend, if the doctors will let him out.

Wisdom and Russia

I am trying to understand the wisdom of F1 going to Russia this autumn. Yes, the Russian government has agreed to pay a rumored $60 million per year (with a 10 percent annual hike) to run a Grand Prix in Sochi. It is only money, but the folks at Formula One World Championship Ltd exist only to generate more revenues for the greedy private equity types who skulk in the shadows of the sport, sucking it dry. No chips are left on the table with these people. They do it for fun because they are all absurdly rich and have all the toys that anyone could wish for. It’s not the money that drives them, it is the game. Money is just a means of keeping score. So, ultimately, a wise man might say that once you have enough money to live well any further financial ambitions are simply ego, showing others that you are more able to make money than they are. Some would say that this is a sad state of affairs when one could be keeping busy with gentler pleasures or taking on different challenges: sharing one’s knowledge and money (a la Carnegie, Gates etc) with those less fortunate, going back to university, travelling the world, or more simple pleasures such as growing nice roses or vegetables, going fishing, having long lunches, playing with grandchildren, and generally doing relaxing things. Some do not have the imagination to look beyond what they know. Others are frightened of change.

Perhaps you cannot teach an old dog to do new tricks but F1 should at least try to behave decently and set a good example.

The problem with Russia (or most modern conflicts come to that) is that it is hard to know who to believe. We in the West are told that Ukrainian separatists with Russian missiles shot down the unfortunate Malaysian airliner. The other day In Hockenheim I had a discussion with a Russian colleague who fervently believes that the plane was shot down by the CIA, which he believes now runs the Ukraine government, because America wants to get a war going in Europe to weaken its economic rivals. This is not a stupid man, nor one who has not seen the world. His views are coloured perhaps by a period reporting in the Balkan wars. We went on to discuss whether it is really possible for either of us to know the truth. There is too much in history of governments doing bad stuff to get what they want. In the end, we shrugged and went our separate ways. I still tend to believe what I have read in the western press and I am sure he still believes what the Russian media is telling him.

Discretion is the better part of valour and so if one can dodge a problem before it arrives that is surely a sensible thing. Politics and sport are ill-matched bedfellows and it is best to avoid such relationships. Sport can be a means to heal rifts, but it can also be a propaganda tool. German domination of Grand Prix racing in the 1930s, for example, was designed to show off the power of the country’s technology. The 1936 Olympic Games is often held up as an example of sport being used for propaganda purposes.

How does one decide?

In the end, one has to be pragmatic. Right now, most of F1′s revenues come from liberal nations. If there is the perception among these people that Russia is the bad guy, then it is wise not to risk damaging the sport by insisting on doing something that people think is wrong. Perception is reality whether the perception be true or not. F1 and the FIA ought to have learned that lesson over Bahrain. The situation there was nowhere near as bad as it was portrayed, but the world believed it was and so F1 damaged its reputation. Perhaps this is a contributory reason to the troubles teams are having these days raising money.

If one spots what looks like an iceberg in the water, it is wise not to continue full steam ahead.

Mexico to return

The Mexican events company CIE has filed papers with the Mexican stock exchange indicating that subject to final negotiations and paperwork, it has agreed a five-year contract to host Formula One races in Mexico City, starting in 2015. Previous Mexican Grands Prix have been held at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, which is operated by CIE. The venue is currently used for baseball games and concerts and needs a lot of work to be brought up to modern F1 standards.

Mexico has hosted 15 Formula One races in the past. The first races took place between 1963 and 1970, and then again from 1986 to 1992.

If the race joins the current 19, it will take the total number of races to 20 as none of the current events seem likely to drop out.

The greatest drivers in Formula 1 are able to achieve great things with cars that are deemed to be uncompetitive. They understand the problems and adapt to them. Admittedly, it is not possible these days for a great driver to win in a bad car. The car must be at least vaguely competitive. And this is where one must take off one’s hat to Fernando Alonso. He is already considered by many to be the best driver in F1, but this year he is adding to that reputation. He pedals the Ferrari F14T with verve and ability. He never gives up, rarely makes mistakes and he has scored in every race this year, an achievement that only Nico Hulkenberg can match.

Fernando’s best finish is third, his worst ninth and his average around fifth. If you asked people to rate the three best cars in F1 this year (thus the cars that should fill the top six finishing positions) I have no doubt that the Mercedes would top the list and that Williams and Red Bull would be next, with the challengers behind them being McLaren, Ferrari and Force India. This being the case, how it is that Alonso is fourth in the standings with an average finish of fifth and a points total of 97?

By the same token why is Kimi Raikkonen languishing in 12th with just 19 points, despite having had only one retirement? It’s not pretty when you look closely at the results. So what is the problem with Raikkonen? Does he get the same equipment as Alonso? Is he lacking confidence in the car? Is he simply past his best and not really interested? The official argument is that the car does not suit his driving style and that he is working to make it better and when he does that and feels confident then he will fly again.

