When I was a youngster in F1, a while back now, it was a very different world, with a much smaller group of media (although in truth the last two years have been like the old days in terms of numbers).
The different nationalities didn’t overlap much in those days. It was less international but I remember being aware of some of the big names in the French F1 media: Jabby Crombac, Johnny Rives and Jean-Louis Moncet.
I was also aware of Alain Boisnard, the archetypal French cameraman. I don’t remember if he had a cigarette dangling from his lip, but if he didn’t, he should have done. He knew how to live.
Alas, time catches us all in the end and Alain died a few days ago, at the grand old age of 87.
Boisnard was a groundbreaker in many ways, thanks in part to the money that his friend Francois Guiter of Elf paid him to produce films about racing. Alain and Guiter had worked together on underwater films and Guiter reckoned that Alain would come up with good stuff. He was right. Anyone who knows the Elf F1 films, knows Boisnard, perhaps without knowing his name. He put cameras on cars at a time when it was almost impossible to do, but he made it work. The fact that he had a day job, making movies, about cops and spies and so on, is often forgotten. At weekends he was an F1 film maker.
I was too timid of my French to ever talk to such an imposing fellow, but I was aware of his presence and his abilities. I wish now that I had because I’m sure he had a million great stories to tell. His wife Anne, who died in 2015, was also a well known figure in F1, becoming the timekeeper of the Renault F1 team, until the age of the time-keeper was over.
There is a surprise at Aston Martin as Germany’s Mike Krack joins as team principal.
Krack has little modern F1 experience, but worked with Sauber for eight years during the BMW era, having started his career with the Munich firm. He rose to be chief engineer. He left F1 with BMW in 2009 and worked with Sebastian Vettel in that era. After BMW quit in 2009 he did some jobs in Formula 3 before returning to BMW as chief engineer in DTM for two years before switching to Porsche as head of track engineering with the LMP1 programme.
He returned to BMW Motorsport in 2014 in senior engineering roles and eventually was named head of BMW Motorsport in March, although the company has little left now after its fixation on electric cars filtered through the system.
It will be interesting to see how he does, dealing with a team owner who is also a racing dad, and a team that is in a state of considerable flux at the moment.
It was no great surprise today to see that the Alpine F1 Team has parted company with Marcin Budkowski, its Executive Director. Budkowski is expected to move across to Aston Martin and the word for some weeks has long been that Otmar Szafnauer, who recently departed Aston Martin, will take his place at Enstone. If a swap turns out to the case, there is no reason for either team to wait for “gardening leave”, as they can simply agree to make things easier for all concerned and cancel the delays.
Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi will temporarily take over running the F1 operation, although the day-to-day running of the team will continue with the current heads of department.
One of the “joys” of trying to break good stories in Formula 1 is that you need to be tuned-in to the rumour mill. There is a lot of crap out there and finding good stuff that stacks up is a challenge. Sometimes, one can hear something and the stories can be confirmed by impeccable sources, but then things change. The reason for this is that, for whatever reason, things don’t always happen as planned. Decisions that are expected are not made and deals are not found.
The problem is that if one finds out something too early and it is still in the process of happening, one can be caught out. Still, it is a risk that is worth taking, because more often than not, a well-sourced story happens as predicted. Yes, one can always wait for official announcements – but what is the point (or the fun) in that? When it is announced, everyone has the story…
Last year when I wrote in June (in the JSBM newsletter) that George Russell was definitely going to Mercedes in 2022, I was 100 percent certain that it was going to be the case. The story turned heads, but I was sure that the decision had been made. And it turned out to be so. It was a similar story with Alex Albon signing for Williams a little later.
I was sure as well that the Qatar GP was going to come into the calendar when the idea had not been mentioned elsewhere. I was so sure that I made hotel bookings – and saved myself a pile of money as a result. This year will be a bit more expensive. It is the same with F1 calendars. We speculate and are sure we have it right – and then it changes.
When I heard that Jean Todt would be going to Ferrari again in 2022, as some kind of a high-level consultant, it was from a source I would never doubt. It corresponded to things that I had heard in Abu Dhabi, less than a month ago (although it feels like a lifetime since then).
But when Ferrari announced management changes yesterday, without mentioning Todt, it got me thinking. If they haven’t announced anything now, is the story right? I asked around but no-one knew for sure. The original story still looked OK. Eventually, I spoke to a source deep inside Ferrari, or rather the source spoke to me. It was a friendly warning. “Go easy on the JT stories,” the source said. “I don’t think it is going to happen. If you’d ask me before the Christmas break, I’d have said 100 percent, it’s happening, but things have changed. I don’t know why – and I don’t think the deal is going to happen.”
So, I am forced to admit therefore that the suggestion that this would happen appears to be wrong – although perhaps it will change again, although I am not betting on that.
