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Asking the fans

While one should never be unhappy when someone in Formula 1 says they are going to ask what the fans want, I cannot help but wonder whether the key to success for the sport might not be asking the people who DON’T watch the sport what it needs to do in the future to get them watching. The key to success is surely attracting new fans, new generations and new demographics. The fans of today will generally look backwards to “the good old days” when perhaps it would be wiser to look ahead. Yesterday I had a long chat in the paddock here in Monaco with James Allen, an old colleague from Autosport days, and a fellow blogger. He made a point that I absolutely agree with. It is a waste of time fiddling with the rules when the sport needs to make one primary decision: what is it trying to be? An entertainment, a profit centre, etc. Once it decides where it is trying to go, then the path will be easier…

The Formula 1 circus is gathering on the Cote d’Azur for the annual shindig around the streets of Monaco. For most of the people on this planet, Monaco is the epitome of glamour and  they say that even the bushmen in the Kalahari know that the Principality is famous for a car race. Some may think that it is a sunny place filled with shady people (as Somerset Maugham famously described it) and it is fair to say that there are more than a few bling-infested barbarians, with mountains of money but no class nor education. And yet, try as you might to hate the place, it is impossible to deny that this is a beautiful part of the world, albeit rudely over-developed and spectacularly over-priced. In recent years folk from Russia have infested these shores, just as 100 years ago, the White Russians came, fleeing the Bolsheviks. Perhaps they lack the gentility of the aristocrats back then, but as we know from John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bernie Ecclestone, money really does makes the world go around… The prices at Grand Prix time are today designed for oligarchs and computer nerd squillionaires and I long ago gave up lodging in the Principality. For a while I hung out in Beaulieu, but the prices got sillier and so I began renting apartments and villas.

I’ve stayed in some spectacular places in recent years and, because one rents from Saturday to Saturday, one gets a few days off before the Grand Prix begins. And so we left Paris on Friday and stopped in an undistinguished hotel in an undistinguished town in the Rhone Valley. On Saturday morning we hit the sunshine not far from Montelimar. We passed by an insignificant place called Lapalud, where the great Emile Levassor (of Panhard and Levassor) crashed on the Paris-Marseilles-Paris in 1896, swerving into a ditch to avoid an errant dog. He hurt himself so badly that he died early the following year. Over on the left is Mont Ventoux where there was an insane hill climb from 1902 onwards, won by some of the sport’s greatest names. Ahead is Avignon, home town of Jean Alesi, and from there one crosses the Durance, skirting the delightful Luberon, and passes Cavaillon, the capital of the melon. Ahead on the right is the airbase at Salon de Provence and just beyond it, the old autodrome at Miramas, briefly the home of the French GP in the 1920s. It’s still operating today, as a BMW test track. All along the coast from there to Monaco there are motorsport stories to tell, from Paul Ricard to Hyeres, Gonfaron to Mont Agel, La Garoupe to the Col de Turini. The region pervades the sport, not just with the Monte Carlo Rally or the Monaco Grand Prix but in more subtle ways as well. In 1898, for example, the Austro-Hungarian consul Emil Jellinek opened a dealership in Nice to sell Gottlieb Daimler’s automobiles to the rich and famous who were wintering on the Côte d’Azur. He competed in racing events, using as a pseudonym the name of his daughter Mercedes. Two years later he commissioned a new automobile from Stuttgart and this was the very first Mercedes.

This year’s accommodation is in La Turbie, which was the finish of the world’s very first hillclimb race in 1897. It is the village on top the hill above Monaco and a stunning place. It is on the Grande Corniche, the highest (and the most spectacular) of the three coast roads and this stakes a very decent claim to be France’s greatest piece of road, ducking from ridge to ridge. From up here one can look down about the palaces of the rich and famous.

I will go down to the stews of Monaco later in the week but for the next few days I’m going to simply enjoy looking down on the world below from a terrace (one of two!) from where I can see the Mediterranean, surrounded by a garden filled with cherry, lemon and olive trees with a mighty vine providing a little shade.

Another bottle of rosé? Churlish not to..

