It’s 12 years since the first Audience with Joe in Montreal and with F1 booming in North America, there is sure to be a lot of demand for this year’s event, the first post-pandemic Audience in Canada. The format is very simple: you get to ask questions to one of the most experienced F1 journalists, who hasn’t missed a race in 34 years…
The event will be on Friday night and the plan (as always) is to have a convivial evening with F1 fans asking questions (any question you like) about Formula 1. I will answer questions as best I can – and if I can’t tell you, I’ll explain why I can’t!
I am a great believer in trying to engage with the fans and the Audiences with Joe not only do that, but also allow fans to meet one another, so that in addition to learning about the sport and having fun, you will meet like-minded people. There is a whole evening of questions, plus a break for a buffet dinner. You can drink as much or as little as you like, but you buy the drinks.
The venue – where the audience has been since the start – is centrally-located, in the old port area of the city. And it is easy to get there from the circuit.
You will go to the track on Saturday with plenty of behind-the-scenes information about what is going on and why.
The Audience in Montreal will take place on Friday, June 17 at the Pub St Paul, 124 rue St-Paul Est, Vieux-Montréal, Québec H2Y 1G2.
Yeah, I know. Route 66 does not go through Florida. In fact, if one is being 100 percent accurate, Route 66 no longer exists. It was removed from the US Highway System in 1985, decommissioned because it had been replaced by new Interstates along its entire length.
But it takes time for legends to die, a fact I was reminded of on Sunday – the 40th anniversary of the death of Gilles Villeneuve – in addition to being the first Formula 1 race in Miami.
The latter was, of course, treated on social media as the sporting equivalent of the Red Sea parting and Moses putting a pass around his neck and leading his flock on to the grid…
It seems that every commentator from Boca Raton to Sausage Gully in Australia overlooked the fact that this was not the first Miami Grand Prix. There were 11 IMSA races that used the Miami Grand Prix name between 1983 and 1993, not to mention a string of GrandAm races in the Noughties. Never mind. Media inexactitude was in fashion in southern Florida, which might have been a good thing given Formula 1’s pretty awful history in the United States.
The good news (I think) is that we are entering a new age. And while some of the Old School F1 types might hrmph at the idea that the Miami International Autodrome is not a patch on the old Nürburgring, or laugh at the idea that it made perfect sense to build a fake marina, the whole thing passed off pretty well despite the fact that southern Florida is flat as a (European) pancake and utterly featureless, it’s only saving grace in physical terms is a string of beaches, and some (but not all) human bodies which appear on them to catch some rays.
Anyway, to return to the point, US Highway 66, known as Route 66, was an important road that linked Chicago to Los Angeles, from 1926 until 1985. It became one of the great American icons, symbolising progress and optimism, not to mention the sense of freedom that came with the automobile.
It was more than just another highway. It unified the US and encapsulated the American Dream.
What does it have to do with Miami? Not much, except that today there is a sense of optimism and excitement across the United States about another great automotive activity… Formula 1, big news thanks to Netflix’s Drive to Survive.
The race was held on the same weekend as the Kentucky Derby and that would not have got as much coverage if it hadn’t been won by an 80-to-1 outsider, which was the equivalent of the Haas team winning a Grand Prix.
I find myself on Route 66 because F1 lives are complicated. They leave relatives and friends strewn around the globe, although the sport also provides a means by which one can see them from time to time, even if it means more time away from the homestead.
Unlike most of the F1 circus, I didn’t hightail it to the international departure lounge as soon as the chequered flag had been shown, but stayed on and joined the queues on Monday in the domestic terminal, and listened to Americans on their ways home. This isn’t difficult because Americans often talk very loudly and express their feelings for all to hear. Everyone had bought merchandise to reflect their support of one team or another, or the race itself, and it was fun to sit, plain-clothed, and watch all the interactions. The message was clear, they’d all loved it. It was cool, it was friendly and it had been fun. For many it was their first race – and they said they’d be back.
As there were not any VIPs on the flights I was taking, I didn’t hear the complaints about the poor quality hospitality experience. F1 can blame the promoter for not using Do&Co, the experts who know what it takes, but in truth a share of the blame should go to the sport itself, for not insisting that the Austrian firm be used, in order to ensure the highest standards and justify the wildly expensive Paddock Club tickets. A three-day ticket cost $12,000 a head, although they were changing hands on the black market at up to $35,000, a clear sign that the people buying were not there to go racing, but rather for some other ego-related activity.
Being there was what mattered.
To give you an idea, a Monaco GP Paddock Club ticket will cost you $8,000, while the average European race will mean about $4,500 for the privilege. It felt like every VIP in Miami was there to be seen to have been there, perhaps with a selfie with a driver, or the ultimate prize, a selfie with Gunther F*cking Steiner.
The crowd capacity was only 82,500, but only around 50,000 were in grandstands. The rest were VIPs. And everyone was paying a lot. One had to be impressed by the scale of the event. It must have cost a fortune to create the whole concept, but it will pay back massively over the next 10 years, once they sort out the glitches. The track was terrific (but needs some work) and the hype was mad, but that is America for you. The Miami Grand Prix was a festival of self-absorbed people, getting ready to tell their friends that: “You really should have been there”.
The sporting event was the peg on which they hung their overpriced hats.
From those of us from more reserved cultures it all felt a little much, but it was kind of magnificent in the same way. F1 often says it wants each F1 race to be like the Super Bowl, and this was definitely a step in that direction.
The paddock access, one can argue, went too far, which meant it was harder for those working. There was no possibility of quiet chats with team bosses because they were run off their feet by TV crews, selfie-seekers and VIPs who needed to be adored. Some of the team bosses, who don’t need the adulation, took to hiding in their cramped hospitality units. And we all began to wonder what on earth it is going to be like when F1 goes to Las Vegas next year, where they have elevated such activities into an art form.
The great news in all of this is that Formula 1 is healthier than it has ever been, and its getting healthier all the time. OK, it isn’t very chic, but in the end, who cares? This is the modern face of F1, brassy and filled with social influencers filming themselves and big watch-jangling types chest-bumping and talking about yachts. In the future, with a little more work on transportation, the crowd in Miami can grow considerably and there really is no reason why racing fans cannot enjoy themselves alongside the party animals, mermaids and fake body parts. They may not start screaming when they see a driver (which seems to be a hallmark of the new F1 fan), but they can see the stars working their magic on the circuit.
The news that there will be another two series of Drive to Survive and that Formula 1 itself will buy a piece of land in Las Vegas is all good for the sport.
I guess that the number of VIPs is a measure of how good an event is, a bit like finding a good breakfast in the United States. You can go to a fast food joint, but the best way to find a good place is to look for police cars. The more police cars there are, the better the breakfast – unless it is a crime scene. There were five police cars at the place I chose on the first day in Miami and the breakfast was excellent…
Inside the F1 Paddock there was not much time for meaningful chatter, amidst all the goings-on. There was the jewellery issue, which is obviously about safety and not about freedom of expression. The drivers banging on that drum need to spend more time in the real world. There was Sebastian Vettel showing off his crown jewels by parading in the paddock with his underpants over his overalls. If he wanted attention (or perhaps sponsorship from an underwear manufacturer) he succeeded, but it did not add much to the argument that F1 drivers be protected in case of fire.
And then there was Michael Andretti doing the rounds of the F1 big cheeses, hoping to be allowed a sniff of the action. It will not be an easy task to convince everyone and it is not being helped by the fact that it is all being done in the public domain, largely due to Michael’s father Mario, who seems to be happy to talk publicly about the project. At one point Mario told Sky they were able to pay the $200 million to enter. “You get nothing for that… But we are ready,” he said.
This is not strictly true. The $200 million is an anti-dilution fund which opens the way for a new team to immediately begin collecting prize money. This is valuable and means that new teams do not have to soak up pain for several seasons before being allowed to join the club. It also means that the teams will likely survive those early times, which was not the case before when most new teams went to the wall, when the owners found themselves running on air, like Wile E. Coyote, and then plunged to become a distant cloud of dust at the bottom of the F1 canyon.
This money is (in theory) divided between the existing teams, to offset the loss of prize money that would occur if they agree to divide the funds 11 ways, rather than 10. This effectively means that they must each agree to take a 10 percent cut and gain another rival. So there is little motivation to make their own lives more difficult, particularly among the smaller teams. There are other less obvious problems that would result from an 11th or 12th team. Additional space is needed and additional freight must be shifted. Thus facilities and logistics operations have to be expanded.
There is a stupid argument that Andretti might take legal action and that the anti-dilution provisions are anti-competitive. It is possible they are, but finding this out will take years of legal battles, will cost a fortune and will mean that if a team does eventually win, it will arrive in F1 one day with no friends, in a sport where alliances are important. So that is a non-starter because the important thing is to get an entry, which the $200 million does not buy. To get an entry one has to convince the FIA and the F1 group that what you are bringing to the party is worthwhile and (most importantly) will add to the show. Andretti has therefore to convince everyone that he brings value, helping to build the sport in the US. The Andretti brand is widely-known in the world of motorsport and has enjoyed a fair amount of success, winning the Indy 500 five times in the last seven years, but has not won the IndyCar title since 2012, although the team collected four titles between 2004 and 2012. It has enjoyed more success in Indy Lights, where the opposition is less intense. The team runs various other operations in other championships. However, much of the brand value of the Andretti name derives from Mario’s exploits as racer, albeit many years ago.
An illustration of the value of this came for me in Australia when I was asked to chat to a group of kids who are keen to get into F1. They had won the right to visit the F1 Paddock (a great prize). In the course of the chat Sir Jackie Stewart appeared, in his trademark tartan trousers, in the company of Mark Webber. Jackie gave a few cheery words of encouragement and then continued on his way. The kids seemed none the wiser. So I asked: “Does anyone know who that was?” The response was 100 percent negative. “Has anyone heard of Ayrton Senna?” I asked. The response was the same. For traditional racing fans this might seem appalling, but this is the reality of the modern world.
Success in other formulae and having loads of money does not guarantee success in Formula 1.
The first step in the process is to get the FIA and the Formula 1 group to agree to open up a tender process. The team must then win that process. No-one in F1 wants a team that is simply a passenger. The business model is key in this process and Andretti seems to be trying to create a team that operates from a European base, but using a US-built chassis. The Haas model relies on Dallara to manufacture the cars in Italy and that firm cannot supply two teams, so Andretti must either build its own capability (which will cost a fortune and take time) or find another partner to do that work. There are specialist firms that could do it, but none of them has a proven track record in Formula 1, nor the level of infrastructure needed for F1. And this is where the project runs into trouble because building all this – and sustaining it all for a number of years – would require so much money that it is still a better idea to buy an existing operation and get rid of all these problems.
Andretti says that there are no teams available, although this is not strictly true as what he means is that there is no team available at a price he wants to pay. Audi is also in the market and obviously has more available cash.
If Michael was coming in with a US automobile brand behind him then he would be very attractive, but it is not likely to happen.
If there is enough money, F1 is not a closed shop as Lawrence Stroll (Aston Martin), Dorilton Capital (Williams) and Finn Rausing (Alfa Romeo Racing) might all sell. McLaren says it won’t, but it might if the numbers added up to a big enough total.
