Green Notebook from the road to Rio

If you are a raindrop falling on the Serra do Mar, Brazil’s coastal mountain range, which separates Sao Paulo from the Atlantic Ocean, a distance of around 50 miles, you could be lucky and fall on the southern slopes. From there it is  a nice easy trickle down to the sea.

But, if you fall on the northern slopes, ooh-la. It’s a monster journey to get home to the ocean, by way of streams that flow into huge reservoirs, built by power companies between the wars, to provide hydro-electric power for the expanding city of Sao Paulo. Between the lakes on the Guarapiranga and Jurubatuba rivers is the Autódromo José Carlos Pace, better known as Interlagos.

The name means “between the lakes” and the inspiration came, so they say, from Interlaken in Switzerland. All further comparisons end with the name.

The Guarapiranga and Jurubatuba combine to form the Pinheiros, which flows only a few miles before it merges with Tietê and the Tietê flows to the Parana and the Parana, by way of the Iguacu Falls, arrives eventually in Buenos Aires.

It is a trip of about 3000 miles…

Those who visit Sao Paulo on a regular basis will recognise the names Pinheiros and Tietê as being the names of the Marginals, the vast multi-lane, multi-carriageway freeways, which run alongside the two rivers and create Sao Paulo’s ring road. These try to keep the city’s vast population moving, but it isn’t easy. Officially Sao Paulo has about 12 million people but when you look on a map you can see that the urban area is about twice the size of the city limits, so the real population of this metropolis if probably double the official number.

Anyway, one passes through all of this on the way to the airport which everyone calls Guarulhos. There are two routes that go there from the Marginal and in both cases you know when to exit because there are prisons at the junctions. The old road, which is named after President Eurico Gaspar Dutra, who ran the country in the late 1940s, has three prisons; the new road, named after a certain Ayrton Senna, has just the one. The Senna highway used to be called the Rodovia dos Trabalhadores – the motorway of the workers – but in the end the locals figured Senna was more important, although whether Ayrton would like having his name linked to a road that traverses a smelly swamp is another question…

The two highways eventually join up, miles to the east of Sao Paulo, and then head on to Rio de Janeiro, Most of us never go further than the airport and usually we don’t arrive at Guarulhos in an unhappy mood. Brazil is fun – particularly at the autodromo – but it is the kind of place where you need to really enjoy chaos.

Still, after 30 years of visiting Sao Paulo, I can say with some optimism that it is better than it used to be, although down towards Interlagos, the old Marginal Pinheiros used to have horse paddocks beside it, these have been replaced by shimmering tower blocks.

We  were treated to a top-notch drive at Interlagos from Lewis Hamilton, one of the best I can remember, and the performance and his waving of the Brazilian flag was reminiscent of Senna himself. It’s great that the World Championship battle is hotting up. We have two truly great drivers, both driving well and rather than quibbling over who is better, fans should united and enjoy the experience.

Let’s hope that it goes down to the wire. There are signs, of course, that the attitudes of the two teams is hardening as the battle intensifies but I hope that the drivers will keep it civilised and I was happy to see Max and Lewis chink bottles on the podium, showing that despite their adventures this year, they still have respect for one another, even if neither is giving an inch…

I suspect that one day we will look back on the summer of 2021 as a golden time for F1.

There is not much news at the moment with the last 2022 drive now filled and the calendars set for 2021 and 2022. The best story of the weekend was the F1 freight that came in late. It was a good lesson for the sport to learn.

We all know that more races each year means more money and that these days the average revenue per race is in the region of $95 million, so you can understand why everyone is being pushed harder. But there have to be limits. Right now, F1 is doing something that has never been done before: an intercontinental triple-header.The sport first did three races on consecutive weekends back in 2018 and no-one wanted to repeat the France-Austria-Britain hike. In 2019 there were no triple-headers as a result. But then along came the pandemic and so the pressure was on to get as many races into the shortest space of time – and so F1 did four triple-headers last year, although three of the four involved two races at the same venue: Austria-Austria-Hungary, Silverstone-Silverstone-Spain, and Bahrain-Bahrain-Abu Dhabi.

