Foolish thoughts

I always like April Fool’s Day, and (I think) I am now wary enough not to fall for daft stories on April 1. This year I though Alpine F1 won the game by announcing that it was signing Pierre Gasly for 2022. The Gasly quote was a work of genius.

“Bonjour everyone. Pierre here. I’m very glad to announce that I will be racing for Alpine next season,” the statement said. “It has always been a dream of mine to race at the pinnacle of motorsport, even more so with a French team. If there are any media outlets reposting this blindly, they should re-assess their staff capabilities imo. For legal reasons, this is a total joke, but if Pierre actually moves to Alpine next year you didn’t hear it from me.”

The thing about an April Fool is that it should be just believable enough to take in the gullible and Pierre to Alpine is something that might actually happen in 2022. And let’s face it, motor racing has some daft stories that don’t sound very likely. If, for example, one announced on April 1 that the Shanghai International Circuit is built on a giant polystyrene platform floating in a marsh, who would believe it to be true?

But it is…

In 1999 one April Fool circulating in Germany suggested that there would be an F1 race at night… Little did they know.

My favourite motor racing April Fool was the idea of a Grand Prix at Heathrow. The problem was that the airport couldn’t close down on Fridays and Saturdays and so the cars would run one by one in qualifying and it would be timed so that a car would run between each arriving flight…

No-one seems to really know where this daft tradition of telling tall stories comes from but there are theories that suggest the Sixteenth Century when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian version, which moved the New Year to January 1 from April 1 and that those who continued to celebrate on the old date were looked upon as fools, or poisson d’avril (April fish), on the basis that they were easily hooked…

There have been some truly splendid examples over time including BBC Panorama’s celebrated item about Swiss farmers picking freshly-grown spaghetti from their trees, which led to large numbers of requests to the BBC asking where one might buy spaghetti trees. And there was a famous 1977 April Fool in The Guardian, when they included a seven-page travel supplement about an island called San Serriffe, a small archipelago, its main islands (Upper and Lower Caisse) “ressembling a semi-colon” in the Indian Ocean. This was reported to be moving slowly across the ocean, but the supplement included all kinds of advertising from big name companies that made it very convincing – unless, of course, you understand a little about the world of typography.

This year I suppose the prize should really go to Volkswagen US, although they broke the cardinal rule of April Fool jokes. An April Fool joke can only be perpetrated before lunch, otherwise you are a fool yourself. Nonetheless, they announced that as a result of its switch to electric cars in the future, the company was going to change its name to Voltswagen. I read one super suggestion that the VW Camper should be relaunched and renamed the Voltswagen Ampere. However I also saw that some of the Internet neo-puritans who didn’t think this was funny and accused VW of telling lies.

I did also hear that there is a new ship being built in Plymouth called Mayflower II designed to transport all the neo-puritans to South Georgia, but sadly I doubt that was true…

Green Notebook from Juffair

They play cricket in Juffair. Bahrain is a funny place like that. It has loads of high-rise buildings but between them there are sandy patches of ground, where presumably one day another skyscraper will be built. But for the moment these are used as parking lots – and cricket grounds.

You may be scratching your head about Arabs playing cricket but I read a wonderful story the other day about the late King Hussein of Jordan, who adored playing the game. The story was told by Mordechai Beyan, who was an Israeli spy, who was out in the desert one day, in Jordan.

“All at once,” he wrote, “a glittering bevy of camel-riders appeared from nowhere and surrounded me. I was resigning myself to a bullet in the head or at very least 20 years in an Amman jail, when the leader, who was none other than King Hussein, revealed that they were about to play a game of cricket and were one man short. ‘Tell me, O traveller,’ he asked, in the courteous tones for which he was world famous, ‘would you care to join us to make up one of our number whose camel has gone lame some miles back. Do you bowl or bat?’

