Sunday was one of those lovely happy days that Formula 1 has from time to time when almost everyone is happy to see a new and (sometimes) unlikely winner. We had that in 2017 in Sochi when Valtteri Bottas won his first victory and then in 2019 with Charles Leclerc. Last year we were spoiled with Pierre Gasly and Sergio Perez and, oh so very nearly, George Russell.
I was delighted with Esteban Ocon’s win for a number of reasons. Firstly, he’s always been a good bloke and F1 has not changed him at all. Secondly, he’s not had an easy path in his career. And thirdly, as readers may know I live in Normandy and so my two “local” F1 drivers are Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon. It is also where Alpine was first established (in Dieppe). Regulars will know that I love to find out the intricacies of racing history and Alpine is a great story.
The firm was founded by Jean Rédélé in the late 1940s. He converted Renault 4CVs into rally cars for his own benefit initially and then expanded to sell the cars to customers and to produce road car models. What few people know is that the links to Renault are even stronger than that because Jean’s father Emile was one of the very first Renault employees at Boulogne-Billancourt, and he was Ferenc Szisz’s mechanic in the very first Grand Prix de l’ACF at Le Mans in 1906. Emile decided to start a taxi business in Dieppe after World War I and Louis Renault himself asked him to become a Renault dealer.
Now a Dane will tell you that Normans are all descended from the Vikings (as the name North Man suggests) and if you go back 13 centuries you can discover that yes, it is true. The Vikings were pretty good at rape and pillage and they not only burned down Rouen but also beseiged Paris on a couple of occasions. In the end the first Duke of Normandy was Rollo, a Viking raider. William the Conqueror was a descendant.
If you happen to be driving down the A13 motorway near Rouen, you may see a large metal monument with a globe and arrows going in different directions. You can find it as you pass Sotteville-sous-le-Val. This was erected in 1990 and was by the sculptor Georges Saulterre. It is called “Sur les traces des Vikings” (which translates as “In the footsteps of the Vikings”).
At the bottom of the hill you might also see a kart track next to the motorway. It is called the Circuit de l’Europe and it is significant because this was where Pierre and Esteban first began competing. When they were nine they were best buddies.
Now, the two are both Grand Prix winners and this caused French TV commentator Julien Fébreau to get VERY excited. He’s already famous for going completely crazy when Gasly won at Monza last year and as Ocon crossed the line in Budapest Fébreau was screaming again. There’s nothing like enthusiasm – and he has it by the bucketload.
The naysayers of social media always find fault in everything and say that it was all down to luck, or whatever. But it has to be said that Esteban drove a stunning race, free from error and under intense pressure all the way from Sebastian Vettel, a four-time World Champion. It was a day when it was easier to get things wrong than to get things right and Ocon got it all right. If you listen to what other drivers said you will see that Ocon is a popular fellow, with Vettel, Hamilton and Alonso all singing his praises. He has made it to F1 from very humble beginnings and has been completely unchanged by the experience.
It is a great story if you don’t know it already. Esteban’s parents moved to France in the 1980s, when they were in their late teens. His father was Spanish and his mother of Algerian descent and they settled in Evreux, in Normandy, where his dad worked as a mechanic and built up a small garage business. Esteban is named after a cartoon character that his mother loved from a TV series called “Esteban, Child of the Sun” in the original Japanese version but “Les Mystérieuses Cités d’Or” (The Mysterious Cities of Gold) when dubbed in French. Esteban went to search of lost cities in the New World…
The Ocons stumbled into racing by accident when Esteban was a very small boy. He loved driving microkarts and it quickly became obvious that he was very good.
They bought a kart from a family who lived 40 miles away in Rouen. Their name was Gasly. The kart had belonged to Pierre’s brother. So Pierre and Esteban would meet on Wednesdays and at weekends, when there was no school, and they would hammer around the Circuit de l’Europe.
As they grew up things became more serious and the Ocons literally sold everything to give Esteban a chance. They won a lot with little money, but they lived in a caravan and they got their tyres by picking up what bigger teams had thrown away.
In 2009, when Esteban was 12, he was spotted by an aspiring racing entrepreneur with the unusual name of Gwen Lagrue, who was pals with the new Lotus F1 team principal Eric Boullier. Eric was beginning to build a stable of young drivers under the Gravity Management banner and so they took on Ocon and found some money to help him, but in the KF3 World Cup in Braga in 2010 Pierre and Esteban had a crash that ended their friendship. Pierre became best mates with another youngster called Charles Leclerc…
With money from Lotus things were fine and in 2013 Ocon was hooked up with ART to race in Formula Renault. The following year he switched to Prema Racing in Formula 3 and won the title first time out. But then things went wrong. Lotus was running out of money and Boullier moved to McLaren. Suddenly there was no budget for Ocon to move up to GP3.
