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Thoughts at the airport

Regular readers will know that the life of a Formula 1 reporter is one that tends to leave a trail of destruction, with children in odd places and residences that once had a purpose. I even have a very dead car sitting in a barn somewhere, next to box loads of F1-related documentation and other bric-a-brac. The lock of the barn is broken and so to access this treasure trove, one needs to climb through a window that is hidden behind undergrowth, where even cats fear to tread. I guess it’s a bit like those cars one hears about that have been bricked up in old garages. Alas, this is no Bugatti Atlantic but rather a humble Golf, dented by Paris parking à l’époque. I am not one of those people who fill their houses with F1 stuff so it all sits in lofts and garages. My wife is a practical soul and says that I should start an F1 museum of my own with all the memorabilia that lurks in the dark corners of my hideouts. It is worse than it sounds, because in addition to the flotsam and jetsam of my own F1 career, I have inherited the collections of others that stretch back to an age when I was still in short trousers. Still it is nice to have things like Frank Williams’s original brochure in 1969, or a Matra press pack. I have so much, I don’t even know what I have. A few years ago I spotted a file marked “Le Mans” and inside, amongst a number of other folders, I found a sheaf of original reports from the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours, typed on the thin copy paper that they used in the old days. There were even editing marks. I had inherited it from a colleague, who had inherited it from a colleague…

There was a time when good fortune on the property market meant that I owned a nice apartment just off the Avenue Foch in Paris, school fees took care of that and I was left with a cottage in a delightful country village, about an hour and a half out of Paris, where streams have carved their way through the limestone of the Oise and created deep wooded valleys where, in medieval times, people built abbeys, donjons, priories and manoirs. For a while I lived out in these lovely sticks, but then life conspired to shift my focus back to Paris itself and so I have a weekend house and a life that requires me to be away for more than half the weekends in a year… All of this means that I don’t get to visit the house very often, indeed this year I spent one night there between February and the start of September. This meant that my wisteria was threatening the peaceful existence of the village and my tree (of unknown genus, let alone family) has grown so high that it was blocking out the sun for my neighbours. The architecturally-minded spiders of the neighbourhood had moved into the house, killing off the flies and had constructed a city of artful webs, untouched by human intervention. One of the joys of my existence is that I am not tied to one place, except by others and so when my other half had some holiday time we took off to the cottage and embarked on some clear-up. It is good to get away from the computer screen for a few hours each day and chopping down trees is as good an exercise as riding a bike. The other reason for the trip is that from now until the end of November there is not much time available to do such things. Thanks to the current F1 calendar, we are playing yo-yos to Asia for the rest of this month and then, because Sochi is really in the back of beyond, we have to come back to Europe in order to go there, by way of Moscow. The only option was flying through Istanbul and those flights sold out months ago. There may be other routes with correspondences in Tashkent, Yerevan, Yekaterinburg, Chișinău, Ulaanbaatar, Bishkek, Tambov, Ufa and Boompsidaisy, but I can live without such experiences. After we’ve done that, we get a brief break and then it’s Austin, Sao Paulo and Abu Dhabi in quick succession. And then it’s into the Christmas shopping… Fortunately, in the autumn months the wisteria doesn’t grow that much…

So while I was doing all this, the F1 world sailed on. The only news of any real important, or certitude, was that Mercedes announced the appointment of Pascal Wehrlein to the position of reserve driver. The 19-year-old from Sigmaringen had an impressive early career in single-seaters but lack of money led him to DTM, where he was the youngest driver in the history of the series and recently became the youngest ever winner. Little known to the world was the fact that he has spent 30 days this year in the Mercedes simulator this season, covering over 12,000 virtual kilometres in an F1 W05 Hybrid. He got his first chance to drive a proper F1 car at the Autodromo Internacional Algarve in Portimao recently.

In a perfect world…

I am anything but a good businessman but, in my favour, I love Formula 1 motor racing and I am passionate about it and so when I see rampant profiteering going on at the expense of the sport, I get annoyed. I want the best possible Formula 1 and so I naturally object to what the financiers have done to the sport. Suffice to say that if I was a multi-squillionaire I would buy the sport and fix it the way I think it should be. A lot would stay the same but distribution of money would be very different and no teams would get an advantage.

From a philosophical point of view, I don’t understand the super-rich. If you are comfortable for the rest of your days why is there any need to screw every penny from every deal. Yes, there is ego and the pleasure of doing the deal but I don’t get the need to keep score. Once you have enough money it ceases to have any value beyond being something than can be used for good. If you are earning money just to be richer than someone else you are no better really than a mouse on a wheel. F1 is just a game and irrelevant in the history of the world, but it nonetheless gives pleasure to millions and inspires people. It is their escape from the drudgery of everyday life. It puts a smile on their faces, and that is its sole real value. But making people happy is a sensible and tangible goal to have.

