It is time to wind up things again, in preparation for the forthcoming Belgian Grand Prix, and after a solid three week break from the sport, F1 will be re-energised for the rush of races to come: we have seven races in 10 weeks between now and the end of October, which will keep us all busy… The World Championship is still wide open, between the two Mercedes drivers, although there is no doubt that before the break, Lewis Hamilton clearly had the upper hand. It will be interesting to see whether Red Bull or Ferrari has made any progress. Ferrari, remember, ended the first part of the year by dropping its technical director James Allison and there were signs that the team could go into one of its celebrated downward spirals. We will have to see whether Ferrari President Sergio Marchionne understands the importance of stability in an F1 team, or thinks – like most automobile industry executives – that the sport is easy and keeps making changes. Before the break began Pirelli began its 2017 tyre testing programme with Sebastian Vettel and Esteban Gutierrez doing a wet track test over two days at Fiorano with a modified 2015 car fitted with prototype 2017 tyres. Red Bull then took over with two days testing dry tyres at Mugello, with Sebastien Buemi doing the driving with a modified RB11, designed to simulate 2017 performance. Kimi Räikkönen used the summer break to take time to get married to Minttu Virtanen at a ceremony in Tuscany.
Beyond the various excitements at Maranello, there has been little news of any real interest over the break with the exception of the announcement that Manor F1 has replaced Rio Haryanto with Esteban Ocon. This was no great surprise, but it will be fascinating to see how the young Frenchman does alongside Pascal Wehrlein, another Mercedes-Benz protege. Wehrlein has looked good, but he was beaten matched quite often by Haryanto and so the contest between Ocon and Wehrlein could be of long-term interest as Mercedes looks for its own new stars.
The rest of the news that appeared in August appears to have been largely waffle and rehashes of earlier stories, presumably pumped out by scribblers trying to scrape a living in the quiet month. There is no sign of any immediate progress in the sale of the Formula One group; there is still no Grand Prix in Las Vegas and, while there has been some pushing and shoving at Silverstone, it is by no means clear whether the changes have been caused because of the planned sale of the circuit, or because the financial results of the British Grand Prix were not as good as they might have been. From what I hear the race made a financial loss despite being a sellout and that obviously means that there is some reflection needed on the strategic approach that was chosen by the management. Discounting is perhaps not the best answer if one has to raise very specific sums of money.
I have to admit that I find the constant politicking at Silverstone to be a complete waste of energy for all concerned. There is a contractual arrangement in place that runs until 2024 and it would not be wise for the Formula One group to terminate the current deal in an effort to get more. In such a scenario, one can imagine that Silverstone would simply walk away from the Grand Prix and spend a few years building up its financial strength and getting work done, leaving F1 without a home race. It is particularly frustrating for Britain because the government has been willing to spend huge sums of money on the Olympic Games, but refuses to help fund the Grand Prix. One can understand why politicians would not want to do anything to associate themselves with some of those involved in the Formula One group, but it is simply not right that Britain’s only F1 venue struggles to survive when Formula 1 is one of the country’s biggest success stories.
Consider this: in the last 10 seasons, British-based Formula 1 teams have won 145 of the 179 Grands Prix that have taken place, a success rate of 81 percent. That percentage will almost certainly go up by the end of the year. It is reckoned that each medal won by Britain in Rio (gold, silver or bronze) has cost the taxpayer £4.1 million. Now, that money is probably well-spent because it has made British people feel good about their country and perhaps a little more united. It has given Britain pride and sporting prestige.
UK Sport, the body which decides on these things, allocates government money to different sports, and it is focussed and ruthless. If a sport does not deliver, the money stops. However, it is happy to fund elite sport if there is a good chance of success. Elite sport is a specialist industry, and so even if the government does not consider F1 to be a sport, it should have the nous to throw some money at Silverstone, to help it do more than just build a museum. Is there another sport in which Britain wins as much as it does in Formula 1?
I cannot think of one.
If the track had the cash to complete its building projects, it could be much more sustainable, even allowing for the fees that the Formula One group demands. Instead the club spends its time quibbling over what should be sold and to whom. The latest twist is that the managing director of Silverstone Circuits Ltd, Patrick Allen, has been placed on leave of absence. Some suggest that this is because he is too close to Lawrence Tomlinson of Ginetta, who wants to buy the track, and wants to stop the sale to Jaguar Land Rover. Others think it may be to do with the ticket sales at the GP. The BRDC continues its discussions with JLR and with Porsche, which has some voice in what a new owner can do with the track, but thus far the German firm has made no public objections to the JLR plan and stories floating about seem to be designed to stir up trouble.
Elsewhere, it is worth mentioning that part of Britain’s sporting success in Rio is due to a former Formula 1 team boss, now a professor at Cambridge University. Tony Purnell has been British Cycling’s Head of Technical Development or the last three years, but prior to that had an impressive career in motorsport beginning when he was still at university with a dissertation in 1982 that included radical new ideas such as lap time simulation, computational fluid dynamics and highlighted the importance of software in the sport. Purnell was soon a consultant to Newman-Haas Racing and then built wind tunnel instrumentation for Lola and Carl Haas’s F1 team, working with a young Ross Brawn. This led to Purnell establishing PI Research to market his inventions and this quickly became a huge global business before being sold to the Ford Motor Company in 1999. It became part of what was known as the Premier Performance Division, which also included Jaguar Racing and Cosworth. In 2002 Purnell was put in charge of the whole division and remained so until Ford decided to sell the business at the end of 2004. Red Bull Racing grew from the foundations laid by Jaguar Racing. It is worth noting that Purnell was always a motorsport fan and, indeed, supported the careers of youngsters such as Lewis Hamilton and Anthony Davidson during their time in karts. He would later become a technology consultant for the FIA, helping Max Mosley formulate strategy in various championships. After Jean Todt arrived, Mosley’s people were weeded out to a large extent and so Purnell went off to the world of academia and ultimately to cycling, where he was able to apply many of the same ideas using computer modelling and analysis to provide Cycling GB with better equipment, better clothing and better biomechanical analysis of the riders themselves. It is reported that he worked with several F1 teams to develop better systems and coatings. Whatever the case, the low-profile Purnell deserves some of the credit for Britain’s success in the velodrome.
The other piece of news was the death of Chris Amon, at the age of 73. Amon was a remarkable racer in F1 between 1963 and 1976, competing with teams such as Ferrari, Matra, Cooper, Tyrrell, BRM and March. He was seen by many as a potential World Champion but fate dictated that he would never win a single World Championship Grand Prix, thus gaining a reputation for being the unluckiest driver in the history of the sport. He won several non-championship races, collected 11 podiums and won the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Daytona 24 Hours and the Tasman Series, but a Grand Prix victory eluded him. He even set up his own F1 team at one point but eventually decided that he no longer wanted to take the risks required and retired to New Zealand to run the family farm. He would later enjoy a career as a TV presenter in his home country, testing road cars and helping to promote the sport in New Zealand. He was awarded an MBE for services to motorsport in 1993.