Notebook from Sabiha Gökçen

There are a quite a few airports in Istanbul. I flew into and out of the smallest one, which is called Sabiha Gökçen. The big new one is at a place called called Arnavutköy. I thought it was called Havalimanı, but such is my knowledge of Turkish that I’m told (by my helpful colleague from Reuters Alan Baldwin) that this just means “airport”. There’s the dot left off the top of the final i for reasons that I don’t understand and haven’t yet investigated. There is too much to do at the moment, trying to get everything organised for the final three races of the year.

This new airport opened a couple of years ago and I have never been there, but I am told by those who have been that it is bigger the Ben Hur and can handle 200 million passengers a year, a number which is so large that I struggle to comprehend how it is possible. There is another airport called Ataturk, which is now for freight and private jets only.

The reason I chose Sabiha Gökçen is that it is about 10 minutes from the Istanbul Park racing circuit and you don’t have to deal with the city traffic to get between them. If you fly into Ben Hur International Airport it is a 50-mile drive through the middle of the city, or a longer haul around the outside. And memories of the traffic jams of old suggested that the little airport was by far the best choice. And then, of course, there is the driving. This is the kind of place where Jean Todt goes instantly pale, where indicators exist only as pretty additions to the crash structures and where roaming dogs appear to breed like rabbits. Overtaking and undertaking are both required on these roads…

When the race first started back in 2005 we used to stay in the city centre and travel out each day, but this meant hours were wasted in traffic jams and we never managed to get back in time to eat dinner outside the hotel.

So we decided to try something different and hit on the idea of hiring a “taksi” driver called Senol, who drove fast but very well and chattered away in Turkish pointing out mosques, bars, tobacco factories and kept us informed of the property prices of the different neighbourhoods we were passing through. He took us on back roads when the main roads were blocked and he was always making frantic no-handed phone calls to friends to see where the traffic jams were forming. One night he stopped and bought us all what amounted to dinner from a roadside stall which he had ordered in advance by phone and happily paid for. He also showed us the sneaky way into town when traffic was REALLY bad and we took the “feribot” from the town of Harem, which despite its promising name, appeared to be Turkey’s biggest bus station, to arrive in Istanbul in rather regal fashion – by boat…

Later still, we gave up with the centre of the city and moved over the Asian side, close to the track and stayed in more modest hotels where the minibars did NOT feature chilled condoms – as had been the case on the European side – but had nice views of the Sea of Marmara, although there were loads of loud Russians there, who drank a lot of vodka and made lots of noise. One time I seem to remember there was a wedding reception that went on for several days… The roads were still bonkers and I recall one morning arriving at moderately high speed into a herd of goats that someone was driving across a dual carriage way…

Anyway, the race died in 2011 and we didn’t look back. The track had been great, but the novelty of the experience had worn off and we never went back until the pandemic meant that the folk at Liberty Media needed a place to hold races late in the year, where it might not be too cold. Istanbul Revisited.

We had learned the Sabiha Gökçen trick in the latter days of the original Grands Prix, but I didn’t know that the airport was named after a woman who became the world’s first female fighter pilot when she flew combat missions with the Turkish Air Force during the Dersim rebellion of 1937 and 1938. I am not sure that the rebels had any planes but she seems to have bombed and strafed while flying fighter planes and so has now been given that great honour of becoming an airport rather than merely being a human being, in exalted company alongside folk like Charles de Gaulle, John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Marco Polo, Louis Armstrong, Mozart, John Lennon, John Wayne, Edward O’Hare and Frank Andrews… and many more besides.

I chose a hotel this year between the airport and the circuit. It was quite dreadful but it was located in a guarded business park area so I was – if nothing else – safe in the knowledge that there was a bloke with a machine gun standing at the gate (if he wasn’t asleep). Apart from the evening I arrived, I never saw a single member of the hotel staff for the entire visit. There was never anyone on reception and the place failed to live up to the claims that had been made on booking.com. These things happen sometimes in this line of work, and one must live through them and not make the same mistake next time – if there is one. Things were not helped on Friday 13thwhen the transformer of my computer died (a peaceful death by all accounts, without any fireworks) and I had to spend Friday afternoon after practice trying to buy a suitable replacement in a land where Apple stores are rather less common than goats…

The Turkish GP weekend was all about on-track action (which was good). The only talking point was the 2021 calendar and, oddly enough, there was no great scramble of journalists booking hotels, as would normally be the case. This is because no-one believes the calendar enough to start investing money and while a move to 23 races might sound promising for real world investors, there seemed to be little room in the announcement for any uncomfortable cold draughts of reality. There will be some places, no question, where the government will pay the fees whether there are people or not in 2021, but there are going to be a lot of others which will not be held without spectators. Where government money is involved in building up the infrastructure for races there is going to be a risk that there will be a COVID spike and the money spent will be wasted, as happened in Australia this year. No politician ever wants to be caught wasting public money and so there is a big risk with these events.

With such a big calendar there is at least some leeway to lose a few races but it is worth cramming them in as F1 tries to spike its revenues, which has been badly hit this year.

But so many of the races rely on “bums on seats” to pay their bills and so any restriction will hit their bottom line and make it harder for them to pay the fees. If there are no fans then there are real problems. F1 often justifies races by saying that they boost tourism revenues. This is usually true, but the sport should perhaps take heed of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which has recently published a far-reaching report about international tourism, which it reckons will fall by around 80 percent this year. Tourism is not only one of the worst hit industries in the pandemic, it is also one that will take longest to recover.

“Destinations that rely heavily on international visitors, and business and events tourism are particularly affected,” the OEDC says.

The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates that the loss of revenues for tourism this year will end up being five times worse than in 2009, when the world was hit by a pretty major financial crisis. Five times. It also says that recovery to pre-crisis levels is expected to take “up to four years.”

Formula 1 can hope that things will get better and that it can be at the forefront of the recovery – and perhaps it can. But it also needs to be aware that success is not something you can announce before it happens. The calendar is also brutal for the F1 circus with two triple-headers and five double-headers, but one gets the impression that the people running the sport are a bit like the General Staff in World War I and don’t get too close to the trenches.

