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IMG_0051After the race in Sochi, we banged out GP+ in just over five hours. We get complaints these days that we are now too fast because the magazine comes out before free-to-air footage is aired and people don’t want to know the result until they have seen it on TV. It’s ironic isn’t it? The written word is not supposed to beat TV…

Anyway, we departed the media centre at about 10pm, snuck in a much-needed beer and a schnitzel and then departed for the airport at midnight. We are used to doing some crazy hours, but Sochi is a tough one because after a short Saturday night and a day of racing and some high-pressure magazine-creation, the biorhythms are not at their best when there is a 02.50 flight involved in the process. The problem is that this flight is not a solid eight hours when one can catch up on sleep, but rather a skip and a jump on a plane designed for commuters. You have to wake up and deal with Moscow’s Unpronounceable airport (there are three of them, all unpronounceable). There was (inevitably) a hefty queue, but I recognized the place and knew a short cut, so I left my incredulous and unbelieving colleagues, with the words “I know a quick way” and they all decided not to follow.

Oh, ye of little faith. I was through into the terminal half an hour before most of them, which was good as I had to finish off the JSBM newsletter. Then there was another three-hour flight…

Still, there were blue skies and sunshine in Paris, which is never a bad thing. I tried to make it through the afternoon, but failed ingloriously, napping through the afternoon before failing to write this article before dinner time.

The first note in the notebook from Sochi was just two words: “Media Numbers”. That may sound a little dull, but it is important. The Russian Grand exists for five reasons that I can think of, the relative importance of each reason is open to discussions, but here they are, in no particular order.

1) the Formula 1 sponsors and car manufacturers are interested in the Russian Federation’s 142 million people, where GDP per capita is $23,700.

2) The Formula One group is interested in the high fees that Russia was willing to pay.

3) The Russians needed to use the wildly expensive facilities that were created for the Olympic Games.

4) They wanted to show Russia to the world in a good light, using sport to do so.

5) The race has proved to be part of the never-ending campaign to make President Vladimir Putin look good in front of the Russian public.

Now, here’s the thing: the international F1 press corps who attended the event at the weekend was the smallest I can remember. It is hard to be exact about these things, but there are around 150 FIA-accredited permanent “hard card” holders. And usually there are about 100 race-by-race passes allowed, mainly for locals. There is also one VIP pass (supplied by the Formula One group, rather than the FIA) that is used by someone claiming to be a journalist, who operates without access to the media centre, without the necessary visas and without any cumbersome journalistic ethics.

These numbers do not include photographers, nor TV people. Thus the normal F1 press corps is a body of around 250 journalists. I didn’t do the sums exactly, but there were fewer than 75 F1 media present in Sochi. I suspect from the spacious Media Centre that there were less than 20 race-by-race types and under 50 hard card holders. This is not healthy.

And it is sad. The track in Sochi is fine, the people are helpful, the hotel is near the track. It’s a foreign environment with a very different culture, much more brusque than in other countries, but it’s fine. We can handle that.

So why is no one going? There is no doubting that there are some conscientious objectors, who do not go to Russia because they don’t like the idea of helping Putin with Point 5 above.

To explain how obvious this is, I should relate a conversation that took place as we were watching the race, taking notes, lap-charting, throwing comments about between us, having fun and looking for insights. There are a few laps to go. Someone says: “about now the TV cameras will cut to Vladimir Putin arriving with Bernie ushering him in”.

A minute later (no kidding), the TVs cut to exactly this scene. It’s that predictable. It is clear Putin is no race fan. He turns up, sits in the grandstand for a few minutes and then appears in the Cool Down Room and on the podium. His Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev had already had his moment of glory, standing next to Charlie Whiting on the starting gantry.

And this is the thing. Where else is anyone allowed stand on the starting gantry or in the Cool Down Room? Why is there an exception made in Russia? Does someone ask Formula One to let that happen, or is it offered?

I don’t have a problem with politicians on podiums, that’s normal, but why are these two individuals given special treatment? And what does F1 gain from appearing to embrace them? The fact that these things happen as they happen always gives the impression that the sport is being used, although no-one with any say in the sport ever seems to think this is a bad thing. But we don’t see a lot of Russian sponsorship on the cars, so perhaps it would be wise to stop this sort of thing and see if money can be found elsewhere.

