Having no defined plan beyond a lunch on Tuesday “somewhere between Antwerp and Hasselt”, I set off on Monday morning from the place I was staying near Malmedy with no destination in mind. It had been a long, long night, working to finish various publications and I would happily have retired to bed, but as I couldn’t stay in the hotel I decided to see where Fate took me, beginning with a tour around the Spa circuit to see the carnage that had been created over of the weekend – and to work out which roads had been closed, so that in future I know all the rat runs on a Grand Prix weekend. One could tell from the steel barriers and attached road signs – that had yet to be collected up but had been pushed aside – which roads could have been used. And, no doubt, it will be the same next year.
The traffic jams had been bad at Spa all weekend, but early morning starts and knowing a few tricks had meant there were no real problems until Sunday morning when I arrived to find access from Malmedy jammed at 07.15. The Belgian police force does not command much love and affection in F1 circles, but on this occasion one officer came to my rescue, having noticed my F1 Personnel parking pass on the windscreen. He created space enough for me to squeeze through to a closed turn-off and then moved some bollards to let me past. I was surprised, but very thankful as he saved me hours of sitting in a jam for no reason, when there was work that needed to be done.
At the nearby checkpoint before Burnenville they told me not to even try to go up the normal road to the circuit because there was a mud bath and everything was blocked. It would take hours to get through to the media parking.
So it was time to get creative and I tried various ploys to get into the correct parking area. After being turned away at my first attempt I embarked on an entertaining rally stage on a gravel road and found my way to Francorchamps village, and the job was done. All that was required before I started bashing the computer keys was to nip down to the test centre for a quick nasal rape and then I was being productive again.
Others journalists drifted gradually in, each with stories to tell of their adventures.
An hour spent touring around on Monday seemed a sensible investment for the future. I slipped and slithered through muddy places and bounced along rocky roads but learned a great deal, and then I went a little further afield looking for places where it might be good to stay in the future. This led me gradually to the north where I began to see evidence of the recent flooding in the Vesdre valley and its tributaries. More than 40 people were killed when intense storms drenched these hills in July. To give you an idea, there were 10.69 inches of rain in a 48 hour period in the Jalhay district, next to Spa, an all-time record for Belgium. Spa recorded 8.5 inches. During the race weekend I bought a booklet about the floods, in part because the money was going to help rebuild the area. To give you an idea about the flooding, there was one photo in the booklet which showed a 40-ft steel shipping container on top of cars outside a Peugeot dealership in Verviers. This container had come from seven miles up the river in Eupen and had been washed over, under or through a number of bridges.
In the end, I found myself in some of the areas which had been hardest hit. I’ve never seen anything like it. Six weeks after the floods there were still crushed cars, smashed buildings and road surfaces that had been torn away by the flood water. Along the river the branches of the trees that had not been torn off were draped in flotsam and jetsam, like strange Christmas tree decorations.
Many roads were still closed but it was a sobering experience.
Mother Nature is a very troublesome and dangerous woman. In my column in GP+ magazine in the Spa issue, I included a picture of Glenn Close from the movie Fatal Attraction, attacking Michael Douglas with a knife. I used this because I was trying to explain what Spa is like. I’ve been coming to races here for 35 years and some of the moments I have spent here have produced magical memories.
“For many racing folk Spa and Monza are the celestial cities,” I wrote. “The perfect places where you see drivers at their very best. It is a place of highs and lows because with the thrills of Spa, one must also accept the darker side of the sport. On a good day Spa is warm and seductive, on a bad day it leaps chillingly out of the wardrobe with a knife, or boils your pet bunny. When you set off for Spa you pack shorts and heavy jackets, sunglasses and gumboots. But, early in the morning, with the pine forests clothed in a sunny mist and the sound of engines cutting through the still air from the distant hillsides, it seems like the most wonderful place to be.”
