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London AudienceIf you live in the UK and would like to ask Joe Saward anything at all about Formula 1 racing, there is an opportunity to do so, in London on Wednesday, July 6, in the run-up to this year’s British Grand Prix.

Joe will be hosting one of his popular Audience events at One Knightsbridge Green, (SW1X 7NW) at the home of Prism, F1’s pioneering sports marketing agency. The company’s spectacular garden was the venue for an Audience a year ago and we will be doing the same this year – English weather allowing. Because of the need for security, there will not be any possibility of walk-in tickets on the night, so book now to be sure that you will get a seat. The Audience is limited in number in order to make sure that everyone gets the chance to ask what a question or two.

Joe not missed a single Grand Prix since 1988 and is coming up to his 500th GP as a professional reporter. That experience means that he has an impressive book of contacts and can get to the movers and shakers of F1. He has seen a lot of over the years so you can ask not only about the modern era, but also about things in the past.

Joe remains a fan at heart and is keen to provide fans with a convivial way to take a peek behind the curtain of F1. The Audience will run from 7pm-11.00pm and there will be a food served mid way through the evening. Drinks will be available at normal bar rates.

It’s a bargain at £36.00 per head.

Click here for more information.

Bernie Ecclestone has always been very keen to keep the big players in F1 on his side, and thus gave them more money than the smaller team. It achieved what he wanted to achieve at the time. Now that the big teams are no longer supporting his every move, there seems little point in maintaining this system, so he is now telling people that he thinks he might change things in the future.

We all know that the big teams can afford to live without the money and that it has always been a system designed to dampen down opposition, but it is also just Bernie laying down some groundwork for the renegotiation of the commercial agreements, which must be done between now and the end of 2020, when the current deals run out. This is clearly all it is, but at the same time, he cannot throw it all away because he as a deal with Renault that stretches beyond the other arrangements which is going to be a bit of a fly in the ointment. It is highly unlikely there will be no extra benefits for the teams which have been around longest but, at the same time, there is little chance that anyone is going to stomp off. There is no other form of motor racing which provides the same as F1 does. People make a big fuss about WEC, but as we have seen with the GT class at the recent Le Mans 24 Hours, the system can be manipulated and politics can override proper levels of competitiveness. It may sound odd to say F1 is a level playing field but, in this respect, it is true.

To be fair, offering teams equal money is logical, because historical achievement and loyalty to the sport is – and should be – rewarded in other ways, with better sponsorship and more merchandising. Ferrari is trapped in F1 inasmuch as the sport provides all of its advertising and so pulling out really isn’t any option – and they know it.

So what does it all mean if this ends up being the case? Well, we have to guess to some extent because of the secrecy that surrounds the sport. However, we can say with some certainty that Ferrari gets five percent off the top of the F1 revenues, before any other division of money. This is worth about $90 million a year. There are then historical payments that are worth around $60 million (give or take) and there is a thing called the Constructors’ Championship Bonus Fund that divides around $135 million between the big teams. Add all of this up and it  means that there could be another $285 million available for distribution. If all goes to plan this sum will increase in the next few years, as the overall revenues rise (if indeed they do).

Right now, the top 10 teams share around $850 million, divided into two “Columns”. The first is based on the teams’ commitment to appear at races and is shared equally, and the second is based on performance with the percentage scale being 19 percent for the Constructors’ champion, 16 percent for the second placed teams and then 13 percent, 11 percent, 10 percent, nine percent, seven percent, six percent and five percent, with four percent for the 10th placed team. This means that the spread of payments to the teams ranges from $81 million to $17 million. The status of the 11th team remains unclear, but seems to be a one-off lump sum of no more than $10 million in total.

Logically, if there is an additional $285 million available, this would go back into the pot and, knowing Bernie, giving the Formula One shareholders more money as well. This would mean the teams would get an additional $142.5 million to be divided between them. That would mean half the money would go into the Column 1 fund and the other half into Column 2. That would hike the Column 1 money for each team from around $42 million to just short of $50 million. In Column 2 it would mean that the champions would get $95 million (an increase of $14 million) and the 10th team would get $20 million (an increase of $3 million). Overall, therefore, the biggest team would get $145 million rather than the current $200 million or more, while the smallest teams would get $70 million rather than the current $60 million.