The other was Spa-Monza-Mugello and that wasn’t too bad.

This year the triple-headers were cut back to two: Spa-Zandvoort-Monza was not dissimilar to the 2020 jaunt; but the second was a real challenge. It was supposed to be Russia-Singapore-Japan, but the pandemic messed thing up and so we ended up with Mexico-Brazil-Qatar. It is a combination of races which makes no sense at all and things nearly went wrong between Mexico and Brazil. I’ll not wade too much into the detail but, suffice to say, bad weather, air crew hour limits and complex flights plans combined to mean that a lot of the freight didn’t get to Interlagos until Thursday lunchtime, which was way too late. But F1 being F1, everyone rolled up their sleeves and got it done.

The irony, of course, is that by delivering as always the F1 workforce has let the management believe that they can do as they please with the calendar and that somehow everything is possible. What F1 really needs is a failure to deliver, to teach those who make the calendars to be more reasonable. But they are not listening, at least not when one looks at the plans for 2022.

Next year, in order to squeeze in more races but to avoid the FIFA World Cup, there will be two more triple-headers. The first is Spa-Zandvoort-Monza again; the second is the revived Russia-Singapore-Japan. To be honest, the 2022 calendar is anything but user-friendly. There are, for example, five races in seven weekends, involving two trips to the Americas, plus a 5,500-mile back-to-back between Canada and Baku. It is just not efficient. OK, there are questions about the weather in Miami in mid-June but surely a back-to-back with Canada and Miami makes more sense, just as we do Mexico-Austin back-to-back in a normal year.

Similarly, having the summer races in the UK then Austria then France and then Budapest. This is plain silly – and very wasteful, zigzagging backwards and forwards across Europe.

I am not saying that calendar-planning is easy. It is a very complicated business to get everything to fit with contractual terms, weather, competing sporting events, national holidays and so on, but in the world we live in today, perhaps waste and emissions should be the primary deciding factor, along with the human damage that F1 inflicts on its own people. That is not to say that F1 folks are not tough. You have to be physically strong to keep up with the regime. Those who cannot hack it, fall out after a year or two… But there must be limits and the people in charge need to at least listen to those on the ground, who say that things are getting to be too much.

“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them,” Colin Powell once said. “They have either lost confidence that you can help, or concluded that you do not care. Either is a failure of leadership.”

Hopefully, they will take heed of these warnings…

The race in Brazil was the third Sprint of the year and easily the best, if only because of Lewis Hamilton’s impressive charge through the field. Mercedes was fired up by the penalty Lewis received for the rear wing infringement, even if the FIA Stewards went out of their way to say that the team did nothing deliberately. The rage was a quiet one, but I am quite sure that it was why we saw such fabulous drives from Lewis in the Sprint and in the Grand Prix itself. You could kind of tell what was going to happen on Sunday and as the grid lined up a seasoned F1 colleague and I looked at each other and said: “He’s going to win, isn’t he?” even from 10th on the grid. And so it was…

The news that Guanyu Zhou has been signed by Alfa Romeo, long-rumoured though it was, is a great boost to F1, even if in 2022 there will be no Chinese Grand Prix. We have to hope that Zhou does a great job and makes it difficult for Alfa Romeo to switch him for Théo Pourchaire in 2023. Still, if there is an F1 drive on offer, a young driver really needs to take it…

The Chinese market is a little odd, in F1 terms. On paper it is just what the sport needs, but in reality we have not seen much Chinese money come into the business and fewer and fewer Western firms seem bothered because of the uncertainty and the government interventions that can wipe out commercial plans on a whim. Chinese firms are selling abroad because they can manufacture things more cheaply than the opposition, but it is not the open market that could be the case if both sides were not so wary of one another…

I’ve been hearing for a long time that the Chinese government may one day decide to switch the Chinese Grand Prix away from Shanghai and take it to Beijing for a street race there, in the same area that once hosted Formula E. We will see if this ever happens… but having Guanyu Zhou at Alfa Romeo will certainly not be a hindrance.