The muddy fields and abandoned vehicles I saw on Monday attested to the struggles that went on beyond the circuit fences. In time, I am sure, the fans who lived through this will be happy telling stories about how they were there to see the 2021 disaster. Those who were naive enough to suggest that the fans should be given their money back, do not perhaps understand that if that was to be the case, the future of Spa would be placed in financial jeopardy, which could mean that we would lose the track from F1 forever. Even if those who earn money from the ticket sales, directly or indirectly, agree to pay 4.5 percent of their annual salaries (representing one of the 22 races), the track would still be left with the bills that would have to be paid for the preparations for the event. We know that Lewis Hamilton is a generous fellow, so perhaps he could start the ball rolling by handing over a couple of million which some argue he did not properly earn at the weekend. You see, it’s a complicated business asking for refunds. And Alfa Romeo, which made similar crowd-pleasing noises, might not be happy to hand back the millions they will eventually take home from Spa…
On Sunday it was anything but wonderful, but what happened could not really have been otherwise. I think the FIA handled things very well, but I understand – as they also do – that the outcome was anything but perfect. There were no other options. Now, in the aftermath, rules can be tweaked so that if there are ever similar conditions, there will be a better route to take, but it was what it was. Imperfect and unsatisfying. And we all felt for the fans, who were the ones who really suffered.
With a car well-caked in mud, I set off for a drab lunch in a drab Liege and then headed north, passing a closed section of motorway that was piled high as far as I could see with debris from the flooding. I headed up towards Zolder, but I didn’t stop. I was feeling rather weary and so pulled into a motorway rest area and had a snooze and then visited booking.com in search of a place to stay on Monday night. I ended up in town called Westerlo, for no reason other than the hotel looking nice enough.
Westerlo is in the Flemish part of Belgium, in a region that the locals call De Kempen and the Walloons call the Campine. It’s a flat area with much heathland, pine forest and soggy marshes. The soil is sandy and not very useful for farming. This region became a place where the local big wigs built big castles and monks settled to pray and brew beer. Before the invention of TV, everyone had time to dream up bizarre folklore, including the bokkenrijders, who were brigands who rode through the sky on flying goats (Yeehah!), and legendary gnomes called kabouters, who were led by a king called Kyrië. The kabouters helped the local farmers, while the bokkenrijders ran what amounted to a protection racket.
Don’t you love folklore?
Westerlo also featured a rather grand castle, owned by the de Merode family. The name seemed familiar and I remembered that Prince de Merode was an FIA President back in the 1970s. The family was also related by marriage to the de Vogüé family, who also had an FIA President at one point. That was how it was done in that time…
It’s a bit different these days.
The green notebook from Spa had very little in it because the press is not being allowed to enter motorhomes and that makes life rather difficult because people don’t want to come out and chat on rainy weekends. It’s frustrating to see how some folks don’t abide by the protocols, but insist that others do, which is the sort of hypocrisy that one sees in politics… If there is one rule for one group of people, there should be one rule for everyone.
The media in F1 are not super-spreaders and have been far better-behaved than many others.
The news that Sergio Perez has re-signed for Red Bull is effectively a confirmation that George Russell is going to Mercedes – and that Valtteri Bottas will likely end up at Alfa Romeo. Even if they won’t say it out loud, Red Bull would grab Russell in a heartbeat if they thought he was available, as he is out of contract at Williams. If Mercedes didn’t want him, George would be available… so you can assume that it is only a matter of time until that news breaks. I have been sure of this for several months.
Bottas could, in theory, go back to Williams but it would probably not pay as well as Alfa Romeo and would, in any case, be a step backwards for him, while joining a manufacturer-backed team is enough of a fig leaf to protect Valtteri’s delicate sensibilities, if there are any. That was effectively what Kimi Raikkonen did when Ferrari shunted him out to Alfa Romeo…
So, that leaves the question of what Williams does for a replacement for George and what Alfa Romeo does about its second driver. There is no doubt that Fred Vasseur would like to see Theo Pourchaire in the team, but it is still a bit early for the young Frenchman and so the second seat at Alfa Romeo may need a stop-gap for a year, which would mean that Giovinazzi might not be a bad idea. The team needs to focus on building a good car for 2022 rather than worrying about drivers, because finishing ninth in the Constructors Chmapionship having invested a pile of money is really not awfully impressive. Team owners don’t like such things.
Still the investment will probably work out OK in the end as the budget cap has meant that the teams now have much more value that once they did. More of that in a minute. Let’s finish the drivers first…
Williams is believed to have been talking to Perez (again) about 2022 with the Mexican hedging his bets in case Red Bull decided not to keep him, but now he’s gone, Williams need to think carefully. Latifi is there next year and team boss Jost Capito said that what the team wants is to decide on whether they want experience or potential, but added that the key deciding factor is that the driver will fit with Williams’s long-term thinking. I took this to mean that they want youngsters around which to build a great future.
