Frank Williams was always a bit of a “hard nut” until you got to know him. If you went near him with a microphone he would stop behaving like Frank and started saying what we was supposed to say, which meant that few intrviews gave anything away. There was a kind side to him that was often ignored and many examples of his kindness to people who suffered disabilities, which did much to inspire them to fight back. But there were other stories too where the real Frank would emerge. Here is one such story, which I wrote back in 2006.
“Twenty seven summers ago there was a day which, with the benefit of hindsight, was a pivotal one in my existence. Everything happened on the same day. It was my eighteenth birthday and that happened to coincide with the day that I left school. And, by chance, it also happened to be the day of the British Grand Prix. As a last birthday treat of youth, my parents took me to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. My first motor race. That day we stood (uncomfortably, I recall) on a mound of earth at Becketts, watching the action. Alan Jones led the race in his Williams FW07 but something mechanical went wrong and he disappeared halfway through the race, leaving the race to his team mate Clay Regazzoni. It was Williams’s first Grand Prix victory.
“I have been a fan of the Williams team ever since. They know how to go racing and do things properly. I am still a fan and now I count myself lucky to be a friend of Sir Frank Williams as well.
“Before the corporate days of BMW a Williams new car launch was tea and biscuits in the garage at a racing circuit, which was exactly what we journalists needed. We could talk to the people and did not have to worry about the hoop-la and dancing girls which some teams felt the need to employ. Things have changed and nowadays the press corps is simply too big to fit into one garage and so Williams hit on a new idea of having a proper sit-down lunch, in a nice atmosphere in the warm and familiar atmosphere of the Williams Collection, where one is surrounded by many old friends (the cars). This was very civilised and gave the event a very homely feel (deliberate I am sure). This was underlined by the team’s press pack which featured family snaps of team members when they were young made up like a photo album.
“If the truth be told, I was not planning to go to the launch because these events are rarely cost-effective for freelance journalists and almost all the information is available on the web within minutes of a car being launched and with one-to-one interviews these days so restricted there is no good reason to go, except to catch up with one’s pals. The thing was that it was also my son’s 12th birthday and I did not wish to leave before the dawn and come back late in the night and miss the whole day with him. You only get one 12th birthday.
“So one day, while chatting to Frank on the phone I mentioned that I was not coming to the launch. He would not hear of it. If it was my son’s birthday then Frank Williams was going to help out. Young William Saward must come to the launch as well – as Frank Williams’s personal guest.
“You might think that having a father who is an F1 journalist and a mother who is the press officer of the French Grand Prix, young William would be blase about such things but in reality he has been to only one race meeting in his life and was too young to remember that. Frank remembered the visit perhaps because the then four-year-old William did what kids do and said the first thing that leapt to mind when faced with a man in wheelchair.
“What happened to your legs?” he said.
Frank patiently explained that he had had an accident and that his legs did not work any more. The kid nodded sagely. That made sense.
Eight years later we turn up at Grove and young William was impressed.
“This doesn’t look like a factory,” he says.
“When he sees a box hedge sculpture of a racing car, complete with mechanics (a work of art if one knows about horticultural things) he says “Cool” which is the last thing I would have imagined. Then he meets all Dad’s friends, has his hand crushed by the handshake of the tall Australian racing driver, but is impressed by the cars in the museum, the windtunnel models and particularly the scale model of the whole Williams factory – which would make a great thing to fight model tank battles on. With this in mind I introduce young William to Frank’s chief executive Chris Chapple, who used to be a Royal Marine Commando. William is impressed by that. And then we sit down for lunch and we find ourselves sitting on Frank’s table (which is a nice gesture) and when another journalist fails to show up William moves seats and ends up sitting next to Frank and the two chatter away in French and English.
“When you try to explain to kids that they are doing things that millions of people around the world would die for, they never understand. It is part of their charm. There are not impressed by fame and fortune.
“The new car is unveiled. What did young William think of that?
“F1 cars all look the same,” he says.
“A point for the rule-makers to take on board.
“Later we have some photographs taken around the Conference Centre. And, for one photo, William sits on the front wheel of the car in the foyer.
“That’s the car that won Williams’s first Grand Prix,” says the Williams man. “The actual car.”
“Yes,” I said. “I was there. It was my birthday treat.”
It is with immense sadness that I must report the death on Sunday morning of Sir Frank Williams, at the age of 79. Frank was remarkable in many respects, not just as a Formula 1 team owner, and as a high profile tetraplegic, who inspired so many others with his courage in the face of adversity, but also as a close friend.
Frank never really got over the death of his wife Lady Virginia (Ginny) in 2013. They had been together for more than 40 years, through thick and thin, and Frank struggled to cope without her. Even before her death there were signs of mental deterioration. He would forget conversations that he had just had although his memories of the old days when he struggled to become a successful team owner remained clear. It was clear that he could no longer run the racing team and in 2012 he stepped down from the board, although he remained the team principal, while his daughter Claire took the role of deputy, and to all intents and purposes, took over the running of the team. The family finally ceased to be involved when the team was sold in September 2020.
In recent years Frank was very frail and nearly died on at least one occasion as a result of an infection that was difficult to shrug off.
Motor racing made him a wealthy man and his achievements were recognised in many different ways, with his appointment as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) back in 1987. He was appointed a chevalier in France’s Légion d’Honneur, in recognition of his achievements with Renault engines and in 1999 he was knighted in the UK.
Williams was the son of a Royal Air Force officer and a teacher, who later became a headmistress. Born in South Shields on Tyneside in 1942, he was raised partly by his mother’s sister after his parents split up. He was then sent away to school at St Joseph’s College in Dumfries, Scotland, where he developed a passion for cars. He left school at 17 intent on becoming a racing driver and did a variety of jobs, while hitch-hiking to races all over the country. When he had enough money he bought an Austin A35 and started racing when he was 19. The car was wrecked when he crashed into a lamp-post in Salisbury and he acquired an A40 for 1962, although this was soon destroyed in a crash at Mallory Park. With his namesake Jonathan Williams he started a team in Formula Junior in 1963 but it was the other Williams who did the driving, while Frank worked as his mechanic. The pair travelled all over Europe.
Frank was racing again in 1964, sharing a Formula 3 Brabham with “Bubbles” Horsley, one of a group of young racers who shared a famous flat in Harrow, including Piers Courage, Charles Crichton-Stuart and Charles Lucas. After several years of trying to make a racing career while buying and selling racing car parts, mainly in Europe, Frank decided that he was more likely to succeed as a team owner and established Frank Williams Racing Cars in rented premises in Slough.
In October 1967, Williams made his debut as team owner, running Piers Courage in a Brabham BT21 at Brands Hatch. In 1968 he ran Courage in Formula 2, while running an F3 car for Richard Burton and he later ran Tetsu Ikuzawa and Tony Trimmer in F3 with some success.
In 1969 Williams bought an ex-factory Brabham Formula 1 car and entered it in selected races for Courage. The team scored two second places that year, while also running cars in F2 and F3.
After this promising start the ambitious Williams went into partnership with Alessandro de Tomaso for 1970, running Courage in a Giampaolo Dallara-designed de Tomaso F1 car.
Sadly Courage crashed at Zandvoort that summer and was killed, leaving Frank bereft. He kept the team going as best he could and in 1971 acquired a March F1 chassis for Henri Pescarolo and a year later expanded the operation to run a second car for Carlos Pace.
He was still keen to build his own cars and the first Williams-built F1 car appeared in 1972, although the Len Bailey-designed Politoys FX3 was destroyed by Pescarolo on its first outing.
For 1973 Williams found backing for two years from Marlboro and the Italian sports car company Iso, but not all the money arrived.
Williams struggled through the next three seasons with his financial situation becoming more and more difficult before he was finally forced to go into partnership with Austro-Canadian oil magnate Walter Wolf for the 1976 season.
He had lost control of his old team and when he was dropped as team manager he quit and early in 1977 started Williams Grand Prix Engineering with a young engineer from Wolf called Patrick Head. They set up shop in an old carpet warehouse in Didcot and acquired an old March F1 car, which was driven by Patrick Neve, who had funding from the Belgian Belle-Vue brewery.
The new organisation began to build its own cars with money coming in thanks to Crichton-Stuart, who managed to find some funding from Saudia Airlines. The Saudia Williams team ran Head’s FW06 in 1978 for Alan Jones and there were some promising results and in 1979 the team expanded to two cars. Head’s FW07 was a much better car and with some aerodynamic tweaks it became competitive in the hands of Jones and Clay Regazzoni.
It was the Swiss driver who scored the first Williams victory at Silverstone in 1979, after Jones retired from the race, but it was the Australian who followed up with a string of victories and in 1980 he took the World Championship title. Williams dominated the Constructors’ Championship but the following year Jones and his team mate Carlos Reutemann fell out over team orders which Reutemann ignored and so the Argentine became the team leader although both men grew so disenchanted that they quit F1 that year and Williams hired Keke Rosberg and Derek Daly.
The team sill required funding and in 1980 it was agreed that Williams would build the Metro 6R4 rally car for Austin Rover.
Rosberg managed to win the 1982 Formula 1 World Championship despite winning only one race and then in 1983 the team began a relationship with Honda. It was disappointing at first but it would lead to Constructors’ World Championship success in 1986 and 1987, with Nelson Piquet taking the 1987 Drivers’ title.
In March 1986, however, rushing to get an airport after a test at Paul Ricard, Frank rolled his hire car and was paralyzed. He was not expected to survive but Frank refused to give up.
Embarking on what he called “a different kind of life” he was soon back to racing. The accident led to Honda deciding to switch to McLaren and Williams was left to run Judd engines in 1988 but then Frank struck a deal with Renault for its new V10 engines in 1989.
The Williams-Renault partnership was even more successful than the deal with Honda with the team winning a string of World Championships in the early 1990s with Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. There followed the terrible accident at Imola in 1994 that killed the great Ayrton Senna, but the team bounced back to win championships with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve in 1996 and 1997.
In the autumn of 1994 Williams and Renault decided to enter the British Touring Car Championship with the Laguna. Alain Menu and Will Hoy both won races and Menu finished runner-up, giving Renault the Manufacturers’ Championship. The team would win all three BTCC titles in 1997. The programme would continue until the end of 1999 but by then Williams was working with BMW, building a sports car that would win the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1999.
The relationship with BMW came close to winning the F1 World Championship but th German firm then decided to do its own thing and Williams began to slip back on the grid. The team tried new management as Frank felt it was needed, but the slide continued.
