Many years ago I wrote a column called “Breakfast and the Empire”, in which I argued that in the days when Europe ruled the world the British had the grandest empire because they started every day with eggs, bacon, bangers, beans, fried bread and black pudding.
“They then marched all day long, stopping only to claim bits of land and shoot locals who complained about being invaded”.
The French thought this poor show but they ate only croissants and had tiny little cups of coffee. By the time they had hoisted on their back packs they were already lacking energy and a half an hour of marching would mean that they soon started to discuss the need for a big lunch and that meant that they had to threaten to strike in order to stop to prepare something delightful. So it was not until late afternoon that they were in the mood for a bit of invading – by which time all the juicy colonies had gone.
The Germans never really got going because they had discomfort all day, after eating too many hard-boiled eggs with their coffee, while the Italians ate only sweet things and had to go to the dentist a lot.
And the Spanish, oh dear, they were going to bed when everyone else got up – and so had no chance at all in the construction of terrific Great Power empires, all they had were the leftovers from earlier adventures.
OK, I admit it’s a rough guide, and it wouldn’t happen today because the British would have to spend all day in immigration queues clasping their beloved blue passports and being outraged that no-one else cares if Her Majesty “requests and requires” that the bearer be allowed to pass freely “without let or hindrance”.
But some of it remains true.
The Spanish did, however, invent the siesta, one thing that plays an essential role of my life. It is a mystery how they did this because the word siesta derives from the Latin expression hora sexta, which means “the sixth hour” after you wake up. So in Spanish terms that should be the cocktail hour…
Still, I understand how the habit was formed. In the searing heat of summery Spain, it is best to make the most of the cool hours of the night and then rest when the heat is at its worst, although this is not good for empire-building, nor for Englishmen and mad dogs who like to go out in the midday sun to build their empires.
I was reminded of these habits on Saturday night in the flimsy-walled hotel where I foolishly decided to stay for the Spanish GP, on the basis that it was close to the track, was cheap and had a restraurant that was open. The room next door to mine seemed to be the headquarters of the Granollers Debating Society and from about 3am onwards was the venue for a lengthy argument (presumably about Catalan independence) and then, when most had departed and the sun was about to appear, a pair remained, grew more fond of one another and serenaded the dawn with animal impersonations. Still, it sounded like they enjoyed their safari. They didn’t seem too bothered when I knocked on the wall. So, I wasn’t too bothered putting on the morning show on the TV when I got up at 7am. We racing folk tend to be a little deaf and so you need a high volume…
Sunday was a long day as a result of this, with heavy eyelids and working deep into the following night became a real challenge. All this meant that by Monday morning a very weary reporter set off to drive the 800 miles home. And it didn’t help that it rained for most of the first 400 miles, making life a little more complicated as I worked up way across Catalonia, along the Languedoc coast and then turned north to Lodeve and climbed up from the Mediterranean plain to the high Larzac plateau by way of Pégairolles-de-l’Escalette, which I presume gets its name from somehow being related to an escalier (a staircase). Up on top of the plateau it was still miserable and even the grandeur of the Viaduct de Millau was lost in the mist and rain.
By the time I reached Authezat, at the bottom of the descent from the Massif Centrale towards Clermont-Ferrand, I was a Tesla in need of a charging station… I could go no further.
It had been a busy weekend in Spain with a terrific race for the victory between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. I think in the years to come we may look back on this era as having been a little bit special, as one titan coming to the end of his F1 career fought another rising to his peak.
Anyway, it wasn’t the cut-and-thrust of NASCAR, of passing and repassing, but something more subtle than that. It was a terrific contest of strategic thinking between Mercedes and Red Bull as their drivers gave everything they had. Could we have asked for a better battle on a track that is makes racing so hard? It’s not always easy telling casual F1 fans about how fascinating some of these races are. It’s not just warriors trading blows. It’s a rich and complex story of competition on so many different levels. Mercedes might have won on the track (again), but there was big blow struck to the team in the days before the race when Red Bull announced that it had hired five top engineers from the Mercedes AMG HPP team at Brixworth, joining the new technical director Ben Hodgkinson at Red Bull Powertrains. This group will build the Red Bull engines of the future. And what impact will their departure have on Mercedes performance? Perhaps one day we will see this moment as the day the Mercedes flagship took a torpedo in the midships. Perhaps not.