What is not widely known is that just before the Belgian Grand Prix, Nicholas Latifi had a COVID-19 test that was unclear and while the Canadian had to go through the process of more tests to get the all clear, Williams needed to look into replacing him for Spa.
The word is that the first choice to take the role for the weekend was Alex Albon, currently Red Bull’s reserve driver, who has immediate experience in one of the top F1 teams. With Perez staying there at Red Bull in 2022, the Austrian drinks company has nothing worth for Albon that is worth having, unless they change AlphaTauri, which is not likely. Thus Albon has little reason to stay with Red Bull if there are other options available. This was shown when he turned up at the recent IndyCar race in Indianapolis, where there were rumours that he might take over Romain Grosjean’s drive when the Frenchman moves to Andretti in 2022.
The other point to consider is that Russell will no doubt vouch for his friend Albon if Williams asks who is the best choice for the team. George knows how good Alex is… Nyck de Vries might also be under consideration by Williams but his long-term future would be linked to Mercedes, not to Williams, so Nyck’s not quite what Capito said he was looking for.
If I was making decisions at Williams I don’t think I would sit around waiting for things to happen, and I doubt that Capito is really doing that. Right now, oddly, no-one is talking about the obvious choice for a team looking for a young driver. Oscar Piastri is an Alpine driver but Alpine has nothing to offer him, having just re-signed Alonso. So Piastri, who looks like winning F2 at his first attempt, should be available. Alpine has no customer teams and so cannot incubate the youngster elsewhere and so Oscar’s only choice is to move. Joining Williams as a reserve driver in 2022 with race drive in 2023 and beyond is an obvious deal for all concerned. And in the middle of it all is a bloke called Mark Webber, who knows the right people at Williams and helps to guide Oscar’s career. I don’t gamble on driver movements in F1, but this seems a sensible move. If Piastri wins the F2 title this year he will have won three consecutive junior titles at his first attempt, following his championships in 2019 in the Formula Renault Eurocup and in 2020 in the FIA Formula 3 Championship. That is a better calling card than Charles Leclerc and George Russell had when they broke into F1.
In recent weeks there have been some suggestions that Mick Schumacher could be moving in 2022 to Alfa Romeo. These are not true. Schumacher has done well this year at Haas, better than many expected, but in recent weeks Nikita Mazepin has begun to beat him, as the Russian driver’s confidence has grown, largely due to a change of chassis at Haas. Schumacher has had a long-term deal with Ferrari in recent years and that is currently being renegotiated. I would hazard a guess that this will be announced in Italy next week when Ferrari usually makes announcements. If he does well in 2022 with the Haas team, then Mick could (not would) move up to replace Carlos Sainz Jr in 2023. It’s a big if and Carlos is doing a good job, but that seems the most likely scenario.
Returning to the question of team ownership, we should address the rumours that Michael Andretti wants to buy an F1 team. I want to buy diamonds for my wife but I cannot afford it and so there is not a lot of point in discussing it… However, the Andretti F1 rumours have come because Michael launched a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) called Andretti Acquisition, back in March aiming to raise $250 million on the New York Stock Exchange. Hidden away in the pages of financial prospectus are two things of note: the first is that McLaren’s Zak Brown is listed as a non-executive director of the firm. One might suggest that this could lead to speculation that Andretti might buy into McLaren, as the firm is selling a lot of stuff at the moment. However, a SPAC is not a licence to print money. There are very clear rules, including having to explain what the money is intended to be used for. According to the Andretti Acquisition prospectus the money is intended to fund the firm’s activities in the world of electric mobility. And F1 does not (yet) qualify at electric mobility (thank God).
Elsewhere, the new calendar features a TBC which will be in Qatar. The reason it is a TBC is probably that the Qataris want to make their own announcements about the race, rather than it being revealed in an F1 calendar revamp press release.
Right, that’s it for now. I’m off to Holland tomorrow but right now I’d like to drop in to Tongerlo Abbey, which is just up the road from here, as I have read that it contains a perfect copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which is in a far better conditions than the original. I’m told that they also have a beer there called Tongerlo Abbey.