Green Notebook from Mosonmagyaróvár

The sun is coming up in Mosonmagyaróvár, or perhaps it is better to say that the skies are lightening across the Pannonian Plain. You can tell already that it is going to be a blisteringly hot day across Europe, but the sun will not make an appearance until about five thirty. By then I hope to be across the Austrian border and wiggling through the Wienerwald, where Johann Strauss wrote waltzes and where today the Vienna ring road helps one avoid traffic jams in the city.

I am glad that I am not driving east, but I know that by evening I will be heading straight into the setting sun, which will make things a bit more complicated in the final few miles, when I will be closer to home, in country lanes, with a million dead bugs on the windscreen.

I know it doesn’t sound very sensible to set off to drive 1,600 km after a night without sleep (Hey kids, don’t try this at home) but there are times in F1 when you do what you have to do, no matter what it takes. I am used to long drives when I am tired. It’s my wife’s birthday and it’s never nice to celebrate alone, so I’m heading home to start the summer break a day earlier than planned – and I haven’t told her and I have cursed the calendar-makers of F1 for putting the race on the wrong weekend, so that it will all be a big surprise for her.

I’ve already covered a couple of hundred kilometres, but home is still 1,400kms away. The journey will take me by way of Linz, Munich, Stuttgart, Metz and Reims. If I drive all day, I should be home before the sun sets.

The Formula 1 summer holiday has begun and the idea of spending time at home is most appealing, particularly after four races in five weekends. I drive because I no longer want the stress of airports and planes at a time when everything is up the creek following the COVID pandemic. At every race I hear the tales of travel horrors from those who are condemned to fly everywhere, of missing bags and queues as far as the eye can see.

Driving may not always be easy, but at least you are in control of your own destiny – and you can leave a jam and find another way to get home. That sense of freedom and the lack of stress makes it worthwhile. Stress, as the old F1 doctor Sid Watkins always used to say, kills more people than other things – and so I take Sid’s advice and make new discoveries every day.

When I crossed the Austro-Hungarian border on the way out to Budapest, I did what I always do and switched the radio to a local station. You learn a lot just by listening to a language and these days I can understand far more languages than used to be the case, thanks to listening to traffic reports and news bulletins. I am convinced, however, that I will never understand a single word of Hungarian. I was impressed by the road signs that screamed “Tartson Jobbra!” – which sounded vaguely rude – but I learned that it means “Keep right”.

After a while I realised I had some time to spare and decided to have a bit of a wander around and headed down Route 82, which goes from Györ to Veszprem, over the Bakony mountains, which run diagonally across the western part of the country, splitting the Great Hungarian Plain from the Little Hungarian Plain.

It was not long before I encountered a horse and cart… then the magnificent castle of Csesznek, or at least the ruins of it. I guess it lies in ruins because of battles between the feuding clans of Hungary in another age, but in truth I was more interested in the fact that the town of Papa is about 50 miles from the village of Dad, by way of a lot of villages that would score very highly when playing Scrabble.

I also discovered that Veszprém will be the European Capital of Culture in 2023, which means that they are digging up all the roads at the moment and their signposting is so poor that I ended up in a place called Marko and wondered if the family of the good doctor of Red Bull fame might have hailed from these parts.

Anyway, all of this gave me plenty of time to think about the F1 calendar and what a difficult beast it is to tame.

In a normal year in Formula 1 there would be a draft of next season’s calendar before the summer break and the folks at Liberty Media, while still wet behind the ears, talked of producing calendars earlier and more regionalised than used to be the case in the Ecclestone Era. This was commendable, but the desire for more dates means that things are much more complicated. Race promoters have their own ideas about what they want and they do not much care about other races – except to avoid them, if they consider another Grand Prix will take away some of their spectators. Having a better calendar would also help F1 in its desire to reduce emissions, which is one of the goals that the sport has set itself, in order to stay out of trouble with activist environmental groups.

The last couple of weeks have seen me driving nearly 5,000 km, with another 4,000 in the fortnight before that. This could hardly be described as environmentally-friendly, particularly when one considers that the F1 circus requires around 300 big thirsty trucks to go from place to place. They always look nice and shiny, which is a good advert for the sport, but they pump out fumes aplenty. This fleet has gone from Britain to Austria then back to France and then back to Hungary before heading home for the break. This means a great deal of needless emissions for which F1 gets the blame, although to be fair it is because the race promoters in Austria and Hungary think the races are too close together (geographically) to be back-to-back. This is not a very sensible argument because some of the fans (particularly the Dutch) will go anywhere and will often combine two events with their summer holidays.

The biggest problem for F1’s regionalization programmes is that some of the promoters have the date of their races written into the contracts and are unwilling to change the terms of the deal. This means that F1 cannot change the dates unless compromises can be found.

This is particularly obvious with Miami and Montreal, one in May and the other in June. The two races are far enough apart on a map to not create a problem, but Montreal wants to keep its June date, which it views as being key to its success, and Miami has a 10-year deal for early May, between its Miami Open tennis competition and the point at which the weather in Florida gets too hot.

Moving Montreal into May would create the opposite problem because in Canada it can still be pretty wintry at that point. So F1 has to go backwards and forwards across the Atlantic twice each spring.

One has to add the fact that (quite rightly) the teams do not want triple-headers (because F1 people need lives as well), plus the freight difficulties and the usual desires to have a race fitting in with a local holiday, such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead. And, on top of all this, there are other sports events that are best avoided. These days one had COVID problems as well because China and Japan have not got it sorted yet and then there are ego problems with Monaco and money to be found in South Africa. In short, it is a complete nightmare.

Thus there are various different draft calendars at the moment, each dependent on which race agrees to go where. Until recently it looked like the start of 2023 was sorted out with the first race being in Bahrain on March 5 with a break and Saudi Arabia back-to-back with Australia, on March 19 and March 26. However it now seems that this has been vetoed, although I did note the presence of the race promoters from Australia and Saudi Arabia in Budapest.

For now, however, it seems that there will be a weekend off between Saudi and Australia (and thus more people flying out and back and out and back).

Australia was then going to go back-to-back with South Africa, but the Kyalami contract is not yet signed off because of money.

We also hear that Qatar has now decided that it does not want to be twinned with Abu Dhabi and would prefer a spring date… and, of course, Doha is paying a lot of money.

As an aside, I also discovered that the plan to have a waterfront event in Doha has evaporated and the Qataris now think it is better to upgrade the Losail facility. I am not quite sure why a track surrounded by sand will sell the country better than a track along a waterfront, but perhaps it is because Qatar does not want to seen to be copying Saudi Arabia. Oddly enough, however, the Saudis are still planning on moving their race from Jeddah to a wadi near Riyadh, so maybe the Qataris will change their mind once the Saudis have finished that…

The inclusion of the Belgian GP seems to be conditional on China and/or South Africa not happening, but no-one seems sure about where Imola, Barcelona, Baku and Belgium will fall, and whether Monaco will happen. Is there any part of the calendar that is actually settled? Well, it is difficult to say, but I hear that the crazy Britain-Austria-France-Hungary leg will become Austria-Britain-Something-Hungary, which makes a bit more sense. The something could be one of the above…

I am pretty sure that the Dutch GP will be at the end of August, with the Italian GP a week later and the Singapore-Japan back-to-back will be in September, although China will be moving to the autumn, if it happens at all. I also hear that Austin, Mexico and Brazil will be a triple-header and that Vegas will go back-to-back with Abu Dhabi. The good news, however, is that it looks like the season will be finished by the end of November, which means that F1 families should be happy as there will be some time for Christmas shopping…

What I can tell you with confidence (as much as you can with anything in F1) is that the Australian Grand Prix will be the opening race of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship in 2024 and 2025, because the Middle Eastern races need to take place later because of Ramadan.

Still, in F1 one needs to be wary of “certainties”. I was just a tad irritated when I heard that Fernando Alonso had signed for Aston Martin because it seemed before that came that he would be staying at Alpine in 2023. It was a big surprise in that it is utterly illogical (except from a financial point of view) and it came as a shock to everyone, even Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer.

This made me feel a little better as a few hours earlier I had written confidently in my JSBM newsletter that Alonso would stay, based on the fact that all my best sources seemed to be agreed on it. The newsletter also included a lot of detail about Oscar Piastri joining McLaren and how that might be possible.

What was clear was that Oscar could not afford to sit out another year without racing and Alpine had to decide whether to keep Alonso, who is doing a great job, or dropping the old lion and putting in a feisty pup. It was a tough call.

On paper, of course, McLaren has contracts with Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo – and has a testing programme going on with Colton Herta.

Piastri is seen as being a bit special and Alpine was in a difficult spot, it seems like McLaren saw a chance to grab him. Teams always want to avoid the bad publicity that comes with dubious contractual behaviour, although history relates that all contacts can be broken if a team is desperate enough – and rich enough. Piastri has a contact with Alpine (so they say) which guarantees him a race seat in 2023. This may not say which team that seat would be with, and the word is that Alpine offered to put Oscar into Williams. This is not a good choice for him. The rest of the story depends on the wording of the contract options, to which we are never privy.

Ricciardo has a contract for next year but, popular though he is, Daniel has been disappointing in his time with McLaren, except that he won a race last year. Lando has yet to win but clearly has the advantage at the moment. Ricciardo is saying that he has no intention of moving, but one can see why McLaren might want to off-load him and grab Piastri. Pushing Daniel out of the way would require a contract settlement and how this could be achieved is unclear because money is not the only thing.

Without a McLaren drive, Ricciardo’s F1 future is not looking great. McLaren seems to have got itself into a similar mess in the US where the Indycar team is also overstocked with drivers with Pato O’Ward, Alex Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist on the books and some kind of deal going down with Álex Palou.

The Spanish driver’s current employer Chip Ganassi says he has a valid option with Palou and it all seems to be heading into the hands of lawyers. This is all a little strange. The problem between Palou and Ganassi is clearly about money. Chip made him a star and now wants a third season cheap. There is an option (wording unknown), Palou thinks he can get out, Ganassi thinks Palou has to stay.

One imaginative solution (which perhaps McLaren had thought about) is for McLaren to offer Ricciardo to Ganassi, in place of Palou If McLaren agreed to pay Daniel a suitable salary (a lot less than in F1) it would put him into a top IndyCar drive, would leave McLaren with enough to pay Piastri, put Palou into a McLaren IndyCar and secure two hot talents at the same time. Rosenqvist would then be shunted into Formula E.

The downside of all of this is that there would be no room at McLaren for Herta. He has, in any case, a contract with Andretti to race IndyCars until the end of 2023 and he does not have a Superlicence required to race in F1, so he could not join McLaren until 2024 at the earliest, although with Piastri and Norris there would be no room for him until 2026.

One can perhaps also argue that the testing deal that Herta has with McLaren could be designed to help Michael Andretti developing a driver for a possible Formula 1 team – if that ever comes to fruition.

Losing Daniel would be a loss for F1 but might be best for him, better for McLaren, great for Ganassi and perfect for Palou. And Zak Brown would look very clever for having put it all together.

