The rain delays at Interlagos shouldn’t have made any real difference to our e-magazine GP+, but they did, because we had planned to exit Brazil on planes leaving at one-thirty on Monday morning. This meant that the time between the end of the Grand Prix and the hour of departure from the circuit came down in alarming fashion for everyone in the F1 circus, although no-one else was crashing out a 90-page e-mag. So, it was foot-to-the-floor time and the result was a magazine that was out in two hours and 35 minutes after the chequered flag. This all worked out OK and so I am now in Miami, having breakfast and tapping some thoughts into my iPhone. Working on planes these days is tough because no-one ever seems to be happy if they have an upright seat, so iPhone journalism is now the norm.
Brazil was a terrific race and one of the great events of the year, although the city of São Paulo is not perhaps one of the most charming to be found in the world today. It’s incredibly diverse and often chaotic, but there is an energy about the place. People are working to improve and, if one remembers back to when F1 arrived in 1990, the city is a very different place now. It’s still not perfect, far from it, but much has changed. Brazil has developed into a country which now has half of its population classified as being middle class. The poverty and inequality which used to be so obvious 20 years ago has been reduced, in contrast to the global trends that sees the gap between the rich and the poor widening, but in Brazil this is still far bigger than in most advanced economies and the inequality that remains continues to cause problems which undermine progress: crime, corruption and so on.
It is the diversity of Brazil that is the most impressive thing and what gives it so much strength. Progress is constant: there is a new bridge here, a new road there. There are more and more glass tower blocks, where once there were meadows.
Motor racing is important to Brazilians, but it is not the most important thing and so improving Interlagos has been a long, and much-delayed struggle. This year there were new Race Control and Media Centre facilities. The problem with both is that they were underground. They were bunkers. The Media Centre felt like a government nuclear bunker that I visited somewhere in England a few years ago. It is an odd thing to have the media working in some kind of fungicultural facility where we are fed on the bullshit that comes from the teams and kept in dark, like mushrooms…
I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was partly the reason for the strange second Red Flag decision during the race. At the time I actually went out of the media bunker to see what conditions were really like and was rather astonished that it did not seem like red flag weather at all, a concept that had been suggested by the radio messages of the drivers and the crowds in the grandstands giving the thumbs down sign en masse. This was a really strange decision and the one idea that I heard that might explain it was that the Safety Car needed to be refueled. That certainly did happen as a number of photographs were taken of this happening, but was this the reason for the stoppage? I did not have time to ask the question about how many modifications are made to the vehicle to make it faster, but obviously one way to do this is to reduce the fuel tank size and thus the weight. Or was the decision made because the decision-makers were in a bunker and were detached from the real world?
I suppose that we should be happy that the TV coverage included a shot of the grandstand with the thumbs down and that we were treated to Sebastian Vettel’s tirade in Mexico. This shows, I guess, that the Formula One TV directors are willing to show that all is not rosy in the sport. But I do think that there has been some weird stuff going on of late in this respect. It is not really the perfect solution when the series promoter controls the TV output because there is a danger that it will cease to be a media activity and become subtle propaganda instead. In a perfect world, there would be an independent entity, although this is a very difficult thing to do because money is king and any sub-contractor would always be worried that having too much pure journalism would mean that it might lose the deal in the future. I suppose that this all depends on the integrity of the commercial rights holders and the TV directors and whether they give (or are given) instructions as to what should be shown. There are quite a few people who feel that Mercedes coverage is being restricted this year, although one can argue that following the leader is not great TV and so the TV folk would respond to such a charge that they are simply trying to keep the broadcast interesting. Similarly, the selection of TV shots and radio messages can be viewed as story-telling, but it too could be manipulated if someone wanted to do that. OK, most drivers don’t abuse the Race Director in quite such a rude fashion, but was that good for the sport? It added an element of interest, but it also made one of the sport’s biggest stars sound like a very silly boy, when we want the racers to be courageous heroes. I don’t know, but when you look at the TV coverage of other formulae, you can ask the question of whether things like camera angles could be better, to get across the speed of the cars.
I loved the fact that Lewis Hamilton told the media after the race that he had seen the Verstappen near-accident when he was watching the race on television, on the big screens around the track. It wasn’t that hard, Lewis said. I’m told that his radio messages were also impressive as he radioed in to check what he thought he had seen, when Red Bull switching back to extreme weather tyres. He didn’t need the team to tell him… When you hear things like this, and see driving as we saw from Max Verstappen, you begin to appreciate just how special these guys really are. They are astonishing. It is in the wet that one sees the greatest talents. It is interesting how Nico Rosberg rarely does well in such conditions and one must also note that in Brazil Nico won back more than half a minute thanks to Safety Cars and red flags, when compared to Hamilton, so the final result is not really indicative of what happened. Similarly, he gained by Red Bull making a tactical error with the tyres with both of its cars. If you are Nico Rosberg, you know this. You cannot afford to be delusional. Nico is an intelligent man and I have been impressed by his dogged determination (something he does share with his famous father) and his ability to bounce back after being drubbed by Hamilton. He must know that he does not have the same kind of talent as his team-mate, but he is committed to winning in a different way. I heard a fascinating story the other day from someone who knows these things about Michael Schumacher, who explained one day that the reason that he worked so hard was because he knew deep down that Mika Hakkinen was a quicker driver and so Michael was trying to beat him by other means.
Nico knows Lewis is a faster driver, but he just doesn’t accept that this has to mean Lewis will always win. Brain power and hard work can beat natural talent.
