In a world without electronic boxes that show pictures and appropriate sounds, people had quieter lives. There were no soap operas to be addicted to, no football crises, no Formula 1 crashes and so they had to find other ways to amuse themselves. They didn’t flop on to the couch to look at the wall, instead they made tapestries, played music and sang songs, and they made up or read fantastic tales of mystical knights, wizards, monsters and grails. It was popular then and if you look at the success of Star Wars or Harry Potter in the modern era, it is still popular today.
One of the most enduring and popular legends is that of King Arthur, which is a story one finds not only in England and Wales but also in France as well. It is regurgitated from time to time on television and in the cinema and each time there are new twists and new suppositions, while historiographers battle over new theories about who Arthur was and where Camelot and Avalon might have been. Avalon is the mystical island where crops flourished and people lived for hundreds of years. It was where King Arthur was taken after he was wounded in his final battle at Camlann, and where he was looked after by Morgan le Fay, the ruler of the island, along with her eight sisters: Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thiten and Thiton. It is also where the celebrated sword Excaliber is supposed to have come from. Some think that it was Glastonbury, which was an island in a marsh. I have no idea, but it struck me that it might also be at Avallon, in Burgundy. So I decided to stop there on the way home from Imola, if only because I was pretty tired by then and I arrived with five minutes to go before France went under curfew at 7pm on Monday night, as it does every night at the moment.
Going to Imola and back by car is a 1,700 mile round trip, which involves driving about halfway across France and halfway across Italy. The only other country one sees on the way is on the outskirts of Geneva, where one gets within 100 metres of Swiss territory near a village called Troinex (on the Swiss side), beneath a large rock called the Salève, sometimes known as le balcon de Genève (Geneva’s balcony) as one can ride a téléphérique to the top and get great views of the city and its environs. If you’re so inclined you can also jump off the cliff and paraglide around.
Anyway, once I was in Avallon, eating dinner in my hotel room, as one must in France these days, I decided to look into Avalon and Avallon to discover if perhaps King Arthur has stayed in the same hotel. In old Breton, I learned, the word aball meant apple tree, and the word avallen meant fruit tree and thus the chances are the towns, real and mystical, were named because they had apple trees. This was all rather dull but I am sure that like most good myths it serves a purpose, legends tend to attract tourists and smart people who don’t have any good tales make them up. I think, specifically, in this respect of the town of Bergerac in the south west of France which stuck up a statue with a long nose to make tourists happy, even though Cyrano de Bergerac had no obvious link with the neighbourhood. If truth be told the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola was a bit the same as the town named the track after Dino Ferrari first, in the hope that Enzo Ferrari would support the circuit.
Going to Imola is always a pleasure, even under lockdown, as it is a part of the world where motor racing is alive every day and people don’t say “It’s race week” because the sport is part of their lives. This is all due to Mr Ferrari, of course.
Stefano Domenicali, the CEO of Formula 1, is a man who likes Imola, not least because it is his home town, where he grew up, working at the circuit as a car park attendant and pit marshal in his teenage years. I’m sure that Stefano would love to have a race each year in Imola but that might not be possible, as he says “we cannot have 52 races each year”.
The big news of the Imola weekend was the announcement that the Miami GP will go ahead in 2022 (unless disappointed trouble-causers start to throw more lawsuits about, as can happen in the litigious world of the US). To be honest, the whole opposition thing is more to do with ego than logic now the city of Miami Gardens has been given a $5 million a year payment (I won’t say pay-off) to make them like the race more. There are always people who object to races, but often they have trouble accepting defeat or even evidence that the race has been good for their community. The local politician Betty Ferguson (76) seems like one of these people. She has been battling non-stop to block the race for the last few years, but has now been blind-sided by her own community. She’s not got the power she once had because of term limits and so she’s upset that the city has voted for the race. I think the best solution to the problem is to be nice to Ms Ferguson and to name a chicane after her, in recognition of her efforts to slow F1 down… The big question is whether she’d appreciate the joke…
The continued lack of access for the written media to the paddock remains a problem, which is becoming increasingly annoying when one sees some of the people being allowed in. Still, there is some progress with a “mixed zone” where people can talk to journalists over a two metre gap if they want to go there for a chat. Some do and in fact a couple I spoke to did say that they want the media back because there is no gossip these days and F1 is all about people and thus gossip, while being annoying, is key to maintaining interest.