The passion that drove Frank to battle through so much adversity lived on, even through the worst times and Frank remained as enthusiastic and fascinated as ever. He was in awe of the great drivers and one of his happiest days was to be driven around Silverstone in 2019 by Lewis Hamilton.
However, the team lives on and things are finally on the up, the goal being to put the Williams name back where it belongs in F1.
“The Williams Racing team is truly saddened by the passing of our founder Sir Frank Williams,” said team boss Jost Capito. “Sir Frank was a legend and icon of our sport. His passing marks the end of an era for our team and for the sport of Formula 1. He was one of a kind and a true pioneer. Despite considerable adversity in his life, he led our team to 16 World Championships making us one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport. His values including integrity, teamwork and a fierce independence and determination, remain the core ethos of our team and are his legacy, as is the Williams family name under which we proudly race. Our thoughts are with the Williams family at this difficult time.”
Sauber, which runs the Alfa Romeo Racing team, has not had a good time in F1 this year. The team has finished eighth each year since the new owner stabilised the finances, after taking over in the middle of 2016, but this year the team has slipped to ninth, behind Williams. This is really not a good result when one considers that the team has received significant investment in an effort to improve. This has come from team owner Finn Rausing, who initially owned the team through a company called Longbow Finance, but later through another firm called Islero Investments AG. The firms are very secretive but it is widely believed that the change was caused by other investors in Longbow being unhappy with the ownership of the team.
Initially Sauber was run by Monisha Kaltenborn with wealth manager Pascal Picci in overall charge. In the middle of 2017, Kaltenborn was replaced and the primary roles were taken over by France’s Frederic Vasseur. By the middle of 2018 Vasseur took over the operational roles, while Picci remained in charge of Islero.
In recent days Picci has resigned from his role at Islero. The timing is interesting given that in recent months there has been much talk about Michael Andretti buying the team, but it seems that Andretti and Rausing were not able to agree terms and all negotiations were then terminated, which meant that the operational situation is not likely to immediately change. Whether this is the reason for Picci’s departure is unclear.
It remains to be seen what happens next, but the operational side of the business remains in Vasseur’s hands and Rausing will – quite rightly – be looking for better results in the future.
With renewed backing from Alfa Romeo, Orlen and the Chinese backers of Guanyu Zhou, the team will not be short of funds (and Rausing can always put in money if required) plus the signing of Valtteri Bottas means that there are hopes that things will improve next year. Although every F1 team is thinking the same way and we won’t know until early in 2022 who has done it right and who has done it wrong…
William Williamson had “gone native”. A public school educated Englishman, who had had all kinds of adventures in his youth, Williamson had settled in the Middle East, where he earned his keep as a horse trader, gun-runner, pearler and a spy.
He was rather eccentric and was known to have ridden around Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) on a penny farthing bicycle. He changed his name to Abdullah Fadhil, adopted local dress and even went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, earning himself the nickname “Haji”.
When he did business with Westerners he put on a navy-blue double-breasted suit but maintained the Arab headdress, which meant that he cut an odd figure…
But the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which would become British Petroleum) needed someone who understood local ways and so hired him to negotiate oil concessions in the region. The result was a deal in 1935 with the Emir of Qatar for a 75-year oil concession covering the whole of the country.
Two year later it was discovered that Williamson had been advising other local chiefs about negotiations with oil companies and so he was packed off into retirement and T.F. “Jock” Williamson, a British geologist – no relation to Haji – and France’s René Pomeyrol began exploratory drilling in October 1938 near Dukhan, 50 miles west of Doha, close to the country’s west coast.
They were still drilling when war broke out 14 months later, but soon afterwards they hit oil, although the war meant that things did not really take off for Qatar until the 1950s. But, wow, did they take off.
I offer this background information so that readers can understand why Formula 1 went to Qatar. The country has tons of money but the government realises that it will not last forever and so they are investing in many different things, at home and abroad, in order to create an economy that can survive without oil in the future. Not that this is a big threat as there is so much oil here that it will last for over a century. Still, there is much to be done, as Qatar does not have much to offer in terms of natural resources (unless you like sand). The whole place is low-lying desert, which has less than three inches of rain a year. Before oil it was one of the poorest countries on earth.
In recent years the country has turned to sport as a good way to win friends and influence people and by purchasing the FIFA World Cup competition for 2022 it put itself on the map. This has been accompanied by vast construction projects, which show that the country is willing to spend whatever is necessary to create a good impression. There are glittering skyscrapers everywhere, and imposing government buildings, not to mention eight stadiums, a new metro, a fast-expanding airport, and a rapidly growing road network, plus many other projects. In recent years construction has contributed 15 percent of the national GDP.
The soccer tournament has given Qatar plenty of publicity, not all of it positive. And that is the positive aspect of so-called sportwashing, because using sport to improve a country’s reputation and public image works both ways. It can improve the image of a nation, but at the same time shining a spotlight on the country can also attract criticism. This is troublesome territory because while it is easy to accuse countries of poor human rights records or rules that are out of step with Western liberal ideas, it also leads to accusations of hypocrisy for using human rights as a way to attack countries that have different values, while ignoring one’s own failures.
Formula 1 long ago decided that it was best to try to transcend such questions by claiming that sport should be a uniting force that operates on a different level from politics. It is a nice idea, but balancing the different concepts is not easy and can be quite uncomfortable for the sport.
The Losail International Circuit, which was built 17 years ago as a motorcycle racing venue, was perfectly adequate for a Grand Prix, if not being anything special. The decision to go there in 2021 was all very last minute because of the need to replace Australia. And so there were lots of compromises needed. The track is a good one for drivers, with a sequence of predominantly high-speed corners, but from a visual point of view it was not great. Desert tracks rarely are, but running a race in darkness is a good option, particularly as temperatures during the day are still high at this time of year.
The important thing about Doha is that there is a new 10-year contract with F1, beginning in 2023, after the World Cup is out of the way.
However, it seems that the government of Qatar, led by the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has bigger ambitions and is planning to create a downtown street track, along the lines of the circuit that is just being finished in Jeddah. The difference is that Jeddah does not have the impressive skyline that Doha has built.
We hear that the plans are focussed on the West Bay district, which is known as the diplomatic district around the City Center Mall and the Exhibition and Convention Centre. It will no doubt include sections of the Corniche which runs along the waterfront, adding a little Monaco spice to the venue. The aim is for the track to be very high speed, so that it will produce good racing, as has been seen in Baku in recent years, with the likelihood of the race happening at night, thus adding a little bit of Singapore magic to the mix.
The goal is to become the favourite F1 race in the Middle East, although competition with Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia will be intense.
There was little in the way of real news in the F1 Paddock in Doha. No-one has had any time to do much with four races in the last five weeks, It has been a question of battling on to the end. Mercedes and Red Bull have been busy slinging mud at each other, in the hope that some will stick and that the rival will be diverted from the task in hand. Based on the performance in Brazil and Qatar one has to say that Mercedes looks like it is doing things right and Red Bull looks like it is struggling to keep up. One could see a very real anger within Mercedes about some of the goings-on and the best response came on the race track with Red Bull being drubbed at Interlagos and in Doha. If the same happens in Jeddah, we will be set for a massive showdown in Abu Dhabi, which will be the perfect end for a memorable season.
Hopefully, Red Bull will stop trying to stir up trouble and get on with racing. All the kerfuffles about the Mercedes rear wing prove nothing. If a car passes the FIA tests, then it is legal. Red Bull knows this because it has done the same itself, so too much weeping and posturing will not gain much sympathy – except perhaps in the Netherlands, where an army of orange people are keen to see Verstappen win. The danger, of course, is overstepping the mark as Christian Horner did on Sunday when he got himself knee-deep in cack by making silly statements about flag marshals. His attendance at the annual FIA International Stewards Programme in early February may end up being instructional for him, as it was for Max a couple of years ago. If nothing else it will teach him how much effort goes into stewarding and trying to make it as fair as possible. So that’s a good thing to emerge from the Grand Prix. I went to one of these events a few years back and I am now much more respectful of stewards as a result. It would probably be a good idea if some of the other team principals also went along…
The announcements about Guanyu Zhou and Oscar Piastri were not unexpected at all.
Zhou’s Chinese identity looks good for Alfa Romeo and for Formula 1, while the money that will come with Zhou will effectively pay Bottas’s salary. The biggest problem, of course, remains the team’s poor performance this year. The operation has been eighth in the Constructors’ each year since 2018, but this year it has fallen to ninth behind Williams – which will cost the team a chunk of prize money. One can blame Ferrari engines for the very poor showing in 2020, but as the power units have improved this year, the Swiss-based team has fewer excuses. There are optimistic noises being made about 2022, but that is true up and down the F1 Paddock, and we will have to wait to see whether the team under technical director Jan Monchaux can deliver better performance in comparison to everyone else. Most teams can make excuses about lack of budget but in this case it is more difficult as the owner Finn Rausing has been putting money in to try to move things forward. Given that the investment has produced no improvement, the only logical conclusion is that the money has not being used in the most effective way.
The hiring of Zhou has made news because of the Chinese element in the story and this has helped to avoid the uncomfortable reality that Alfa Romeo has just dumped the only Italian driver in Formula 1 – and there is no sign of another in the immediate future. The Italian media has been fairly brutal to the team in recent weeks regarding the on-track performance and the fact that the famous Italian car brand is not being helped by a non-Italian team, owned by a Swede and run by a Frenchman. It remains to be seen whether there will be scapegoats, who will be thrown under the bus in Hinwil.
Giovinazzi has had his chances. He will now move to Formula E next year driving for Jay Penske’s Dragon Penske Autosport, where he will be partnered with Brazil’s Sergio Sette Camara.
The Zhou announcement means that the Chinese driver is now out of the Alpine Academy, with no options in the future. This means that he has to deliver in 2022 because Frederic Vasseur wants to promote young Frenchman Theo Pourchaire, who is part of the Sauber Junior Team.
The only other point of interest in the Doha paddock was that I met someone who is hard a work trying to convince the F1 world that the sport should be part of the metaverse. When I heard this I smiled and nodded, as one does when one doesn’t have a clue what someone is talking about. The metaverse, so they say, is (or will be) a digital universe where users will be able to interact with one another using new technologies, including virtual reality, augmented reality and video. The other day Red Bull gave me a piece of card with a flash code that gave me access to a 3D image of Sergio Perez’s overalls. I was told this was special and that it was a non-fungible token (NFT). Like many people, I am a little bit wary of value in virtual things – like cryptocurrencies (for example) – but I am told that with blockchain technology an NFT is something that is unique and can be sold, like a piece of digital art.