Now, the teams will probably argue that the shareholders should not get more than they already  have today indeed most teams will want a further reduction in the promoter’s share, which will be around $900 million based on today’s figures. This is entirely reasonable because the promoters do not do anything which deserves that kind of money. They don’t even promote…

Thus while Bernie’s pronouncement sounds reasonable enough, it really would not make much of a difference to the teams.

If the promoter’s slice were to be reduced to a more reasonable 15-20 percent of the overall figure, things would be very different. Just a few quick calculations reveal the following: with the promoter taking 25 percent (still a pretty high figure), rather than the prize fund being $900 million, it would be $1.35 billion. That would mean Column 1 payments would be increased to $67.5 million per team and the Column 2 numbers would range from $128 million to $27 million. Thus the range of payments to the teams would be from $195 million to $94 million. With some sponsorship thrown in, most of the teams would have financial security and, if they would agree a budget cap of, say, $150 million a year, a lot of them would be profitable businesses, worth a great deal as sports franchises.

974634E0-5234-4FD7-BB94-37CD214A5CAD.jpgThe only thing that made me laugh on Friday was the above cartoon. An aeroplane with a man standing in an open doorway, with a Union Jack, with a steward offering him a parachute. “Thanks,” he says. “The flag will do!”

For me, this summed up the whole Brexit story. I know this is a subject that excites huge passions, but passion without logic is not going to work.

Let’s face it, Britons are islanders and they have been, at best, truculent Europeans, not wanting to be involved in a European Union, but happy to enjoy the benefits and to grumble about the things they don’t like. Britain has always had its own deal with the EU, which was something that irritated other members. It was not so very different to France’s insistence on retaining the Common Agricultural Policy to protect its farmers.

Many Britons never really bothered to find out how the EU system worked. Only the party faithful voted in European elections and the activities in Brussels and Strasbourg did little but provide a home for politicians who didn’t quite make it at home and as something to complain about. It was taken for granted that British people and companies had free access to Europe. Younger people moved around much more than their parents and grandparents had done. They settled where they wanted to settle and built lives where they wanted to build lives. French entrepreneurs came to England to escape their government restrictions, British people moved to France to enjoy the cheap property prices and both groups provided economic value for the regions. Youngsters from Eastern Europe came to Britain to do jobs that no-one else wanted to do. It all helped to spread the wealth of Europe and the acceptance of other cultures across the continent.  Youngsters were able to travel for education and for them at least there was a sense of belonging to Europe. The EU poured huge sums of money into the countries in the east, long neglected under communist rule, aiming to create a union in which standards of living would gradually equalise, something that would then help to guarantee peace and stability.

There might be an uppity Russia to the east, but with a Europe united in its values, this could be held in check, with economic sanctions rather than tanks.

At the same time globalisation meant that companies chose the poorer EU countries for their new factories because the costs were lower and the workers keener to work, while unions in the west sometimes made their countries uncompetitive.

Despite this, opposition in the UK grew with some Conservatives and UKIP banging the anti-European drum, arguing that Britain should become independent and return to the days when it was “the workshop of the world”. It is these people, egged on by ambitious political egos, that have led Brexit. In part, I am sure, the vote was also because of the trend in many countries to reject the political classes of today, notably the US, where they may soon elect a star of reality TV with no political experience and some truly scary ideas. The message is that politicians are out of step with the common man and thus people have turned to more extreme solutions. The pro-Brexit British seem to have lumped all of these feelings together and voted, against all advice, to quit Europe, with the attitude that “we’ll sort it out, as we always do”.

That’s the background to Brexit, so what does it mean for Europe and, more specifically, for the motorsport industry? The simple answer is that we don’t have a clue. The country has jumped from the plane and is just beginning to realise that the Union Jack may not arrest the fall. It is an interesting fact that one of the biggest Google searches in the UK since the vote took place has been “What is the EU?”  Recriminations have already begun, with one conservative politician accusing Boris Johnson of sacrificing a million jobs in order to get the one he wanted. Let us hope that this is an exaggeration.

As things stand, however, everything is in play: finance, politics, immigration. It’s all up in the air. And because markets and businesses hate instability, things went into a tailspin yesterday. Some financiers made money, gambling, but the country woke up to a mess.