The story caused much excitement, of course, and the other day a tweet of six words, saying that Ferrari was going to announce stuff on Monday, created a Twitter storm of astonishing proportions. This proves, if nothing else, that Ferrari remains a hugely popular team among the fans around the world. There were even some (weird) folk who created fake Ferrari announcements to the same effect, although I fail to understand what kicks one might get from doing that.
Oh well, on we go. We’ll see what happens next but I think Jean may have concluded that he wants to play at the UN level rather than revisiting old haunts – and old achievements. Was there talk? No question. Was a deal close? I suspect it may have been. Will it happen? No, probably not…
Ferrari has been announcing some premium partnership deals in recent days, with Santander being joined by the block chain company Velas.
But don’t think that this is replacing Philip Morris International, which used to use Marlboro but in recent years has used the rather vague Mission Winnow concept.
Look on the Ferrari website and you will see that there is a big white space under the title ‘Sponsor’ and then there are two levels of partners, with the premium getting bigger logos. So the main sponsorship of Ferrari is up for grabs, or perhaps it is already decided and yet to be announced. This is the most likely thing as it is an opportunity that is worth its weight in gold to companies that can afford it.
Thus we can expect a sponsorship announcement, rather than another partnership deal… but while this will gather headlines it is more likely that Ferrari will be in the spotlight when it announces that former FIA President Jean Todt will return to Maranello is some sort of super-consultant role, which will involve both the racing team and the car company. Expect to see Jean appearing at races in 2022…
The FIA might have age limits but obviously Ferrari does not…
The FIA elections have produced a dramatically different World Motor Sport Council than previously, with only six of the 23 elected members still involved.
The biggest losers appear to be the Western European nations with France, Italy, Germany and Belgium all losing their seats. Also gone are Japan, Mexico and India. Among the well-known individuals who failed to get elected were France’s Nicolas Deschaux, Italy’s Giancarlo Minardi, Australian Andrew Papadopoulos, Mexican Carlos Slim Domit (previously on the FIA Senate), Belgium’s Francois Cornelis, Venezuala’s Enzo Spano, Germany’s Hermann Tomczyk and Kenya’s Surinder Thatti.
The World Council now includes the FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem (UAE) and those on the winning electoral list: Deputy President Sport Robert Reid (GB) and the seven Vice Presidents: Anna Nordkvist (Sweden), Manuel Avino (Spain), Abdulla Al Khalifa (Bahrain), Rodrigo Ferreira Rocha (Mozambique), Daniel Coen (Costa Rica), Lung-Nien Lee (Singapore) and Fabiana Ecclestone (Brazil).
The 14 elected members who join them are as follows (in the order of the voting): Garry Connelly (Australia), Viktor Kiryanov (Russia), Eric Barrabino (Monaco), George Silbermann (USA), David Richards (GB), Prince Khalid bin Sultan (Saudi Arabia), Wayne Christie (New Zealand), Andrew Mallalieu (Barbados), Jan Stovicek (Czech Republic), Serkan Yazici (Turkey), Tao Zhang (China), Tom Kristensen (Denmark) and Rado Raspit (Slovenia).
As the rules require three women on the Council, Kenya’s Amina Mohamed takes the 14th seat despite finishing only 23rd in the voting, as Ben Sulayem nominated only two women.
The members by right are the Presidents of the Women in Motorsport, Manufacturers’ and Drivers’ Commissions, plus the President of the CIK, Stefano Domenicali (Formula One). Ferrari takes over from the President of the Manufacturers’ Commission when the discussion relates to F1.
The news that Mohammed bin Sulayem has been elected as the new FIA President is not a big surprise, as it was clear last night at the FIA Prizegiving that this was the way things were going. This means a number of things. The FIA Deputy President of Sport is Scotland’s Robert Reid, a former rally co-driver, who worked with Richard Burns. The Deputy-President for Mobility is Tim Shearman of Canada.
The head of the FIA Senate will be Carmelo Sanz de Barros of Spain. There are seven regional Vice-Presidents: Europe will be represented by Sweden’s Anna Nordkvist and another Spaniard Manuel Avino. The Middle East will be headed by Abdulla Al Khalifa, of Bahrain, the former President of the Karting Federation. The African Vice-President will be Rodrigo Ferreira Rocha of Mozambique and the North America regional VP will be Costa Rica’s Daniel Coen. Asia-Pacific will be represented by Singapoe’s Lung-Nien Lee and South America will feature Fabiana Ecclestone who represents Brazil. If the name sounds familiar this is because she is Bernie Ecclestone’s wife.
It should be noted that in the background, wielding plenty of influence will be David Richards of the British Motorsport UK club, although he will not have any official role on the ticket.
The remaining members of the World Councils will be announced later today.
These last days have been tumultuous times for Formula 1, with the extraordinary World Championship showdown in Abu Dhabi. But one needs perspective in these matters and sitting at home, watching the activity on the marsh which my home overlooks, provides a good opportunity to think clearly about things. The ragondin (coypu) swimming in the pond and the silly scuttling moorhens remind one that outside the world of F1 rivers still flow to the sea and the seasons still change, despite what happened in Yas Marina.