The logic is that there is a value in collecting art, whether it is real or virtual, and that people will pay to own things that are unique and cannot be copied, although such creations can still be copyrighted and reproduced, in much the same way as works of art can be printed and sold. Anyone can buy a poster featuring work of a famous artist, but few can afford to buy the originals.
While the older generations may struggle to see the value of all things virtual, the younger generations may be more open-minded and so fine art, music and even just ideas can have value, in the same way that bitcoins can be used as real money.
The trick is to convince people that a virtual item has a real value, which can be done by showing it is useful or desirable and also that it is not available to everyone. People collect and trade cards which contain images that they value, such as baseball cards or Pokemon, which they believe will increase in value. Doing the same in the virtual world thus ought to be possible.
Attempts to sell virtual merchandise are still in the very early stages of development but there are other virtual experiences that can perhaps generate money. One such idea is to create virtual clubs or prizes that give access to events, such as Formula 1 car launches, or interactions with racing stars. People are willing to pay for such access and thus there are commercial opportunities that the metaverse may be able to offer, based on simple supply and demand. Not everyone can sit in on a discussion with Lewis Hamilton, or visit the Ferrari factory, but if one can do this in a virtual way, there are going to be people who will be willing to pay for the experience, which can be retained forever in some form of NFT.
Well, maybe one day…
Real world chat is a little more down-to-earth. And in F1 it doesn’t get more down-to-earth than freight.
After the freight delay dramas on the way to Brazil, there were similar – but less dramatic – problems getting the freight from São Paulo to Doha, when three of the Formula 1 freighters were delayed for eight hours. Why? Because there was – would you believe – another massive fog delay in Mexico City. Don’t ask me why his routing makes any sense from a geographical perspective, but it is all to do with freight carrier hubs, refuelling requirements and so on. Anyway, three teams had to scramble a little but as it was not reported at all, it obviously wasn’t a major crisis. The other point that was barely reported was the replacement of one of the stewards in Doha for reasons of “force majeure”. No-one seems to have asked what that was all about, but I did notice that there was no sight of the others all weekend in the F1 Paddock, which suggests to me that perhaps they were in some kind of quasi-quarantine, although I am told that they all tested negative throughout the weekend.
F1’s COVID-19 protocols have been a real triumph in the last 18 months, allowing the sport to continue where others have run into trouble. I am not saying that it is enjoyable to have the so-called bubbles, but it has been very efficient – and the word is that other sports are keen to learn how F1 has done it. Things are loosening up a little bit now, which is good, but we are all still wearing masks in the Paddock, even if outside few are paying much attention to the rules. It has been interesting to see different attitudes to the pandemic in the different countries and it has been a surprise in some respects to see so many precautions in Mexico and Brazil, especially when compared to the United States and some European countries.
In the Middle East, the caution is accompanied by technology which means that in Doha, for example, one cannot do much if the app that you must put in your mobile phone turns yellow rather than green, if you do not test sufficiently.
However, there are some drawbacks as technology doesn’t always work properly and, despite a string of negative tests (with results printed out, just in case) my app turned yellow for no obvious reason as I was heading to the airport on Monday. I wasn’t about to ring up the Ministry to ask why and had to rely on old-fashioned good fortune to get into the airport.
I was planning to try the old “Oh my god a flying elephant!” routine if I had been stopped, but the security man on the door seemed happy enough to let me through, which I guess meant that he might have had the sun in his eyes… or perhaps I don’t know enough about how the app worked.
I was quite happy to delete the damned thing as soon as I was safe in the departure area, hopeful that when we return in two years, such things will no longer be needed.
One has to remain positive about being negative all the time… although now and then one of our number disappears and we have discussions about how poor old Fred “went down with a false positive”… and we thank our lucky stars that we have not run into similar troubles.
If you are a raindrop falling on the Serra do Mar, Brazil’s coastal mountain range, which separates Sao Paulo from the Atlantic Ocean, a distance of around 50 miles, you could be lucky and fall on the southern slopes. From there it is a nice easy trickle down to the sea.
But, if you fall on the northern slopes, ooh-la. It’s a monster journey to get home to the ocean, by way of streams that flow into huge reservoirs, built by power companies between the wars, to provide hydro-electric power for the expanding city of Sao Paulo. Between the lakes on the Guarapiranga and Jurubatuba rivers is the Autódromo José Carlos Pace, better known as Interlagos.
The name means “between the lakes” and the inspiration came, so they say, from Interlaken in Switzerland. All further comparisons end with the name.
The Guarapiranga and Jurubatuba combine to form the Pinheiros, which flows only a few miles before it merges with Tietê and the Tietê flows to the Parana and the Parana, by way of the Iguacu Falls, arrives eventually in Buenos Aires.
It is a trip of about 3000 miles…
Those who visit Sao Paulo on a regular basis will recognise the names Pinheiros and Tietê as being the names of the Marginals, the vast multi-lane, multi-carriageway freeways, which run alongside the two rivers and create Sao Paulo’s ring road. These try to keep the city’s vast population moving, but it isn’t easy. Officially Sao Paulo has about 12 million people but when you look on a map you can see that the urban area is about twice the size of the city limits, so the real population of this metropolis if probably double the official number.
Anyway, one passes through all of this on the way to the airport which everyone calls Guarulhos. There are two routes that go there from the Marginal and in both cases you know when to exit because there are prisons at the junctions. The old road, which is named after President Eurico Gaspar Dutra, who ran the country in the late 1940s, has three prisons; the new road, named after a certain Ayrton Senna, has just the one. The Senna highway used to be called the Rodovia dos Trabalhadores – the motorway of the workers – but in the end the locals figured Senna was more important, although whether Ayrton would like having his name linked to a road that traverses a smelly swamp is another question…
The two highways eventually join up, miles to the east of Sao Paulo, and then head on to Rio de Janeiro, Most of us never go further than the airport and usually we don’t arrive at Guarulhos in an unhappy mood. Brazil is fun – particularly at the autodromo – but it is the kind of place where you need to really enjoy chaos.
Still, after 30 years of visiting Sao Paulo, I can say with some optimism that it is better than it used to be, although down towards Interlagos, the old Marginal Pinheiros used to have horse paddocks beside it, these have been replaced by shimmering tower blocks.
We were treated to a top-notch drive at Interlagos from Lewis Hamilton, one of the best I can remember, and the performance and his waving of the Brazilian flag was reminiscent of Senna himself. It’s great that the World Championship battle is hotting up. We have two truly great drivers, both driving well and rather than quibbling over who is better, fans should united and enjoy the experience.
Let’s hope that it goes down to the wire. There are signs, of course, that the attitudes of the two teams is hardening as the battle intensifies but I hope that the drivers will keep it civilised and I was happy to see Max and Lewis chink bottles on the podium, showing that despite their adventures this year, they still have respect for one another, even if neither is giving an inch…
I suspect that one day we will look back on the summer of 2021 as a golden time for F1.
There is not much news at the moment with the last 2022 drive now filled and the calendars set for 2021 and 2022. The best story of the weekend was the F1 freight that came in late. It was a good lesson for the sport to learn.
We all know that more races each year means more money and that these days the average revenue per race is in the region of $95 million, so you can understand why everyone is being pushed harder. But there have to be limits. Right now, F1 is doing something that has never been done before: an intercontinental triple-header.The sport first did three races on consecutive weekends back in 2018 and no-one wanted to repeat the France-Austria-Britain hike. In 2019 there were no triple-headers as a result. But then along came the pandemic and so the pressure was on to get as many races into the shortest space of time – and so F1 did four triple-headers last year, although three of the four involved two races at the same venue: Austria-Austria-Hungary, Silverstone-Silverstone-Spain, and Bahrain-Bahrain-Abu Dhabi.
The other was Spa-Monza-Mugello and that wasn’t too bad.
This year the triple-headers were cut back to two: Spa-Zandvoort-Monza was not dissimilar to the 2020 jaunt; but the second was a real challenge. It was supposed to be Russia-Singapore-Japan, but the pandemic messed thing up and so we ended up with Mexico-Brazil-Qatar. It is a combination of races which makes no sense at all and things nearly went wrong between Mexico and Brazil. I’ll not wade too much into the detail but, suffice to say, bad weather, air crew hour limits and complex flights plans combined to mean that a lot of the freight didn’t get to Interlagos until Thursday lunchtime, which was way too late. But F1 being F1, everyone rolled up their sleeves and got it done.
The irony, of course, is that by delivering as always the F1 workforce has let the management believe that they can do as they please with the calendar and that somehow everything is possible. What F1 really needs is a failure to deliver, to teach those who make the calendars to be more reasonable. But they are not listening, at least not when one looks at the plans for 2022.
Next year, in order to squeeze in more races but to avoid the FIFA World Cup, there will be two more triple-headers. The first is Spa-Zandvoort-Monza again; the second is the revived Russia-Singapore-Japan. To be honest, the 2022 calendar is anything but user-friendly. There are, for example, five races in seven weekends, involving two trips to the Americas, plus a 5,500-mile back-to-back between Canada and Baku. It is just not efficient. OK, there are questions about the weather in Miami in mid-June but surely a back-to-back with Canada and Miami makes more sense, just as we do Mexico-Austin back-to-back in a normal year.
Similarly, having the summer races in the UK then Austria then France and then Budapest. This is plain silly – and very wasteful, zigzagging backwards and forwards across Europe.
I am not saying that calendar-planning is easy. It is a very complicated business to get everything to fit with contractual terms, weather, competing sporting events, national holidays and so on, but in the world we live in today, perhaps waste and emissions should be the primary deciding factor, along with the human damage that F1 inflicts on its own people. That is not to say that F1 folks are not tough. You have to be physically strong to keep up with the regime. Those who cannot hack it, fall out after a year or two… But there must be limits and the people in charge need to at least listen to those on the ground, who say that things are getting to be too much.
“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them,” Colin Powell once said. “They have either lost confidence that you can help, or concluded that you do not care. Either is a failure of leadership.”