Elsewhere, down through the field, we saw some really impressive performances from people who should be mentioned: Sergio Perez was mighty, but he did not have the car to hold off Verstappen at the end; Felipe Nasr drove an immaculate race for Sauber, in front of his home crowd, and I hope that this will lead to him getting a job next year. It would be wrong if he was left out; and Esteban Ocon did a really astonishing job for a man of his experience and with the machinery he had. Somewhere out there in rainy Interlagos, Pascal Wehrlein’s socks are to be found, because they were blown off him by Ocon on Sunday.
The driver market remains a little confused, despite the pre-Brazil signings. There are now three drives left and the major players are Wehrlein, Nasr and Esteban Gutierrez, with potential appearances from the likes of Jordan King and Rio Haryanto. I am not a gambling man, but I don’t see Wehrlein, Nasr nor Gutierrez at Sauber… And three into two does not go at Manor. Although I think that we will probably have to wait a while now to see who owns Manor by the end of the winter.
The other big news in Brazil is the situation at McLaren, and I am very sad to see that this is where we have ended up. Ron Dennis was a brilliant and inspired leader of the company, dating back to 1980 when he first took it over. He has created an amazing company and really deserves more recognition than he has had for doing this. He should be Sir Ron and it is many years overdue. However, the people who own the team (or at least 75 percent of the shares) no longer want him to be involved. They appreciate what he has done in the past, but do not think that he is the right man for the future. They may be wrong, but it does not matter. They have the power. They own the shares. In the circumstances it would be nice to see Ron depart with grace and elegance. He is 70 years old next year and while he does not see that as being old, others obviously see it as being a problem. It is a situation in which no-one wins if the fight goes into the public domain. It has all been going on quietly for months, but someone decided to blow it open the other day by leaking a story to Sky. We all appreciate a good leak from time to time, but I thought the story that appeared was rather unfair. It said that Dennis had made a $2 billion bid for the business (the McLaren Technology Group and McLaren Automotive, although this was not clear) and that it had been rejected. To be fair I was not surprised at all by that, because I think the company is worth more than that – not that I am an expert. Offering twice the annual turnover is not a massive bid when one considers what McLaren is and the potential growth that it still has. The report was rather slanted in that it spoke of “a plot” to oust Dennis as chief executive. Why would a decision between shareholders be perceived as being a plot if it is their company and they did not see the value in the bid?
The bottom line in all of this is that the power rests within the shareholders. Sir Frank Williams remains in undisputed control of Williams because he owns 52 percent of the business. Ron Dennis is in trouble because he owns 25 percent. Maybe McLaren would never have been what it is today if he had not parted with the equity, but he did and that is now the problem. A graceful solution would be best, but I don’t see that happening and that is a tragedy as Dennis is one of the most impressive individuals the sport has produced in the last half century.
The crowd in Brazil ended up being 7,000 down over the weekend compared to last year, and while that may not seem a very good situation, it must be remembered that there are a lot of factors in play and, I reckon, the crowd was pretty good in the circumstances.
It was odd that throughout the weekend, São Paulo seemed very quiet. There were not the massive traffic jams that we are so used to seeing. We even asked if there was some kind of national holiday to explain the situation. No, they said, no holiday this weekend. What no-one said was that there was a holiday on the Tuesday after the race. When there is a national holiday on a Tuesday, people in many countries ask for the Monday off and then depart for a very long weekend on Friday night or Saturday morning. Thus the fact that November 15 was a holiday did affect the number of people in town. Having said that, others may have used the holiday to come to the city from elsewhere, so the impact might not have been huge. There was the weather, of course, which was horrible, and one must remember that the Brazilian economy is in a bit of a state at the moment and so to get that big a crowd without a front-running Brazilian driver was a pretty good effort.
What else? This week sees the Strategy Group meet to discuss the future and, while the agenda remains secret, one hears on the grapevine that there is some action going on in relation to stewarding. I hear that one team is pushing for there to be a single permanent steward. This has been tried in the past and is a very bad idea because it takes about six months before teams start complaining the individual chosen is biased against them. Providing the stewards is, of course, an FIA thing and it would be wrong for the teams to try and get control of the judges who punish them. The problem is that the FIA got itself into a mess when it agreed to the Strategy Group and, as we know, can now be outvoted unless safety is involved. We also know that, at the moment, the future structure of the sport will depend on the relationship between the new owner and the federation. FIA President Jean Todt has been seeing rather a lot of Liberty’s man Chase Carey, so they say, and this must make the teams and Bernie Ecclestone feel rather nervous. Liberty has to get clearances from various competition authorities, but these are easy enough if they simply do what the competition people want. This would help the FIA regain its political independence. It can either keep the money it will have when the deal goes through, or it must cut a new deal with Liberty, but I’d be very surprised if Liberty wants to have the kind of control that the Formula One group has had in recent years. Liberty just wants to build a business and doing that in cooperation with the other players is smarter than fighting them. The sport will be better off with an independent regulator, as the FIA is supposed to be, so it is interesting to see anything that tries to change the roles of the different parties in relation to the sport…
The one thing that I hope in on the agenda is the question of engine rule stability. Changing the current hybrid rules makes no sense at all, given the huge costs that this would entail, so the best thing for the sport would be to extend the current engine formulae for another five years, to 2025, in the hope that this would attract new manufacturers. But then the current big teams don’t really want more opposition and so might vote against the idea.
Ah, politics… What messes it can get us into…