As I write this Notebook an email has arrived from Alpine announcing Piastri. This was a surprise and it was immediately suspect when I saw that there was no quote from Oscar. Every new driver press release has a quote from the driver saying that he is delighted to be joining etc etc. No quote, for me, means no agreement or at worst a bad start to the relationship.

One might ask why Alonso wants to join Aston Martin, given the lack of performance. There is, of course, the chance of a longer contract, more money, a team-mate who might not be too difficult to beat and one day a better car, but it is an odd move in many respects. Alpine probably thought that Alonso would reduce his salary demands to stay on and so the team would be getting a good deal. Perhaps. Perhaps, also, Alpine annoyed Fernando over this question.

Will Alonso and Aston Martin be a match made in heaven? Probably not. Fernando is not easy (although he is more relaxed these days). Lawrence Stroll is not known for being an easy companion. What he is known for is his belief that Lance is an undiscovered genius, capable of winning World Championships. Being a racing dad and a team owner is not a good combination and one wonders what will happen when Alonso beats Lance every weekend. Fernando is smart, but he is not ever going to say “After you Lance…”

It has all the makings of a disaster ahead… but let’s wait and see. Lawrence seems to think that all is well with the car company but reality checks in from time to time. Last week Aston Martin reported first half losses for 2022 of £285.4 million, saying that supply chain shortages hit production which meant that it could not meet the demand for its cars.

Let’s not dwell on that…

Elsewhere, Williams was hoping that Piastri might come its way but has been in deep discussions with Nyck de Vries, the Dutch Formula E World Champion. Nyck has a couple of drives up his sleeve which have yet to be announced in WEC and Formula E and he must soon decide whether to give it all up to become an F1 driver. He’s a little older than your average F1 debutant and so might conclude that it is a bit late to dream of glory in F1 and better to take winning drives (and a chunk of cash) elsewhere. Nyck must decide at some point but Williams is in a difficult situation in that the choice of its test driver Logan Sargeant is not a bad idea as the 21-year-old Floridian driver might unlock the doors to US sponsorships as F1 grows in America. The problem is that Logan does not have a Superlicence and the F2 championship is quite close and so confirmation of the licence might come too late for the team to rely on it happening. And if de Vries signs elsewhere and Sargeant misses out… Oh dear.

The details of the yet-to-be-announced Porsche-Red Bull alliance have emerged from the unlikely source of the Moroccan government’s competition authority in Rabat, which says it is considering the deal on the grounds of competition questions. It is hard to imagine how this might be he case, but the paperwork does include details of the planned transaction in order to get clearance for the deal. It is unlikely that any F1 journalist would have considered looking for competition clearance for a deal in Morocco and so it is most likely to have been a leak. One might speculate that such news would do no harm at all to the Porsche share price as the firm prepares an IPO. Anyway, the document reveals a joint venture between Porsche AG and Red Bull GmbH and the purchase of 50 percent of Red Bull Technology Ltd shares by Porsche. It is interesting that neither party seems to have control, although that could depend on who the chairman of the board would be, although in such a situation one can have a different chairman at each meeting. The danger with 50-50 partnerships is that they can become deadlocked if the parties do not agree on their strategy, unless there are clear rules about who makes the decisions. One should also note that the world has changed a little since the documents were filed with Herbert Diess being replaced as the head of the Volkswagen Group, with the role going to the Porsche CEO Oliver Blume. This might impact on Audi’s plan to enter F1 as the brand is also owned by Volkswagen. Audi boss Markus Duesmann was a rival to Blume for the VW role and he may now decide to move elsewhere. Duesmann is a former F1 engineer from BMW who believes that the sport is best way to sell cars and to develop new technology. His plan to make Audi more successful rests on the idea that the firm will get rid of its smaller cars and focus more on the lucrative luxury segment, which he wants to expand.

Much of this depends on the 2026 regulations but the word is that the F1 Commission will vote on this shortly and the rules will be published after the FIA World Motor Sport Council has an electronic vote.

The goal then is to have 50-50 super-efficient ICE-electric power units, with synthetic fuels. Formula E may have painted itself green more successfully than F1 has done, but the world is beginning to realise that F1 engines are a better long-term option and astonishing pieces of kit. My favourite statistic in this respect is thermal efficiency (the percentage of energy in the fuel that makes it to become energy in the rear wheels) because it really shows what F1 has done. If one considers that the first practical automobile powered by an internal-combustion engine arrived in 1885 and in the 128 years that followed the best that generations of brilliant engineers could achieve was a rather disappointing 35 percent thermal efficiency, which meant that a huge amount of energy was being wasted. In the nine years since 2013 F1 has driven that figure up to around 52 percent.

Synthetic fuel is interesting but in the rush of recent races I noted that Mercedes-AMG Petronas has announced that it is becoming the first global sports team to invest in Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). The team says that it uses a lot of fuel flying around and wants to reduce its global footprint but of course it might also want to make some money and what is required in SAF is not very different to what is required (or will be required) in F1 fuels.

“We aim to be on the cutting edge of change, using our global motorsport platform as a model for a more sustainable and diversified future,” said Toto Wolff, a man who has made a few quid over the years by betting on new ideas.

And on that green (as in greenbacks) note, I will sign off for the summer break.

The Green Notebook will be back soon…

Green notebook from the Pyramids

If you happen to be in Monza and go north on the Arcore road towards Lecco, you will soon find yourself  in a town called Cernusco Lombardone.

While the name sounds like a Soprano, it rolls off the tongue like a lazy river meandering through linguistic meadows. Turn to the left there and you will pass through Quattro Strade, a placename that tells you (with admirable brevity) that the town has four streets. You will then see signs to Montevecchia, the old mountain, which explains nothing of an extraordinary place where a few years ago geologists, archaeologists and astrophysicists worked arm in arm to discover three pyramids built by an ancient civilisation.

Really.

Just like the Egyptian pyramids, but taller. And without burial chambers within. They were built by shaping limestone hills into matching monuments, which were used for reasons unclear, but were probably related to astronomical or religious beliefs.

I guess you might call it an Italian Stonehenge, but built without moving mountains.

Why am I going on about pyramids in Italy when the last Grand Prix was in France? Well, the world is filled with surprises that we often rush past without even seeing. I was pottering through, bound for Budapest and the pyramids attracted my attention…

Paul Ricard is a monument of sorts, recalling a very smart man who created not only an eponymous drink, a kind of hooch called pastis, which is flavoured with Provencal things and is 45 percent proof. Having done this in 1932, he got very rich and then used a bulldozer to turn his name into a global advertisement for an alcoholic drink which today cannot legally be advertised. Yes, the Circuit Paul Ricard is a monument to Ricard, but it is also an advertisement for his drink…

Anyway, it will still be there for many years to come, but the French Grand Prix is unlikely to be. There is a break clause in the contract and Formula 1 wants a break. It has other venues in better places, willing to pay more, or without all the hassles that come when a drinks magnate builds a circuit in the middle of nowhere – with no possibility to improve the access roads.

We’ll not talk too much about French policemen, of course, but let us just say that perhaps they lack imagination and do what they are told to do without ever applying logic to the situation. Thus even team bosses and other stars of Drive to Survive were turned away from the logical route to the track because a special lane had been invented for F1 people, even if that meant you had to drive 30 miles to get to the so-called “F1 Lane”. To be honest I had no problems getting into the track, but I was getting there every day at seven o’clock in the morning because I hate wasting time in traffic jams. The evenings were less successful.

The access problems are certainly not unique in F1 and France does not appear to have a problem with money, but the decision not to race in France is rather a case of the Formula 1 group not being happy with the venue. It is 37 miles, much of it on wiggly roads, from Marseilles and there are some who dare to suggest that the city is not really a destination city (at least not in the terms F1 applies) and there is no getting away from the fact that while there have been attempts to regenerate parts of the city, it still has a bad image and people are nervous about visiting. This is based on the poverty that exists there and in consequence a high level of crime, often very violent. It is one of the biggest ports in Europe and rather a lot of dodgy stuff comes in and causes problems amongst the crime gangs.

The nearest “destination city” is probably Nice, as Toulon is traditionally a naval town, filled with rowdy sailors.

This is not to say that the region is not delightful. The coastal towns between Marseilles and Toulon are wondrful but there are still insufficient hotels for F1 and while the circuit could increase its crowd capacity quite easily and its VIP count, the problem remains: where are these people going to stay when they emerge from the traffic?

This is not to say that I am favour of dropping the French Grand Prix from the calendar. It does not seem right to do that. History may not matter much in the F1 world, but it should always be remembered that once there was only one Grand Prix a year – and it was French. Originally known as the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, the race was hugely significant not just in terms of racing, but also in the car industry. France was so dominant in the early years of the sport that the FIA was headquartered there, squatting in a building next door to the Automobile Club de France. Does that mean that the French Grand Prix should always be on the calendar? No, perhaps not, but running Grands Prix without France is a bit like running the IndyCar Championship without the Indy 500 – or at least one can argue that case.

Actually, when it comes to races that argue such things, Monaco seems to have the belief that F1 cannot exist without it. However, I believe there was a meeting recently at which some of the points of contention between F1 and Monaco were fixed, although there still remain significant problems between them. There will come a point at which a calendar will need to appear and we will see how serious F1 is about getting the deals it wants.

What is very interesting is that the company that organises the French Grand Prix is called “GIP Grand Prix de France”. This can organise a race wherever it wants to host one, as long as the the local ASN, the Fédération Française du Sport Automobile (FFSA), agrees. At the moment the firm rents the Circuit Paul Ricard, but it could do whatever it wants. The man behind this firm is the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, a former racer, who is a political fixer, and a former government minister. He is close to President Emmanuel Macron. The President recently said that France must protect its Grand Prix and that “the state is ready to participate”. The other point worth noting about the French GP weekend was that there was a dinner of Saturday night that featured around 15 of the CEOs of France’s biggest companies, which are included in the CAC 40 stock market index. These included L’Oreal, Sanofi, Bolloré, Accor, Air France and Pernod Ricard. So there is some serious clout behind the idea of a French GP, if the country can find a venue. At the moment they are trying out the idea of a race around the Allianz stadium in Nice. Oddly enough, on Monday morning, as I was heading towards the pyramids near Milan, it struck me that perhaps I should stop and visit the stadium as it would be a logical time for F1 types to visit and I might bump into them as they inspected the idea. In the end I didn’t bother because I don’t like the idea and I don’t think it will work.

The irony, of course, is that France has three tracks that could host F1 races without too much trouble: Ricard, Magny-Cours and the Le Mans Bugatti circuit. The problem is that Ricard and Magny-Cours are both deemed wrong for F1 because of their infrastructure and access (and image) problems and Le Mans does not want a Grand Prix because the Automobile Club de l’Ouest is scared it might undermine the status of the Le Mans 24 Hours….

