Wintry thoughts

January is a quiet time for Formula 1 writers. The regulars take a break and hibernate before March comes along and we start haring madly around the world. This leaves the field open for ambitious youngsters to fill the gaps. Good for them, we will one day need a new generation of proper, experienced F1 journalists.

Or maybe we won’t. The world is changing and perhaps what we think is doing it properly is not important any longer – and the future is video, emoticons and the neo-puritans of social media, tut-tutting and passing judgement. The problem for all F1 journalists in January is that the ground is barren. Nothing much is happening, except some activity in factories as teams build up their new cars, although this year things are rather less busy than usual as a lot of the structures in the cars will not be changing. This was deliberate, to help everyone save money. It is, therefore, a very sensible thing in the circumstances.

In the meantime, teams based in the UK are finding themselves involved in rather more form-filling than they are used to doing. This is the result of Britain’s exit from the European Union, otherwise known as Brexit (although in reality it should always of been called UKexit as it relates to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, although Northern Ireland joined Scotland in voting to remain in Europe but has been dragged out of the EU by the English and Welsh).

Ah well, it is what the people wanted (four years ago) and so if we believe in democracy we must let it play out, rather than trying to overthrow the government if we don’t get our way.

I have been form-filling as well because as a consequence of the UK sailing off alone into the North Sea, I have to establish some legal status in France, which means getting an identity card. This was unnecessary before as we were all European. Now we are not. I hate to think about all the work permits that the F1 teams must be applying for at the moment. I’m sure they will all be granted (eventually) but it makes freedom of movement and working abroad (in both directions) a much more complicated business. And I have no doubt that the carnets required to move racing equipment around will complicate matters as well.

This is not aiming to be a screed about the wisdom of the new situation, but rather a way to ask a pertinent question: Will any of this have any long-term impact on the UK motorsport industry? As we know – and are very proud of – Britain leads the world in F1. It used to lead the world in racing car manufacturing as well, but the days of March, Lola, Reynard and Ralt (and all the others) are gone. Today racing car chassis manufacturing – outside F1 – has moved to Italy, and specifically to Dallara. I know there are some series that use open-wheeler cars that are not built by Dallara, but I struggle to think of them at the moment. How did that happen when Britannia ruled the waves for so long?

I know it isn’t fashionable to learn from the lessons of history but I think it is worth considering why Britain leads the way in Grand Prix racing. It wasn’t always the case. Before the late 1950s Britain was utterly irrelevant in the sport – except in terms of land speed records. There was Brooklands but the big racing teams came from France, then Italy and then Germany. After the war it was back to the Italians again. The British industry took off for a number of reasons, the primary one being that the country had more race tracks – thanks to the many deserted wartime airfields – than other nations. And it had people who wanted to use them. There were young engineers who had been involved in fascinating engineering in the war years, who craved excitement and so began building racing cars. It was this human resource that was the key element of success, with the circuits providing venues and the success of the best cars creating the commercial opportunities that built the industry.

Maintaining the supply of bright young engineers is therefore the primary key to success. A knowledge cluster is powered by knowledge and ambition. In the old days when someone said “I can do better than that” they often set up a new business and went into competition with the existing companies. It is harder to do nowadays because people who say “I can do better than that” need to find a lot of money to embark on a new adventure and so the best and the brightest tend to join existing teams and use their brilliance to make these teams better.

Brilliant engineering thus still exists in the cluster but these days the ownership of the teams has really ceased to be British. We don’t really know who owns Williams but legally it is a US-entity (although this is probably a front for a British owner). Mercedes is a third-owned by a Monaco-based Brit. McLaren is owned by Arabs and Americans. Aston Martin is owned by a Canadian. Renault is owned by France. Red Bull and Toro Rosso are owned by an Austrian. Alfa Romeo Racing is (currently) owned by a Swede. Ferrari is Ferrari. And Haas is owned by an American. Those based in the UK are there because that is where the good people are and where there is infrastructure to support the business.