Hopefully, they will take heed of these warnings…
The race in Brazil was the third Sprint of the year and easily the best, if only because of Lewis Hamilton’s impressive charge through the field. Mercedes was fired up by the penalty Lewis received for the rear wing infringement, even if the FIA Stewards went out of their way to say that the team did nothing deliberately. The rage was a quiet one, but I am quite sure that it was why we saw such fabulous drives from Lewis in the Sprint and in the Grand Prix itself. You could kind of tell what was going to happen on Sunday and as the grid lined up a seasoned F1 colleague and I looked at each other and said: “He’s going to win, isn’t he?” even from 10th on the grid. And so it was…
The news that Guanyu Zhou has been signed by Alfa Romeo, long-rumoured though it was, is a great boost to F1, even if in 2022 there will be no Chinese Grand Prix. We have to hope that Zhou does a great job and makes it difficult for Alfa Romeo to switch him for Théo Pourchaire in 2023. Still, if there is an F1 drive on offer, a young driver really needs to take it…
The Chinese market is a little odd, in F1 terms. On paper it is just what the sport needs, but in reality we have not seen much Chinese money come into the business and fewer and fewer Western firms seem bothered because of the uncertainty and the government interventions that can wipe out commercial plans on a whim. Chinese firms are selling abroad because they can manufacture things more cheaply than the opposition, but it is not the open market that could be the case if both sides were not so wary of one another…
I’ve been hearing for a long time that the Chinese government may one day decide to switch the Chinese Grand Prix away from Shanghai and take it to Beijing for a street race there, in the same area that once hosted Formula E. We will see if this ever happens… but having Guanyu Zhou at Alfa Romeo will certainly not be a hindrance.
Much of the other news has been outside Formula 1, with a reshaping of the Formula 2 landscape for 2022. The FIA election is raising a few ripples, not least the curious letter that was sent to all FIA member clubs from the president of the FIA Ethics Committee, Francois Bellanger, which points out that it is important that the election meets the “highest standards of governance, integrity and democracy set forth by our Statutes”. Bellanger warned clubs about being put under external political pressures, such as being told by one’s own government who the club should vote for.
Why was such a warning necessary? What is it that triggered the need to say these things publicly? I have heard some whispering from one part of the world about things that might be considered dubious by the FIA Ethics Committee and I presume the letter is a warning shot across the bows of those who may be threatening voters who do not support a certain candidate, offering rewards to voters who support a certain candidate, or asking voters to photograph their completed ballots to prove their support. Ethic Committees are all well and good but the best response for a voter under pressure is to take the necessary photographs – if someone is asking for it – and then to vote the other way.
A squillion years ago I remember going to Paris for the FIA election that saw Jean-Marie Balestre ousted from his role by Max Mosley. I remember the confidence with which Balestre went into the vote, thinking that all those who had promised their support would keep their promises. He left after the defeat, shell-shocked to find that some of those around him has betrayed his trust… and that he had been outsmarted.
There is a scribble in the green notebook about the circuit being considered in Las Vegas which says that the plan is for the track to pass the famous dancing fountains outside the Bellagio Casino while running about a mile up The Strip to Wynn Las Vegas. Looking at the maps one can surmise if this is the case that it will probably include the High Roller observation wheel and the MSG Sphere that is currently under construction. The key for success is to have minimal disruption on The Strip, limited if possible to just the construction of barriers, debris fences, lights (it will be a night race), so that traffic flows are not hugely disrupted. The big works – the pits, paddock and grandstands – will likely be off the beaten track, where traffic won’t be impacted. If you take a look at satellite pictures, it is not had to spot where these could be.
While all this is going on, I hear that Michael Andretti is still sniffing around trying to find a team to acquire. The problem is that no-one wants to sell. The reality is that teams are likely to grow in value in the next few years, as revenues rise and costs are capped, so it is very much a seller’s market and, if one wants to acquire a team, one needs to accept the terms on offer and not try cut deals. The market turned about a year ago when investment firm Dorilton paid around $200 million for Williams. That looks like a bargain now, although at the time, Williams didn’t seem to be worth it. McLaren agreed to sell 33 percent of its F1 team’s equity for about $240 million last winter, which valued the team at $720 million and in a similar deal Ineos acquired 30 percent of the Mercedes team for around $400 million, which valued the team at $1.2 billion.
So, it’s bad news for buyers at the moment because one is looking at much higher numbers than was the case last year, or to put it another way. They have missed the boat…
This is a problem that is also impacting Audi, which is in discussion to work out some kind of arrangement with McLaren, as first reported in a recent green notebook. It seems that things are rather more complicated as BMW is also expressing an interest in buying the McLaren road car business in order to add the brand to its portfolio. One suggestion is that McLaren could be split up: with the racing team going to Audi and the road car company (and the brand) going to BMW. That could mean that McLaren might one day disappear from F1. Certainly a lot is going on at McLaren with the departure of McLaren Automotive CEO Mike Flewitt and lots of noises from Germany about plans for the future.
Although the VW brand has shut down its motorsport activities, which has led to Jost Capito and a number of others joining Williams in F1, the bigger VW Group, headed by former BMW executive Herbert Diess has been recruiting a lot of ex-BMW men to key roles including the boss of Audi, Markus Duesmann, who was previously the man in charge of the BMW F1 engine programme. It is worth noting that one of Duesmann’s engineers from F1 in those days, Adam Baker, is rumoured to have joined the VW group to consider motorsport strategy for the future. Baker has spent recent years working as the Safety Director at Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). He will perhaps be able to use some research done back in 2015 by Audi when a previous F1 plan was under discussion. This was conducted by a certain Stefano Domenicali, the former Frrari team principal, before he was shipped off to run the Lamborghini supercar company.
In F1 another team principal of repute is in the spotlight (again). Aston Martin’s Otmar Szafnauer is rumoured to be on the shopping list of Alpine F1. This seems a bit odd as the one thing that Alpine is not short of is executives. But car companies make mistakes when they get involved in F1 and it takes time to realise that you cannot run things by committee. I don’t know if that lesson has yet been learned at Renault HQ at Boulogne-Billancourt, but the current structure of having CEO Alpine, Laurent Rossi present at every race, plus Executive Director Marcin Budkowski and Racing Director Davide Brivio might be made more effective if someone else was appointed to run just the racing side of the business, which would probably result in others departing.
Szafnauer is in such a position at Aston Martin where team owner Lawrence Stroll thought it would be a good idea to bring in ex-McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarch to oversee things, a move which clearly signalled that it was time for Szafnaeur to look under his seat to see if there was a life jacket or a parachute.
Whitmarsh is a talented chap and has shown in the past that he is able to deal with forceful characters. His big advantage is that he got a smashing pay-off from McLaren and does not need to work for a living and so he can say whatever he wants to Stroll without having to worry about the reaction. There are things in the team that experienced F1 folk think need to be said, but that people are afraid to say out loud.
Stroll has been around in F1 far longer than people think – dating back to Team Lotus in 1991 (if you look at pictures of the Lotus 102 and you will see Tommy Hilfiger stickers). So he should know what is needed to be successful. He has a great track record in business, but F1 should never be considered “just like any other business”. It isn’t. And so one has to approach it in a different way, without emotional baggage and with a clear vision. And that isn’t easy when your son drives for you…
Having spent the week between Austin and Mexico on the West Coast, perhaps I ought to have considered spending the days between Mexico and Brazil, on the East Coast… but in truth my visit to Miami was not some clever ploy to visit the Hard Rock Stadium to check out the work being done in preparation for the new Formula 1 race in 2022, but rather because flying to Miami was the most cost-effective route. Being armed with an NIE (National Interest Exception) an I Visa (for media) and an ESTA, plus two valid COVID-19 tests, I reckoned that I had all the bases covered.
I didn’t, of course, predict that my plane from Florida to Sao Paulo would be delayed 13 hours, or that the only other available flight that day would go technical and be delayed even longer, so I got to spend a night in an airport hotel at Miami with $24 in vouchers to live the high life. It is always a bit depressing when things like this go wrong, but a couple of gin & tonics made the world look a much better place and so I flew down the following day on a plane that had only a couple of dozen passengers, about a quarter of them being Formula 1 folk… in a hurry to get there to set things up for the race. People don’t often think about the logistics nightmares that go on in the background in Formula 1, nor the amount of work that needs to be done. F1’s first intercontinental triple-header (which many hope will be its last) is tough on the workers. The trouble is that they are so good at what they do that they keep on achieiving the almost impossible and so the F1 organisation becomes ever more ambitious with the calendar as a result.
One day, perhaps, it will all go wrong, rushing things from race to race, and there won’t be all the cars, the people or the TV equipment and a race will not be able happen.
It is interesting to think that a few years ago, if one had suggested three consecutive race weekends in three different global regions, one would have been laughed out of the room, and yet here we are, doing it.
Anyway, the Mexican GP weekend was a busy one, with a vast crowd (bigger than the US, no matter what Austin claims). Still, it is all rather irrelevant when one considers that the last GP in Adelaide had a cumulative total of 520,000, which still leaves the current races in the dust…
Things are pretty quiet in Formula 1 at the moment for a couple of reasons. The first is that everyone is too busy getting from one place to another than there is no time for mischief or doing deals… Christian Horner and Toto Wolff have been stirring one another up with gags about pantomime dames and villains. If they are not careful, people will start thinking that they are a real pair of Widow Twankies…
There continue to be whispers about who will drive the second Alfa Romeo but recently the idea that this will be Guanyu Zhou seems to have gone really quiet. Antonio Giovinazzi does not seem to be likely to stay (but you never know) while the noises being made about Theo Pourchaire suggest that he needs to wait another year. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else in the picture, because although Alfa Romeo might like to get Oscar Piastri, Alpine are not going to let him go and the only way the Australian will get a drive other than at Alpine is if he is still attached to the French team with a strong piece of elastic. If there was a two-year deal on the table perhaps something might be possible but with Valtteri Bottas signed and he team wanting Pourchaire in 2023, the seat is only open for a year. We will see what the final decision is soon…
With only reserve driver roles available in F1, the major rumours about the driver market are outside F1 with, for example, Nico Hulkenberg testing for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team last week. Dani Kvyat is also on the prowl and interested in either IndyCar or NASCAR, although jumping straight into the NASCAR Cup Series would probably be too risky and he would need a year doing the Xfinity Series or the NASCAR Truck Championship, both of which are regular steps for young drivers on the way up.