From an F1 point view, it is clear that the popularity of the sport is not dependent on a team, but rather on a successful driver, so what is really important for US growth is to find an American driver to get the country excited (as Max Verstappen has done in Holland, Sergio Perez in Mexico etc etc). Michael’s prize asset in this respect is Colton Herta, but the youngster seems to be a path to join McLaren in F1, while Andretti is also about to lose the last F1 American driver Alex Rossi, who is expected to join the McLaren IndyCar team in 2022.
On Sunday Michael was accompanied on the grid by Mark Walter, the CEO of Guggenheim Partners and Daniel Towriss, the CEO of Guggenheim Life, the parent company of the Gainbridge insurance firm
But money is only important if you spend it. The fact that money does not help much in success is also highlighted with a couple of other stories kicking about in the Miami paddock. One suggested that Williams is looking to change drivers for the second part of the year as Nicholas Latifi has not done a good enough job. Things are complicated by money that the Canadian brings and by contracts, but if it happens, expect Nyck de Vries to take the drive.
The other story along these lines is that of Audi, which is looking to buy a team. This has now been confirmed by VW group boss Herbert Diess. It is clear that Porsche will join forces with Red Bull and will effectively badge the Red Bull Powertrains engines in 2026, and there is speculation that there will be some kind of long-term option for Porsche to take over the whole team, if Red Bull decides that it has done enough in F1. Audi might come in sooner, because it has more to do, but it will be very difficult for the German firm to brand an existing team because of the current engine arrangements.
If, for example, Audi was to buy Aston Martin, it could not run Audi-Mercedes cars, as the two firms are clearly in competition in the real world. Ferrari is unlikely to agree to Audi badging one of its engines, Renault says it is not even thinking about such matters, while Red Bull Powertrains has a deal with Honda which precludes any customer arrangements before the rule changes in 2026.
Audi could build a current engine in addition to 2026 one, but that would be a little silly given the timescales involved and the best course of action would be to become a silent partner of a team and get things ready for 2026. Audi appears to be focussed on acquiring either Aston Martin or Sauber. In both cases the branding would change but Audi could not be used because of the engine situation.
Buying the Aston Martin team does not make a lot of sense, unless the current owners wants to offload the car company – which may be the case given that neither the team nor the car company are doing well at the moment. Aston Martin’s Q1 results for 2022 make grim reading, particularly when compared with previous predictions of a resurrection led by the DBX, which was first unveiled in November 2019. Production began in July 2020 and Aston sold 1,516 DBXs that year. In 2021 the firm sold 3,000 DBXs, of which 746 were sold in the first quarter. This year that fell to 421, a drop of 44 percent, which suggests that demand is easing off. Other indicators are also not good. Overall sales in Q1 dropped 14 percent while net debt rose from £722 million a year ago to £957 million. The only real bright spot in the story was that sales of the expensive specials meant that overall revenues went up four percent. Although the company says that things remain on target it has dumped CEO Tobias Moers and has appointed the 76-year-old Italian Amedeo Felisa as his replacement.
The word is that Stroll and his investors are now actively looking for ways to sell the firm to Audi, which will give them a fig leaf of having saved the firm and handing it on to an industry major. The racing team is also very disappointing. The team was in a mess in 2018 when Lawrence Stroll bought it (largely to provide his son Lance with an F1 drive) and the 2020 results were good because the team copied the Mercedes design, which resulted in Sergio Perez winning a race, but since the transformation into Aston Martin the team has failed to deliver, dropping from fourth in the Constructors’ Championship in 2020 to seventh last year. This year it is currently ninth. Lance is quick from time to time, but is not the full package and has been overshadowed this year by Sebastian Vettel, despite the fact that the German missed two races with Covid-19. Vettel is seen in F1 as being well past his best and prone to mistakes. Stroll is buying in talent and investing in a new facility which increases the potential value of the team.
The word is that Audi is now leaning more towards Sauber, which is for sale if the price and conditions are right. There is one key reason why this may be the best option. Sauber was owned by BMW between 2005 and 2009. It did well and was a World Championship challenger in 2008 before BMW pulled the plug after the global financial crisis. The people who were at BMW at the time thus know that the team could be a contender with the right leadership and the right resources. Audi CEO Markus Duesmann was one of the BMW F1 engineers in that era, and last year he appointed Australian Adam Baker, another ex-BMW man to formulate Audi’s motorsport strategy. Another man who was involved was Mike Krack, who is currently learning how to be a Formula 1 team principal with Aston Martin…
Many of the big names from Audi’s glorious motorsport past have retired now and the new generation have yet to prove their worth and there are some in Germany who think Audi’s reputation may now be a little overblown and the attitude a little bit too arrogant. Still, the people at the top understand the task in hand and seem to have the money to do the job… and they also know that Hinwil can produce competitive cars.
Other stories worthy of mention from Miami, include the suggestions that the FIA has now agreed to the plan to have six F1 Sprint races in 2023, although it is not yet clear where these will be.
Calendars remain the source of much F1 discussion at a time before the Silly Season really begins and the sport has still to finalise a race to replace Russia in the autumn. This will be Singapore – if it happens at all. The plan is to have a two-day race meeting on the weekend before the main event, with the first race taking place in daylight, the second at night. It is a good opportunity for F1 to trial a two-day event.
Interestingly, night and day are becoming an issue in Grand Prix racing for a rather left-field reason. There are some races that are stuck with certain dates and do not want to change: Miami, Monaco and Montreal being three of them. This means that F1 must fly backwards and forwards across the Atlantic, rather than adopting a more sensible strategy and creating a US “swing”, with several races paired up to reduce costs and wear-and-tear. In a perfect world Montreal and Miami would be linked, but Montreal does not want to move forward from its summer-opening festival and Miami doesn’t want to move earlier because of tennis.
Australia might like to regain its season-opening date, but the teams prefer to go to Bahrain so they can test and race in warm weather, without being too far from home, which means that when things go wrong, they can get stuff back to base more easily. The night and day problem is because of the Muslim practice of Ramadan, the 30-day period during which they abstain from all the fun stuff and focus on religion and clean-living, at least during daylight hours. Going racing in Ramadan is obviously not a good idea. This year Ramadan was from April 1 until May 1, which meant that the Grands Prix in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia both took place before it began. The problem is that each year Ramadan moves and next year it will begin on March 22 and end on April 20, which means that the two races need to be on March 12 and 19, with the pre-season test on March 5. But the teams want a break after Bahrain to avoid what is in effect a triple-header and that would mean that the season would need to start in February in Bahrain, in order to get both races done before Ramadan. F1 argues that if the racing is at night, that would be OK, but this pragmatic approach might not square with all Muslim believers. And things are more complicated in 2024, 2025 and 2026 after which Ramadan will not be a problem again for F1 until the mid 2030s, when it will be happening in November.
This may explain why there is much interest in a race in Africa at the moment, because South Africa could, for example, take over pre-season testing and the first race at a time when the weather is best and there would be no jet-lag, and then F1 could return to the Middle East after that. The sport used to go to South Africa at the start of each year, although it has also started the season in South America in the past. One idea that is kicking around is a race in Colombia with a very solid project under development in the city of Barranquilla. The word is that this is funded with private money and will not need public funding, although perhaps the authorities will be asked to kick in some cash for infrastructure work. I heard in Miami that this would be called the Caribbean Grand Prix, which would create a race that could move around the region over time, if other projects can come to fruition. This would operate along similar lines to the European GP title, which has been applied to different events in different countries. Colombia has a couple of young drivers beginning to climb through the ranks: Sebastián Montoya (son of) and Nicolás Baptiste, who is a protege of Fernando Alonso. This event might also help F1 with its problem of fitting in races in the US time zones as it could twin with one of the US events, or with Brazil, to streamline the calendar a little.
The signs are that the new race in Las Vegas is going to take Austin’s date in early November, rather than being held at Thanksgiving, which will mean that it will go back-to-back with the Mexican Grand Prix, which will keep its Day of the Dead holiday weekend. This means that Austin will have to move to somewhere else on the calendar, and could be switched to the spring, to be twinned with Miami, because the end-of-season is becoming more and more congested with races in Asia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Brazil and potentially Australia as well. Teams don’t like triple-headers and so an Austin-Mexico-Las Vegas swing would not be popular.
The Las Vegas at the end of next year and will be promoted by Liberty Media itself and so the profits generated will go straight into the F1 bottom line, without a promoter taking much of the loot and paying a fee. This is an important step as the Q1 figures for Formula 1 show just that these fees and hospitality earnings are important. This year the sport raked in $360 million in Q1, compared to $180 million in the same period last year. There were two races this year, rather than one in 2021. These were both held without any major crowd and hospitality restrictions, which was not the case last year. Hence the big increase. F1’s cash pile has also grown from $2.074 billion last year to $2.265 billion but the sport is about to splash out $240 million buying a 39-acre plot of land in Vegas, where it will build a permanent pit lane and paddock complex. If that sounds profligate, it is clear that there is more to this than meets the eye and we can expect to see the land being used for other things as well.
The investment sends a strong message to Las Vegas that F1 is serious about the relationship, which is currently just for three years. It also adds the asset to the F1 balance sheet (which is important for the bean-counter types in Colorado). The whisper is that the land – which is located between East Harmon Avenue and East Rochelle Avenue, and between Koval Lane and Kishner Drive – will feature permanent facilities that will give F1 an all-year presence in Las Vegas, converting into garages and hospitality units for the race. This could be an F1 showcase which would highlight the history, heritage and power of the sport with permanent exhibitions, although there is also obvious potential for such things as convention space and even may hotel facilities, in addition to retail outlets. If you think NASCAR Hall of Fame with garages, offices and so on, it is probably what will happen.
The price for the land is high as the current owners 3D Investments, which is run by the Daneshgar Family, paid $130 million in 2019 for the land and another adjacent 21-acre parcel, on which the Harbor Island apartment complex sits. The project they had went west with the pandemic, but they will make a killing on the F1 deal and will still be able to develop the apartment complex into something nicer. As for the Las Vegas race itself, work is needed rapidly to get everything done and the word is that the F1-owned promotion firm will be headed by Renee Wilm, Liberty Media’s chief legal officer, with the day-to-day management being done by F1’s Emily Prazer, who has been Head of Commercial Development of Race Promotion up to now.
Finally, I hear that the project will include a facsimile F1 paddock area on land north of Caesars Palace casino on The Strip, where the public will be able to get a feel for the sport, up close and personnel, without disrupting the actual operations.
This is good news for the battle-hardened F1 folk who fought through the Miami weekend…
Motorway service areas, known as aires in France, are generally not very interesting. They are named after the local hamlet or sometimes a fancy local chateau. Some have wistful names, such as the Soleil Levant (the rising sun), others have odd names such as Chien Blanc (white dog) while others act as promotional tools for the region: the aire des Volcans d’Auvergne is one. And then there is the aire du Poulet de Bresse, the aire of the Bresse chicken. This features a very large monument to chickens. If that seems a little odd, one must remember that gastronomy is important to the French and they are immensely proud of their culinary reputation, prowess and traditions. And they are very protective and object to anyone trying to copy their products. There is an elaborate system of certification for authenticity, known as appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) and one cannot legally sell Champagne or Camembert unless it comes from the right place.
Back in 1957 the first animals to be granted AOC status were the chickens of Bresse, and it would be 50 years before they were joined by the salt marsh lamb of the Baie de Somme.
