Notebook from Manama

IMG_0051The first part of the Formula 1 year has, as expected, been fairly bruising and, for reasons that are not entirely clear, we decided to get out of China on a flight that left just after midnight on Monday morning. We started doing this years ago because there was a problem communicating with the world from China. At this time of year the biggest problem for us F1 journalists (apart from visa pain – and team principals complaining that we complain too much about it) is being able to navigate our way over, under, through or around government firewalls in the various countries we visit. These are designed to stop the local people communicating with the world online or learning that the other half live better than they do. The Great Firewall of China is a pain in the donkey, but we can usually find work-arounds, while there are similar things in the Middle East, underlining the fact that freedom of speech still has a way to go yet. We may not like our politicians in the West, but at least we can call them rude names…

When you wind back all the necessary travel, security, check-in, immigration and security (again), this meant leaving Shanghai circuit at eight o’clock, which meant that the post-race activity was, once again, a little like the Keystone Kops going publishing, but at 7.55pm, suitcases in our wake, we departed the Media Centre with cheerful cries of “So long suckers!” and “What? Haven’t finished an entire magazine yet?!” and headed for the minibus which the helpful Chinese promoter had laid on for those who were keen to depart.

We spent the journey to Pudong with a bunch of photographers, chatting about the state of the world and having a good laugh, which was a good idea after such an intense period of activity. Once in the lounge, however, it was back to work for a bit and then off on the plane and the frustration of not being able to work further because of the inevitable seat-in-face syndrome… By 06.00 we were in Dubai and racing through the airport to get to the hotel – to start working again. A day later we were in Bahrain, having hopped on a plane that was chock-a-block with F1 folk flooding into the kingdom to go to work.

My notebook from Shanghai was filled with two proper stories: the McLaren engine situation, and the engine meeting that took place recently in Paris to discuss the future of the F1 engine post 2020. My primary aim was to discover exactly who had attended that meeting and it was surprisingly difficult because many people did not want to say and others said that they couldn’t remember all the names, or did not recognize some of those present. There were the obvious names, of course, Toto Wolff and Andy Cowell of Mercedes, Cyril Abiteboul of Renault, Mattia Binotto, Maurizio Arrivabene and the company’s director of powertrain, former F1 engineer Jean-Jacques His. There was Honda’s Mr Hasegawa and then Mario Illien of Ilmor Engineering. There was some excitement about the presence of Lamborghini CEO Stefano Domenicali. Lamborghini is part of the Volkswagen group and this has a number of brands which might fit with F1 in the future, including Porsche, Audi and (conceivably) Bugatti. It is clear that there is an increasing likelihood of a VW involvement. The other significant name was Harald Wester, the chief technology officer of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), a group that shares shareholders with Ferrari, but is no entirely separate, beyond the fact that both are headed by Sergio Marchionne. FCA includes the Alfa Romeo and Maserati brands, both of which have impressive histories in Grand Prix racing.

Another interesting attendee was Wolfgang Hatz, the former research and development boss of Porsche, who cut his teeth as an F1 engineer at BMW. He lost his job in the Volkswagen diesel scandal (Porsche being part of VW) but he seems to have found himself a niche, working as a consultant with Jean Todt. This group, which also included FIA types and Ross Brawn of FOM, talked about the general principles for the future and all those I spoke to said it was a pretty positive discussion. The overall feeling was that changes will not be huge, but that the new engines will be noisier, cheaper, more powerful but still hybridized to a significant extent.

The McLaren engine situation is less complex than it was with the team now seemingly having given up on the idea of switching to Mercedes and focusing Honda’s attention on getting the job done. The Japanese have long had a tendency to work alone, without too much foreign involvement and it seems that the recent crisis has convinced them that they need to be a little more broad-minded and adopt a more international approach, as Nissan has done, for example, in its partnership with Renault. The public does not mind from where technology comes. The car industry is filled with quiet alliances that save huge sums of money by buying the technology of others and using it under your own brand. I would suggest that we will see a significant leap forward in Honda F1 engine performance after the summer break, allowing the company to end the season on a high note… You can read between the lines on the rest.