Europeans wanting to study on advanced motorsport courses have long been coming to Britain to learn at places like Cranfield, which have fed engineers into the F1 system for decades, but the news that Britain has suspended its involvement with the Erasmus student exchange programme means that life will become much more difficult for foreigners wanting to study in Britain in the future. The UK’s Turing scheme which is intended to fill the gap will support British students overseas – but, as far as I understand it, not vice versa.

Will the best engineering students still head for Britain when the paperwork and funding are difficult and there are other easier alternatives? The Motor Vehicle University of Emilia-Romagna (known as MUNER) offers similar Master’s courses to Cranfield – and the courses are taught in English. The Racing Car Design course is being held at the Dallara Academy. The programme is supported by the Emilia-Romagna Region, which is busy promoting its “Motor Valley” in competition to Britain’s so-called “Motorsport Valley”. Will the Italians ultimately lure away the best and brightest youngsters to learn there and then to work there? It should not be excluded as a possibility. Things change if industries are not supported or nurtured correctly. One only needs to look at the history of British shipbuilding to see that. And there are similar fears about the car industry as well.

Anyway, I am not saying it is going to happen, but I think it is reasonable to fear that it might.

Elsewhere F1 has little other news of note. An Italian has been put in charge at Enstone. The organisations are so big these days that it is sometimes difficult to say who runs what but, in principle, the 10 F1 teams are now being run by three Italians (Ferrari, Renault and Haas), two Germans (Williams and McLaren), two Austrians (Mercedes and Toro Rosso), an American (Aston Martin), a Frenchman (Alfa Romeo) and one Briton, Christian Horner. The commercial side of the sport is headed by an Italian…

In other news, we have already had the first race postponements thanks to the pandemic and that has led to lots of speculation that others will follow. Perhaps they will. Race promoters don’t want to postpone or cancel, but they have to obey their governments and if one looks at what is happening with the Australian Open tennis tournament, it is probably best not to try to push the envelope when ultimately sport doesn’t much matter. Yes, it is a business and, yes, it cheers people up and provides interest, but if it spreads the disease, or creates the wrong impressions about how things should be done, then it is best avoided. The impression one gets from the tennis situation is that the sport is filled with whining brats (whether they are or not) and that is not a good look for any sport.

It alarms me slightly that no fewer than five F1 drivers have tested positive for COVID-19, despite all the protocols. Percentage-wise this is absurdly out of kilter with the world. That is 25 percent of the field. Why is that number so high? I am pretty sure that 25 percent of the F1 circus as a whole has not tested positive, so you cannot easily blame it on the lifestyle… otherwise we’d all be more at risk than we think we are. In any case, what the sport does not need is the kind of negative publicity that tennis has thrown itself headlong into.

I am sure that in a few weeks, when the financial results of F1 in 2020 are published, there will be a flurry of stories about how the sport is finished and how it cannot survive on half the prize money that it used to have. But it will survive. It will change in order to survive. It will perhaps rid itself of such daft habits as the motorhomes and other such things, which are very nice but are simply a way to burn money. It will become leaner and more efficient.

The “I can do better than that” approach still exists… but whether that is always going to be in Britain is another question.

49 thoughts on “Wintry thoughts

  1. 5 positive tests from 25 drivers does sound a lot but is it really?

    If a test has a 5 % chance of being a false positive and if each driver has been tested 100 times you would actually have expected all drivers to test positive at some time during the season…..

      1. I think that Mr Jolliffe’s logic is wrong. He is treating the probability as if it were like a simple coin flip when, in reality the odds are affected by extraneous circumstances. To use an analogy (if you will pardon the possibly non-pc use of history) RAF bomber crews in WWII were said to have a worse than 1 in 25 chance of surviving a mission so, theoretically, none would complete a ‘tour’ of 30 missions. Many flew multiple tours, many perished on their first sortie, but all outcomes depended on the where, when and how of those sorties.