“It so happened that when I joined Mossad I had undergone an intensive period of cricket training, prior to being posted to Britain, so I willingly joined him as a fast medium utility seam bowler. It was a most enjoyable game, and we won by three wickets. ‘Well played, sir,’ said the King to me afterwards. ‘I had no idea the Jews had a talent for ball games.’

“You know that I am…?” I gasped.

“‘We Arabs have some talent for intelligence-gathering too,’ he smiled. ‘Perhaps we should play again soon. An Arab-Israeli cricket match might make breakthroughs unattainable in other ways.’”

Anyway, in Bahrain it is not the King, nor even the Crown Prince who play cricket (although I suspect the latter knows how to), but rather the vast numbers of Indians, who live and work in Bahrain, as traders and construction workers. You will regularly see them playing cricket on the dust patches of Juffair.

The Bahrain International Circuit is a sports ground on a rather bigger dust patch, out in the desert, about halfway down the island. Out there one can make lots of noise and no-one cares.

We’ve spent a lot of time in Bahrain in recent months and, if you stop to think about it, three of the last four Grands Prix, and the only winter test, have all taken place in Bahrain, which is a record that is unlikely to ever be beaten. You would think that a season when the teams agreed to use the same chassis as the previous season would mean that the the pecking order would be largely the same, as around 60 percent of the parts were unchanged. However, some teams worked harder than others on development because of the strange situation in which we find the sport.

Some teams are focussing on the future, because they think that the 2022 rules changes offer a better chance to move up the F1 ladder, while other teams have more pressing needs and so are focussing on impressing in 2021. Both Williams and Haas have said that they are going to put their efforts into 2022 because they don’t see anything to be gained by spending money this year. One can see that Alfa Romeo, for example, has a different focus. This is the last year of the Alfa Romeo sponsorship (at the moment) and so the team wants to look good. But is there logic in spending tens of millions to develop a car if one only gains one place in the Constructors’ Championship – which might mean another $7 million in prize money? The answer is yes, if a big sponsorship is at risk…

And then there is the Ferrari situation. The team was horrible last year for reasons that we have been into before. They really had to do a better job and so a lot was spent to get a better engine, however without any troublesome grey areas. There is no question that the car is now quicker and having Charles Leclerc fourth on the grid and Carlos Sainz eighth looked quite decent. However, it must be said that this may have had a touch more PR value than racing logic. Getting through Q2 using softs meant that the team looked good on the grid and people who analyse gaps and things will say nice things, but they did so at the expense of a good performance in the race. Starting on soft tyres was definitely not the best strategy, particularly at a track where overtaking is relatively easy. Thus Leclerc went from fourth to sixth in the race. The key point I think was that Charles still finished 59 secs behind the winner, which is one second a lap off the pace in terms of race pace… And they weren’t the only ones to try the Q2 soft trick…

And, of course, you have Honda. They are leaving at the end of the year and they want to go out on a high because the Honda F1 programme up to now has been wildly average (at best). Going out on a high is important from a pride point of view…

Anyway, we don’t really know the full picture as yet but what we do know is that the racing is going to be good because the midfield is really tight.

F1 fans voted Sergio Perez as the driver of the day (the Dutch fans were presumably asleep) but I must say that I thought it should have gone to Yuki Tsunoda, who became the first driver in five years to score points on his F1 debut and the first Japanese driver to score points in nearly a decade, the last being Kamui Kobayashi in 2012. There was no luck involved in this performance. He was caught out in Q2 by the soft users and so ended up qualifying only 13th on the grid. He made a bit of a slow start and dropped to 16th but then passed George Russell, Sebastian Vettel (twice), Esteban Ocon, Fernando Alonso and then Kimi Raikkonen to get into the top 10 with 20 laps to go. He then hunted down Lance Stroll and took ninth on the last lap. Afterwards, he said that he felt a bit sorry when he overtook Alonso and admitted it was quite emotional for him.

