It’s unimportant o’clock here in Dubai (DXB to aficionados). The computer says 05.50, the watch says 07.50, the iPhone says 07.50, so 07.50 it must be. The computer is on another time zone. Life is like that at the moment. Even when one is in Singapore, one is not on the right time zone. It’s an odd way to live. Going to bed after breakfast never quite feels right and my body, used to time changes, refuses to adapt to the illogical. If the sun is up, then one should not really be asleep… Thankfully the human being was really made to sleep for small bursts at a time (because of wolves etc…) and so we can survive without the regular eight hours that the rest of the world enjoys.
Travelling the world has its compensations, of course, and my column in this week’s GP+ e-magazine began with a treatise about bougainvillea and the beautiful Five O’Clock Trees of Singapore. These are a delight when one visits the Garden City and so I snuck off into a little horticultural history, pointing out that the trees were imported to Singapore because of their brilliant shade-producing qualities. You need shade when you are in Singapore because it is almost always hot and humid. This causes storms on an almost daily basis, which is what we saw on Sunday evening as the F1 grid was preparing for the race. The Mercedes team lit up with smiles when the first rain drops began to fall. This was their chance to limit the damage that Ferrari was going to do in the World Championship.
“We are at a circuit where they were in another world,” Lewis Hamilton said. “We really had not a lot of hope. I was so happy – you can’t imagine how happy I was – when it started to rain. It levels the playing field and then there’s a real race and that’s what I was excited to have.”
On the grid, before the rain came, Niki Lauda was looking at the sky, seeing the lightning away to the north and hoping.
“The only other hope is…” he said, nodding his red-capped head in the direction of Max Verstappen.
In the end, Max was the victim of the Ferraris. Kimi Raikkonen shot off the line, like a startled rabbit, and went to his left to pass Verstappen. Sebastian Vettel moved to the left at the same time to protect the inside line. Verstappen was stuck in a pincer movement but he couldn’t back out of it in time. He was clipped on both sides. Raikkonen went sideways and cannoned into his own team-mate, to the delight of the Ferrari haters. Amazingly, Vettel kept going, only to lose it on the next straight, probably because of things pouring out of his car. He spun, hit the wall and that was it for the day. Lewis Hamilton was leading.
“It was still a massive challenge,” he said. “I could have easily just binned it. Through the race, every now and then, Senna popped into my mind. His Monaco GP [in 1988] when he was in the lead and hit the wall. That always comes in and reminds me not to do it. In the back of my mind, it’s almost like he talks to me, ‘Just stay focused, keep it together’.”
Before qualifying, I was talking to one of the super-clever strategy boffin types we have in F1 and he said that Singapore is a really important race this season because of the differing performances of the two leading cars. Ferrari needed to score maximum points on the streets of Marina Bay because the remaining races will probably favour Mercedes more. He reckoned that if Red Bull and Mercedes could beat Ferrari in Singapore, the loss of points would probably be a decisive factor in the overall scheme of things. After qualifying that didn’t look like happening… but then came the race. There would be no dancing on the streets in Maranello on Sunday night. The look of horror on team principal Maurizio Arrivabene’s face was such that one imagined this Heathcliff-like figure had seen the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw wandering through the Ferrari garage… but these were not Wuthering Heights, but rather heights of blundering by the Ferrari drivers. After the race Lewis was all smiles. He leads the World Championship by 28 points. If Vettel wins the next four races, Lewis can afford to be second because his Ferrari rival cannot draw level with him before the Brazilian GP. And Ferrari can forget the Constructors’ Championship. That’s gone south with the autumn geese. Yes, Lady Luck might play a part in what happens in the final races of the year, but she did that to Lewis last year and he’s hoping she’ll be a little friendlier 12 months on. If the teams perform as they should perform, then Hamilton should be the World Champion. We will see…
The green notebook has a lot of busy scribblings on the Singapore GP pages. To be honest, most of this stuff goes into my JSBM insider newsletter but I like to give a little away on the blog to encourage people to subscribe and get all the good stuff.
