Green Notebook from various strade

June 21 is the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, the longest day of the year and the official start of summer. In France it is also the Fête de la musique, a day to celebrate music, on which there are free concerts in many cities and when both amateur and professional musicians are encouraged to perform in the streets. This can be wonderful but it is also what they call a nuit blanche, which means it goes on all night and after a strenuous Grand Prix weekend with little sleep, I decided on Monday morning that if I wanted to sleep well, it might be better to leave the country, lest some misguided minstrel decided to caterwaul beneath the windows of the hotel in La Ciotat.

In any case, there were 1,200 km to be covered from Paul Ricard to the Red Bull Ring – and I wasn’t planning to go in a straight line, this being a great opportunity to visit places that one hasn’t been before.

It was a beautiful day, in stark to contrast to Sunday, which would have been a grey day if the skies had actually been grey. In fact, they were slightly brown and when it rained late in the night after the Grand Prix, the result was that all the cars that had been out in the rain were covered in sandy blotches where Saharan sand had been dropped by the troublesome sky. I set off, in search of a car wash, before hitting the motorway – but they were hard to find. The beaches were filling up with the first wave of summer holidaymakers, but the temptation to stay and take some rays was not sufficient and so I hurried down to Toulon and then across Provence, the land of Marcel Pagnol, towards the Cote d’Azur.

If you don’t know Pagnol, he is worth discovering. He was a remarkable man who made his name first as a film-maker in the 1930s – including a movie called La femme du Boulanger (The Baker’s Wife), which was shot in the village of Le Castellet. Later in life he became a novelist and wrote some wonderful stuff, such as La Gloire de Mon Père, Le Château de ma Mère, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, all about peasant life in Provence.

If there is a an equivalent in English it would be Thomas Hardy’s relationship with country life in Dorset, and in Russian it would be Mikhail Sholokhov’s stories of the Don cossacks.

By the time I reached the heights above Monaco, I was in need of a power snooze and so stopped at the Beausoleil service area, which is a great place to get a bird’s eye view of Monaco, although I had no desire to engage with the traffic down below in the Principality.

Then it was on into Italy – with no border controls to worry about these days – and I was soon on the Autostrada dei Fiori, that runs along the Italian Riviera. Sadly, this has become a 100-mile road work in recent times and you have to be careful when things are running freely because one can hit a sudden traffic jam at any moment. The road was filled with Austria-bound F1 flotsam and jetsam, with endless Aston Martin, Toro Rosso, DHL and Haas trucks lugging bits of motorhome across to the Red Bull Ring.

After sitting for 45 minutes in one jam, I decided that signs suggesting a forthcoming 11km jam might be worth paying attention to, and so I went on a unwanted tour of Savona and found myself sitting in traffic jams all along the waterfront in the seaside towns that followed. When I got back on the motorway, I wasn’t sure if I was far behind, or far ahead, of the trucks I had been travelling with previously – but I didn’t see any I recognised. So I don’t know if what I did was a good move or not. It didn’t really matter.

I set my sites on the city of Cremona, if only because it was a place I had never visited before.

It is a city famed for music, notably for Stradivarius violins. I had a marvellous dinner in a little albergo, with featherlight gnocchi in Gorgonzola, and a mozzarella and basil pizza the size of an elephant’s ear (Indian) but wafer thin, washed down by a caraffa of rustic red. It was an evening with everything that one loves about Italy, with the warmness of the people, bubbling conversations and endless energy.

The waitress was as thin as a nail – and hard, no doubt having been hit on sufficiently to render her oblivious to the local gentlemen.

I am always amazed by how much time the Italians spend on their mobile phones, talking (one presumes) to their mamas and mistresses. It struck me that nowadays it is also amazing how F1 people always get calls when I start asking questions – which I take as a compliment.

Anyway, as I sat listening to the hubbub, I am sure that I heard words like “Monza” and “Ferrari” and knew there was only one place I could be.

This brings me, in a roundabaout way to my notes from the weekend, with Ferrari appearing in France without its green Mission Winnow logos. They will not be seen again at races in the European Union and Philip Morris put out a statement which (to paraphrase dramatically) said that they are fed up with people mistrusting the tobacco industry and just want to move on and “re-frame global conversations, building communities, and supporting innovative ideas that drive positive change”.

Tobacco is a subject that always used to divide the F1 world with some fervent in their opposition to smoking and others seeing the paradox that no country has banned tobacco itself, because of the revenues that can be obtained from heavy taxation, and yet they do not see that banning the advertising of a product that is not illegal is a fairly flawed argument.

Anyone who thinks they can see the Marlboro logo in the green Mission Winnow branding really needs to have their eyes (and heads) examined, but they still battle on trying to drive the tobacco companies into the sea.

Philip Morris International stopped putting Marlboro logos on F1 cars in 2006. They gave up with bar code logos in 2010 and then more recently tried the Mission Winnow message. PMI still supports Ferrari, so that they can entertain VIPs and corporate guests and create opportunities with B2B activity.