Ross Brawn was impressed too although he did point out that “his language in the car can be a bit fruity”, which just goes to show that children and nuns should not watch F1 and certainly not indulge in “Drive to Survive” with Guenther F**king Steiner and others…

Japanese fans are excited with Tsunoda making a good impression and in China there is a lot of excitement as well as Guanyu Zhou is beginning to look like an F1 driver of the future.

The Alpine young driver did an impressive job in the three Formula 2 races in Bahrain and has a big lead in the championship. There is already talk that he might be seen next year at Williams and there are even suggestions that the team could switch to Renault power as part of that deal. I don’t know if that is a good idea or not but being the second Renault team might be better than being the fourth Mercedes team…

Aston Martin’s return to F1 was a little bit in the tradition of the company in F1. It was not good. Lance Stroll was 11th and if one thinks that Sergio Perez won in Bahrain just a few months ago, this was not a good sign. Sebastian Vettel’s weekend was awful, qualifying 18th and then getting a penalty for ignoring yellow flags and so started he started the race from the back of the grid. And he finished 15th, behind the Williams of George Russell, after ruining Esteban Ocon’s race and getting a 10-second penalty for it. The only points that Seb scored all weekend were penalty points – and he got an armful of them. Maybe it is just me, but in the darkness in Bahrain I kept mistaking the Aston Martin for the Mercedes as the liveries seem very similar when there isn’t much light. I hope that the green looks better in bright sunlight…

The media did get some chance to mix with the F1 folk at the weekend, although we were confined to a sort of cage with a gap of two metres being policed by the FIA guard dogs and the COVID delegate in his watch tower. Some felt it was rather insulting to be caged up, but my view is that some access is better than no access and I had a number of useful chats, although people can still see who you are talking to. Still, it’s a move in the right direction and I hope that before too long these charades will end and we will be back as normal F1 citizens…

One of the things that I learned while chatting over the wall was that Mercedes is cleverer than some of the other teams as they craftily arrived offering drinks to the imprisoned pressmen. I am told that one could also order a coffee from Sauber (although it is a long walk from the end of the paddock to the media centre) so it might have been cold by the time it arrived…

Still, one cannot complain.

I’ve always been a fan of Carlos Sainz (senior and junior) and I find the younger version to be smart, intelligent and charming. One gets the impression that he is actually interested in other people, which makes him not unique but relatively unusual amongst F1 drivers. Anyway, Carlos understands that teamwork is all about people and so rather than flying in to Maranello from time to time from a tax haven, he has taken an apartment in a nearby town and is spending his life there, visiting the factory all the time and getting to know everyone. I cannot remember who it was but one driver said to me one time that it was important to buy your mechanics a pizza and some beer and they’d love you forever. I think Carlos is working on a similar theme.

In the course of the weekend I bumped into several old pals, notably Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, who were both in Bahrain to watch the action. It is always fun to catch up with the old campaigners and chew the cud a bit, even if one had to do it with face masks.

Travelling to and from the race proved to be quite a challenge when it came to paperwork, but the biggest problems were not COVID-19 related, but rather the result of the complexities of being a Brit living in France in the post-Brexit age and trying to explain to Arabs that a resident’s card is not required until October… although one would certainly be useful.

Next stop Imola.

Don’t miss the next Audience

The first race of the year has been and gone and I was out in Bahrain to watch the action.

I am hosting another online Audience with Joe tomorrow, and there are still a few tickets left, so if you want to be part of a private two hour zoom conference call to ask questions about Formula 1 – anything at all – you can sign up by Clicking here.

But hurry because there are not many of them… We limit access so that everyone has a chance to ask a question or two.

Williams signs Demaison

Williams Racing has appointed François-Xavier Demaison as its new Technical Director. He will take overall responsibility for the technical operation of the team including the design and aerodynamic functions, reporting to CEO, Jost Capito.