Something I think is very important for F1 is news that is coming out of the European Union about something terminally dull called ecological taxonomy. When you strip out the jargon this means that the EU is making a list of what is environmentally-sustainable economic activity and what is not. The EU believes in electric vehicles (don’t we all) but it does so without really having the charging stations that will be required and even if that is the case, where the electricity is going to come from. Electric vehicles are only as green as the electricity they use and so making judgements on vehicle emissions is only part of the picture. They cannot have diesel generators hidden around the corner at recharge stops… Actually, when it comes to politicians they probably can as most of them seem quite willing to lie and cheat as required to get what they want for whichever lobby they are representing.
Anyway, the EU is discussing whether to reclassify vehicles differently starting from January 2026. One suggestion is that one will not be allowed to use the “sustainable” tag unless the vehicle has zero tailpipe emissions. The aim of this is to drive investment towards fully electric vehicles. As Formula 1 discusses what the engines in the future should be, beginning in 2025, one needs to consider the impact of this on the desire for better hybrid technology. Most car companies agree that hybrid cars are a transition technology with the long-term future being either fully electric machines or hydrogen-fueled cars that would use electric motors. If all the investment is going to fully electric cars there will be less interest and less demand for hybrid vehicles. At the moment sales of both types of car are increasing but they still make up only a small percentage of the whole market, and the EU wants to increase that. Up to now the EU has treated hybrids in the same way as all-electric cars but if this change goes through, F1 could be charging up a blind alley. The obvious way forward, albeit a bit late in terms of technical development would be to go straight to hydrogen, which is probably better than battery power.
It has always been a bit odd that a drinks company like Red Bull has decided to get itself into building racing engines and spending a lot of money to have IP that cannot be sold to other car companies. Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin and McLaren might all get more credible F1 programmes if they had their own engines, as using Ferrari and Mercedes respectively means that their cars are only factory teams in name alone and thus, one can argue, might not be as efficient promotional units as they could be. However, the word is that Red Bull cannot just flog the technology elsewhere as Honda might have learned from giving its F1 team to Ross Brawn, who then sold it to Mercedes for a vast profit, was perhaps not the smartest move it ever made. Having said that the firm has a history of almost getting things right and then leaving F1, which dates back to the 1960s. The Red Bull engines will continue to be Honda-based in 2022, 2023 and 2024 but by the time the new F1 rules arrive in 2025 Red Bull will be a position to design, manufacture and build its own engines, independent of Honda. And at that point it may then want to do deals to sell the whole thing – teams and all to companies with the money and the desire to be in the car business. And who knows what kind of companies that might include. A few years ago you wouldn’t think Amazon or Apple would be buying sports rights, but they are, so who knows who will be building cars in five years from now.
In the meantime, F1 has more pressing problems, notably getting as many races done as is possible with all the restrictions that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating. This year, even with the vaccination programmes, life is much more complicated for F1 and which races will or won’t happen. These things change week by week, country by country and border by border.
That doesn’t mean that F1 bosses haven’t got time to chatter about their future driver line-ups, but this is not really a priority at the moment, even if the driver managers are back in the paddock, trying to keep track on who is doing what. Much of the focus is on what happens at Mercedes where Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are both on one-year deals and are out of contract next year. Mercedes youngster George Russell is also going to be out of contract after three years at Williams and he is keen to move on. Thus the crash between Russell and Bottas was an interesting moment because it made people ask too things: why was Bottas being overtaken by a Williams? And is George too impetuous for a top drive? One can feel for George because he is clearly frustrated and was on his way to what could have been his best result, while Bottas generally does a decent job but was having a bad weekend.