The other reason the race is not popular is because you have to jump through hoops to get a media visa (admittedly it is far more difficult in some countries than in others). Whatever the details, the paddock in Sochi always feels rather empty. People were only there if they have to be there. This year there was a bit of a dearth of Team Principals as well as media, with no sign of Force India bosses Vijay Mallya nor Bob Fernley, Monisha Kaltenborn of Sauber was absent (although this was caused by her son having appendicitis). Neither Frank nor Claire Williams was present. Nor was McLaren’s Ron Dennis, Renault’s Cyril Abiteboul or Manor’s Stephen Fitzpatrick.

There were, however, quite a lot of Russians in suits with bodyguards and blondes, but there was little else to suggest that VIP hospitality sales were was heaving. Still, I hear it is doing better than Baku, where the international guest count is going to be very low.

One man who was much in evidence (even if a lot of people did not know who he was) was Russian billionaire Dmitry Mazepin, who has made a vast fortune in the chemical business. He was spotted with Bernie Ecclestone rather a lot, leading to rumours that perhaps Mr E was lining him up to take over Force India from Vijay Mallya. The reason for these stories appears to be the fact that his 16-year-old son Nikita is currently moving up the racing ladder and has a development deal with the said Force India. Nikita seems like a very nice, polite young man and so I asked him why it was that he got banned from a race recently for punching one of his fellow competitors. He said that it had been a mistake and that he was sorry he had done it and had even apologised.

The suggestion that Mazepin will take over Force India is jumping the gun rather (not that the media has ever been accused of that before). It is by no means clear whether that this would be a good idea. If you are mega-wealthy and have a son talented enough not to be embarrassing, then getting him to F1 is not that difficult. Running a team is a big commitment. Having said that, many in F1 believe that the teams will one day be worth a lot of money, if one looks at the average franchise in the big leagues in other sports, so it might be worth investing because change must one day come.

The media can be annoying, but most of the teams find that the biggest problems are created by the hundreds of wannabes out there, rather than those who are actually present. This boils over occasionally and that happened on Sunday night when there were suggestions that Mercedes had deliberately delayed Lewis Hamilton.

“I think it is very difficult to take people seriously out there when they are lying on their beds with their laptops on their chests, and they are sending out those abusive messages,” said an annoyed team boss Toto Wolff. “Of course we don’t do it deliberately. The team has been abused in some of the social media and conspiracy theories are out there. My response to this is that I don’t want to ignore this bunch of lunatics who think that we would harm a driver who has been a double World Champion for us.”

Conspiracy theories, in my experience, are generally due to screw-ups that people then try to disguise. This was a screw-up that no-one is disguising.

Similarly all the fuss about Daniil Kvyat was largely a waste of energy. He misjudged the levels of grip and slid into Sebastian Vettel, that punted Vettel into Daniel Ricciardo. This caused Vettel to lift off on the next section of track and poor Kvyat was taken by surprise and ran into him again. I think poor Daniil got more abuse than he deserved. Having said that the incident is not good for him. He’s clearly a very talented guy but Red Bull seems to be looking for a way to hold on to Max Verstappen in the longer term and offering him a Red Bull seat in 2017, with options beyond that, may be a good move. Ferrari seems to be pondering sticking with Raikkonen again (which is a bit of a mystery) and there is no reason why Mercedes would want to change anything. Red Bull has shown itself to be utterly ruthless in the past when it comes to drivers and has ruined more careers than they have made.

Still, it is nice to see so many talented youngsters starting to break through in F1 with the likes of Verstappen, Stoffel Vandoorne, Pascal Wehrlein, Kevin Magnussen and others beginning to make the old guard nervous. Sadly, not all great talents can make it and often it is just down to luck. One thinks of young Jules Bianchi, for example. I was reminded of another great talent when someone suggested I look at a film called Gonchi, the story of Gonzalo Rodriguez, who I first met back in 1999 when he was team-mate to Justin Wilson with Astromega in Formula 3000. He seemed poised for an F1 career when he decided to take up the offer of a chance to race in CART…