One of the first notes is “A-B-C”, which was a coded message for myself. It means: Australia, Bahrain, China and is the new calendar which should be announced later this week when the FIA World Council meets in Paris. The Formula One group is very keen NOT to change the calendar late in the day, it wants to do things differently to Mr E, but it seems that the race promoters have all asked for the A-C-B to become A-B-C and so the FIA will likely agree to it. The Chinese wish to move away from the Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, when people visit the graves of their ancestors. This is a three-day holiday from April 5-7 and it is best to avoid it, as it might impact on the size of the crowd. It hurts no-one to be helpful in this respect as a big new Chinese GP deal is about to be announced… So 2018 will begin with the Australian Grand Prix on March 25, but then China and Bahrain will switch places so that Bahrain becomes the second race of the season on April 8, with China following a week later on April 15. It is a tough back-to-back for the F1 teams, but not very different from the planned Russia-Japan double-header on September 30-October 7.
These days, the distance between race tracks is not really the issue (unless the teams are moving by road), the decisive factor in getting things to happen on time is the attitude of customs officials towards the movement of tons and tons of F1 equipment across their borders. Formula 1 continues to produce miracles in this respect, particularly as we now live in an age when greasing the wheels of officialdom is not acceptable behaviour. Perhaps there will come a day when the sport over-reaches itself and half the cars don’t make it from one race to the next (because of hurricanes, planes going technical or whatever) but until that happens the decision-makers are going to keep pushing the limits.
F1 has always pushed the limits and will continue to do so. The denouement of the McLaren-Honda-Toro Rosso-Renault affair was all duly announced in Singapore, along with the transfer of Carlos Sainz, which was a bit of a surprise, and that was then followed by dominos falling elsewhere, with Sergio Perez signing for Force India, on a one-year deal, and Fernando Alonso certain to sign for McLaren in the next few days – as he will now have Renault engines to play with. For those who doubt the efficiency of the McLaren chassis, Singapore was a good illustration of what the team could do if the engine was not so important.
In the course of the weekend I bumped into Bob McMurray, an old McLaren hand who has long since returned to his native New Zealand. He pointed out that this is not the first time that McLaren has done a deal with Renault, the previous agreement having been made in 1987, when the team was looking to replace its ageing TAG turbo engines. It seems that a letter of intent was signed between Ron Dennis and Renault’s Jean Sage, but then Honda came knocking on McLaren’s door and Dennis leapt at the chance. Shortly afterwards, Frank Williams discovered that Honda was dumping him and had to scramble together a deal with John Judd for his V8s in 1988. As an aside, there was no little sense of irony (one might even call it karma) when Dennis’s dream of winning all the races in 1988 was ruined when Ayrton Senna stumbled over the Williams-Judd of Jean-Louis Schlesser in the final laps of the race in Monza… ruining Ron’s clean sweep.
McLaren and Renault, incidentally, came close to another deal in 1993 when Dennis tried to secure the supply of Renault engines that the Ligier team enjoyed (thanks to Guy Ligier’s relationship with France’s President François Mitterand, who had the power to tell Renault what to do…). In the end that deal never happened. I recall Dennis telling me that he backed out of the whole thing when it became way too murky for a strait-laced fellow from Woking. Those Ligier engines ended up in the hands of Benetton, as its team boss Flavio Briatore was a man who was more at home in dimly-lit places. And thus began the successful Benetton-Renault phase of F1 history…
The summer of 1987 also marked the withdrawal from Formula 1 of Alfa Romeo, after Rene Arnoux made some rude remarks about the company’s new four-cylinder turbo engine. Alfa Romeo had recently been acquired by FIAT, which was looking for an excuse to terminate Alfa Romeo’s involvement in F1…