Some say that Alonso has the emotional support of the team and that makes it tough for Kimi to do well. That is not very convincing when one considers Kimi’s apparently impervious nature. Is he secretly a little flower that needs to be loved and nurtured? Other more cynical folk argue that Kimi came back to F1 and found himself in an exceptional F1 car in the Lotus and was thus able to produce some astonishing results, which revived his career. The car also allowed Romain Grosjean to get close to victories, so perhaps this flattered Kimi somewhat.

I don’t claim to know the answer to this question, but Ferrari boss Marco Mattiacci says that Kimi is the driver that Ferrari needs. Quite how he knows this after 12 minutes in the sport is an interesting question. How does he know that Raikkonen is doing a better job than Nico Hulkenberg or Jenson Button would do in the same car, or Felipe Massa come to that? The word is that the choice of Raikkonen was made by Luca Montezemolo at a moment last year when he thought that Alonso was going to leave and Ferrari needed a star name. The big guns behind Ferrari would not be satisfied with a Nico Hulkenberg or a Jules Bianchi. So Kimi it was…

The big question now is what happens next? Ferrari has not managed to give Alonso a title in five seasons of trying and the Spaniard is frustrated. He will be 33 next week and it is fairly clear that his next career decision will probably be his last in F1 terms. He is also in demand. Ferrari wants to keep him. McLaren wants to sign him. Williams would love to have him. Fernando can pretty much name his price at the moment and, as I hear it, last weekend in Germany was pretty significant as Fernando’s contract has a clause in it that says that he is free to leave his team if it is not in the top three in the Constructors’ Championship. In Hockenheim Williams overtook Ferrari for third place… What we do not know is the date at which this proviso kicks in, but normally these things must be decided by September 1 and announced at the Italian GP.

Thus, Ferrari is now exposed and Fernando can make his own arrangements without needing to worry about contracts. The question for Alonso is really very simple: what engine does he think will be the best one next season? If the answer is not Ferrari then there is no point in staying on in Maranello. If the answer is Mercedes, he has only one choice if he is serious about winning. With Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton locked in at Mercedes AMG Petronas, the best available seat for Fernando would have to be one of the two Williams drives. Niki Lauda remarked the other day that he was happy that Alonso was not in a Williams, an indication that the old charger has spotted that possibility. Sir Frank Williams, who has been around the F1 block more times than Lauda, has almost certainly spotted that as well.

If Alonso’s answer is Honda, or he feels that Honda can win the title in the course of the next three years, then he should go to Woking. The past is irrelevant.

McLaren and Honda can afford Fernando, Williams cannot, but there is little doubt that if he did do a deal to go to Grove, then Santander would probably follow as soon as it possibly could. Martini could be convinced to double, treble or quadruple its sponsorship of Williams in such a circumstance, but that’s not very likely. It was a cheap deal and is giving the firm fabulous return on its investment. However, if Williams had a competitive car and Alonso, money would arrive.

Ferrari understands that it must now fight for his services. It can give him as much money as it likes. It is a rich team, but Fernando is so wealthy these days that he lives in Spain and does not care about having to pay tax. The key question is whether or not he is hungry enough to risk a move, or would rather settle for a big Ferrari cheque and hope that the arrival of some of his old muckers from Lotus will turn the team around. That is a big gamble. Ferrari has often been a battleground between the Italians and imported helpers. The only time when this stopped was when Jean Todt ring-fenced the team against all interference and ran things as he felt was necessary. That worked. Could Mattiacci do the same or would Luca Montezemolo still call a crisis meeting every six weeks and try to run the team from on high?

The decision that Alonso makes will start the market moving, or freeze it. If he stays at Ferrari perhaps Raikkonen would be paid off. Perhaps the team would hire a youngster to build up into a star so that they have a star when Alonso does eventually go. If that happens then a Hulkenberg or a Bianchi is worth a flutter. If Alonso goes then things will get lively in Maranello. The need for a star name and the underperformance of Raikkonen would create a problem. The team could change both drivers but who would you hire? Jenson Button might stay at McLaren alongside Alonso, creating a nice super team for Honda. That would move the spotlight to Sebastian Vettel, who is not having an enjoyable time at Red Bull. The Milton Keynes team has a conveyor belt of talent in waiting with Daniil Kvyat ready to jump up if required and Carlos Sainz Jr ready to leap into Toro Rosso.

If Alonso is not available for McLaren, Jenson Button would be likely be secure and logically the team would keep Kevin Magnussen for another year. If it was a choice between Button and Magnussen as Alonso’s team-mate, the folk in Woking would probably go for Jenson… at least at the moment. If Kevin becomes more consistent he will strengthen his position.