It was interesting to note that in Turkey 30 percent of the F1 team principals were not on site. Simon Roberts was out with the virus, but Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul and Ferrari’s Mattia Binotto both reckoned that their time would be better spent not attending the races. That is quite a reflection on the sport today.

The international F1 written media dropped to just 16 “permanents” in Turkey, the second lowest figure of the season and the lowest since Russia. And this was always likely to be the World Championship decider…

It is a strange state of affairs that what is supposed to be a media sport has so few media present these days. The pay-TV folk currently get all the access, along with F1’s own media platforms, but to be fair the pay-TV numbers are still pretty unimpressive and it is also hard to imagine that F1’s own coverage is going to ever be accepted as gospel by the fans. Let’s face it, people rarely criticise the people who pay their salaries… It ain’t smart to do that.

Some think that Liberty Media will use the pandemic to reduce the access that the written media will have in the long-term. I must say it has crossed my mind, but if that is the case there will still be plenty of negative comment out there, but it will be coming more and more from people who don’t know what is going on. And will more fans sign up for pay-TV as a result? I doubt it.

The job of the F1 media is to fascinate people who are vaguely interested in the sport and to bring them closer to it. But why would the media do that if it feels it is being pushed away? There are disconnects in the logic here, but the truth is that the trust that the media had in Liberty Media has been eroded by its behaviour in recent months – and a lot of folk are hoping that the arrival of Stefano Domenicali in January will gets things back to a more normal situation. Given what the OECD is saying, F1 might need more support from the media in the years ahead…

There were no spectators in Turkey (beyond a few who may have snuck in) and it was noticeable that the country’s President was not there. And this provided rather an ironic moment because Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed to appear because he was paying a visit to the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a de facto state that has existed on the island since the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974. It is not recognised by any country other than Turkey. Erdogan was having a picnic on the beach in Cyprus, which Cypriots and Greeks took as a provocation.

Those with long memories will remember that one of the biggest problems with the Turkish GP in the old days was friction with the F1 authorities after the Turks made the mistake of sneaking Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat onto the podium of the F1 race, and billing him as the President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This stunt resulted in the event being given a substantial fine by the FIA because its President Max Mosley did not appreciate having spat tea all over his sitting room when the trophies were handed out and the captions appeared on global television. Politics and sport should never be mixed.

The 2021 F1 calendar

Formula 1 needs to pack in as many races as possible in 2021 given the financial hit that the sport has taken in 2020, with team revenues expected to be around half what they were in 2019, judging by the recent financial returns published by F1. It may be slightly better than that if the Q4 results take a big leap forward, which could happen as some contracts will only kick in when the sport has completed 15 races, but the race fees are still unlikely to be as high as normal. The word is that the sport has decided that whatever happens with the pandemic it is going to be going to the places planned, with the governments involved apparently willing to take the risk and get fans back in the grandstands. It may not be as easy as that but with what could be a 23-race calendar there is plenty of leeway for dropping races if things get difficult. There is the added complication of the Olympic Games, which is scheduled to take place in Tokyo between July 23 and August 8. This, and the requirement to keep the summer break in place means that the races are being squeezed in the autumn and the plan is to hold two difficult triple-headers: the first being Spa, Zandvoort and Monza on August 29, September 5 and 12; the second being September 26 (Sochi), October 3 (Singapore) and October 10 (Japan).

There will be five double-headers: Australia-Bahrain, Baku-Canada, France-Austria, US-Mexico, and Saudi-Arabia-Abu Dhabi, but the big news is that Vietnam will not be on the schedule because of political upheaveals going on there following the arrest in August of Hanoi People’s Committee chairman Nguyen Duc Chung as part of an investigation into alleged misappropriation of state secrets and of wasting public funds. A former police chief, Chung became Hanoi chairman in 2015 and was re-elected a year later for the period 2016-2021. This has created uncertainty about the race, although with a huge investment having been made, it would not be logical for Vietnam to simply give up on the idea. However it is clear that the race, scheduled for April will not happen, but F1 is hoping to find another promoter willing to pay for a race, with the suggestion being that either Turkey or Portugal may find the money. There remains a serious doubt over Brazil as the current contract has ended and the plans for a race in Rio de Janeiro have yet to move forward as the planned track is still awaiting the necessary licences for building work to start. It is possible that a deal might be struck for one year in Sao Paulo, but F1’s appetite for the city is weak, even if the Interlagos track is much appreciated. In part the problem seems to be related to an unwillingness to deal with the previous race promoter.

There is no sign of a German race, once again, despite the success of Mercedes Benz, as neither Hockenheim or the Nurburgring can get any public help to fund a race.

There is also no sign of Miami, where the hopes seem to be fading after the recent elections as the newly elected mayor of Miami-Dade County is against the race and her predecessor has moved on to the US Congress. It does not help matters that in recent weeks the promoters have been hit by another lawsuit, this one claiming – rather tenuously – that there has been racial discrimination against the population of Miami Gardens. It is unlikely that F1 will go on with this ridiculous struggle and will likely focus its efforts on either Las Vegas or Indianapolis – or both.

It remains to be seen whether this will all happen as governments are not going to be in an easy position if the pandemic continues and borders remain closed to all but F1…

2021 Formula 1 calendar

21 March: Australia (Albert Park)

28 March: Bahrain

11 April: China (Shanghai)

25 April: TBA

9 May: Spain (Catalunya)

23 May: Monaco 

6 June: Baku (Azerbaijan)

13 June: Canada (Montreal)

27 June: France (Le Castellet)

4 July: Austria (Spielberg)

18 July: Britain (Silverstone)

1 August: Hungary (Hungaroring)

29 August: Belgium (Spa)

5 September: Netherlands (Zandvoort)

12 September: Italy (Monza)

26 September: Russia (Sochi)

3 October: Singapore (Marina Bay)

10 October: Japan (Suzuka)

24 October: USA (Austin)

31 October: Mexico (Mexico City)

14 November: Brazil (Sao Paulo) *

28 November: Saudi Arabia (Jeddah)

5 December: Abu Dhabi (Yas Marina)

* = provisional

Good guys and bad guys

When we were young, life was easier. The good cowboys wore white hats, the bad guys wore black hats. The winners write the history books.

