Lounging about…

Here in the lounge at Charles de Gaulle, with the security checkpoint a fast-fading memory and no-one prowling around with a machine-gun, there is plenty of time to mull over life, love and the universe. Half the people in this lounge look like Gérard Lopez (so it is thus a good place to pitch Gillette Fusion Proglide Flexball products), but in reality none of them are the man himself. He remains the invisible man of F1. When you stop and think about it, being a team principal who only comes to a few practice sessions in an entire season is a fairly odd arrangement and not one that is overly good for any team. Strangely enough, the only person I do recognise in the lounge is Frédéric Vasseur (or ART/Spark fame), who may – or may not – become Team Principal at Enstone, if and when there is a takeover of the team by Renault. I could go over and ask but we have already spoken on the subject and he has made it clear that he would do the job in the right circumstances so, even if it is all decided, I doubt he is about to blurt it out to me. I am not one of those journalists who feel the need to start grilling people wherever and whenever one bumps into them. Anyway, it’s too early for that sort of thing, so I shall leave him to his matinal musings, unless he wants to come over for a chat.

Elsewhere in F1, the latest game of Charades is now finished and everyone guessed quite quickly that the Todt/Ecclestone team had chosen the word “bluff” for their turn. Now it is the turn of the manufacturers to have their go and, after several committee meetings,they have selected the phrase “tangled web weaving”, which will take everyone rather longer to figure out, as there are lots of creeks up which they may paddle and which may lead nowhere at all.

While all this is simmering away in the background, the troops are gathering once more in Abu Dhabi for the final round of the World Championship.  Going racing is always good fun, but given the points structure that we have these days, there is little to get excited about beyond whether Lewis or Nico will win the race on Sunday, or whether lightning will strike the F1 world and the path will be opened for an unlikely victory for Pastor Maldonado. All the championships are done and dusted and the only point of excitement is whether or not Valtteri Bottas or Kimi Raikkonen will come out ahead in their Finnish slug-fest for fourth place. You have to be a serious fan, or come from Pallas-Yllästunturin Kansallispuisto, to get excited about that. Whatever happens, Bottas is going to come out on top in image terms, because beating/nearly beating a Ferrari with a Williams is a much more worthy effort than vice versa.

Elsewhere there are some minor placing fights that will make the carbon composite suppliers smile, notably Maldonado versus Nasr for 13th. The Constructors’ Championship offers little hope of any great change, if one excludes the possibility of a McLaren 1-2.

There are times when one wonders whether NASCAR is smarter than F1 by making sure that every championship showdown has four contenders… And before the old curmudgeons dust off their typewriters and, with a hrmph and vague tsktsk noises, hammer away at un-oiled keys to complain to the nth degree about these flashy ideas from across The Pond (I must win a prize there for having a sentence with no fewer than three vowelless words – without even the letter y!), I should add that I am only half-joking. Why is F1 so stuck in its own mud (or should that be merde?) that it will not consider any kind of play-off format? I know that it was not like that “in my father’s day”, but a scoring system is a scoring system – and teams deal with the rules they are given. In any case, points systems have changed in F1 many times, so comparing the different eras is of no great value.

I saw on Twitter yesterday that Lewis was plugging his arrival in Dubai aboard his Bombardier Challenger 605. In the words of Shania Twain, that don’t impress me much… I’m coming in on an Airbus A380.

Stoffel in Japan

GP2 Champion and McLaren reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne flew from a successful weekend in Bahrain (where he won his sixth victory of the year) to Japan to test a Super Formula car at Suzuka. The Belgian rising star is expected to race in Japan next year, while also attending all the Grands Prix and doing simulator work. The aim is to keep him race sharp for 2017. Vandoorne tested for the leading Honda team:  Docomo Dandelion Racing, which ran Tomoki Nojiri (26), who finished seventh in the championship and 38-year-old Indian former F1 driver Narain Karthikeyan, who was 11th. Vandoorne has since returned to AbuDhabi, where he will race in the championship finale this weekend. If he wins again he will become the man with the highest number of wins in GP2 history, overtaking Pastor Maldonado. It should be added that Vandoorne has achieved this in two seasons, while it took Maldonado four. Nine of Vandoorne’s 10 wins have been in feature races, an unrivalled feat.