Much of the other news has been outside Formula 1, with a reshaping of the Formula 2 landscape for 2022. The FIA election is raising a few ripples, not least the curious letter that was sent to all FIA member clubs from the president of the FIA Ethics Committee, Francois Bellanger, which points out that it is important that the election meets the “highest standards of governance, integrity and democracy set forth by our Statutes”. Bellanger warned clubs about being put under external political pressures, such as being told by one’s own government who the club should vote for.

Why was such a warning necessary? What is it that triggered the need to say these things publicly? I have heard some whispering from one part of the world about things that might be considered dubious by the FIA Ethics Committee and I presume the letter is a warning shot across the bows of those who may be threatening voters who do not support a certain candidate, offering rewards to voters who support a certain candidate, or asking voters to photograph their completed ballots to prove their support.  Ethic Committees are all well and good but the best response for a voter under pressure is to take the necessary photographs – if someone is asking for it – and then to vote the other way.

A squillion years ago I remember going to Paris for the FIA election that saw Jean-Marie Balestre ousted from his role by Max Mosley. I remember the confidence with which Balestre went into the vote, thinking that all those who had promised their support would keep their promises. He left after the defeat, shell-shocked to find that some of those around him has betrayed his trust… and that he had been outsmarted.

There is a scribble in the green notebook about the circuit being considered in Las Vegas which says that the plan is for the track to pass the famous dancing fountains outside the Bellagio Casino while running about a mile up The Strip to Wynn Las Vegas. Looking at the maps one can surmise if this is the case that it will probably include the High Roller observation wheel  and the MSG Sphere that is currently under construction. The key for success is to have minimal disruption on The Strip, limited if possible to just the construction of barriers, debris fences, lights (it will be a night race), so that traffic flows are not hugely disrupted. The big works – the pits, paddock and grandstands – will likely be off the beaten track, where traffic won’t be impacted. If you take a look at satellite pictures, it is not had to spot where these could  be.

While all this is going on, I hear that Michael Andretti is still sniffing around trying to find a team to acquire. The problem is that no-one wants to sell. The reality is that teams are likely to grow in value in the next few years, as revenues rise and costs are capped, so it is very much a seller’s market and, if one wants to acquire a team, one needs to accept the terms on offer and not try cut deals. The market turned about a year ago when investment firm Dorilton paid around $200 million for Williams. That looks like a bargain now, although at the time, Williams didn’t seem to be worth it. McLaren agreed to sell 33 percent of its F1 team’s equity for about $240 million last winter, which valued the team at $720 million and in a similar deal Ineos acquired 30 percent of the Mercedes team for around $400 million, which valued the team at $1.2 billion.

So, it’s bad news for buyers at the moment because one is looking at much higher numbers than was the case last year, or to put it another way. They have missed the boat…

This is a problem that is also impacting Audi, which is in discussion to work out some kind of arrangement with McLaren, as first reported in a recent green notebook. It seems that things are rather more complicated as BMW is also expressing an interest in buying the McLaren road car business in order to add the brand to its portfolio. One suggestion is that McLaren could be split up: with the racing team going to Audi and the road car company (and the brand) going to BMW. That could mean that McLaren might one day disappear from F1. Certainly a lot is going on at McLaren with the departure of McLaren Automotive CEO Mike Flewitt and lots of noises from Germany about plans for the future.