Social media has become a battleground between supporters of one side or the other and everyone is throwing things at Michael Masi, a man who had to make difficult decisions, which turned out to be controversial. That’s the problem with being a race director. You don’t ever get praise when things go right. You only get mentioned when things go wrong. It’s like being an F1 spark plug…
After Nicholas Latifi crashed (and those who blame the Canadian for causing this really do need to have their heads examined by professional medical staff) there was a problem. There was a lot of debris on the track, more than one could deal with using a Virtual Safety Car, but not really enough for a Red Flag. It was a Safety Car moment.
This was the Mercedes nightmare because Lewis Hamilton’s lead was effectively wiped out, which was unfair, but the way the rules are. Hamilton was not far from the pitlane entrance and so the strategists had to make a quick call. Stay out. To have come in and get new tyres would perhaps have led Red Bull to leave Verstappen out and that would have given him track position that could have handed him victory at the restart. Logically the race was going to end under caution, so Lewis was safe. But Red Bull stopped Max, put him on soft tyres and sent him out again. That put him behind some backmarkers in the queue behind the Safety Car. Normally the lapped cars would be allowed to pass the Safety Car when the wreckage was cleaned up and then the race could start again. In that case, Hamilton was screwed, except that there were not enough laps to do that. The race would have ended under caution. And what a damp squib that would have been, with Lewis and Max driving around the last lap, unable to fight. An initial message from Race Control said that the lapped cars should remain in place. That was normal because there was still clean-up work going on and the safety of the track workers was still a question.
Then Masi gave the instruction that only the cars between Hamilton and Verstappen should unlap themselves. Before that we heard Max explaining that it was typical of the FIA to leave the lapped cars in place to screw him (he and Red Bull both have a persecution complex in this respect). Masi’s instruction was logical in that the cars behind Max were irrelevant and there was no time to clear them all. They did not matter. The ones between Lewis and Max would get in the way of the title fight. But with Max on new tyres and Lewis on old tyres this effectively gave Max a chance to snatch the title. Max took it. Lewis tried to stop it.
It wasn’t fair perhaps, but it was within the rules. Live sport has a habit of creating such insane situations and referees have to deal with them. Masi did nothing wrong. He used the powers he has to do what he felt was best was the World Championship. What happened was no-one’s fault. Max was lucky. Lewis was not. I never want to hear Max complain again that the FIA has got it in for him, and I want Christian Horner to learn a lot about stewarding when he attends the FIA Stewards event later this winter. Lewis took his defeat with grace and style. Toto and his cohorts reacted as one would expect them to react, but is appealing the various decisions going to help F1? No, probably not. It was the sporting gods having their say. Losing with grace is better than losing with lawyers. But I feel their pain. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right, but it was the way the rules are.
Are there better ways? Perhaps, and I hope that the FIA will spend some time looking at the Safety Car rules and asking whether this is the right way to run things. Masi’s only fault, if you call it that, was to try to make sure there was a race at the end. And he did that for the fans and for the good of the sport.
NASCAR has some complicated rules which can extend races when there is a late caution. Perhaps F1 should have the same. But perhaps not.
Anyway, the subsequent mess and the celebrations, mixed with Mercedes’s pain and sense of outrage, combined to create a bittersweet evening, with work delayed and plans blown apart. We did not get the official race result until 00.05. Five and a half hours after the chequered flag fell. There is only so much one can do when the F1 balloon goes up. And thus it was that at 02.30 having put together GP+ and sent it into the world, I left the Media Centre in Abu Dhabu to the last of the scribblers (there were still a few left) and I walked through the deserted car parks of Yas Island to the Media Parking (the shuttles had stopped). It was cool and quiet. It had been quite a day. And Saturday night had involved only a couple of hours of sleep so I was feeling weary.
But it had also been a long, long season and it was time to go home. But that is not always easy. I drove through the night and the desert for the next two hours, up to Dubai, passing the Expo site on the way, and arriving at Dubai International Airport still in darkness with the first wave of morning flyers heading into the airport to fly away in different directions. I tried to work as I waited for the flight. The story of the race was the lead item on the international news being piped into the lounge but I could barely keep my eyes open by then. I was writing words that were all jumbled up. At some point I heard the muezzin calling the faithful with his salat al fahr, the pre-dawn call to prayer. The start of a new day.
On the plane I was asleep long before we left the tarmac.
We had struggled to find the right tone for the GP+ cover. We didn’t want it to be too this or too that, but we wanted it to be positive and memorable. In the end we chose “A Night to Remember” and a picture of Lewis and Max chinking bottles on the podium. In the end it was perfect, although as someone pointed out there was film called A Night to Remember about the sinking of Titanic. Did we choose the title for that reason?