Personally, I thought the greatest bit of thinking was when they reversed the sponsorship in the face of such attacks and used the glamour of F1 by putting racing cars on cigarette packets, rather than cigarette packets on racing cars. That was right up there with marketing Marmite as a love-hate product.

British American Tobacco has been doing things on similar lines with McLaren using “A Better Tomorrow”, Velo and Vuse on the cars depending on the market involved.

Last year all Mission Winnow branding was removed after threats of legal action based on the concept that anything red and white might remind anti-tobacco campaigners that there are still cigarettes out there, but the switch to green this year seemed to make this an impossible argument… but obviously not.

It may be that the decision to remove the green logos will be the final straw for PMI in terms of branding, but it is unlikely to stop using F1 to entertain and encourage its staff and customers.

There is no doubt that the PMI involvement with Ferrari has reduced in the last 15 years and there are signs that it may finish once and for all at the end of the current season. There have no announcements of a contract extension and these were always done at least a year in advance. So Ferrari may be on the market for a new title sponsor. 

The likelihood is that any new backer will come from the technology sector (as has the new CEO) and it is thus interesting to see a new relationship that has been announced between Ferrari and Amazon Web Services, which will help the team in various ways with its cloud service and machine learning capabilities – and the development of “a new fan engagement platform which, through personalisation tools, exclusive content and interactive applications, will strengthen the relationship between Ferrari and its millions of fans around the world, with the goal being to offer even the youngest fans more insight into the daily life of the team and its drivers.

Interesting stuff.

The big news of the weekend – no real surprise – was the confirmation of Esteban Ocon as an Alpine driver for the next three years. This is interesting in that Ocon has committed himself to Alpine despite having long had an underlying Mercedes Benz contract. Thus it is far to say that Ocon has reached the conclusion that there is no chance of a ride in the short- to mid- term with Mercedes. He cannot sit around waiting forever as his career will slip by quickly and so he has jumped. This means that he sees no opportunity at Mercedes and from that one can conclude that either Valtteri Bottas will stay or George Russell will step up. The official line is that there is no decision yet, but it is interesting to note that there is now much talk about what Williams will be doing next year, which seems to suggest that George Russell is going to be on the move. No-one is talking about George staying at Williams in 2022…

With Ocon signed, there is no real point in Dany Kvyat being at Alpine as the reserve and his name has been mentioned as a possible Williams recruit.

There is a possibility, of course, that a displaced Bottas could return to Williams and it might be a good move as Williams should (in theory) be on an upward path from 2022 onwards. However, there has also been some talk that Mercedes might want to put another driver into the team to get someone experienced in F1 in case there is a need for another driver when Lewis Hamilton retires at some undetermined point. ,Mercedes has a bunch of youngsters but they are very young and the closest to F1 is Frederik Vesti in Formula 3 – and he is not doing awfully well this year.

The other name that has been mentioned is that of Nyck de Vries, the test and reserve driver of Mercedes AMG Petronas, who is currently competing with the Mercedes-EQ team in Formula E. The former double World Karting Champion, who won the Formula 2 title in 2019, is a talent but did not have the money to get an F1 drive in 2020. He seems to be hungry for success and a chance to drive F1 cars. Thus he should be considered a possible candidate given that Mercedes might be willing to help Williams pay its bills if a Mercedes driver is there (continuing the current arrangements).

There is no question that Nicholas Latifi is competent and brings considerable finance from his family’s connections with Sofina and Lavazza, but he has yet to show any signs that he is a potential F1 winner. The other name being mentioned is Guanyu Zhou, the Chinese driver. He is a decent option, but has yet to show that he will ever be more than an also-ran in F1. His primary advantage is that being Chinese he is someone that everyone in F1 wants to see in an F1 seat because it will help boost the sport in the world’s biggest car market.

To be brutal, Williams has no excuse for performing as poorly as has been the case when one has a Mercedes engine. Next year the team will have a Mercedes rear end and so it only has to get the chassis right to be in the mix. The good news for Williams fans is that Dorilton (or whoever is behind the company) seems to be willing to invest. The focus in recent days has been on the departure of team principal Simon Roberts, but in the background there has been another significant change with the departure of design director Doug McKiernan, and the tweaking of the team’s technical management under new technical director François-Xavier Demaison.

Demaison may be a brilliant fellow but he has no F1 experience and so to overcome this team boss Jost Capito has drafted in another former Volkswagen colleague Willy Rampf, who has many years experience as the technical director of Sauber, although that was a while ago now.

The other team that is much in the paddock chatter is Alfa Romeo (aka Sauber). There is still no decision from Alfa Romeo as to whether there will be a continued sponsorship in 2022. Given that it was a cheap deal this year, it might go on as the money involved is really minimal for a big car company, but the key question is whether it makes strategic sense given that Alfa Romeo seems to be moving into a more electric car future. There are also questions about Orlen funding as without Robert Kubica in a race seat there is not much logic in that relationship. The team has grown from 300 to 500 people in the last few years but has not gained anything in terms of championship position, so the investment in new staff has not brought additional prize money – and let’s not forget that this year F1’s prize money has dived by nearly half.