Alfa Romeo was back in the rumour mill in Singapore, following a supposedly quiet visit by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) boss Sergio Marchionne and Ferrari’s Maurizio Arrivabene to Sauber on the Tuesday before the Grand Prix. One can say that it was all about Sauber taking on Ferrari youngsters Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi next year, but in reality that does not require the presence of a busy executive such as Marchionne. So why were they there? Marchionne has talked several times about bringing Alfa Romeo back into Formula 1, to bolster the company’s international growth. It is interesting to note that in the last few days Alfa Romeo has launched a social media campaign featuring Ferrari drivers Vettel, Raikkonen and Giovinazzi driving Alfa Romeo Giulias around the company’s test track at Balocco. You can find it on Youtube. In the automotive media there were also stories that Marchionne may spin off the Maserati-Alfa Romeo division of FCA in order to raise $7 billion to reduce FCA’s debt (…and thus add to its value), while giving Alfa Romeo the freedom to grow. FCA is forecasting that Maserati will double its sales in the next 10 years and Alfa Romeo is supposed to do likewise. Cynics say that sending Alfa Romeo into F1 would be a neat way to make the company more sexy to investors, who would no doubt be reminded that Ferrari shares have gone stratospheric since the company was spun off, rising by 130 percent in the last 12 months. So perhaps Marchionne was in Hinwil looking to buy Sauber from its current owner, the invisible Swede, who could turn a quick buck on the deal, not that he needs any more dollars. There has also been a suggestion in the Italian press that the mysterious departure from Ferrari earlier this summer of its F1 engine designer Lorenzo Sassi may not have been quite what it was reported at the time. Perhaps, they said, Sassi was taken out of Ferrari to be redeployed at Alfa Romeo…
Getting full control of another team might help Ferrari a little bit politically as well because there will come a moment fairly soon when the sport is going to point out to the Italians that F1 would be better off if the distribution of revenues is done in a fair way. When I was leafing through my notes from 1987, I noted that this was also the moment at which Ferrari built an Indycar, designed as a threat to suggest that Ferrari might go to America if Bernie Ecclestone did not give in to its financial demands. That is not going to work this time around.
There was some talk a few weeks ago about Prema Racing, the dominant force in Formula 2, with the aforementioned Leclerc, being involved in an Alfa Romeo F1 operation in the future. In Singapore, the rumours were a little different with Nicolas Todt apparently wanting to buy Prema Racing shares from Lawrence Stroll (now that he no longer needs a team for his son), having fallen out with his ART partner Frédéric Vasseur, he of Sauber fame. The problem seems to be that Todt is not happy with Vasseur having started Spark Racing Technologies, which is making tons of money building Formula E cars, without him being a partner… It seems, by the way, that Prema will next year be running McLaren protégé Lando Norris and Sean Gelael (of Indonesian Kentucky Fried Chicken fame), while ART will likely take on Nirei Fukuzumi, Honda’s big new hope, alongside the Anglo-Thai Alexander Albon. The primary opposition will likely come from DAMS, which is expected to run Nicholas Latifi and Mercedes protégé George Russell.
There are lots of people who do not really understand the stories about Red Bull going with Honda in 2019, following the first year of a deal between Honda and Red Bull’s sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso. Surely, they say, that would be a backward step, as Honda engines are no good, etc etc etc. The deal makes sense to me for one very simple reason: money. Many folk in F1 are now convinced that Red Bull will leave F1, to all intents and purposes, at the end of 2020. It would have gone sooner if there was not a penalty clause in the deal between the Austrian drinks company and the Formula One group. This was agreed because Red Bull was given additional money on the understanding that it would remain in the sport for the full term of the commercial agreement. This means that if Red Bull quits as a team owner it would be required to pay $100 million for each year remaining, thus $300 million for 2018, 2019 and 2020. Doing a deal with Honda for both of its teams means that Red Bull will, at the very least, be able to save five seasons’ worth of engine bills (about $150 million): three with Toro Rosso and two with Red Bull Racing. Given that Honda was also paying McLaren substantial sums of money, Red Bull may also be able to get a similar deal, which would reduce its F1 spending still further. The word is that Red Bull wants to sell both teams. It might not look that way because the last time Red Bull split with a team (Sauber in 2001) the team continued to be Red Bull-branded for three more seasons, with free space for Red Bull on the cars counting towards the price of the sale. Thus, if similar deals were done today, extracting the maximum value for Red Bull, we can expect to see Red Bull liveries until the end of 2023. If the Honda engines do become successful then that will be a bonus. In the end, success would probably lead to Honda wanting to buy a team and Scuderia Toro Rosso would be a good choice in that respect – although there is a long way to go before that will be on the agenda.