Sadly, modern life is a little more complicated than that.

As is now the norm, the week after each Grand Prix is filled with news stories rehashed from the press conferences at the event and presented as being new.

The three exceptions this week are a possible calendar (there is still nothing official) – although such lists have been circulating for some time, although they seem to be changing each week (which is why there has been nothing official); there have been some financial results from F1 that are ugly, but not at all unexpected in the circumstances; and there has been confirmation that there will be a race in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, in 2021 (in theory, because everything is “in theory” with the pandemic).

In the interim the world has focussed on the United States election situation and not perhaps enough on the pandemic.

This week the number of daily global deaths has gone higher than anything seen back in April – and there are new lockdowns here, there and not quite everywhere.

This has been largely overlooked as a result of the fixation on who voted for whom in Busted Flush, Illlinois and Plasticburg, Pennsylvania.

It’s best for sports reporters to stay out of politics because this merely incites extreme opinions and annoys fans who use sport as their way to escape from “the real world” – which is what sport is supposed to do. Sport is not war without guns, it’s light relief. And those who forget that are deluding themselves.

There is an interesting discussion about whether F1 should race everywhere if there is money available. Some believe that “sportwashing” – the use of sport to improve the reputation of a country by distracting attention away from human rights and such matters – is not acceptable. In principle I agree with this, but I honestly don’t know how one can decide at what point a place is considered to be “bad” when you consider all the things that are wrong with the world – and all the things that human rights organisations campaign against. I do know that if F1 refused to race in places which have any human rights questions, we wouldn’t race anywhere much apart from perhaps Monaco, which is too small to do much harm – although probably someone out there would disagree with this assessment. There are abuses to be found everywhere, if you go looking for them and often it is only he who shouts loudest that is heard.

But who decides what is good and what is bad? Does one object to no freedom of speech, for example, if one accepts “extraordinary rendition operations” or harassment of opposition politicians and journalists who ask too many questions?

Going to countries to promote them is what F1 does and while I’m not always comfortable with the way the rulers behave at the events, I think it is best for the sport to stay above politics – and do what sport is supposed to do.

I’ve never been happy about the way Vladimir Putin uses the Russian GP to appear alongside the winners. For me that is propaganda, but if I apply that thinking to other places where politicians appear on the podium, is my opinion valid?

People say we shouldn’t race in China, but the Chinese politicians have never done this sort of thing, even if they might be up to no good elsewhere. There is an argument that some countries are simply not ready for democracy and will explode into civil war if there are not strong and ruthless leaders. So the pragmatists say the human rights abuses are better than warfare…

These are just questions, not statements in favour or against any particular government.

At the same time I do honestly think that sport can help to change countries and open them up to new ideas and broader horizons. The same can be said of other cultural actinies: concert tours, or moving art exhibitions. It isn’t just sport.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, there is also the question about why some people are making a fuss about F1 going there, but said nothing when the Race of Champions visited? The Dakar? Formula E? They’ve all been there already… Yes, F1 is bigger but is that a good reason to start complaining when other events have happened without any comment?

I’m sure that some people think that this asking of questions is just a way to blur the black/white answers that some want, but I don’t see how we can have any kind of list of banned countries unless the United Nations comes up with such a thing – and that is never going to happen because some of the key UN members are also believed to be bad offenders. So there are no official answers, just opinions. And while everyone thinks their opinion is the one that matters, the reality is that you cannot please everyone all the time.

Such decisions in motorsport rest with the FIA and we trust the federation to make the right choices. Alas, there is not much else we can do.

The other way is to let people vote with their feet. If people don’t want to go, they don’t have to, but if that happened there would be no commercial agreements in F1 and the commercial rights holder would not have a package to sell.

Life isn’t that simple…

Notebook from Bonneville

There are quite a few Bonnevilles in the world, which isn’t really a great surprise as the name comes from the French for “good town”. And there have been a few of those over time.

The famous Bonneville is a salt flat in Utah, where land speed records have long been attempted. But my Bonneville is a small town which sits on the flat land that makes up the Arve valley, between the Swiss Alps and the French Alps, on the road from Geneva to Chamonix (or more importantly, the Mont Blanc tunnel).

Bonneville is sometimes called the gateway to the Alps and is a pretty enough spot. It certainly impressed the English Romantic landscape painter William Turner, who arrived there in the summer of 1802, en route to Italy on his first Continental tour. He was 27 at the time and was sufficiently impressed to sketch it and then paint it again and again in the years that followed (a man has to eat…) for his wealthy clients.

I was there, as you can imagine, on my road home from Imola. The Emilia Romagna GP weekend was a little odd, not least because the place was truly sad without fans. It looked much worse than other venues in this respect. Imola, for me at least, was always about thousands of Italian fans, cheering on Ferrari.

It was strange too because we didn’t really know what to expect afterwards as the Covid-19 lockdowns were happening during the race weekend and we really had no idea about the future. It was living from day to day.

It was, of course, a short meeting with only two days of action, which was dressed up as being an experiment but was done simply because F1 couldn’t get all its stuff from Portugal to Italy in the time available. The two-day format was annoying in that it meant three Covid tests in three days: one as the pre-event test, the second, thanks to the what is now known as the Lance Stroll rule, which means everyone must test within 24 hours of arriving at a race and then on Saturday I took another in order to have a piece of paper showing that I had tested negative within 72 hours of my trip home across locked-down France.

As luck would have it, I found myself in the same as three others from the “F1 media bubble”, which meant that I was able to eat dinner with others for the first time since Silverstone. One forgets the pleasures of being able to socialise. Perhaps things could be better organised but you never know who is going to turn up for which races and as there are only 50 people in the bubble (journalists and photographers combined) and we tend to stay in different places (hotels, Airbnbs etc) it is rare to be in the place. Restaurants in Italy were shut at 6pm for sit-down dining, but hotels were allowed to feed their guests – which was very good news.