There are signs of discontent with the team’s imported expertise and the recent weeks have seen the departures of chief designer Luca Furbatto, to become engineering director at Aston Martin, and Frenchman Nicolas Hennel de Beaupreau, who has been the team’s chief aerodynamicist for the last five years. He has top level experience in F1 going back to 1997 so he’s not someone a team really wants to lose. He has previously worked at Enstone (twice), Ferrari (twice), McLaren and Toyota.

A whisper from Asia the other day suggested that an investment bank out there is circulating a prospectus offering 60 percent of Sauber for sale, although the price would value the team at $750 million. This is far too high and it would seem to suggest that the current owner is looking to find someone who will help him pay off the huge investments he has made.Whether there is anyone out there to buy is another story.

I was also told that there is a hurry-up suggestion that a buyer needs to move quickly because VW’s Lamborghini might buy it. This should not be taken seriously, as I really cannot imagine a Lamborghini car powered by a Ferrari engine – and no company is going to build a new engine before the engine rules change in 2025. It is also unlikely that any manufacturer would want to fund a team for three seasons without promoting a brand – so a clandestine operation is unlikely as well. On top of all this the word is that team principal Fred Vasseur is working on a month-by-month contract at the moment, which suggests that the owners aren’t ready to extend a deal, but cannot find a replacement who wants to take the job. They need someone who could get Sauber going forward again and with Andreas Seidl gone to McLaren and Capito at Williams, potential new leaders are thin on the ground.

Right, onward we go. I was reading the other day about Ove Andersson, who died 13 years ago last week. At the time, Andersson and I had agreed to work together on a biography – but he had gone to South Africa which slowed things down. Then he was killed and the project faded away. I still have his handwritten story about his early years, in a hand-written notebook. This is a wonderful glimpse into motorsport in the 1960s and includes a story about how Saab wanted him to take part in the Acropolis Rally – and gave him some money to cover expenses, and told him to drive there! He and his co-driver drove the rally car down through Germany and Austria and across what used to be Yugoslavia until they finally arrived in Greece, where they celebrated by spending all the money on a party to mar the end of the journey. They took part in the rally and managed to borrow some cash to take a ferry back to Brindisi and then drove back home – through Italy, France and Germany. Ove wrote that this was a great adventure and that the world would be a better place if people didn’t jump on planes to go places and instead travelled on the ground, to broaden their minds, increase their knowledge and tolerance of others.

It teaches you that your home country is not necessarily the best and gives you perspective.

Wise words indeed… Right, I’m off to the mountains…

Playing Cluedo with tyres

When it comes to tyre failures in F1, tyre companies get rather defensive. It’s not surprising. It’s a standing joke in F1 circles that all tyre failures are caused by debris because tyre suppliers don’t want to use F1 to promote failure. That’s logical. Pirelli doesn’t have to be in F1 and if the firm decided to leave, it would not be easy to find a replacement. But it is also fair to say that there is no need for failures as Pirelli has no competition and thus there is no need to push the envelope for any competitive reason. It’s better to build solid tyres and put up with drivers complaining that the tyres are too hard.

This year, however, Pirelli went for softer compounds across the board, to try to improve the F1 show. The two failures in Baku were perplexing in that while debris was a possibility the similarities between the two incidents hinted at something else. The tyres let go with no warning or vibration, but checks on tyres on other cars that had done similar distances, or more, showed no signs of the same problem.

Pirelli said that an investigation had revealed that the causes of the failures had been clearly identified as being down to “a circumferential break on the inner sidewall, which can be related to the running conditions of the tyres.” It added that this was “in spite of the prescribed starting parameters (minimum pressure and maximum blanket temperature) having been followed” by the two teams, which could thus not be blamed because they followed Pirelli instructions. Red Bull issued a statement saying that it had adhered to “Pirelli’s tyre parameters at all times and will continue to follow their guidance.”

Pirelli added that the investigation “established that there was no production or quality defect on any of the tyres; nor was there any sign of fatigue or delamination.”

Pirelli also said that it and the FIA had agreed a new set of protocols, with an upgraded technical directive distributed to teams, for monitoring operating tyre conditions during a race weekend.

If it all sounds like a game of Cluedo, in which the reasons for the failures is established by a process of elimination, the next question to be asked must surely be that if the failure wasn’t caused by the way the teams used the tyres or by the tyre production process, and it didn’t affect other cars, was the problem one of the design of the tyres, in relation to specific cars with specific drivers?

Lance Stroll has a reputation for keeping tyres alive longer than others, but then so too does race winner Sergio Perez, who didn’t have a problem. Nor did Sebastian Vettel, who has the same car as Stroll. And as we have heard this year, the design philosophies of the Red Bulls and Aston Martins are very different, notably when it comes to rake angles.

So, right now, it’s all rather mysterious. Although that is not unusual with the “black round rubber things” in F1 that few understand, which work sometimes but not always in the way the drivers want.

In search of coffee

The village of Beauvoir lives up to its name. It has a great view across the Pays de Bray, with just a little mist between the gentle ridges this morning. It’s dairy country, a land of celebrated cheeses… and bucolic simplicity.