So, if France wants a Grand Prix any time soon, it is going to have to create a new idea. There have been some good projects over time but nothing happened mainly because of money, but also because of environmental questions. This is daft in an age when F1 is really setting the trend for environmentally-friendly engines that people want to buy. Formula E has been brilliant at promoting itself as being the best of all possible worlds, but in truth electric car sales are still pretty hopeless when you look at the big picture, because people just don’t want to buy them. Smoke and mirrors from Fromula E boss Alejandro Agag has kept the plates spinning up to now, but it’s a high wire act. Formula 1’s approach is a great deal more practical and the industry seems to like it.

Anyway, I have long had the belief that the best idea for the French GP would be to hold the race in the Bois de Boulogne, the huge public park that sits next to the city’s famous Boulevard Périphérique, the city’s inner ring road. For those who don’t know Paris well, if you go under the Arc de Triomphe and straight on, down the road directly opposite the Champs Elysees, you arrive at the Porte Maillot. This is where the Bois de Boulogne begins. It is less about 750 metres from the Arc de Triomphe. The park boasts existing roadways, a number of lakes, two racecourses (Longchamp and Auteuil) and is adjacent to the Stade Roland Garros (home of the French Open tennis competition) and the Parc des Princes stadium. The park is served by a string of Metro stations, features the dramatic Fondation Louis Vuitton building (the most interesting new building in France since the Pompidou Centre). And the park exists for the enjoyment of the citizens of Paris.

From a motorsport point of view, it has heritage as the world’s first motor race, the Paris-Rouen Trial of 1894, started at the Porte Maillot. The first motor race after War World II, known as the Grand Prix de la Libération, took place in the park. It is easy to see such an event as a French version of Albert Park. The problem is that everyone thinks it would be a nightmare to organise. That is probably true but if the President was behind it, and the CEOs of the CAC 40, the biggest problem is really the mayor of Paris. Her name is Anne Hidalgo and she is opposed to automobiles. However, she believed all the gumph about Formula E and allowed the series to race on the streets. F1 has long had a habit of screwing up its environmental messaging but if it can get that right (and the signs are that this is now happening), Ms Hidalgo will struggle to find a good argument against it and should therefore embrace it with fervour. Having said that she is a socialist and would not be too keen to agree with Macron, but given that her recent presidential bid, as the Socialist Party candidate against Macron was little short of a disaster, it might be wise for her to cuddle up to the President.

Anyway, the idea of city racing, which Grand Prix racing began in 1929 with Monaco, is still a popular idea. The latest racing series to leap on the bandwagon is NASCAR which has just announced that it intends to run its big stock car around the street of Chicago. It is an interesting idea, particularly as the race will be part of the July 4 Independence Day holiday. It all sounds great but I am slightly worried that big heavy stock cars (which weigh 1,450 kg) and are very powerful might be a little too much for the usual concrete barriers to handle. F1 cars tend to bounce off concrete blocks, but when it comes to NASCAR I fear that the concrete blocks will be bouncing off the cars…

Anyway, Because the French GP is not overly popular with Beautiful People and the weather was hot, the event was a little short of good gossip. Things were boosted a little by news from Germany that Herbert Diess is to be removed as the head of Volkswagen. His role will now go to the Porsche CEO Oliver Blume. The good news for F1 is that Blume is very keen on what F1 can offer the industry and he already has a deal (yet to be confirmed) that Porsche will partner with Red Bull Racing in 2026. At the moment F1 is waiting for an announcement, but this is expected as soon as the FIA gets its act together and publishes the 2026 rules.

It is expected that Audi (a VW brand) will also then announce that it is buying Sauber is a phased deal over three years. This will mean that Alfa Romeo will get squeezed out, but as the Italian brand is getting a cheap ride in the sport, as it sponsors the team, which uses Ferrari engines, no-one is particularly bothered if Alfa Romeo disappears. It isn’t a proper factory team….

When it comes to engines in the future, the word is that Honda may be looking to do a sponsorship deal with Red Bull Racing, in order to take advantage of the ongoing success of the team. This could only be a sponsorship and engine-badging deal and it would end, by necessity, in 2025 when Red Bull is (expected to be) committed to Porsche. It seems that Honda, which always makes bad decisions when it comes to F1, now thinks it might be good to get back into the sport in 2026. But it cannot leap back into bed with Red Bull after 2025 as the team will be working with Porsche. Honda’s timing in F1 terms has often been poor and this is all in the traditions of the firm. It joined forces with Red Bull Racing in 2019, just after the team had done a title sponsorship with Aston Martin so it was not until 2020 that the team became known as Red Bull Racing Honda. And then Honda decided to end the relationship at the end of 2021, although a deal was struck for Red Bull to continue to use the engines. After the Honda announcement Red Bull went out and sold its title sponsorship to Oracle. The team would thus have to become Oracle Red Bull Racing Honda in 2023 with the engines switching from being called Red Bulls to being Hondas again, but the Japanese firm then needs to decide (rapidly) if it wants to stay in F1 beyond 2025 – and what form that programme might take.

The options include being engine supplier to a different team, or buying a team…

Talking of buying and selling teams, Alpine is definitely selling a portion of its F1 team, but has no intention of losing control of the operation. This might sound odd given that the team bought Genii Capital’s minority shareholding at the start of this year, but the truth is that the team wants a different kind of partner. The team has tight budgets but feels that it needs to improve facilities and increase staff in order to be fully competitive. Both the Enstone and Viry-Chatillon have been expanded and modernised in recent years and Renault is looking for at least one engine customer for the future, although it makes little sense for teams to change before the new engine formula begins in 2026. The engines are now fairly similar in terms of performance and the disruption of an engine change today means that it takes at least a year to get up to speed.

The decision to sell some of the shares is the result of a desire to invest more, while at the same time giving the team a concrete valuation. New shareholders would obviously benefit from any profits that are made in the future and from the increase in the enterprise value, but they could also be called upon to help funding if the team requires more money, so it is a bit of an insurance policy as well. Perhaps there would also be an option to buy more shares in the future, if Renault one day decides to offload the team again…

Money is important at Alpine and thus negotiating a new deal with Fernando Alonso has been quite complex as the Spaniard has ideas of his own worth which are, how shall we say, impressive. However the threat of the team signing up a talented youngster called Oscar Piastri was obviously helpful in the negotiations. Anyway, the word is that Fernando now has a new two year deal (perhaps one plus one) and this will be announced after August 1 when an option date will pass. This, of course, means that the team will have to release Oscar Piastri unless it can convince him to join Williams for a year or two. However it seems that Oscar is more interested in an offer from McLaren that would require him ceasing to be part of the Alpine Academy.

Of course, things would be complicated at McLaren as the Woking team appears to have contracts with Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo in 2023 – and has a testing programme going on with Colton Herta, with the goal being to have an American driver in the future. Ricciardo says he is staying where he is, so if the Piastri is to join, Daniel has to go. That would require a contract settlement, and while it is fair to say that his performances over the last two years have not been what was expected, there does not appear to be a specific performance clause in the contract, so the situation could get messy. There are options for the team to offer Daniel a deal with the McLaren IndyCar team but that all seems pretty confused at the moment as Pato O’Ward and Alex Rossi could be joined by Felix Rosenqvist but the team recently announced a deal with 2021 IndyCar champion Alex Palou. This has turned very messy with Palou’s employer – Ganassi – saying that he cannot leave because it has an option on his services and that this has been taken up. Rosenqvist can be offloaded into the McLaren Formula E team while the Palou deal seems to have gone haywire with Ganassi filing a law suit against the driver. McLaren says that it won’t pay for Palou to get out of a deal it did not know about.

Oh boy…

Williams, in the meantime, appears to be focussing on Logan Sargent. The 21-year-old Florida driver has come good in F2 in recent weeks and has won feature races in Silverstone and Red Bull Ring. He is the best rookie in the series this year and currently third behind the more experienced Felipe Drugovich and Theo Pourchaire.

If Piastri does decide to leave Alpine, it still has Jack Doohan and Victor Martins on the books for the future, while Alonso could transition into the Alpine LMDh team in the longer term.

The driver market might get a bit more lively in Budapest. We still need to find out whether Sebastian Vettel will retire… to be replaced at Aston Martin by Mick Schumacher.

It is all bubbling away in the pot at the moment… in the interim everyone is looking forward to the summer break, after four races in five weekends.

Green Notebook from Walhalla

When your average Viking was slain (messily) in battle, a complicated business followed. A valkyrie would arrive (presumably with a clipboard), alerted by mystical forces. Valkyries are female. Their role is to guide dead warriors to one of two places, depending on their mood. The cool place for a dead Viking to go with his valkyrie is Valhalla, a sort of hall of fame for newly-departed Norsemen.

The mythology has all been confused by Aston Martin, which likes to have cars with names beginning with V. The Vegetarian, Vanilla, Vacuum, Va-va-voom, Vesper and Verruca may be still to come, but the recent models have been the Valkyrie, followed by the Valhalla.

I guess this is because Valkyries have been cool since the days when Francis Ford Coppola used Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie, from his Der Ring des Nibelungen series of operas, as background music in his drug-influenced but impressive Apocalypse Now movie.

Anyway, before there was a united Germany, there were lots of Germanic folk in search of a nation to belong to, and some felt that they should unite and become one nation,  rather than slaughtering one another. It was a good idea.

While this process was going on Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (later King Ludwig I) came up with the idea of creating a hall of fame for eminent German sovereigns, politicians, scientists and artists and decided it should be called Walhalla (Germans pronounce W as V). Ludwig believed that a hall of fame needed a hall (which is not the case today) and so funded the construction of a neo-classical box, atop a hillside overlooking the Danube, to the east of Regensburg, where he put busts of famous Germanics. It isn’t exactly Disneyland… but it happens to be just off my usual route to the Austrian Grand Prix and so this year I stopped off to check it out.

A neo-classical pile

The purpose of this visit was really to get away from the vast numbers of Dutch cars that were pottering down the autobahn towards Passau. It was reckoned that there were 55,000 Dutch folk in Austria, following the cult of Verstappen. This has created other problems in Styria, which was not designed to have 55,000 Dutch all visiting on the same weekend. The result of this was that while many of the orange-folk stayed in camper vans, tents, transit vans, or simply lay where they fell, others booked every available room for many miles around, and there are not that many… This year the first available hotel I found when I first looked was 120 km from the track, admittedly on the motorway. But this was ridiculous and so I kept looking and found something about 40km away. It looked fine, but I didn’t really check. I was happy to have it, whatever it was. We learn lessons in life and I discovered that the route between Zeltweg and the oddly-named Maria Lankowitz is about 40 km, but it has to climb up the Lavanttal Alps, through the Gaberl Pass. The road made the old Nurburgring look dull. I did it eight times in total and to pass the time I counted 215 corners (all quite quick). By the end of the weekend, I had concluded that it was roads like this which nurtured talents such as Jochen Rindt, Niki Lauda, Gerhard Berger and Helmut Marko. What I also discovered was that of the 16 Austrian F1 drivers, four went to the same school: Rindt, Marko, Lauda and Harald Ertl. It was a place in the town of Bad Aussee, designed to get troublesome children back on the straight and narrow. This was run by a man who could have been a character from a John Le Carré novel. His name was Wilhelm Höttl, who in addition to being an author, he had served with the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the rather nasty security service of the SS, in Hungary during the war. Höttl was clever and recognising that he did not have much of a future, offered his services to the Americans and became a key witness against SS members in the Nuremberg Trials. After that the Americans used him to organise a couple of anti-communist spy networks in Austria and then let him run his school. Instilling some discipline in wild youngsters was probably not such a big deal for a man with such a background, but whatever he did, the school produced young men who knew how to get what they wanted…

Marko runs the Red Bull operations with an iron fist and if you do not do the job he wants, you get axed without emotion, even if it means that your career is over. He has made a lot of stars and destroyed a few others, who did not fit his view of what makes a great racing driver. The man behind Marko’s empire is Dietrich Mateschitz, who has created all things Red Bull. The next big deal was going to be announced last weekend but faffing about at the FIA (and some can-kicking by rival manufacturers) has meant that the 2026 engine regulations are still not yet finished and no-one is announcing anything until these are set in concrete. And so Porsche’s F1 plans will have to wait – and Audi’s as well. Some rapid action would now be a good idea as there are others who are thinking along similar lines.

