Today, shortly before qualifying, the safety vehicles at the Circuit of the Americas are going to make a whole lot noise with their horns and sirens, as a “one minute of noise” salute to the track’s director of safety Lon Bromley, who drowned two weeks ago in a fishing accident in Oregon. Bromley was a celebrated worker in the field of motor racing safety and one the primary players in the US, alongside Terry Trammell and Steve Olvey.
From the late 1980s onwards Bromley was head of the Horton Safety Team at all CART and Champ Car races and he played an important role in saving a number of lives, notably that of Alex Zanardi after a crash at the Lausitzring in Germany in 2001.
Bromley and Dave Hollander were in charge of the two rapid intervention vehicles that would arrive at the scene of a big accident and would assist the doctors in the process of stabilising injured drivers and then extracting them from the wrecks. Trammell says that Bromley was the best “scene commander” he ever worked with. Bromley went on to a much bigger safety role and was seen as a safe and knowledgable pair of hands and a much-loved figure in the US racing fraternity.
There have been quiet whispers for months that Ron Dennis might be removed from his position at the head of what is now known as the McLaren Technology Group, the parent company of the McLaren F1 team. There has never been sufficient on-the-record evidence to justify writing a story, but the rumours have swirled nonetheless.
It is clear, if you look at the paperwork, that Dennis does not have control of the business, in terms of shareholdings, owning just 25 percent of the shares and so, logically, if the other owners combine and vote against him, he could be removed from his role, just as Martin Whitmarsh was when Dennis made his comeback after five years away, in January 2014. The deal at the time, so they say, was that Dennis would toughen up McLaren in F1 and would make it more competitive. He would also find backers to buy shares from his partners and retake control of the entire business. That hasn’t happened and it is said that various deadlines have come and gone.
Just to be clear, we are talking only of the racing team and associated companies, not the automobile manufacturing business, which is separate but has most of the same shareholders.
The parties involved, of course, are saying nothing publicly, although the official line is that there is no change planned. But does that mean no change in the future as well?
The question that the McLaren shareholders face is simple and yet complex at the same time. Will separating McLaren from Dennis cause the company any harm, or will it be able to work differently and achieve more success if he is no longer there?
One cannot fault his record of success in the sport, McLaren won seven Constructors’ and 10 Drivers’ Championships during his reign as team principal between 1980 and 2009. Having said that it is quite astonishing to think that the team has not won the Constructors’ title since 1998, although it has been runner-up seven times since then. Dennis is not quite as integral to the team as, for example, Enzo Ferrari was with Ferrari, but the difference is only really the name. Dennis took over McLaren 36 years ago and built it into the empire it is today. It is a remarkable achievement and one which should be recognised as such.
Under Whitmarsh – between 2009 and 2013 – McLaren did not win the World Championship, but the team was at least winning races. The change of engine rules and the switch to Honda meant that it has done little since Whitmarsh departed.
Ron is 70 next year and has always been keen to promote the idea of handing the company on to younger men, but at the moment it seems that this ambition is less acute than once it was.
One way or another things seem to be coming to a head and we will see which way the wind blows.
Lewis Hamilton is to have a cameo role in the latest Call of Duty game, entitled Infinite Warfare. This is a shooting game, set in space in “the distant future” and has been developed by the Infinity Ward company for game publisher Activision. The Call of Duty video game franchise, which began in 2003, has sold more than 250 million copies since then, generating sales of more than $11 billion.
The audience of Call of Duty is 92 percent male, with 42 percent of the players between the ages of 18-24, 22 percent are in the 25-34 age bracket, with 20 percent between 13-17. This is basically the same demographic as Snapchat users, so it is clear that this is the target audience for Purple PR, the public relations agency to which Hamilton is allied. This specialises in fashion and music, which explains some of Lewis’s more ethereal activities.
It is not new for celebrities to appear in video games, notable examples being Kevin Spacey and General David Petraeus in earlier Call of Duty games, Justin Bieber in NBA 2K13, Snoop Dogg in True Crime: Streets of LA, Bruce Lee in various martial arts games and, oddly, Phil Collins in Grand Theft Auto. It is also not the first time that a racing driver has done such a thing, Danica Patrick having appeared in Sonic & All-Stars Racing in 2010.
Oddly, quite a lot of F1 people, including me (left), had their faces 3D-scanned about 10 years when Sony was keen to have real F1 people appearing in the background in its computer games. I cannot say I have ever played the game to find out if I appear…
Notwithstanding the violent theme of the game, it has to be said that Hamilton’s appearance is largely a good thing for Formula 1, because it is getting the sport’s biggest star to a new demographic, as the average F1 viewer is now 37 years of age. Whether or not those who follow Hamilton in these activities will become F1 fans is less clear, but it cannot do any harm. Whether the goal of Lewis’s activities is to build the sport, or simply to build his own brand is largely irrelevant if the two goals are served by the same activities.