Many of the things that could now happen are things which the electorate were warned about: President Barack Obama said that the UK would go to the back of the queue in terms of trade if it decided to leave Europe. That was obvious, the EU is a far bigger trading bloc and will be the priority for the US and China. Across the Channel, the mayor of Calais, a city blighted by thousands of refugees, wants changes to the agreement that allows Britain to have immigration checks on the French mainland. Without hours of the vote, Natacha Bouchart said that the British must face the consequences of their choice. If that deal is cancelled, the refugees in Calais will be allowed to get as far as immigration in Folkestone, if they can find a way across the Channel, and that will attract even more refugees. This is the absolute opposite of what the voters want.

In terms of business, waving a Union Jack and feeling free is not going to pay the bills and Britain must be competitive – and it must now do so without European help. There are some optimistic entrepreneurs who believe that this is possible but there are problems over which they have no real control. The Leave campaigners made much about the amounts of money that Britain pays into Europe and said that the money would be used for other things. But is there enough to fund everything? Will agriculture, for example, get the same levels of funding as it has been receiving from the European Union?

Already UKIP leader Nigel Farage is weaseling his way out of a referendum promise to spend a huge sum of million on the NHS. This is a move so crass that it should wipe out what little credibility UKIP currently enjoys. Winning votes with false promises is not the way to win power.

Across the Channel, the EU is angry and has already began to hold meetings without the British being involved. The head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has made it very clear that he is not going to help the British more than he has to, if only to stop further erosion of the EU. The decision seems to have hardened the resolve of the big European nations to stay together, if only because the only other option is beyond disastrous.

For the British, however, other problems have now emerged: Scotland has a decent argument that there ought to be another independence referendum. This could impact not only on the status of the union but also the economy because the majority of the oil and gas in the North Sea would end up belonging to Scotland. Northern Ireland and Gibraltar are both in play as well, as both voted to stay in Europe. The Irish republicans are arguing that the north and south should finally be united (which could create violence) and the Spanish want joint control of Gibraltar.

One thing that I believe many British people failed to understand is that the UK has long been seen by the rest of the world, as the gateway to Europe. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s famously remarked: “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” The British played that role.

Global companies have little allegiance to anyone other than their shareholders. They want unencumbered access to complex markets, skilled staff (although less so with increasing robotic manufacturing) and, if possible, government financial aid.

The latest figures available show that Britain exports goods worth $472 billion and imports things worth $663 billion. The most important export industry is automobiles (worth $46 billion), gold ($37.4 billion) and oil ($21.3 billion). The largest imports are, wait for it, cars, worth $47.3 billion, and oil $34.1 billion.

The primary destination for British exports is the United States (which soaks up $51 billion), followed by Germany ($46.5 billion), the Netherlands $34.2 billion) and Switzerland ($33.6 billion). The primary provider of imports is Germany ($100 billion), followed by China ($62.7 billion), the Netherlands ($50.7 billion) and the United States ($44.4 billion). Now, it is true that Britons will still want to buy BMWs, Mercedes, Audis, Volkswagens and Porsches, and the Germans will still want to sell them, but if there are trade barriers what will happen? The British market is important to the EU but not at any price, particularly if they think that they can get jobs that the British have had to date. We are no longer partners, we are competitors.

The UK car industry builds 1.59 million cars a year and provides jobs for 800,000 people. It is the biggest industry in Britain. Brexit poses a huge threat to foreign investment in the UK. Companies such as Toyota, Nissan, Tata and Honda chose the UK but the country leaving the EU may create difficulties for these businesses which will lead to them moving. Even before the Brexit decision, Britain was not necessarily the first choice for Jaguar Land Rover, which decided to open a new manufacturing facility in Slovakia. The same concept is true in France where the system makes it undesirable for global car firms to have factories even the homegrown Renault and Peugeot have been opening new factories in places like Romania, Morocco, Iran and China.

Most of the car companies in the UK said before the vote that they would prefer the vote to keep Britain in the EU. They will now review their strategies and operations, now that the decisions have been made. It is the same in the financial industry and in service industries in general. Companies may move if they think Britain no longer gives them what they want.