No, it was just a coincidence…
The green notebook was filled with scribbles during the weekend. Including such notes as “Piastri = champion” and “French govt EXPO delegation”. I had the words “Philip Morris” circled and various scrawls about races: “USA 2026”, “Bahrain + I week” and “Monaco ?” there was also “RB dept moving in-house FIA” and “Raducano/Bolt/Larson”, “Vegas 23” and “BWT-Alpine”.
French Government EXPO meant that in the days before the Grand Prix French GP promoter Eric Boullier (who heads the promotions company that runs the race) was invited to join a delegation with the French Sports Minister to the EXPO in Dubai, to tell the world about France’s sporting achievement and about a rumour that Eric was recently spotted visiting the Elysées Palace, where President Emmanuel Macron hangs out. On Monday night the French motorsport federation (FFSA) had a prizegiving to which Macron sent a video message, underlining the importance of French motorsport and saying that the government would help to save the French GP. Great news.
“Philip Morris” meant that the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was the last race in which the tobacco company Philip Morris International (PMI) was involved in an official capacity. The firm, which owns Marlboro, has been the biggest F1 sponsor in history, dating back to 1971 when Marlboro first sponsored the BRM team. The deal lasted for three years but without much success and in the final year Marlboro was also involved with Frank Williams’s Iso team. In 1974 Marlboro did a new deal with McLaren, starting a relationship that lasted until 1996 and then Ferrari. It was still a significant sponsor of Ferrari this year, with the Mission Winnow concept. But that has not been renewed. PMI may still have some hospitality packages in the years ahead but it looks like all sponsorships are finished – which is something that should not pass unnoticed…
The word is that Ferrari will up its links with Amazon in the future.
The note “USA 2026” is fairly self-explicit. There is a deal in place between F1 and Austin for another five years. It will be announced soon. The “Bahrain + one week” note meant that Bahrain is about to announced an extension for its deal with F1 and this will either go to 2032, or possibly to 2037.
The news that Abu Dhabi has signed a new contract to be last race of the Formula 1 season until 2030 was no real surprise, following the announcements in recent weeks about 10 year deals for Qatar (2023-2032) and Saudi Arabia (2021-2030) and it is entirely logical that Bahrain too will protect its investment in the sport. The kingdom never gave details of how long the current deal is. It was signed in 2016 and at the time there was talk of a 15 year deal. The truth is that it was a 10-year contract covering 2017-2026, with an option to continue beyond that. That option can be for either five or 10 years. Thus, F1 will have at least four races in the Middle East from 2023 until 2030, although it is unlikely to increase from that.
The “Monaco ?” note is perhaps the most interesting because it indicates that the future of the Monaco GP is not yet sorted out – and no-one wants to talk about it. Monaco and Formula 1 are like an old marriage. It is hard to imagine one without the other, but they don’t always get on. Prince Albert of Monaco said not so long ago that the Grand Prix was worth $1 billion for Monaco – just for the weekend. That did not include the value it has pulling in tourists for the rest of the year. Or to put it another way, Monaco needs F1. And F1 really needs Monaco because a World Championship without Monaco is hard to imagine. The last deal, signed in 2010, was for 10 years to cover the period between 2011 to 2020. As the final race was cancelled because of the global pandemic the F1 group offered an additional race for 2021 and a one-year deal has been cobbled together for 2022 – on the basis that Monaco would give up its four-day format. The last deal was negotiated by Bernie Ecclestone and the President of the Automobile Club de Monaco (ACM), Michel Boeri. Ecclestone is now 92 and out of the picture, but Boeri at 82 has recently been re-elected for another five-year term. He has held the office since 1972 and has some strong views about the importance of his race. His dad Etienne was President of the ACM between 1965 and 1968 and so it’s rather a personal thing. But Monaco has some significant problems in relation to F1 that need sorting. There is no overtaking and so the races are generally dull, despite the race being a great spectacle. The fee Monaco pays is fair smaller than any other race. TV coverage is also not controlled by F1 as Monaco insisted on keeping control of its role as host broadcaster. In recent years this has been well below the modern standards. The club also retains some of the trackside signage, but this is also troublesome as the ACM slots are muddled and do not follow F1’s usual one sponsor per corner philosophy. It’s a jumble of names. It also has a big deal with TAG-Heuer, which does not sit well with F1’s partner Rolex. And there are problems over hospitality as the ACM controls much of it and F1 is not cashing in on the potential value of the event. And the quality of the offering may not be up to F1’s usual standards. So there is a lot to discuss and negotiation is difficult because neither side wishes to change its demands. Monaco’s unique status has weakened somewhat in recent years with the Singapore night race and more recently with the arrival of Saudi Arabia and Miami, both of which are paying far more than Monaco. Thus Monaco’s status may not have quite the same power that it had under Bernie Ecclestone and it is clear that the ACM’s attitude, which filters through the whole organisation, seems to be that no-one in the world knows how to organise a race as well as Monaco does, which is patently not the case any longer, if indeed it ever was. It is not a favourite for those who work in F1. Not even close. And the arrogance grates on the nerves.
