Chatter from the paddock at Spa

Another busy race weekend in Belgium and a day travelling home… The race in Belgium was a good one and there was a fair amount happening in the paddock, although some of it was rather vague. The most interesting stories as far as I was concerned were the Lotus v Lotus situation, the future of Silverstone and the plans for a Belgian/French GP alternation. There are various other bits and bobs, including the news that Jean-Eric Vergne will be doing some Friday driving this year from Korea onwards with Scuderia Toro Rosso, an indication that he may end up racing there next year. This would mean that he might move into pole position to take over from Mark Webber at Red Bull Racing in 2013, rather than Daniel Ricciardo depending on the results achieved. That is certainly worth watching as Red Bull does tend to put its drivers under pressure to see who does best. At the moment the Buemi/Alguersuari pressure cooker at Toro Rosso is yet to produce a clear winner.

There was also a lot of talk in Spa about one or more of the other up-and-coming French drivers getting into F1 next year. Romain Grosjean won the GP2 title and so he is an obvious candidate for a ride with one of the teams with a Renault engine, which in 2012 will be Red Bull Racing, Lotus Renault GP, Team Caterham Air Asia (or whatever Team Lotus becomes) and AT&T Williams-Renault. The problem for Grosjean is that although Renault and its partners (notably Total) may pay for a Frenchman, he might not be the first choice because Charles Pic, who is fighting for second place in the GP2 series, is rather better connected in many ways. Grosjean might be managed by Eric Boullier, the boss of Lotus Renault GP, but Pic’s family business GCA Trans is the primary transport company for Total and has a fleet of 7,000 trucks that need replacing from time to time. The firm tends to buy hundreds of trucks each year from companies such as… Renault.

There is a fourth Frenchman on the way up at the moment, Ferrari test driver Jules Bianchi, but he needs some better results if he is to break into F1. There was much talk at Spa of the planned deal between the French and Belgian GPs to alternate their races from 2013 onwards, with France getting the event in 2013, 2015, 2017 and so on, and Belgium being on the calendar in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018. Given the costs of races these days this makes a lot of sense as a way to keep both on the F1 calendar but as a race fan I would hate to see visits to Spa slipping to every two years. Spa is such a great track that it would be a shame not to have it every year. Still, in F1 it is always money that talks loudest and so we will probably have to put up with this situation until the current mentality changes nd someone works out that providing fans with cheaper tickets produces bigger crowds and it is possible to gain additional revenue by selling fans more reasonable merchandise. This is more of an American model of the sport but it has the advantage of allowing circuits to invest and build bigger stadiums…

If ever these was evidence that cheap tickets work well, one needs only to look at the recent Renault World Series race at Silverstone, which attracted a crowd of 120,000 (yes, that is the right figure) because tickets were free to those who registered for them on the Internet.

There was talk that the France/Belgium deal would be announced at Spa, but the politicians involved seem to be a little wary of announcing anything involving public money and motor racing at the moment because of the uncertain times in the European economy. I would expect an announcement when things settle down a little more and there are fewer political dangers involved in such a deal.

That leaves Silverstone as the great mystery of the weekend. You may read elsewhere that no deal has been done, but this is not correct. From what I can understand the BRDC has entered into an exclusive and confidential agreement involving a third party, which is why no-one is saying anything. This has led to speculation about the Ecclestone Family being involved because that is the kind of way that they do business, but there are plenty of other possible partners. I was told that it is a private bid which has some family links with the BRDC but I have yet to fathom out who this might be. In any case, the deal will mean that there will be money for the circuit’s redevelopment programme, which should guarantee the long-term future of the venue. And that has to be good news.

24 thoughts on “Chatter from the paddock at Spa

  1. Glad somebody has mentioned merchandise costs. I saw Tony Fernandez hanging round the “Team Lotus” clothes shop at Silverstone and felt like asking him why someone in the business of stack ’em high sell ’em cheap was going with the flow when it came to F1 stuff.

  2. “At the moment the Buemi/Alguersuari pressure cooker at Toro Rosso is yet to produce a clear winner.”

    Joe,
    What are the odds of both Buemi and Alguersuari being dropped in favour of a Ricciardo / Vergne partnership?

  3. Wouldn’t the likely scenario now with Torro would be to let one of the existing drivers go for 2012 put Riccardo in the car for full season, use Vergne as Friday test driver then basically replace the worst driver mid year to slot him in..

  4. Merchandise could and should be cheaper, but everyone wants their cut.

    There’s a 25% commission on food and drink that the circuits get, plus a merchandising plot goes for about $25,000.