This has combined with a subtle industry-wide acceptance that electric cars are not perhaps the immediate future – and the Tesla share price has been trending downwards for some months. The problem is that in this world of judgmental idealists with social media tools, no-one wants to admit that the only really sensible step today is efficient hybrids with synthetic fuels, which will buy the industry more time to get electric cars to a point where people want to buy them. F1 completely failed to tell the world about its amazing engines back in 2014, but the car manufacturers have now begun to realise (and accept) that F1 got it right.

The true genius in F1 came after that when Chase Carey talked the teams into accepting a budget cap, thus ending the unlimited spending that had driven the car manufacturers away. Now, they are looking at F1 and seeing a business that will not only put value in to their firms, but will promote their activities as well. It really is a win-win despite the best efforts of those who want to go on spending crazy amounts to stay ahead. One might add that when you boil it all down, some of the teams these days are frightened of Porsche. Anyway, the new engines will be simpler, cheaper and more relevance for series production and when one adds this to the sport’s advertising power and its growth in new markets – team ownership is not a bad idea, which is why the value of teams has sky-rocketed.

The problem is that those who did not seen the opportunity have now missed the boat and if they want to get involved they will have to pay more. But for big manufacturers the billion they need to get into the game is no big deal, while for some of those currently involved, landing that kind of money for selling the team makes a heap of sense.

This is not just conjecture because in Austria, the entire top management of Honda popped up in the paddock, led by President Toshihiro Mibe, chairman Seiji Kuraishi, Honda Racing Corporation president Koji Watanabe and the man in charge of Honda’s F1 efforts Yasuaki Asaki. I don’t think it is unfair to say that Honda screwed up in 2020 when the firm decided that it should focus on electric cars and quit F1, agreeing to sell its IP to Red Bull. That was a decision taken by Takahiro Hachigo, the then president. And guess what, in the finest tradition of Honda in F1, the next year saw success… Hachigo was politely shown a different future by Honda in April last year and the signs are that Mibe may reverse the decision, but now he must find a team to take over. Several are for sale if the sum of money offered is sufficiently high.

Another rumour that has popped up in recent days, as the result of a possible road car deal between McLaren and BMW, has been the suggestion that the Munich firm might come back to F1, in order to compete head-on with rivals Mercedes, Porsche and Audi. 

McLaren and BMW have long history back to the F1 supercar programme in the 1990s. McLaren does not have the money to do its own F1 engine programme, so perhaps falling into bed with BMW might be a good idea.

For the moment Formula 1 is still allowing manufacturers to get a free ride in F1 with Aston Martin, Alfa Romeo and McLaren all using engines which are coming from elsewhere. How many fans really know that the Alfa Romeo team is really Sauber-Ferrari, that Aston Martin is Aston Martin-Mercedes and that McLaren is also running Mercedes engines? I see a marketing problem with this but not really a problem if manufacturers can get away with it. The word is that Aston Martin will be building its own F1 engines (with help from Aramco), while the Sauber-Ferrari operation will be taken over by Audi. Alfa Romeo will be looking for alternatives – it is interesting to see that Alfa Romeo CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato was in Austria – and while continuing to use Ferrari engines is a possibility, it might also be sensible for Alfa Romeo’s parent company Stellantis to invest. Why? Because it has 14 different brands that it wants – and needs – to promote. A Stellantis-engine could be branded by several of them… and why not have a Dodge F1 engine alongside an Alfa Romeo or even a Peugeot? If the brands share the cost, it is really not a big deal and Dodge could be portrayed as an American team, which might stop Michael Andretti saying silly things about F1 in interviews because at the moment he cannot find a cheap way into the game. If he turned up and promised to deliver an Andretti-Dodge F1 car, F1 might be more interested in having him aboard. Last summer Stellantis confirmed plans for the launch of a Dodge plug-in hybrid, to be known as the Dodge Hornet, a revamped version of the Alfa Romeo Tonale, and it makes sense to share F1 technology around as well.

But what really gets sales going is not the involvement of a certain manufacturer, but rather the success of a driver. Everyone wants an American now that F1 is getting bigger in the US and Zak Brawn at McLaren seems to be trying to get his team to look very American. In recent days the Colton Herta testing programme has begun with a 2021 McLaren MCL35M being run in Portugal for Herta. Brown says that Daniel Ricciardo is still going to be at McLaren next year, but Herta is obviously someone who might replace the Australian in 2024. It would be lovely to report that Daniel is getting to grips with the car, but after a year and a half with the team, he is still having weekends like Silverstone. It is also interesting to note that the only other driver who is close to Formula 1 – Formula 2 racer Logan Sargeant, a Williams young driver, has recently started looking very good, winning two Feature races (the ones that count), and is now second in the championship, admittedly a ways behind the leader Felipe Drugovich, although he is in his third year of Formula 2.

Of course, everyone would love to have a Chinese driver as well, if we can get a Chinese GP back on the calendar again. 

China is a monster market where F1 could make a big impact if Guanyu Zhou does well. Thus far he’s doing a very good job, scoring twice so far but suffering three mechanical failures and the crash in Britain, which was not his fault. In other races he has been hobbled by pit stops that have gone wrong and in which strategy calls did not work out, so while it looks Valtteri Bottas has dominated him, it is worth pointing out that this may not continue. He has out-qualified Bottas on three occasions which is good given their relative F1 experience.

The word is that Zhou will stay where he is next year and Sauber protege Theo Pourchaire has been pretty disappointing. Pourchaire has pace, but expectations were perhaps too high after last year.

F1 does need to sort out China, but it is hard at the moment because of politics. The biggest thing is the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party , which will take place in Beijing in November. No-one really doubts that Xi Jinping, who has ruled the country since 2013, will stay in power, but the big question is who will be around him and whether the same bosses will survive in Shanghai. If not, there have long been rumours of a desire to move the Chinese GP to a street venue in Beijing. But then there is also the question of COVID… If there is a Chinese GP in 2023, it will be in the autumn, which will give the Chinese time to sort out more stuff.

The new calendar is still only chugging along and things may become a little clearer after a meeting between F1 and the Automobile Club de Monaco, which is scheduled for the French GP weekend…

Elsewhere, Sebastian Vettel is beginning to behave more and more like a driver who will be off at the end of the year. His decision to walk out of the Drivers’ Briefing in Austria meant that he has been fined €25,000, although this is suspended for the rest of the season. Vettel fixed things up with Race Director Niels Wittich afterwards, but this is not the act of someone who is trying to build good relations with officials who will probably be around for a while…

Never mind, perhaps he will get a place in Walhalla (the earthly version) instead, although it is not easy and it takes time. Richard Strauss died in 1949 and only got into Walhalla in 1973. Albert Einstein died in 1955 and only snuck into the hall of fame in 1990. Konrad Adenauer, who oversaw the rebuilding of the country after World War II, made it in 1999, 32 years after his death while Johannes Brahms was in transit with his Valkyrie for 103 years before being allowed into Walhalla in 2000.

Green Notebook from Mauquenchy

Getting home from the British Grand Prix normally involves driving south from Silverstone, around the miserable M25 and then south to Newhaven (which has not been new since the 16th century). This is a small port on the south coast on England, to the east of Brighton, between chalk cliffs. From there one takes a ferry across The Channel to Dieppe, a similar port between two chalk cliffs. The journey takes around five hours and one can get a cabin and sleep half a night before setting off across France. The Newhaven-Dieppe ferry is not very glamorous, although those with a taste for the bizarre might like to know that Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh spent time as a crew member on the ferry route, going  backwards and forwards between France and England. It is doubtful that he gained much inspiration from this, although white cliffs have been known to inspire.

When you leave the ferry port in Dieppe the road climbs quickly to the top of the chalk plateau (the reason for the white cliffs) and soon you arrive at a roundabout. Dull stuff, unless you know the history. If you turn to the east you are on the main straight of the Circuit de la Seine-Inférieure, home of the second the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France in 1907. There is nothing there now, but once there were pits, a vast ornate wooden grandstand and a giant scoreboard, which was never up to date.

Today most travellers turn west and the road they take descends into the flat valley of the River Arques, close to Dieppe’s hippodrome and to the Alpine car factory (Dieppe is Alpine’s home town). You arrive in the strangely-named suburb of Rouxmesnil-Bouteilles, now a drab industrial area with its only saving grace being a kart track, hidden away behind a Nestlé factory, where they manufacture Nescafe. You are soon out in the country and it is a delight to be rushing through the lanes at an hour when these still belong to crows and rabbits, with occasional cats on the prowl for small animals to torture. It is a bewitching time of day, particularly in the summer, when the warmth from the earth rises into the cool sky and mists form before your eyes. If lit by the sun these turn the world into an unworldly and beautiful place.

And thus it was that I found myself in a misty Mauquenchy, the perfect antidote after the Silverstone weekend, filled as it was with people and traffic jams.

There was a time, 35 years ago, when the village of Mauquenchy nearly became famous in Formula 1.  The Automobile Club Normand (ACN), which ran the Rouen Les Essarts racing circuit, realised that its track was to dangerous for international races and was looking for somewhere to build a new F1-spec race track. Mauquenchy has a quiet and secluded valley, surrounded by hills on all sides, and the ACN thought this would be a great venue for a circuit. The mayor of Forges-Les-Eaux, a picturesque spa town nearby, was excited by the project, as was Jean-Luc Therier, a local who was one of France’s biggest rallying stars at the time. The Larousse-Calmels F1 team also liked the idea as it would provide them with a new home, which would develop into a motorsport hub and thus help the local economy.

It was all sound logic.