The Super Formula has the fastest racing cars outside F1, with lap times at Suzuka that would qualify for the GP. The cars are powered by 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines from Honda and Toyota, which produced around 550 hp. The cars are lighter than GP2s and feature DRS.

The proposal for an alternative F1 engine has been voted down by the F1 Commission. However, it seems that during the discussions the various parties agreed to guarantee the supply of power units to all teams; that there needs to be a lower price for customer teams; that the power units need to be less technical (whatever that means) and that noise needs to be improved. The FIA and the manufacturers will present a proposal by January 15 that will solve the above problems. This will include a rule that will establish the minimum number of teams that a manufacturer must supply. The first meeting to discuss this will be in Abu Dhabi. There were four expressions of interest for the alternative customer engine, but the F1 Commission rejected the idea, although the FIA is saying that it could be revived if it is not happy with the proposals from the manufacturers.

Half-arsed F1

The deadline for expressions of interest to identify an alternative engine supplier for the Formula 1 World Championship for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons has now passed and, although there has been no official word (nothing new there then) it seems that there are at least three engine companies that are bidding to be considered for the deal, if indeed such a thing ever happens. It is anticipated that Ferrari will veto the proposal if it is voted through and then there is likely to be a legal fight about the team’s right to veto, based on documentation that is not in the public domain. This will likely end up in a legal mess, which could delay the introduction of such an engine. That would create a problem because while the legal mess is sorted out, it would be a huge risk for any engine company to spend money to develop an engine that might not ever be used and it is very clear that no-one will be paying any compensation if things do go wrong.

If the idea does go ahead, it will completely undermine the FIA’s hybrid strategy. This would be another disaster for Jean Todt because, as he has often said himself, shifting to hybrid technology is the right strategy for the modern age. The idea was formulated by the FIA in league with the manufacturers and they are likely to see any change to an equivalency formula as evidence that the FIA is not an organisation that can be trusted and that there is not a whole lot of point being in F1. If that happens the credibility of the federation is likely to sink still further, although there will no doubt be an attempt to justify the move on the grounds of cost.

The FIA says it is capable of balancing the performance of the two types of engine, but if these regulations do get voted through all competitors will be at the mercy of an equivalency formula that might be manipulated or simply set wrongly. If one is being beaten on the track by more basic engines then it is impossible for any manufacturer to justify spending on hybrid development in motorsport. It is wiser in that case to develop the engine outside the sport and so it is possible that this could lead to the departure of some of the current manufacturers. If, on the other hand, the new engine is not competitive, there is no real point in it existing.

It is clear that Cosworth has not made a bid to supply the maximum 2.5-litre unit, without any KERS, but there are definitely bids from Ilmor Engineering, Mecachrome and Advanced Engine Research (AER). The first two companies are well known in F1 circles, while AER is an English firm, established in 1998 in Basildon, Essex, by engineer Mike Lancaster. It says that it will be proposing a gasoline direct injection V6 twin turbo engine, which was designed for the 2014 LMP1 regulations, which will be developed to produce more power.


This week will see Thanksgiving celebrated in the United States. It is a national holiday which dates back to the Pilgrim Fathers, who gave thanks for their first harvest and the good things that had happened to them in the previous 12 months. Although rooted in religion, Thanksgiving has long been a secular tradition, part of modern American culture and, in truth, it is not very different to the Harvest Festivals of old England, which were traditionally held in September, on the nearest Sunday to the autumn equinox.

I have always felt thanksgiving was a good idea, not for any religious reason, nor indeed because it is a chance to have a party, but simply because it never does any harm to take a moment to stop and look back and assess whether one is making progress, going round in circles, or getting it very wrong.

So let’s give it a try with Formula 1 at the moment.