With limited access to the paddock (and hopefully this will be the last race with such restrictions) the F1 media numbered only 55 – and a lot were Spanish – but attendance is better than last year when that number of media present dipped into single figures in Russia.
This meant that there was not much gossip going on, except stuff dreamed up by the Bedroom Bernsteins and the Wannabe Woodwards.
Everyone misses the gossip element of the F1 show and what little interaction there is between the real F1 media and the team bosses usually features a “what’s happening?” moment from both sides. This has always been a system in which people can start rumours for their own purposes, if they wish to stir up trouble against a rival. We’ve seen that a lot in recent days with rumours that Aston Martin might get rid of Otmar Szafnauer. There was no truth to the stories, but it was – it seems – revenge of another team that didn’t convince Cognizant to join them, rather than signing up with Aston Martin. I’m not saying Cognizant made the right decision, but obviously the other team wasn’t happy about it… and I’m told the team bosses are less than friendly these days.
One point that I didn’t see mentioned anywhere was that the Spanish Grand Prix doesn’t have a contract for 2022. In fact this year’s race was a one-off deal to keep the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya track on the F1 schedule, while they try to work out a deal to keep a Spanish race on the calendar. We should have one given that Fernando Alonso is back in action with Alpine (albeit being shown up a little so far by Esteban Ocon) – and Carlos Sainz is, of course, racing for Ferrari. At the same time, we have Sebastian Vettel in an Aston Martin and Mercedes winning a lot and we still don’t have a German Grand Prix.
Well, not at the time of writing anyway, but I wonder whether with Turkey up to its neck in COVID-19 and other countries putting up obstacles to movement for those who have been there, I can imagine that the Turkish GP might have to go and perhaps we could end up in Hockenheim.
A rather optimistic French magazine suggested that we could be in for two French GPs this summer, but I fear that paying for one is hard enough… In Formula 1 the best advice for a reporter is to always follow the money, because that is what always creates the story.
Spain has a problem with money but it is complicated because Catalunya has been a bit naughty in recent years by trying to gain independence from Spain, and so the Spanish central government is not keep to help the Catalans with an F1 race, but doesn’t currently have an alternative venue into which money can be poured. It might even be a good moment for someone to build a circuit near Madrid because the Spanish government might be willing to help, leaving the Catalans in a pickle. Carlos Jr is also a madrileño, which would help.
If you look at the history of the Brazilian GP, for example, this is important as the switching between Rio and Sao Paulo was largely related to whether a paulista (a native of Sao Paulo) or a carioca (a native of Rio) was the top F1 driver at the time…
But there are other problems as well in Catalunya not least the fact that the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya does not produce good races. The F1 drivers love it, because it is fun to drive, but racing in almost impossible because (like Monaco) there is nowhere to overtake. It was interesting to see that the Catalans tried reprofiling Turns 10 and 11 this year (working hand-in-glove with the Racing Department of the Formula 1 group, so they said). It made no difference at all, in fact it was worse.
“It was probably the only overtaking opportunity apart from Turn 1,” Pierre Gasly reported. “And now there’s not as much of a big braking zone.”
And with the cars today having so much downforce, even Turn 1 is very difficult unless there is a significant delta between the two cars. And F1 performance today is so tight that this rarely exists unless the cars are on different tyre strategies. The drivers – even the Spaniards – are polite about this monstrous flaw, but they all talk about the importance of the start and how strategy is important in Spain.
This has always been the case at the track and if one wants to argue the point, the statistics make it rather obvious. In the 31 races held at the track 24 have been won from pole and another four from second on the grid. Only three winners came from behind the front row and no-one has won the race from lower than fifth on the grid…
For me that’s a problem, but it is a bigger problem that when they tried to fix it, they didn’t succeed. If we do get to race in Melbourne this year (and it’s still very doubtful, in my opinion) we will see another attempt by the Racing Department of the Formula 1 group to fix a circuit where racing is not easy, so if they don’t get that one right…
To me, and I am obviously not a scientist, there has to be some sort of science which leads to good races at one track and bad ones at others. It cannot be magic. So, if one can identify the right ingredients, surely a chef would argue that one can bake a good cake?