After studying at two of France’s most famous engineering schools, the École Supérieure des Techniques Aéronautiques et de Construction Automobile (ESTACA) and then École Nationale Supérieure du Pétrole et des Moteurs (now known as IFP), he was recruited by Renault and went to work in the UK, initially at Swindon and then in the Renault UK headquarters in Rickmansworth. He then decided to return to France and joined Peugeot Sport, working on the F1 engine programme at Velizy Villacoublay. He moved from there to the World Rally Championship programme and in 2006 was taken on by Prodive to be chief rally engineer for Subaru in the WRC but in 2008 was back in France, working with Citroen in the WRC.

He was named technical director of Petter Solberg World Rally Team in 2010 and stayed for a year before taken on by Volkswagen as project manager for the Volkswagen Polo WRC programme. he then became technical director of VW Motorsport in 2016 but with the closure of the division last year he was on the market and Capito, who used to head VW Motorsport snapped him up for Williams.

François-Xavier has spent the last few years overseeing the technical development of the ground-breaking ID.R electric race car, that achieved multiple records at Pikes Peak and around the old Nurburgring.

“We are delighted to welcome FX to the team,” says Capito. “I have seen his technical capabilities first-hand, and his sporting successes speak for themselves. Bringing in someone of his calibre to our already experienced technical team will help drive the future direction of our operation and strengthen our team. I have no doubt that his knowledge will contribute to us taking another important step towards our ambitions of winning again.”

Johnny Dumfries 1958 – 2021

I am very sad to have to report the death of the man Formula 1 knew as Johnny Dumfries, but was also known as John Bute and as John Crichton-Stuart. Johnny was born into the Scottish aristocracy and had a string of titles including becoming the Marquis of Bute, the Earl of Windsor, Viscount Ayr, Lord Crichton of Sanquhar and Cumnock, Viscount Kingarth, Lord Montstuart Cumbrae and Inchmarnock, Baron Cardiff, and Viscount Mountjoy. However he was, for a time, the Earl of Dumfries and it was under that name that he is best known.

Born in the family castle at Rothesay on the island of Bute in 1958, Johnny turned his back on an expensive education and took a job as a van driver with Williams thanks to his cousin Charlie Crichton-Stuart, the team’s sponsorship guru at the time. He then began working in London as a painter and decorator, not wanting to use family money and not wanting the racing world to know who he was. He scraped together the money to race in Formula Ford 1600 and then in Formula 3, where he made his first significant impression in 1983 when he battled with Ayrton Senna in a round of the European F3 series at Silverstone, driving a car known as The Red Rocket. It was a mighty performance and attracted the attention of Dave Price who had a budget to run youngsters from BP. The team dominated the British Formula 3 series, winning 10 times, and also competed in European races, finishing runner-up to Ivan Capelli, which earned him a Ferrari test contract while racing in Formula 3000 with the Onyx team. When Ayrton Senna vetoed the choice of Derek Warwick at Team Lotus for 1986, Lotus signed Dumfries, but he was in a tough place, struggled against the mighty Senna, without much experience, and was dumped by the team after just one year.

He turned instead to sports car racing and signed to drive with fellow Scot Tom Walkinshaw’s Jaguar team in 1987 and won a number of races including the 1988 Le Mans 24 Hours. He finished off his career with the Toyota factory sports car team in 1989 and 1990 and then retired from racing to run the family empire, which consisted of a huge amount of property. In 2002 he returned to the sport to promote the Mount Stuart Motorsport Classic – a motoring festival at his family home on the Isle of Bute, modelled on Goodwood, but this was too successful for the local infrastructure to cope with.

Johnny died of cancer at the age of just 62. One of a gang of drivers from that era, known as The Rat Pack, Johnny was unfortunate to come up against Senna. In another era he might have survived longer as an F1 driver.

The GP+ Season Preview is ready…

The GrandPrix+ season preview is now ready for subscribers to download. If you’re not a subscriber you can sign up for the oldest and still the fastest F1 e-magazine, now in its 15th year of publication. It’s always been a bargain and that hasn’t changed. This year you will get at least 25 magazines (depending on the number of races). And it will cost you only £39.99, or £1.60 an issue. And you can keep all the magazines in your own devices, so you can read them whenever you like.