The bad news was that France’s President at the time, Francois Mitterrand, was a man who knew how to keep his friends happy and had a plan to redevelop the Magny-Cours circuit. This would become the home of the Ligier F1 team (and a motorsport hub… etc etc). With the help of Pierre Beregovoy, who was the mayor of nearby Nevers (and Mitterand’s Minister of the Economy), the project in Magny-Cours trumped Mauquenchy. And so the Norman plan was recycled and they built a hippodrome instead. This pulls in a few people, no doubt, but for Forges-Les-Eaux many of its visitors today come on two wheels, on a cycle path that links London to Paris, known as the “Avenue Verte” (the green avenue), which uses disused railways converted into cycle paths. It always make me smile when cyclists try to exercise their moral superiority about the environment, because it brings out the devil in me and I ask: “What’s the most polluting sporting event in the world?” The answer, of course, is the Tour de France because while the 176 riders involved don’t leave much of an environmental footprint, the 14 million fans who drive to watch pump out a lot of exhaust gases.

Protesters do not generally target the Tour de France because everyone thinks that riding bicycles transforms a person into an angel with toe-clips. F1 on the other hand, ends with up a bunch of people thinking it is smart to walk on to a racing circuit to draw attention to the use of oil. Well, David Baldwin, Emily Brocklebank, Alasdair Gibson, Louis McKechnie, Bethany Mogie and Joshua Smith (collectively known as the Silverstone protesters), if you knew what you were talking about you would have targeted the Tour de France.

I bumped into David Richards of Motorsport UK at one point during the weekend and he said that he was busy trying to get a meeting with the protesters, in order to explain to them why they would be wrong to target the Grand Prix, because they obviously did not know about F1’s amazingly efficient engines and how this is filtering down through the industry…

Silverstone saw the launches of various worthy projects, designed to create a perfect world. I do worry about the F1 campaign to be carbon neutral by 2030, not because I am opposed to the concept, which clearly I am not, but I do think that if the sport is going to make such claims, it must also include the emissions created by spectators in the calculations. 

What the sport has to do is to tell the story of what it is doing for emissions technology (which is amazing) and to argue that it should be viewed as part of the solution, rather than the problem. In this respect the sport has only itself to blame.

The Formula 1 group is looking more and more at urban circuits with mass transit in order to address this problem, but the down side of this is that in time we will lose some famous places if the strategy continues. Races in the middle of nowhere are no longer popular. Circuits out in the wilds are struggling to get F1’s attention. The Nürburgring is gone already. Paul Ricard and Spa are on the verge of disappearing. Everyone loves Spa, despite its drawbacks, but it is hard to argue that because it is a famous place in racing, it should be allowed to produce lots of emissions. The ultimate irony is that Spa was originally laid out where it is because it had railway stations in Francorchamps, Stavelot and Malmedy. The latter two were lost when the circuit was shortened and passenger trains to Francorchamps stopped in 1959, with the rails being torn up in the early 1970s. You can still see where the tracks used to run and ponder that if they were still there today, the track might have a very different future. Putting back railways costs a fortune but at Spa the path of the old railway was transformed into a cycle track, known as Pré-Ravel Ligne 44a and so those of an energetic nature can still cycle to the races. But will they?

A sport is only as good as its fans. It’s no good fixing all the F1 emissions if the fans arrive in gas-guzzling urban tractors and sit in jams for hours on end, pumping out exhaust fumes.

We had a race last year at Zandvoort where most cars were banned and fans came either by train or by bicycle and it worked out very well.

The truth is that if these old rural circuits want to survive, they need to adapt and transportation infrastructure is important.

All this brings me, by a roundabout route, to the big rumour of the Silverstone weekend which is that Audi AG has reached an agreement to acquire the Sauber team. We already know that Porsche is leaping enthusiastically into bed with Red Bull and now its sister brand Audi wants to go racing as well. Why? Because the new F1 rules in 2026 are exactly what the industry wants as it heads towards sustainability, with hyper-efficient engines and synthetic fuels. There may be others that want to jump on the bandwagon as well…

The whisper is that the deal is worth around $450 million and will see Audi acquiring 75 percent of the shares in the team, valuing it at $600 million. The sale is conditional on the technical rules of F1 for 2026 being confirmed by the FIA but will be a phased deal over three years with Audi taking control of a first 25 percent of the shares in 2023, another 25 percent in 2024 and a third 25 percent in 2025. The remaining 25 percent will be retained by Finn Rausing – who is one of the owners of Tetra Pak Laval, a firm which has annual revenues of $16.3 billion. The team will go on using Ferrari engines and being called Alfa Romeo until the end of the current formula at the end of 2025. After that it will transform into an Audi operation, with engines being built by Audi Sport GmbH in Germany. It cannot happen any quicker than that because you cannot have an Audi chassis powered by a Ferrari engine.

There was another interesting rumour kicking around in Silverstone about Alpine selling some of its shares to the Chinese car company Geely. This makes perfect sense given that Geely owns Lotus and the Norfolk firm is involved in joint venture with Alpine to build electric cars, while Alpine’s parent Renault and Geely are reportedly planning a joint venture to sell hybrid cars in the Chinese market. Renault is also helping Geely get into the US market using the Renault Samsung plant in South Korea. There is a trade deal between South Korea and the US which allows Korean automakers to import vehicles into the US tariff-free. There is no doubt that the best way to promote Lotus would be to use Grand Prix racing, where the firm has huge heritage, so perhaps we might one day see Alpine (which was called Lotus F1 a few years ago) either reverting to that name or with an engine supply to a Lotus-branded team. Who knows?

While on this subject, it is also said that part of the Aramco sponsorship deal with Aston Martin was a commitment from the team to build its own F1 engines in 2026. That will cost a lot… Aston Martin’s financial situation is creating headlines in financial newspapers as the firm’s share price is light and its debt load heavy. The company continues to make positive noises but the number-crunchers are sceptical. There are rumours that the Saudis might buy into the business.

Billionaires have different rules to the rest of us, although the presence of Vijay Mallya was a reminder that things don’t always end up well. Still, the bigger the billionaire the more fluffy the cushions that they have to break their fall. When it comes to billionaires F1 has a lot of them – some with more cash than others. One thinks of Mateschitz, Latifi, Rausing and the Strolls. Not to mention the Al-Khalifas of Bahrain, the Agnellis and others who like to play at the F1 tables.

I’ve always found that the richest folk always make the least noise and that was definitely true at Silverstone where there was a man who is worth more than Mateschitz, Rausing and the Latifis combined, walking around the paddock. Rob Walton mentioned in conversation that he was a small investor in McLaren, as a member of the consortium that owns about 33 percent of the team. He does like cars (he has a car collection worth several hundred million) and it is said that he has about $60 billion to play with thanks to the family’s involvement in Walmart… and so F1 does not really faze him. He seemed to be enjoying his weekend.

When one considers the big players in this world, the scrambling over a few millions seems somehow rather tawdry, but that is part of the F1 game from week to week.

The driver market is beginning to burble and it may be that we are going to have some earthquakes soon. There are lots of assumptions being made about who will go where in 2023 and I sense that some of them are false assumptions. There have been rumours for some time regarding the future of Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin F1, with the suggestion being that the four-time World Champion will retire at the end of the year, at the age of 35, and will be replaced by 23-year-old Mick Schumacher. There is much interest as well in Alpine. The team saying that there are no decisions yet about the team’s driver line-up for 2023, but things seem to be on the move. Esteban Ocon is under contract until the end of 2024, while Fernando Alonso’s contract with Alpine finishes this year. The team’s third driver Oscar Piastri has a contract, but Alpine must provide the Australian with an F1 drive in 2023 or else he is free to leave. As with all F1 contracts there is an option date by which point a deal must be agreed. This is often the end of July, which means that a driver who does not have a deal for the following year still has the time to find an alternative. The thinking in recent weeks has been that the team would agree to another two-year contract with Fernando Alonso for 2023 and 2024. Alonso is 41 at the end of July and so would be 43 by the end of the contract. Having said that, Fernando is obviously still quick, having started on the front row of the grid in Canada recently. Dropping Alonso in favour of Piastri would be a controversial thing to do, even if the logic is to prepare Piastri and not risk losing him. On the face of it, Piastri’s only real option was to join Williams, replacing Nicholas Latifi, but Piastri’s manager Mark Webber is a cunning fellow and also a mate of his former Porsche colleague Andreas Seidl, now team principal of McLaren. Seidl it seems is interested in Piastri.

Daniel has a McLaren contract for next year but it is fair to say that he has been a disappointment, despite winning last year in Italy. One might conjecture that McLaren might offer Daniel an elegant exit by putting him into IndyCars as it has not yet confirmed whether Felix Rosenqvist will race IndyCar or Formula E next year. But spies in the US are suggesting that this is not a real option as McLaren will be running Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Alex Palou, the current IndyCar champion, who is currently racing for Chip Ganassi.

If McLaren makes Piastri an offer, it would probably be a better choice than a Williams and so one can see that Oscar would prefer that. It is also a splendid lever to get Alpine to ditch Alonso because Piastri is seen as the real deal, rather than being Alonso the real deal from 20 years ago, who never quite delivered on his potential. Alpine has already lost Guanyu Zhou to Alfa Romeo and the Chinese driver is now beginning to show his paces and his value for the Chinese market… The thing that might mess up this scenario is that McLaren remains intent on becoming an American-style F1 team with Zak Brown, some US investors, who have the clout to buy out the Bahrainis, if they wish to depart and the possibility of Colton Herta being good enough for F1. He should begin testing soon and so we can find out, but he has an IndyCar deal with Andretti for 2023 so his arrival would not be before 2024.

The only other story of major interest in the Green Notebook in Silverstone is the suggestion that South Africa will definitely have a place on the 2023 calendar. The word is that a deal has been agreed with a South African promoter to hold a race, but that the event will no have any overt funding from the government. This does not mean the authorities will not help with tax breaks and such things but it will not provide actual funding, because President Cyril Ramaphosa does not want to put himself into a situation where he could be accused of spending government money on a sport he enjoys, when the country (and he himself) have other problems. The government can always get involved later if things improve. Formula 1 wants to visit Africa in order to strengthen its inclusion programmes, which aim to treat everywhere the same – and make money from everyone.

As I finish writing up these notes, I find myself in Nuremberg, bound for Austria where we will have another race… and another Green Notebook…

Do you want to know F1 secrets?

An Audience with Joe is back in London for the first time since the global pandemic began and, in the run-up to the British GP, Joe will be hosting an event at the Hollywood Arms in Chelsea. This is a small venue which means that F1 fans have a much better chance to ask questions in an informal and relaxed atmosphere. The event will take place from 7pm on Wednesday, June 29.

The event will run until 11pm, with a buffet dinner included. You can drink as much or as little as you like, with the drinks at usual bar prices. Tickets cost £45 per person.

Because the venue is relatively small, you need to book rapidly as tickets will run out. Don’t try to do things at the last minute as you might be disappointed.

The Audience in London will take place at the Hollywood Arms, 45 Hollywood Road, Lodon SW10 9HX (www.hollywoodarmschelsea.com)

To book tickets, click here

Green Notebook from Pierre Elliott Trudeau International

The ultimate accolade for any politician is to have an airport named in your honour, although to be quite honest if an airport was named after one or two of the modern politicians I would prefer to fly elsewhere, as the naming of the airport indicates the political feelings of the city.