I set off on Monday morning in the fog – which is not unusual at this time of year in the region – but things were sunnier by the time I reached Modena. I had decided that I would try to get home in a day, to avoid having to look for hotels/food on Monday night. The journey home was 775 miles, but I had done the same distance the day after the Portuguese GP, so that didn’t seemed impossible. But it was always going to be a long day.

On the way home from the Tuscan GP I followed much the same route, with just over 300 miles up to the Mont Blanc tunnel and 450 to get home from there. After Mugello I stopped for the night in Burgundy, this time I went for home. And Bonneville was en route, after the descent from Mont Blanc and before reaching Geneva (but not going into Switzerland) and the Vuache mountains, which are followed by a spectacular bit of road through the Jura mountain range until you reach flat-land France on the run towards Bourg-en-Bresse.

I arrived home after 13 hours on the road – being well-behaved because I have a French driving licence…

This gave me plenty of time to consider the Imola weekend. There was a spike of interest for those who like screaming headlines when Lewis Hamilton said that he didn’t know what was happening next year, but Toto Wolff soon put this into perspective, saying that after the release and joy of winning championships everyone says weird things and that he fully expected that he and Lewis would be going on next year, trying to set new records.

The most interesting thing about Imola for me was not the announcements that were made but rather things that happened which seem odd when you stop to think about them.

The presence of Greg Maffei, the boss of Liberty Media in Portugal was bizarre. Maffei is not a racing fan and has come to very few races in the last three years. I told he’s a basketball nut (although I cannot verify it) but his primary interest is making money, which he does very well. Appearing at a non-major Grand Prix is a bit out of character. And at a time when the pandemic is running riot. One can speculate that this was something he did for meetings, but the major F1 deliberations are over and in any case Maffei is not required for these. Chase Carey is the man who signs things.

So what has Maffei been doing?

The obvious conclusion is that he is doing something with regard to selling the business. The Covid-19 pandemic has demolished the projected return on investment of Formula 1 and so it will now take a lot longer (and we don’t know how long) for Liberty Media to cash in more on the deal it did. To a large extent it has got much of its own money back by selling off shares but like all such companies it wants more.

The value of companies is never easy to determine but market capitalisation is an important measure. This is based on the share price multiplied by the number of shares outstanding. The current market cap of F1 is $7.7billion. It was only $2.5 billion in February 2017 when Liberty took over the business from CVC Capital and removed Bernie Ecclestone as the CEO. The market cap jumped to $6.6 billion in just a few days but then stabilised and topped out at $10.6 billion in January this year. The onset of Covid-19 dropped it back to $4.1 billion but it has since climbed up again to $8.6 billion – although the signing of the new Concorde Agreement in August had far less impact than one might have predicted – and the cap has fallen back since then. I’ve been hearing for some weeks that Liberty has been sniffing around quietly for a buyer to take the business off its hands. Whatever the price it will still have made a profit, but the potential for growth is not there at the moment and it is impossible to predict where things will go in the future.

It is easy to say that these are difficult times but in F1 the constant pursuit of what might happen tomorrow is more important than the realities of today. In some ways this is a strength but at other times F1 does not see the obvious. Race promoters are struggling and the days of them paying out huge fees to host races are for the moment a thing of the past.

F1 is busy talking about starting the 2021 season in Australia and having a 23-race calendar. I cannot help but think that the extra date is the Cloud Cuckoo Land GP at the Utopia Raceway on the island of Atlantis, such is the unrealistic nature of the calendar that is being bandied around. Of course, they haven’t published it yet, which is a good idea because it is most unwise to plan anything more than a few weeks in advance (he writes, thinking that he must try to find a seat on a plane to Turkey).

Why do I think this way? Well, in the last few days we have seen the cancellation of the Bathurst 12 Hours, scheduled for the weekend of January 31–February 2 next year. This is a big event and the opening round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge. It attracted 43,111 people across the three days in early 2020.

And then there is the Adelaide 500, which has attracted as many as 297,000 over four days. Not far short of the Grand Prix crowd in Melbourne. The race has not only been axed for 2021, but the South Australia’s Tourism Commission has killed the entire event and will not renew its contract with Supercars. The SATC said that it was impossible to recoup the costs of the event during the pandemic.

“Due to the high level of uncertainty around the ability of the event to proceed in 2021, the likely impact on the event for both the consumer and commercial market, and the long-term decline in our core motorsport fan, a decision has been made that it will not be possible to hold the race next year, and to not seek a contract for future years,” it said. “At the end of the day, with the current set of circumstances we are not in a position to deliver a sustainable, successful future for the event for next year and beyond. We have a terrific world-class motor racing facility at The Bend. We are very fortunate to have had significant private investment in that circuit, and we already know the motoring faithful are keen to support ongoing races there.”

That is a very big “ouch” for Australian motorsport. Are there F1 tracks with the same problem? It is certainly worth considering.

I was also somewhat surprised to see Gene Haas on the grid in Imola. Perhaps he was there to sign some contracts, relating to engine and chassis supply and drivers: Ferrari, Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher, if you’re interested. It must have been important because over in the US Gene’s NASCAR team – Stewart Haas Racing – was at the final cut-off race for the NASCAR Cup with only four drivers going through. For those who are unfamiliar with the NASCAR playoff knockout system, there are only four championship contenders left at the final race: only they can win the title and so it is basically whoever finishes ahead, even if they cannot win the race itself. It is a pretty random thing, but it works because you can always guarantee a four-way title fight. Before last weekend Haas was looking a strong contender for the title, with his lead driver – Kevin Harvick – having won nine victories this year. His closest challenger in terms of race wins was Toyota’s Denny Hamlin with seven. No-one else had more than four.

So it was an important moment for Gene – and yet he chose to be in Imola instead. As it turned out Harvick was knocked out and so Stewart Haas Racing goes into the finale without a driver in contention for the title. Harvick could win a 10th victory but it wouldn’t win him the title. Strange, but true. Whatever happens the champion will have fewer victories than Harvick.