Some believe that F1 is in a right mess at the moment. The TV figures are not doing well, sponsors are hard to find, fans are fed up with ticket prices and, in many cases, having to pay for TV coverage. On the upside, the sport is making more money than ever, even if this means visiting places that are strategically irrelevant, while failing to make much of an impact in the most lucrative markets. In addition, far too much money is being plucked straight out of the sport by the commercial rights holder, which is viewed by many as being little more than a company that is asset-stripping the sport and loading it with debt. The FIA is powerless and the teams are split, as ever. No-one has a fix for the problems because of the contractual arrangements that are in place.

Many fans believe that profiteers such as CVC Capital Partners should not be involved in sport because the money that the sport raises should be ploughed back into it, to help support international growth and promising young drivers and for investment in the future. CVC Capital Partners does not care about that. It is involved simply to rip as much money as possible out of the sport, without actually killing it. Small wonder they are so despised in the business. This rubs off on Bernie Ecclestone because he was the one who allowed the foxes into the chicken coop. He remains the pay-master of the sport, but his inability to fix the problems has weakened him in political terms. With the FIA having sold its right to regulate F1 (which is scandalous) all the federation can do with try to ally with Ecclestone to out-vote the teams. The problem is that the regulator and the governing body have different goals and so it is an uncomfortable alliance. The teams, inevitably, are divided because the system favours the bigger operations and they do not care a jot about the little teams. The big teams are greedy. They want the technology that F1 brings them but they also want the promotion for free and they want to squeeze as much money as possible from their customers within the business. It is a short-sighted approach, but they have the power at the moment because they supply the majority of the teams and have the Ferrari veto to stop changes they do not like.

Yes, it is a mess.

Ecclestone and the FIA have currently got together in a fairly unholy alliance in an effort to push through an alternative engine proposal. They are pretending that this is about reducing the prices of the engines, but it fairly clear that it is about power and trying to break the manufacturers’ current influence. As everyone involved appears to understand the motives behind the move, it seems to be a fairly pointless and rather counter-productive strategy. And it adds to the impression that the sport is run by people without vision beyond the end of their own noses, who are fighting amongst themselves while the sport drifts rudderless at a time when leadership and forward-thinking are clearly required.

The manufacturers do not need the money, nor do they gain a great deal from not reducing their prices. They could, for example, agree to a lower price and claim the moral high ground, while at the same time maintaining their current position of power.That would checkmate the others. Fighting the proposals will end up in a fight over whether or not Ferrari has the right to veto the new rules, which will end up in court for years and be a completely useless argument. It is hard to know who will win because all the documents involved are secret. This fact adds to the image that the sport is anything but transparent. This is not helpful and, whether he likes it or not, Bernie Ecclestone’s adventures in various courtrooms have not helped either. F1 has the opportunity to portray itself as a clean and transparent business at a time when all sports administration is under intense scrutiny.

The irony of all this is that the FIA is arguing for an engine formula that it does not want and which will drive manufacturers away, as they are not willing to allow their success to be dependent on an equivalency formula over which they have no control, as this is clearly something that could be manipulated or incompetently managed. It would be much better if the FIA and the manufacturers could agree on a sensible future for the sport and drive the sport in that direction.

Those with any experience in these matters know that what is required to make F1 more competitive at the moment is not an artificial equivalency formula, but rather time, to allow the rival companies to catch up with Mercedes. Technology always tends to spread quickly in the motorsport world and at the same time the rate of development slows. This means that new engine companies can enter the sport without needing anything like the same level of investment as the pioneers required. They are currently getting the benefit of their early investment, but the sanest thing for F1 to do, is to stick with its hybrid strategy and extend the formula for another five years to 2025, in order to provide the stability that is required for more manufacturers to want to be involved.

The issue of noise is far less important than some think. What fans want is good racing and reasonably-priced tickets and not to have pay premium prices to watch the sport on TV. There is also need for social media engagement and a solid strategy to try to attract the younger generations. This requires younger and more open minds than those who rule the sport at the moment. It also requires investment, a concept that CVC Capital Partners does not seem to understand at all.