But on a Tuesday morning Beauvoir is very quiet. The kids are being dropped off at the village school, next to the mairie, but otherwise not much is happening. The old boys are out pruning and weeding their gardens, but the boulangerie doesn’t open on Tuesdays, nor does the épicerie and the cafe shows no sign of life – and no indication if it might at some point provide a coffee and a croissant.

But the little garage is busy, getting my car ready for the next F1 adventure: a 900 km run down to the Circuit Paul Ricard at Le Castellet (pretty much the same as going to Monaco a few weeks ago), followed by 1200km (give or take) along the Riviera and into Italy and then up to the Red Bull Ring for the Austrian and Styrian Grands Prix, and a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing up in the area as the accommodation available is spread far and wide.

There will then be the 1300 km run home, on the first Monday in July. So that will mean another 5000-odd clicks on the trusty automobile, which will take it over 380,000 km in total.

There really isn’t a lot of logic in going home between the three races, unless someone else is paying for air fares and hire cars. The internet pretty much everywhere these days, one can work in the gasthofs in Austria for the free days between each race – and so avoid the rush, paperwork, queues, PCR tests and other hassles of going from airport to airport to get home for very limited times.

So I’m off for 20 days, the penance one pays for a life in F1. Still, there are worse things in life than relatively free days in France, Italy and Austria. The lockdowns are easing in most places and life is less complicated than once it was.

But things are still not easy. Last weekend was supposed to be a Grand Prix weekend, originally in Canada and then in Turkey after Montreal was axed. Then Turkey was cancelled as well and so I ended up having a glorious weekend at home, working in the garden and having a barbecue with the neighbours. It’s hard to plan ahead at the moment. Logically, the British GP will follow this triple-header, but the news yesterday that Britain has delayed its lifting of restrictions on public gatherings because of the of the so-called delta variant (the one from India) means that the British GP may have to operate with a reduced crowd. Everyone is making positive noises at the moment but a reduced crowd means reduced revenues and if the limit is too low, Silverstone cannot really afford it.

It will, no doubt, ask for a cheaper deal if the circumstances require it, but the noises coming from the F1 group suggest that deals are no longer on the table. You pay or you don’t get a race. It’s hard to imagine F1 without a British GP, but the sport is unemotional. It was once hard to imagine F1 without Germany or France, but we’ve seen both disappear in the past. Money makes the cars go around…

After Silverstone Hungary should be fine (things were worse last year and we made it) and then we get to the August break. The second half of the season is pretty unclear as of now, but we know that the “orange belt” races in Belgium and the Netherlands will go ahead as there might be an uprising in the country if the great Max Verstappen cannot be celebrated… then Italy and Russia will likely be as they should be.

After that who knows? The pandemic complicates all things and although we hope we’ve seen the back of the worst of it there are still problems, as the quiet uptick of case numbers in the UK in recents weeks has shown. Last summer things went relatively quiet for a while before the second waves began. This year we have vaccines to add to the equations, but life is still not really back to normal.

But some things don’t change. The church bell is ringing on the hour, as it has done through wars, revolutions and previous pandemics. So I’m off to see if the cafe has opened.

Beautiful views are fine – but a coffee is required.

Does F1 need wind tunnels?

The wind tunnel is (by far) the most expensive bit of machinery needed by an F1 team. There was a phase when everyone sought to have their own facility, and some even built two, but these days things have changed: teams are now sharing facilities and increasingly the use of the wind tunnel is being restricted, in an effort to cut costs. The budget cap will add to pressure for more changes but there are two of the 10 teams currently building new tunnels – while others are talking about getting rid of them.

Such talk is not new. Back in 2010 Virgin Racing produced the VR-01, which was the first F1 car designed entirely with computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which models air flows in a virtual way, rather than using traditional wind tunnel development. This was not a success. The technology was not sufficiently mature at the time.

Despite the impressive development of simulation tools, the wind tunnel is still part of Formula 1 today, although teams can only use their tunnels for limited periods and they cannot use models larger than 60 percent. In truth, wind tunnels are now used more and more for real-world validation of CFD results than for actual development. The building of intricate scale models is a vastly expensive and labour-intensive activity and there is a strong argument that it would be wiser to use actual cars and carry out experiments in full-scale facilities, although there are not many with the kind of rolling road technology that F1 requires.

However, there is now also another option, which will soon be provided by the Catesby Aerodynamic Research Facility (CARF) in Northamptonshire (above), where a stretch of tunnel on the old Great Central Railway, nor far north of Silverstone, has been converted by Aero Research Partners Ltd into an aerodynamic testing facility, allowing full-sized cars to be monitored as they move through the air, rather than pushing the air over a static car, as happens in a conventional wind tunnel.

This could provide the validation testing that F1 needs, without the vast sums spent on model-making and while there might be competition for time in the facility, such things could be

Getting rid of wind tunnels would give F1 the added bonus of getting teams to focus more on developing CFD technologies, which would be good for the sport’s reputation for innovation.

Red Bull’s Christian Horner believes that wind tunnels are “dinosaurs of machinery” and says that a wind tunnel “isn’t particularly efficient and it’s not very environmentally friendly”.