China was a success this year (as it has been for some years now) with a big crowd, with all the grandstands sold out. There used to be more grandstands but they had to be taken down after the New Year Eve’s stampede in 2014 when 36 people were killed when around 300,000 gathered to celebrate. There is still plenty of room for growth at the circuit, but obviously health and safety has arrived in China as well. This was true of the medical helicopter incident as well, although this was cleverly solved by the FIA medical delegates who managed to get the neurosurgeons from a downtown Shanghai hospital to agree to spend the day at another hospital near the circuit. A great job was done there, after an embarrassing Friday. This intervention brought to light a change that the FIA had forgotten to mention over the winter with a new F1 Medical Delegate having been appointed. Alain Chantegret, formerly the chief medical officer of the World Endurance Championship, took over the F1 role in February. He made his name as the head doctor of Magny-Cours and, prior to that was the head of the local SAMU (a fast intervention emergency service) based in Nevers. He is best known in France as the first doctor to arrive on the scene when former Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy shot himself beside a canal, just outside Nevers. There is an entire industry in France related to this event as conspiracy theorists see it as being a rather different story, but Chantegret was there and so knows what happened…

Force India boss Vijay Mallya, who is holed up in the old Hamilton house in Hertfordshire, has recently been removed as chairman of the Indian motorsport federation FMSCI, although he remains India’s delegate on the FIA World Council (for the moment). He cannot attend meetings because he’s not able to leave the UK, although that may soon change because the British Government is so keen to do post-Brexit trade deals that it has agreed to be more cooperative with the Indian government over the question of fugitives. Thus the British Home Office has sent an extradition request, endorsed by the Home Secretary, to Westminster Magistrates’ Court. The court will now decide whether to issue an arrest warrant for Mallya. If it does, he will be sent home to face the music. Brexit may not be good for F1 teams but McLaren is at least taking advantage of it, having agreed a deal to promote the government’s “GREAT Britain” campaign, which is designed to promote the idea that Britain is a nation of innovation. This is an important programme given Brexit.

Elsewhere it will be interesting to keep an eye on the Shanghai Motor Show, which opens on April 19, as Renault is going to unveil a 2027 concept F1 car to give some clues about where Grand Prix racing could be in 10 years from now…

I did ask Sean Bratches whether we would still have a Chinese GP in the future, as the contract is up for renewal, but he ducked the question…

29 thoughts on “Notebook from Manama

  1. Fantastic as ever Joe. Looks like we may see some new brands in F1 engine wise and at last someone with a sensible take on the McLaren and Honda situation. Have to say I agree with you that things will improve. Thanks as ever for the sterling job you do in providing the real stories in and around the F1 paddock.

  2. So Mercedes or Ferrari technology with a Honda badge on it. That’s one way to turn around McLaren’s performance, and probably the only way to hang on to Alonso for the duration of the season.

  3. VJ Mallya is living in Lewis Hamilton’s old council house in Stevenage?? Shocking news. How the mighty have fallen.

      1. There are reports that he has taken to cross-dressing for shopping trips to the local ‘quite grand’ tesco store.

        Callers wishing to serve a warrant will be met by a bearded lady with a pretended hearing problem.

  4. Many thanks as always for an informative read. The insight that you give is priceless, long may you continue.

  5. To go through government firewalls is an easy thing for Chinese youngsters, and nearly half of them do that on a daily base like me, and nowadays millions people who study abroad come back every year, most of them still use facebook or twitter.

    In China, we have own facebook called Weibo, we can criticise the local government, the central government, the local leaders and the top leaders as well (insult to the leaders is not allowed though). Is there censorship? Yes, but more importantly, the leaders are more and more paying attentions to the critisim in a positive way, so it works.

    We regard the freedom of speech highly as well, but there are other important values that we regard highly like the peace of life and the social stability, China is too big, we have 1.4 billion people, a small issue (a piece of fake news for example) can be a big thing. 8 years ago, an Islam terrorist organization used a piece of fake piture and news to launch an attack in Xingjiang, which killed hundreds of people. Because of the history, some people in China or overseas,just want to destroy the regime with little care for the most Chinese, they have been alredy using twitter and FB to do that.

    Last but not least, the newest opinion survey by Commitee of 100 shows that 92% Chinese are optimistic about the country’s trajectory.

    I hope you can understand all of these around the firewall, the regime and Chinese people.