Having said that, Hamilton’s recent refusal to engage at traditional press conferences has not been a very positive move, suggesting to the fans that he is petulant and does not have his feet on the ground. One can understand that some of the more creative members of the media can be extremely annoying, but it makes little sense to alienate the majority when the problem is not widespread. It is better, probably, to deal with individual cases and leave the rest alone.
It has, however, raised the question of what value the FIA press conferences have, given that some misguided person in that organisation felt it would be a good idea to televise them. This meant that working journalists on site lost one of their key working tools and no longer had anything to gain from the conferences because all questions asked and answers given were instantly sent out to the world, where the many self-appointed F1 experts on the Internet gobbled it up and regurgitated it before the journalists on site could even get back to their desks. This meant that the conferences are now largely left to those who wish to grandstand, rather than for serious exchanges of views.
This means that the whole process has been dumbed down and fewer people attend. This year has seen some of the lowest media attendances in F1 since the 1980s. One can argue that perhaps this was what was intended by the move, but having a healthy media has got to be better for a sport. The obvious thing to do would be to stop the TV coverage of press conferences and the dissemination of transcripts. This would give the professional F1 journalists a working tool once again, but this would obviously upset those who believe that journalism can be done from home, using social media, and believe that they somehow have a right to such information. It is fairly clear that one can do the job from home, but the result will never be as good as it is when the journalists have direct contact with those involved. However, it is also clear that publishers increasingly wish to save money and so do not send their own reporters to events, relying instead on copy cobbled together from the despatches of others.
In the end, it will depend on the market. If there is no demand for anything beyond rehashing from TV stations, press releases and other publications, there will eventually be no-one to provide any content beyond that. Perhaps with the reduction in the number of media in F1, there will be more chance for those present to talk to the big names, but there is also another question that needs to be addressed. If one compares the F1 drivers to stars in other racing championships and indeed other sports, they tend to hide away whenever they can, running around the paddock to avoid having to stop and connect with people. They claim they do not have time, but in truth a lot of them spend a lot of time sitting around on their own. This is one of the reasons that driver retainers are reducing (and bonus schemes increasing) because teams and sponsors are less willing to pay when it is a struggle to get positive activity from their stars. They are paid primarily because they are fast, but many could earn more if they were more helpful and not cosseted by over-protective PRs. Here are some examples of NASCAR drivers being real people and saying stuff you would never hear from an F1 driver.
Lawrence Stroll has always talked a lot. He’s a salesman and has done well for himself. Remarkably so… Stroll’s latest burst of chat was to the Journal de Montréal and he revealed to the newspaper that his son Lance will be in Formula 1 next year. This was not exactly a revelation, but a confirmation of recent F1 rumours, although Stroll did not say that there was a deal with Williams. The newspaper was sufficiently diplomatic not to make much of the fact that Stroll has paid a large sum in order to get his son into F1. This is not a crime and, to be fair, the youngster has done well in Formula 3, although some of the other teams complain that Stroll bought Prema Powerteam in order to help his son and had Williams engineers working on the car. This is all true, but the son still had to deliver the goods and he has done that. Is he good enough for Formula 1? That is a different question, but one supposes that Williams would not take him simply for the money. Stroll told the paper that there are two options for 2017, and while one might waste time and energy trying to figure out the other, it is very clear that Williams will be the destination. Normally Williams does not let a driver out in one of its cars unless a contract is in place and given that the team is not only testing the youngster all over the world, but also tweeting about his F3 successes, it is safe bet that something is already on paper.
There have been rumours that Stroll Sr has bought a share in the team, but this is not true, at least not yet. The team, lest we forget, is listed on the Deutsche Börse in Frankfurt and any major changes in shareholdings must be announced as soon as they happen to avoid share price manipulations that might take place if such information remained secret. The last registered ownership details show Sir Frank Williams holding 52.5 percent of the company, 24 percent of the business being traded, Brad Hollinger owning 10 percent and Patrick Head 9.3 percent. The rest is owned by the employees. So, while Stroll might be providing the team with large sums of money for this year’s testing and next year’s racing, he is not a shareholder.
Money is really not a problem. Stroll has worked in the fashion world since he was a youngster. His father, Leo Strulovitch, started out licensing Pierre Cardin products in Canada in the 1970s and then followed up with the Polo Ralph Lauren brand. It was through this that Stroll (who is legally Strulovitch) met Lauren and acquired the rights to market Ralph Lauren products in Europe, through a company called Poloco SA, in league with Hong Kong apparel manufacturer Silas Chou. This was a great success and the pair went on to establish a private equity business called Sportswear Holdings Limited in Hong Kong in 1989 to acquire and invest in global lifestyle brands. Their first acquisition was the Tommy Hilfiger brand, although this was soon followed by Pepe Jeans. In 1992 they floated Hilfiger and used some of the money raised to sponsor Team Lotus in Formula 1 with the Hilfiger and Pepe Jeans brands. In the late 1990s Hilfiger became a sponsor of Ferrari. Sportswear Holdings would later acquire the British jeweler Asprey & Garrard, which was in difficulties. That deal came about through the F1 connection as Asprey was also a Ferrari sponsor at the time.