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The Russian Grand Prix in Sochi was less exciting than some of the races we have seen this year, but as a demonstration of total dominance it was impressive. Nico Rosberg is on a huge high at the moment and won the race from pole position – his seventh consecutive victory. He also set the fastest lap of the race, on the penultimate lap, to keep himself sharp. It was 0.649s faster than anyone else, and a full second faster than the best lap Kimi Raikkonen could manage in his Ferrari. Nico was fortunate that his major rivals were in trouble. Lewis Hamilton suffered engine troubles in qualifying and was 10th on the grid. he worked his way through to second and was closing on Rosberg when the engine began to misbehave again. Then it cleared itself, but by that point it was too late to make a difference. The Ferrari challenge wilted again, with Sebastian Vettel having a grid penalty and then being punted out by Daniil Kvyat. Vettel was very upset because the local hero ran into him not once, but twice, although the second looked as though the Russian youngster was caught out by Vettel going more slowly than expected. There was further bashing and crashing behind all of this which meant various cars were out or delayed. One of them was Daniel Ricciardo and so Red Bull’s day was a total disaster. Kimi Raikkonen finished a drab third, but made a couple of passes to get there. Williams had  good day with forth and fifth, while Fernando Alonso was sixth and Jenson Button 10th, giving McLaren a bit of much-needed oxygen. Kevin Magnussen took seventh to get Renault on the scoreboard, while Romain Grosjean gave Haas more points. Max Verstappen would have picked up points but for an engine problem. The result gives Nico a 43-point lead in the World Championship after four races. If the two cars finish 1-2 with Lewis ahead, it will be Hungary before will be able to pass Nico. We will have to see if the luck changes as we head to Spain…

Also in GP+ this week…

– Alex Lynn
– How to track down an engine problem…
– Getting things ready in Sochi
– A look at Formula E
– When Enzo Ferrari kept a gun in his desk…
– JS talks about F1’s need to be positive
– DT wants more heroics in F1
– The Hack gives his opinion on electric racing
– Plus the usual fabulous photography from Peter Nygaard

GP+ is the fastest F1 magazine. It comes out before some of the teams have even managed to get a press release out. It is an e-magazine that you can download and keep on your own devices and it works on computers, tablets and even smartphones. And it’s a magazine written by real F1 journalists not virtual wannabes… Our team have attended more than 2,000 Grands Prix between us.

GP+ is an amazing bargain – and it is designed to be, so that fans will sign up and share the passion that we have for the sport. We don’t want to exploit you, we want you to join the fun. You get 23 issues for £32.99, covering the entire 2016 Formula 1 season.

For more information, go to www.grandprixplus.com.

Some strange things have been happening in F1 circles in recent days, with subtle shifts going on in the way things are being done. Bernie Ecclestone suddenly declared himself a fan of social media and the F1 company is now doing a lot of stuff that was unthinkable six months ago. At the same time, Jean Todt appears to have understood that things need to be changed and has been working hard on getting the teams to agree on an engine fix that will suit everyone. It is not what Bernie wanted, but he seems to have given up on the idea of an independent engine because the only real support for the idea was coming from Red Bull and it is very clear that the Austrian company would flip-flop to the other side of the argument if they could find an engine manufacturer.

unsorted_unsorted_326.jpgThe best way to do that is for the sport to be stable and to play up its credentials to car manufacturers. There is a statistic floating around at the moment which really makes the point: if the levels of efficiency in F1 engines were applied to road cars across the board, the average fuel consumption on a road car would be 165 mpg. Now, if F1 was plugging this point, and could boast that the racing was more cost-effective, Red Bull would have an engine supplier. The fact that F1 is failing to deliver its strongest message is not surprising given the lack of promotion that is now institutionalised, but increasingly other players are “going freelance” and doing their own thing. Shell, a major backer of Ferrari, recently unveiled its own rather too cute-looking high-efficiency petrol-burning concept car in China, to draw attention to the fact that there is a lot of mileage left in conventional internal combustion engines. Shell says that it could take decades before electric vehicles will help to bring down emissions and that more work needs to be done with conventional machinery. Shell has no plans to manufacture the car and was simply showing what could be done.