The chickens of Bresse are the gallinaceous version of Wagyu beef and they are spoiled rotten before they fly off to the great coop in the sky. Each one must have 10 square metres of land for their own use. They cannot be stuffed with corn and have to live off the land a bit. Most chickens can only ever dream of a future as a golden nugget, but the chicken of Bresse are royalty. They are quite nationalistic and must have blue feet, white feathers and red combs. They are small-breasted because of their energetic lifestyles make them lean and tasty, and not chubby like their boosted supermarket-ed colleagues. They are at the top of the pecking order. Michelin chefs get starry-eyed about them. Presidents wish to devour them.
The Bresse is a region to be found at the foot of the Jura mountains, where the plains of the Rhone begin. At the centre of this is Bourg-en-Bresse and on the Monday evening after the horribly-named Made in Italy e dell’Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix, I found myself dining in the Bresse, where they even flavour their mayonnaise with chicken juices (and very nice it is too).
I had had a pleasant enough weekend in Imola, despite the poor weather, nervous Race Directors who seemed more besotted with red flags than Chairman Mao used to be, and some very muddy car parks. It had been a Red Bull rout in the end and the tifosi went home down in the mouth, rather than frothing. On Monday morning I set off to drive the 1,200km home. It had been a long night of work and I knew that I was not going to get home in one go, but I hoped that I might get to Avallon or Auxerre before night fell.
I was steaming along and happy that the traffic was light when I approached the town of Novara, to the east of Milan, where a million years ago I spent a day or two at Novamotor, watching the engine wizard John Penistan rebuilding a Formula 3 engine, and asking intelligent questions such as “What does that bit do?” I was thinking of John when there was a sudden odd vibration. A change of surface? No, it got worse and I knew it was time to get off the road as my left rear tyre was clearly falling apart. Fortunately I managed to do this before things got nasty and found myself on the hard shoulder. So I donned my gilet jaune and set about solving the problem, digging out the space-saver spare from deep in the bowels of the boot. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) I have done this a few times as French rural living does cause occasional punctures. This was a pretty impressive failure, but despite keeping a wary eye on approaching vehicles, I was able to jack up the car and loosen the wheel nuts by jumping on the tyre wrench. My plan was to drive into Novara, find a gommista (I learned a new word if nothing else) and then get back on the road again. It was then that I discovered that it was Italian Liberation Day, a national holiday, which explained the empty roads. Everything was closed. I pondered holing up in a hotel until Tuesday morning and then driving home, but that meant I would lose a day at home. Time is precious in F1 and so I decided that the best option was to head for France with the spare, driving at 50 mph up to the Mont Blanc tunnel. It was about 120 miles away, which is a bit further than one wants to go on a space saver, but I knew if I drove gently it would not be a problem. France would be open for business and I could do a quick pit stop and be on my way again.
The upside of it being a national holiday was that I was able to potter along, with my flashers on whenever an Italian approached at vast speed (speed limits in Italy seem only ever to be consultative numbers) and after about two and a half hours and no major incidents, I got to Mont Blanc and popped out of the big bore near Chamonix. Fifteen minutes later I was at a tyre dealership which had the tyres required and 15 minutes after that I was en route again. It wasn’t quite an F1 pit stop – and F1 drivers never have to show a credit card – but I was happy enough. The tyre fitter shrugged in the finest Gallic fashion when I asked why the tyre had failed. He didn’t know and he didn’t much care.
And so I ended up in Chickenville, as I reached a point at which it was unwise to go driving as I had worn myself out and the risks-versus-reward calculation made no sense. As I sat down to dinner I watched a McLaren transporter whizzing past. When I had breakfast the next morning there were a fleet (or at least a flotilla) of F1-branded trucks, lugging equipment home.
Risk assessment is a big part of Formula 1 these days, not just in terms of race strategies but in all decision-making and I suspect that some of the teams probably have chief risk officers, who sit in offices and worry about how things can go wrong. If I was CRO at Mercedes, I mulled while watching a coypu frolicking in the pond next to the hotel, I’d be worried now about Lewis Hamilton. It’s a difficult thing to predict because it is based on emotions, but I would nibble my nails about Sir Lewis walking away. Just as Nico Rosberg famously did back in 2016, catching everyone on the hop. Lewis had been asked the question at Imola and said he was 100 percent committed to the team, and Toto Wolff had said the same to me when I asked if he was worried. I feel that Lewis would not dump the team in it because he is always banging on about everyone being responsible. It was hard to imagine him walking away mid-season, as some have done in the past. “It will be a painful year that we will have to ride out together,” he said. That was an interesting comment, because it basically said that there is no real chance for the team to fight back. After Imola, Ferrari has 124 points and Mercedes 77, and that gap had been achieved without Carlos Sainz scoring in the last two races. In the Drivers’ Championship, Chuck Le Cluck (nothing to do with chickens) had 86 points, with Lewis on 28, a gap of 58 points.
Given the normal levels of F1 reliability, where cars rarely break down and drivers are so good that they deliver week after week, closing big gaps is not easy. With the budget cap getting in the way of massive splurges, the CRO might argue that the best thing to do would be to give up on the W13 and focus the resources on the W14.
This new generation of cars are not yet fully understood, and that means that there is potential for big gains as the engineers get the hang of the 2022 cars. But that is true for all the teams, not just Mercedes. There is the added problem that there are several other teams ahead of Mercedes in terms of pace and so collecting big scores is slowed because others are getting those points, which helps Ferrari and Red Bull pull further away. If you put this into perspective, if Lewis starts dominating in Miami and Leclerc finishes second on all occasions, it will still take Lewis until the summer break before he can get back into contention – and it is pretty safe to say that this isn’t going to happen. So really the big question is whether Hamilton has faith that the team will do a better job in 2023 and give him the chance to win an eighth title, or whether the time has come to admit that at 37 he might call it a day and change his lifestyle and go do all those things other things he wants to do, like becoming a shareholder in a soccer team, fashion design, or whatever.
I think it would annoy Lewis to have to leave the record-breaking eighth title on the table, having beaten all of the other F1 records, but there is the also the possibility that he might become a driver who stayed on too long, as Michael Schumacher did.
On the other hand, Lewis might look at his old rival Fernando Alonso and conclude that the Spaniard is competitive at 40 – so why not continue.
All the signs in the paddock are that Fernando will soon sign a new two-year deal with Alpine, which will mean that he stays until the end of 2024. After that the French firm may wish him to move into its LMDh sports car programme. Fernando is a smart cookie and knows that dumping him would be a negative thing for Alpine, but with Oscari Piastri sitting uncomfortably in the wings, Fernando needs not only to perform but also to get support. He has just announced a personal sponsorship deal with Castrol, Alpine’s oil sponsor, which makes it harder for Alpine to move him on. A clever move.
So, with Esteban Ocon under contract until the end of 2024, Alpine needs to find Oscar a job, before some else does… The Australian has marked himself out as a major future talent in F1 with victories in the 2019 Formula Renault Eurocup, the 2020 FIA Formula 3 Championship and the 2021 Formula 2 Championship. These three titles (each in a rookie year) are mightily impressive, particularly when you compare them to Charles Leclerc (GP3 and F2 in 2016 and 2017) and George Russell (GP3 and F2 in 2017 and 2018). Neither managed three titles in three years – and now they are the future stars of the F1 game. So Alpine needs to find Oscar a home for a couple of years so that he can be trained up and then step into a top drive in 2025 (hoping that Alpine is a top drive by then).
The obvious choice would be a two-year deal for Piastri at Williams, which needs a stronger second driver than Nicholas Latifi. The team does not need funding these days and wants two competitive drivers as results will pay as much as the Canadian’s sponsors will do. The team is happy to take young drivers who might go on to better things (a la Bottas and Russell), but it also wants to build up its own driver squad. In this respect Piastri does not fit in and the team would be better off going with Nyck de Vries, a Mercedes Formula E champion, who is looking for things to do in the future as Mercedes is leaving the all-electric series soon and will sell its team to McLaren. De Vries used to be a McLaren driver and was ditched by the current management in 2019 and so he would rather look for a job in F1, if there are any options available.
Down at Williams, they quite like the look for the strong-jawed Dutch imp.
The other problem is that while getting Piastri for a couple of years might be possible, it is not much good for him if the Williams is not very competitive… and he might think that a stopover at Haas would be a better option.
Ferrari has some influence at Haas but does not have the right to nominate drivers, as once it did when it lumbered Sauber with the ageing Kimi Raikkonen. Mick Schumacher is a Ferrari future project and he looked half-decent last year but the arrival of the Viking Kevin Magnussen has been a shock for Mick and he now needs to prove that he can he play at the big table. The only way he can do that is to beat Kevin – and Magnussen has still some more preparation to do before he gets fully up the speed, as he jumped into the seat at the last minute and was not really fit enough. If Kevin shows Mick the way around this year, Ferrari might give up the dream of “Schumacher II – The Sequel” and look for a new idea.
Australians are pretty excited about F1 at the moment, although Daniel Ricciardo seems a little lost at McLaren and there continue to be rumours that in 2024 (if not earlier) Daniel will be replaced by Colton Herta, the American who Zak Brown believes could open the gates of Formula 1 to corporate America. We will have to see if Herta has everything needed to be an F1 star, but he seems to have the speed, whether he can go on being a drummer in a rock band called Zibs in his spare time remains to be seen, as F1 is a fulltime job.
Anyway, Australia is excited about Piastri and having had a massive sell-out crowd a few weeks ago, the talks are now ongoing about where the race should be on the F1 calendar as a stand-alone intercontinental flyaway is not the best option for Formula 1, which wants to cut is costs by twinning Australia with an Asian race. That might be possible if China came back in the spring but the way things are going in Shanghai at the moment suggests that it may be a while before F1 goes racing in China again.
The alternative would be to move the Australian GP to the end of the season, but that would require the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix to move to earlier in the years, as both events are organised by the Australian Grand Prix Corporation and so a clash needs to be avoided. The days when Australia opened the season are gone as Bahrain is now believed to have a deal for years to come.
The calendar chat at the moment is largely related to which event will replace Russia in September and my understanding is that it will either be a second race in Singapore, or it will be nothing at all, as Qatar seems to have dropped from the equation. Still the Qatar race will be back in 2023. I did hear whispers that Saudi Arabia would like to throw its financial weight around a bit more and thinks that a Grand Prix at each end of the season would be a good thing: with one race in the spring in Jeddah and the other in the autumn up in Riyadh. The F1 group may not like the idea much as there are sufficient Middle Eastern races now and there are other priorities, but the Saudis do have an awful of money and, as the old song goes, this is what makes the world go around.
F1 fans in Europe are increasingly worried that the number of races in F1’s traditional homelands is going to reduce. This is almost certainly true, but I am not sure it will go much lower than eight, even if Monaco gets put in the corner with a hat marked with a big D for one year, if the Monégasques fail to recognise the danger of not agreeing to a deal that is less dismissive of what F1 does for the Principality.
I have been hearing for some weeks that the Germans are getting more and more ambitious and want to get a 10-year deal for a race. This is probably only going to happen at Hockenheim as the Nürburgring finds itself in a troublesome situation as it is owned by a Russian oligarch and F1 is not about to do a deal with one of those folk. It is bad for the share price. It is also doubtful, by the way, that the Nürburgring will be able to get an international circuit licence as the FIA does not seem to be keen to dole these out to anyone with Russian connections.
Russians can complain about that if they like, but sadly the actions of President Putin and the lack of opposition to his activities at home have meant that Russia is no longer a big player in international motorsport.