   

 

A positive sign…

The FIA and FOM have both recently taken on new communications people and it is a very good sign that today there has been a press release about yesterday’s Strategy Group meeting. The fact that there is a press release is a very good sign. This is, in fact, something I cannot remember seeing before: engagement with the fans…

The statement says that the members of the group and representatives of the engine manufacturers (but not the small teams) were invited to attend and they “debated a number of levers aimed at improving the show”. They then voted for the following. Next year there will be a free choice of dry tyre compounds for each team to use during a race weekend. In 2017 there will be faster cars with lap times dropping by 5-6 seconds by reducing the weight of the cars, adopting wider tyres and “through aerodynamic rules evolution”, the reintroduction of refuelling, but maintaining a maximum race fuel allowance (although it is not clear what this will be), higher revving engines and increased noise and a more aggressive look. This is, of course, a step backwards in terms of the presenting a forward-thinking image for the sport. Yes, the engines will still be efficient (although noise is, of course, wasting energy) but the cars will be allowed to burn more fuel. Refuelling was stopped years back because it was deemed a waste to transport refuelling machines around the world, but it has been allowed again to create a better show. Thus it is fair to say that the federation has weakened it position on changing the engine rules, so it is another compromise (read retreat), which pushes show business more to the fore. There will be a “global reflection on race weekend format”, which sounds worrying because there are bound to be folk who will argue for two races and reversed grids and other such fairground activities. There will also be measures to make sure that the drivers will take starts without any outside assistance.

The statement said that there had been “a constructive exchange” regarding a proposal for cost-cutting put forward by independent consulting company that was asked to come up with ideas. The cost-cutting proposals have yet to be put to the smaller teams, which have not been involved in the process to date, but they will now be consulted so that they can give their views (there is no suggestion that any of their proposals would be accepted). The strategy group has rejected the idea of a fifth engine this season but has at least decided to respect the stability of the rules, which means that the engine formula will not change in the short to medium term.

This is all well and good, but it remains to be seen whether this is good enough for the small teams. They have no real power in the current set-up, except that they have very little to lose by going to the European Commission and putting a time bomb under the whole arrangement. We would then find out whether the current arrangements are deemed to be acceptable in terms of competition law, which would be a good idea.

There was no word of customer cars, but these may be included in the cost-cutting proposals put forward by the consulting people, so it cannot be excluded that they are part of the package.

Is it positive or negative? Nothing is going to change in the short term, so that is negative. Changes for next year are minimal and the souping-up of the engines in 2017 are rather too much show business for my taste. Cost-cutting is good, but it depends what the proposals are. It would be good to hear about them…

Customer cars

If it is true that the Strategy Group has decided to allow customer cars (they did not bother to actually communicate on the subject) then the sport is in deeper trouble than ever. It should change its name to the Bad Strategy Group. This would be a big team decision, backed – or at least not opposed – by a promoter who has no long term thinking and a governing body that has sold its right to govern.

If the F1 world was a brothel, one would explain it as follows: the girls are still busy, but the pimp has sold the place to the flashy customers. The police chief has been bought and paid for. The customers want free service because they own the place, so they tell the girls “Don’t you know who I am?” And in time these exploited folk will drift away and no  replacements will be found. The place will close down and a chic new boutique hotel will take its place. It will be called the Formula E Hotel.

The thing that the big teams miss (or worse, do not care about) is that this will destroy the manufacturing base of the sport – the one thing that makes it different. That will leave the big teams unbeatable and will mean that there is no point in an ambitious young team owner even dreaming of running a customer team, because they will never be able to make the jump up to becoming a constructor. The customer teams will never beat the factories (why would that be allowed?) but they will be better so the smaller manufacturers will be pushed down the order and will die out. In the end there will be no customers, unless the big teams own and fund secondary teams (a la Toro Rosso). This will be like Mercedes and AutoUnion entering more and more cars in the races at the end of the 1930s because the opposition died out.

Thus for real racers, the next generation of Ron Dennises and Frank Williamses, there is no hope and they will have to look elsewhere, as successful GP2 and IndyCar teams now do. Formula E will grow as a result, sports cars will be stronger. F1 will weaken.

In the end this would be the start of a slippery slope that we have seen others take, notably CART. The manufacturers and big sponsors will go when they have finished using the sport and who will replace them? No one will pay the price they will want, so factories will close down and choice of chassis will reduce.

In the end it will be a one-make formula, a la CART (if you see what I mean) there could be a breakaway, but with no constructors left they only choice will be another customer car series – and that won’t work, a la IRL.

What is required is simple. Cheap customer engines and restrictions on spending

The one hope is that if the customer cars idea goes ahead, there could be trouble with the EU as the small teams will have nothing to lose with a complaint. Which means, in effect, that the government will come and visit the whorehouse…

I’m off to London today to sort out the computer mess with 100 percent certainty, and then I’ll be back tonight and heading for Monaco tomorrow, as these days I rent an apartment for a week of the race. I do this because the hoteliers got so greedy that you can get a decent apartment with a terrace and a view for the same price as a manky little single room in a grotty hotel outside Monaco. And you can get a few days of R&R before the GP.