Still, I cannot help but feel that there must have been something pretty important going on for Gene to miss the NASCAR race.

Elsewhere the news was largely as expected although I was surprised by Williams’s decision to not replace Russell. This is not to say that I don’t rate George. I think he’s very talented and is making the Williams look good. George thoroughly deserves to be where he is, but there is the question of funding. I know Williams has banged on and on about Russell and Nicholas Latifi having contracts for next year. This is true but the team didn’t mention that it had to pick up an option to continue with Russell. The option date was the end of October, which is why there was speculation in the days leading up to that. I’m not sure about Latifi, but the concept is very different as he brings a sizeable pile of sponsorship (rumoured to be at least $7 million and possibly as much as $10 million). This Williams cannot afford to lose.

Sergio Perez has a sizeable pile of money behind him – and impressive talent as well. Russell’s deal with Williams seems to involve a discount on Mercedes engines and technology but I doubt this is more than $5 million (probably not even that much). And Perez has about $7 million but might squeeze that up to $10 million, if the Mexican took a cut in salary. So the logic was that with Perez the team would get up to $5 million more than with Russell.

Given that there will be a hole in the budget next year caused by the drop in prize money of, something in the region of $20 million (give or take) one can see the problem. But dumping Russell would do two other things: it would annoy Mercedes and it would greatly upset the vocal British press. The Williams brand is all about being British and so dumping George was not wise. And obviously Perez’s extra money was not enough to make it worthwhile.

This means that the team still has to find the money to fill the budgetary hole, or make cutbacks to reduce spending. It still has a loan with HSBC and that might prevent it selling old cars, which it had been going before the loan.

So, we shall see, but obviously the mysterious Dorilton company which now owns Williams is comfortable to cover the costs involved – if necessary. Who knows? Perhaps they will put the squeeze on Latifi and get some more money from him as his performances currently do not really warrant the seat.

The power of money is not new in Formula 1 but very often these things are cleverly disguised. I was fascinated by the announcement that Mercedes-Benz has agreed to increase its shareholding in Aston Martin in the Aston Martin road car company to 20 percent. A lot of F1 folk assume that Mercedes is chucking in money for the privilege but that’s not true at all. If you wade through the paperwork you find that Mercedes used to have a five percent share, but this was diluted by all the refinancing that has gone on since Lawrence Stroll bought control of the business. I am told that Mercedes also had a clause in the deal that gave them a veto on changes of ownership.

However, the increase to 20 percent ownership is not at all what it appears to be. Mercedes is not paying anything and has been given the shares in exchange for expanding the existing supply deal, giving Aston Martin more access to important Mercedes technology, including hybrid and electric drive systems. Having the credibility of Mercedes is useful but the money that has been raised in this new refinancing – $163 million – comes from new investors Permian Investment Partners, a New York hedge fund, which has put in $33.3 million and Zelon Holdings, a mysterious family office, has lobbed in $30 million. In addition, Lawrence Stroll’s Yew Tree Overseas Ltd has put in another $20 million, with other investors injecting the remaining $41.6 million. The company used the same refinancing announcement to reveal that it is going to raise nearly $1 billion in senior secured notes (basically loans), with the money being used to get rid of earlier loans, settle a few bills and to keep the company going. The pandemic is making it difficult to sell cars and the company’s balance sheet this year is not pretty, although the aim remains to push up sales to 10,000 a year with revenues of $2.5 billion and profits to $650 million a 2024 or 2025.

Much depends on the success of the DBX, the Aston Martin SUV. The F1 programme next year follows Ferrari’s strategy of doing all one’s advertising in the sport and not spending on other forms of advertising, although I am sure that the company will keep its relationship with James Bond as well….

I presume that all is now going ahead with Turkey although I am not entirely sure how all of this is being achieved under lockdowns. These are complicated times.

Sadly, the last four races will be done without my trusty car, which has carried me to all races thus far, bar Russia. Let’s see if the airlines are as reliable as good old-fashioned Japanese engineering…

Green Notebook from Donibane Lohizune

They say that Basque is one of the few means of communication that survived the arrival in what is now Europe of the so-called Indo-European languages about 5,000 years ago. This is largely theory, based on the fact that the language is completely unrelated to any of the other European ones, with no demonstrable etymological links. The theory has been backed up in recent years by DNA studies which show that genomes from Stone Age northern Spanish skeletons are the closest of all genetic links with the present-day Basque population.

Fascinating, if not entirely related to F1 matters…

The reason I am ruminating on this curious subject is because I found myself once again in Basque Country, for the second time in a week. It wasn’t planned that way, although I am not complaining. It is a charming part of the world, with much to be said for it.

I was in what the Basques call Hendaia (and the French call Hendaye) because it is the first French town after the Spanish border. In fact, I was about 500 metres from the Bidassoa River, which is the border between the two countries. This is just a few miles from one of my favourite places on this Earth: Saint-Jean-du-Luz (otherwise known as Donibane Lohizune).

You might ask why I ended up in Hendaye, which is not obviously on the route from Portimão to Imola, the route I should be taking in my role as an F1 reporter. Well, on Sunday night in Portimão, after the race there, the Spanish Prime Minister announced that the regional governments of Spain would have the right to close their own borders, if they felt it was the right thing to do – in the face of the rapidly re-escalating Covid-19 pandemic. It was not clear what this meant, but my plans to potter across Spain to Barcelona sometime later in the week, prior to driving on to Imola for Thursday afternoon, no longer seemed like a good idea. I wanted to be in Imola and not stuck in Aragón or Catalunya, pleasant though they may be.

I have learned with the Covid-19 virus that one needs to deal with the possibility not the actuality, because once the possible happens it is too late to do anything about it. That doesn’t mean I rush to the supermarket and buy 100 toilet rolls and all the baking powder I can find (which some people do…) but it does mean that one has to swim ahead of the wave. It meant that I would be driving more, but it guaranteed that I would not have to face the possibility of being stuck somewhere. I guess that it was not a stupid thing to do as I read that Aragón, Asturias, the Basque Country, Navarre and La Rioja all sealed their territories. Maybe foreigners can drive in and out – I didn’t know – but I didn’t really want to find out.