There is no question that F1 would be poorer without Monaco, at least in some respects, but it is also fair to say that F1 gives the Principality a huge amount and gets relatively little in return, except the intangible value of association…
It’s a tough one to negotiate.
The note “RB dept moving in-house to FIA” means that there will be changes within the Formula 1 group during 2022 with the company’s managing director of motorsport Ross Brawn (67) expected to retire and the chief technical officer Pat Symonds (68) also standing down. The F1 technical group in London is out of place and so will soon come under the control of the FIA, with the remaining engineers reporting to FIA chief technology officer Nikolas Tombazis. This is entirely logical as the idea of the commercial rights holder running a technical operation to work on car design regulations and to help with circuit design, never really made much sense. It is a little known fact that before he joined the FIA Tombazis spent some months working as a consultant with the Formula 1 team of engineers in London, and so he knows them well. The principal members of the group are the F1 head of aerodynamics Jason Somerville and the head of vehicle performance, who also plays a big role in circuit work, is Craig Wilson.
The FIA operation is located at the FIA Logistics and Technical Centre, in Valleiry, in the Haute-Savoie region of France, close to the Swiss border and the FIA offices in Geneva. It is not clear whether the London-based engineers will be based in Europe, or whether they will work remotely, or whether they will leave. The FIA already has a number of engineers working at Valleiry, including Tim Goss, who works as Tombazis’s deputy. However, not all of the FIA engineers are there as Dominic Harlow, who is the head of F1 technical audit, operates from the UK.
This will not impact on the sporting side of the organisation, which is headed by Steve Nielsen, which will continue to operate from London.
The note about VIPs in Abu Dhabi was self-explanatory with the most interesting for racing folks being that NASCAR champion Kyle Larson was in the F1 house. And he was drooling. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with him, showing him around and introducing him to a few people. Nothing shows the blinkered nature of F1 better than the NASCAR champion walking into the paddock and not being recognised by photographers (who are usually good at this stuff) or journalists. Anyway Larson was loving it. And wanted to have a go in an F1 car… There was an interesting conversation too between Kyle and Dani Kvaat, who wants to go to race in NASCAR…
Larson said that he hadn’t been into F1 much before the started watching Drive to Survive on Netflix. Boom! That shows you the kind of impact that the series has had and the future impact it will have with F1 growing in the US markets. After Abu Dhabi most folks went home, but some went off to Nevada where a number of F1 execs went to work on closing a deal with the city and to plan exactly where the race track could be…
The recent months has seen a scramble in F1 circles as race promoters begin to realise that the growth of F1 is causing more demand for Grands Prix and so it is best to get new long-term contracts done quickly, so as to avoid losing out in what will become a game of musical chairs in the future.
F1 remains big news around the world but, as I wrote in my GP+ column, it is not the only thing in the world.
“They say that people on islands tend to have less of a global view than those who live on the mainland,” I wrote. “It certainly felt that way on Yas Island over the weekend, where a lot of the Formula 1 circus believed that there was nothing in the world apart from the World Championship showdown between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen; and the fight for the Constructors’ title between Red Bull Racing and Mercedes. In the heat of a battle one can lose perspective about what is important and one does things which later on, when things have calmed down and there are cooler heads, seem to have been a little excessive.
“The 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was a strange affair, a story so bizarre that no-one could have imagined such an outcome. If it was a film script it would have been thrown out as being unrealistic. For some It was a fabulous story, for others it was unfair? Was it luck? Was it a situation where the Race Director, trying to do the right thing, created something very wrong? These are the kind of questions that will be asked in the days ahead. The sport did not want to end an epic F1 season with the cars crossing the finish line running line astern – under caution – unable to fight. Did Mercedes get it wrong by not pitting Hamilton? Was Michael Masi right to call the race as he did? What we got in the end seemed unfair.
“What is important now, unsatisfactory though it may be, is to protect the World Championship. One cannot overturn the result. It happened. You cannot take a World Championship away after the event. It would make a mockery of the sport and would, inevitably lead to endless law suits flying about that no-one wants and nobody needs. It’s just sport. Will Mercedes sell more cars if they win another title? Will Red Bull become cooler to its target audience because it won another title?
“The sport should be treated with respect. I detest the Verstappen fans who boo Lewis, the greatest Formula 1 driver we have ever seen. He deserves more respect. He is one of the cleanest racers there has ever been. I dislike people who suggested that Max would settle the title by driving into Lewis. He too deserves more respect.
“I have enormous respect for both men and I think what we are seeing at the moment is epic stuff and we will be talking about it years from now, remembering a time when the old lion Lewis Hamilton battled with the rising star Max Verstappen to be the leader of the pride.
“Formula 1 is about passion but it should never be treated as something other than that. Yes, winning and losing are important but the world outside the Yas Marina Circuit did not stop because of what happened on the island on Sunday evening.
“Perhaps this was a pivotal moment in Formula 1 history, but elsewhere babies were born, old folks passed on, people still fell in and out of love.