GP+ has been present at every race for its entire existence, even during the pandemic, and we will be aiming to do the same in 2021.

In this issue, we have an exclusive interview with the new F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali. We look at F1’s finances after the difficult COVID-19 season. Nikita Mazepin is someone everyone is talking about. We ask about his ability to drive racing cars. We look at a new generation of Danish drivers. We remember (with fondness) Murray Walker and Thrust 2 designer John Ackroyd. And we try to make some predictions about the year ahead.

If you don’t have a GP+ subscription, you should give it a try. To sign up, go to http://www.grandprixplus.com/signup.html

Here’s the Jeddah street circuit

F1 has revealed the new street circuit located in Jeddah’s Corniche district on the Red Sea, approximately 12km north of the city centre, on the country’s west coast. The locals hope that a spectacular coastal backdrop and a night race will provide an exciting new event for F1 fans – if they are allowed to attend.

Developed in partnership by Tilke Engineers and F1’s own motorsports division, the circuit design uses the long, sweeping roads along the Corniche, using existing roads as much as possible. An atypical street circuit with fast flowing with high speed esses and chicanes as well as long full throttle sections, the Jeddah Street Circuit is designed to deliver spectacular racing.

For what it is worth…

Lap times in testing are not always the most important thing – because one never knows what teams are up to; and whether they are producing sensible results – or trying to give the impression that they are faster than is really the case. One can write learned treatises about this tyre and that tyre and fuel load calculations, but you still don’t know if drivers are lifting off to produce slower times than the cars are capable of doing and it’s hard to be sure if people are running underweight.

It is much more sensible to look at the number of laps covered to get an idea about which cars are troublesome and which seem to be behaving well. This covers both mechanical reliability and incidents caused by drivers fighting cars that don’t do what they want them to do.

Using this method one might be forgiven for thinking that Mercedes is not very competitive this year. That be a bit of a stretch as you cannot write off a team with a record like it has, but one can note that the four teams using Mercedes engines (Mercedes, Williams, McLaren and Aston Martin) have covered the least ground in the first two days.

The other teams have all done about the same, give or take 12 laps. Is this significant?

In terms of the most mileage, it’s effectively a tie with Alpine having done 257 laps, one more than Red Bull and Alfa Romeo, four more than AlphaTauri and 10 more than Haas. Ferrari is just two laps behind the US team and then there is a 30-lap gap back to the first Merc-engined team: Williams. McLaren is 20 down on that while Aston Martin might perhaps look lovely, but being 80 laps down on Alpine is not a great start. And Merc is 15 laps down on the green machines…

Laps are limited in F1 these days, more than ever, and so losing time is painful for two reasons: the drivers have less time to get to know (and tame) the cars, and there is less data for the engineers to scratch their heads over and to use for their simulation programmes.

In terms of lap times, Merc’s Valtteri Bottas leads the way with a 1m30.289s, ahead of Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) with a 1m30.413s and Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) with a 1m30.460s. McLaren’s Lando Norris is next with a 1m30.586 and then we have Max Verstappen’s best from the first day at 1m30.674s in his Red Bull.

Let’s see how things change on Day 3, the final day of pre-season running – apart from a few filming days that are due.

Murray Walker 1923 – 2021

It is with huge sadness that I must report that Murray Walker died this morning at the age of 97.

It has been nearly 20 years since Murray attended Formula 1 races on a regular basis, but he remained an enthusiast until the end. Murray’s enthusiasm was what often got him into trouble as a TV commentator and he was famed for his mistakes. He always used to do endless research for his commentary – but then was so excited during the races that he forgot most of it. People called him a British national treasure – and that is absolutely right.