        Just sayin’…

        1. My Grandfather did 115 missions in Wellington Bombers in WW2. 2x infamous daylight RAF bomber operations in late 1939, meant that the RAF switched to night operations wherever possible. Grandfather Reg was on the first of these missions where 5 out of 12 Wellingtons were shot down and a 6th crashed on landing. Reg was on 2 raids were the aircraft/crew casualty rate was close to or greater than 50%. So there was a time were RAF bomber crew life expectancy was 2-3 missions maximum. By June 1940, Reg was the last of the “peacetime” pilot or crew in 99 Bomber Squadron still flying. Everyone else had died on operations, shellshocked or in a strait-jacket. I went to National Archives at Kew and found the squadron diary/report on the first mission above. If makes horrific reading. The German fighter pilots were very experienced having had great practice in Spain and Poland and were firing at the Wellington cockpits/pilots. The Wellingtons where in 4 sections of 3 aircraft and both Reg’s wingmen were shot down. On their way home they were fired upon by Royal Navy Destroyers. Reg went on to train pilots with Operation Training Units but the casualty rate at these squadrons was worse than front line squadrons. 10% of trainee crew died each month through accidents. Reg’s luck ran out Dec 23rd 1941.

          Sorry to go off topic………… the 1-25 is correct for later in the war, but earlier in the war it was much worse.

          1. How right you are. Very few bomber command fliers survived right through the war. Due to family and job I was privileged to know a few including a couple of VCs and, as I was told, the only tail gunner to survive from beginning to end.
            Just about the only people to be on the offensive for the first couple of years. They were very normal people, rarely talked of their exploits, never met one that had second thoughts about what they did but resented that they never received a campaign medal, their chief was the only such not rewarded as his oppos and were denied a place in the post war celebratory parade.

      2. You went out of your way to avoid the virus. Possibly taking more precautions than a driver and his team who are from a much wider area and did a lot more mixing. Perhaps they believed themselves to be invincible – like all racing drivers.

        What were the numbers of team members who caught it? I’m sure a couple of teams had to completely swap members around during the season.

  2. Hey Joe…just want to tell you that the ownership of Aston Martin is by a Canadian and not an American…ok North American if you wanna be technical but we as Proud Canadians have always punched above our weight but get classed as Americans too often and with whats been happening in the US lately its almost a slur to be lumped in with them… have faith in the New Gov they elected but what a hole to dig themselves out of !

  3. Great analysis, as always, Joe. This is why we need proper journalists in the sport. And yes, I fear your conclusions are highly likely to come to pass…

    1. Not like so many articles I see that run to well over 1,000 words, but are based on press releases and just plain nonsense. I fail to see how a driver/team’s performance in the past has to be gone over in detail yeas after the events.

  4. Interesting to read about developments in the Emilia-Romagna region.

    In addition to Dallara, Tatuus have a significant presence in the junior formulae. Off the top of my head, I think the only major series to use non-Italian spec chassis are Formula Regional Americas and Japan (Ligier and Dome, respectively); Argentinian, British, Chinese, Danish and French F4 (all Mygale); Japanese F4 (Dome, again); and American F4 (also Ligier). It shows how significantly things have changed.

  5. Dear Joe, I understand that a Brit F1 engineer is closely involved with the Ben Ainslie Ineos America’s Cup Challenge and have seen him on You Tube saying how similar are the systems used in copying with managing the problems presented by high speed foiling sailboats which now regularly sail ( Fly ) at over 50 mph .

  6. We are still Europeans

    We are not part of the EU

    I am sure you wouldn’t want to be in the Trump camp when it comes to spin

  7. Very good post. Joe this should be pushed via max folks in F1 to HMG OK I know we were on opposite sides in Brexit however as United Kingdom folks we should work together to maximise the “ World as it is “ I hope that via your connections with the teams you can ask them to lobby there local MP,s plus maybe they have a few bits of inside info about Dallara they could supply to HMG I was told 2 years ago that Dallara had a ….very close… relationship with certain folks that ensured they had The “ Correct “ backing. UK based F1 teams may prefer folks to stay with them so have a vested interest in a “ level playing field” Howard Scaife Charity fund raiser and when we were both a tad slimmer we both took part in the annual JH karting event in London After I organised the Racing for Jason event I reluctantly hung up my helmet to give the younger folks a chance. I used to make high tech garment machinery I now via my family firm make traditional Yorkshire flat caps and would be pleased to supply you with one as a thank you for your fine words http://www.toyccl.uk Choose and advise size.