Motorsport is a significant industry in the UK, but it is a minnow compared to others. The industry benefits from the presence of the big manufacturers, their design studios, their research and development centres and a number of small specialist car makers as well. There are also eight Formula 1 teams and, behind them, a large network of specialist suppliers, dependent on the automobile industry. The reason that there is a motorsport cluster is entirely due to a highly skilled workforce and flexible working practices, which were not held back by troublesome unionism.  It has suffered already. Britain has lost a virtual monopoly it once enjoyed on racing car manufacture, with firms such as March, Lola, Reynard and Van Diemen. Today the world markets are dominated by the Italians, notably Dallara. Britain remains the centre of a motorsport cluster, built around the F1 teams, but the cluster may erode further if the post-Brexit arrangements do not suit the big players.

The major impact on motorsport is likely to be in terms of paperwork: transporting goods and people, and securing work permits. It will all still happen, but it is unlikely to be as easy. Perhaps national championships will develop more and provide new opportunities, but the biggest fear is probably for the supplier networks. If a part can be manufactured to the same level in two places, the decision whether to buy that part will be based on price, ease of manufacture and delivery. It is hard to imagine F1 teams leaving the UK, but more than half the F1 engines come from abroad. If the flow of expertise is slower, they may become less competitive. Success also requires getting the best people and they are not all British. The country already struggles to fill engineering jobs with its own graduates and needs more youngsters from other countries.

If Brexit goes ahead, there will probably be restrictions and import duties on certain goods, services and people, which will make it less easy for UK firms to compete with rival European companies. Some argue that a weak Pound will help them sell more abroad, but then they will have to buy raw materials from abroad and that will erode the margins.

If you look at the patterns of voting in England, you can see that those in favour of staying in Europe were younger, better-educated and more cosmopolitan. You can read into this what you will, but I see it not as a victory for Little Englanders, as some would have us believe, but rather a protest against globalisation, led by some opportunistic politicians who would not have had any chance of power were it it not for David Cameron’s decision to throw himself on the bonfire of history. People could rapidly become disillusioned by the choice that has been made. A lot of people, it seems, did not vote because they thought Brexit would fail. Some voted without really understanding the implications.

Farage’s repudiation of his NHS promise is a sign that he is not a man to be trusted and that reality is going to be different to the promises made. Cameron is gone and Labour leader Jeremy Corbin may follow him down the political plug hole, leaving the field free for new people. But can Boris Johnson et al deliver an acceptable deal for Britain? Those who voted for Brexit on the basis that it would free Britain from European control may soon have to accept that they cannot have that and a trade deal. There are examples of Norway and Switzerland that are members of the single market without being in the EU, but they are not very comforting.

Norway, a country rich with oil money, is a party to the Schengen agreement and so has freedom of movement for workers and goods, although food and beverage is excluded from that deal because of the EU protection of its farmers. However, in order for this to happen, Norway has had to accept a large number of EU laws and directives and yet has no say at all in how these laws are formulated. Is that the best that Britain has to look forward to. Is it even acceptable? The problem is free movement or people and it is the price that countries have to pay for access to commercial freedom. And the Leave campaigners cannot easily agree to such a deal if they wish to deliver on their promise to restrict immigration and protect British jobs.

It is therefore quite possible that they will fail to deliver an agreement within two years. At that point Britain would be cut loose and would end up in the worst possible situation with no access and no trade deals. British politicians will realise long before that happens that if they go to the electorate with such a deal they will be blown out of the water and so they have little choice but to try to move the goalposts. Whoever the leaders are, they will probably have to end up asking for another referendum. And they may win because the voters may by then be more educated and more scared by the stark realities of being isolated. In such a situation one can imagine a more sensible discussion to allow Britain to stay in the EU with a new deal before Brexit is carried out. The Europeans would go for that because it helps keep the union strong. It might be a stretch to imagine that Boris Johnson could pull that off and grab victory from the jaws of defeat but that seems the most likely path ahead. It will produce a Europe that will have to accept reform and a Britain that will understand more about what Europe means.

None of this thinking is based anything other than logic. I may not be right but it is my honest opinion and if people wish to abuse me for it, then please at least read the blog rules before doing so, as it explains what happens to comments.

Yet more from Turin

The FIA Sports Conference in Turin has been somewhat overshadowed today but the news of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and the knock-on effects of this, but here is some of the action from Turin yesterday.