Germany has a few things in its favour, even if the German drivers are not setting the world on fire, and no-one in Germany sees Mercedes as being a German team. It is the home of Audi and Porsche and the word continues to be that they will both come wading into F1 in 2026 if the sport can get its act together and produce some rules. This needs to be done quickly because time is short. It is fairly clear that Porsche is going to come in alliance with Red Bull, while the Audi rumours flit about from week to week. Last week it was McLaren that Audi will buy, this week it was Sauber, next week it will be Aston Martin. Whatever the details, the word is that the Automobilclub von Deutschland (AvD) is very keen on putting Germany back on the F1 map and while there is some regional money for the track, the best hope may come from federal sources as the new finance minister is a fellow called Christian Lindner, who loves cars and I am told is a Porsche freak – with a competition licence.
The rumours about Audi buying Sauber seem to have come to the attention of Alfa Romeo, as Imola saw the appearance in the F1 paddock of Carlos Tavares, the president and CEO of Stellantis, which owns the Alfa Romeo brand, and Alfa’s own CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato. They have been funnelling some money into Sauber in recent years, dressing the Sauber-Ferrari up as an Alfa Romeo but obviously no-one really believes the team is actually a factory Alfa Romeo programme.
This has made very little obvious difference to Alfa Romeo sales, which are pretty poor given that 2020 was a bad year for everyone and 2021 was supposed to be the year when things bounced back. Alfa Romeo sold 63,000 cars in 2020 and then bounced back to 55,000 in 2021…
This is not good. Imparato says that the brand will be selling 200,000 a year by 2027 and I’d love to see that but they need to find a way to make Alfa Romeo look like a sexy brand if that is going to happen. Dressing up Sauber-Ferraris is probably not the right answer. Alfa Romeo has a great history as a firm that was once known for its luxury, technology, Italian style, high performance and racing passion. It is an obvious brand to try to use in F1 but it looks like Tavares will need to be a big more serious about F1 if that is going to happen. The good news is that Swedish billionaire Finn Rausing would be happy to sell the team to someone with sensible plans in F1 and so there is potential for a proper Alfa Romeo team. With new engine rules and budget caps in F1, there is an opportunity for all car manufacturers to get involved in F1 with technologies that are quite useful when one considers that the take up of electric cars is not going to meet predictions and F1’s move to synthetic fuels is a good way for a car company to paint itself green. F1 is a brilliant marketing tool, if you do it right, and the popularity of F1 and the development of new, younger and global fans, is something that is causing car companies to think about the idea. Tavares is (quietly) a racing nut and has competed in some pretty exotic machinery over the years, but he is always careful not to let his passion put him in a difficult situation within a car company, as he does not want accusations that his passion caused the company to lose money. There are plenty of clever engineers within the Stellantis motorsport ranks and the company has money if it wants to spend it. The company chairman, by the way, is also pretty keen on racing, as Jon Elkann’s other job is as chairman of Ferrari. At Imola he was in Ferrari gear, Tavares and Imparato were wearing Alfa clothing. Rausing was in plain clothes as usual.
Passion is what drives the sport and if you want evidence that Tavares might do something with Alfa Romeo, you need only to look back to his days at Renault, before he left from Peugeot and then worked the deal to merge with Fiat Chrysler to form Stellantis. Tavares thought that a bloke called Tony Fernandes was manna from heaven when the Malaysian turned up in 2011 suggesting that Renault and Caterham create a joint venture to build road-going sports cars. The Caterham version never appeared but Renault decided to push ahead without Fernandes, to develop the Alpine… which is now a Formula 1 brand.
I was reminded of the importance of passion at Imola where I kept bumping into old friends from the days when I was a Formula 3 reporter back in the early 1980s. We went to Imola in 1983 and many of those who raced that day went on to big things in F1, or won big in other championships, or headed teams or manufacturer departments. As I walked through the paddock I met three of the top six from that European Formula 3 race at Imola in 1983 and we discussed who else might have been there. Stefano Domenicali seemed like a good bet. Imola is his home town and he started out young as a racing fan. I bumped into Stefano and asked him the question: “Yes, I was there,” he said. “I was organising the parking in the paddock…”
When I am in Melbourne I stay always on Collins Street, in what they call “The Paris End”, where the shops are fancy (and not places I frequent). But if you need a tie from Hermès or proper-looking macarons, you can find them. It has an RM Williams store, so you can buy the best boots in the world. There is Armani and Prada, Cartier and Fendi, but also antiquarian bookshops and great little cafes, although a lot have closed down during the pandemic. They say that it was at the top end of Collins that they first had pavement cafes in Melbourne, now they are everywhere. Collins Street is lined with old trees and heritage buildings. At the top is the imposing Old Treasury building and, in the hubbub, one can always hear the clang of trams. If you jump on the 96 tram it goes door-to-door to Albert Park, although on race weekends, normal service is disrupted and you have to get off at Southern Cross and get on one of the special expresses that use the 96 route for the Grand Prix.
Sometimes, as a result of this, I take a cab and so meet the next generation of Australian entrepreneurs, immigrants who are working to build their futures, driving taxis. They come from India, Iraq and odd bits of Africa. It’s been tough, they say, because Melbourne had the longest lockdown of anywhere in the world. For them – and for many of us – Australia is still a kind of paradise.
One thing that I have always found, going right back to when I first started visiting the country in the 1980s, is that Australians complain a lot more than British people and thus it seems ironic that they often talk of “whingeing Poms” when they are the ones complaining all the time. The truth is that British people don’t like to make a fuss and will sit and smile politely, and then tell all their friends and family about the bad experience they had. Australians complain instantly and loudly, believing (probably correctly) that it will solve the problem and will improve the venue or service.
My great-grandfather arrived in Australia at the age of 16, back in 1890, after spending five and a half months on a sailing ship. The adventures he had included working a gold miner and with the pearling fleets on the Torres Strait. Perhaps it they had had more telephones he would have rung home and told his mum that he was fine and would have stayed forever, but instead to returned to the Old World in Europe. When he departed on a voyage that would go round Cape Horn and take six and a half months, he wrote: “There are no better and finer people on this earth than the Australians: man, woman and child. It is the only country where true hospitality lives.”
Much has changed over the years, but by and large I think it is still true today. Australians have a funny way of asking for things because whereas a British person might say: “Could I have a beer please”, and Australian will always say: “I’ll have a beer thanks”. They always say thank you first.
One of the things that I have always loved about Australians is that are forever inventing new words and expressions. Today half the world says “No worries” and that came from Down Under. When you think about it, there is a whole language that Australians speak: Bloody oath, bludger, bogan, chook, arvo, drongo, hoon and footy are all examples. Fantastic things are ripper, sausages are snags and if you’re stuffed, it doesn’t mean you have eaten too much. Things get complicated when you think about barbies in bathers and blokes in budgie-smugglers, and you don’t get sick, you get crook.
This year I learned a new Australianism when I reading in the local newspaper about how F1 now attracts a much bigger audience, with women and youngsters particularly having now joined the throng. It’s not just blokes these days. The girls have embraced the sport in an unusual way and it seems that they see the sport as some sort of fashion show, or at least that is how it read. One local scribe, describing the VIP hospitality, said that it was filled with “glamazons”, a splendid new word to describe well-dressed lady F1 fans.
There is one Australianism that I have never understood. They call people who have red hair “Blue” or “Bluey”. I was going to use that to greet Alex Albon, when he arrived in the paddock with what looked like a head of hair that had been dyed slightly auburn, but decided against it. I asked him what was going on.
He had been in Thailand, he said, on the way to Australia, and had visited an orphanage run by the Iceman Charity, which was set up by a bloke called Volker Capito, following the 2004 tsunami. Volker is the brother of Williams team principal Jost Capito. Alex explained that many of the kids are now in their late teens and they are mad about the Liverpool football club. In fact they are so fanatical that some have dyed their hair red to show their support. They asked Alex if he wanted to do the same and he couldn’t think of a good reason to say no… Most of it had washed out.
Anyway, for me Bluey Albon was the driver of the day on Sunday, taking his Williams from last on the grid to a World Championship point, completing all but one lap of the race on the same set of tyres. It was a mighty performance in a difficult car, and while Charles Leclerc won the Driver of the Day award for steering a dominant Ferrari to victory, I think Alex did a better job. Anyway, Leclerc’s victory was popular in Melbourne where the second largest ethnic group (after those with English roots) comes from Italy. That is about seven percent of the local population. They have a neighbourhood known as Little Italy and, naturally, they are all Ferraris fans.
With Ferrari doing well (finally) and with the success of Drive to Survive, F1 in Melbourne in booming and there was a huge crowd for the Grand Prix, with an official figure of 419,114 fans having gone through the turnstiles over the weekend. Everyone was busy trumpeting this as the highest F1 crowd of all time, which it definitely was not. No-one really knows the biggest crowd ever, because back in the 1950 and 1960s there were vast crowds in places like Monza and Mexico (when a large percentage of fans came over the walls). The race day crowd in Melbourne was 128,294, but this was not even close to the first Hungarian GP in 1986, when it was reckoned there were 200,000 on race day. The first United States GP at Indianapolis in 2000 had a crowd in the region of 225,000, while the last Australian GP in Adelaide had a race day figure of 210,000 and a four-day attendance figure of 525,000. If one discards the 74,000 who turned up that Thursday in Adelaide, that Grand Prix still had a three-day figure of 451,000.
Still, it is all good for promotion to say that something is popular…
One of the odd things about Albert Park this year was that the grandstands had a lot of orange and it seemed amazing that Max Verstappen’s army had travelled to Australia (or that Dutch-Australians are a big group). But, of course, when one looked closely it was not Dutch orange but rather papaya orange, in support of McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo (an Italian-Australian). There were loads of red hats for Ferrari and quite a lot of black ones, supporting Mercedes. There were not a huge number of Alpine blue hats, but the number will probably rise over time as the next big thing in Australian racing is Oscar Piastri (of Italian heritage, of course), who is now waiting for his chance to race F1 as Alpine’s reserve driver. The French team is doing quite well at the moment and that creates a bit of a problem because Fernando Alonso is still quick, despite his age, and Esteban Ocon is matching and beating Fernando on a regular basis. Ocon has a three-year deal with the team. Alonso’s contract finishes this year, but he doesn’t want to stop. At the same time the team wants to keep hold of Piastri.
Three into two doesn’t go, so Alpine is already looking around for some way of putting Piastri elsewhere for a year or two, or putting Fernando out to grass in sports cars. It is a good problem to have, of course, but Alpine does not have any customer teams and so needs to find a proper deal to place Oscar elsewhere. There are not many opportunities as other manufacturers are also trying to bring on their new talent. Piastri’s options are a bit limited.
Alpine will let him go for a year or two, but not forever, and so probably Alpine needs to find him a job in 2023, and that depends on who might take him if an Alpine contract remains in place. The whisper is that Haas might like the idea as Ferrari protege Mick Schumacher is clearly struggling to cope with the pace of Kevin Magnussen. And Kevin is not yet up to full speed. Mick’s big crash in Saudi was the sign of a youngster driving beyond his talent, trying to match his team-mate… So that’s worth watching for.
However, it may be some time before such decisions are made and if Fernando or Esteban don’t deliver the goods in 2022, it is still possible that Oscar will get a ride and turn the Melbourne grandstands blue.