Anyway, this is why I do not understand the new calendar for 2015. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to work out that if one twins “fly-away” (intercontinental) in the same region, one reduces transportation costs. Thus a calendar with no fewer than six stand-alone fly-away races cannot possibly be justified as the most cost-effective route to take. There is absolutely no logic in having Australia as a stand-alone event and then a two week break before a Malaysian-Bahraini double-header and then China as a stand-alone event. You would save 30 percent of the cost by moving Malaysia to a week after Australia and then having China and Bahrain separated by a week. In a similar fashion it is daft not to twin Russia and Abu Dhabi, Canada and Austin and Mexico and Brazil. Thus the only possible explanation for such an inefficient calendar is that there is an agenda to try to force teams to accept more races by making the existing events needlessly expensive.

I started wondering if I was running the sport, what would be calendar be, so as to make F1 the best possible marketing tool? The first thing I would do would be to rid the sport of the current circuit designer and put the work in the hands of those who have a better understanding of the science of overtaking. It is a scientific problem that can be solved and built into a circuit. It does not have to be guesswork.

If I had 20 races to hand out I would do them more logically. I believe that there should be a sensible division into three basic zones, allowing TV packages to be created that would get everyone watching enough races to make the TV coverage effective for fans and advertisers. The first race of the season is a big event and it makes no real sense to stick it in Australia, where the TV audience is limited by the time zones, even with an evening race. It makes much more sense to start in the United States where one can build excitement in the US market and still hit prime time European markets if one starts the race at noon. So I would start in Austin in early March and then go on to Long Beach or Laguna Seca. If you start a race at midday on the West Coast of the United States, it is prime time TV in Europe. So it would be good to begin the Championship with an early afternoon race in Austin and then a lunchtime race in Long Beach or Laguna Seca. From there the cars would go to Australia and the people would go back to Europe and then Australia would be at the end of March twinned with Singapore on the first weekend of April before flying to cars on to Bahrain (April 19) and Sochi (April 26). That would get us back to Europe in time for Monaco (May 17), which I would twin with Belgium (May 24). It rains all the time at Spa so May and September are not very different.

After that I would send the teams out to Canada for a Montreal/New York double-header (June 14/21) and then back to Europe for France (why not try for the Bois de Boulogne in Paris) and Britain (back-to-back) – on July 5/12 -and Germany (if F1 cannot fill the Nurburgring then why not learn from Formula E and use Berlin Tempelhof) and Italy – July 26-August 2. No championship would be right without Monza. That would get us to the summer break. I would then go out to Asia for Japan and China back-to-back (Aug 30-Sep 6), with Abu Dhabi (September 27) and perhaps a street race on the east coast of Africa (October 4) if somewhere stable can be found. And then I would end the seasons with a double-header in Brazil (October 18) and a race in the West Indies (October 25).

For the record

The first Formula E race took place on Saturday in Beijing with the race being won by Lucas di Grassi, albeit after the two leaders collided at the final corner, with Nick Heidfeld’s Venturi car being hit by Nicolas Prost (E.Dams Renault) and then hitting a kerb and being launched into the air and into a crash barrier beside the track. Heidfeld was pretty upset after the crash as Prost clearly drove into him to try to stop Heidfeld stealing the victory. Prost was later given a 10-place grid penalty for the next round of the championship. Both cars retired in the incident leaving di Grassi (Audi Sport Abt) to pick up the pieces.

The average speed of the 25-lap race was published at 79.2 mph but the results appeared to be flawed as 25 laps of a 3.44km circuit amounts to 86.325km and if it took 52m23.413s to cover that distance then the actual race speed must be 98.86kmh, which translates to 61.43 mph. The official results were wrong (and still are), claiming that the 25-lap race was over a distance of 111.3 km.

France’s Frank Montagny, now mainly a commentator with Canal Plus, finished second for the Andretti team with Sam Bird third for Virgin Racing.

There was more than a little irony in the fact that the first Formula E race took place in a city that is famous for its dreadful pollution.

The next Formula E race will take place in Putrajaya, Malaysia on November 22, in 11 weeks from now.