The chassis regulations that have been agreed make very little sense to me and it is clear that Mercedes has had a think about it and is now trying to stop the changes going ahead. Of course it is in their interest to keep the status quo, but actually they are right. The aerodynamic rules don’t need to be changed. Convergence will happen if you leave things as they are. Changing things will play into the hands of the big teams (which defeats the argument that Mercedes is simply trying to cling on to its current competitveness).

The key thing for me, however, is that there seems to have been a shift in thinking amongst the big players in  recent weeks. There is more of a willingness to  compromise from Ecclestone and the FIA seems to be a little more willing to put up a fight. The question is why? Is it, perhaps, due to a meeting that took place recently between Jean Todt and CVC in New York? Or is it because the potential buyers out there realise that the only way for the game to go forward is to get deals in place with everyone before they do a deal? And those wishing to sell have accepted that this is the only game in town at the moment.

It will be worth watching how things develop. There will be an announcement later today about the engine deal that has been agreed, once the World Motor Sport Council has added its rubber stamp.

Following up from my adventures with Mercedes/Epson augmented reality at the Chinese Grand Prix, the Visa e-Prix in Paris provided a couple of new ideas which would seem to be way ahead of anything that has been thought about by the Formula One group. Formula E has been into eSports from the start, initially with virtual races between fans and Formula E drivers. Since then this was developed into virtual races between the drivers and in Paris there was also an event which was billed as the eRace, in which no fewer than nine Formula E drivers went head-to-head with a member of the public in a virtual race, commentary and all. Visa funded the whole thing as part of its strategy to engage with the digital savvy audiences of today. The eRace was shown on the screens around the track and provided some entertainment, not least because it all ended up with a dramatic last lap, which is easy when you are competing in a virtual world, in which you can only kill yourself virtually…

IMG_1708Elsewhere in Formula E, the San Francisco-based Virtually Live company was busy testing its latest product. The company works on the basis that sporting events are not as exciting as they could be if one simply watches them on TV but cannot attend because they are too far away, or cost too much to attend. The alternative is to take fans into the world of Formula E using virtual reality techniques. The theory is that if everyone can have the best seat in the house, sports can make more money. It means that races that are sold out can still be seen close up. The key is recreating the atmosphere, the social interaction, the electricity and the sense of being there. Virtually Live does this using data to create not only a virtual stadium, but also what it hopes will one day be real time action. If all goes to plan, fans would be able to pick any viewing position, move around, talk to other fans, see all the data they want to see and even ride with, above or alongside the cars. This involves building virtual models of the circuits and then getting access to data from the cars. VIRTUALLY_LIVE_BA_FE_Screen_6_2016-03-24.pngGraphics are improving all the time, as can be seen from some of the games that are now on the market, and virtual experiences are on their way to becoming photo-real. Telling the real from the virtual is becoming harder. This has already happened in the cinema, where CGI landscapes and creatures have reached impressive levels. The developers also see huge value in fans being able to interact with one another in this virtual world, sitting together and even discussing the VIRTUALLY_LIVE_BA_FE_Screen_1_2016-03-24.pngaction as it happens. There are, of course, technological limitations at the moment, with development needed in areas such as facial tracking to capture emotions and there is a time delay in rendering any event (currently about six seconds). But progress is being made and this year there are a range of new headsets  that will make things ever more real

VIRTUALLY_LIVE_BA_FE_Screen_4_2016-03-24.pngThere are some glitches, but one can not only get into any of the cars and  even get out and travel beside them. At the moment the cars are still driving through one another but in future this will be fixed and it one runs into another, there will be suitable bumping felt through the handset.
The whole experience is controlled using what amounts to a laser-style pointer that allows one to navigate around not only the cars, but also the paddock, while also giving access to data. All of this requires the teams to provide large amounts of data from the cars. This is built in to Formula E, but would be hard to achieve with the paranoid world of F1, where people like keeping secrets because… well, they like keeping secrets.

Formula E Screenshot Driver view.png

 

A film to watch…

98087_550x814Mario Muth has made his name in the sport with a series of short interviews with F1 subjects in recent years and he has now moved on to make a feature length documentary (94 minutes) about the 1983 British Formula 3 Championship. The film is called Senna vs Brundle and it is being launched this week. It is available through Vimeo on Demand and can be watched on a variety of devices either connected to the Internet or offline.

