It seems that every year, on the day after the Belgian Grand Prix, I take someone to a railway station or an airport. Last year I went to the spectacular Liège-Guillemins, designed by one of my favourite architects Santiago Calatrava, who is most famous for his extraordinary City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, where once we went racing. This year it was in the other direction, to drop someone off at Luxembourg Airport at Findel, which I happen to know was used for various motor races in the 1940s and 1950s (not that this matters at all). The trip from Spa is about 75 miles and when I agreed to do this I wasn’t really thinking about it and imagined that it was (sort of) on the way home. It is due south of Spa and Paris is to the south west but what I did not bargain for was that the roads are quite slow because everyone seems to have lost interest in joining the Belgian motorways with those of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Still, it was a lovely day and the route was pretty picturesque and the place names were wonderfully charismatic and all mixed up when it comes to languages: Grufflingen is not far from Troisvierges (which translates as ‘three virgins’) and so on… I did consider pottering over to a very weird area, to the north east of Spa, where they have a magnificent series of bizarre enclaves, with bits of Belgium in Germany, look it up. This was caused by Belgian railways and moving frontiers. In some cases the railways are still there, but in others they have been pulled up and there is just a corridor of Belgian territory passing through what is now Germany.
In truth, we probably would not have had a Spa racing circuit were it not for the moving border. In this region are three areas of land, known as the East Cantons (about 280 sq. miles of land) which were deemed to be in Prussia after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This meant that Francorchamps was the last village before the German frontier (which was located at the top of the hill at Les Combes) and so not many people used the road – because they didn’t want to go to Germany. As an aside, this is why the original Spa track in the 1920s and 1930s had a hairpin called the Virage de l’Ancienne Douane (literally, the Old Custom House Corner). It is still there, but the circuit now goes straight up the original hill and is known as Eau Rouge…
Anyway, after World War I, the East Cantons were annexed by Belgium, in reparation for war damage, and things were generally tidied up (although this left some Belgian rail lines in Germany!) This meant that there was a triangle of little-used public road from Francorchamps to Malmedy and Stavelot and back to Francorchamps. And this is what was spotted when Jules de Thiers, the managing director of the La Meuse newspaper and Henri Langlois Van Ophem, the chairman of the sporting commission of the Royal Automobile Club Belgium, discussed while having lunch one day at the Hotel de Bruyeres (now the Francorchamps Racing Hotel – although it has closed down).
Hotels are a problem in these parts and the locals seem to think that they can pluck any figure out of the sky and the F1 fans will pay it. This year we moved out of our grotty old hotel in a village called Basse-Bodeux, which is little more than a roundabout of a place, when they decided to double their prices. We went in search of alternatives and found that demand outstrips supply and so one gets ripped off whatever you want. However, there are limits for what sane (well, vaguely) people will pay for miserable places that have not changed since 1974. We ended up in a place that ought have been renamed the Villa Marie Celeste. It was in Spa town and looked like a hotel but when we arrived we found a darkened house. The door was open and we wandered around inside and eventually found some keys on the fireplace with an incomprehensible note about who should have which room. In the end we rang the emergency number and spoke to a rather confused individual who did not seem to understand that accommodation is a service industry and expected his guests to be understanding about his expensive incompetence. The key to Room 7, he explained, might have a big number 1, but that not actually the key for Room 1. And I could have Room 5 because there was no key for Room 1… Of course, Room 5 has a photographer in it. Ah, the joys of this F1 lifestyle. Room 1 did have a key, but I had to go through a bundle of dozens of keys to find it. At no point did we ever see a member of staff. Each morning breakfast was laid out but no-one was ever there. I considered nicking various things on Monday morning in revenge for lack of service, but concluded that the place had nothing I wanted – and never will have. Still, I suppose the Internet worked, even if the room did not run to a desk and chair, so all my work was done sitting or lying on the bed (which meant that I fell asleep too much).
‘opeless, as they say in these parts…
So what is going on in the F1 world. Oddly, it was rather quiet, apart from the obvious Ferrari signings. This means that Charles Leclerc, the dominant force in Formula 2 this year (and a Ferrari protégé), will almost certainly be squeezed into a Sauber next year, which will mean that Pascal Wehrlein, the faster of the two Sauber drivers, will be shoved out. If there is logic in all of this, it is very well-hidden. I understand that Sauber’s Swedish owner wants to bang the drum and fly the flag for his own nation, but it is not necessarily a good idea. It does rather depend on the pool of talent available, but when your population is less than the number of people who visited Disneyland in California last year, it is tough to find a competitive one. Marcus Ericsson is a pretty decent driver, but generally he is not a match for Wehrlein and so logic says he should be on the move, and not vice versa. Others say that it would be wiser to hire Felix Rosenqvist, who they argue is a better choice.
One can see the same sort of thinking going on in Japan quite often and I would argue that this is actually the biggest problem that Honda faces in Formula 1. One simply cannot compete if one does not have the right kind of talent, and finding that sort of talent within one single nation is very difficult. Honda only seems to use Japanese people, and it has very few foreign research and development engineers. They are also operating in Japan, out of the main vortex of F1 development, and so new ideas take longer to filter through. This is a problem for all non-British teams (although there is a mini-cluster of expertise around Ferrari in Italy) because hiring in the right people is more difficult. This is why Scuderia Toro Rosso now seems to have 140 people (about a third of its staff) working in the UK.
Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost did himself no favours in a press conference in Spa when asked about talks with Honda. It is very clear that the two parties have had discussions and I hear from multiple good sources that the price being asked by Red Bull was too high. Honda does not want to own a team but does not really have a choice after having broken up with Sauber. It might be helpful if Toro Rosso was bought by someone else who wants a free engine and some cash as well, but Honda continuing to dream that things will be patched up with McLaren is not realistic. And if that policy continues I can see Honda getting itself into a position where it has to leave because it cannot find a partner. The rules may say that no engine manufacturer can have more than three engine supplies but it is down to the FIA to decide what is best for the sport and that is not a hard discussion: losing Honda is less damaging than losing McLaren. The Woking team clearly wants to go with Renault in 2018 and it is really hard to argue that McLaren has not been fantastically patient with Honda. But the McLaren-Honda legend was formed in the 1980s and the world has moved on and after three years waiting, McLaren has realised that it is not going to happen and now feels that it needs to switch to Renault next season in order to keep Alonso, important technical staff, sponsors and – most importantly – credibility. There seems to be a final Honda push to try to create better engines but time has basically run out. Everyone needs to know what they are doing next year. Renault needs to know whether to have three or four supplies, the teams need to know what to design and something had got to give. It may get ugly, but sometimes that has to happen. Toro Rosso is obviously up for sale but Honda needs to move quickly in case someone else snaps it up. I have heard various rumours suggesting that the team could be sold to an Indonesian called Ricardo Gelael, the boss of the Fast Food Indonesia company, which owns the KFC franchise in a country with 261 million people. He has 570 restaurants and, oddly, sells music CDs with his chicken and chips. He has annual sales north of $365 million and his son Sean is in Formula 2 and unlikely to rise further unless his Dad do something dramatic. He already has a testing deal with Toro Rosso and there has been talk of a KFC-liveried car (some artist has probably been talking).
The danger for Honda is that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) might pounce on Toro Rosso in order to secure a team for its much mooted Alfa Romeo F1 team. Toro Rosso is perfect for that. There has been some talk in Italy about Prema Powerteam, currently dominant in Formula 2, might move up to F1 and perhaps this is the way that will be achieved. Ferrari technology bought by Alfa Romeo, which is no longer a sister company, but features the same management and shareholders, and so that makes sense for everyone. Ferrari gets some money in exchange for technology and Alfa Romeo gets a quick F1 team. Alfa Romeo sales are not meeting expectations at the moment and so Fiat and Ferrari boss Sergio Marchionne needs to push harder to make the Alfa Romeo brand sexier.
Elsewhere, much attention has been focussed on Force India because the pink cars have been colliding rather a lot. This is daft because without the crashes Force India would have scored far more than 103 points and while it is not going to challenge Red Bull for third, even with Max Verstappen breaking down all the time, it should keep an eye open for late season dashes from teams that ought to be doing better than they are, notably Williams and Renault.
A lot of folk were upset that Perez was not punished for the second collision with Ocon (not least of them Ocon himself), but if you check out the footage, you will see that Esteban had his right front wheel on the white line before Perez hit him, which means that he was not in the right place and should have backed out of it. Having said that Perez must take some blame because he should have given his team-mate room and did not. So there was fault on both sides… The interesting thing now will be to see if Perez stays at Force India. He might not want to run away from the challenge, but he has seven seasons of experience and is widely considered to be very good, but is under increasing pressure from a kid who has been in a good car for only a dozen races. Renault wants to get Ocon back, but Vijay Mallya’s price to release him looks like a ransom note and Renault cannot justify paying it. Thus it will probably go with Perez, who is cheaper and is followed everywhere by Mexican sponsors… He might also choose to go to Williams to replace Felipe Massa, but the fact that Team Willy has scored only 45 points, compared to Force India’s 103 this year, using the same engine, might scare him away from that idea. The suggestion that Alonso will go to Williams seems unlikely for the same reason, although to be fair Fernando has made a string of bad decisions about his career… Williams needs to do something pretty dramatic… There are new technical staff at Grove and so perhaps things will be better next year. One can hope.
There are a lot of worries in Brazil that the retirement of Felipe Massa (which is coming sooner or later) will cut the last cord with F1. The Brazilian GP has little future at the moment, with no-one wanting to promote it, and so the Formula One group is clearly looking at South American alternatives and it was no surprise at all that Race Director Charlie Whiting popped up in Buenos Aires over the summer “break”. The plan, I’m told is for a group called Fenix Entertainment, which specialises in concert production and management services and owns and operates entertainment stadiums for show business, music and sports, to use the old autodromo, but with a very different layout to the last Grand Prix, back in the 1990s, with the idea being to run the track around the Lago de Regates, a lake that sits in the middle of the facility. It is not going to be easy to fund the event but when one looks at what has happened in Mexico one can see what can happen. Buenos Aires is, in any case, a much sexier city than Sao Paulo in global destination terms. I know I’d be happy to go back, although I am told that the steak houses are not as good as once they were.
Food is always part of the adventure of reporting F1 and at Spa I was happy to get things done early enough to go out for a pizza late in the evening. I met a nice bunch of British fans and got into a conversation and they were kind enough to buy my meal for me. I should have nipped off earlier but it was fun to have an impromptu “Audience”, although it was a long night to get my business newsletter done. I was pretty weary when I set off to Luxembourg on Monday and when I dropped in at my house in the country on the way back to Paris (to pick up the post) I left it on the roof of the car and drove off… A mile or two later I realised what I had done and returned and spent some time going round the village picking up letters, with tyre marks on them… It reminded me that we give up a lot of things by rushing off to Grand Prix after Grand Prix. Last weekend was the annual pig festival in my local town, which they say is great fun (although I’ve never been to it) and the local hillclimb race, which is fun, is next week, when I will be at Monza.
Oh well, cannot have everything…