Another Italian-australian who has been in the news of late is Michael Masi, and the whisper in Melbourne was that the FIA has now come up with a settlement with the former F1 Race Director, following his removal from the role as a result of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the end of last season. The federation made a bit of a big’s ear of its report on events, suggesting that Masi had not done anything wrong, as the FIA Stewards said at the time, but removed him from the role nonetheless. Why this happened is not entirely clear, although obviously there were a lot of people who didn’t agree with what was done (mainly Lewis Hamilton fans). There have been suggestions that Masi’s removal was the result of personality clashes between Michael and the FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem and the recently-appointed FIA’s head of F1 – Peter Bayer – which came to a head after Abu Dhabi.
Anyway, whatever the reasons, Masi was ejected and soon a fairly substantial cheque will arrive in his bank account. This was necessary because the FIA could not reassign roles before it had cleared away the debris. Thus as soon as the whole thing is signed off, the federation will be able to announce some of its F1 plans with DAMS’s managing director Francois Sicard expected to have some sort of FIA F1 sporting director role. The thing that does not quite make sense here is that Ben Sulayem says that he wants the federation to be more efficient and proactive and yet its structure seems to be becoming more and more bureaucratic. F1 now has to deal with the FIA President, the Deputy-President Sport Robert Reid, Bayer and soon a new sporting director as well. Efficient structures usually involve fewer people, in order to allow for swift decisions and to avoid politics.
The new FIA Race Directors were in the meantime much in evidence in Australia (except the virtual one, whoever that is). The new folks are trying to build relationships within F1 and there has been more than a little pushing and shoving over things like DRS zones in Albert Park, jewellery and fire-proof underwear. Sebastian Vettel was upset for being fined for riding a motor scooter on the track while returning to the pits after one of his many incidents during the weekend, while Lewis Hamilton said that they would have to cut his ear off to remove some of his jewellery. The need to change their underwear caused some amusement amongst the drivers about the checking process. All these rules exist for good reasons – mainly safety – but they have not been heavily-policed because Masi – and Charlie Whiting before him – were quite flexible. If that sounds odd, one must remember that in a fire metal jewellery and watches conduct heat that will burn a driver while the fire retardant materials are meant to stop that happening. That is the logic and the science of the rule. I guess that if Hamilton wishes to risk having his ears burned and is willing to sign a suitable waiver then he can keep his bling, although creating paperwork to allow him to express himself is probably not the most efficient way of doing things.
F1’s booming popularity is the reason for another of the big rumours over the Australian GP weekend: that the replacement for the Russian GP will be held in Singapore, a week before the Singapore GP. There are some very good reasons why this is a better choice than Qatar, which was originally rumoured to get the date.
Firstly, Qatar in December is hot and F1 teams don’t want their cars to melt, their tyres to turn to gloop and the spectators to be toasted. The fact that there were almost no spectators for the first Qatar race is neither here nor there. The time to have a race in Doha is November and that cannot happen this year because of the World Cup soccer competition.
F1 does not want to have to rejig the calendar more than is absolutely necessary because of the freight crisis that is ongoing at the moment and so having two races in the same place makes a lot of sense. It would also allow F1 to trial the idea of a two-day Grand Prix, and the word is that the folks in Singapore are confident that the demand for F1 at the moment means that they could sell tickets for two events. The two could be differentiated by being run at different times: one in daylight, the other at night, and one must remember that the fees paid are largely met by a special hotel tax that exists in the city over Grands Prix weekends, so the actual cost to Singapore would not be huge; would bring in more people; and would thus generate additional revenues and more global coverage for the city, showing the world what Singapore looks like in daylight as well as in darkness.
It is probably not yet decided what the event would be called, but one can expect something like the Marina Bay GP or the Lion City GP. Both would do nicely.
F1’s popularity is also causing media rights deals to go up in value, and with the US rights up for sale at the moment for 2023 and beyond, there seems to be quite an auction going on, with Liberty Media aiming for the stars, hoping for $75 million a year, compared to the current $5 million. The likely figure is probably somewhere in the $40-50 million bracket. ESPN (which is part of Disney) wants the rights, but NBC, Fox Sports and perhaps even some streaming services such as Amazon or Netflix, are all supposed to be in the bidding. The number of US viewers is growing fast, but there is still a lot of potential for growth – so it will be worth watching wha happens.
The current growth of the sport and the rise in value of the F1 teams is also leading to chat about the 11th and 12th team slots that exist – in principle – in the commercial agreements of the sport. F1 is quite happy with 10 teams, all of which are now pretty solid and the sport does not need a couple of extra outfits which could become cannon-fodder, as has happened with almost all new teams in the sport in recent years.
There were three new teams in 2009: Campos Meta, Manor Grand Prix and USF1.
USF1 never materialised, but an entry was given to Lotus Grand Prix (later to become Caterham).
Manor became Virgin (and then Marussia).
Campos turned into Hispania (and then HRT), but disappeared at the end of 2012. Caterham died in 2014 and Virgin/Marussia/Manor ground to a halt in 2016.
Today there are at least four groups making noises about wanting an entry. There is Andretti, one from Monaco, one based around an existing Formula 2 team and another that I cannot discuss because I have agreed not to say anything, on the basis that I might get the story as and when it happens (I’ll probably get screwed on that one).
There may be others I haven’t heard about. The problem with all of this is that ambition is free, but to create an F1 team requires something in the region of $1 billion. You can do it in a different way (as Haas showed) but Gene Haas is a billionaire and so there is a safety net. The reality is that buying a team is still probably the best way to do it, but as the asking price has now risen to about $700 million, there are some folk who think that starting something new might have become a better option.
Andretti has been talking rather more than is good for such projects, as it is usually best not to say too much and keep things quiet until an entry has been secured.
This process is quite complicated, but the first step required is for Formula 1 and the FIA to agree that a new team is worth having. There are huge complications involved because one needs to consider the impact of new teams on all the stakeholders in the sport. Race promoters, for example, might need to build new facilities because the existing garages/paddocks are insufficient to cope with a larger number of cars.
There is a process, outlined in the commercial agreements, that allows for two new teams to get a share of revenues as soon as they start operating, but in order to access that one needs to buy your right to earn the money and so must commit to pay an anti-dilution payment of $200 million. This is then split between the existing stakeholders to make sure they do not lose money by allowing more competition.
If one has the money to pay that fee, and then the entry fee and the cost of creating a team, the numbers quickly add up and so buying a team has been a better option. However the new commercial agreements have pushed up the value of teams and made existing operations more stable, and so there are fewer opportunities to acquire “distressed” teams. The last opportunities were William and Force India. At the moment no-one looks like they need to sell and most of the teams are supported either by a car manufacturer, or by a billionaire.
The Haas business model is not a bad idea, but there are not many opportunities to do the same thing. Aston Martin is using the Mercedes F1 windtunnel in Brackley, Haas uses the Ferrari tunnel at Maranello and Scuderia AlphaTauri is using the Red Bull tunnel in Bedford. Haas uses Dallara to manufacture chassis and while there are chassis-making companies such as Multimatic, ORECA and Ligier, they would need big investment to embark on F1 programmes. Engines are not difficult. Alpine would like to have customers – but it doesn’t need them.
For the moment no-one has convinced the FIA and F1 to start a bidding process. They could do it, I suppose, but the other thing to bear in mind is that there is no requirement to accept any project if the FIA does not think it is sensible. Which is why buying teams still makes more sense for those who have money to burn (and products to sell). At the moment there is much talk of Volkswagen having decided to enter Formula 1 in 2026, with the Audi and Porsche brands, although final official decisions on this will not be made until the rules are finally set in stone.
There continue to be reports that Audi will buy into McLaren, initially taking shares in the McLaren F1 team and then perhaps buying into the McLaren Group as well. But it seems that there is no agreement as yet regarding the price, although there has been speculation in Germany that Audi is willing to pay more than $700 million to buy the F1 team. McLaren wants more than that.
So there have been rumours that Audi is now shopping around, if only to get McLaren to negotiate downwards. The word is that Audi could buy Aston Martin or Sauber. The first is a complete long shot because the car company and the racing team both use Mercedes engines, and you are not going to get an Audi-Mercedes F1 car any time soon. An Aston-Mercedes, a McLaren-Mercedes and an Alfa Romeo-Ferrari are already daft enough concepts – but there are limits.
In addition, it is not entirely clear why Volkswagen would want to add a new supercar brand to its portfolio. Right now it has Porsche and Lamborghini and has effectively sold to Bugatti to Rimac. VW is planning to spin off Porsche soon to turn its value into cash, just as Fiat did a few years back with Ferrari.
Audi buying another supercar brand does not make a heap of sense and McLaren is something that BMW might want to pursue, because it does not own any supercar brands.
Stellantis (the company that grew from the Fiat-Peugeot merger) owns Alfa Romeo and is involved in F1 (in a cut-price kind of way), but needs to make its own engines in the future if it is going to be serious. It also owns Maserati, but wants to turn this into an electric-only business.
Renault has Alpine.
Aston Martin is currently chomping its way through vast prairies of cash belonging to Lawrence Stroll and folks who think he might make the brand successful. Maybe he will, but there is also a strong possibility that it could all flop horribly as Aston Martin as a brand has never been a great commercial success, even with the help of James Bond. For the moment, Stroll is still pursuing the dream, hoping to turn the team into something that will allow Lance Stroll to win the World Championship. We are at the early stages of that programme and in Melbourne things were definitely not going well, with green bits of bodywork all over the shop and there were even complaints about how the Aston Martin Safety Car needed to be quicker.
The good thing was that the Safety Car did not collide with either of the Aston F1 cars, but it was all a bit of comedy store last weekend. Lawrence Stroll’s management style may work in the fashion world, but there is no sign at the moment that it will build a great team for the future.
I did hear over the Melbourne weekend that Stroll, in an effort to find a way to build his own F1 engines, asked if he might buy part (or all) of the Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains company in Brixworth. The proposal was, by all accounts, politely declined. Mercedes is happy to have Aston Martin as a customer, but does not seem to be overly interested beyond that. Still, I suppose Stroll’s logic was that Mercedes has recently reduced its involvement in the F1 team, has sold off its truck division and will soon announce that it is selling its Formula E team to McLaren…
The most logical choice for Audi would seem to be to acquire Sauber and turn that into an Audi F1 team, in much the same way as BMW did with the Swiss team 20 years ago. In many respects this might be a better deal than buying McLaren because of the Germanic approach that Audi and Sauber share. Audi has long been a major customer of the Sauber wind tunnel and so knows what it is buying, and the proximity of Sauber to Germany would obviously help. That would mean that Alfa Romeo would have to think again about F1, but at the moment the firm is getting a bit of a free ride off the sport and at some point needs to either get serious or to get out.
The possibility of a Porsche F1 project at the same time as Audi might seem strange, but there are going to be clear differences between the two and by the time it all happens they will pobably be part of different companies, as Porsche will be independent of VW.
In a normal situation, Porsche would always do its own thing and build everything in-house, but it looks like the F1 plan in 2022 is more to do with marketing than technology. Thus, badging the Red Bull Power Trains power units makes sense. Red Bull has spent a huge amount of money (rumoured to be $400 million) on its new engine facility at the Red Bull Technology Campus. This leaves the Austrian drinks company with lots of options. It can go on doing its own thing and not have to worry about partnerships with manufacturers; it can have partnerships and they can change over time; or it can sell the whole thing if the right manufacturer comes along. Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz is now 77 and the future of the company is not clear. Mateschitz has an heir, but he also has partners in Thailand who probably have a say in who manages the business.