    There’s certainly a tipping point between the number of attendees and profit/loss.

    1. Karen,

      If the circuits did not have to pay so much and did not have to sign away so many revenue streams to the Formula One group the prices would be better.

  5. Joe,

    What do you make of the situation at Williams regards Barrichello? Both sides saying they want him to stay but no sign of a deal yet, could there be a possibility of a Renault-supported driver slotting in at Williams?

    James

    1. James,

      I think that is quite possible. Barrichello has been matched for the most part this year by rookie Maldonado. The Venezuelan is likely to stay because of the money he brings with him. Thus if there is going to be a change, either Williams finds sponsorship or dumps Barrichello in favour someone with money, or someone who is likely to perform better and thus attract more money.

  6. Spa lost some of its magic with two mammoth corners (Eau Rouge/Raidillon & Blanchimont ) being taken easy flat out but still a great circuit with rhythm & overtakes.

    To loose that circuit 1/2 years for Paul Ricard is a shame. On the other hand, French aren’t keen on having public money spent in any kind of Motorsport with quite strong ecology Awareness mixed with the debt crisis.

    Honestly, I totally agree with the French. I don’t see why F1 should receive so much money and circuit so heavy investments. On the other hand, all the big European countries don’t need the F1. It’s up to F1 to go down to earth and to ask less money from TVs and circuits.

    I still don’t see why the main European circuits don’t gather together in a Union to have better deals in the long run. Bernie can get rid of an historic circuit but not all of them at once. I never thought teams could gather together yet they managed it despite competitiveness, bitterness & Adam Parr.

    It must be much easier for circuit owners

  7. Karen
    I am afraid that we take that as a given nowadays.

    Colin Simpson
    I would suggest that you inspect the product and look closely at the quality before buying, I refer to the original reason for GL reneging on the licence granted to TL.

    Joe
    You have not mentioned it but do we not see looming, another gross conflict of interest, in Boulier being both a team manager and a driver manager? This re-creates the Flav-Piquet condition and at the same team too!
    It is high time the FIA banned any team staff whatsoever from being being driver managers thus removing the temptation.

  8. The “sale” leveraging of F1 FOM, to CVC partners, and that group’s desire to get a steady, maybe increasing return on their investment seems like it might be part of the cause for there being very little likelihood for lowering the costs of circuits wanting to host a Grand Prix weekend.

  9. rpaco – Agree 100%…. In other businesses such a relationship would not be allowed to exist and yet F1 it’s not uncommon. We all know the world is about who you know but it should not be that obvious.

  10. Jo Torrent,

    You’re right about circuit owners needing to get together. But that won’t happen, not with circuits such as the Buddh International in India roping in Karun Chandhok and Vicky Chandhok (people who feed from crumbs under the Ecclestone table) as their consultants. Neither does FOTA bother much about the fans.

    But more than that we fans need to get together. I was so glad that finally there’s going to be an Indian Grand Prix, but when I checked the ticket rates I was astonished – more than Rs 35,000 ($876) for the grandstand! Even what they call the Natural Stand costs close to Rs. 3,000 ($62). There’s no way I could afford it, and you’ll find only the creme de la creme, the Mallya-like millionnaires (accounting for around 2 to 5% of the Indian population) sitting in the stands, and of course the overseas visitors from Europe who can obviously afford more. And they’ve named the circuit after Gautam Buddha, a man who preached abstinence from worldly possessions!

    We fans have no obligation towards anyone so we should seriously consider boycotting races. We should organize protests and all sorts of campaigns through the Internet. We need to convey the opinion to the powers-that-be that we don’t want all your action and glamour if it requires us to sell our possessions to watch a race. We should create such a buzz that the grandstands turn empty (I know I’m dreaming). WHY ARE WE SILENT?

    Sometimes I wish that rumours about circuits boycotting F1 and hosting IndyCar races was true.

  11. I assume the World Series figure is for the weekend rather than the Sunday. I was there on the Sunday and estimate 40-50k at most – it certainly wasn’t a sellout crowd the place was less than half full, but perhaps they managed the same on Saturday. But yes, 120k across a weekend isn’t to be sniffed at and it is a great way to get the Renault brand out there – it attracted more people than the Le Mans Series event last year and that’s only about £25 (raceday).

    Agree wholeheartedly with the costs of attending GPs. A grandstand at Spa last year cost me over £300, I’m not paying that every year and so this year I’m not going to a GP. If I go to one next year it’ll be GA.
    And £20 for a hat or £60 for a fleece has always struck me as a thievery. The thing’ll be out of date in a few months.

