I cannot tell you where it was exactly, but as soon as I heard that Max Mosley had died I peeled off the motorway into one of the rest areas that the French call aires and took out my computer. I have rather a lot of folders of biographies of F1 people and so I can pull together something quite quickly when these things are required. And with the magic of 4G it was up on the Internet on the other side of the world not long after I accelerated back on to the Autoroute de Soleil (which translates as The Motorway of the Sun).
It wasn’t the first obituary I have written in a service area, and it probably won’t be the last.
I didn’t get home until about 10pm, after 14 hours on the road from Monaco. This was way longer than it should take, but Monday was a French national holiday, the end of a three-day weekend known in France as Pentecôte, or Whitsun in English. It was also the first weekend when some of France’s lockdown restrictions were lifted. This meant that millions of French people took an extra day off work before and/or after the break and had a mini-holiday, which meant that the roads were crammed with people with the inevitable result being that there were traffic jams, particularly as the weather was changeable. And so the journey took much longer than it should. This happens every year but this seemed a little more than usual. It meant that one is often travelling en accordion, a lovely French expression to describe traffic that squeezes up and expands like an accordion. These ebbs and flows eventually create blockages that exist for no reason at all. If you remember last year’s Tuscan Grand Prix you could see that in action in Formula 1.
This usually means someone will run into the back of someone else and then everything stops and in an effort to avoid this the authorities imposed slower speed limits on the motorways in the hope that people would drive at a constant pace. Yeah, right…
In the end the reports on motorway radio (107.7) of traffic jams ahead going into Paris led to a decision to do something different on a road called the A19 that zips west to the south of Paris. In a perfect world this would then link up with a fast road up to Rouen, but the plans to have that all up and running in 2020 seem quite a way from reality. Still, I’d rather be moving and drive further than sitting in traffic jams en accordion.
I had plenty of time to think on my long ride home and it struck me that in days of old Monaco was always on the weekend of Ascension Day, which is why the Friday is a day off, and a week later Pau took place on the Pentecôte weekend, so many teams and drivers would go from one to the other.
Pau is one of the great events, dating back to the early 1930s, when they copied the Monaco idea of racing around a town and created a fantastic event, which used to be one of the highlights of the season. Pau has been a victim of F1 to some extent. Originally it was an F1 race but in the 1950s it became one of the big Formula 2 races. In 1998, when the then Formula 3000 linked up with F1, Pau was left out. It switched to Formula 3 for some years before an unsuccessful phase with the World Touring Championship and a return to Formula 3 until 2018 when Formula 3 was also hoovered up by Formula 1. The last Pau GP in 2019 was held for the Euroformula Open Championship, but since then the last two events have been cancelled because of the pandemic and although there are plans to revive the event in 2022, the future is less than certain.
The Ascension-Whitsun double-header stopped some years ago, when the Automobile Club of Monaco agreed to move off its traditional event if required, because F1 needed more flexibility with the calendar. Getting the ACM to change anything is not easy, which one can see from the Monaco TV coverage as this is now the only event left that is not covered by F1’s own TV crews and relies on the locals. This is why the TV coverage was not very good this year. Obviously the locals don’t have as much experience as the F1 crews.
This is one aspect of the sport that is always frustrating because Monaco may be the most glamorous and exciting race of the year, but the working conditions always seem to end up exasperating those involved.
“I am always glad to come to Monaco each year,” said a French colleague. “…but unfortunately I am always happy to leave.”
Why? Because it is isn’t like the other Grands Prix and, to be quite frank, it is not as well organised. There are a myriad of things that are nearly right – but not quite. Monaco is always about “You cannot do this” and “You cannot do that”. Often it is because the people saying “Non” have been told the wrong thing by a superior who doesn’t have a clue and while the staff do their best and are generally helpful and courteous, there are always problems. It is never a good idea to mention such shortcomings to the ACM because they always seem to think that no-one in the world knows how to organise a Grand Prix as well as they do – and how dare anyone suggest that they are not perfect.
It is all very silly stuff, usually involving the ACM or the local police. The Safety Car was stopped and ordered off the public road this year because it did not have a suitable number plate. I had to laugh when I saw a security person using a metal detector on a Formula 1 driver, blissfully unaware that Sergio Perez is not about to blow up the paddock. The Monaco bomb squad was much in evidence, although they never seemed to be doing much apart from getting in the way. If they ever do find a bomb, I’m running in the other direction…
The Accreditation Centre was another small and silly example. It was located on a busy road in Monte Carlo, without any possibility of parking. The entire district was filled with posses of flustered F1 folk trying to find a way to pick up a pass.