Perhaps the future will be for Red Bull to go public and all concerned take the money and leave the business to others. Who knows? Perhaps Porsche is thus positioned to get the whole racing business as and when things happen.
Porsche is also heavily involved in synthetic fuel, as a fuel manufacturer in addition to building super-efficient internal combustion engines/hybrid engines, and this will be part of the F1 rules of the future.
It is all fascinating stuff.
The other thing that should be considered is the rumours that South Africa will join the F1 calendar. This is not really big news because the intention has always been there.
I know this because back in 1993 Bernie Ecclestone introduced me to an official from the African National Congress (ANC) – Nelson Mandela’s party – who was there to represent the organisation. It was a long time ago, but the bloke was completely mad about F1, while also coming across as being very clever. I was impressed and so I wrote down his name in my notebook and then watched over the years to see what would become of him. His name was Cyril Ramaphosa and he has been President of South Africa since 2019.
He wanted a Grand Prix as soon as he took office and F1’s Chase Carey went to South Africa a couple of times in that era to discuss possibilities. The problem was that South Africa was gripped in a crisis over electricity supplies. Then came the pandemic and throughout all this Ramaphosa has been fighting to change the ANC and renew its image, which is not good. National liberation movements in Africa tend to fade away as political parties as time passes. Ramaphosa has been trying to oust some of those in the party who want him out and that has meant that his reforms have had to be hesitant. It is all going to come to a head in December this year when the ANC holds a national elective conference, prior to the next general election in 2024.
Ramaphosa’s popularity was once at 70 percent, but it has fallen although he remains the most popular leader in the country. And he is so popular that some think that the ANC is holding him back. This means that he can either reform the ANC and reverse its gradual decline (which is the first option) or perhaps set up his own new party in order to win power in 2024.
Holding a Grand Prix is not thus a primary priority for the President, but he knows that it is a good idea and that it will help boost the South African image and economy, although some might try to use it against him if he starts the project too early…
So, we will see. If he has control of the ANC by the end of this year then a race in 2024 is quite possible. If other scenarios play out, then things may be different.
Finally, there is just one point worth mentioning about Melbourne. The Media Centre was deserted. This is worrying, but also understandable. The written media in F1 took a huge hit in the pandemic and new processes developed to maintain coverage without writers travelling were introduced. The problem is that these processes remain in place and editors and publishers don’t want to spend money sending their people halfway around the world for just a few days. If Australia was twinned with a race in Asia, then perhaps it would have been more cost-effective. The fact that Melbourne was on its own this year was a problem. There were about 50 international journalists in total, down from the pre-COVID number of round 300. Hopefully, it will bounce back, but there are no guarantees. During the pandemic the press corps went down to a low point of nine in Russia in 2020. There were several races with less than 20 reporters.
While F1 thrives on TV, the sports still needs written journalists to weave the tapestry behind the coverage. Netflix tapped into this need but it too has limited available time.
OK, in the modern era, some people cannot read 5,000 words without their heads exploding, but those who are reading this sentence have done it…
It’s not impossible if you love the sport and want to know more.
The MotoGP Gran Premio Michelin de la Republica Argentina, to be held this weekend at the Autodromo Temas de Rio Hondo, has been forced to cancel the first day of practice because freight has not been delivered on time. MotoGP has 21 races a year, of which 12 are in Europe and, by all accounts, has less freight than Formula 1, so if the motorcycle world is having problems, then F1 needs to be aware that it could also run into trouble. F1 has 23 races, of which 11 are in Europe, so it is a bigger challenge.
Last year’s F1 had near-misses in Brazil and Qatar, and there was also a very close call in Mexico that went unreported. Thus, these sort of problems were coming because of disruption caused by COVID-19 restrictions. Now they have the added problem of the war in Ukraine. And that makes it difficult because sports don’t seem to understand that there are limits of what can be achieved and are trying to cram too much into their schedules. Even the most efficient freight operations are struggling to keep up.
Things have got far worse since the war because this has reduced the world’s air freight capacity with the Volga-Dniepr Group’s AirBridgeCargo (ABC) operation, which has a fleet of 17 Jumbos all being withdrawn from international operation. Other airlines have been forced to reroute their flights to avoid flying over Russian air space and so fuel costs have gone up and delays have increased. This means that keeping to tight schedules is not easy and so deadlines have started slipping and no-one will give guarantees. F1 cannot cope with flights that might be a day or two late. There are no margins of error and as F1 is only an intermittent customer with the freight companies, and not using the same routes week after week, they do not get priority. The biggest problem is what happens if a freighter suffers technical problems, because these days there is no capacity left to find replacement aircraft. It is the same with climate problems. It also does not help if customs officials slow down the process, which often happens in countries that have complicated bureaucracy.
Formula 1 needs a lot of aircraft, with around 160 planes required in the course of a year, as each long-haul race requires seven 747s to take equipment to a race, and another seven to take it away afterwards. The sport uses 747s, which are old but efficient. It can also use 777s which have a bigger freight capacity but have a much lower take-off weight than the 747s, and consequently a smaller fuel capacity, which means that thay need to make more stops on the long-hauls. The diversions around Russian air space means more stops, more crews, more potential for delays and so on…
The solution to the problem is for F1 to find a carrier willing (and able) to give F1 priority over other customers. That might be possible with some kind of partner programme but right now, things look very risky. Some of the longer hauls, such as Australia and Brazil, are particularly troublesome as freight companies do not want to send their planes that far, unless they have freight booked for the return. And they do not want to have planes sitting around for a week, waiting for the sport to do what it has to do, as they can be used to earn money.
We will see if F1 can juggle successfully this year, but there remains the possibility that there will be delays at some point and delays might possibly be serious enough to impact the races, which would be a serious blow to F1 both financially and in terms of prestige. Another solution to the problem would be to stop trying to jam in more events, and try to generate more revenues from existing events. There is plenty of scope to do that but bosses seem to think that F1’s miracle-workers have no limits. They do… and not of their own making.
NASCAR can do 36 races a year because it is all in the same country and it is all done by truck. The equipment hauled here and there is far less complicated than F1 (which is good thing). There are no customs questions and no need to book big freight planes, so it is relatively easy.
Formula 1 has had a long relationship with Vegas dating back to races which were held in the car park of the Caesar’s Palace casino in 1981 and 1982. It was a big flop. The track was dull and few people attended.
Bernie Ecclestone did not want to give up and continued to try to get another race in Vegas, which he believed would fit with F1’s image. He used a friend of his called Tommy Baker to try to put together a deal. In 1996five representatives of Las Vegas casinos visited the Monaco GP, including Steve Wynn and Bobby Baldwin. The casinos wanted to use the race to promote the idea that the city was “the Entertainment Capital of the World” although they baulked at paying Bernie Ecclestone’s asking price. There was opposition at the time from other casino owners who did not want access to their facilities being reduced by a race. After these efforts failed there was an attempt to build a semi-permanent facility on a golf course at the south end of The Strip. In the end however the golf course was built but without a race track included. Wynn was back at an F1 race in 2005 in Montreal at the same time as he was planning to open his own Wynn Las Vegas resort and later a second called Encore.
The biggest was always to convince the casino owners that a race was a good idea and to find someone to pay to be the promoter.
This year Bernie let slip that there was someone in Montreal from Las Vegas, keen to promote a race in the Nevada city. Las Vegas continues to boom and the casinos there continue to try to find new events to bring in more people to play at the casinos and use the hotel rooms. The emphasis in recent years has been very much on promoting family-friendly events and Formula 1 fits the bill perfectly as it has an image that Las Vegas would like to have and would bring in more than hardline gamblers. The big problem is finding someone who is willing to invest in such a project.
In recent years, however, things have changed. Liberty Media took over F1 from Ecclestone and CVC Capital Partners and there was a flurry of new activity around Las Vegas although his led to a tiresome situation when a wannabe F1 promoter who did not have a mandate managed to get a marketing agency representing the city to sign a non-disclosure agreement forbidding the LVCVA to talk with anybody else about organising a race. This all ended up in court with the promoter being sent packing.
At the same time Vegas began looking at a different kind of future because growth had stalled. In 2000 the city attracted 36 million visitors but it took 14 years before that number reached 40 million. Vegas suffered from the boom in online gambling and the liberalisation of laws relating to casinos in other states. The city began to realise that it needed to look beyond casinos and to expand into other businesses, notably the convention trade, family holidays and big international sports events. The number of visit numbers peaked in 2016 at 42.9 million but then began to fall back, mainly as a result of a mass shooting that took place in 2017 which resulted in the deaths of 60 people.
And then came the pandemic when the visitor number plummeted to 19 million. Things have been improving since then and the opening of new casinos and the expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center have added to the numbers. At the same time, F1 has enjoyed a boom in US interest, thanks to the Netflix series Drive to Survive, so the two forces were aligned.
The question of finding a promoter was never going to be easy and in the end F1 and its parent Liberty Media concluded that the best thing would be to promote the race itself. This makes a lot of sense because having a race without a promoter takes out the middle man and that means that all revenues go to F1. However there is also an element of risk as F1 has to deal with potential losses. Liberty Media controls Live Nation Entertainment Inc, which promotes, operates, and manages ticket sales for live entertainment internationally.
The deal is for three years, which gives Liberty and F1 the opportunity to bale out if the project does not work, but the chances are that it will be a big success and that the deal will be extended in the future, as F1 rides a wave of popularity in the US.
(By the way, if you want to keep up to date with Joe’s blog posts and tweets, you can follow him on Twitter @joesaward and you can find out more about what he does at www.flatoutpublishing.com.
If you’re an Australian Formula 1 fan and you are planning to be in Melbourne, and you want to know more about the sport, but cannot find good information in the clutter of F1 social media, here is a suggestion: I am going to be hosting the first post-COVID live Audience with Joe at the West Beach Bathers Pavilion at 330A Beaconsfield Parade, St Kilda, on April 8. This is easily accessible from Albert Park and right on the beach.
The event will start at 7.30pm so there will be time to get there after the last track action of the day.
For those who don’t know the format, it is very simple: you ask questions, eat, drink and have a good time. For those know the format please leave comments here, for those who don’t know the format, read the comments. Fans love these events.
Tickets cost A$70 a head and will not be available on the door, so if you want to come, sign up in advance, to avoid disappointment. Attendance is limited to make sure everyone gets the chance to ask questions.
It is a great venue with great food and drink. To sign up for tickets, click here.
The Jeddah weekend was dominated by the explosion that occurred on Friday evening, five miles to the east of the circuit, at the Saudi Aramco North Jeddah Bulk Plant, close to the King Abdulaziz International Airport. This happened a few minutes before the first F1 practice session began and a huge dark cloud of oil smoke was visible, although this had no impact on the circuit, as strong winds were blowing from the north. So you can safely assume that any report you may have read about smoke blowing across the circuit was written by someone who was not there.
The other amusing giveaway were the reports that this had all happened 16km (10 miles) from the circuit. These probably derived from people using Google Directions to figure out the distance and not bothering to look at how far it was as the crow flies, rather than in a car. Figuring out what was happening was not that hard. One found a street that lined up with the source of the smoke and then used Google Earth and simply followed the direction of the street until one found an oil facility. Readers of this blog may remember back in December that I accidentally dropped by the “fuel farm” at the airport in Jeddah – on my way home – so when things went bang on Friday, I had a pretty good idea of what had happened and where. The Houthi movement in Yemen has been firing missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia for months… and they soon claimed responsibility for their successful strike.