    I don’t care if some say Spa has lost its magic lately, it still has hats more of it than many other venues.

  12. @Pat

    I’d say those numbers were for both each day and the weekend – Renault will make no difference, for as far as they are concerned, that’s how many were distributed.
    In saying that, that does not necessarily mean all those with tickets showed up.

  13. As an aside, I’ll be skipping Grand Prix again next year. I’m thinking the 24 Hours of Le Mans instead, followed by the 2013 Indy 500 (if the IndyCar Series hasn’t swallowed itself up by then).

  14. Hey Joe. It was a great event at Silverstone, but 120,000 must have been either a three day figure and/or the total tickets given out (loads get free tickets and then never use them – check eBay the day before the event). The Sunday crowd was impressively big, but noticably ‘quieter’ than the 130,000 on the GP Sunday.

    I do agree with what you are saying in general though, F1 really could and should look at what it could achieve with lower prices – the Brit GP alone could attract 200,000 with tickets more could afford – and like you say the circuit would get more returns in other ways.

  15. There is a French GP already, it is in Monaco, I dont understand why there needs to be a GP every ten miles in europe when its supposed to be a world championship. Between Spain GP, Monaco GP, Monza, German GP(both), Belgian GP & Silverstone, France is surrounded by 6 GP’s yearly and they still want to waste a bunch of money by funding one? Sheer wastefulness

    1. Ali,

      Wars have been fought over remarks like these. Saying Monaco is French is a bit like saying that Canada is the 51st state of the United States. These itsy-bitsy little no-use European countries all have national egos that go back tens of generations – and there are more war cemeteries than you can even imagine. Understanding Europe and its ways requires a small knowledge of history. It is not like the homogenous world of the US, where you can always get Pop Tarts and where international news comes after the baseball results. Europe was where organised motor sport began and where it was nurtured to become what it is today. Go down to Daytona and tell the France family that NASCAR should have only two races a year in the Deep South because the winners these days come from California and other places west of the Mississippi (including Australia).

  16. Renault Trucks is actually owned by Volvo, but maybe Total could do some other kind of deal with Renault. 🙂

    Red Bull has way too many drivers on their payroll at the moment. I get the feeling that they have no idea how to manage a driver development program.

    1. Abhijeet,

      Good point on the Renault truck thing. I’d forgotten that. Renault does seem to have a habit of leaving its leftovers (Renault F1) floting about with the wrong name attached.
      Still, the Total argument is valid.

  17. I would consider a better comparison a day at the football. What does a jersey cost or ticket to a big game cost? Whilst expensive, its only a once a year thing and unfortunately thats the price of being a fan. The tickets are just part of getting to where the race is (eg flights) and accomodation (if necessary).

  18. What’s the score with Team Lotus? I thought Fernandes was hell-bent on keeping the name! Care to enlighten, maybe with a blog post? 🙂

    1. Vivi,

      It has been clear for some time that the only solution to the problem was for Team Lotus to change its plans because, when all was said and done, Group Lotus could not stop making Lotus cars. The problem, therefore, was that the Group had not offered anything of value to recompense Team for the investment made, as part of a plan that at the beginning had been agreed by Group. The fact that Group was given to a flashy new chief executive, who immediately tried to bulldoze Team out of the way, was the root of the problem. Fernandes is a Lotus fan, but he is also a pragmatist. The best example of this is the fact that a West Ham fan ended up buying QPR! The deal that is being agreed now between the Lotuses gives Fernandes something of value (involvement in MAS) in exchange for what he created at Team Lotus. Perhaps they also said “Sorry” for treating him that way, but I doubt it. Team will now go off and do Caterham things and build a different brand, but you can be sure that TF’s eye will remain on Lotus because almost no-one believes that Group will ultimately profit from the current adventures. When you have money you can always buy friends but one day soon enough the bank money will run out and Group will have to stand on its own two feet. At that point “Flash Harry” Bahar will find out that the rent-a-cred crowd will vanish (which I am sure he already knows) and he will take a parachute built from dollar bills and pages of his contract (which some idiot at Proton signed) and he will float down with enough money to live happily ever after and the Malaysian government will be left holding the baby. And more than likely they will offer Lotus to Fernandes and ask him to do the job properly, as they did with AirAsia and as they have just done with Malaysian Airline System. My feeling therefore is that we are not even halfway through the story… There are many different ways to skin a cat.

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