Although the VW brand has shut down its motorsport activities, which has led to Jost Capito and a number of others joining Williams in F1, the bigger VW Group, headed by former BMW executive Herbert Diess has been recruiting a lot of ex-BMW men to key roles including the boss of Audi, Markus Duesmann, who was previously the man in charge of the BMW F1 engine programme. It is worth noting that one of Duesmann’s engineers from F1 in those days, Adam Baker, is rumoured to have joined the VW group to consider motorsport strategy for the future. Baker has spent recent years working as the Safety Director at Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). He will perhaps be able to use some research done back in 2015 by Audi when a previous F1 plan was under discussion. This was conducted by a certain Stefano Domenicali, the former Frrari team principal, before he was shipped off to run the Lamborghini supercar company.

In F1 another team principal of repute is in the spotlight (again). Aston Martin’s Otmar Szafnauer is rumoured to be on the shopping list of Alpine F1. This seems a bit odd as the one thing that Alpine is not short of is executives. But car companies make mistakes when they get involved in F1 and it takes time to realise that you cannot run things by committee. I don’t know if that lesson has yet been learned at Renault HQ at Boulogne-Billancourt, but the current structure of having CEO Alpine, Laurent Rossi present at every race, plus Executive Director Marcin Budkowski and Racing Director Davide Brivio might be made more effective if someone else was appointed to run just the racing side of the business, which would probably result in others departing.

Szafnauer is in such a position at Aston Martin where team owner Lawrence Stroll thought it would be a good idea to bring in ex-McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarch to oversee things, a move which clearly signalled that it was time for Szafnaeur to look under his seat to see if there was a life jacket or a parachute.

Whitmarsh is a talented chap and has shown in the past that he is able to deal with forceful characters. His big advantage is that he got a smashing pay-off from McLaren and does not need to work for a living and so he can say whatever he wants to Stroll without having to worry about the reaction. There are things in the team that experienced F1 folk think need to be said, but that people are afraid to say out loud.

Stroll has been around in F1 far longer than people think – dating back to Team Lotus in 1991 (if you look at pictures of the Lotus 102 and you will see Tommy Hilfiger stickers). So he should know what is needed to be successful. He has a great track record in business, but F1 should never be considered “just like any other business”. It isn’t. And so one has to approach it in a different way, without emotional baggage and with a clear vision. And that isn’t easy when your son drives for you…

28 thoughts on “Green Notebook from the road to Rio

  1. I’ve said it many times – Stroll Jr is a decent driver (on his day), but who can take him seriously while he drives for his fathers team?
    Who can take the team seriously while Lance is on the payroll?

    1. Maybe it’s just me but sometimes when we hear Stroll Jr’s radio, his tone is different to the other drivers on the grid. Stroll’s tone shows that he knows he’s talking to his staff.

    2. Exactly!!
      Stroll Snr had the opportunity to prove that he was – or at least wanted/intended to be – a real ‘player’ in F1; unfortunately, by keeping Jnr instead of PER (assuming that VET was always part of the plan) all he did was demonstrate that he’s currently little more than an indulgent father.

  2. Hi Joe, outstanding writings as per usual. Thank you for your insights to us folk in civvy street.

    You mentioned Briatore and Moseley. It made me think of Wolf’s “F*** them all” comment over team radio at Interlagos. Given that team radio is effectively in the public domain nowadays (they publish all the juicy stuff) surely he should be sanctioned by the FIA for ‘bringing the sport into disrepute’? This was used in the 90s a bit from memory and I don’t see why Wolf should get away with making statements like that which are broadcast to the world. Say it in the motor home but if you say in a public domain you deserve censure.

  3. Boy you are prolific,Joe! And every word is informative- worth reading for having passed through the scrutiny an informed and experienced brain before being uploaded.

    I agree about Hamilton´s drive last Sunday. It was outstanding and so much more than “the fastest car/newest engine”.. It wasn´t entirely unexpected, but still was highy improbable. To even be in 10th position on the starting grid had already been a big performance against the odds.

    As you say, Max Verstappen´s not bad either and enthusiasts should relish the fight regardless of who wins. But how the battle is won also matters. I don´t think it will be Senna/Prost as neither of thes guys has the absolute self-entitlement which Ayrton Senna regullarly displayed (Max comes close sometimes on the track- but leaves it in the car).