To be honest I was not overly bothered by all this. Having grown up in London in the 1970s and 1980s, one was used to bomb attacks caused by the IRA. One day, if I ever write the story of my life, I might relate adventures that I had as a result of this, but today is not really the moment.
Anyway, when I stopped to think about it, by far the scariest thing in Jeddah were the driving standards, which offered a much more immediate threat to life and limb than any explosive device. I am not kidding. After years travelling the world, watching drivers in action, I have reached the conclusion that while some drive too quickly, and some drive without sufficient competence, the two elements are rarely combined.
In Saudi Arabia every journey to and from the circuit (and it was not any great distance) seemed to include seeing at least one shunt – and a number of near-misses. The statistics bear this out. In 2010 there were only 250,000 drivers in Saudi Arabia, today there are three million, so in 12 years the number of people with driving licences has multiplied by 12. According to a recent survey by MDPI (whoever they are) Saudi Arabia has one of the highest death rates caused by road accidents, with about 130,000 people each year popping their expensive clogs and not coming home from missions to the supermarket. It really is quite shocking. I decided at one point that I might have finally found a plan for how to get rich. I shall write a book called “How to use Indicators” and have it translated into Arabic, so that the drivers of Saudi Arabia, of which there are believed to be around three million of the 35 million people in the country, will be able to spend more time on Earth before disappearing off to some garden in the sky.
If you check out the website Expatica.com, which is designed for foreigners who want to settle abroad, there are some useful tips about driving in Saudi, the first of which is: “grow a pair of eyes in the back of your head”.
I guess that if chameleons could get driving licences, they would be safe in Saudi Arabia, as each of their eyes can pivot and focus independently, allowing them to observe two different objects simultaneously. I cannot say I saw any chameleons driving in Jeddah, but I did see an awful lot of absolutely hopeless driving, most of it at very high speed and often with the driver squinting into a mobile phone, adjusting his dish-dash, or preening his beard. It seems to be a society in which bearded men show off their masculinity by driving with a machismo that would cause even Spanish bull fighters to blanch. The Saudis tailgate, undertake, text at 100 mph and never (ever) use indicators.
Expatica also warned that one should watch out for camels at night, although I cannot say I ever saw one, probably because they have all become road kill. The civic planners of Jeddah have adopted the roundabout for some junctions, but the locals have not yet grasped the concept of priority and assume that this is dictated by the size of your vehicle. The bigger you are, the bigger your priority.
Weirdly, they have also adopted the Brazilian ritorno concept, where in order to turn across a major road one has to go past the junction you want and then hang a uey to go back to turn. This means that after your uey you have to cross four or five lanes with cars barrelling along at daft speeds, the drivers in whichever lane they fancy. They say that safety standards are improving rapidly, but I didn’t see much evidence of this.
However, one has to say that most Saudis are very friendly, although some of the ruling classes seem a little haughty and arrogant, with a sense of entitlement that one often sees in pay-drivers in the motorsport world. Because they have tons of money, they seem to think that this somehow transforms them into masters of the universe.
Perhaps it does…
F1 is in Saudi Arabia for one reason alone. We can pretend otherwise, if we wish to be delusional, but the truth is that we are in Jeddah because the Saudis pay more than other places. A lot more. A shed-load more. F1 doesn’t talk about who pays what, but the biggest paying races each year are in the Middle East and Asia, and Saudi seems to pay the biggest fee these days, although perhaps Qatar has gone beyond that. There is also a major global partnership with Saudi Aramco.
Ultimately, the actual numbers are not important, but one must understand that most of the decisions made are liable to be swayed by the impressive number of noughts on the F1 bank statements.
F1 needs to deny this, of course, because these days everyone wants to ride the band wagon of social awareness, to please the younger generations, who seem to think that companies ought to have a broader purpose, rather than existing solely in pursuit of profit. This is a concept born from the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, which demonstrated that there are drawbacks to the pursuit of profit for its own sake. Today companies are supposed to achieve more if they are seen to be a positive force for good in society.
The inclusion of Saudi Arabia in the FIA Formula 1 World Championship was always a risk, but the powers-that-be believed that the financial returns from such a relationship would outweigh the potential damage of the association with a country which is often portrayed as being authoritarian and ultra-conservative, which has long attracted criticism for its strict interpretation of Sharia law, its excessive use of capital punishment, its poor human rights record and its role in the Yemeni civil war. One must say that there is some evidence that change is happening and the younger people in Saudi are keen to move forwards, but not everyone is broad-minded.
And changing the image of a country is not helped by mass executions or doing away with critics in medieval style. This is why F1 had to consider its position after a drone attack. You can call it a coincidence if you like, but coming a few months after a bomb attack on the Dakar Rally, which some misguided folk have tried to pass off as an exploding compressed air canister, one must ask the question whether it is sensible for the sport to go to such a place.
It is quite hard to describe the Houthi movement in Yemen. The Saudis call them terrorists, the Houthis say the same about the Saudis. In the West, where oil is important (more so since Vlad the Invader decided to send his armies into Ukraine), governments tend to stick their fingers in their ears and go “la-la-la-la” when Yemen is mentioned. This is why the Houthis have been sending missiles and bomb-laden drones into Saudi on a regular basis for the last few years. They want people in Saudi to feel uncomfortable and they want to highlight their arguments.
The British proved with the IRA that the solution is to talk and try to address grievances. Today we walk the streets of London without fear that we will be blown into pieces by explosive devices.
Formula 1 has always risked being a target for terrorism, because of the high profile it enjoys around the world and if you read shareholder information about the sport, you can find this listed as one of the risk factors involved.
“The general risk of a terror attack has increased recently in a number of the countries in which events are held,” the F1 group advises, without naming names. In other words. We are going to dodgier places.
The proximity of the explosion, which was clearly not a coincidence, led to uncomfortable feelings and lots of folk saying: “What if?” Terrorists are (usually) quite clever people, who do what they do because they have a cause they believe in. Their attacks are designed to deliver a message. When they use sophisticated equipment, such a mercury tilt switches, they are telling the authorities what they can do. They do not usually embark on indiscriminate killing, as this usually does more harm than good.
News of the Dakar attack was suppressed by all those concerned, except by the people who were blown up. They were French and the French government decided that if no-one else would take action, it would investigate. So the Parquet National Anti-Terroriste (PNAT) sent a team to Jeddah to examine the events and the machines. No report has yet been published in France, but leaks to the media indicate that the investigation concluded with 100 percent certainty that the explosion had been caused by a bomb. The fact that the report has not been published suggests that the government is now in “la-la-la-la” mode and so the policemen leaked the details to the media.
The Houthis clearly want to attract attention but, at the same time, they want to avoid international outrage and so an attack in the proximity of a big event makes more sense than blowing up the event itself. The goal of both attacks was probably to try to get the events cancelled and thus create a bigger story that would hurt Saudi’s programme of using sport to forge better links with the world. When that did not happen, the Houthis did a clever thing and declared a three-day ceasefire to take advantage of the publicity generated from F1 by the attack. This ensured that the racing teams did not need to worry about further attacks. It was a very neat piece of propaganda. Very few F1 people ran off to the airport, with the notable exception of German TV.
The real question now is whether F1 feels it is worth continuing the relationship, hoping that Saudi Arabia will be able to provide a safe and secure venue for motorsport in a short space of time, or whether it might be better to pause and come back to Saudi when the country has sorted out more of these problems.
Stefano Domenicali has made much of late about the demand that exists for F1 races and so replacing the Saudi race will not be an issue, although perhaps the F1 bank account would have a few fewer noughts.
In any case, the majority of people in the sport think that F1’s expansion has gone far enough and it would now be wiser to expand the audiences at every event, rather than expanding the number of events. There are still too many races which have small crowds, because they don’t need to promote, because the governments pay for the races to happen.
Having too many races creates a lot of problems, both with scheduling and with logistics. As I mentioned last week, F1 is already dancing on the rim of the volcano when it comes to freight and the war is going to cause more trouble as freight-handlers are under pressure. F1 might be wise to do a deal with one company, rather than shopping around, and that way it will become a valued customer, as opposed to an occasional user. I did hear at some point last year that there could be a deal in the pipeline with Qatar Airlines, as part of the agreement to have a Grand Prix in Qatar. Qatar Airlines has an enormous cargo fleet including 83 Boeing 777s, the plane that will become F1’s preferred choice in a world of declining Jumbos. It seems also that the teams now all have freight containers that has been designed for 777 freighters.
The other thing that needs sorting, both from a scheduling and an environmental point of view is the calendar, which often makes no sense at all. F1 is keen to promote a green image and yet here we are this summer with a five-week period which will include the British, Austrian, French and Hungarian GPs in that order. It is incomprehensible because Britain-France and then Austria-Hungary is much more efficient, and when your fleet consists of close to 300 40ft trucks, all pumping out diesel fumes, going backwards and forwards across Europe, it really isn’t very smart.
The big news for me in Jeddah, apart from things going bang, was the plans that will soon be announced for the new Grand Prix of Las Vegas. The first will take place on 24 November 2023, on America’s Thanksgiving holiday weekend. If you look it up, you will find that this is a Saturday, the day after Black Friday, the first day of the Christmas shopping season.
This is not a mistake as the race, which will take place on Saturday night under lights on The Strip in Las Vegas, will hit the US television markets at peak hours – and will be broadcast at a sensible hour on Sunday morning in F1’s traditional markets in Europe, and later on the Sunday in Asia.
The other big innovation is that the race will not have a local promoter, but will be organised by the Formula 1 group itself, working closely with the city of Las Vegas. Thus the race will not pay a race promotion fee, as other events do, but rather will contribute all of its revenues to the F1 coffers.
This has been done before by Bernie Ecclestone, the last time being in Austria, when he worked closely with Paddy McNally to run an event. It was not a great success. The problem with this is that while there is potential for big profits, there is also potential for losses, so there is a risk involved. But with F1’s new popularity, the risks are significantly reduced, as a race in Las Vegas is bound to sell well.
It is worth noting that a circuit design which has been circulating in the United States in recent days, is not at all what the track will look like. The F1 circuit will run down The Strip from Caesars Palace, crossing Flamingo Road and passing the celebrated Bellagio fountains and the Eiffel Tower, until it reaches the Cosmopolitan Casino, where it will go left on to Harmon Avenue. It will then work its way north, through the existing roads and empty land in that area and will end up looping around the soon-to-be-completed MSG Sphere and then run along Sands Avenue, passing The Venetian and rejoining The Strip near Wynn Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, down in Miami, the word is that the folk at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami will create a small lake inside the circuit, in order to ensure that the track does not look like a facility laid out in car parks.
Much work has gone into landscaping the new facility to give it character and the lake, complete with yachts that cannot go anywhere, will help this to happen.
While that might seem bizarre, it is not the first time it is happened in F1, as the lake in Albert Park in Australia features much the same idea, with yachts positioned to appear on camera during the races, to add a little of the Monaco-like glamour.
After the difficult times in Saudi Arabia, F1 returns to Australia in 10 days, the first visit since the Australian GP was cancelled at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
Melbourne seems to be a complete sell-out and other races are enjoying similar surges in interest. There are also signs that China is beginning to show a bit more interest in the sport. This is usually the case when a country gets an F1 driver and it is why F1 is looking for an American racer at the moment. The Holy Grail, of course, is a woman racer, as that will attract the interest of around half the world population…
Anyway, Guanyu Zhou is already having an impact, although the fact that there will not be a Chinese GP this year will not help matters. Zhou’s impressive debut in Bahrain, which resulted in him scoring a point for 10th place, was a very good start and, although he was promoted by the retirements of the two Red Bulls and Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri, he is only going to improve. And it may not be long before he will be up to speed with team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who managed to finish sixth in Bahrain.