To be honest I really didn’t want to drive 732 miles (without any navigation errors) on Monday, after two nights with little sleep doing the usual Grand Prix weekend work, but it seemed like the only sensible option. The nearest French territory was Hendaye, which was do-able in a day for one driver, whereas the 1,050 miles to the French border near Perpignan was simply too much – added to which I would need to be in France before the 9pm curfew and I didn’t know which towns were under curfew and which were not. It was changing all the time.

In any case, I set off after breakfast on Monday and retraced my route of last week. The only drama was when I spotted a stray dog lolloping across the motorway ahead of me. It was OK, I thought, I’ll miss the beast. Then I saw the line of four small puppies behind… In the end three went one way and the fourth went the other and everything on the passenger sat ended up in the footwell. No animals were harmed… If I’d been driving an F1 car on the current tyres I would have required a pit stop.

I saw things I hadn’t seen when travelling the other way (as so often happens) and enjoyed the cork trees for example, stripped down and looking rather awkward. And I saw the impressive citadel of Ciudad Rodrigo, which I had missed in the rain on the way down. It also struck me that the Northern Meseta plateau that stretches across Castille, around Burgos, is a lot higher than you think, averaging around 2,800 ft, which that means it gets cold. 

The final hour was spent in the Basque country, in the dark, in teeming rain, in traffic, on twisty roads, which was not at all fun after such a long day, so I flopped happily into the first hotel after the frontier just after eight and discovered that Hendaye had been declared a curfew zone and so I had just 50 minutes to get some dinner before locking myself into the hotel room at 9pm, hoping that no nasty viruses would sneak under the door.

I suppose I could have continued the drive to Italy the next morning, but I had things to write and a podcast to do and so I decided to stay put and relax a little. So I went for a brief visit to Saint-Jean-du-Luz to buy some supplies that might be useful in Italy, where it seems restaurants would be closing at 6pm – and so if the food on offer at the circuit is no good (and you don’t know that until you get there) I would at least have something pleasant to eat: so in the boot I have several gateaux basques from Pariès, the best manufacturer of said cakes, and some cans of fish soup from the Conserverie La Belle Iloise, which is great. All I would need in Italy is a means of heating it… still most hotels have electric kettles and so if your next hotel coffee tastes a little bit fishy you will know that you’ve stayed in the same place I did.

Hey, blame Covid-19. It’s a needs-must world out there.

I had lunch overlooking the beach at Hendaye and was amazed by the hundreds of surfers who had turned up on a fairly chilly day at the end of October. My stop also gave me time to write some thoughts about the Portimao weekend. It was a terrific circuit and the organisation wasn’t bad for a new race. There were some serious traffic problems on Sunday (and Autosport got within an hour of not having any reporters at the track for the start). It struck some of us that Formula 1 seemed to be living rather in denial of the real world. Problems were building up everywhere with Covid-19 but F1 had not only a big crowd but also a paddock club and some obviously essential VIPs. It was all very odd. There were lots of messages about responsibility and social distancing – and little evidence of it actually happening. I guess that the Portuguese government wanted a race – as there was a minister on the podium – but I doubt the Grand Prix will generate much tourism in the next 12 months. I also doubt it helped Portugal’s developing second wave of infections. Since we departed there are have been a restriction on the movement of citizens outside their usual municipalities… 

In the middle of all of this there were stories on the web about a calendar for  2021 which, I felt, were utterly bizarre. This is probably all being done to stop shareholders dumping their F1 stock, but I would be amazed if the sport can keep to a calendar produced today – given the ongoing fluidity of the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, if you want to believe all that stuff then fair enough. I doubt many people in the top end of the sport do… There were also the inevitable: “Portugal wants more Grands Prix” stories, but the basic reality remains that it couldn’t afford one before the pandemic and it’s doubtful it will be able to afford one afterwards. If the tourist figures take a big hit perhaps it would be an idea to pay the F1 fees to try to rebuild the business, but the Portuguese government has other things to worry about.

The astonishing thing about Portimao was that it was built entirely with private money and was designed by the man who had the idea of building a track, Paulo Pinheiro. Getting the whole project together was an impressive achievement, because these things take time in Portugal. The biggest problem back in 2008, so they say, was related to the three-mile access road from the motorway to the circuit. It was all taking so long to organise that in the end the circuit folk had to act to get it done. They got the local government to give them the land, and then paid to build a road – and then gave the road to the government. It was on this road that everyone was stuck on Sunday. I avoided it all by going quite early (but it wasn’t Silly O’Clock) and I went on a back road that was quite colourful – and single track in one or two places – but it delivered me to the gates of the circuit in 20 minutes…

I’d happily go back to Portimao every year but I cannot see them being to fund it. As a seafood fan, this really is heaven and I deliberately went off the beaten track to find good places. But rule number 1 when finding good places in F1 is NOT to tell people about it…

Anyway, news-wise it was a quiet weekend although I am in constant awe of the extrapolatory talents of some folk who were not present to cobble up news stories from a very thin gruel of quotes. I think I’ll stick to fish soup…

The second part of the journey to Imola was on Wednesday when I departed from Hendaye to drive right across France from the Spanish border on the Atlantic coast to the Italian border on the Mediterranean. Another 570 miles. That got me to within 300 miles of Imola but as the Italian curfews sounded difficult I decided to stay another night in France. I was looking forward to the trip because it was going to include bits of France I’ve not visited before – and I am curious by nature. At Bayonne – celebrated from its ham and its rugby – I turned to the east, along the valley of the Adour, and it struck me that while the road I was on was a modern one, I was actually on the same path as the Circuit du Sud-Ouest, run from Pau in 1900 and 1901.