“Formula 1 should be the cutting edge of technology,” he says. “We’re seeing more and more investment from the tech sector, so why not be the showcase for that tech?”

It is hardly surprising that not everyone thinks this is a good idea.

“Banning it completely, if you would do it today, the testing would be on track and that will be even more expensive rather than doing it at the wind tunnel,” says Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto.

“I think we all use wind tunnels, and it’s all still a very important tool,” says Jost Capito of Williams. “Computing needs a lot of energy as well, so we have to look at all the details and then come up with a well-thought and agreeable position on that.”

The good news is that F1 wind tunnels can be used for many different things and this means that there is businesses that can be developed even if F1 teams shift the tunnels off their books. Most teams rent out their tunnels when they do not need them and several teams have developed businesses from this. Mercedes came up with a more adventurous and moved one of its two wind tunnels to Silverstone, where Mercedes-Benz Applied Science is now using the facility.

Philosophically, Christian Horner is right, but convincing all is rivals that they can do without their wind tunnels may not be an easy task, although when they start looking at future budgets they will probably see the logic…

Why Ferrari has chosen Vigna…

Ferrari’s new CEO Benedetto Vigna is not “a car guy”. He’s a boffin, and obviously a very clever one. But how does that fit with a supercar company like Ferrari?

To understand the thinking behind the move one needs to look at the way in which the automotive industry is developing. The future, so we are told, is for the world to be filled with smart battery-powered cars, which offer automated driving and are linked to networks. They will have a new level of on-board digital entertainment and shared-mobility features, all under the control of a central computer that will oversee all aspects of the vehicle. The software in these “brains” will be updated by 5G mobile networks.

This will effecively mean that automobile manufacturers will become software manufacturers. It is predicted that in time there will be only a couple of viable operating systems and these will then b used by all the car manufacturers around the world. There is a race in the industry to create such systems, as those who get there first will be able to reap huge profits by supplying their software to others.

That is the theory. Ferrari would obvioulsy like to be one of the winners in this game. To give you an idea the operating systems used in smart phones are Android 47.5 percent and iOS 42 percent. One day there will be similar operating systems in cars.

So Vigna is perhaps the man who will lead the charge towards this vision of the future.

So who is he and what has he achieved?

He was born in the south of Italy, in the city of Potenza in the Basilicata region, to the east of Naples. He then studied at the University of Pisa, graduating with honours in subnuclear physics. He moved on to do research into lasers at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble and then at the Max Planck Institute in Germany before being recruited to join the STMicroelectronics research and development laboratory in Castelletto, near Milan, where he began working with laser-fabrication micromachining techniques. He would spend a couple of year as an industrial fellow and researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, investigating sensors and actuators.

He returned to ST in 1996 to become become the director of the company’s micro electro mechanical system (MEMS) division.

ST might not be very well known to the public but it is Europe’s largest manufacturer of semiconductor chips. It dates back to 1987 when two government-owned semiconductor companies,  France’s Thomson Semiconducteurs and SGS Microelettronica of Italy were merged to form a company called SGS-Thomson. The company was later floated and Thomson sold its shareholding and so the firm became ST Micoelectronics in 1998. It is headquartered in Geneva and has research facilities and manufacturing units all over the world. The organisation even has its own university, located near Aix en Provence, in France, where ST employees are able to reinforce and update their capabilities. Vigna studied for an MBA there in the course of his later career.

Vigna and his team at MEMS began to develop a tiny gyroscopic sensor capable of detecting motion in three dimensions. Today these are present in most of our day-to-day electronic devices from our smart phones to our game controllers. In 2007, Vigna’s unit was transformed into a product division and took on a range of new development work for OEM and mass market use, including work on microphones, e-compasses, touch-screen controllers, environmental sensors, micro-actuators, industrial and automotive sensors, imaging techniques and low-power radios for Internet of Things applications. Vigna holds hundreds of patents in micromachining techniques. As a result of these achievements he became a member of the ST Executive Committee in 2018. He is a man with ideas and one who knows the technology available and what it is possible to produce.

So, don’t expect a swashbuckling automotive buccaneer like Sergio Marchionne but rather a boffin on a mission to lead the automotive world…

What this means for Formula 1 remains to be seen.

Ferrari names Vigna (who?)

Ferrari has named Benedetto Vigna as its Chief Executive Officer. He will join Ferrai on September 1, moving from a firm called STMicroelectronics, where he is currently President of its Analog, MEMS (Micro-electromechanical Systems) and Sensors Group.

It’s an odd move for a luxury car company brand but chairman John Elkann says that Vigna’s “deep understanding of the technologies driving much of the change in our industry” will be the right answer.

Vigna, 52 has been with ST since 1995. The firm deals with semiconductors, which Ferrari says is “rapidly transforming the automotive sector” and will “accelerate Ferrari’s ability to pioneer the application of next generation technologies”.

It will be interesting to see how the stock market reacts to the appointment.