After selling Hilfiger and Asprey, Sportswear Holdings invested in Michael Kors in 2003 and built the business up for an IPO in 2011. In 2014 Stroll and Chou sold their remaining shares in Michael Kors. Stroll is reckoned to be worth around $2.4 billion. He has talked about getting involved in various teams but has yet to do so. He’s a Ferrari fan and raced in the Ferrari Challenge in the United States and has also bought and redeveloped the Mont Tremblant racing circuit. Today he has a large collection of Ferraris, including a 1967 GTB/4 S NART Spider, which he purchased at an auction in 2013 for $27.5 million. For the moment his primary activity is getting his son into F1. What happens next remains to be seen… He might be a potential buyer for Force India, but the price, while easily manageable for him, is perhaps more than he is willing to pay.
The news that Nico Hulkenberg is switching from Force India to Renault (despite having earlier been confirmed at Force India) means that there are two F1 seats in 2017 which are now in focus, as the dominoes fall. With Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari already filled, the next best drives, at least in terms of points scored, are the Force India which Hulkenberg will vacate, and the second Renault. There is also, in principle, a second Williams. However, it is almost certain that the Grove team will be taking on Lance Stroll, the Canadian who has won the European Formula 3 Championship this year and has a billionaire father. In theory the team is keeping Valtteri Bottas, even though he has had a big offer from Renault and might wish to move on. The truth is that Williams cannot really afford to lose him in the sense that it needs a proper contender and some stability with Felipe Massa retiring. Bringing in two new drivers would not be a grand idea. However, if someone is willing to pay enough to buy Valtteri out, the team might accept the cash and then go fishing for a Felipe Nasr or a Kevin Magnussen. Williams may be under performing, but it still has a Mercedes engine. It might also be willing to accept a Mercedes junior, such as Pascal Wehrlein – if the money is right.
Force India is a similar story. The team will find the driver with the right balance between talent, money and experience. The operations works miracles given the budget it has, but has been let down by its ownership, who seem to have huge amounts of talent when it comes to ducking and weaving – but both the major shareholders have managed to get into trouble with the Indian authorities which means that their time in F1 is limited. Harry Houdini would be hard-pressed to keep Force India in the long term. The team is for sale. The problem for the moment is that the price being asked to sell the team is slightly higher than Mont Blanc and, oddly enough, no-one is keen to don the financial crampons and potential buyers are waiting until the Indians slide down the mountain. In the interim, the team will no doubt be facing a veritable fashion show of candidates in the weeks ahead, flashing their cash and their talent in the hope of getting a deal alongside Sergio Perez. The same names pop up but I don’t see Banco do Brasil wanting the Mallya association, so Nasr is at a disadvantage in this respect. Wehrlein, Magnussen, Palmer and others will be in the running. Renault wants Bottas alongside Hulkenberg but may not get him, so the choice will be from the same midfield gang with Esteban Ocon on an option.
Haas is expected to keep the same duo, but Renault might knock on Romain Grosjean’s door if Bottas is not available.
It is more than 20 years since BP was involved in Formula 1 racing, but the word is that the oil major may soon rejoin the party, with rumours suggesting that Renault is the most likely target. McLaren has also been mentioned by the Woking team has a long and successful relationship with ExxonMobil, via its Mobil1 brand and it be a surprise if that were to change. Having said that, Renault has traditionally been involved with the French oil company Total (and its previous subsidiary Elf). This has changed of late, following the death of Christophe de Margerie in a plane crash in Moscow in October 2014. His role has been taken over by Patrick Pouyanné but Total seems to have switched much of its sponsorship to Renault’s rival PSA Peugeot Citroen since then. It has been clear that Renault was looking for a new partner oil company for some time.
It is a difficult time for the oil industry with firms having to adjust to the low price of oil. This fell from over $100 a barrel in mid-2014 to below $30 at the start of this year. The price is still volatile but is currently at around $50 a barrel. The problem has been oversupply, so the best way to drive profits is through winning more market share. BP has suffered badly in recent years because of the damage done to its reputation and the costs relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 when one of its rigs off the coast of Louisiana exploded leaking an estimated 134 million gallons of crude oil into the gulf. The company has now dealt with all the necessary settlements and has sold off a lot of assets to help pay the bills, now it is looking to increase sales by promoting an image of advanced technology, proven expertise and environmental care through promoting more efficient machinery, all on a global scale. This is where F1 fits the bill because of its global penetration and its hybrid technology. It will be interesting to see if the stories come true, as this would be a good sign for F1.