It’s Monday night here in Osaka and I am sitting on the Nankai Railway’s wonderful Rap:it Express which will shortly depart from Namba Station to Kansai Airport. Now, it’s not likely that you will meet Eminem, Ice Tea, Slick Rick or Snoop Dog on this purple Darth Vader on rails, but it is the coolest train you will ever meet, and amongst the most efficient as it rattles through the Osaka suburbs before turning right and crossing
a bridge that leads to the man-made island in the bay where the airport is located. Last night – and tonight – it will be like the F1 Paddock.
It being the second race in seven days, the gossip in the paddock in Suzuka and the lounge at Kansai was rather more intense than at Sepang a few days earlier, because F1 people had had time to sit around for a couple of days and dream up trouble.
Thus there was an awful lot of chat about Force India, Williams and Renault, which are the next teams in the F1 pecking order now that the big teams are done. The chit-chat in Suzuka was largely about Renault, which has now kicked into action, having been turned down by Sergio Perez (and James Allison come to that). Perez and his sponsors are staying at Force India on a one year deal, on th basis that ther might be an opportunity for Sergio at Maranello in 2018. If one ignores the question of why anyone would want to go to Ferrari in 2018, it is almost logical because Ferrari is Ferrari. You get to wear red overalls and, so they say, lot of girls throw themselves at you if you wear the uniform. I have never asked the Ferrari girls if it works in reverse as well, but I expect they will be in the airport too…
I could write a thousand words (at least) on the subject of Ferrari at the moment and why the other teams are all quietly giggling, following the departure of James Allison. This was about as stupid as sending the team off to Asia having absent-mindedly tagged the engines to go to Keflavik International Airport, on the basis that in the car industry they do things differently. What Mr Marchionne needs to understand, and will soon understand (if he survives long enough in the job) is that being a suit from the car industry is about the worst possible qualification you can have to make decisions about F1. Look at the history of F1 (hell, who looks at history these days?) and you will see some spectacular crash-and-burns when arrogant car people turned up in F1, knowing all the answers and left with their suits in tatters and their pockets emptied of play money. One thinks of a string of Ford execs in the Jaguar Racing era, of Renault fonctionnaires through the ages and of all the Toyota types who should have contented themselves with jobs selling Cedrics in Kyrgyzstan, rather than trying to be F1 team bosses. In the F1 world no-one even remembers the names of these transient mega-stars…
Anyway, that’s 210 words and I’ve not even scratched the surface of the problems at Maranello. There is a hint of the trouble ahead with team boss Maurizio Arrivabene telling the media that Sebastian Vettel needs to justify his place in the team at the end of next year. That’s a bit like telling a prima ballerina that her bottom is getting a bit too big. She’ll be off to the Bolshoi in a flash of theatrical powder. Perez, who some believe has never won a crossword competition, would be perfect for Ferrari in this circumstance, although he may have to one day be content with a career record not that different to Jean Alesi. Still, everyone loves Jean, and we ownder sometimes what he might have achieved if he had joined Williams in 1991, rather than following his Italian heart to Ferrari.
The word is that Renault (and let’s not go into what that word means because there are a string of claimants to the title of being team boss) has made generous offers to a couple of drivers, having failed to extract Carlos Sainz from his seat at Toro Rosso. Instead, it seems, Renault now wants Valtteri Bottas and Nico Hulkenberg. Bottas would probably quite like a well-paid three-year deal with a manufacturer team, but Williams needs him alongside Lance Stroll, to give the team an outside chance of on-track success. But how good will Williams be? The team is not rich, but it should be doing better than Force India, which has a similar Mercedes deal, but less impressive facilities. One could dig into the different scenarios in the future of Williams and Force India, but with Renault you know you will have manufacturer support, even if that manufacturer is rather less than functional in F1 terms. One team member described the situation to me as being “a battle”, but I think I prefer the term “civil war” because I am not sure we know how many sides are involved at the moment.
The problem with offering Bottas and Hulkenberg big deals is that both men already have contracts for 2017, although in both cases, it might be better for the team if the pair went on their way as the subsequent vacancies could be filled with men with financial support. In the case of The Hulk, the team does not want to get in his way, while in the case of Bottas, Williams does need him. It might take a Felipe Nasr instead but we’re still not sure about a lot of drivers in the midfield. At Force India the financial problem has been eased by the confirmation of Perez, but money Is always useful (particularly if you have team owners who owe billions). It is fairly clear that Vijay Mallya and the other bloke who has spent a lot more time in jail than he has in a Formula 1 paddock are going to have to sell the team. If F1 was not in a state of political flux, that would probably have happened by now. The problem is that no-one has yet told Mallya not to be silly and that his team is worth $1, rather than the $300 million he think he should be able to get. The team is an amazing operation and works wonders with very little money, but that cannot go on forever. Mallya is betting that there will be a cost cap before the team ceases to be competitive. Maybe he is right. The best bet for the team would probably be Kevin Magnussen because he is quick and he seems to have access to some substantial sponsorship from the Jack & Jones brand, a clothing company from Denmark. A lot of people think that Mercedes will place Psacal Wehrlein there, but it is clear that Mercedes wants to be paid for its engines, rather than taking a loss in order to slot in a driver. On name that will not be seen is that of Alex Rossi, who has now signed a three-year deal to be an IndyCar driver with Andretti Autosport. That’s a logical thing to do given that he is now an Indy 500 winner (which is not a bad career move when it comes to raising money). As I understand it, Alex will have a get-out clause to leave if an F1 deal comes along. Not very likely, you may say, but an American driver is a good idea and Honda, which likes Rossi a lot, might one day see the value of trying to parachute him into its second team – as and when that happens. I expect action soon on that front, but I doubt Rossi will be involved early on.