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

    1. As one of the local MPs is Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire), I seriously doubt lobbying is going to make the slightest bit of difference. And I should know; unfortunately she’s the MP I am stuck with.

    2. Rather than hint darkly at a “very close relationship with the certain folks in the FIA”, perhaps Dallara were awarded contracts because they dominated (in an open market) F3 from 1993 until it went single-make in 2019?

      They were also in a dominant market position in Indycar before it went one-make.

      They also didn’t go bust like Lola or Reynard. So for example F3 and Indycar were de-facto one-make series already.

      Others tried to get a toehold in F3 (e.g. Lola) but economies of scale and weight of track development time when you have 2 cars against 20 Dallaras, as well as cost of spares and support made it very difficult to overturn that position. You can only really overturn that sort of situation if you have the scope to build a much better car, which was not available within the rules.

      Is it not the case that Dallara just did a better job (technically and commercially) in an open market?

  8. “…the neo-puritans of social media, tut-tutting and passing judgement.”

    Best line ever. Great post as always, Joe.

      1. 750mc was a huge influence. But now the majority of 750mc races are now for saloons and one-make categories. 750Formula still has some good stuff at low budgets, but it’s not a starting point for upper level of motorsport any more. That’s more Formula Student and a PhD these days (both of which are as readily available in the EU/US/Aus as they are in the UK).

      2. I think the brightest, best and innovative have been pulled in by the magnetic effect of a very successful Formula One industry. Previously they built their own cars and the manufacturing process around them.

  9. More significant than Erasmus: until this year EU (in fact EEA) students got the same financial treatment as uk students – though that varies in each of the four nations it either meant no fees (undergraduate in Scotland), or fees at the lower level (overseas fees are typically twice to four times as high), and entitlement to the very soft loans to pay them. Apart from the Irish students, this is no longer the case though wales and possibly Scotland are trying to hang onto it, as they are also trying to hang onto Erasmus. Applications from the EU have suffered since the referendum but have halved this year alone,
    .

  10. Afla Romeo owned by a swede (currently) Joe’s brackets are as good as fact in the main! Rumour that Alfa will re sign with Ferrari, maybe Cyril will end up at Ferrari after all put together by tavares

      1. I would love to see abiteboul at Ferrari, I think the rest of the paddock should be scared of that prospect. From a casual observer the guy is smart, very smart. There is precedent for a French man at Ferrari and I don’t mean Alain or Arnoux. Think Cyril has the organisational skills of Todt without the ego or political ambition.

        1. Justin I beg to differ. He is certainly not right for Ferrari! That environment would ‘have him for breakfast’!
          I know that you think Cyril to be a good bloke and suitable for big F1 jobs, Joe but there’s also quite a lot of people who think otherwise. This may date back to certain ‘goings ons’ between Caterham and Renault back along, and also the rather abrupt departure of Fred Vasseur from Renault a couple of years ago. I’m not privy to the details but I am aware that many felt that the wrong guy left!

  11. Any comment on Lewis not yet signing for Mercedes? Much is made that he’s a team player, but this must be somewhat destabilising at Brackley.

    And have we heard if they are making the cockpit longer to accomodate taller drivers 😉 ?

    1. I suppose with Hamilton and Mercedes there really is no rush. Neither he nor Mercedes have better options and there is no other suitor for either party who will wait in the wings for only so long. I suspect the pandemic also means there is little of real value Lewis can do for the team in the short term.

      If there is a stumbling block with money or terms, there’s time to resolve it or go their separate ways but I’m beginning to wonder about Hamilton’s desires. If quitting at the top is a motivation, 2020 must have been his pinnacle. A dominant title campaign, exquisite drives such as in Turkey, records tumbling like dominoes, a knighthood, BBC Sports Personality of the Year and wide praise for his socio-political voice. He also had a brush with Covid that appears to have been more symptomatic than those of Perez or Stroll. I wonder what he is thinking. If only Roscoe gave interviews!