The story is told by key people who were part of the story including Brundle himself, team bosses Eddie Jordan and Dick Bennetts, drivers Allen Berg, Davy Jones, Mario Hytten, Calvin Fish, engineer Alastair McQueen and media folk David Tremayne, Jeremy Shaw and Keith Sutton. Click on the picture below for a preview.

Bits and Bobs

It is a big week for the automobile in China, with the 14th annual Beijing International Automotive Exhibition. There is a lot of news coming out of China at the moment in this respect, notably in connection with electric cars, but it is perhaps worth noting an unusual announcement last week when the oil company Royal Dutch Shell unveiled a concept car, a week before the show opened. An oil company building cars? Is that strange in a  world where several Internet search engines are planning automobiles? The first thing to say is that Shell, a Ferrari sponsor, is not planning to manufacture these devices but built the car to draw attention to the fact that there is still a lot of life in the high-efficiency petrol-burning cars, particularly those with hybrid bits and bobs. Shell believes that it will be many years before all these electric vehicles will make much impact on global emissions and that developing conventional machinery is just as important as pouring money into new-energy vehicles. The fact that this was done in China is probably a message to the government there, which is heavily promoting alternative energy vehicles through subsidies and other incentives. This is a message that F1 should be delivering, if it was capable of delivering any message, other than the people running it are greedy and don’t give a toss about anything but money.

One thing I noticed at the Formula E race in Paris was that there will soon be two Chinese-owned teams (and, oddly, Dragon Racing is not one of them).  The original Team China Racing, which competed in the 2014-2015 season, has since been taken over by NextEv TCR, a Chinese start-up, which has $1 billion behind it. This is aiming to take on Tesla in the electric car market and is being overseen by well known petrolhead Martin Leach. The former President of Ford Europe was CEO of Maserati but departed when Fiat decided to align the brand with Alfa Romeo. Later he came close to buying the Super Aguri F1 team, which would probably have been a good investment if it had gone ahead.

Coincidentally, Aguri Suzuki’s Formula E team is being sold at the moment and the word is that it has been bought by Chinese Media Capital (CMC), a private equity firm that was previously mentioned as a possible investor in the Formula One group. It decided not to do that and instead has invested in the promotion of the Formula E races in Beijing and Hong Kong. This is why Ma Qing Hua raced for Aguri in Paris. The word is that the team will buy the Renault Formula E powertrain next season and there are believed to be discussions going on about whether to brand it as one of Renault’s partners in China. The obvious choice would be Venucia, which was builds electric cars (with Nissan Leaf technology) for Renault partner Dongfeng.

The Chinese have plenty of money at the moment and therefore it is interesting to ask why they are buying into Formula E when they might be able to acquire F1 teams. It seems that the answer to this question is in the state of the sport at the moment. The technology is obviously interesting but the politics and demographics are not.

But, you never know, there could be a Chinese buyer out there if the deal is right and while Sauber is busy looking for support, it is likely that Force India will soon be in a similar position. The team can only operate if there is enough money and while there is funding from Diageo, Sergio Perez’s backers and from the F1 prize funds, this is probably not sufficient to allow the team to run competitively without further injections of capital. The fact that the team has given so much time this year to Alfonso Celis Jr would seem to suggest that he is providing some fairly hefty sums of money, given that his results are hardly a match for Stoffel Vandoorne. The team owners are in messes that do not seem to be getting any easier. Subrata Roy of the Sahara Group remains in jail in India, having failed for the last two years to raise the money to raise bail. The Supreme Court has now asked the market regulator to sell off the unencumbered assets of the Sahara Group, which is mainly real estate. Vijay Mallya, for his part, is holed up in a mansion in Hertfordshire, while the Indian authorities are trying to convince him that returning to India is a good option. He has consistently failed to appear before the Enforcement Directorate and an arrest warrant has now been issued. His diplomatic passport had been cancelled and work is beginning to extradite him to India. If that happens he can expect to be treated in much the same was as Roy has been. Mallya appears to have money and other assets all over the place and so he can go on funding the team. If India does request extradition it would do so by making a request to the  Minister for Security and Immigration, James Brokenshire MP. He will decide whether to pursue the request and then the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) would look into the case. A judge would then be asked to issue an arrest warrant and there would then be various hearings before a decision on extradition. There are, of course, appeals and so on and this means that the process could drag on, as wealthy men can always afford lawyers well-versed in stringing these things along or frightening off the CPS with costly arguments, while the Minister has the final say about any extradition.