 

More from Turin

The second day of the FIA Sports Conference in Turin has produced some interesting discussions. Here is some of what happened with Ferrari technical director James Allison, Gian Paolo Dallara, Pirelli boss Marco Tronchetti Provera and Caroline Hargrove of McLaren Advanced Technologies.

There was also an appearance by Alain Prost, talking about his career, his Formula E team, ice racing, his cycling adventures and why it has not been possible revive the French Grand Prix.

Martin Whitmarsh has been very quiet since he left McLaren two years ago. he has been working as the CEO of Ben Ainslie Racing, Britain’s challenger for the next America’s Cup. this week, however, he returned to the motorsport world, as a speaker at the FIA Sport Conference in Turin. This is designed to be a forum for motorsport figures to share ideas and discuss ways in which motorsport can develop and improve. the timing if the event was not brilliant because the major global series are now flat out, with F1 in the middle of a run of six races in eight weekends and the WEC having just finished Le Mans. Nonetheless, there are around 300 delegates st the event, which is being held at the former Fiat factory at Lingotto in Turin, famous for the test track built on its roof and a celebrated early example of a purpose-built factory with raw materials arriving at ground level and new cars arriving and being tested at the top. Today it is a shopping centre and conference venue.

Whitmarsh worked in F1 for 25 years and said that the change has been interesting, allowung him the chance to step back and look at the sport with a little more distance. He said that he was amazed by how the sailing world was to keen to learn from F1, and believes that F1 should be more open to ideas from outside.

“It’s such a vibrant environment but I think sometimes we could learn from other sectors and have a bit more humility and think about the integrity of racing. Sometimes, maybe, the clamour for money or other things in motor racing, means we lose that a little bit.”

Whitmarsh also believes that the world can learn a lot from F1, if the sport is more open.

“Speed is very important in life and in all sorts of different industrial environments. You don’t get speed without efficiency and I think that it is often overlooked just how efficient F1 cars are – how efficient they are at producing power, how efficient they are in creating grip. It is that drive for efficiency that is so relevant to all sorts of walks of life. Motor racing has evolved and developed analytical and simulation techniques that are iterating things quicker, making things better and I think that is certainly something that we are now learning in the America’s Cup. I think that can make a difference.”

The message is not really new, and it is doubtful that Whitmarsh’s words will make much difference with the powers that be in the sport. It is, however,an interesting reflection from a man who was at the very centre of the sport for so many years.

For more about the Sports Conference, watch the following videos:

IMG_0051The slogan of the F1 race in Baku was “Speeds are higher in the land of fire”.
Azerbaijan has been known as The Land of the Fire since ancient times and historians argue as to whether this is a reference to the natural burning of surface oil and gas deposits or to the oil-fueled fires in the temples of the once-dominant Zoroastrians who inhabited these places. Either way, oil is the key element in the history of Azerbaijan. It has brought the country wealth and pain, because where there is oil, there is usually fighting over the “black gold”. The history of the country is complicated and even included a battle between Ottoman Turks and British soldiers for control of Baku. If you look hard enough in the city, you will find a memorial to 47 of the 92 British soldiers killed in the city at the end of World War I, when Britain sent 1,000 men under Major General Lionel Dunsterville to secure the city’s oil fields, against any German or Turkish attempts to seize them, following the collapse of the Russian Empire. The British were sent packing by a 15,000-man army under Ottoman General Nuri Pasha.

There is a scrawl on one page in my green notebook which says “Pasha Hamilton” because that was what leapt to mind when Lewis appeared on the grid, sheltering beneath a black umbrella, like some sort of dignitary in days of empire. To be called “Pasha” was a great honour for an Englishman, and was recognition from the Ottoman Turks of some important act, at times when they were not fighting the British. A notable example was Colonel William Hicks Pasha, the hero of the Mahdist Wars.

There is note next to this which says that a lot of the F1 crews were knackered by race day, with the back-to-back with Canada being a nightmare for them all, with the knowledge that we have two more back-to-backs in the next six weeks, albeit easier ones, adding to the sense of weariness. The last few weeks have been tough.