      As Joe would say, we’ll see.

  12. One thought I have is that, outside of F1, the desire sparked by “I could do better” is often difficult to pursue on a car or engine-building level.

    Outside of F1, open competition has been replaced by single-make (or a restricted number of suppliers in the case of LMP/LMP3/LMDh). In F1, the sheer size of organisation and budget make it impossible to disrupt).

    If you are inspired as an engineer to make racing cars, it has become much easier (and more realistic) to join them, rather than beat them.

  13. Hi Joe do you think Lewis might take a sabbatical and return refreshed after a year out in time for the new 2022 rules? George to step up in the meantime…,

  14. Great analysis as always Joe. Although I live in the UK, I’ll always feel European. Brexit has been and gone. No such thing as a ‘remainer’ now – how can you ‘remain’ in somewhere you’ve already left?….! Like you, I’ll be watching the car industry very closely – I live a few minutes drive away from one of (if not THE) largest car plant in Europe and agree 100% – you can’t rule out anything out and the effects of the said car plant closing would be catastrophic. Bottom line is that we’re the first country in history to have applied economic sanctions on itself.

    1. Ricciardo has been quoted elsewhere as saying he hopes F1 can learn from tennis. I don’t know the context of his comments but from what I’ve read tennis should have learned from F1. F1 folk whinged less too about their good fortune in being permitted to practise their sport and carry on their business when much of the world could not. One can only hope GP host countries look at F1’s 2020 success not tennis’ 2021 failure, which is bad news for all sporting and entertainment endeavours..

  15. In addition to the end of the Britain’s participation in the Erasmus Program; one other unfortunate change stems from the end of mutual recognition of each other’s Degrees.. Thus could result in long delays while bureaucrats evaluate the quality comparability, and standards of each other Universities’ academic programs

    1. Boris has said that Erasmus is going to be replaced with a UK version called something like the Turing Programme and of course it’s going to be better – so no need to worry any more then. Boris has fixed it like he’s fixed all our other problems …😉

      Other related news is that the UK is joining the Horizon Research scheme as an ‘associate member’ so that is genuinely good news to all UK universities and research institutes as it will allow us access to huge amounts of research funding and to do collaborative projects with European partners. Probably won’t mean much to most people posting here but trust me – it really IS good news for the UK!

      1. That’s definitely good to hear and case for optimism. As for Boris, agreed; I don’t think he’s ever managed to *fix* anything in his entire professional life! 😉

        1. Never had too much time for any politicians of whatever persuasion. Agreeable enough one on one but once they start gabbing….. The present inadequate gang led by an incompetent charlatan have destroyed all credibility.
          How did we ever get here ?

          1. This pandemic has shown politicians across the board are incompetent and haven’t a clue. Doesn’t matter which party, they hopeless. Britain is only getting the vaccination phase so right because the civil service is the constant, despite its politicisation by Tony Blair and 45 minutes Alistair Campbell, which sadly has not been reversed.

  16. My dad worked for British Shipbuilders, the nationalised industry, in the late 70’s and early 80’s – I remember him saying they had missed out on a tender for some new ships; the winning bid came from Hyundai and their tender price was less than BS were going to have to pay for the steel. No improvements in shipbuilding efficiency could bridge that sort of gap. Whether Hyundai were subsidised (which I doubt) or were just able to produce steel very much more cheaply, the writing was on the wall…

    1. From Wikipedia: “Established in 1953, Hyundai Steel is the oldest steel-making company in South Korea”.

      I think that might be your answer…..

      1. Colin Gale – quite right, they made their own steel and built ships with it (and cars and lots of other things)..

  17. I am a proud European – that’s just my identity.
    I am also proud that my part of Europe is so brilliant in its engineering prowess.
    I have never been interested in which team or ownership is grounded in which nation; I love the pursuit.
    Welcome one, welcome all.
    Vroom!

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