Politicians are also currently playing important roles in a number of F1 races with The Hungarians having recently agreed a deal to extend the current F1 contract until 2026. This seems to be part of a process that the Formula One group is going through at the moment to put long term deals in place: this adds value to the balance sheets of the company and locks in promoters, who might otherwise decide to wait and see what happens with F1 politics… The government is believed to pay some of the fees for the race (although these things are never clear) and it is also responsible for the upgrading of the circuit. The Hungarian Minister for National Development Miklos Sesztak says that “substantial resources” for the development of the circuit have been written into the 2017 national budget because of the importance of the event. Things are not so simple in Italy where the regional government needs to pay up for upgrading work at Monza before a new contract can be signed, while in Germany there continue to be problems with the future because while Hockenheim has the money for a race every two years, the Nurburgring is still struggling. There is no real chance of public money because regional investment in the Ring resulted in a scandal that led to the resignation of the Rhineland state president Kurt Beck in 2013. Malu Dreyer, who replaced him, has recently won the local state elections and has a new coalition. This has agreed to increase spending on infrastructure and technology, but there is no sign that any of this money will go to help pay the Ring pay race fees.

Elsewhere, there are still possibilities for F1 in Long Beach as IndyCar is failing to deliver what the city wants. The recent Long Beach GP scored a TV rating of 0.37, which means that it was watched by about 460,000 people across the US. The show aired at 4.15pm on Sunday afternoon on the cable channel NBCSN.  This was matched on the Saturday by a Premier League soccer game between Manchester United and Aston Villa, which was aired at 10.00am. The word is that the city council gave the most recent deal to IndyCar because  they did not like some of Bernie Ecclestone’s must-publicised opinions about various things, but if they want their motor race to make sense, they may need to bite their tongues and find the money.

 

It is no great surprise to report that no agreement has been reached with regard to the engine regulations in 2017. There were a series of meetings today at Biggin Hill but the Strategy Group and the F1 Commission failed to finalise any new rules. The meetings were trying to solve problems of convergence of performance, availability of engines, the costs of the engines and the noise. The Strategy Group seems to have come up with some kind of agreement but the F1 Commission failed to get the majority required with the sticking point being the question of cost and guarantees that every team would get an engine. The parties involved have until the weekend to find an agreement or else things will remain unchanged in 2017. Changes to the chassis regulations for next year have proved to be easier to achieve and these should go ahead, although it is unclear whether the team bosses have had access to any series research and development data, to see if the decisions are a good idea or not. This is all fairly typical of F1 in its current state.

Elsewhere in F1 circles, Scuderia Toro Rosso has taken the unexpected step of hiring John Booth, formerly of Manor F1, to be its director of racing. Team boss Franz Tost says that the decision has been taken because of the increasing complexity of the sport, although the cynics may say that the move comes after a string of mistakes by the team

The Renault team has also announced that it will be running  Sergey Sirotkin in the FP1 session in Sochi and that the Russian will join the team as a test driver. Kevin Magnussen will thus lose the preparation time in Russia. Russia is a big market for Renault.

Sergey is one of the most promising drivers from the junior categories so it is great for us that he is joining Renault Sport,” said Frédéric Vasseur, the Racing Director of Renault Sport Racing. “For Renault Russia it is a good opportunity to harness the growing popularity of Russian motorsports.”

Sirotkin is funded by SMP Racing, a Russian company that belongs to Boris Rotenberg, at the founder of the SMP Bank. Rosenberg and his brother Arkady re members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and in consequence have faced sanctions from the US and from the EU since the Crimean takeover.

Renault  bought control of Avtoframos in 2012 and renamed the company Renault Russia two years later. The company produces Duster, Mégane, Fluence, Logan and Sandero models for the Russian market. Renault’s other involvement in Russia has been less successful.  The company bought into AvtoVaz in 2012 and now owns two-thirds of the business with Russian company Rostec owning the remaining shares. The company lost $1.2 billion last year and the company boss Bo Andersson recently resigned, to be replaced by Nicolas Maure, who was previously head of Dacia.

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