  6. The Honda situation beggars belief except that once upon a time I worked for a manufacturer and so am familiar with the thinking. For the”best engine manufacturer in the world” to have sunk to its present state is barely credible. MB and RB have much to be praised for for having realised so quickly that their policy of “slimming down” following the take-over of Brawn was never going to work. The evidence for the huge demands of F! is continually very plain to see but “there are none so blind as them that will not see”

    1. It does not beggar belief. Last year Honda CEO Takahiro Hachigo admitted publicly that the company needs to change and rekindle its pioneering spirit. “We recognize the need for a fundamental transformation,” he said. So this is not just an F1 problem. It is company-wide and the top management understands it.

    2. Bear in mind that this is not the third year of their hybrid engine. They have started with a new architecture this season, so there’s bound to be a learning curve once again. Next year should be much, much better.

  7. Strewth lots of intrigue! Only the FIA would hire someone who is front and centre in one of the biggest industrial scandals of all time! The Audi in F1 story bumps along – won’t happen on my lifetime , see above – is our friendly ” wager” still on Joe?! Renault building concept F1 cars? Maybe the resource could be better used?…..Keep up the good work!

  8. Nice summary Joe. There’s a further interesting story from India regarding a non bailable warrant for Mallaya’s use of funds in F1 dating back to 1995.

    On the Honda front, Ilmor is well known to the US arm (HPD) from the 2004-2011 Indycar era. How Honda F1 would love to get close to the “100% reliability between 2007-11”.

  9. I’m curious about your comment that all the grandstands were sold out. The TV coverage revealed a huge empty grandstand out the back of the circuit.

    1. All the grandstand seats were sold. The other grandstands have all been dismantled. Perhaps you saw the leftovers

      1. I just revisited a few laps of the race coverage and it appears that the seats have been removed or covered over as you suggested. They were huge red stands with Anting sponsorship. As an aside, the non seated banking elsewhere was mostly pretty empty.

    2. Leigh, I was wondering the same thing. There were stretches of obvious grandstands covered over with material with ‘Ainting’ or something written on them in huge letters. Not arguing with Joe, but they sure didn’t look dismantled, just unused and disguised.

  10. I’ve said it before.. I think F1 missed a trick. I think the whole hybrid part of the cars should’ve been open. The batteries could be what you want as long as they had a certain volume. You could harvest energy whenever however, you could discharge it however whenever too. It would’ve meant that we would be talking about tech that was relevant to todays cars and it might actually improve the cars we drive and bring in other start up companies and technologies.

  11. I attended the Chinese race last year and left muttering the words, never again. There is a lot of security at the track, although it’s not very good, place a gas lighter in your front pocket for an easy find and they fail to complete the rest of the search. I never had my bag searches in the 3 days I attended the track. The only place I managed to talk with the outside world was here on you blog, not much else worked no matter how I tried, and I did try.

  12. Great reading as usual!
    MacLaren looked a lot better in China till the drive shaft issue.
    Specially in Alonso’s hands. Some hope me thinks.

  13. Pretty disappointing turn out for the engine talks! Fairly obvious that someone from VW would turn up. How about Ford, GM, dare I say Tesla or someone more interesting?

  14. Joe, the broad scope of your work on the greatest sport of all times is just great ! Journalism like yours is very important to promote the sport. Thank you very much

  15. I’m not that good at reading between the lines… Does this mean that the discussions reported between McLaren and Mercedes only didn’t involve someone from Honda to protect Honda’s dignity?

    Mario Illien was of course hired by Red Bull to give unsolicited advice to Renault – although you can argue how wise it was for Renault not to solicit advice since they must be delighted with Honda’s plight distracting from their own lack of satisfactory progress. I also seem to remember him being involved with the Mercedes power train at some point, whch would make him an ideal partner for Honda (and VAG), but I’m not sure about that, am I wrong?

    If Honda improves significantly and there are rumours about the help they had to gain performance, there will probably be an outcry that this corrupts the competitive element. However, like any professional sport, F1 is primarily entertainment, be it with a technical element thrown in, and only one or two teams being competitive makes for worse entertainment than as many teams as possible being competitive. So it would probably be a good thing (which would then leave the question of whither Renault – innovate on their own or accept a similar deal). Anyway, a competitive McLaren with a highly motivated Alonso mixing it with Lewis and Seb would be magnificent.

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