“The world turned ever onwards. On Monday, Abu Dhabi moves on to the next event: the FINA World Swimming Championships, in which another group of elite athletes would be battling for titles. As Kimi Raikkonen would say, it is what it is. It’s happened. It’s gone. The sport should learn the lessons, if there are lessons that need to be learned, but that should be the end of it. It should not become a court room battle.”
On the way to the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah early on Monday morning, I was reminded, for an instant, of the celebrated spaghetti trees of Ticino. In the media world this is a legendary April Fool, perpetrated by the BBC’s Panorama programme back in 1950s, when they ran a story about harvesting the spaghetti trees in southern Switzerland. This came to mind as our clapped-out old minibus (exotically described as “an airport transfer”) went past a sign that said “Fuel Farm”. I did a double take to make sure, because alcohol deprivation and a serious lack of sleep caused by the night race, might have had curious effects on my brain. But no, it did say “Fuel Farm”. I was glad I was not hallucinating.
Fuel can often be surprising. Fuel dumps, for example, are not places where you throw away fuel; and fuel rails don’t run into fuel stations. You can get fuel injections, but it is not good for your health. The fuel economy is nothing to do with the financial markets, although fuel can have crises.
Still, to my befuddled brain, a fuel farm seemed a brilliant idea. It must be nice to grow money in the back garden. Fuel equals cash, although I seem to recall back in April last year, when the pandemic first struck, that there was a day when oil prices fell to negative $37 a barrel, which meant that a trader was willing to give you $37 if you agreed to take a barrel of oil off them.
Oil does grow on trees, because we all have olive oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil and so on in our kitchen cabinets, but can planes fly on olive oil?
Anyway, the Middle East’s wealth and power comes from oil and Formula 1 is only too happy to help ANY oil-rich country spend its money. It matters not whether that means dealing with kings or emirs, nawabs or nabobs, potentates or pashas. F1 would do a deal with a kangaroo if they were sure that the cheque wouldn’t bounce.
This year we have four races in the Middle East, in countries where they have masterplans – usually called Vision 2030 – to build new economies before the oil runs out. Tourism is a good industry to try and while it helps to have some natural resources (a Grand Canyon, a big mountain or whatever) one can create tourism simply by building things. If you don’t have anything interesting for people to look at, you build something: a stadium, a bridge, a dam, or you can carve the faces of Presidents into a cliff. In Australia they have a tradition of creating giant things, and people apparently travel hundreds of miles to look at a big (fake) prawn, or a massive sheep. Weird, but true.
Copying Paris is a good idea and in Baku they have built an entire district straight out of the City of Light.
Las Vegas probably wins the prize for turning sand into money, although you have to commend Dubai, where they have built an indoor ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates. You can even stay in an Alpine-themed room (the mountains, not the cars) at the Kempinski, if you don’t mind paying really silly room rates. Dubai, like most cities in this region, is just tarted-up desert. Las Vegas with a little less sin on offer.
And yet, it is all vaguely magnificent. They have built the Burj al-Khalifa, a shiny arrow shooting into the sky, three-times as high as the Eiffel Tower. It was built to give Dubai more international recognition and it seems to have worked. In this respect Saudi Arabia seems to be a little bit behind its neighbours, but things are moving quickly and before long there will be hundreds of shiny architectural masterpieces, filled with gold washbasins and parking lots with pink Bentleys and gold Lamborghinis. It is not subtle, nor understated. It just declares: We have money.
Having a Grand Prix is similar bling.
Architecture in the Middle East is much the same as the cars. It isn’t understated and most of it seems to follow the philosophies of Albert Speer, who built on the grandest scale. I thought of Speer one night in Jeddah while watching searchlights creating cathedrals of light in the sky above the circuit.
There are some folk who report about Formula 1 who refuse to go to places where they don’t think they like the politics. For me this is unacceptable because if one is going to praise or condemn one really ought to go and see what a place is like. I have learned over time that very often things are not as they appear in the media.
One has to be aware that one is getting privileged treatment although to be fair we spent a lot of time on long-winded access routes because the coaches being used were too big to go round some of the corners to access the track. We also had to sit in jams while the assorted kings and nabobs flew by in motorcades made up of armour-plated cars so heavy that even a badger wouldn’t dent them. This aside the people were friendly and keen to help as best they could, understanding that F1 is an important spotlight on the country. The only thing I will say about the controversial Crown Prince is that the grandstands lit up with cheers when he appeared, so the local population clearly appreciate the new freedoms he has introduced in the country, whether they know about the nasty business in Istanbul is another matter, as I doubt it was headline news in the local papers. Still, as somewhat said, when the cheering broke out. “He’s a rock star here…”
Apart from being elbowed out of the way by heavies disguised as sheikhs, I didn’t have much to do with the government types on the grid, but earlier in the weekend I did bump into the Minister of Sport and we had a friendly chat and I asked about some of the challenges that they had faced with the race and asked (as a journalist does) if we might be expecting any missiles over the weekend. He chuckled and explained that the missiles from down Yemen way get shot down before they get too far north. This cheered me up.