These, of course, change over time. If you follow such matters you will know that Jan Smuts International in Johannesburg is now called Oliver Tambo International.

In a world where little history is studied, kids probably don’t know much about John F Kennedy, but they will travel through JFK, they might also know CDG, without knowing the first thing about Charles de Gaulle. It’s the same with Napoleon Bonaparte Airport in Ajaccio, Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv and so on.

Montreal’s principal airport, once known as Dorval, is now known as Pierre Elliott Trudeau International, a former Prime Minister of Canada, and father of the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

It needs work…

I used to love the place because it was the entry point to a city that I have always enjoyed, although I have never been in the winter – and do not wish to do so. Why? Because in the winter Montreal is cold. It is so cold, in fact, that the mighty St Lawrence River freezes over, which is hard to imagine in the summer months. The extreme cold is why Montreal boasts “La Ville Souterraine”, the world’s largest underground city. This consists of 20 miles of tunnel in a five square mile area. From this network one can access bus, train and metro stations, apartment blocks, hotels, offices, universities, shopping malls, concert halls, cinemas, the Bell Centre arena and, of course, cavernous parking lots. The underground city provides access to 80 percent of the city’s office space and every day in the winter around half a million troglodyte souls traverse these passageways.

If it is pouring with rain in the summer it is very useful because you can get across town without getting wet, although you need good navigational skills not to get lost in the maze. The good news is that unlike the multi-level railway stations in Tokyo, where even Marco Polo would get lost, there are people in Montreal who speak English and French, although their accents can make them utterly incomprehensible.

Generally-speaking I have a rule not to write too much about the stresses or strains of international travel, because people don’t really want to know, but sometimes these stories are worth telling, in order to get the airline or airport involved to get its act together, by hearing things said publicly they do not wish to hear. The litany of incompetence during this year’s trip to Montreal was the worst I have seen anywhere in the world in 39 years of non-stop travelling. And the same kind of disaster befell many other people. All three partners in our e-magazine GP+, travelling on entirely different itineraries, suffered serious multiple delays (more than eight hours) getting into Montreal – and all three lost our luggage (including cameras). The lost luggage service was there in name alone and after waiting the whole weekend for my bags, which had been promised within 24 hours, we went to the airport on Monday, hoping to see if any progress had been made because it was impossible to get any other information. On the off-chance it seemed sensible to take a look in the baggage hall rather than believing the people there and, sure enough, there it was, standing out from the crowd of black bags as it always has done. Clearly no-one had even tried to look for it.

Suffice to say, by the end of the weekend we had all sworn never to do business again with Air Canada and while we may not be able to avoid the airports (although it had been at least 15 years since my last visit to Toronto, when similar incompetence led to the decision to avoid the place at all costs), this took the pleasant edge off what is usually a joyful weekend.

If you asked a cross-section of the F1 Paddock to list their favourite races, the vast majority would include Montreal. It is a quirky and cosmopolitan city and it has always felt like a big party, with everyone staying in the downtown area and enjoying life a little bit more than usual. It helps, of course, that the Grand Prix coincides with the annual graduation ceremonies and proms. It is a joyful time. It is also Canada’s biggest annual party with as many as 450,000 people coming to town, although only a third of them attend the race. The rest are there to party, to drink, to dance and to canoodle. It is the most important weekend of the year for the city’s entrepreneurs. Hotels are fully booked and prices are up to 10 times normal rates. The problem with this is that there comes a point at which even F1 people decide that there must be better choices, which means that the circus disperses more widely, rents cars which means that everyone is more constrained in what they can do, and the sense of community disappears.

And of course the weather does not help because if it rains at the circuit team people stay inside their hospitality units.

So gossip was thin on the ground. The race attracted a three-day cumulative crowd of 338,000, which was a decent score, and the US TV audience averaged 1.7 million viewers, up 50.6 percent compared to 2019, the last time the race was held. Most exciting was the fact that F1 blitzed all other forms of motorsport in the 18-49 age group in the US and that it was the most-watched Canadian GP in American TV history. This is important as negotiations continue for the Formula 1 TV rights for the United States market. The word in Montreal was that a decision is now close and that there are three serious bidders Disney (which owns ESPN and ABC), Comcast’s NBC, and the TV streaming service Amazon Prime Video. The deal will go to one company, rather than being split up as NASCAR does, although there is a possibility that a small part of the rights may be carved out of the main deal, to provide non-live highlights to other audiences and thus push up the numbers still further.

F1 growth is very exciting at the moment, but for those who are hoping to see a 2023 calendar, there is going to be a bit of a wait, with an announcement not expected until the end of July. There will be some changes compared to this season and it seems that at the moment there are two different drafts of the 2023 calendar: one with 23 races, the other with 24. At the moment both drafts include the Monaco Grand Prix, although it is by no means certain that this will still be there. The difference in calendars appears to be the Chinese Grand Prix, as it is hard to know what the Chinese are going to do because of their attitude towards the COVID pandemic. One of the draft calendars includes a Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, the other does not, but this obviously impacts on other dates. Both drafts apparently include a South African GP, underlining F1’s desire to have its first race on the Africa continent since 1993. This will be at Kyalami, near Johannesburg, but there are still questions that need to be answered about the race because of ongoing political problems in the country.

The other new race will be Las Vegas. Obviously if you have a 22-race calendar in 2022 and you add three races (South Africa, China and Las Vegas), you reach a total of 25, and so some of the current events must disappear. Fortunately Russia has taken care of itself.

At the moment, so they say, France and Belgium are not on the 2023 schedule so I’m not quite sure how we would get to 24 races, but I guess this might relate to a notional new race in France. The suggestion made by Stefano Domenicali last week in an interview with the French sports daily L’Equipe is that there might be a French GP in Nice. Domenicali gave no details, but the rumour mill threw up that the idea is to lay out a street track around the Allianz Riviera stadium, in the Saint-Isidore district, in the Var valley to the west of the city, adjacent to the ring road that loops around Nice, en route to Monaco and the Italian border.

It is a relatively new neighbourhood, carved out of what used to be farmland, with the stadium opening in 2013. It is the home of the local soccer team OGC Nice and is used also by the Toulon rugby club. The only link to motorsport is that there is a street named after the late F1 driver Jules Bianchi, who died in 2015, after a crash in Japan in 2014. This would be incorporated into the circuit.

The history of racing in Nice is quite impressive and pre-dates Monaco, as the first Nice Speed Week was held in 1897, and the celebrated Nice-La Turbie hillclimb, one of the biggest early events, ran from 1901 onwards. There were land speed records set on the Promenade des Anglais and there was a Nice Grand Prix in the 1930s and then again post-war. The 1946 race is often said to have been the first event run to Formula 1 rules.

This all sounds rather a good idea, as F1 has decided against continuing with Paul Ricard and it suits the French Grand Prix promotion company, which is not dependent on Ricard and is headed by Christian Estrosi, the Mayor of Nice.

It is also convenient for F1 that the idea has come up as it is in deep negotiation with Monaco. The celebrated street track is just 12 miles to the east of Nice and while the latter cannot put an F1 track through its port and streets, it could (and should) be conceived as a threat to Monaco if F1 cannot get the deal it wants with the Automobile Club de Monaco.

The shape of the 2023 calendar may be a little different to today, but the signs are that it will begin with a big test/F1 launch in Bahrain, followed a week later by the first race. There will then be a weekend off before a race in Saudi Arabia, followed immediately by Australia. It is not clear what will happen after that because this is the time when China would be fitted in, perhaps back-to-back with Baku, or with South Africa slotting in there. It is clear when one tries to piece together the calendar that there are too many question marks to have any definitive answers. What is clear is that it looks like F1 will have to do two Transatlantic trips each spring as Miami is stuck in May and Montreal will not move from its June date. This is inefficient in every respect, but F1 is bound by contracts it agreed – or has to renegotiate… The desire remains to try to regionalise the calendar more than is the case today.

The desire to grow F1 in the Americas is stronger than ever and current team owners are unwilling to sell because they feel that the value of the teams will increase dramatically as the sport grows and all have big dollar signs in their eyes. The logic is that US sports investors come wading to try to make a profit.

If you don’t have at least $1 billion, however, there is not a lot of point in even trying to buy a team at the moment. Having said that, building a new team costs about the same when you take into account all the money needed and, in any case, a new team is unlikely to be as competitive as a well-established one. This is the frustration that currently exists for a number of people keen to become team owners, not least Audi and Michael Andretti, not to mention Hitech Grand Prix and some others still in the shadows.

There is no appetite within the sport at the moment to add new teams because no team wants to reduce its share of the revenues (even if they are increasing) and take on more rivals. Michael Andretti’s only real hope of being granted a new entry would be if he could bring Ford or General Motors into the sport, then the doors would open very quickly and an 11th team could be put together and everyone would see value in adding another manufacturer to F1.

If one cannot buy an existing team and it makes no sense to build a new one, the only way for those with ambition is to invade the sport from within. At any given time, a number of F1 teams are not being run very well, and so there is always potential for outsiders to be offered jobs if the team owners think they could find better management, if indeed the owners recognise that there is a problem – which is not always the case.

If you look back you can see this happening in the last 15 years with the likes of Christian Horner, Eric Boullier and Frederic Vasseur moving up from the junior formulae, with others such as Franz Tost, Jost Capito, Mike Krack, Andreas Seidl and Otmar Szafnauer coming in from manufacturer roles, and Gunther Steiner from running a successful composite business in the US.

There are not many team principals who have come through the ranks, with the obvious exception of Mattia Binotto and Sauber’s previous team principal Monisha Kaltenborn and one can, I suppose, add family members to this, notably Claire Williams, although in the distant past there were also folk like Bob Tyrrell, Ken Tyrrell’s son.

Toto Wolff is unusual in that he is an investor who has moved into management roles.

This is where, perhaps, there is potential for takeovers, with people offering both money and management skills and then gradually gaining ownership of a team from within. That was a route that allowed Ron Dennis to take control of McLaren way back in the early 1980s and how Wolff got into an executive role at Williams. One suspects that Zak Brown may be doing something similar at McLaren but shareholdings do not need to be declared until they reach a certain level, so for the moment there are only whispers that he is a shareholder. Those who bring in big sponsorships can sometimes take shares rather than a big commission…

The other way would be new to F1, but not unusual in the business world where weak companies are  targeted by bigger players, who win control by buying up shares and gaining enough influence to oust the original owners. This is, to some extent, what happened when the late Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne won control of Chrysler back in 2014.

It was not unusual in the car industry for investors to kick out the founders of businesses. Henry Ford’s first company, the Detroit Automobile Company, was shut down by investors. His second, known as the Henry Ford Company, saw him ousted and the firm renamed Cadillac, and it was not until his third attempt that the Ford Motor Company emerged.

The same was true of Audi which emerged only because its founder August Horch was ousted from his own company in 1909 and so started a rival business called Audi. Horch in German means listen which translates into Latin as Audi.