Mansour Ojjeh 1952 – 2021

Mansour Ojjeh, who has died at the young age of 68, was a man who liked to keep out of the spotlight. He would often be around Formula 1 but he usually let his guests and colleagues take all the limelight. He did not feel the urge to make a lot of noise about his wealth or his achievements.

He was brought up with discretion being a byword in the family. His father Akram had made a career of staying in the shadows, putting deals together and taking commissions. He was, as a result, rather a mysterious figure. He had been born into a family of cloth merchants in Baghdad but then went to France in 1940 on a scholarship to train to be a physical education instructor. While he was there he married a French woman, with whom he had studied, and settled in France and began his deal-making career. After the war he set up a construction business in Saudi Arabia and began building houses with imported prefab materials and then expanding into infrastructure projects, petrochemical plants, bridges and barracks. Later he would build palaces as well, becoming more and more well-connected (and wealthy).

Mansour was born in France and grew up there. He was sent to the American School in Paris before going to California in 1970 to study business administration at Menlo College before moving on to study law in Santa Clara. He then began to look after his father’s ventures in the United States. Akram Ojjeh’s empire grew to extend into many different businesses, including real estate, airlines and armaments. Commissions on such deals were considerable and this allowed him to invest in other businesses, including Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG) which he established in 1974 to broker technology deals between the Arab world and Europe. The empire was very profitable but also led to him being granted Saudi Arabian citizenship by King Abdul Aziz and being awarded a Legion d’Honneur by the French government.

In 1978 the Saudi royal family and other companies invested in sponsorship of Frank Williams’s new Formula 1 team, using the Saudia Airlines company and a number of other brands. Ojjeh was asked if he could help out and agreed and, despite still being in twenties, he began funding the team and TAG sponsorship appeared on the cars in 1979. The money provided Patrick Head and his team of engineers with the opportunity to do more aerodynamic development which led to Williams becoming winners that summer, when the Williams FW07 first appeared in the hands of Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni. After Regazzoni took the first win, Jones won four other victories and in 1980 the team won six times and Alan Jones became World Champion. In consequence TAG became the Williams title sponsor in 1981 and a year later Keke Rosberg gave the team a second Drivers’ title. Ojjeh wanted Williams to diversify into building road cars (as Enzo Ferrari has done in Italy) but Frank was only interested in racing.

At the time, F1 teams needed to find turbo engines in order to be competitive and not all of them could. McLaren struggled, but the wily Ron Dennis approached Ojjeh with the offer a shareholding in the team if Ojjeh would help to provide revenues to pay for a Porsche engine, badged by TAG. The result was a huge success with McLaren-TAG drivers Niki Lauda and Alain Prost dominating the World Championship, scoring a record 12 wins in 16 races. Further World Championships would follow before the team joined forces with Honda.

At the end of 1984 Ojjeh became the 50-percent owner of TAG McLaren Holdings. The diversification would continue with TAG buying the venerable Heuer watch company and renaming it TAG-Heuer and they set off turn it into a global luxury brand.

The idea of McLaren building road cars was Ojjeh’s idea and the resulting McLaren F1 supercar helped the firm become a serious player in the automotive world. TAG also expanded into aviation and aeronautics. The relationship with McLaren saw huge racing success, although Mansour left it to Dennis to run the business. The success on and off the race tracks led to other partners joining the business, notably the Bahrain government’s sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat.

Ojjeh sold TAG-Heuer to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 1999 for a huge profit.

Ojjeh and Dennis had an agreement to always vote together and this allowed them to sell off shares in McLaren without actually losing control. There was a problem, however, in 2011 over whether McLaren should support the holding of the Bahrain Grand Prix, despite the civil disorder going on in the country. Ojjeh felt that McLaren should support its Bahraini partners, but Dennis opposed the race. Mansour voted with Dennis but on that occasion he was the chairman of the board meeting (the role alternated between the partners) and when the vote came out with a 50-50 result, Ojjeh decided to use his casting vote to support the Bahrainis, as he was fully entitled to do.

Dennis took the vote as a betrayal and the relationship between the two men soured. Ojjeh was seriously ill with a rare lung disease and was close to death when Dennis launched a bid to buy the company, but he was unable to raise the money he needed and after Ojjeh had a double lung transplant and returned to action, he felt that Dennis’s move had been similarly disloyal. It the end it was agreed that Dennis would relinquish his shares in the business (for a very considerable sum of money) and leave McLaren at the end of 2016.

For a while Ojjeh and Sheikh Mohammad Al-Khalifa ran the business but a new structure was then put in place and Ojjeh, who was again in ill-health, stood down from the company a year ago, passing his seat on the board to his son Sultan. The family still owns around 15 percent of the business, the second largest shareholding in the firm after the Bahrainis. 

Ojjeh was a great Formula 1 enthusiast, as well as being an important investor in the sport and he had many friends in the racing world.

Green Notebook from the Land of Fire

They call Azerbaijan “the land of fire”, but at least it’s friendly fire… if you see what I mean. It is a place where F1 enjoys visiting, although those who look beyond the end of their own noses realise that there is more to the picture than immediately meets the eye. Still, people believe what they want to believe.