Another Russian who seems to be looking at diverting from his goal is Robert Shwartzman, who looks like he could be heading to the Ferrari LMH programme because there is no space in Formula 1 for him and a third season in Formula 2 probably won’t help much. Many of the big Formula 2 drives are already gone but with Christian Lundgaard heading off to IndyCar and Piastri and Zhou both likely to leave F2, there is a gap in the Alpine Academy and the word is that Formula 3 runner-up Jack Doohan will be replacing Zhou at UNI-Virtuosi (although it probably won’t be called UNI any longer) and that the Australian, son of bike racing legend Mick, will become a member of the Alpine programme, having decided that Red Bull has raher too many youngsters all aiming for F1. It is not yet certain how mant Red Bull youngsters will be in Formula 2 next year, but it will probably be five as Dennis Hauger is joining Prema, Juri Vips will be at Hitech, Japan’s Ayumu Iwasa will be a DAMS and Liam Lawson will be at Carlin. It is expected that Jehan Daruvala will also be on the Red Bull roster but it is not yet clear with which team he will race. The Indian is currently with Carlin, but he could get the second Prema seat…
With most of the F1 drives decided and the calendar in place for 2021 and 2022, the rumour mill has been a bit quiet, although the engine rules for 2026 are now a talking point. If all goes to plan, the new rules may result in Volkswagen deciding to enter Grand Prix racing with two of its brands: Audi and Porsche. Rumours about Audi buying McLaren make a lot of sense but McLaren’s primary owner, Bahrain’s Mumtalakat, which owns more than half the shares does not seem keen to sell – and believes that the car company can be turned around with new models. Whether this is part of a negotiation is difficult to say because McLaren is in debt and needs for investment if it is take market share away from its rivals. One might even argue that McLaren’s situation is not dissimilar to the predicament in which Enzo Ferrari found himself in the late 1960s when he offloaded the Ferrari car company on Fiat, but kept the racing team. It is true that it is not the best time to sell an F1 team because the value of these organisations is expected to rise in the years ahead but it seems that Audi boss Markus Duesmann is keen to get involved in F1 with the new 2026 rules. Duesmann knows all about F1, as he was a BMW F1 engineer on his way up the slippery pole of the German car industry. Interestingly, his former rival from those days Ola Kallenius (who ran Mercedes Ilmor) is now the top dog in the Mercedes car company and remains convinced that F1 is a good thing for selling cars, even if Mercedes has reduced its shareholding in the Mercedes F1 team. There is no reason why there could not be a similar arrangement with Audi, after all McLaren does still need its own engine – or an exclusive partner – if the team wants to challenge for the World Championship again.
There was an announcement that the Chinese Grand Prix deal has been extended until 2025. In fact, this is not quite how it seems as it is simply a continuation of the current contract, with the three races that will have been missed (or will be missed) in 2020, 2021 and 2022, being added to the end of the existing contract, so that deal now covers 2023, 2024 and 2025.
Over in the US, it is interesting to see that IndyCar was announced that it is going to take its Detriot Grand Prix back to the downtown area, after years of being on Belle Island. That will happen in 2023 and the race will be on streets that were used by F1 in the 1980s. I guess the folks at IndyCar have recognised the value of Liberty Media’s philosophy of taking racing to “destination cities”. Work goes on (quietly) to try to get F1 Grands Prix into places like London, Paris, New York and San Francisco… We’ll just have to see what pops up in the end.
Finally, probably the most important announcement of the Mexican GP weekend was the launch of the FIA’s Safe & Affordable Helmet, which aims to reduce the number of people suffering head injuries in motorcycling accidents around the world.
In Austin they have a slogan that exhorts people to “Keep Austin Weird”. You can buy mugs, teeshirts, bumper stickers and bags that carry the logo but when you get to know the town a little it really doesn’t seem that strange a place. In fact, I’ve heard it said that it is a pretty normal place, surrounded by a very weird state. Austin only seems weird because it is different from the rest of Texas. As I was belting down I-35, the Purple Heart Trail, from Dallas to Austin at a strange hour of the morning, I was pondering this concept. The countryside is flat and not very interesting but I-35 leads you towards the city of Waco (pronounced way-ko), although I always imagined that it must be called Wacko because of some of the strange things that have taken place in the area, not least the bizarre siege in 1993 when followers of a religious sect called the Branch Davidians got into a gunfight with agents of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which resulted in 10 deaths and led to the siege that continued for six weeks before the compound was stormed, resulting in the deaths of 76 people.
Before you get to Waco, there’s a place called West, three miles south of which there was very briefly a pop-up town called Crush in 1896. This was named after a man called William Crush, who worked for the Missouri Kansas Texas Railroad (known as the Katy).
Crush proposed that if the railroad staged a head-on crash between two locomotives, it would attract more passengers. It was a strange idea, but the Crash at Crush, as it was billed, drew an astonishing crowd of 40,000 people, which is a huge number when one considers the population of the state at the time. They happily gawped in wonder as the two steam engines hit head-on with a combined impact speed of about 90mph.
It was not such a great idea. The impact caused the boilers of the two locomotives to explode (which the railroad engineers said would not happen) and the crowd was showeried with shrapnel. Dozens were injured and three people died.
Probably there were a few folks selling lemonade who made a fortune that day.
In some respects Formula 1 fits in with this ethos of making money by attracting people to watch a show and the sport has done very well in the United States in recent years thanks to a large extent to to the Netflix F1 documentary series “Drive to Survive”.
Texans, it seems, are good at promoting things, usually by claiming that whatever is happening is the bigger than the same thing happening elsewhere. Thus it was this year as the Grand Prix claimed to be bigger than Ben Hur. I was told that it would be bigger than Austin’s two famous music festivals: Austin City Limits, which pulls in around 450,000 and South by Southwest, which claims more than 280,000 attendees. I was also told and saw reported on Wikipedia that the race would be the biggest F1 crowd ever. Basic maths suggest that both of these claims were, at best, ropey. The track has an official capacity of 120,000 and with a three-day event the largest possible number was therefore 360,000, although it was clear that while it was busy on the Friday, it was not a full house… I had a scrabble around to find out the biggest properly-recorded crowd in F1 history and, while there may have been some races that were bigger, the largest official figure is a four-day crowd in Adelaide in 1995, of 520,000 people. I was there and I can attest that it was a huge weekend.
Still, the Austin crowd was impressive and the excitement was palpable. And the race provided a great show. So much so that that on Monday, US writers were scribbling about F1 had been bigger than NASCAR during the weekend.
But it is clear that for Liberty Media, which owns the Formula 1 group, this is still the start and much of my race weekend was spent trying to track down two stories: the idea of a Grand Prix in Las Vegas, and the story of Michael Andretti trying to buy Sauber.
To be honest, I’ve been keeping an eye on Las Vegas for many years as Formula 1 is forever trying to get there. Back in the early 1980s the sport dropped in to a parking lot behind Caesars Palace. It was not a success and the idea lapsed quickly. The venue and the timing were just wrong. But in recent years the logic has switched for a number of reasons.
The primary reason is that Las Vegas now needs F1 as much as F1 would like to be in Las Vegas. Why? Well, because the visitor numbers in Sin City have been flat for almost 20 years. There were 36 million visitors a year in 2000 but it took 14 years before that number reached 40 million. The numbers peaked in 2016 at 42.9 million, but then fell back after a mass shooting took place in 2017. And then came the pandemic and the visitor numbers dived to 19 million. They have bounced back, little by little, but they are still down about 17 percent compared to 2019. The other thing is that Las Vegas has consolidated to such an extent that 18 of the 29 casinos are now owned by just two companies: MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment. This means that there are fewer people involved in making such decisions. In addition the powerful Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) has recently opened a vast new $1 billion West Hall to further boost business in the city. The LVCVA is a government agency which sells the city to the world, running the Monorail system and holding the all-important conventions that keep pulling people to the city.
Formula 1 folk Stefano Domenicali and the company’s director of race promotion Chloe Targett-Adams went to Vegas is recent days for discussions and there are three circuit designs that are being discussed.I heard that there would be a delegation from Las Vegas in Austin and was on the look out for them. Sure enough, I spotted them, with Steve Hill, the CEO and President of LVCVA, leading a group of five executives. They looked rather wide-eyed at what they were seeing and what they were told.
It would obviously help if there was a US driver in Formula 1 and for a period in the days before Austin it looked like there was a real possibility of IndyCar driver Colton Herta taking part in the FP1 session in Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo. There were rumours that Herta had been seen in Switzerland having a seat fitting and a lot of folk believed that a deal would be announced during the weekend in Austin.
I was always sceptical but I do believe that there is sufficient money behind Andretti for a deal to be done… if the price is right. The problem is that the price appears to have rather too wrong for things to go ahead and as negotiations went on to lower the price, the current owner grew bored with the process and decided that he actually quite likes owning an F1 team and would not sell. At least not yet.
That is probably good thinking. The team is not doing well under his ownership, despite a lot of investment, but there is always the hope that with new rules in 2022 things will improve. Perhaps they will… perhaps not. But hope springs eternal in the hearts of F1 team owners and so we must wait and see if Alfa Romeo can get to a more acceptable level of performance. The things is that everyone thinks that they are going to leap up the order in 2022… and they cannot all be first.
Largely this will be dependent on engines and they will remain frozen in 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025 and so any engine manufacturer who is not in the ball park in 2022 is looking at a long haul ahead. The rule change will spread out the teams to begin with, but chassis performance will close up again in the seasons that follow and so the power unit is really the key to everything. In 2026, when there are new power units rules, and likely there will be new engine manufacturers as well, all will change, but that is still a fair way away. The fact that there are not enough teams around for sale, and that there are two slots available for an 11th and 12th team have led to the fairly logical speculation that there could be some new teams coming up, although the $200 million required to join the party is something of a block. This is needed to ensure that a new team can have immediate access to the F1 prize fund, which means that they have more chance to survive, as that money will be divided up between the teams to make up the difference in revenues if new teams get paid.
At the same time the $200 million means that there will be no time-wasters because it is a lot of money. This is also why rumoured entries from Audi and Porsche have both been rumoured to be NOT starting from scratch but rather buying teams or forging a close partnership with existing teams in need of engines.
Money is still important, of course, which is why it is interesting to see stories of Mercedes switching from Petronas to Aramco sponsorship in 2022. These are not true, but then one must ask why there is speculation. The truth is that Petronas signed a five-year extension to cover the period 2022-2025 with Mercedes as long ago as the end of 2019, but the deal was not made public at the time because of the upheavals going on in Malaysian politics. This is interesting because it shows an even stronger commitment from the Malaysians because the original deal 2010-2014 was a five-year agreement and this was followed by two three-year deals (2015-2017 and 2018-2021). The new deal is another five-year… which says it all.
There is little doubt that Aramco will probably want a sponsorship deal with a team at some point as trackside signage and title sponsorships of races work best when combined with on-car sponsorship. F1 is still very valuable to oil companies (one might say energy firms) as they seek to change perceptions as the world moves towards a greener future.