I spotted US Grand Prix promoter Bobby Epstein in the paddock and managed to have a quiet conversation with him about where the race in Austin is going. The track is out of contract after this year’s race but Epstein is confident that a new deal will be struck as F1 and is happy that Miami has joined in to help grow the sport in the Unitd States. He says there are no fears about the race being cancelled because of COVID-19 and says that all tickets that have been put up for sale to date have been sold. He’s planning to beat attendance records set in 2019 and while the Saturday night concert with 71-year-old Billy Joel may not get F1’s new young US fans (thanks to Netflix) rocking, he says that he’s got a deal for the Friday concert with a band that is “massive” but this will not be announced for another three weeks. He says that this group will appeal to a younger demographic.
Netflix has been key in driving interest in F1 in the US, particularly among women, which Epstein says means that more tickets will be sold because the sport is now beginning to appeal to the whole family. Epstein says that 65 percent of the tickets sold are to out-of-state people but reckons that this could be 80 percent if foreign visitors get the confidence to travel to the US. The track recently achieved a big goal which went unnoticed when it got a change of zoning for large sections of the 1,155-acre venue. It can now start investing in new facilities and activities to broaden the appeal and become more of a tourist hub, including a non-racing entertainment park for kids, a water park, more indoor and outdoor sports facilities, convention and retail space, condominiums and a private motorsport club, with garaging for cars. At the centre of the project is an 11-storey hotel that can be expanded in the future to more than 500 rooms. It all sounds very exciting…
What other scribbles are there? I have heard in recent days of a documentary that will be launched soon about former FIA President Max Mosley, which will tell his story. “Mosley: It’s Complicated” will cover many subjects including his family background, his racing career, his work with the FIA and the spanking of media conglomerates that followed titillating revelations in the News of the World. One can only wonder what certification the film will have.
There is also whispers of a similar project about Bernie Ecclestone…
In the F1 world one is never far from someone famous, even if one is stuck in the media cage. The media may not be allowed in the paddock to do its job, but the justification for such restriction is becoming increasingly untenable. I’d like the Granollers Debating Society to take on the discussion: In a media sport, is a cleaning lady more essential than the media? I am sure that they would get into the definition of “essential”. Last weekend I spotted Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the chairman and chief executive officer of Ineos. He’s a team shareholder at Mercedes, so one can argue that owners are essential. Based on my experience of some of these people, I would argue that they are not really essential at all, as most have no clue how to make a team successful. I’ve seen Susie Wolff in the Paddock in the past but she can be justified as a wife of an owner, as these days wives have as much right to ownership of an F1 team as a husband does, unless there is a prenup.
If we are looking to discover the secret owner of Williams we should perhaps investigate two new leads: Geri Horner (formerly of The Spice Girls) was in Barcelona and her hubby Christian is definitely not an F1 team owner, so I’m not sure why his wife is allowed in and FC Barcelona’s French striker Antoine Griezmann doesn’t seem a likely team owner, but he was wandering around too. Who knows, maybe he (and Geri) are planning to build an F1 circuit in Lesotho, an essential thing because everyone thinks a race in Africa is just a splendid idea.
One can have endless flights of fancy about Formula 1 and given the access problem, imaginations have been quite active. I loved last week’s announcement that Penske Racing is going into partnership (again) with Porsche to compete in the acronymous LMDh class in sports car racing. They are going to set up a European operation to run the racing on this side of The Pond. Wouldn’t it be great if Roger then decided to help boost F1 in America by using this as a future headquarters for Porsche and Penske in F1. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s ridiculous… but why not? Roger’s only 84… and he’ll get bored once they have won Le Mans.
Another octagenarian who we should keep an eye on is John Malone, the owner of the Formula 1 group through his Liberty Media. He has his fingers in a lot pies. Last week, the FIA forgot to mention this when it announced that they had found a promoter for the FIA Electric GT Championship, which will be launched in 2023. The series, they declared would be promoted by the media company Discovery Inc’s events management division, Eurosport Events, following a competitive tender process.
Discovery Inc. is a publicly-traded company, but such entities can (and are) controlled by people. Discovery is effectively run by Liberty Global, another of Malone’s companies. Liberty Global also owns a significant shareholding in Formula E Holdings…
So when it comes to merging championships and so on in the future, one man will make the decisions (if he’s still going). And one suspects that the FIA, which relies on funding from its commercial rights-holders, will cut the best deal possible, while also saying (quietly) “Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir…”
Anyway, after a good snooze in Authezat, I hit the road again and, feeling refreshed, was home in time for dinner… at a sensible French hour.