I had to check the details but there it was. Many people make the mistake of thinking that the 1901 Grand Prix de Pau took place on the street track that is used today (although not this year because of the pandemic). The original Pau Grand Prix was on a rather grander scale and consisted of a road course that was 209 miles in length, running from Pau east to Tarbes and then north to Aire-sur-l’Adour and west to Dax and Bayonne before returning to Pau by way of Orthez. And for those who like details this was actually the very first use of Grand Prix in automobile racing (five years before the Automobile Club de France purloined the idea for its big new race at Le Mans)

Why did they call a Grand Prix? Because Pau was a famous place for horses and there was an annual Grand Prix de Pau held at the Pont-Long hippodrome and the automobile race organisers decided to borrow the name. It is funny how these things happen…

Anyway, Pont-Long, which I drove past, was also the cradle of aviation in France, as the Wright Brothers set up a famous school there and later it was the primary military flying school during World War I, but that is another story…

The street race in Pau dates to 1930 and was a straight copy of the successful idea tried the previous year in Monaco… I guess Racing Point has a point. Most things in racing are copied from something else.

I’ve done the Pau GP a few times over the years, so I didn’t stop this time. I had another destination in mind: the Comminges.

This a region in the foothills of the Pyrenees which is basically a valley formed by the young Garonne River. The main town in the area was Saint-Gaudens. This played host to 18Grand Prix du Comminges races and twice held the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, notably in 1928 when it was won by my old mate Willy Williams.

I’ve always wanted to go there but had never found the time and although the museum was not open (Thursdays-Sunday only), the old grandstand is still there, carved into the hillside. The roads used are largely still in place and, of course, one has to drive around it. It was a typical race track of its era, with fast straights and sweeping turns, but there were also two bridges over the Garonne and a truly astonishing section of road through the village of Huos, which is Monaco-esque in its madness.

There wasn’t time to do more and Toulouse was the next place of note – and then on down towards the Mediterranean, passing the amazing medieval city of Carcassonne on the way. If you don’t know it, go visit (and take the kids – they’ll love it). You then turn left at Narbonne (if you go straight on, there’s a splash) and then it’s up to Nimes and from there across the plains of the Camargue, famed for its white horses, black bulls, pink flamingos – and red rice. You next get to Arles, a town famous for Vincent Van Gogh paintings, which is now dominated by a rather odd-looking aluminium tower, which twists in various ways and is the work of architect Frank Gehry.

The Camargue was always a useful place because there is no-one there and so the French decided to put undesirable things out there on the empty flatlands: There is a big munitions depot at a place called Miramas. If the name sounds familiar it is because it was another home of the French Grand Prix, this time on the banked oval, which dates from the 1920s. One cannot visit as it is now a BMW test track – and they don’t let you look over the fence. The last F1 cars to run there were Williams-BMWs.

There is also the vast air base of Salon-de-Provence and, the place I think has the best village name in France: La Dynamite, which is so named because it was once an explosives factory – although I think it may have exploded at some point because there’s not much there now.

From there it is a run across Provence to the Cote d’Azur where there were large traffic jams because the President was about to announce a new lockdown – and everyone suddenly had an overwhelming urge to buy loo rolls – but I got the hotel in Menton in time for a quick dinner before the curfew.

Yesterday was just a 100-mile trip along the Italian Riviera and then a 200-mile loop up to Tortona and Piacenza to get on to the correct side of the Apennines. It’s a route I have done in different combinations several times over the years and the one thing I always find amazing is the ingenuity and daring of the engineers who built what they call the Fiori Autostrada through from the French border through Liguria to Genoa. It is a masterpiece of construction, providing spectacular views as it curls and carves along the side of the hills, passing over bridge after bridge and going through tunnel after tunnel. On the way one passes behind San Remo and the Ospedaletti Circuit, another old street circuit, which was active from 1947 until 1972. One day I’ll have to stop and take a look…

On the final run one passes a couple of interesting things on the plains that run down to Imola. This would be Italy’s Motorsport Valley if it was a valley, and Motorsport Plain just doesn’t work, does it? There is a low-level campaign called Motor Valley, I discovered from a sticker in a car park, but the name doesn’t really capture the imagination for the world of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ducati, Pagani and much more. It’s also a world of food and the significant monument to eating well is the immense and amazing Barilla pasta factory at Parma, the world’s largest pasta manufacturing plant. Italy is also a place that is rightly proud of its art and architecture and the autostrada whizzes past a modern classic at Reggio Emilia where the high-speed train service from Milan to Bologna has a dramatic station, designed by Spain’s Santiago Calatrava, who is the man who built the dramatic palaces in Valencia, next to the street track we used to visit there.

And then, almost suddenly I was in Imola and finding my way around the town I can only half-remember. It’s been a while. I went to the circuit to have something stuck up my nose and then took a tour around the track. This is the one up side of being locked out of paddocks in 2020. I have taken to looking around the outside of the tracks and learning a bit more about the places we visit.

Time to catch up with what F1 has been up to while I’ve been driving around Europe…

Explaining what’s happening in this silly season…

Some fans are finding this year’s F1 “silly season” rather difficult to fathom. It doesn’t seem to make any sense, in traditional motor racing terms.

The reason for this is that with Covid-19 and its impacts the world has changed – and so has the F1 microcosm. The ground rules are not the same any longer. The F1 goose is not laying as many golden eggs. So it is not about what is best, but rather about what needs must.

Things are not made easier by the fact that F1 journos are still banned (unreasonably, I think) from the paddock. The reality is that TV pays, we don’t so, no matter what they say, F1 doesn’t give a monkeys about the written press. And so it is harder to do the job well, because the all-important chats behind the motor homes are not happening in the same way.

TV is by its very nature a superficial medium. The clock is always ticking and so less analysis is possible, and few of those involved care much about telling the story, as long as they have their “sound bytes”. They leave details and explanations to us “anoraks”.

Press conferences are largely scripted these days, at least when it comes to answers. They generate slabs of copy that everyone has. They are a safety net. These of course make no sense if you are trying to do a better job than your rivals/colleagues. The only value of press conferences is to promote a publication – or to self-promote – by trying to look clever by asking questions. In any case, the drivers are usually “on message” for the corporate honchos behind them, who pull the strings and pay the bills… and, as the old proverb says, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

You only get the truth when the conversations are out of the spotlight…

Electronic communication in every form is not the same as human interaction: nuances are lost, expressions missed, dissembling eyes not clocked. And masks don’t help.