What was interesting about the chat was that he used to be a racer and so he gets what motorsport is all about and he explained that the circuit is only a temporary thing, part of a much bigger project, and will cease to be a race track once the planned new facility is built up near Riyadh. The rush to get everything ready in Jeddah was quite impressive. The tarmac in the F1 paddock area and some of the approach roads was not put down until the Tuesday night before the Grand Prix (yes, really!) but in the end, despite a few leaks and some technical glitches, everything worked pretty well and at night, with lots of pretty lights, you couldn’t see the faults. This was impressive given the scale of the work and the fact that it began only in April.
Later, an old F1 friend popped up to explain that her job is to tell people the environmental story relating to the Jeddah Corniche track. This is the story she told: the revival of the Jeddah waterfront was a programme that began in 2017 with the inauguration of the Corniche, designed to become a tourist attraction for the city. This now features restaurants, retail outlets, hotels, an aquarium, a cultural centre, in addition to gardens and fountains. The area where the track has been built is the next stage of that programme, extending the Corniche north towards a marina. There was no plan to put an F1 track into this section but when the idea of holding a race straight away came up, they decided to do it. It is a temporary facility, although certain buildings will be permanent, converting to other uses when F1 goes away in 2024 or 2025.
A big part of the original project was the regeneration of the coastal lagoon, around which the track runs, involving an extensive clean-up operation, including the removal of troublesome algae and large amounts of unspecified waste, and the subsequent installation of a system to purify and treat the water, to prevent the same problems in the future. A staggering 162,814 tons of sludge and debris were dredged from the lagoon. When the circuit is no longer used for racing the area will feature other sports grounds, parking spaces and so on. The race is obviously helping to promote the Corniche project and drive tourism growth in Jeddah.
So, it was rather different a story than one might imagine as the primary goal is not to create a racing circuit but rather to make Jeddah into a nicer place, to preserve and improve the waterfront and to create a new ecosystem, including planting 2,000 trees around the track. There are also, it seems, signs that wildlife is returning to the lagoon withmullet, milk fish and blue-spotted stingrays now whizzing about underwater – although I cannot say I saw any…
This all reminded me of Albert Park in Melbourne, where the lake was created to get rid of a rubbish dump and, later, sporting venues were put in so that the park would come to life and no longer be a place where the dregs of society hung out.
Australia came up in the rumour department over the weekend as there are people in Sydney who have been chuntering about bidding for the Australian Grand Prix for 2026 and beyond. It is not the first time that Sydney has made such noises and the people of Melbourne always seem to suggest that people from NSW are all talk and no action. Still, this time it was the State Premier. The last NSW Premier disappeared a while ago because of investigations into dodgy dealings (unproven, of course) and the new boy is Dominic Perrottet.
“We’ve got the greatest cities in not just the country, but the world,” he said. “And seriously, why would the Formula 1 want to stay in Melbourne when you can come here? We think we’re going to have a fighting chance to bring that event here.”
Perhaps this time the blowhards of NSW are serious. Tourism plays an important role in Australian economy. Before the pandemic there were 9.4 million tourists each year and almost all of them went to Sydney. Tourism contributed $21 billion to the local economy. Since then, because of the closed borders, New South Wales needs visitors. Melbourne is not going to give up the Grand Prix without a fight, but the hit from fewer tourists is much smaller than it has been in Sydney. Visitor numbers in Melbourne are half those of Sydney. So, to put it another way, Sydney could bid more for a race.
The ongoing Formula 1 boom, which has been driven primarily by the Netflix Series “Drive to Survive” is leading to interest of various different kinds in the world of media. The US television rights for F1 are up for grabs at the end of this year and while ESPN has a deal that means that F1 cannot negotiate with any rival organisations until February, there are likely to be other bidders, including rumours of a Netflix live offering. Sport generates huge rights fees in the US and the likely competition to win them could produce a big hike in F1 TV rights revenues.
The Hollywood Reporter says that there is a bidding war going on between Paramount, MGM, Sony, Universal, Netflix, Apple, Amazon and Disney over a film project that will involve Brad Pitt in a film about Lewis Hamilton (presumably not in the lead role). Brad Pitt does Ron Dennis? Well, who knows? Here in Dubai he’s selling coffee machines on a billboard across from my hotel… Pitt, rather than Dennis.
What else? Ah yes, Lawrence Stroll could be spotted over the Saudi Arabia weekend being particularly nice to some Saudi Arabian folk. These were the top bananas of the Saudi Aramco oil company, which is looking to slap some stickers on a team. Given Aston Martin’s performance this year, Stroll is going to have to sing like Placido Domingo to get a big dinner, as the word is that Zak Brown is also snuffling around after the same loot. Will be it Lawrence of Arabia or will it be Zak of Arabia? Stroll seems to be quite good at convincing people to part with their money although it is hard to believe that this relates to his charm, which seems to be rather well-hidden most of the time. Who knows, perhaps he can be very charming to members of royal families, people who are richer than he is, Hollywood stars …and folks carrying guns? It certainly doesn’t work for the media.