F1’s desire to adopt synthetic fuels and try to reach zero or even negative emissions in the future is attactive. At the moment there are several oil majors involved in F1 with Red Bull partnered by ExxonMobil, Ferrari with Shell, and Alpine with BP/Castrol. There are smaller deals for McLaren and Aston Martin but they could take bigger deals if they were available. And there is a lot of oil money out there which is not involved in F1. But Aramco is interested in the sport and so is the likely target for Aston Martin and McLaren, with McLaren probably the favourite after a deal was struck recently with the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund – the Public Investment Fund (PIF) – to acquire a small share of the McLaren company. So rumours of a deal with Mercedes may have been spread by parties wishing to muddy the waters. It is fair to say that teams are not unwilling to indulge in disinformation if it serves their purposes. Drive to Survive may suggest that relationships between the teams are catty but generally they all love one another. This is not true. There is some very real, and razor-sharp competition involved… and when it comes to big deals, the knives are out.
Along similar lines, there have been some interesting rumours in Australia now that it looks like the country will open up again and let F1 back in in 2022, thus reviving the Australian GP in Melbourne. One suggestion is that New South Wales will be bidding for the Australian GP contract, when the current deal ends after the 2025 race. Well, there are a couple of things that are worth noting with this story: firstly, such rumours have been around for many years and nothing has happened. Secondly, there are state elections in March 2023 and suggestions of big international events being in the pipeline can help a party win votes. The key questions are whether Formula 1 would be more interested in Sydney than in Melbourne; and whether New South Wales could actually deliver a suitebale event. Australians argue all the time about which is the better city, but I think F1 would view Sydney as a better “destination city”, if only because of the globally-known landmarks such as the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.
The rumours that are floating about suggest that a street circuit could be laid out in the district known as The Rocks, at the southern end of the Harbour Bridge, with the pit and paddock being on the water front in Barangaroo, on the western side of the bridge, where the new Crown Sydney skyscraper has recently been completed. This is owned by Crown Resorts, which was involved in the Melbourne F1 race back in the 1990s to promote the Crown Casino in Melbourne. The hotel is the tallest building in Sydney and obviously wants to attract high-rollers and so might support such an event. So is it possible? Yes, perhaps. But the state would need to come up with some cash.
And while all politicians are good at talking, not all of them can find the cash to follow through…
But, one must also add, that the COVID-19 pandemic has damaged the tourist business all over the world and there will be more and more cities looking at F1 as being something that will get out the message that their city is back in business.
The way I see it, undertaking is the opposite of overtaking, which means that if the rules of the road say that you pass on the right, you pass on the left. And vice versa.
Undertaking is also what happens when this goes horribly wrong and you end lying on a cold slab in the morgue, wondering if you might have lived longer if you had not been travelling at 100mph and pondering what the missus will say when she turns up in the celestial world in half a century and tells you what a moron you were – and how she’s now shacked up with an angel, rather than an idiot…
When it comes to driving, the Turks are world class lunatics. A bunch of us seasoned F1 types met at the airport on Monday after the race and this subject came up, the conclusion being that they were the most aggressive drivers in the world, without any peers. Road markings and street furniture exist only as decoration, rather than useful guidance. Turks behind the wheel make red-faced New Yorkers seem like very reasonable people. Parisians, jousting around the Arc de Triomphe, appear fairly limp-wristed by comparison.
In Turkey if you want a piece of tarmac, you take it in a muscular fashion and anyone who wants the same bit of road can go to the devil. In this respect the Polis seem to be the worst offenders, although I have serious doubts that every Turkish vehicle with flashing blue and red lights actually has a policeman inside it. If they do, then there are more policemen in Istanbul than there are in The Blue Brothers – and they all go at incredible speeds along the hard shoulder, apparently believing that this is meant for overtaking.
One of the primary causes of Istanbul’s legendary traffic jams is the crashes that require cleaning up with ambulances, mops and buckets.
Still, it is fair to say that there is never a dull moment…
When F1 first started coming to Istanbul back in 2005 the traffic was pretty bad, but at that time there were only about six or seven million cars in the country. Today there are 23 million. If the road accidents statistics have reduced it is only because no-one can get up enough speed to kill themselves (except on the hard shoulder). While researching all this during the Grand Prix weekend I was impressed to discover a study that showed that the average Istanbul resident loses 70 minutes A DAY in traffic jams. I can believe that. On Sunday people were traipsing into the circuit talking about journeys that took three hours. We left the hotel at seven every morning to avoid this – which worked well – but we were pretty lonely for an hour or so before others started to arrive.
My goal for the weekend was to get a proper F1 calendar. I had done this in Monza a few weeks ago, but as the days went by it became clear that the schedule that had been correct at the time, was changing. Perhaps the same will happen with this list, but at some point F1 needs to publish an official (provisional) calendar- and that will happen this Friday.
I am pretty sure they will announce the following: Mar 20 Bahrain, Mar 27 Saudi Arabia, Apr 10 Australia, Apr 24 Imola, May 8 Miami, May 22 Spain, May 29 Monaco, Jun 12 Baku, Jun 19 Canada, Jul 3 Britain, Jul 10 Austria, Jul 24 France, Jul 31 Hungary, Aug 28 Belgium, Sep 4 Holland, Sep 11 Italy, Sep 25 Russia, Oct 2 Singapore, Oct 9 Japan, Oct 23 USA, Oct 30 Mexico, Nov 13 Brazil, Nov 20 Abu Dhabi.
(At the bottom of this column there is a nice graphic of this produced by GP+ magazine that you can print out and stick on the wall…)
Sharp-eyed readers will note straight away that there is no Chinese Grand Prix on the list. The problem appears to have been a combination of the tight restrictions that China still has – and the race’s close proximity with the Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing between February 4-20. The International Olympic Committee and the Chinese authorities have already agreed on protocols for that event and it would be difficult to have a different set of rules for Formula 1. The Chinese requested a date later in the year, but Formula 1 was unable to find a space, as the autumn will be very busy as usual. The good news for F1 is that the planners have managed to get all 23 races squeezed in so that the season can finish on November 20 in Abu Dhabi. This will be the earliest finish for an F1 season since 2011.
The teams are not keen on triple-headers, but there will be two next year with Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy running on consecutive weekends, as happened this year; and there will be a Russia-Singapore-Japan phase in the autumn. This is fairly sensible in terms of logistics, although one cannot say the same for the three transatlantic trips, nor the bizarre dates in July. These have obviously been designed by people who move around in an executive jet, rather than driving a truck, as going from Britain to Austria and then back to France and then back to Hungary is nine parts bonkers.
The disappearance of China means that we will see the return of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola for the third consecutive year and there is no doubt that Imola is aiming to get the French GP date in 2023. Alas, I fear that the Imola race will continue to have a daft name. This year’s event was the Formula 1 Pirelli Gran Premio Del Made in Italy e dell’Emilia Romagna, which in rough translation is the Pirelli Made in Italy and Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, not that anyone ever called it that. The name comes because the government-run Italian Trade Agency – which promotes the “Made in Italy” campaign – is paying. This programme aims to develop international business for Italian companies and to attract foreign companies to Italy. The government will pay $14 million, the Emilia Romagna region will contribute another $6 million, with a further $3.5 million coming from local sources.
The decision in China comes because the country has been closed to all but a few foreign workers since March 2020, and there is still no confirmed date when these measures will be lifted. The few exemptions have been granted by the National Immigration Administration but those who get them still have to serve 14- to 21-day mandatory periods of quarantine in government facilities. For the Olympics, tickets will only be sold to spectators from mainland China. All participants, who are not vaccinated, whether domestic or international, will be tested daily and will all have to go through a 21-day quarantine on arrival.
Ironically, there may be a Chinese driver for the first time in F1 in 2022, as Guanyu Zhou is reportedly close to a deal to drive for Alfa Romeo. By the way, rumours about Colton Herta moving to Formula 1 next year should not be taken too seriously, but there are obviously long-term opportunities if rumours of a US consortium buying Sauber are one day confirmed. These stories come from multiple well-placed (non-media) sources – but it seems that the deal will not close until the end of 2022, leaving the current structures in place for next season. We will see.
Australia also has a date and some F1 folk are cynical that the race will once again be called off. If this happens, I am told that the contract will be cancelled and Australia will lose its race, because F1 is bored with dealing with the way the Australian authorities are behaving. There is considerable pressure for places on the F1 schedule and while Melbourne is a popular venue, the Victorian state government under Daniel Andrews – and the federal government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison – have made it impossible to run a race. The world is opening up – for better or worse – and Australia needs to understand that it must stop being a fortress.
Viruses don’t respect fortresses, so it is a failed policy.
I am told that the government of Singapore has decided to go ahead with a new Formula 1 contract, although the term of the new deal is yet to be come clear. This is good news.
So that is the calendar news. When it comes to other things the driver market is pretty quiet except for the second Alfa Romeo. In this respect Zhou remains the favourite, although the team might prefer to have Oscar Piastri. The 20-year-old, who grew up near Albert Park, currently leads Zhou (his fellow Alpine Academy member) by 36 points with two events remaining. This is Oscar’s rookie year in Formula 2, while Guanyu has been in the series for three seasons – and is two years older. Both are clearly talented and Zhou is obviously an attractive prospect because he could become the first Chinese F1 driver in the history of the sport, and could provide an eye-watering amount of money from his backers. With Valtteri Bottas already contracted for 2022 and 2023 (at least), the team has to make a difficult choice. Alpine is happy to loan out Piastri and/or Zhou, but wants to keep a first option on both for the future, while Alfa Romeo is keen to leave a space for Théo Pourchaire, who is also racing in F2 but needs another year to mature. Piastri’s problem is that Alpine would like him to be the reserve driver for 2022, yet cannot offer him a race drive in 2023 until it knows whether Fernando Alonso is going to stay on. And Esteban Ocon is under contract already. If Oscar wins the championship he will put himself in a situation where he will not be able to race in 2022.
A cynic (of which there are several in the F1 paddock) would say that Piastri’s best course of action would be to lose the championship in order to be able to stay on and race in F2 next year… crazy though that may seem.
Just to finish up on the Alpine overstocking of youngsters, Denmark’s Christian Lundgaard (20), who clearly has talent but has not landed many good results with ART Grand Prix (while Pourchaire has) is off to the United States where he will join Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing alongside Graham Rahal and Britain’s Jack Harvey. This is a good move as there are big opportunities in IndyCar, which has a number of top drivers getting close to retirement, which means that good drivers from Europe who can make an impression can quickly land a big drive – as Marcus Ericsson, Romain Grosjean and Alex Palou have all done recently. Christian wowed the Americans in August by turning up and qualifying fourth in the nastily-named Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix on the road course at Indianapolis, beaten only by Pato O’Ward, Will Power and Grosjean – and ahead of Herta and Palou.