This year, apparently because of the pandemic, they changed the location of the media parking – no big deal – except that there were no signs anywhere because the ACM assumes that everyone knows where everything is.
In the end everyone finds workarounds to make the whole thing more efficient and so this year, we took to going to the paddock area each morning walking through dank tunnels under the famous palace. It wasn’t quite the glamorous Monaco you read about and every morning I had a good giggle as I tramped through this grotty grotto…
In the end these annoyances did not ruin my weekend because I was constantly happy as a result of the F1 written media finally being allowed back into the paddock for the first time since Australia last year. We were able to talk to people we’d not been able to chat to for almost a year, and to meet new arrivals in the sport, of which there have been a few. Ross Brawn remarked that he couldn’t remember the last time I asked him a question and I bit my tongue to stop myself saying: “it’s not my fault we were barred from the paddock”, but in the end it was something to celebrate and not complain about. We can do our jobs properly again. And it is a joy to be back in contact with the rest of the F1 village. It’s these quiet discussions that produce the good stories, the whispers to chase and to consider.
I quickly picked up a wonderful story that had been missed because of lack of contact with the movers and shakers in F1. Back in April it was announced in the newspapers in the Südtirol that there was going to be a Grand Prix there in 2022. This was not picked up internationally at all…
The Südtirol is one of Europe’s odd places – a bit like Monaco – which has been left behind by history. It is in the very north of Italy, in the shadow of the Alps, where the Italians speak German as well as Italian because at some point they were ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Because languages are useful in F1, there are quite a few Südtirolers in F1 and one – Guenther Steiner – was behind the story. The newspaper said that there would be a street race around Steiner’s home city of Merano and here was a track map, a logo and a photograph of Steiner shaking hands on a deal with F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, who knows the region well.
It was all there, front page news, on April 1.
It was good to see that the bosses of F1 can have some fun…
There’s not much fun going on at Alfa Romeo at the moment, although Monaco saw the team score a point for the first time this year. The word in Monaco is that there will be important meetings regarding the future of Alfa Romeo as the sponsor of Sauber in the next few days, and also whispers of discussions of what might happen if that deal is not extended. The obvious thing to do if the Alfa Romeo money stops coming is for the team to try to do a deal with Renault. There was talk some months ago that the team would renew its engine supply deal with Ferrari until the new engine formula begins in 2025, but trying to cut a deal with Renault makes more sense in many ways.
The French manufacturer currently gets technical feedback only from its own factory team, which is a disadvantage, and it also lacks political clout for the same reason. Renault might not want to provide money for another team, but it could reduce Sauber’s costs in exchange for the team taking on some of Renault’s young drivers. There are rather a lot of them at the moment and they are piling up (en accordion?) behind Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon. The list currently includes China’s Guanyu Zhou, Denmark’s Christian Lundgaard and Australian Oscar Piastri, who are all in Formula 2, and Brazil’s Caio Collet and France’s Victor Martins in Formula 3.
Sauber also has a young driver deal with Monaco F2 Theo Pourchaire, who turns 18 in August, and looks like being a special driver. This might be an attraction for Alpine as it would give them another French rising star.
One should also consider the possibility that the team might attract Pierre Gasly, as there is little to be gained from him staying at Scuderia AlphaTauri. Pierre no longer fits into the ethos of AlphaTauri, which exists to develop young talent for Red Bull. It would also solve Red Bull’s problem of having five drivers for four seats, with Max Verstappen staying on at Red Bull Racing with Sergio Perez and Yuki Tsunoda pairing up with… Alex Albon.
A break with Alfa Romeo is quite likely, unless the company’s new boss Jean-Philippe Imparato thinks it is worth it. Perhaps there is some logic in developing Alfa Romeo’s image in F1, but doing that with a Ferrari engine doesn’t make a lot of sense. Besides, all future Alfa Romeos will be electrified, with either full battery electric or plug-in hybrid power-trains and it makes no sense for Alfa Romeo to invest in an F1 powertrain until 2025 at the earliest.