A calendar for 2015

The FIA has issued a calendar for next year, with the continuing stupidity of expensive stand-alone fly-away races, no doubt designed to get the teams to ask for back-to-backs, with the ultimate goal being to expand the calendar beyond 20 races. Singapore and Japan have been pushed together, which will save money, but by the same token, Brazil is now a standalone, as Austin has been paired with the new event in Mexico. Australia, China, Canada, Russia, Brazil and Abu Dhabi all remain stand-alone races. The extra race means an extra week, which means that the team people will be getting home from the last race on the last day of November. As usual, the calendar has been created by those who do not have to live it and so they take none of the human damage involved into account as it does not bother them. It would be logical, for example, to pair Australia and Malaysia, Bahrain and China, Russia and Abu Dhabi and perhaps it would be more logical to twin Canada with Mexico. This would cut costs considerably.

The calendar announced is as follows: Australia, March 15; Malaysia, March 29; Bahrain, April 5; China, April 19; Spain, May 10; Monaco, May 24; Canada, June 7; Austria, June 21; Britain, July 5, Germany, July 19; Hungary, July 26; Belgium, August 23; Italy, September 6; Singapore, September 20; Japan, September 27; Russia, October 11; Austin, October 25; Mexico, November 1; Brazil, November 15; Abu Dhabi, November 29.

Max Verstappen completed 148 laps of the Adria International Raceway, yesterday, completing nearly 400 km of running in his first proper F1 test. He had previously done some running around on the streets of Rotterdam in a promotional event.

The 16-year-old Dutchman, who will take over from Jean-Eric Vergne at Toro Rosso next season, did a sensible job.

“In his first real test in a Formula 1 car, Max did a very competent job, giving the impression he has been driving a Formula 1 car for quite a while, not like someone on their first day behind the wheel,” said the team’s sporting director Steve Nielsen. “He made no mistakes all day, seemed confident and once he was told something he remembered it. In general, he coped very well with this first test.”

The team’s Xevi Pujolar also declared himself very impressed. “Max started his run on intermediates and got up to speed, making no mistakes,” he said. “We worked through various procedures that make up a race weekend. He was very focused and precise and learned quickly, without having to ask many questions. Once we were able to fit slicks, he got used to the car in the dry and built up his speed, while we tried various fuel levels, replicating both qualifying and race trim, doing a mix of short and long runs. For a first day, it was very impressive.”

The departure of Luca Montezemolo from Ferrari is a move of gigantic proportions in the geopolitics of the sport – and it has a number of implications that may not seem obvious.

Back in the 1970s Montezemolo was the bright young boy at Ferrari and after putting Ferrari back on a winning path he went on to a glittering career in various Fiat-related companies and projects before being put in charge of Ferrari in 1991, after he had finished organising the 1990 World Cup competition. By then Enzo Ferrari was dead and the Ferrari company had lost its way in F1 terms. Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli decided that it was time for a change and brought back Montezemolo as Ferrari chairman and managing director. It was November 1991 and his brief was to sell more cars and to get the F1 team winning again. Remember that after 1983, Ferrari had not won a Constructors’ title, overshadowed by McLarens, Williamses and later by Benettons as well. At the time Ferrari sold 4,500 road cars a year and Montezemolo ramped this up to reach 7,000 by 2008. The company recently announced its intention to cap production at 7,000 vehicles a year in order to maintain the exclusivity of the Ferrari brand. This means that prices will go up. From the moment he took over the progress was positive but Agnelli still needed to be patient and it was not until 1999 that Montezemolo finally found the right formula with Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Michael Schumacher. In the same period Montezemolo used Concorde Agreement negotiations to force Bernie Ecclestone to give Ferrari more money than the other teams. Ecclestone and Ferrari worked hand in glove – as long as the money kept coming. The legacy of that is that today Ferrari gets around $120 million a year before the prize money is decided upon. Some of the others have negotiated lesser deals but they are peanuts compared to Ferrari’s ransom. By 2000 Ferrari was dominant but did not do what Mercedes is currently doing and allow its drivers to fight. Michael Schumacher was the number one and if the second driver did not like it, it was tough. The success propelled Montezemolo to a job with Confindustria, the Italian employers association, and in 2005 he was appointed chairman of Fiat because the Agnelli family had lost a generation to illness and suicide and as the older group died off, the third generation was not yet ready. Instead the family turned to Montezemolo to be the chairman until the new boys were ready for the job. Luca would remain in the role until 2010 when John Elkann – by then 34 – took over. Montezemolo went back to running Ferrari, although he dabbled in politics, setting up the Italia Futura political movement and holding shares in various other businesses, in the furniture, cashmere and high-speed train sectors.

His major idea after the break-up of the winning team was to recreate the same success with Italians in key positions: thus Stefano Domenicali became team principal, Luca Marmorini headed the engine department and Aldo Costa ran the design team. It did not work and thus Ferrari drifted backwards as McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes rose up to defeat them.