All of these problems would be eased if Alpine had a customer team for its engines, but options seem limited right now – although if there is a better engine in 2022 people may be more interested. I’m told that Alpine is sniffing around the idea of helping to create a new team, which would involve (in theory) a $200 million entry fee, in order to create a situation similar to that which Red Bull enjoys with Scuderia AlphaTauri. That may seem mad, but having a second team would mean having a good asset (as teams are going up in value) and is something that Alpine will need to help develop the new F1 engines in 2026. In the circumstances bank-rolling a new operation could make as much sense as buying an existing team, and there would, of course, be marketing opportunities with brands in the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance.
To finish up with Alpine, it is being reported in Italy that Alpine’s team manager Davide Brivio will be leaving after just one season and will return to MotoGP with Suzuki. Brivio’s appointment by Renault CEO Luca de Meo never made much sense and he has seemed a bit like a tomato in a strawberry bowl all year. The news means that Alpine F1 will now have only two bosses rather than three, which is a step towards the conventional structure.
Engines were much in the chatter in Istanbul, with the rumours that Porsche and Audi are both openly clos to commiting to F1 in 2026. This is interesting for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it seems to suggest that F1 is finally becoming more attractive to car makers – and that could mean that others may become curious because when two industry heavy-hitters made the same decision, others start asking questions. This is purely speculative but one can imagine that one firm that might take a look is Ford – and wouldn’t F1 love to have a big American player in the game! In recent time Ford has seemed to be a bit lost with some of its CEOs seeming to think that it should transform into a sort of gadget company, like Apple. With Apple supposedly building cars, perhaps this seemed like an idea. But a year ago the company appointed Jim Farley as its new CEO. Investors liked this because Ford’s share price has doubled in 12 months. Farley is a “car guy” and an active – and competitive – sports car racer. Although he will continue to move towards electric products (as everyone is), he also says that selling cars is about good engineering and creating passion among one’s customers. Racing does this. In a world where Ferrari is creating fashion and Lewis Hamilton wears kilts and trews at the same time, Ford can still produce electronic barbecues if that is what takes its fancy, but cars are the important thing.
The other big question about F1 engines is how the two VW marques – Porsche and Audi – will structure their F1 programmes. The two firms seem to have different ideas with Audi tipped to be planning to buy an entire team and Porsche more interested in an exclusive partnership with an existing team, along the lines of the old McLaren-Mercedes structure, before McLaren made the mistake of agreeing to let Ross Brawn use the engines as well…
The problem is that with the number of manufacturer-linked teams the opportunities are limited. There are lots of people who seem to be interested in buying teams, but not many free to do engine deals. One cannot, for example, have a Porsche deal with Ferrari, Mercedes, Alpine, McLaren, Aston Martin or Alfa Romeo, although to be fair Fiat did once sponsor the Yamaha team in MotoGP, which didn’t make much sense but was very successful. Red Bull and Scuderia AlphaTauri are not for sale and Red Bull has its own engines for the future and so, in theory, Porsche could only ally with Williams and Haas and the latter is developing a very strong relationship with Ferrari, has no major racing heritage and is nothing like the same kind of team as Williams, in terms of structure. In other words, Porsche’s only choice is to ally with Williams. It is perhaps convenient that the Grove team is currently being run by a German, who cut his teeth at Porsche…
There are (probably) a few more options if one wants to buy a team as Sauber is clearly up for sale and perhaps a deal is already in the pipeline. The problem with Sauber is that it is in Switzerland and so the team that seems to have the best facilities and might be available is… wait for it… McLaren. This may sound like heresy but the world moves on and when one takes a step back and looks at McLaren today it is perhaps a good time to consider that the whole brand might be better off as part of a big business, rather than as an independent. Ferrari went through this process back in the 1960s and ended up being part of Fiat. The people who dreamed of McLaren as a road car company – Ron Dennis and Mansour Ojjeh – ar no longer around. The company is owned by a wealth fund and while there is passion for the business, there is also financial logic. McLaren is heavily in debt and has been selling off assets and shares to better balance the books. There have been rumours of IPOs (which are sales by any other name). The McLaren brand is a useful one and thus one might speculate that the whole business could be useful to a firm like Audi, not only in sporting terms, but also in relation to technology and road cars. We live in a world where nothing is certain any longer and so one should regard this as a possibility.
In Milton Keynes Red Bull Advanced Technology is working on a new track car to be the follow-up to Adrian Newey’s Aston Martin Valhalla. The new model will have a Honda power unit and will be part of the future activities that Red Bull plans with Honda outside F1, although Honda is quitting F1 for good. Aston Martin, by the way, is also planning a follow up to the Valhalla…
Beynd that the notebook mentions, two other details: over in the US Reaume Brothers Racing has announced that it is going to run a part-time NASCAR Cup Series team in 2022, with drivers Loris Hezemans, the NASCAR Whelen Euro Champion, and none other than former F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve, now a youthful 50.
The other point is that F1 seems to have changed its mind about replacing Bruno Michel as head of its subsidiary Formula Motorsport, which runs the Formula 2 and Formula 3 championships. One presumes that while Michel has messed about with the credibility of the two championship with the reversed grids and overly-complicated race meetings, he is pulling in cash, which let us not forget is why Liberty Media is involved in the sport…
Russia is a complicated place, in a lot of different ways, not least geographically. The vast country consists of 85 “federal subjects” – which, in principle, are similar to the counties of Britain, the states of America, the départments of France or the lands of Germany. The only problem is that not everyone agrees on the number because some outside Russia don’t recognise two of these entities on the Crimean Peninsula, because they don’t like the fact that Russia annexed the area back in 2014 and upset folks in The West by being expansionist.
Anyway, these so-called “federal subjects” have several different legal statuses, although I doubt the average Russian could explain the difference between a krai and an oblast. All I can say is that there are only nine krais, while other “federal subjects” are republics, okrugs or “cities of federal importance”.
If I go on trying to explain all this, I could end up writing more than Leo Tolstoy did for War and Peace and Mikhail Sholokhov did with his Don novels: And Quiet Flows the Don, The Don Flows On, and On and On and On Flows the Don (I am making a joke here, in case people wish to write in and complain that Sholokhov never wrote the latter two books). The point I am trying to make is that the two aforementioned authors were rather wordy by nature, Tolstoy’s masterpiece, for example, is an impressive 600,000 words.
Now, I am told that the longest “book” ever is a Japanese fantasy story that runs to a nine million words, although I doubt that anyone has ever counted them.
A Russian might riposte that Tolstoy was not verbose at all compared to Britain’s Henry Williamson, who wrote “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight”, which runs to 15 volumes and about 2.4 million words. God alone knows how Williamson had time to dash off “Tarka the Otter”, which sold rather more copies than his magnum opus.
This is because people don’t want to have to rent a truck when they pop into a book store to buy something, and because everyone likes cuddly animals like otters. This, by the way, also explains why Daniel Ricciardo is so popular amongst F1 fans as the so-called Honey Badger. This is a sweet-looking animal, until it tears your head off…
The point that I was trying to make here, is that Russia is a country rich with literature, music, art and culture and yet we in The West tend to think that it as a dark and threatening place, filled with people who look like villains from James Bond movies, who are constantly scheming to take over the world, blow things up and to kill people who drive Aston Martins. Perhaps this explains why Aston Martin boss Lawrence Stroll spent the Sochi weekend driving around in a Porsche (I didn’t see it, but I was told that this was the case). It may, of course, be that it is hard to find Aston Martins in Russia, not because SMERSH has blown them all up, but rather because Sochi is a long way from the Aston Martin Moscow showrooms.
The image we have of Russia is odd, but I guess comes from a century of mistrust, beginning after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. We even have a word “bolshie” for people who are deliberately combative and uncooperative, which derives from Bolshevik. So, to put it another way, we are biased, but most of us probably don’t realise it.
However, when you arrive in Russia for the first time, it is a bit daunting. Very few people speak English and the unsmiling immigration officials tend to perpetuate the myth. I am sure that somewhere there is an Institute for the Development of Smiley Officialdom, but not many of its graduates have made it to the front line as yet.
I must say that arriving in Moscow’s Unpronounceable International Airport is never very joyful and getting into Sochi in the early hours of the morning tends to add to the stereotypes. Finding a taxi is an instant dive into the world of Bond villains. I’ve tried for years to explain to officialdom all over the world that a country’s primary ambassadors are not the folk who drink gin & tonics on embassy terraces, but rather immigration officials and the taxi drivers.
The selection of this year’s Sochi taxi driver was simple enough: the old boy who looked like he had just fallen out a laundry basket was a much better option than the silver fox who gave the impression that he might recently have strangled his elderly mother – and her kittens. I showed the old boy the hotel address, written in Russian (I had taken the precaution of having this ready). He looked puzzled and asked the murderer if he knew this place where the foreigner wanted to go. This earned him a dismissive stare and convinced me that my man wasn’t really a taxi driver at all, but rather someone who had gone to the airport in the hope that a visitor might emerge and ask him to drive them somewhere.
We walked a long way to find a Brezhnev-era Lada (once the height of Soviet class) and then he drove me through the night to the hotel, with only a couple of near-misses on the way as Bond villains in shiny SUVs, sped by, headlights flashing angrily, overtaking on the right, presumably rushing to an important meeting with President P, who has a very large palace, where he spends much of his time, on a cliff top overlooking the sea, between Sochi and the bridge that now links Crimea to mainland Russia. This palace is about 180 miles from the Sochi Autodrom, which is just round the corner in Russian terms.
At the hotel the receptionist greeted me with a lovely, if rather tired, smile. She looked a little like a dark-haired version of Michelle Pfeiffer – after a heavy night on the town – but she seemed very pleased to see me – presumably because I was the last missing inmate. Despite good intentions to learn more, my efforts in Russian are still quite hopeless and she spoke not one word of English and so our communication was fairly complicated, but we managed to tick all the right boxes and I went off to my room having parted with a large sum of money.
Things were going far more smoothly than some previous visits…
I stay, deliberately, on what we call “the Russian side” of the circuit, away from the sterile Olympic Village of old, where one is lost in a strange cultural vacuum, which is neither one thing nor the other. It is close to the border with Georgia. I used to stay in the Village in the early years of the race, but was never happy and only began to enjoy my trips to Russia when I moved to “the Russian side”. This is because one meets real Russians.