So, if you are confused by it all and want to understand what is happening, you can try clicking here for an explanation. This is simply being efficient. I could write the same story twice, but during a race weekend time is short…

Thoughts on the road – and the silly season

There is a chance to pause this morning, sitting in a hotel on the Algarve coast, listening to the waves on the beach down below and enjoying a coffee. The only thing of note is the latest iteration of the FIA’s Covid-19 Delegate notes (the fun we have), which come in the wake of Lance Stroll’s adventures in Germany, a fortnight ago, which have been covered elsewhere by people who have become slaves to the modern media machine.

Anyway, I have spent the last two days on the road to the Algarve, 2,100km according to the car. That is about 1,000 km a day, which is plenty enough… In racing terms it began early in the morning on Tuesday, passing the old Rouen Les Essarts circuit and the Circuit de l’Europe Kart track at Sotteville, where Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon cut their teeth, and continued from there to Le Mans, which needs no introduction to race fans. Rather than going on to Tours and Poitiers, I went south-west instead to Angers, La Rochelle and Rochefort. Why? Because I could… and I’ve done the other route too many times. I was soon at a place called Le Bailleul, where the road to La Flèche crosses the autoroute. This is of little overall import – unless you happen to know that it was at this remote spot that the winner of the first Monaco Grand Prix Willy Williams was parachuted into France, to work as a secret agent in World War II. A minor detail perhaps, but still a part of Grand Prix racing history (of sorts).

When I got to Angers I decided on a whim to deviate from my route for a few minutes to visit the village of Soucelles, a few miles to the north-east. This was the location of what they called “the English airport”, a vast prairie where the Royal Air Force used to land Lockheed Hudsons in the middle of the night to pick up and drop off secret agents, including future President Francois Mitterand and Grand Prix driver Robert Benoist, who was working with the aforementioned Willy Williams. It is an impressively big field…

After that it was on to south to Bordeaux and down through the vast Landes forest, once a swamp before the French decided to plant as many trees as possible to generate a bit of revenue. It is an area of 3,900 square miles and one can only imagine the number of trees. Before then, so they say, people used to walk around the marshes on stilts, to avoid getting wet feet. Strange, but true.

Over towards the coast is Mimizan, where Winston Churchill used to go to paint. I used to live down this way a long time ago and I remember flying in and out of Bordeaux and each year finding myself picking up luggage with the world championship surfers who would turn up to compete at Hossegor.

It was then through the Basque country and across the border into Spain, to San Sebastián (or Donostia, as they call it round here) where I stayed in a very elegant hotel called the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, where the Prince of Wales (no idea which one) used to stay with his mistress, when he wasn’t in Biarritz and where Mata Hari did some of her supposed espionage work. It was also where many of the Grand Prix drivers stayed when they came to race at San Sebastian. I decided to drive around a little to find what was left of the old road circuit, in an area where the development has been chaotic. There is a fair bit left, but only the path of the roads, as the placed is infested with motorways and roundabouts, but you can still find your way, more or less from Lasarte, where the circuit heads alongside the River Oria, with a cliff on one side and the river on the other. At Andoain it went through the town and then ran alongside the railway line up to Urnieta before skirting around Hernani. This was the home of Grand Prix racing in Spain from its opening in 1923 until 1935, after which the Spanish Civil War broke out and all racing stopped. Sadly it was never revived – although it would be impossible today with safety as it now is.

San Sebastian is a spectacular town if you ever get the chance to visit, with the delightful Bahia de La Concha at the centre. I suppose at one point it was a sort of Spanish version of Monaco, with a fancy casino (now the town hall) and some splendid Belle Epoque buildings, with a Basque twist.

The next morning I was on the road early and winding my way through the hills to the plains at Vitoria-Gasteiz. Last time I was in those parts was to visit a fabulous Formula 1 factory that had been built for the Epsilon Euskadi team – that never happened. It’s still there if anyone needs an F1 facility… From there it was on across Castille to Burgos, Vallodolid, Salamanca and Ciudad Rodrigo, with endless empty land and rain storms every few minutes. It was lunchtime by the time I got to the border at Fuentes de Oñoro, a bleak spot, and then I was off through some wild Portuguese country to Guarda.

Spain and Portugal have fantastic motorways but it seems like almost no-one uses them and those who do seem unable to obey any road sign. I did see one police car on the 375-mile run between the border and the Algarve, but I don’t think I saw any cars going under the speed limit…

I thought I was lost when I saw signs for Mação, but soon afterwards the sun came out and the afternoon was spent pootling down the A13 until the early evening. At times one might think oneself in Australia when there was eucalyptus growing, but then it would change to rolling brown hills with gnarled old oaks and endless umbrella pines, and you would swear you were in California.

Somewhere along the way I stopped at a service station and, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, logged into a press conference launching the Supercharge Championship, which is an electric series which will take place in cities. The crew behind it is impressive, many of them being ex-F1 types, including marketing guru Rob Armstrong, team boss Max Welti and technical director Willy Rampf. With that kind of pedigree it should do well.

Along the way I was busy thinking, which is one of the joys of long drives, and it struck me that the F1 driver market will probably be done and dusted quite quickly. I think we’ll see Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin at Haas. I would argue that we will have the same drivers again at Alfa Romeo and Williams will probably have Sergio Perez and Nicholas Latifi. I won’t explain the logic (there is some) – but let’s see if that turns out to be right…

The key point to remember is that the F1 teams will get about half their usual money in 2021 because of the low revenues this year and thus some of them have to throw away normal racing logic and concentrate on survival. And that takes money…

And the line-ups mentioned provide the maximum in that respect. I would add that Perez might not replace George Russell at Williams if Mercedes agrees to come up with more cash to keep the Brit in place… but we will have to see. Otherwise he may have to sit out 2021 and wait for Valtteri Bottas to move on in 2022…

Is it speculation? No, there is plenty of inside help on this, but things are still a little fluid so we will have to see how it develops.