Of the current F1 teams Mercedes, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Alpine all belong to listed companies, while there is now talk of McLaren being listed on the stock exchange at some point in the future.

It might not be easy but one can imagine someone seeing an opportunity to buy control of Aston Martin in this way in order to get control of the brand. Mercedes owns 20 percent of Aston Martin shares and, if it wished to offload these, a buyer could acquire them and then hoover up smaller shareholders (which make up more than 50 percent) by buying shares at a premium. Under current rules a purchaser would not have to declare a significant interest until they have 25 percent of the business, but there are all kinds of ways to gain control with, for example, debt-equity exchanges, in which debts are acquired and turned into shares, thus diluting the share value but making the company more solid. The devil is in the detail, but weak companies are exposed and disgruntled shareholders are prime targets.

There seemed to be little new on the driver front in Canada, although some of the known deals did get confirmed with AlphaTauri’s Franz Tost saying that Pierre Gasly will stay on in 2023. The other key point was that Montreal Otmar Szafnauer, Alpine’s team principal, said that that Oscar Piastri will be racing in F1 in 2023. This is no surprise as Alpine will lose control of the Australian if he does not have a race drive next year. There is presumably a date by which a deal must done by Alpine or Piastri can go to market as a free agent. Thus there is some pressure on Alpine to find him a seat.

The only obvious choice for him at the moment is Williams, where Nicholas Latifi will lose his drive at the end of the year, if things do not pick up. This has led to suggestions that Williams might change engines, but that makes little sense because it is too late for 2023 and that would mean only two years to get up to speed with the current engines in 2024 and 2025. It is probably better for Alpine and Williams to talk engine deals from 2026 and beyond. This is not a bad move for Williams as the team would become the second Renault team, rather than the fourth Mercedes operation.

It would also give Williams an impressive driver line-up and provide the team with time to develop its own young driver Logan Sargeant, who needs more time in Formula 2.

That aside there was little gossip in Montreal, although there were some interesting faces on the grid, including some people from Melbourne who had dropped in to look at the pit facility at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, as they need to start work on upgrading the facilities in Albert Park, which are now 25 years old and outdated. In much the same way, Steve Hill, the CEO and President of Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) was in Montreal to see how the Canadians run a Grand Prix. Las Vegas is making rapid progress in preparation for its first race in 2023 with the aim being to build a permanent three-storey pit facility similar to the one in Miami, with garages on the ground floor, hospitality on the second and on the roof, with Race Control and other necessary facilities integrated into it. This would be turned over to other uses for the rest of the year when F1 is not in town.

By Sunday night, everyone was keen to get home, although there were the delights of the airport and the flights home still to come. You know that tiresome moment at an airport when you (and your hand luggage) have to go through a security check. Working security is not an easy job – because people are in a hurry and do not like queuing. Things are bad at the moment and Montreal has adopted Disney-like policies of hiding queues. While one does not expect the security folk to be Rhodes Scholars, it is a job that can be done with grace or humour. It’s dull work, explaining why one cannot carry a whole tube of toothpaste, and confiscating nail scissors because they are lethal weapons…

With all the paraphernalia required by itinerant F1 journalists, it is not unusual to be stopped, but normally the security people quickly see that nothing is amiss and off you go to find the gate.

Alas, with a shortage of staff since the pandemic (the primary problem for all the troubles at the moment), there are new folk employed who do not have much experience. The security girl I encountered insisted that I had “a multi-tool” somewhere in my multi-pocketed bag.

“There isn’t,” I said, with as much patience as I could muster. No professional traveller carries a multi-tool. It is plain stupid. I’m not saying that she should instantly believe everything, but after 25 minutes going through my bag (no exaggeration), it all felt a bit too much, particularly as others were queued up behind waiting to have their bags inspected.

“You’ve already looked there,” I said, politely, on several occasions. She got excited when she found some pen refills, but could not figure out how these might be deemed to be murderous devices, although I was on the verge of showing her by that point. To be honest, I’ve known dogs that were smarter than this person, but finally there came a moment when she had to admit defeat. I was not a professional assassin, nor an international terrorist. She would not get promoted for finding my hidden weaponry. She shoved the plastic tray at me gracelessly, leaving the bag unpacked, as she did not have the mental capacity required to put it all back together again so it fitted. There was no “Sorry, I was wrong”, nor a “Sorry, I have wasted your time because I am incompetent”. With Air Canada at the moment there was no need for “Sorry, I’ve caused you to miss the flight”, because I doubt the airline managed to get a single flight out of Montreal on time last week.

As I walked away from this experience, I chuckled. There was one pocket that she never did find – even if it didn’t have a multi-tool in it…

Still, with every cloud there is a silver lining. The barman at least was good at his job…

Come and meet Joe in London

It has been a long time since the last Audience with Joe in London, as a result of the global pandemic. However, we’re back on Wednesday, June 29, at the Hollywood Arms in Chelsea. The format is as before: you ask questions to one of the most experienced F1 journalists, who hasn’t missed a single F1 race in 34 years.

I will answer questions as best I can – and if I can’t tell you, I’ll explain why.

The event will run from 7pm to 11pm, with a buffet dinner included. You can drink as much or as little as you like, with the drinks at usual bar prices. Tickets cost £45 per person.

The tickets are rather limited, so you need to book early, but the goal is to give everyone the chance to ask questions – rather than simply being there to listen.

It’s a great opportunity for me to engage with fans and the Audiences with Joe not only do that, but also allow fans to meet one another and have fun with like-minded people.

The Audience in London will take place on Wednesday, June 29 at the Hollywood Arms, 45 Hollywood Road, Lodon SW10 9HX (www.hollywoodarmschelsea.com)

To book tickets, click here

Green Notebook from a quiet valley in Normandy

Down the road from the ruined abbey and the picturesque duck pond, not far from an old farm where I sometimes go to buy exquisite charcuterie, there is a house that flies the Red Bull Racing flag at all times.

One day I must stop off and say “Bonjour”, and find out why there is such passion for the team in such a un-Red Bull kind of place. Perhaps they are Max Verstappen fans, or maybe it is Dr Marko or Christian Horner who stirs the passion. I doubt (very much) that there are Mexicans in the neighbourhood.

I smile every time I pass by, which is quite often these days, as it is on the route I like to take to get to the airport. The road (eventually) links up to the old Roman road (known as the Chaussée Jules César), that runs as straight a die towards Paris, and Charles de Gaulle airport. I am taking this route three times in eight days: once returning from Baku, once going to Montreal and once on the way home from Canada.

Baku was (how can I put this politely?) dull. It’s a nice enough place, if you don’t look too closely, but it was incredibly quiet for the F1 weekend, perhaps because it came after three busy races in Miami, Barcelona and Monaco.

Admittedly, most of the locals cannot afford tickets, and in F1 only those who are really keen on the sport make the trip. It is not the kind of place where there is much in the way of B2B action, although the canapés in the Paddock Club probably make Monaco catering look good.

If they wanted to offer $10,000 as a reward for spotting a VIP they would probably have got away without having to pay, although Flavio Briatore (who passes for an ageing celebrity) was probably there somewhere, picking up his commission cheque (or cash) for having put the deal together originally. I didn’t see him on the grid, which is where such people like to be seen. In truth, the grid was like high noon in Hadleyville, New Mexico, except that Gary Cooper had (unsurprisingly) decided NOT to forsake his darling Grace Kelly on their wedding day. So it really was rather quiet.

Stefano Domenicali was walking around with FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, without any celebs to shepherd around. It made me wonder what F1 is doing in Baku these days. In an era when F1 wants to put bums of seats and big parties, is Baku the place to be?

It is actually a really interesting place. It was the scene of the world’s first oil boom and although hydrocarbons are out of fashion these days, there is still plenty of the stuff to see in Baku. They have the pre-requisite silvery constructions that oil-rich places love, but there is old stuff too.

I concluded that Baku will need money to keep F1 interested, particularly at a time when the sport is heavily into “regionalisation”. Azerbaijan would fit into a notional calendar in April, perhaps on the way back from early season Asia-Pacific races, but it does not make a lot of sense in June.

Having Miami and Montreal in early May before the European season gets underway with Spain and Monaco (if a deal can be found for the latter) is much more logical. As Baku’s deal runs out after the next race, it is fair to say that the boot in this negotiation is firmly on the F1 foot. If Baku doesn’t want to play ball, it will lose the race. There is no negotiating position beyond cold hard cash. Still, Liberty Media seems to be interested from time to time in places with horse-choking wedges of greenbacks, even if they do not quite fit into the pristine world inhabited by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Although it doesn’t always seem that way, Formula 1 is listed on the NASDAQ in New York and so there always a risk that the regulators might deem it unfortunate to go to places that rate 128th on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Now that Russia is gone from the F1 calendar, Azerbaijan is Bottom of the Pops on the CPI.

F1 has done much of what Baku wanted (putting the place on the international map), but tourism numbers have been slow to recover since the pandemic and have not been helped by the war in Ukraine, which has effectively wiped out all visitors from Russia and Ukraine. Russia was previously the major source of visitors to Azerbaijan. Without the Russians, the grandstands in Baku were, um, well, pretty unfilled.

Baku was pondering an Olympic bid a few years ago but with the International Olympic Committee already having deals in place for Paris in 2024, Los Angeles in 2028 and Brisbane in 2032, there no possibility of the Games going to Azerbaijan until at least 2036, which is a long time in the future.

And there are small signs that Azerbaijan is lss interested than once it was. The infrastructure for F1 was left up for the whole of last year and is now suffering from wear and tear – and the current contract ends next year. So some fancy footwork may be required to get a new deal. F1 is in two minds about the future. Money is good, but…

Anyway, the FIA World Motor Sport Council will meet in the week after Montreal and we should not expect a 2023 calendar by then because there is too much under discussion. Stefano Domenicali flew off to South Africa after the race in Baku to talk about F1 going back to Africa, a dal that would probably help the F1 share price.

Baku hasn’t changed much since we first started visiting in 2016. It is a little more welcoming perhaps. I seem to recall that the first visit involved an immigration officer with all the charisma  and humour of Vladimir Putin’s country cousin. This year the immigration officer was efficient and charming… and very beautiful. She was, in fact, the perfect antidote to the gormless rubber-stampers of old.

But, there are still lessons to be learned. The people in Baku are generally very friendly. The hotelier sent me a message warning that “the price of a taxi from the airport to the hotel is 10-15 AZN”. Sadly, I did not receive this (because it was too costly to turn on the roaming on my phone) and so I trusted the Taxi Desk in the Arrivals Hall where a dubious-looking individual assured me that 55 AZN was the going rate. Everyone got kinked. You can tell a lot about a country from its cab drivers…

Anyway, if Baku really wants to promote itself as an international tourist destination, it really does need to do something about the thieves who drive taxis. The hotel, of course, didn’t take credit cards and naturally the card was blocked after two identical transactions to get cash, because credit card companies assume that there is criminal activity if you try the same transaction too many times from a place like Baku. There is, you see, still a reputational problem…

Anyway, I could walk into the paddock from the hotel, so life was not too bad. The only problem was that nothing was happening.