Right now, investors are not taken in by Stroll’s patter because the Aston Martin share price is right down there with the blue-spotted stingrays, despite the fact that the firm is shifting more cars than has been the case. Why? Well, it seems that it is all to do with huge debts. Things were not helped by the news that the company CFO has walked after just 18 months.
The other chat in Jeddah was about the FIA Presidential election which is coming up on December 17. Things have been a bit lively because Britain’s Motorsport UK came out in favour of the UAE’s Mohammed Ben Sulayem, rather than supporting British candidate Graham Stoker. Others in the UK motorsport community did put out a statement saying that they liked Stoker more than the other bloke. So that’s nice and messy.
David Richards of Motorsport UK – who set up the Middle Eastern Rally Championship, which Ben Sulayem won a bunch of times – was telling anyone who would listen in Jeddah that it is a slam dunk for a UAE victory, although others seem less convinced. Motorsport’s MBS has a lot of supporters, but not as yet the 120 or so votes required to be handed the keys to the FIA. There has been a lot of talk about the way that the campaigns have been conducted, with rumours of clubs being pressured by governments or being offered incentives to vote one way or the other. To be fair the FIA has always been an organisation based on patronage, with votes being cast as per positions on offer, but governmental and financial interference are deemed to be unacceptable. The campaigns also involve some curious goings-on with private detectives digging for information, which I know to be true – because I got a phone call from one of them. Both sides want to be seen to be the favourite, as a lot of clubs wait until they see which way the wind is blowing and then jump into the correct air flow.
There is a fairly clear divide between the two candidates, with Stoker representing continuity and stability while Ben Sulayem presents himself as a reformer. When it comes to their backgrounds Ben Sulayem is probably more old school than Stoker, as he comes from a hugely wealthy Dubai family, which is in keeping with the FIA being led by rich individuals who want the job for reasons of prestige, rather than because they want to work hard. As the federation is by nature conservative, Stoker is probably the favourite because many clubs want to maintain the status quo. Graham is not as dynamic a character as Ben Sulayem, and he likes purple clothing rather too much, but he represents less of a risk. There is also the question of whether Bernie Ecclestone is skulking around behind Ben Sulayem, who has named Mrs Ecclestone as one of his candidates for a Vice-Presidential role. That has sent a few frissons down those with spines in FIA-land, as no-one is very keen to go back to the days when Mr E was pulling presidential strings.
This elections provided some fun on the flight to Dubai on Monday as the plane was packed with F1 people. As usual, I was quick to get to the exit door so as to miss the queues later on, but the attendants were told that they had to offload the upstairs passengers before those who travel in cattle class. So they all came tramping down past me. As I knew every second person from upstairs I began greeting them with the same “Thanks for flying Emirates`” speech as the staff, which left the crew rather confused about how a passenger could possibly know so many other folk on the same flight.
By the time we got to Passport Control, I was ahead of most of them again (as the people upstairs tend to be slow-moving when they get off aeroplanes). In the end I found myself with David Richards, who is so important that he gets a person who walks in front of him to take out other punters if they stray into his path. I asked if there had been any flying crockery in Business Class as I had seen both him and Stoker descend from on high…
Otherwise the chat in Jeddah was all a lot of bla-bla-bla about Verstappen and Hamilton and some low-level stirring about Mercedes’s Kingspan sponsorship. The timing of the deal was probably not great given that Kingspan is deeply involved in the public inquiry relating to the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. However, there is no question that the whole business was little more than a cynical politician trying to grab some credibility by attacking a rich boy sport and framing the attacks as support for the poor people who lost relatives in the fire.
British politicians these days are so discredited by their lie-telling, their sleaze, their hypocrisy and their incompetence that nothing they say has much credibility. Suggesting that the government was disappointed that Mercedes is accepting Kingspan sponsorship and warning that it may consider changing advertising laws to prohibit the logos from appearing on their cars is just a lot of hot air.
So, as we head to Abu Dhabi for the last race things are not very Christmassy. Everyone has been far too busy going from race to race, filling in forms and struggling with the truly hopeless melange of COVID apps that the locals governments produce. They all have one thing in common: none of them work properly. For the moment I am locked out of Yas Island but hopefully I can find someone who can make my apps turn green, as I have done everything required even if the software cannot handle it. If I don’t show up in Abu Dhabi – and miss my 601st race – it will be because I have either given up and gone home, or thrown myself from a window.
Anyway, the Middle East is not the place go if you want to feel Christmas cheer. Christmas carols and mulled wine are out of place in countries where getting a Gin & Tonic is deemed unacceptable.
A popular FIA election promise might be to only allow Grands Prix in a country if booze is allowed in the Paddock…