The disappearance of Montezemolo is not just about Ferrari, of course. Ferrari is a powerful force in F1 and while Luca was old school and happy to get what was best for Ferrari no matter what, the feeling today is that the sport is in danger of destroying itself with profligacy, and with a commercial rights holding organisation that strips money out of the sport in vast quantities, and which does next to nothing in terms of promotion or investment for the future. Thus the disappearance of Montezemolo, as with the disappearance of Max Mosley from the FIA, weakens the hold on the sport enjoyed by the Formula One group. People today don’t just agree to everything, and even Ferrari may now see the benefits of taking out the middle man and dividing up the revenues in a more traditional manner. Resistance may not be open, but it is growing. A new generation at Ferrari may understand that while Ferrari can go on doing what Montezemolo was doing and getting bigger and bigger payouts at each negotiation, the best long-term solution may not be this way. There are bound to be those who will argue that the time has come to get a better deal for everyone, while at the same time, trying to find ways to cut costs. When it comes to a spending competition Ferrari is only a big player when it is not against a Mercedes or a Honda. Thus, cost control becomes important. Time will tell whether this happens, but one thing is certain: of the three big players in F1 in the last 20 years, there is only one still standing. Max Mosley is gone; Luca Montezemolo has followed. The survivor, Bernie Ecclestone, is 84 in a few weeks. He has survived a bruising brush with the authorities in Germany and he must be wondering whether one day soon the risk-assessors at CVC Capital Partners will re-assess his value.

A Sauber sale?

Sauber has been sold quite a few times. The first time was back in 1995 when Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz purchased a majority shareholding in the team, although Peter Sauber retained the voting rights and so remained in control. In 2001 the two parties fell out over drivers (Mateschitz wanted Enrique Bernoldi and Sauber wanted Kimi Raikkonen) and the shares were passed on to Credit Suisse. At the end of 2005 BMW acquired the shares owned by Credit Suisse, while Peter Sauber retained a 20 percent stake but gave up his voting rights, although the team continued to be known as BMW Sauber. Four years later BMW gave the team back to Peter. The one strand throughout the process was that the Sauber name remained and this, it seems, is a primary consideration. Peter Sauber likes being the most famous team owner in Switzerland and is not overly keen on becoming the most famous ex-team owner, unless that is absolutely necessary. This year Sauber has been in need of money. There is a deal in place for the Russian government-controlled technology firm Rostec to become the team’s primary sponsor, but a sponsorship contract is worth nothing if the cash does not arrive and all the indications are that the Russians have been talking a good game, but not delivering. Yes, there may be problems relating to Ukraine and sanctions but the bottom line is that the time has come for them to sh*t or get off the pot.
With the Russians dithering, Sauber was hoping for other options, but the Simona de Silvestro option seems to have evaporated because the team needs her to bring money, rather than waiting for money that may or may not come if she was an F1 driver. Simona has not been seen at a race since the early summer and a decision is needed soon because sitting out two seasons without racing is not wise. No-one in F1 is likely to take her because of the risk factors involved and the only option would appear to be to return to the US and give up on the F1 dream. That is a bad idea given that a moderately-successful female F1 driver would be a huge bonus for the sport, but if no-one will give her the chance and she cannot pay for it then perhaps that is the wisest course of action. In a normal business, the promoter might size up the potential value of a woman F1 driver and invest to make it happen… but, of course, this is not a normal business.

An intriguing new element emerged in the days before Monza, with the suggestion that Canadian businessman Lawrence Stroll was taking an interest in investing in the team. Stroll has made inordinate amounts of money by buying the rights to fashion designers (he started out rich) and building up the brands. He did it with Tommy Hilfiger in the 1990s and more recently did the same thing with Michael Kors. He has also been involved with Pepe Jeans. Stroll has just sold about $1 billion worth of Michael Kors shares and is on the prowl for a new business. He is now reckoned to be worth around $2.3 billion and he is not afraid to spend his money. Having said that Stroll was involved with Team Lotus back in 1994 but did not come in as the white knight that was hoped for. He let the team die. There is a difference today because he now has a teenage son who may be quite a useful prospect. Lance Stroll is a Ferrari Young Driver and rumours suggest that his father has already bought control of the Prema Racing Formula 3 team in order to ensure that everything goes well for his son. The suggestion was that Stroll Sr would buy Sauber to make sure that his son gets into F1. It remains to be seen if Stroll delivers this time. In the interim the Dutch believe that Giedo Van der Garde has already signed a from contract to race for Sauber in 2015. The team is saying nothing at the moment the Dutchman cannot afford to stay out of racing for a second season and so needs to nail down a deal as quickly as possible. His backing comes from the Dutch fashion brand McGregor.

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