We’re not expecting changes at Ferrari or Red Bull, although Perez will need to have his one-year deal renewed. There has been talk of Yuki Tsunoda moving up to Red Bull, but his performance at Imola shows that he really isn’t ready for that and Red Bull is trying to avoid throwing another of its drivers on to a pretty impressive scrapheap. The big question is what happens with Pierre Gasly, who is out of contract, and looking to move on. The whisper is that Alex Albon could be drafted back to AlphaTauri in his place. But where would Gasly go? Some say Alpine is the obvious choice but while the team wants one Frenchman, does it really want two? Getting rid of Esteban Ocon would not be sensible if he goes on beating Fernando Alonso. One can ask if Fernando will be happy putting up with that situation. He has a two-year deal but has been known to blow his top when things don’t go his way…
McLaren has both drivers under contract next year while Aston Martin is hardly going to change Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel has a three-year deal but needs to produce some better results if Aston is going to get value for money. And money is important at Aston Martin as life is not easy when you are running a loss-making car company as well as an F1 team. For now, let’s say that Lawrence Stroll selling off things like car collections and his racing circuit in Canada is because he is too busy to enjoy them, but cynics might say that it is an odd coincidence given the Aston Martin story. Hopefully the DBX SUV will sell well and the whole thing will get to be more stable.
Haas has both drivers contracted for 2022 while Williams has both drivers without contracts for 2022. Nicholas Latifi brings a lot of money to the team and is doing better this year than last, while Russell clearly wants to move up. China’s Guanyu Zhou is tipped as the likely successor to one or the other. Being Chinese, well-supported and clearly quite talented should help him get him a seat in F1.
And then we have Alfa Romeo and this is a puzzle. Both drivers are out of contract and the Alfa Romeo sponsorship of Sauber is up for renewal again. It is even suggested that the team boss Fred Vasseur is currently out of contract after his three-year deal signed in July 2017 has not been renewed. It is a little odd but there hasn’t been any announcement… Who drives for Alfa Romeo next year depends on who pays what and that really depends on what Alfa Romeo’s parent company Stellantis wants to do in the future. In recent days the firm’s new CEO, Frenchman Jean-Philippe Imparato, decided to delay the introduction of the new plug-in hybrid version of Alfa Romeo Tonale SUV because the car does not have sufficient performance. That is a setback. Imparato’s boss is Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares, once a big banana at Renault in the days of Carlos Ghosn. In fact, he left Renault because at that point Ghosn was in his way and he wanted to be the boss of a big car manufacturer. He has made that happen with Stellantis. And now he needs to figure out what to do with Alfa Romeo and Formula 1. There are two basic choices: he can stop the current activity and promote Alfa in other ways; or he can take over the whole thing and do the job more effectively. It is hard to know which way that decision will go, but floating along not doing much has never been Tavares’s way… So expect action now that the Stellantis deal is done. Last year it was still to be completed.
I am sure that Cyril Abiteboul, the former boss of Renault F1, visited to Hinwil in the wake of his departure from his role a Enstone and it should be noted that he was close to Tavares, when the latter was COO at Renault. And, if you remember back a few years, Alpine was a Tavares project (in league with Caterham) and Abiteboul ended up as team principal of Caterham for a while, as a result of that relationship.
Still, you never know what car manufacturers will do when they come into the sport. They are often pretty arrogant and think they know far more than the people who run the teams and they do daft things like bring in new leadership with no clue about the sport and so on… Let’s not go into names but the list is long and not very distinguished.
One man who passed through F1 about 20 years ago was Richard Parry-Jones and it was sad to hear of his death over the weekend in a tractor accident at his home in Wales. Richard was a proper racer at heart and there is a great story about how he decided that Ford was the company for him when he wrote asking for advice about a career in automotive engineering and receiving signed photographs of Jim Clark and Graham Hill as part of the response. When he was chief technical officer of Ford he had to sort out the mess that was Jaguar Racing, which had been a political bloodbath before his arrival. He conducted a major review of the F1 operations and changed the management (again) but he also cut costs significantly and this led to his proposal for F1 to have a budget cap, arguing that costs were unsustainable and that there was no reason that F1 could not follow other sports and limit its spending. He was 15 years ahead of his time…
After a night in Avallon, pondering King Arthur, I set off for home on Tuesday morning deciding to take it easy and get off the motorways for a while and travel for a while on the old Routes Nationales, with their avenues of plane trees, dilapidated chateaux, cafes with fading Dubonnet signs painted large on the walls, their Notre Dames and their disused railways, their grottes and rivers called the Cure, the Cousin and Serein.
It takes twice as long to get anywhere, but it was an hour well-wasted.