Fred Vasseur came to his rescue at this point, although it was not perhaps as altruistic as that sounds because ART didn’t have a driver capable of fighting for the GP3 title. The car carried almost no sponsorship but Ocon won the title at his first attempt. This led to him becoming a Mercedes driver. To understand that one needs to know about Vasseur and Toto Wolff. They may be rival team principals these days (although it is a bit of a one-sided contest) but they go back 15 years, to when Wolff first bought a stake in AMG, which was supplying Mercedes Formula 3 engines to Vasseur’s ASM.
The two men hit it off, sharing a passion for winning races and making money. They enjoyed huge success in Formula 3 with the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Paul di Resta and then after the team became ART with Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg and Jules Bianchi. Wolff was also part of the management of Valtteri Bottas when the Finn raced for ART in 2009 and won the GP3 title for Vasseur in 2010. By then Wolff had bought into Williams and Bottas became reserve driver. Later ART would also run a team in DTM for Mercedes. If you dig deep enough you find that when Wolff got married in 2011 one of his witnesses was a certain F Vasseur. And the pair also ended up using the same apartment in Oxford for a while when Toto was running Mercedes and Vasseur was at Enstone. The pair are close and one might perhaps ask whether this will end up being part of why Bottas will likely end up at Alfa Romeo in 2022.
The story of Alfa Romeo in Budapest was at best a total disaster. There were penalties aplenty and Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi ended up 11th and 14th on a day when points were up for grabs in the most dramatic fashion. The opportunity was completely lost. But it actually got worse as night fell because Sebastian Vettel’s disqualification meant that while Raikkonen picked up a point for 10th, the team’s situation dived because the two Williams drivers moved from eighth and ninth to seventh and eighth and the team doubled its points from five to 10. This means that Alfa Romeo will need to score eight points (at least) in the rest of the year to be eighth in the Constructors’ Championship (the usual position). Given that they have managed just three points in the first 11 races that is going to be a real cliff to climb in the second 11. And if the team ends up ninth, the prize money will be significantly reduced, despite the investment and expansion that Hinwil has seen in the last few years. It is clearly something that is frustrating Raikkonen, as after the British Grand Prix when his engineer suggested he could have been 10th without a collision with Sergio Perez, Kimi replied: “Maybe, or maybe we need to make the car fast, it’s simple. It’s impossible to fight against them. Same this. Same that. And try to fight with the other cars. Come on, we’ve got to wake up and do something.”
In theory, Alfa Romeo has both seats open next year but there are multiple repliable sources saying that Bottas is close to signing a deal. That means Raikkonen won’t be staying. Giovinazzi is the only Italian driver in F1 and dumping him would be troublesome for Alfa Romeo, particularly as he has not done a bad job. But Alfa Romeo no longer has the right to nominate a driver. Ferrari doesn’t either, but it would be wise for the Swiss team to stay sweet with its engine supplier, which appears to be getting much closer to Haas these days. Still, there is a Ferrari deal in place for some years to come.
Having said that, in F1 a contract is always something that can be negotiated away. A switch to Renault power is an option in the longer term, which Renault would like as it is lining up good youngsters and has nowhere to put them.
In the short-term, it would probably help if Alfa Romeo went with a Ferrari youngster: Giovinazzi is one, so are reserve driver Callum Ilott and Russia’s Robert Shwartzman, the last-named being highly-regarded at Maranello.
Vasseur may well argue that the team should take a risk and go for something a little different. Theo Pourchaire has almost got enough points to get a superlicence – and he’s testing an Alfa Romeo this week. He turns 18, the minimum age for a superlicence these days, on August 20.
He’s not really ready for F1 yet, but seats are few and far between and so the team might think that Pourchaire is a risk worth taking. If you see the impact that running Charles Leclerc had on the team a few years back, it might be an option to galvanise the staff. And it might help Renault get Pourchaire into its stable, which would be an incentive for a big French firm. The driver decision is due at Monza, after the summer break.
But, in the short term, a fast car is really what is required…
The other team with a seat that’s really available (as opposed to being available in theory, like the second Red Bull, the second Mercedes and so on) is Williams. Nicholas Latifi has a contract for next year and so the opportunities for others are rather limited. The team says it doesn’t yet know if George Russell is leaving, but there are a lot of people trying hard to get the team’s attention. One man who was much in evidence in the paddock in Budapest was Nyck de Vries, the Mercedes Formula E driver and an F1 reserve. He is keen to find a ride in a Mercedes-engined team and is being talked about as a possible Williams driver, but he was also to be found chatting in a serious fashion with Aston Martin types in Hungary. One man who we know won’t be at Williams next year is Dan Ticktum, who has been released from his contract in recent days. Don’t hold out any hopes for Roy Nissany, Jack Aitken (who broke his collarbone and fractured some vertebrae in a big shunt in the Spa 24 Hours last weekend) or Jamie Chadwick.