If Alonso were to take a risk and head off to Williams, a move that would allow him to revive his relationship with Pat Symonds, with whom he won the titles at Renault back in 2005 and 2006, would the team choose Felipe Massa, who knows how to work with Alonso, or would it go for Valtteri Bottas? Perhaps Team Willy would look at selling its Finnish rising star to another well-heeled team, thus raising cash to pay for Fernando…

That’s possible too…

Yesterday was a rainy drive home from Germany with a silly “umleitung” (diversion) in the Pfalz forest which resulted in nearly an hour of rally stages either behind chugging trucks or (more dangerously) swerving around on wildly twisting roads amid trees, cliffs and ravines. We climbed so high that we were in the clouds which added to the feeling that I had turned right and arrived in Wales. Once across the French border it was cruise control all the way to avoid speeding fines – while people from Slovakia/Slovenia hurtle past you, knowing that no French fonctionnaire will ever bother to follow up on a speeding offence. It is enough to make you buy cars in Slovakia/Slovenia! The only excitement was in a rainstorm when a bird that had ventured out without its sou’wester tried to use the same airspace as my automobile and I fear came off worst.

As it was not touring weather I skipped a lunch stop and used the phone (hands-free) to catch up on some of the news that never made it into the paddock, while dodging puddles in the spray. Watch out for changes at Marussia and more at Caterham. Keep an eye too on F1 and Russia as sponsors are beginning to grumble that going to have tea with Vladimir Putin would not be the smartest thing for F1 to do. Maybe the celebrated Strategy Group will finally do something sensible and involve itself in real strategic thinking, rather than doing daft things that don’t help anyone.

The big talking point at Hockenheim was the size of the crowd, with a number of angst-ridden German reporters trying to understand why der Mann auf der Strasse is no longer coming to the German GP, preferring to stay home with flat screen TV, his beer and his wurst rather than dealing with the hassles and costs of “being there”. The conclusions were confused. Some blamed the sport (usually those with an agenda), some blamed Mercedes, some blamed the weather, some blamed the World Cup. The most likely explanation I heard (admittedly a little bit more sociological than others) was that when Germany discovered F1 it was around the same era as Reunification. This was an unsettling time for everybody and the working classes found security, pride and unity in a successful simple lad called Michael. The fans had mullets and few skills with cutlery, but they loved their Schumi with a passion and battalions of camper vans would surge across the border to nearby races, while Hockenheim was a wild festival of beer and nationalism. The new generation of German drivers don’t do it for the retired mullet-wearers. The current F1 crop are all middle class, they are half-this and half-that when it comes to nationality, and as the working class fans have faded away they have not been replaced by der bourgeoisie. No-one engages with Sebastian Vettel because he “vants to be alone” with his anonymous family at the end of a farm track at a secret location in Switzerland and refuses to talk about life away from the race track. He is an interesting guy, but his PR bodyguards won’t let him out. For the Rembrandts in the F1 media, this is like being given a white canvas and some pale yellow paint.

Nico tries hard to engage but he’s almost too perfect, speaks too many languages, looks like a Monaco beach bum and does not excite the average machine operator in Dortmund. They now idolize soccer players. The Hulk is never in the right car and Adrian Sutil is half-Uruguayan, plays the piano and does strange things with champagne glasses.

The key point is that other races are still getting big crowds so F1 should leave the angst to the Germans.

Germany coverThe German Grand Prix was dominated but Nico Rosberg, but most of the focus was not on the World Championship leader, but rather on his team-mate Lewis Hamilton as he fought his way from the back of the grid to third place, just behind second-placed Valtteri Bottas. It was a masterful drive.

- We look at the FRIC suspension controversy
- Pirelli tests 18-inch wheels
- Britain to allow racing on the roads
- A chat with Susie Wolff
- JS looks at the future of F1
- DT wonders what happened to the crowd at Hockenheim
- The Hack remembers the old days at Hockenheim
- Peter Nygaard and his team of snappers capture all the action

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It’s a real bargain. You get 22 issues for £29.99, covering the entire 2014 Formula 1 season. And all for the price of a pizza and a couple of drinks. And if that is not value for money, we don’t know what is.

For more information, go to http://www.grandprixplus.com.

It’s a beautiful day in France and being in no great hurry to get to Hockenheim I decided to stop of in a village called Vadelaincourt, just off the autoroute near Verdun, to find the grave of Georges Boillot, the great French Grand Prix driver before World War 1. He won the Grand Prix de l’ACF in 1912 and 1913 and battled valiantly in 1914, only to be beaten by the mighty Mercedes team. When war came he talked his way into the French Armée de l’Air and became a fighter pilot, he was good at it too and duly stacked up victories and medals, but in May 1916 his Nieuport was shot down at Vadelaincourt. I remember seeing photographs of his funeral on the Web, and (logically) his grave was listed as being there on various website. The only problem was that there is only one cemetery at Vadelaincourt – and no Boillots is in it! Hmmm. So it was back to the Web again to discover that, yes, Boillot was buried in Vadelaincourt, but later was exhumed and reinterred in the celebrated Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris… as befits a national hero. I’ll have to find him there one day. Hopefully, he’s not going to be on the move again.

I headed onward and was surprised to see my first NASCAR racing car in Europe…

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