Given the lack of success at Sauber you would think that taking over the team might make sense but when you look at the numbers involved it really doesn’t. Sauber’s biggest problem is that it is based in Switzerland, an expensive place to do business. And here’s a fascinating fact: the average salary in Switzerland is 112,228 CHF, which these days equates to $125,096 with the current rate of exchange. In recent years the team at Hinwil has expanded from around 300 people to 500 – although the results have not improved a great deal.
This means that costs have risen significantly while revenues have not. With the F1 budget cap Sauber is going to have a salary bill that will use up a big percentage of the available budget. We don’t know the exact numbers but lots of F1 folk are paid more than the average salary in their country and if you multiply the average by the size of the staff you realise that it’s a really big problem. A significant chunk of the team’s remaining budget goes to Ferrari, which provides the entire drive-train, including the gearbox and the rear suspension, although some of this cost is believed to be offset by the team’s acceptance of a Ferrari-nominated driver.
One cannot imagine that Alfa Romeo would want to buy into such a situation and so other solutions are needed.
And at this point I admit that I’m wandering off into speculation but it is interesting to note that Alpine recently went into an alliance with Lotus to develop an electric sports vehicle in the future. Lotus is owned these days by the Chinese giant Geely, which seems to have big ambitions for the brand, to transform the range of cars and to expand into other vehicle segments, while remaining true to the company’s DNA. Part of this strategy is to raise the company’s profile and be a more global company with China and the US as its primary markets. Geely has already invested heavily in the firm and has added 670 people at Hethel in recent years, with plans for another 250. It strikes me that if Lotus is looking for promotion and to build on its DNA, a Formula 1 project would be perfect and one in league with Alpine makes sense. We will see, but if I was Laurent Rossi, I’d be on the phone to the Chinese telling them all about the opportunities at Sauber, using Alpine F1 technology and taking on a properly quick Chinese driver, which Alpine happens to have…
It is clear that Sauber would need to slim down but Geely could probably find a use for the Swiss organisation’s road car activities. And, of course, it would give F1 a boost with a proper racing brand coming back to the fold. And, why not paint the cars black and gold as well…
All that is needed is a Chunky Chapman-like figure to breathe some life into the team.
Anyway, the only real question on the driver market at the moment after Ocon and Alpine is what happens next with Valtteri Bottas. There has been much speculation in recent weeks that Mercedes may decide that it now needs to promote George Russell into the main team to prepare him for a leading role in the future.
Lewis Hamilton is now 36, but is showing no signs of slowing down, while 31-year-old Bottas will not want to give up on having a winning car, but might see the logic in moving elsewhere to emerge from the shadow of Hamilton. It is a little known fact that last year Valtteri came close to signing for Renault, but he lost out when the company’s top bosses decided to go with Alonso.
Mercedes could decide to keep the Hamilton-Bottas partnership, but with Lewis’s long-term future unclear, they might also want to bring on Russell so that he is fully integrated into the operation before Hamilton decides to retire.
This might destabilise the team, but Mercedes has managed difficult driver line-ups before (think Hamilton-Rosberg) and might decide to take Russell. That would leave Bottas looking for a job, although he could find a place at Aston Martin, if Sebastian Vettel does not continue with the form shown in Monaco. It is not likely that team owner Lawrence Stroll will shift his own son out of the team – unless there is a better drive available – but for the moment Lance has still not done enough to have the big teams beating down the door to get to him.
Hamilton is perhaps a little unpredictable with regard to the future but he is driving better than ever and is clearly enjoying what he does, although Monaco was a blow. This year he could win a record eighth World Championship but then might want to take on the challenge of winning the most FIA World Championships of any driver in history, a record that Sébastien Loeb holds, having won nine World Rally Championship titles in the course of his career. I cannot see why he wouldn’t sign another one-year deal to see how Mercedes does with the new rules in 2022 and then decide on a suitable career path. We say that no individual is bigger than the sport and that the sport goes on as each generation moves onward and this remains true but it is worth noting Hamilton’s Twitter following is now at 6.3 million, more than twice the size of Scuderia Ferrari’s Twitter army of three million. It is an even bigger gap on Instagram where Lewis has 22.4m followers and Ferrari has only 6.4m.
Formula 1, by the way, has 5.7 million followers on Twitter and 13.3 million on Instagram, which goes to show that in social media terms an individual can be bigger than a sport…