Given the late start of the race in Baku, we finished GP+ at around midnight, in a media centre (in the Hilton Hotel) which was being taken apart around us. It was back to our hotel, dodging the post-race drunks, and I then spent two hours finishing off the JSBM newsletter, with some room service pasta for company. This was followed by a 60 minute kip, a shower, check out and a taxi to the airport at 04.00. We didn’t care that we were paying three times the usual rate, because anything that makes life easier at that time of day is worth it…

The airport was awash with F1 people, all flying in different directions to get home, by way of such exotic locations as Kiev, Helsinki, Moscow, Frankfurt and Istanbul. The flight to Istanbul was only a short one, but much sleeping was done and then in Istanbul we all went our separate ways, although many had long waits in the airport between planes.

Stopovers are fine if you have access to lounges, but often one does not have the right card to get into them. Years ago someone recognised the potential for a business around this fact and created a scheme called “Priority Pass” which gets you into different lounges around the world, without being airline-specific. I am not a member these days because I tend to use one airline to go east and one to go west, but fortunately DT is and so he kindly got me into his lounge, as he has done many times over the years. It is one of those things that F1 folks do when they can help one another, even if you barely know the people involved. These things are what makes the F1 community such a special place.

After DT flew off I still had three hours to kill and so hooked up with GP+’s photographer Peter Nygaard, who is a Turkish Airlines frequent flyer and he got me into the Turkish Airlines lounge, which he has long argued is the best in the world. I’ve seen a lot of lounges over the years, but thus far I have to say that Peter is right. You could even play golf or race Scalextric. It was so pleasant an environment that I fell asleep for rather too long and then had a mad rush to get my plane… Back home, it was pouring with rain in Paris, with traffic jams caused by flooding, and I didn’t reach home until just before 9pm. Yes, I know that there were probably direct flights from Paris to Baku, but they were too expensive. Readers always think that F1 media all have Ferraris and private jets and don’t understand that we have to pinch our pennies to survive.

Anyway, Baku was certainly an experience and it was generally a pleasant one. I know that some folk have qualms about human rights issues in the country, and I tend to agree, but these things are never easy to define. At one point a number of us were invited to meet a presidential advisor, who clearly wanted to send out a message about this matter. He blamed the Armenians, which was entirely predictable, as the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians are consistently fighting one another – if allowed to do so.

I have always been of the opinion that sport should rise above politics and be a uniting force, but I also know that it rarely happens. F1 races can, nonetheless, help develop countries and so, in general, my view is to go ahead, unless the race itself is a political issue. Human rights is a complicated business because, as Bernie Ecclestone says, if we took human rights into consideration everywhere we go, we would have a very small F1 calendar, as almost every nation has something that someone else thinks is a human rights issue.

Baku is not a place that F1 needs to be. It is a country of just nine million people and the GDP per capita is a shocking $5,700. Most of the money that comes in from oil and gas is concentrated in the hands of just a few. There were only 14,000 grandstand seats for the race and not all were occupied. The strangest thing was that the balconies all round the circuit were not packed with people, as one would expect. What kept them indoors?

For F1, the logic of being in Baku was simple: money. This is probably the biggest ever F1 race contract, with an annual fee in excess of $60 million. Some even think it could be $70 million. The deal is for five years (plus a 10 percent annual increase), meaning a deal worth at least $360 million to the sport, with an additional four years + one option that could increase that total to more than $750 million. Azerbaijan also has to pay the costs of erecting and dismantling the circuit each year (which will amount to more than $200 million over a 10-year period), so we are looking at an investment of $1 billion from the government. There is no way that this race will ever make that kind of money, but the logic is simple: if it makes people think that Baku is nice place, it will produce huge returns in tourism. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) the world average of travel and tourism’s contribution to the economy of an individual country is $19.4 billion, so one can see that investing a billion can bring impressive returns for any nation that pulls in big numbers of visitors. Azerbaijan is dependent on oil and gas (to a crazy extent) and so they are keen to diversify the economy and tourism is the obvious place to start.