Murray had a remarkable life, but he rarely talked of his adventures which began in 1923 in Hall Green, Birmingham. His father Graham was a celebrated motorcycle racer, after serving as a despatch rider in World War I. Graham Walker was the European 500cc Champion in 1927 and won the 250cc class on the Isle of Man TT in 1931. By then he had become the Competition Director of the Rudge motorcycle firm in Coventry and travelled to races all over Europe. From 1938 onwards he became the editor of Motor Cycling magazine, a job which he held until 1954.

Murray was given a motorcycle when he was 14 and was soon competing in trials, although such activities were restricted by attending Highgate School, in north London. Despite this in the holidays he sometimes travelled with his father and as a result attended the Donington Grand Prix in 1938, watched the famous Silver Arrows in action and was even introduced to Tazio Nuvolari. In the summer of 1939 the family was touring Germany and Austria when it became clear that war was coming and they made a hurried return to the UK before the war began. Highgate School was soon evacuated to Westward Ho! in North Devon and Walker spent the next two years in a very peaceful environment while the war waged elsewhere. In the autumn of 1941 when he reached 18 he volunteered for the Royal Armoured Corps, but he would not be called up for nearly a year, which he spent in Birmingham, working for  Dunlop.

Finally he was ordered to Bovington Camp in Dorset, where he underwent basic training before being sent on to the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst for the next 18 months. He finally graduated in April 1944 but then underwent further training before being sent to Europe to join the Royal Scots Greys, a cavalry regiment that was equipped with Sherman tanks. He joined the regiment in Holland in the autumn of 1944, just after Operation Market Garden, the airborne assault up to Arnhem. It was then a quiet sector but in the spring of 1945 Walker was in the thick of it, as the Scots Greys fought across northern Germany, liberating Bremen and Lubeck and ending the war in Wismar, on the Baltic coast, where they linked up with the Russian Armies coming from the east. Later he would be sent to the Belsen camp, near Hannover, although by the time he arrived the concentration camp had been demolished and it had been turned into a training facilty for the Royal Armoured Corps.

In 1947 he was sent home and immediately began to involve himself in motorcycle racing. His father was by then a BBC commentator and Murray got his first break at a hillclimb which his father was unable to attend. He would then become the stand-in commentator for motorcycle and motor racing events, replacing his father and Raymond Baxter when necessary. But that was his weekend job because during the week he worked in advertising. He started out at Dunlop but then in 1955 went to work in Asia with Aspro, a kind of aspirin. He then joined McCann Erickson to work on the Esso account. In 1959 he joined a smaller agency called Masius Ferguson, where he would remain until 1982. This would become the second largest advertising firm in Britain, after J Walter Thompson, largely as a result of a successful relationship with Forrest Mars, for whom the agency launched pet food products Kit-E-Kat and Pal. Walker admits that he was responsible for the hugely successful slogan for Trill bird food: “An only budgie is a lonely budgie” which increased sales considerably as many budgie owners bought a second bird and thus sales increased. The success with Mars led to the firm being used to promote Mars Bars, Maltesers and other confectionary. It is a myth that Murray invented the famous “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play” but he was the director of that account and he was responsible for another celebrated slogan: “Opal Fruits: Made to make your mouth water”.

After his retirement from advertising, Murray became a fulltime commentator, although the BBC did not send him to all the races until the early 1990s, usually missing the non-European events. He would remain with the BBC until 1996 and then moved to ITV from 1997 to 2001 before finally stepping back at the age of 78.

Murray was a friend as well as a colleague and I worked with him for quite a lot of years when the BBC would not send him to far-flung races. My job was to be a “ghost commentator” for him and James Hunt, providing them with live information from the BBC commentary box, via the producer Mark Wilkin. James hated this situation and always used to say “And I cannot quite see from where I am sitting”, but Murray showed his understanding of the arts of TV directorship by very often pre-empting the shot that the directors would switch to after something had happened. It was astonishing how often he was right…