People are also confused by Christian Horner’s remarks that Red Bull will not have a deal with Porsche nor Honda, but that there will be a car manufacturer supporting the team. He is referring to Aston Martin, although everyone knows that the luxury car maker does not have the money to pay for an F1 programme. So how does that work? Well, in my opinion, things will develop as follows: Cosworth, Aston Martin and McLaren are all looking at making their own engines for the new rules in 2021. If they work together, sharing development costs, they could all walk away with a competitive V6 unit. McLaren would use it as a McLaren engine, Cosworth as a Cosworth and Red Bull as an Aston Martin. Cosworth had sales last year of $50 million and wants to double that in the years ahead. It has an order book exceeding $350 million at the moment and an F1 programme could seriously help to make that happen. There are a lot of smart folk with F1 knowledge involved with Cosworth. The board of directors features former FIA advisor Alan Donnelly, McLaren’s Zak Brown and former Williams CEO Adam Parr, not to mention Carl Peter Forster, who has serious industry experience as a former head of Opel.
If that were to happen then Mateschitz could sell the team to Horner (and almost certainly Adrian Newey). There are various ways in which this could be funded, ranging from the sale of some of the equity in the new team to private equity firms or banks, to seller financing (in which the team would pay back Red Bull over time) or even to the assumption of debt, which Red Bull would run up before departing.
Aston Martin is beginning to turn around as a car company, but there is still a lot to do. The Valkyrie model, designed by Newey, has been a smash hit success, and so one can expect to see a few more similar ideas in the years ahead. One might even imagine an ambitious young man like Horner thinking that he could probably raise the financing to buy not only the team, but also the car company as well, turning himself from being an F1 type into an industrialist, which is something that Ron Dennis did at McLaren.
In the post-Dennis era, McLaren has rather less focus on F1 than it did in the old days. Today it has other things to take into consideration. It is heading towards an IPO in around 2023 and so it is looking to add value to the business in the interim. Getting Renault engines is a good step as the results will improve. Having its own McLaren F1 engines will help sell road cars as well. Other sporting success will help. McLaren had a tickle at the Indy 500 this year and might decide to expand that sort of thing in the future. Winning the Indy 500 would be great advertising… but there is also the possibility that McLaren may also be seen at Le Mans. Zak Brown talked about expanding McLaren’s sporting footprint some months ago (before the Indy 500 adventure) and there is a great opportunity at the moment with the Le Mans 24 Hours as the withdrawal of Porsche and Audi has left the FIA World Endurance Championship with just one manufacturer, Toyota. It is not even certain that the Japanese will remain in the series because winning without opposition is a pretty worthless activity. Peugeot may come into the WEC is 2019 if the budgets are slashed but if WEC promoter the Automobile Club de l’Ouest is looking for ways to keep the LMP1 class as a World Championship, it needs to get some new challengers into the game in a hurry. It has just announced a shift to a winter schedule, with an 13-month “super season”, which will run from May 2018 to June 2019, including two Le Mans 24 Hours races in the same championship. It is also expected that the FIA World Motor Sport Council will give the green light to some rule changes that will bring new players into LMP1. It is a little-known fact that LMP1 is in fact two classes: LMP1-H and LMP1-L. The first was for the fancy hybrids that we have seen in recent years, the second is a cheaper sub-class for non-hybrid engines. This was too expensive for most competitors and the performance was not close enough to that of the LMP2-H cars, and so teams switched to the cheaper LMP2, where everything is standardised. With a little tweaking, however, LMP1-L could become the big deal. Already ByKolles, Ginetta, and a Dallara/SMP Racing have decided to go down this route and others may follow. Teams don’t have to design and build their own cars and there are several manufacturers with designs that might be used, notably ORECA, Onroak, Riley Tech/Multimatic and HPD. The Gibson GK428 engine, standard in LMP2, can be tweaked to get more power and one can imagine a company such as Alpine stepping up. But might McLaren also go down that route? The whisper is that this could happen, based on the fact that Eric Boullier was spotted in deep conversations with ORECA boss Hugues de Chaunac at the recent Chantilly Arts & Elegance event…
Money makes the world go around, but one should also remember that F1 has been fairly lax in exploiting its potential revenues in the modern social media age. I was told the other day about a South Korean firm called Gamevil Inc., which produces games for mobile devices. This had revenues of $137.6 million last year and produces around 30-40 games a year, most of them supplied free to consumers. What caught my attention, however, was when I was told that the firm had a billion game downloads in 2016. That’s an awful lot of eyeballs. Just imagine if they all paid $1 for a Formula 1 game? OK, even if one consumer downloaded 40 games a year, there would would still be a useful $250 million in revenues… And if the game cost $5…