One of the most fascinating things about travelling is that one can experience different mentalities and, sometimes, that can give really helpful insights into the world. When you are among the real people, you invariably find them helpful and friendly. Google Translate has revolutionised the process and life is a lot easier when, for example, you need to borrow an umbrella. This was the case on Saturday when Sochi was swamped by torrential rain. I negotiated to be loaned a suitable brolly, with a fancy automatic opening device that made it spring open with youthful vigour if one pressed the correct button. This worked very well until I got to the circuit security check where a group of policemen were (wisely) sheltering in the tent where there were x-ray machines to check that F1 pass-holders were not carrying sticks of dynamite. As I picked the soggy umbrella from the conveyor belt, it burst open, showering the assembled representatives of law enforcement with a great deal of water. It is at such moments that one wants to know the Russian for: “I’m terribly sorry old chap”, but all I could do was to shrug and look sheepish – and then we all laughed and went about our business.
Russia is fascinating. Russians may seem to be unsmiling and mistrustful, but they see this as being rather more honest than the small talk politeness of Western culture. Russians only act like friends with their real friends, while in the West people often act like friends without knowing anything about one another. In some respects this helps to explain the way things are in Russian government and business. Russians don’t see giving a job to a friend as being nepotism. It’s just what you do – and loyalty to friends is important.
In the West there is a tendency to see rich folk as impressive, but in Russian culture such people are not trusted at all – probably for good reason. Russians seem to value discussion, intellect, talent and those who display a sense of unity with their peers. There is a reason that communism survived so long in Russia.
What I find fascinating is that while many country’s talk of their homeland or fatherland, Russians use the expression motherland. Mother Russia implies a protective maternal nature, that is something that is worth defending. Sacrifice for the greater cause is also part of the national character. There is a reason that Russian war memorials depict female figures.
As I was heading back on Friday night to see Michelle at my funny little Russian hotel, I was literally stopped in my tracks by music coming from the Autodrom’s public address system. Why? Because the beautiful Swan Theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is not something that you ever hear at racing circuits. As I wandered onwards, I wondered whether this might be the music they would play in place of the Russian national anthem on Sunday. Why? Well, because Russia is not perfect and it got itself into all kinds of trouble with the World Anti-Doping Agency over test samples and ended up with a ban on playing the national anthem and flying the national flag at World Championship events of all kinds – for a two year period.
Because it is not easy to understand and we have so many preconceptions, many F1 people don’t like going to Russia. The paddock always feels empty and those who don’t HAVE to go, find ways to avoid it. It’s not just about the alien language and the Bond villains. Perhaps it is also because there is a distaste for the way that President Vladimir Putin does business. This is understandable, but at least he seems smart and competent, which is more than can be said for some of the Western leaders these days, but let us not dwell too much on this. Putin is obviously not Mr Nice Guy. Having said that, it is interesting that an awful lot of Russians seem to be completely ambivalent about politics. They don’t care, as long the country is stable and the economy is OK. Putin has led the country for more than two decades and as many as 40 million young Russians have never known any other leader, so they don’t really know what a better choice might be. Their parents in any case support Putin because he gave the country new pride and stability after the upheavals that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then the Russian economy has grown six-fold, Russia has become a little more integrated into the global community, joining international organisations and hosting events such as the World Cup, the Winter Olympics – and the Grand Prix.
I am wondering whether I will miss my Sochi visits when the Grand Prix switches to Saint Petersburg in 2023. The answer is probably yes, but I suspect that I will find the people in the north just as friendly (although they might not be as nice as Michelle). The folks in charge of the Igora Drive facility, where the 2023 Russian Grand Prix will take place, are already busy adding a new section of tarmac to create a straight on which F1 cars will be able to overtake. There continues to be speculation that this event will be a rather unusual affair – as a night race held in daylight. There is logic to this apparently daft statement because the circuit is so far north that the only possible dates for a race are limited to the summer months. It is a ski resort and there is snow on the ground until the late spring. This is not a problem except that from late May there is a period when it never gets dark, which peaks with the so-called White Nights, between the second week of June and the first week of July. A night race in daylight would be a new idea for F1 – and good for F1’s developing US audience.
With all but one 2022 seat decided and most of the 2021 calendar fixed, the focus of F1 gossip has now switched to the future, although there is still one question mark regarding the current calendar, as Brazil needs to agree to grant exemptions for F1 people travelling from Mexico.
The problem is not related to Mexico but rather to a Brazilian rule which means that any non-Brazilian who has been in the UK 14 days before entering Brazil must undergo quarantine. This rule was highlighted recently when four Argentina football players, who play in the British Premier League, were escorted from the pitch during a World Cup qualification match between Brazil and Argentina, causing the game to be cancelled.
These exemptions should be a formality, but they still need to be done.
The TBA on the calendar is Qatar and this will be confirmed on Thursday this week. There will be a race in a few weeks time and then another in 2023, at the start of a long-term deal. The reason 2022 will be missed is that between November 21 and the World Cup Final on December 18 next year, Qatar will be focussed on football. It is a race that will likely last for many years as the country cannot get a big new sports event until the 2030s as the World Cup will not return for at least a generation and the next available Olympic Games is not until 2036 as Paris, Los Angeles and Brisbane have already snapped up the events in 2024, 2028 and 2032.
Elsewhere have been headlines that France will be replaced in 2022 by an Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola, under a new multi-year deal. Stefano Domenicali says that France will happen in 2022, although he was not asked whether that would still be the case in 2023.
Imola may still get a date in 2021 because of the uncertainty surrounding a number of races, notably Australia, where the government continues to restrict access for everyone arriving from foreign parts. It is worth noting that the English cricket team is due to visit Australia in December and January for a series of test matches to win The Ashes. Australians love sport – and excel at it – but all international sport in Australia is still under threat. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (who looks like some of the Sochi taxi drivers) has asked Australia’s Scott Morrison to ease quarantine rules to allow the families of cricketers to tour with the players. If this is granted, it is hard to see how Australia can turn away F1 people. And, one must bear in mind that there are fears inside Australia that if the race does not happen in 2022, F1 will give up with the country, will cancel the contract and go somewhere more lucrative, although this will probably be less attractive. Still, I suppose that the one surviving member of Save Albert Park, will be able to rattle his or her zimmer frame and claim victory.
What else? Well, Aston Martin Whitmarsh (as the team may soon be called) recently started digging up the countryside next to its current factory and team boss Lawrence Stroll boomed forth on the subject of how his team will soon be transformed into a “Formula One World Championship-winning organisation” and how it will become “a £1 billion business”.
I have to say that I think there is a serious flaw in the strategic thinking, although it can be fixed if Stroll is willing to pay out even more money.
The logic is very simple: a customer team is never going to be allowed to be in a position to beat a factory operation on a regular basis. Thus, if Aston Martin wants to be a World Championship team, it MUST have its own engines. Other teams might be able to secure an exclusive supply of power units provided by a manufacturer that does not run a factory F1 team, but that is not possible for Aston Martin because it is a rival of all such companies and you cannot have an Aston Martin-Lamborghini F1 car nor an Aston Martin-Chrysler come to that. So the only way that Stroll’s team can become a World Championshp contender is to build its own engines. Stroll is right to say that teams will have more value in the future, but the down side of that is that if a team makes money and promotes a manufacturer there is no real reason why any of the existing companies would quit and sell him an engine programme. Customer teams always come second… and while one might argue that McLaren is doing rather well against Mercedes this year, one must also be reminded that Woking got a big advantage this year by being the only team to change its engine and thus the only team that was able to make a really significant improvement to its car. Everyone else had to stick with the same design as 2020…
So, Stroll will need a few more truckloads of cash (and probably an even bigger factory) if he wants to win a World Championship…
At the moment the sport has two other manufacturers who are in the same boat, enjoying the advantages of F1 without having to make the full investment: Alfa Romeo and McLaren being the other two. The reality is that none of them are likely to be able to win the World Championship without their own engine programmes.
Thus it is logical for all concerned to argue for cheaper engines, opening the way for more in-house programmes.
Red Bull is already on that path… creating a structure which can win and at the same time can ultimately be sold to someone else wanting the full package.
But rumours that Red Bull is trying to do a deal with Audi or Porsche, both of which are showing interest in being involved in F1 in the future, make no sense at all. Both Audi and Porsche already have their own F1-level in-house facilities at Neuburg an der Donau, near Ingolstadt, and at Weissach, near Stuttgart. Why would either spend a huge sum to buy something in Milton Keynes when they already have what they need at home? These factories could thus become the homes of new F1 teams if the two brands do enter F1 in 2025 or 2026. The fact that Red Bull is developing its own engine division, based on Honda technology, backs up the logic that one must have your own engine supply in order to win World titles.
Anyway, we will see.
The plane from Moscow landed in Paris at the same time as a flight from Manchester. This meant that I found myself in a lengthy queue with hundreds of British football fans – en route to a game between Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain – enjoying the “privileges” that come with being a British passport-holder these days.
Still, at least I knew that when I finally got through the formalities, there would at least be some fuel available so I could drive home…
Martin Whitmarsh has been recruited to the new role of Group Chief Executive Officer of Aston Martin Performance Technologies, a new entity which will encompass the firm’s F1 activities and will also “develop, apply and take to market the group’s technical capabilities and intellectual property, with the aim of providing best-in-class innovation, engineering, testing and manufacturing services across a variety of key industry sectors”.
In essence, however, this puts Whitmarsh in charge of the whole of the F1 business, which means that owner Lawrence Stroll’s recent denials that there would be someone put in above Otmar Szafnauer seem a little out of place.
Whitmarsh worked for McLaren from 1989 to 2014 including being the group Chief Executive Officer and Formula 1 Team Principal from 2008-2014. Under his leadership McLaren diversified its business activities with McLaren Automotive and McLaren Applied Technologies.
“Martin will enjoy senior leadership responsibility and will assist and support me in setting the new strategic direction for Aston Martin Performance Technologies and its subsidiaries, including the crucial objective of leading the transformation of Aston Martin Cognizant F1 Team into a Formula One World Championship-winning organisation within the next four to five years, and evolving it into a £1 billion business over a similar time period,” said Stroll. “Martin has enjoyed a long, successful and high-profile career, spanning the motorsport, automotive, aerospace, marine and renewable-energy sectors.”
Whitmarsh will start work on October 1.
Since departing from F1 Whitmarsh has been involved in the world of sailing and in wind technology.
Readers of the JSBM newsletter will have learned last week that Whitmarsh was joining the team, although Stroll’s denials made it rather difficult to pin-point the role.