The signing of Sergio Perez by Red Bull (announced after Monaco) meant that the focus in the F1 driver market has moved to the next most competitive teams. Barring upheavals, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull are now settled for 2023. This means that the focus has shifted to McLaren, Alpine and Alfa Romeo. McLaren has Lando Norris under contract and Daniel Ricciardo should still be there, although his results have been very disappointing, for the second year running. Thus there is a possibility of change and the theory is that McLaren can have Colton Herta, an American, if he does well in F1 testing (which will soon begin). Is that realistic? Perhaps not. I can see Herta replacing Ricciardo in 2024 as the American still has so much to learn. 

Over at Alpine the signs are that the current two drivers will stay. Esteban Ocon has a contract and  the team is keen to keep Fernando Alonso. This means that Alpine must find Oscar Piastri a drive or risk losing him – which would not be very smart. I heard stories that Williams has done a deal with Piastri but, leaning against a wall in the paddock, I saw Mark Webber  (Piastri’s manager) talking in animated fashion to various people, which suggested that no deal is done. If it was done, Webber would have been somewhere else… Williams is the obvious spot for Oscar, but a deal must be done. It was interesting to note that Williams had very much a skeleton staff in Baku, with no sign of team principal Jost Capito, let alone the owners.

Haas might be interested in Oscar but the truth is that Ferrari has a say in the second Haas driver and as Mick Schumacher is not delivering the good, the word is that Haas will probably end up with Ferrari’s reserve driver Antonio Giovinazzi in 2023.

As for Alfa Romeo, no-one will wnat to drive there unless they can stop the cars breaking done. It is a really quick car but the results are less than impressive. In terms of speed, Alfa Romeo might be third in the championship nf the car workd properly.

So, the big story in Baku was that there wasn’t a big story, although the hyperbolic individuals in the F1 media decided to get excited about a possible salary cap. No-one seemed to know from where the story had come, which means that it was planted, but in truth it does make a lot of sense. Now that we have a budget cap (even if the top teams are whining about what they agreed), the exclusions make less and less sense. If you are slashing salaries inside a team, how can one justify going on paying vast sums to drivers and top people (these being excluded from the current cap)?

The fact that there is inflation and it is painful for the top teams is not that interesting, although one might ask the question about why no-one properly considered what impact inflation might have, presumably because there are not so many folk old enough to remember bad inflation in the world.

Anyway, there is an easy fix. Teams that are short of cash can simply turn off their wind tunnels for a few weeks… The purpose of the budget cap is to balance up spending and this is exactly what it is doing and the FIA and the smaller teams see no reason to change that because the big teams are having to pay more for their electricity.

No team is going to miss races.

Bringing everything under the budget cap is a good idea – and is already being used in any number of sports. What people in F1 miss is that there are many different ways to have a salary cap. And it does not mean that drivers will get less money. It is not an assault on their value, nor a restriction of free enterprise nor trade, it is simply a way for teams to better use their resources in a controlled fashion – which means that they will make more profits, and become more valuable.

What is needed is a step back from the F1 coal face. 

There are salary caps in the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, the MLS and many other smaller leagues in the US and in many other sports across the world. A salary cap merely restricts what a team can pay a player/driver. It does not restrict what a sponsor can pay. The only thing required to make it work is for the teams to give up the current practice of taking all the drivers’ marketing rights and all their time.

If they do that, which they must if there is to be a salary cap, then nothing is impossible and such an agreement would promote parity between the teams – and help control costs (and thus generate profit) even more. With a salary cap, each team has the same economic power to attract stars. Salary caps can be on a per-player basis, or as  total figure for all the players. It can be a combination of the two and it can also have different styles of cap, with hard caps resulting in punishment or fines and softer caps allowing teams to overspend on occasion, as long as they pay a “competitive balance tax” which means that they must contribute money to an industry growth fund if they overspend substantially. This discourages them to do so… while also providing funding that allows the sport to develop. Such restrictions are not necessarily only for drivers and might also include the highest-paid employees, so that a team might wish to invest more in engineers than in expensive drivers, as long as everything came in under the salary cap.

The F1 drivers argued in Baku that people will not invest in youngsters if there is no return on the investment. This was clever but was ultimately poppycock.  Teams will be looking even harder for the best youngsters because they will ultimately cost them less than paying for the stars. Thus one can argue that there will be MORE incentive to promote youngsters than is the case today.

The key is that the stars can mal money from endorsements and so investors who put money into youngsters will still get their share of the overall returns. They will not go hungry. Ths days driver may not be keen to run their own commercial operations but they can afford to pay people to do so, rather than relying on the teams.  Drivers can thus earn a lot and if they want more than the salary cap allows them, they can work a little harder to get it. It is actually more of a free market than is currently the case… So what it really means is that that there would be a realignment of the money flows, rather than a loss of revenue. It will add more value to the teams because they will have to pay out less, but it will not impact on sponsorship revenues, as long as the sport remains popular…

It may seem an odd thing to say but I think that F1 “franchises” are still under-valued. Yes, it might cost $700 million to buy an F1 team when two years ago one could pick up a team for $200 million, but things have changed. The budget cap and increasing revenues in the sport have made it more attractive and now the big guns of sports business are turning towards F1 because thanks to Liberty Media, they now understand the business model. In the days of Bernie Ecclestone, F1 teams were money pits into which owners threw their money, in order to become famous.

Today, they can still get to be famous but they can make money too. So the sport ticks a lot more boxes than it used to do. If you look around global sport there are some impressive deals being done. But it is a game only for the super-rich. The other day Rob Walton agreed to pay $4.65 billion to acquire the Denver Broncos, an NFL team. It is most expensive purchase ever of a sporting franchise. The fact that Walton and his family are worth $200 billion or more (thanks to Walmart) is not a big issue, but it is worth noting that he was a car collection worth $200 million and as even been known to race his own cars.

Walton’s deal beat the recent sale of Chelsea for a similar kind of number. The buyers were Todd Boehly, who owns three sports teams in Los Angeles: the LA Dodgers, the LA Lakers and the LA Sparks. What is less known is that Boehly is a partner in a number of businesses (including Chelsea) with another investor called Mark Walter, co-founder and CEO of Guggenheim Capital, and that Walter is the man behind Michael Andretti’s bid to buy an F1 team.

No-one wants to sell their teams for the kind of money that Walter & Co want to pay (this is because they were not as quick on their feet as Dorilton Capital and Lawrence Stroll (who picked up teams cheaply before other realised that the sport was going in the right direction). So today, investors either have to bite the bullet and pay to acquire a team, or they have to  somehow convince the sport that it needs new teams (which it really does not). Still, the Haas model – of buying in as much as possible – is a good one to get a nw team going. The problem is that there are not many Dallaras out there. Finding a partner to manufacture cars is key to success because trying to build up composite departments is REALLY expensive. Thus I was interested to see a deal between Lamborghini and Ligier in relation to LMDh chassis.

You might say: ‘What has this got to do with F1?” apart from the fact that there was once a Ligier-Lamborghini F1 car, but if you start digging you soon find that Ligier these days is a very impressive business. It is one of the four firms that were selected to build chassis for LMDh sports cars.

What is interesting is that Ligier’s parent company is called Everspeed, which is owned by French businessman Jacques Nicolet. The group also owns HP Composites, an Italian firm, which has more than 20 years of experience building composite chassis for motorsports and for road cars. It has done work for Audi, Ferrari, Bugatti, Porsche, Lamborghini, Minardi and some of the Italian motorcycle firms as well. To put it into perspective, when Dallara decided to build its own road cars, HP Composites did a deal to manufacture the chassis… So watch out for Ligier if F1 agrees to allow new teams. It may not be a team like before, but it could be a sub-contractor like Dallara is for Haas. 

Anyway, even if F1 was not big in Baku this year, the sport continues to gain traction in the world and Lewis Hamilton’s involvement in a movie project with Brad Pitt and Apple Original Films sounds interesting. Th only thing that alarms slightly is that Pitt is now 58 years old and although he obviously treats his body like a temple, age is age.  The script, it seems, is alsl about a driver who comes out of retirement to compete alongside a rookie driver. This means that Brad is a good 20 years older than the average F1 comeback merchant… One should perhaps remember at this point that Sylvester Stallone once made a movie along similar lines. He was 54 at the time. The movie, which ended up being about IndyCars because F1 realised it was not a good idea, was called Driven, although in the racing world it is now known as Drivel., and lives up to its name in spectacular fashion.

The problem with making fiction-based movie about racing is that reality is always stranger than fiction and so fiction is never convincing. Unless it is completely bonkers. It is also worth noting that the biggest movie about racing in recent years has been a cartoon called Turbo, which is about a snail who wins the Indy 500. If you kids or grandkids, you will probably already know it. If you don’t, check it out. It’s brilliant. Rubbish, but brilliant…

Right, I must stop now, as I need to work on a film script called “Escargot” –  a snail that wants to win Monaco. I should be able to bang something out before I head off to Canada.

And, in the worst case scenario, here in France, one can always add a little garlic and some parsley and eat the star…

Meet up in Canada…

F1 booming in North America, so there is sure to be a lot of demand for this year’s Audience with Joe event, the first post-pandemic Audience to take place in Canada. The format is the same: you get to ask questions to one of the most experienced F1 journalists, who hasn’t missed a race in 34 years…

The event will be on Friday night and will answer questions as best I can – and if I can’t tell you, I’ll explain why.

It’s a great opportunity to engage with fans and the Audiences with Joe not only do that, but also allow fans to meet one another and have fun with like-minded people. There is a whole evening of questions, plus a break for a buffet dinner. You can drink as much or as little as you like, but you buy the drinks.

The venue – where the audience has been since the start – is centrally-located, in the old port area of the city. And it is easy to get there from the circuit.

You will go to the track on Saturday with plenty of behind-the-scenes information about what is going on and why.

The Audience in Montreal will take place on Friday, June 17 at the Pub St Paul, 124 rue St-Paul Est, Vieux-Montréal, Québec H2Y 1G2.

To book tickets, click here

Want to know more about F1?

F1 booming in North America, so there is sure to be a lot of demand for this year’s Audience with Joe event, the first post-pandemic Audience to take place in Canada. The format is the same: you get to ask questions to one of the most experienced F1 journalists, who hasn’t missed a race in 34 years…

The event will be on Friday night and will answer questions as best I can – and if I can’t tell you, I’ll explain why.

It’s a great opportunity to engage with fans and the Audiences with Joe not only do that, but also allow fans to meet one another and have fun with like-minded people. There is a whole evening of questions, plus a break for a buffet dinner. You can drink as much or as little as you like, but you buy the drinks.

The venue – where the audience has been since the start – is centrally-located, in the old port area of the city. And it is easy to get there from the circuit.

You will go to the track on Saturday with plenty of behind-the-scenes information about what is going on and why.

The Audience in Montreal will take place on Friday, June 17 at the Pub St Paul, 124 rue St-Paul Est, Vieux-Montréal, Québec H2Y 1G2.

To book tickets, click here