    Shall be very pleasantly surprised if Qatar serves up a classic….

  4. Love the Colin Powell quote, I can use that over and over again in any leadership training I give.

    Thank you for these pearls of wisdom that you have collected, and then so generously shared.

  5. I couldn’t help noticing there was a lot of very loud cheering coming from the crowds during the races at the weekend – far more than usual. It would appear Liberty have taken a liberty with the broadcast audio and dubbing spectator noise from a special effects recording. What in heaven’s name are they doing this?

    Race broadcasts are bad enough with the constant switching between the track action and pointless spectator views, but if Liberty start doing like this all the time, I’ll be off to watch something else. I don’t want people playing games with my senses.

    1. “What [why] in heaven’s name are they doing this?” Probably because their media people come from the same school as modern documentary film makers – out of context slow motion and sing-song dramatic voice overs!

  6. Joe, is it believed Otmar Szafnauer isn’t executing at Aston Martin, or that he isn’t executing what Mr Stroll wants?

    1. I’m not expertly placed to comment, but from the outside, one could argue that he executed at Force India very well prior to Stroll’s takeover.

  7. Let us hope for his sake that no senior CCP official takes a fancy to Guanyu Zhou, or he’ll be the next Chinese sports star to be disappeared and have horribly fake ‘proof of life’ emails sent on his behalf…

  8. Excellent read once again.

    Joe, have you heard any mutterings about the cost cap? I have the impression that Red Bull have been bringing parts to the car virtually all year, whereas Mercedes brought an update to Silverstone but not much since. All while spending big bucks on developing a new concept for 2022.

    But, now I presume that the Mercedes engine supply contract to AMG Mercedes F1 is not for the fixed number required by the FIA, just sufficient to win the WCC? Perhaps even one per race!

    Is there a possibility that we could end up with a championship winner who then is penalised in some way, or is the season turning out to be so good (lucrative) that no one in F1, or the FIA really gives a fig?

    1. I think a few probably would if he was bringing a sizeable enough cheque! Rather the question is, would any team with serious ambitions of competing at the front want him…

  9. I don’t know if you’ve had opportunity to discuss or otherwise inform a view, Joe, but allowing for reasonable paternal bias, is Stroll Snr realistic about Stroll Jnr’s ability and potential?

  10. Is the $200m bond for a new team still up in the air or firmly entrenched now? I imagine any lingering uncertainty over that would contribute to the present stalled market for buying/selling F1 teams….

  11. Joe, i’m guessing the BMW men that were mentioned in the article probably worked with\for Dr. Mario Thiessen during his time as BMW Motorsport Director. Did you ever meet Dr. Thiessen? Met him briefly once in Montreal. A friendly & nice chap and took some time out for us the F1 fans that day.

  12. What’s great about Joe is that he is willing to say things that will rattle some in the paddock, and not ensure invitations to cocktail parties at Monaco. I’m thinking Joe must have had a “smashing pay-off” somewhere along the way.

    1. Did you consider maybe his just a journalist (notwithstanding the fact he is the best English language journalist in Formula 1) and he reports and writes without fear or favour. He is NOT a PR person, a reshasher of press releases or a bottom feeder who steals other content and passes off as his own. These columns are a bit like 3 columns in 1. There are the facts and the scoops, the documentary and the opinion piece.

      Sadly the likes of Joe, Nigel Roebuck and David Tremayne are the past not the future as far as journalism goes. Let’s hope so wine in the younger generation is inspired to be a proper journalist too

        1. I think you know what I mean. It was a compliment. I remember reading your work in Autosport in the 1990’s when the NR did 5th Column and DT was at Motorsport News

          You are the present with a great past, but I worry about the future of specialist motor racing press. Like the 🇺🇲, other than Marshall Pruett where is the next Gordon Kirby.

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