Back before kids had the Internet, you could convince them of lots of things. Napoleon Bonaparte, a famous enemy of Britain, was portrayed in the English newspapers as a devilish individual and a tyrant. The word bogeyman does not derive from “Boney” as some would have you believe, but nursery rhymes at the time warned that Napoleon ate small children who did not behave properly. Across the water Napoleon was more revered, although like most men of power, he had his moments of excess, such as the time he kidnapped Pope Pius VII, after the latter excommunicated the self-styled Emperor. Napoleon then held the pontiff hostage for five years in the palace at Fontainbleau. Perhaps a proper tyrant would have done away with him, as King Henry II did to rid himself of the “troublesome priest” Thomas a Becket, but Napoleon did not. However, while eating children may have been a bit over the top, he wasn’t warm and cuddly.

Years later, when he was exiled to Saint Helena, Napoleon wrote that “if only the heavens had given me 20 more years of rule and a little leisure, one would vainly search today for the old Paris; nothing would remain of it”.

By all accounts at the time, Paris was a dump, filled with pestilence and filth. It was dark and dangerous and very unhealthy. Napoleon wanted to flatten it and start again. It took a while but when his nephew Louis-Napoleon was elected president in 1848, promising to end poverty and improve the lives of ordinary people, he planned to do what his uncle had failed to achieve. According to the constitution he could not stand again in 1852 and so he organised a coup d’etat (as you do) and seized power, getting rid of opponents and declaring himself Emperor Napoleon III. He had been exiled in London for some years before the revolution that overthrew King Louis-Philippe before the 1848 election and had been impressed by London’s large public parks, wide tree-lined streets and impressive squares. And so, once he was in charge, he went to work to do what Napoleon had been unable to do: demolish the place and then build proper sewers, create proper water supplies and follow the ideas in London and lay out wide boulevards and parks and nice buidling. A lot of people weren’t happy with this but today the work of Baron Haussmann, who led the reconstruction programme, is much appreciated. Paris is lovely and among the most visited cities in the world, with with close to 20 millions tourists a year – before the pandemic.

Anyway, the point I am trying to make here is that perhaps we should not criticise the folk in Baku for flattening 500 acres of the city centre a few years ago in order to get rid of nasty Soviet developments, which were falling apart, and instead building a facsimile of Paris, even down to the shape and colour of the road signs. If you are going to try to build a tourist industry why not simply copy the market leader?

Azerbaijan, of course, needs new industries as its dependence on oil is shocking – at around 90 percent of the country’s exports, and so once it had built this new Paris between the old medieval walled city and the imposing Government House, running alongside the Caspian shoreline, now filled with gardens, fountains and iconic buildings, it was necessary to find a way to put the city on the international map. Prior to F1, locating Baku on a map was akin to the game Pin the Tail on the Donkey. It was somewhere over there in the middle, but very few knew where it was and how it related to the mish-mash of ‘Stans left behind as independent countries when Soviet Russia collapsed. Today, Azerbaijan is a little better known and using F1 to attract visitors seems to be working well. In 2015 the country had two million visitors a year, most of them Russians. A year later that grew to 2.24 million and in 2017 it had climbed to 2.69 million. In 2018 it reached 2.85 million and in 2019 was up to 3.17 million. We will have to see what the long-term impact of the pandemic will be, but things will probably bounce back. 

Formula 1 needed a bit of convincing back when the deal was done but money has a way of making people think differently and as Baku pays about the twice the fees of the European races, it has been good for F1, not least because the races have always been wild because of the nature of the track. So long as F1 understands that all comparisons with Paris end with the buildings, things will be fine.

Travelling in the age of COVID has been fascinating. It’s complicated and things are not always as they are supposed to be, but one must make allowances. If people are doing their best that’s all that one can expect. I have to admit that when I got to Baku the hotel did not at all live up to the claims on booking.com and I was less than happy until the hotel owner invited me to tea to explain the problems. Tea is part of the local culture and tradition and is rather bright in colour and comes in pear-shaped crystal glasses. It is their way of welcoming guests and enjoying discussions with them. The hotel owner explained that although the majority of his guests might be Russians, the British were the next most numerous nation and although he struggled to understand people from Manchester and Glasgow, he was an admirer of the British because they did not complain as much as other nations… and they did not get as drunk as the Russians. In the end his humanity and humour saved the day. The hotel was right next to the paddock, two minutes from the Media Center in the Hilton and 20 percent of the price of said establishment. There was no operational restaurant, no room service, not even breakfast, and the shower wasn’t working that well, but there was a bed and good internet – so it was survivable. The media centre had food: morning, noon and night and I could have eaten out if I wanted to do so, but I was in a small bubble (the media numbers were pretty low) and we were all staying in different places. I have pretty much lost interest in eating alone in restaurants outside hotels and so I made do for the duration of the trip.