I did hear a whisper that there might be some major excitements at Aston Martin over the summer break, but I do not know any more – although the source was good. I wouldn’t mention it otherwise…
Anyway, that is the main action noted in the green book from Budapest, with a few nuggets added.
On Sunday evening French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted congratulations to Ocon, having learned after Gasly’s win in Monza last year that trying to contact a race winner in F1 by mobile is really a waste of time. Macron was delighted that Ocon and Alpine had both become winners. The French government, by the way, still owns a significant share in Renault.
Politicians love F1 when things go right for them, but getting more involved is never a great idea. And vice-versa. After Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel protested about new laws being proposed in Hungary, the country’s Minister of Justice Judit Varga was obviously not impressed.
“I have seen that sadly Lewis Hamilton is joining the manufacturers of international fake news by attacking our child protection law,” she said. A shoe-maker should stick to making shoes – and a F1 driver should stick to driving.”
Varga says that the law is being introduced to prevent child abuse and to stop LGBT indoctrination.
“I suggest that Lewis Hamilton read the Hungarian Child Protection Act,” she added.
One hopes that he and Sebastian already have.
The sport has enough politics of its own without getting involved with real world controversies, which inevitably end up with this kind of response from politicians. One can only wonder what F1 teams and drivers would say if a government minister suggested set-up changes that might be made to make cars go faster…
When it comes to F1’s politics, the FIA President Jean Todt recently suggested that there might be more candidates in the presidential election that is due later this year.
“The closing date is sometime in October,” he told media at the French Grand Prix, “so there is still time.”
This was perplexing because the system is such that it is very difficult to find the necessary representatives required to create an election “ticket” because of the requirement to have people from different regions and from both touring and sport clubs. Todt knows that this is the case and so the suggestion that there might be another candidate was interesting because that would require one or other of the contenders to withdraw. It is no secret that in some FIA circles the choice on offer is not generating much excitement, but is there enough to create an earthquake?
Much news these days is about the calendar – not 2022, but 2021. It is a complete nightmare as F1 tries to find another 12 races that will fit together with one another, with the complex (and changing) government restrictions, with red lists and quarantine requirements. It is fairly pointless speculating at the moment because nothing can be decided before August 10 when there will be a decision about Japan, after the Olympic Games is over. After that, dominoes will start to fall. I could go into complex speculation about all of this but I see no point. I do expect to see a race in Qatar this year and I would suggest that the most likely date is November 21 because when there are new races on the F1 calendar there are generally free weekends before and afterwards to make sure that there are no problems with customs authorities and so on. What I do hear, however, is that with Qatar paying a LOT of money, F1 might not need to have 23 races to hit its financial goals.
It is also worth noting that Circuit of the Americas (COTA) promoter Bobby Epstein was in Hungary on his second visit to a European race in recent months. Epstein is negotiating a new long-term deal for COTA – and discussing whether or not there could be a second Formula 1 race this year, with the United States Grand Prix, scheduled for October 24. The suggestion is that there could be a second Grand Prix of the Americas on October 17, but that could only happen if the Japanese Grand Prix drops off the F1 schedule.
But that would also create problems for the Turkish Grand Prix as the country is on Britain’s Red List which would mean another race in a non-red list country would be needed afterwards to avoid all the British-based F1 personnel being put into expensive government-regulated hotels for 10 days on their return to the UK. No-one is going to agree to do that… although one might suppose that to avoid such a thing staff could be given paid holidays in low-risk places… No, you’re right, that’s not very likely, is it?
And would it be included in the budget cap?
I drove for a day and a half to get home from Budapest, which gave me plenty of time to consider the options. I reached no conclusions because it is impossible to do so. One can only come up with possible outcomes: Plans A to Z. And you need always to think about the weather as well.
The recent weeks have been awful in Europe, with constant rain and devastating flooding in places. The run from Budapest, heading home to France, was pretty nice until I got to the Rhine. I crossed the river near Speyer and rain began to fall as I climbed up the hill to go through the Pfälzerwald, the forested area between the Rhineland and the French border at Saarbrucken, where the US military has a big presence. It’s a pretty bleak area on a wet day. It was not a fun moment because there are always dangerous idiots who are driving without lights in the spray, or others who think that it is logical to be going 60km/h in the fast lane in such conditions. When it comes to road safety, the world still has a lot to do.
As the rains began to fall, the German radio station I was listening to decided to play “Love is all around”, by Wet Wet Wet, which seemed entirely appropriate. German radio stations love to play 1980s hits endlessly and so I drove through the October weather listening to the likes of Tina Turner, Supertramp and James Taylor, with the occasional local hit, although most of these sound like the awful British football team singalongs that used to be produced before big matches.
The rain continued right through to the French border at a place they call Goldene Bremme, named after a tavern on the old road.
I didn’t see blue skies until I reached the Argonne Forest, a scenic spot to the west of Verdun. Once this was famed for its highwaymen and later for violent battles during World War I.
And, of course, there was a racing circuit there too. But that’s another story…