On the first day there I walked around the track and was curious about the architecture. It was a wild mixture of different styles and traditions. It made no sense. Obviously the place had oil and so had money, but who had built the Belle Epoque-style buildings so reminiscent of Paris and the pavilions that would not have been out of place in Brighton? Soviet Russia was not famous for its architectural prowess, so what was the story? The best description of the place I read was from the Lonely Planet, which described Baku as being “the architectural love child of Paris and Dubai… albeit with plenty of Soviet genes floating half-hidden in the background”. So I asked around and discovered that the Presidential Palace, behind the pits, was built by German prisoners of war after WW2, and that almost all the buildings between that and the UNESCO-protected Old City (effectively the race track district) had all been built in the last 10 years. For new-builds, these are fantastic, but they should not be mistaken for historical buildings. But that does not really matter? Disneyland is all fake and Las Vegas used to be only sand. Dubai is much the same (minus the casinos). What matters is that the bit of Baku where F1 folk hung out was a nice town, with its olive-lined promenades along the Caspian waterfront and the delightful Old City.

After meeting the President’s man, I decided to take a look at Azeri history, in order to understand more about the country. It is a complex story which began, in modern terms, in 1918, after the Russian Empire collapsed. Independence brought chaos, which resulted in ethnic cleansing that left as many as 12,000 people massacred in just a few weeks. In the end, after the adventures detailed above, the Soviets invaded and calm was forcibly restored. When Soviet Russia collapsed, 70-odd years later, a new Azerbaijan emerged and there was a similar pattern, there were a series of governments and massacres that cost 30,000 lives before a strong man emerged. His son now runs the country. Poverty has been reduced from 49 percent of the population to just five percent, which is a number that most international organisations seem to agree upon. But a lot of the population are still very poor, even if jobs have been created to keep them fed. Stability has been key in achieving this, but stability has come at a price. People do what they are told to do, or else… One can live inside the F1 bubble and praise the place without looking at the whole picture, or one can look at the whole picture, understand why it is as it is and see the logic, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Is strong leadership worse than chaos and massacres? I don’t know the answer to that, but what I do know is that history relates that some places are not ready for democracy and it is naive to believe otherwise.

All great democracies come through great struggles to become what they are today. Formula 1 exists to go racing. We are sports journalists and, in the end, is it our job to decide what is right and wrong? We can merely present a picture of what we see and leave the reader to decide, or we can ignore it all and pretend it’s not there. I prefer the former route.

There was not much going on in the F1 world beyond that. There was simply little time for much to happen in the days between Canada and Baku. There was talk about the new track and whether it was dangerous in places. The run-off area at Turn 15 quickly became known as “Doughnut Alley” because of the number of drivers having to do doughnuts to get back on track…

There was some gossip about the 2017 driver line-up. There was a visit to the F1 world by Kurt Busch of NASCAR fame and, after the race, there was talk about whether having radio bans in a good idea. The race was not exciting, but that happens from time to time. It was more of a disappointment because the GP2 had been wild, so wild in fact that it ended up with ART GP driver and Honda protégé Nobuharu Matsushita being given a one race ban for his actions behind the Safety Car. He deserved that for his daft accelerating and braking which led to chaos behind him.

Elsewhere in the scrawls in the notebook, I noted that Red Bull’s GP2 driver Pierre Gasly again managed to lose the race and wondered whether he will be climbing higher on the ladder. This could be good news for Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz, who may get to stay at Scuderia Toro for longer now, as Red Bull has no drivers ready to step up. I even heard that Sainz has already signed a new two-year deal with Red Bull and will perhaps one day join Max Verstappen in the big team, if Daniel Ricciardo moves on. I also have a note about an amusing discussion I had about whether the sport should promote itself with topless F1 drivers appearing in calendars, a bit like the Firemen calendars one seems around the world, which have raised many millions for charity, while also promoting the idea of firemen being hunky heroes. This is not a bad idea for a sport that wants to attract 35 year old women…

I also have a note that says “250 Bahrainis” which relates to the fact that Bahrain has a three-year deal to supply officials and marshals to Baku, to give the locals time to get trained up for the roles. This is part of an FIA scheme to have clubs helping one another and helping them all to develop. The only slight problem is that while Bahrain and Azerbaijan are both Muslim countries, the former is Sunni and the latter is Shia and, I hear, there was some tension between the two groups, although there was no sign of marshals getting into fist fights with one another. There were a lot of problems with excessive security with local types making it difficult for the race folk to do their jobs. We were even told to bring our passports in addition to our F1 passes on Sunday, which seemed a little excessive. In the end they were not required.

The one thing that made me smile more than anything, however, was the F1 flag flying over the crenellations of the Old City. Rich men often like their own castles…

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