It was a funny state of affairs because the population in Baku is no longer required to wear masks, but in the F1 world they are still de rigeur and so we wandered around with our masks and the local wandered around without them. At the airport we all had to wear them but the Azerbajianis have obviously forgotten how to do it, because every nose was fully visible…

In the F1 Paddock it was quiet. With so few journalists at work and TV crews still at a minimum, and the teams still (largely) sticking to their own areas, it was calm, but there was access enough to meet the movers and shakers and find out what is really going on, although some are still using the pandemic as a way to hide and avoid having to deal with difficult questions. The driver market is set to take off soon, but Sergio Perez’s victory in Baku will no doubt have cemented his place with Red Bull Racing in 2022 and with Pierre Gasly and, presumably, Yuki Tsunoda under contract to Scuderia AlphaTauri for next year. There is not a lot left. Esteban Ocon is going to stay where he is and one can expect an announcement to that effect at Paul Ricard while decisions from Mercedes may take a little longer to come out – Silverstone being the obvious place for that to happen. For the moment it looks like Lewis Hamilton will be a back, probably for another one-year contract in 2022 and it is a matter of public speculation about who will take the other Mercedes. I get the feeling that there could be wild celebrations during the British GP weekend.

Elsewhere, there seems to be little change at Alfa Romeo at the moment although the company’s CEO is making positive noises about F1 – at least in public. This might not make much sense in racing terms, but the amount that Alfa Romeo puts in to get global coverage from F1, despite no real hope of any success, is still cheaper than chips and it keeps alive the idea that Alfa Romeo is a sporting brand. The fact that it is not a successful sporting image is another matter…

The big topic of conversation was the calendar because no-one really knows what is going to happen later this year. The cancellation of Singapore was no big surprise and we should wait a few more weeks before Melbourne has to throw itself under the bus as well. The Australian Grand Prix Corporation is keen to go ahead but Fortress Australia wants guarantees that there will be no COVID-19 cases and that is something that no-one can give. The last thing F1 is going to do is put itself into a situation where the whole F1 circus turns up in Melbourne and someone tests positive and the race is called off. As someone in F1 once said, it would be “déjà vu all over again”.

So we wait to see what the travel schedules will be later in the year with question marks over Japan (OK if the Olympics happen), Australia, Mexico and Brazil. F1 has races in China and Turkey currently in reserve, in case they are needed, but the concept of another race in Bahrain can probably be written off for now as Bahrain has been put on Britain’s red list, which effectively means that F1 will not go there because of quarantine complications on the way home.

So, if the sport is going to be short of a few races this year it is worth looking at the possibility of spending two weeks in Austin with a United States Grand Prix one weekend and the Grand Prix of Texas (brought to you by “Yee ha!”) on the second weekend, as previously mentioned here on the blog. Sounds like fun.

What we all hope is that we will home by Christmas…

Roberts leaves Williams

Williams Racing team principal, Simon Roberts, will leave the team after only a year. This is no great surprise as his role has been considerably reduced with the recruitment of Jost Capito as CEO and FX Demaison as techncial director. It was seen as only a matter of time before Roberts moved on and there is not likely to be a shortage of offers for the ex-McLaren man. The Team Principal responsibilities will be taken over by Capito.

“Simon has played an integral role in managing the transition over the last 12 months and I would like to thank him for his great contribution during that time,” Capito said.

Roberts said that he wishes the team well in the future and is looking forward to moving on to a new challenge.

Could there be two US Grands Prix this year?

Formula 1 is struggling with its calendars because of the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions and quarantine requirements in multiple countries. It is far more difficult this year than last because of the constantly-shifting rules and the paperwork involved in moving the F1 circus from country to country.

“We thought that this year would be tough at the start of the season and then get easier as the situation improved,” said F1’s sporting director Steve Nielsen, “but the reality is that it is getting more and more difficult.”

This is because of the different variants that mean that countries are protecting their borders from foreign visitors. Most of the races now and being run only thanks to government exemptions.

The one place where restrictions are more limited is the United States, where things are returning to normal more rapidly than elsewhere, even if deaths are still running at more than 500 a day. In Australia, for example, the whole state of Victoria (where Melbourne is located) was locked down last week because of 60 cases. You can all it over-reaction if you like but Australia’s death total in the last 15 months has been only 910 people.

However it means that the rescheduled Australian Grand Prix and several other races probably won’t happen. Singapore has just cancelled and F1 is worried about Brazil and Japan. And there are also question about Mexico. There are races in China and Turkey waiting in the wings to step in if gaps appear, but that still will not get the sport to 23 races.

In Baku there were rumours that we might see two races this year in the United States, as a result of the ongoing problems. One suggestion is that F1 could go to Indianapolis and use the road course, while another idea is to have two races back-to-back in Austin.

Stefano Domenicali would not confirm nor deny the stories.

“We’ll see what happens,” he says. “Things are changing all the time.”

The appetite to go to Indy is not great in F1 circles. It is not a destination city in the same way as Miami or Las Vegas, but if there is the possibility to have a race and there is money to pay for it – there are no free races this year – then F1 will certainly look at it.

The sport is keen to embrace those who have had their interest in F1 sparked by the Netflix Series “F1 Drive to Survive” and want to know more about F1. This new interest is being seen in F1 viewing figures in the US, which are on the rise.

It could that the best answer is back-to-back races in Austin…