So, there you have it. No turkey for F1 this year. There is not much to be thankful for at the moment…

A change in Argentina

Mauricio Macri has been elected President of Argentina – and that is good news for the motorsport world as Macri has plans to revive the Autódromo in Buenos Aires, in an effort to increase the country’s tourist trade. The election ends 12 years of rule by the Peronist Party. Macri has been mayor of Buenos Aires since 2007 and during that time his economic development department has analysed what to do with the facility. Elsewhere in the country provincial governments had built new circuits but the Buenos Aires facility has largely faded away. The analysis concluded that the Autódromo should remain a motor racing facility and should be revamped with new businesses to help make it more sustainable. These will include a racing school, a motorsport museum, a hotel and car show rooms. The city’s ultimate goal is for a return of Formula 1, but it has long been clear that this will only happen if there is backing from the federal government. Macri is reported to have met Bernie Ecclestone some years ago to discuss the possibilities, but Argentina’s economic problems have made a race impossible, although Hermann Tilke is understood to have designed a new layout, including a suitable pit and paddock complex that will need to be built. Macri has pledged to change the country’s economic policies in an effort to boost growth and stop the inflation that has crippled the country. If the money can be found, it would take around 18 months to rebuild the race track and so the earliest time we would see a race would be at the end of 2017, presumably linked to the Brazilian Grand Prix, as always used to be the case. However it is more realistic to look at 2018 and beyond, as there is a lot to do.

Over the weekend

Lewis Hamilton turned up in Miami yesterday to watch the final race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He visited specifically to be present at Jeff Gordon’s last race. Also there for the event was Mario Andretti and a number of Indycar drivers, wanting to see the fun. Gordon was in the running for the championship, but that went to Kyle Busch, an odd situation given that he missed a third of the races because of leg injuries he suffered in Daytona. The system is such that anyone who won a race gained entry to what is known as The Chase, a knockout competition that leaves four drivers fighting for the title. The man with the most wins this season – Joey Logano – was not one of them. It’s a different world over there… In London Sebastian Vettel was the winner of the Race of Champions, another knockout competition, while in Bahrain Mark Webber finally won a World Championship, along with this Porsche team-mates Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard. The top finished second in the closing round of the World Endurance Championship but that was enough to secure the title.

Over in India it was a bad weekend for Vijay Mallya with the State Bank of India finally declaring Mallya and his United Breweries Holdings (UBH) to be “wilful defaulters”. This means that Mallya is no longer able to borrow any money. At the same time the Enforcement Directorate is reportedly set to launch a money laundering probe into Mallya and Kingfisher Airlines, adding to the string of legal actions that he is fighting. This week there is expected to be further bad news as the Diageo-owned United Spirits Ltd is due to have an annual general meeting in order to decide how to deal with Makkya, who owns a small percentage of the business but refuses to resign as chairman, despite Diageo demanding he stand down. The word is that Mallya will settle with Diageo, rather than being removed from office. Diageo want to get rid of him as quickly as possible as there has been a string of problems since they took over the business from him. Most of his outstanding shares are pledged to banks but Disgeo might take them over and then find settlements with the banks in order to get control of the business. There is also speculation that Diageo could take control of the Force India F1 team because of money that Mallya owes them. If that happens the team could be rebadged as Aston Martin, with Diageo sponsoring the cars and the budget being topped up with other sponsorships and TV money. If Diageo does not sponsor the team next year, it may be be difficult for Mallya to keep it going. There is a lot of enthusiasm for the team being branded as Aston Martin, as it will add to the glitz of F1. If Diageo does take over the team it would largely be to recoup value because of a debt that was not repaid. The company already sponsors F1 in various ways so will likely build up the team and then sell it for maximum profit. The value of F1 teams is likely to soar in the next five years by which time the structure of the sport will most likely be changed and the franchises will have more value. Taking over the team might not cost anything which would make it a solid business move for the firm.


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