What is interesting is the reaction in China to Zhou’s F1 debut. The race took place late at night in China, but within eight hours of the finish the Chinese social media platform Weibo, has registered 120 million people, reading about his achievement. China is F1’s biggest TV audience these days, with around 73 million viewers every race, so we can expect to see that improve.
Otherwise F1 is quiet enough. Some of the drivers don’t want to go back to Jeddah in the future, but if push comes to shove they will because they have contracts and they don’t want to hand over their cars to reserve drivers. No-one expects the FIA to do anything, particularly now the president is from the UAE, and so the only way things are going to change is if the F1 Group ignores all the noughts and concludes that the race there does them more harm than good. And that is about as likely as Greenland starting a space programme and putting a man on the Moon.
ESPN, which broadcasts Formula 1 races in the United States, has reported an average viewership for the Bahrain Grand Prix of 1.353 million, with a peak audience of 1.54 million. Given that around 122 million homes have TVs in the US there is obviously room for growth in the future.
Formula 1 coverage in the United States was patchy for a long time, with the ABC network having a deal to cover the Monaco Grand Prix, but little else beyond that. It was the ABC Monaco deal the gave F1 its biggest US audience back in 2002 when 2.78 million people tuned in to see David Coulthard win the Monaco GP.
The cable channel ESPN had begun covering races in 1984 with a 10-race deal, which expanded in the years that followed to all the races except Monaco. There was a regular ESPN crew at events but the highest audience achieved in that era was 1.74 million for the Brazilian Grand Prix on 1995, the opening round of that’s year championship. ESPN lost the deal in 1997 when the rights were acquired by the then new Speedvision, which had big ambitions but struggled financially and was bought by Fox in 2001 and transformed into Speed Channel. There was a side deal in 2005 with the CBS network agreeing to broadcast four races, with Speed Channel doing the rest.
The Speed Channel deal continued until 2013 when NBC acquired the rights, building up the viewing numbers to an average of 538,000 in 2017. ESPN then outbid NBC and a new era began, although there was no direct involvement as the deal was for ESPN to take the feed produced by Sky Sports, using the British commentary team. The average viewership went from 554,000 in 2018 to 672,000 in 2019 and by last year had hit 927,000. The growth was largely due to the Netflix F1: Drive to Survive series, which kicked off in 2018. The most-watched race last year was the US Grand Prix with an audience of 1.2 million.
DXB is the IATA code for Dubai International Airport. It is the kind of place where one usually bumps intoFormula 1 people as we tend to pass through it many times each year. Going there between Bahrain and Jeddah was a logical thing to do (in airline terms). After the Bahrain GP a lot of Formula 1 folk went straight to Jeddah, others stayed on in Bahrain to take a little sunshine, and a few went to Dubai where Expo 2020 is in its last days. Soon that excitement will be over and Dubai will go back to being a staging post for international travellers. I decided not to stay in Dubai, on the basis that I really don’t need any more probes stuck up my nose, after two years of endless PCR testing, and while it really does not upset me any longer, I just cannot be bothered to do it, unless I have to. One can fly through Dubai without needing to test, but one cannot enter UAE without a nasal assault, so I stayed in Bahrain for a day and a bit, catching up on work, and then headed off and will be in Jeddah by the time you read this.
The lounges in Dubai are wonderful and it’s a good place to get a last glass of wine before heading into Saudi Arabia, where one has to cope with Prohibition-like rules for the new six days, after which the lounges at DXB will be drunk dry as the F1 folks get back into the real world. Last year we went from Saudi to Qatar and when I arrived in the hotel in Doha, I drank two very large gin & tonics in swift succession, causing the waitress to raise an eyebrow.
“I’ve been in Saudi,” I said, and she smiled and gave up thinking that I was an alcoholic.
I flew out to Bahrain after two weeks without Internet at home. This was thanks to someone messing up the satellite that I need in order to get on to the Web, having made the wise decision a few years ago that living in the wilds of France between races was really a wonderful thing to do. The service provider explained that there had been “a cyber event” on the morning that the war began in Ukraine. It seems that the satellite was was using was also being used to a siginificant extent by the Ukranian government, so it isn’t hard to join the dots about what happened.
I must admit that it did not cross my mind that someone like Vladimir Putin would actually start a shooting war in Europe. I hope that he is now regretting what he has done. And I hope he will be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his days.
F1 has become a Russian-free zone in recent weeks although I did meet one regular in Bahrain and commiserated with him about his wayward leader. There have been one or two pre-Putin Russians in F1 in recent years but we won’t be seeing them again. Anyway, Oleg said he was not having an easy time, living in the West, but was glad that to take his mind off the serious stuff, he had got in his car and driven to Warsaw to collect refugees from Ukraine, who needed help. Not all Russians are bad guys.
People think that F1 is filled with selfish and unpleasant individuals (and there are a few truly horrible examples) but most F1 people are human and more than a few are truly remarkable. At accreditation in Bahrain on the day before the action began, I bumped into an F1 wheeler-dealer who I have known for a LOT of years. Such people are not always known for their humanity.
When I asked how he was keeping, he replied that he was fine and that he had 18 children more than he had had when I last saw him. I was somewhat taken aback by this declaration as I was pretty sure I’d seen him at some point in 2021 and, while he had always had an eye for the girls in his youth, fathering that many kids in the space of a few months would have required a lot of energy.
“I run an orphanage,” he smiled. “We have 18 new children from Ukraine. I now have 43 children.”
It is nice to be able to report on such things… rather than just the usual dog-eat-dog politics of the sport. It warms the heart.
The weekend was filled with catch-ups because there were a lot of people who I have not seen in F1 for the last two years and it was fun to have some of the old faces back in action again. There was precious real news beyond the dregs of the dreadful Abu Dhabi story from last year, with a report that is going to cost the FIA a pile of money because it appears to have dismissed a man who did nothing wrong and there is no reason why Michael Masi would want to stay with an organisation that threw him under the bus, but has no real explanation of what he did wrong to deserve it. Of course, those who are following in his wake now feel that they don’t want to be exposed to the same sort of things and I did hear that one race director was looking for some guarantees that the same thing won’t happen again. I don’t know who one should blame for this caving in to external pressures but the FIA did itself no favours.
Still, perhaps we should give the new folk a chance to prove that they can do the job properly, although the last few months have not been stellar. The FIA does not need to be loved as an organisation, but it helps if it is understood and respected and so there is a lot of work to do… I’m not sure that having two race directors and some kind of eye in the sky in Geneva will really help as there are bound to be differences of opinion and so there will be more inconsistency than was the case with one man. Still, it probably won’t hurt the place to get shaken up a bit after 12 years of Jean Todt. If the award existed then Jean would have been “Micromanager of the Year” for most of that time and now there needs to be a new structure because the new President does not give the impression that he is a man given to all-nighters.
Anyway, the notes in the green notebook in Bahrain were somewhat limited. A lot is happening in racing terms and yet at the same time not a lot is happening in F1 news and politics. There will be an announcement soon that Qatar will step in to replace the Russian Grand Prix, which is as dead as a Norwegian Blue parrot. We will be in Doha on the Russian date and if you are reading this and have not yet booked a hotel room, it is too late…
There will also soon be an announcement about a Grand Prix on the streets of Las Vegas from 2023 until at least 2032. This will be a night race and part of the track will be a section of The Strip. It sounds amazing and will give the US three races for the next three years before the Austin date goes up for auction again.
If F1 growth rates in the US continue as they are now, that could be a fascinating battle, as there will likely be other contenders who could outspend Austin.
The Bahrain race marked the first appearance of a new managing director of commercial activities in F1, who takes up the same sort of role that Sean Bratches had. Brandon Snow in an American marketer with a background in advertising, both in the US and in Europe, specifically in Poland, Austria and Germany. He then spent some time with the NBA before moving to the games publishing firm Activision Blizzard as its head of esports. At F1 he will be responsible for sponsorship, licensing, esports and marketing.
I had a rather odd experience when I met Gilles Villeneuve in the paddock in Bahrain. Well, I met a Gilles Villeneuve, the grandson of the late, great Ferrari driver, who was killed at Zolder in 1982. Gilles II seemed to be a sweet little chap, about three months old, and was there with his father Jacques, the 1997 World Champion. JV is still commentating about F1 for France’s Canal+, while also racing NASCAR stock cars in the US as and when he can. He did a commendable job in the recent Daytona 500 and hopes to be back in action again soon. He was also showing interest in the recently-announced plan for NASCAR to run a car in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2023, which will be the 100th anniversary of the famous event. It seems that NASCAR is keen to promote itself in Europe and Le Mans wants higher profile in the United States, so it sounds a little like love at first sight. The car will be entered in the Garage 56 category, which means that it would not have any opposition, but must comply with the safety rules.
It all sounds very interesting and Jacques would be the perfect driver, although it sounds like multiple NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, who is now racing IndyCars, will be involved as well.
Bahrain showed that the new F1 regulations seem to work pretty well and so there is great excitement about what we can expect for the rest of the year. With a Ferrari 1-2 – and no questions about whether or not the cars are legal – F1 is in a healthy place. Ferrari needs some success as it has not won a World Championship since 2008, which is an unimpressive 14 years ago. Mind you, between 1983 and 1999 it was a similar – but longer – story.
The last note that I have scrawled in the notebook related to the war in Ukraine (Sorry, Vlad, but a “special military operation” is the kind of thing when shadowy figures in dark combat fatigues arrive in the night in Black Hawk choppers and slot away bad guys in an efficient manner). This has impacted the F1 world to some extent with the departure of the Russian GP, Nikita Mazepin and a few sponsors, but is likely to cause further disruption in ways that might not be immediately obvious. Last year Formula 1 had a couple of near-misses with the delivery of freight at the Brazilian and Qatar Grands Prix and during the pre-season testing Haas ran into trouble when a freight plane had technical problems. F1 logistics is one of the most impressive things about the sport, but it involves an enormous effort to get the entire circus from one track to another in just a few days. Formula 1 needs seven Boeing 747 freighters to go to each flyway event and seven more to take the equipment on to the next destination. This means that there are around 160 planes needing to be booked each year. The war in Ukraine has significantly reduced the world’s air freight capacity with one of the biggest freight operators being the Volga-Dniepr Group’s AirBridgeCargo (ABC) operation, which has a fleet of 17 Jumbos. They have all been withdrawn from international operation. There are still about 250 others but there is huge pressure in the market and so prices are rising. Other airlines have been forced to reroute to avoid flying over Russian air space and so fuel costs have gone up and delays have increased. Added to this the price of fuel has increased so it’s a double whammy. Freight prices have gone through the roof. Will this make a difference for Formula 1? Not immediately, unless freight was booked to go on Russian planes, but the danger for the sport lies ahead if planes “go technical” because replacements are hard to find. And, of course, it will add to the team costs…
Mind you, the traditional European races, which require a fleet of around 300 trucks criss-crossing Europe, is going to cause trouble as well because of the escalation of fuel costs. Not to mention all the Brexit paperwork and, of course, the issue of the environment.
My notebook is rather greener than F1 in this respect.