Today is the F1 Strategy Group and while everyone is talking big, no great decisions are expected. The older folk want to go back to the previous F1 engines, which will not solve the problems that F1 has. It was cheaper and quieter to use horses after the car was invented… but that was hardly forward thinking. Going backwards will simply make the sport less relevant and less interesting for sponsors.

On the way to Spain for the first European event I was listening to the French radio and there was a promotion for Formula E. The electric championship is a flawed idea in my opinion because the technology does not exist to support it, but it is doing a much better job than F1 in making itself sound interesting. And it is getting to places where F1 cannot easily go, like major cities. Paris and New York will be next.

No one involved in F1 seems to think about the image of the sport, but the way forward must be to keep pushing with relevant technology but at the same time ensure financial control. There is a lot talk of change, but how much of it will actually get through? The big teams will likely block everything that will materially affect them. The decision-making structure and the FIA’s appalling dereliction of its duties with regard to the sport means that the federation cannot or will not force change.While one understands that the FIA needed money to survive, selling the right to govern the sport was an ill-considered move. I am absolutely not against the FIA as an institution, and will defend it in that role, but there needs to be the will (and the backbone) to solve problems and as the FIA leadership (and I paused before using such a grand word) do not like to fight. There must be ways that things can be done with the sporting regulations or by using other blocking powers to force the other players in F1 to stop messing everything up and to do the right thing for the sport. There seems little hope of an uprising within the empire – such is the power of patronage – so the only real hope is external force that might force change within. Bizarrely, the best thing for the sport right now, in my opinion, is probably a European Commission investigation to break up the useless decision-making structure and the commercial arrangements between the FIA and FOM, which were part of the deal. These two parties told the Commission after the last investigation that they would have very specific roles and that the FIA would provide governance and have no involvement in the commercial side of the business. Owning shares in the rights holding company is an odd way to avoid commercial involvement and giving up governance is a weird way to govern. I would imagine that a European Commission investigation would rather suit the Commercial Rights Holder (CRH) as it would enable them to tear up their deals with the FIA, Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes and allow for a different distribution of the money, with the CRH keeping more… 

Whatever the case, the outcome of the meeting today will probably be the key to deciding whether or not there is a complaint to the Commission. If there are no sensible deals for the small teams then they have nothing to lose…  And the worst enemy one can have is someone with nothing to lose.

In the meantime I am rather worried by the fact that the road safety people who are against Jean Todt’s envoy role have made a point of linking the Frenchman with F1, when in reality he plays no great role these days. The danger of this is that campaigns to topple Todt from his new position will drag the sport into a position where it is seen to be anti road safety. I have no objection to Todt wanting to be the man with the biggest hat in road safety, but he should give up his FIA role now that he has the other position. The sport has done much over the years to improve the safety on the roads but this is not its job ( this is the work of the FIA Foundation) and few in F1 (if any) want to be involved with the ill-considered role that Todt has manoeuvred his way to. It is clear that the road safety lobby has recognised the value of publicity regarding F1 by including a reference to the sport in their complaints. This was not an accident. The sport is in danger of being dragged into this mess.

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 23.49.14I won’t go into details about how GP+ was produced this week, but I shall be taking the new computer back tomorrow and heading to the UK to get my hands on one with a QWERTY keyboard, which you cannot buy in France… This means I have been creating it on an AZERTY, so one must type the wrong letters to get the ones you want. I have torn out most of my hair. However, it’s done. Thanks to all those who have helped me in the last 48 hours. It’s not a bad recovery given that I also drove 1,000km in that period.

This week we have a Carlos Sainz interview, we remember Francois Michelin (a cedilla is beyond me this evening…) and the 1975 Spanish GP, plus some heavy-hitting columns about the sport. If you would like to sign up for the magazine, go to www.grandprixplus.com

Bad news folks…

Despite the help of some of the best brains in Formula 1 it is not going to be possible to produce GP+ tonight as there appears to have been some kind of motherboard failure on the computer on which everything is created. This means that for the first time in years I am going to be able to have dinner on a Sunday night because there is nothing more that I can do. I will finish the magazine and the JSBM newsletter as soon as I can, but tomorrow is going to be spent largely travelling back to Paris. I will then buy a new Mac and catch up. Despite all the problems, we will still be out faster than most other magazine. I do apologise for this…

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