These last days have been tumultuous times for Formula 1, with the extraordinary World Championship showdown in Abu Dhabi. But one needs perspective in these matters and sitting at home, watching the activity on the marsh which my home overlooks, provides a good opportunity to think clearly about things. The ragondin (coypu) swimming in the pond and the silly scuttling moorhens remind one that outside the world of F1 rivers still flow to the sea and the seasons still change, despite what happened in Yas Marina.
Social media has become a battleground between supporters of one side or the other and everyone is throwing things at Michael Masi, a man who had to make difficult decisions, which turned out to be controversial. That’s the problem with being a race director. You don’t ever get praise when things go right. You only get mentioned when things go wrong. It’s like being an F1 spark plug…
After Nicholas Latifi crashed (and those who blame the Canadian for causing this really do need to have their heads examined by professional medical staff) there was a problem. There was a lot of debris on the track, more than one could deal with using a Virtual Safety Car, but not really enough for a Red Flag. It was a Safety Car moment.
This was the Mercedes nightmare because Lewis Hamilton’s lead was effectively wiped out, which was unfair, but the way the rules are. Hamilton was not far from the pitlane entrance and so the strategists had to make a quick call. Stay out. To have come in and get new tyres would perhaps have led Red Bull to leave Verstappen out and that would have given him track position that could have handed him victory at the restart. Logically the race was going to end under caution, so Lewis was safe. But Red Bull stopped Max, put him on soft tyres and sent him out again. That put him behind some backmarkers in the queue behind the Safety Car. Normally the lapped cars would be allowed to pass the Safety Car when the wreckage was cleaned up and then the race could start again. In that case, Hamilton was screwed, except that there were not enough laps to do that. The race would have ended under caution. And what a damp squib that would have been, with Lewis and Max driving around the last lap, unable to fight. An initial message from Race Control said that the lapped cars should remain in place. That was normal because there was still clean-up work going on and the safety of the track workers was still a question.
Then Masi gave the instruction that only the cars between Hamilton and Verstappen should unlap themselves. Before that we heard Max explaining that it was typical of the FIA to leave the lapped cars in place to screw him (he and Red Bull both have a persecution complex in this respect). Masi’s instruction was logical in that the cars behind Max were irrelevant and there was no time to clear them all. They did not matter. The ones between Lewis and Max would get in the way of the title fight. But with Max on new tyres and Lewis on old tyres this effectively gave Max a chance to snatch the title. Max took it. Lewis tried to stop it.
It wasn’t fair perhaps, but it was within the rules. Live sport has a habit of creating such insane situations and referees have to deal with them. Masi did nothing wrong. He used the powers he has to do what he felt was best was the World Championship. What happened was no-one’s fault. Max was lucky. Lewis was not. I never want to hear Max complain again that the FIA has got it in for him, and I want Christian Horner to learn a lot about stewarding when he attends the FIA Stewards event later this winter. Lewis took his defeat with grace and style. Toto and his cohorts reacted as one would expect them to react, but is appealing the various decisions going to help F1? No, probably not. It was the sporting gods having their say. Losing with grace is better than losing with lawyers. But I feel their pain. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right, but it was the way the rules are.
Are there better ways? Perhaps, and I hope that the FIA will spend some time looking at the Safety Car rules and asking whether this is the right way to run things. Masi’s only fault, if you call it that, was to try to make sure there was a race at the end. And he did that for the fans and for the good of the sport.
NASCAR has some complicated rules which can extend races when there is a late caution. Perhaps F1 should have the same. But perhaps not.
Anyway, the subsequent mess and the celebrations, mixed with Mercedes’s pain and sense of outrage, combined to create a bittersweet evening, with work delayed and plans blown apart. We did not get the official race result until 00.05. Five and a half hours after the chequered flag fell. There is only so much one can do when the F1 balloon goes up. And thus it was that at 02.30 having put together GP+ and sent it into the world, I left the Media Centre in Abu Dhabu to the last of the scribblers (there were still a few left) and I walked through the deserted car parks of Yas Island to the Media Parking (the shuttles had stopped). It was cool and quiet. It had been quite a day. And Saturday night had involved only a couple of hours of sleep so I was feeling weary.
But it had also been a long, long season and it was time to go home. But that is not always easy. I drove through the night and the desert for the next two hours, up to Dubai, passing the Expo site on the way, and arriving at Dubai International Airport still in darkness with the first wave of morning flyers heading into the airport to fly away in different directions. I tried to work as I waited for the flight. The story of the race was the lead item on the international news being piped into the lounge but I could barely keep my eyes open by then. I was writing words that were all jumbled up. At some point I heard the muezzin calling the faithful with his salat al fahr, the pre-dawn call to prayer. The start of a new day.
On the plane I was asleep long before we left the tarmac.
We had struggled to find the right tone for the GP+ cover. We didn’t want it to be too this or too that, but we wanted it to be positive and memorable. In the end we chose “A Night to Remember” and a picture of Lewis and Max chinking bottles on the podium. In the end it was perfect, although as someone pointed out there was film called A Night to Remember about the sinking of Titanic. Did we choose the title for that reason?
No, it was just a coincidence…
The green notebook was filled with scribbles during the weekend. Including such notes as “Piastri = champion” and “French govt EXPO delegation”. I had the words “Philip Morris” circled and various scrawls about races: “USA 2026”, “Bahrain + I week” and “Monaco ?” there was also “RB dept moving in-house FIA” and “Raducano/Bolt/Larson”, “Vegas 23” and “BWT-Alpine”.
French Government EXPO meant that in the days before the Grand Prix French GP promoter Eric Boullier (who heads the promotions company that runs the race) was invited to join a delegation with the French Sports Minister to the EXPO in Dubai, to tell the world about France’s sporting achievement and about a rumour that Eric was recently spotted visiting the Elysées Palace, where President Emmanuel Macron hangs out. On Monday night the French motorsport federation (FFSA) had a prizegiving to which Macron sent a video message, underlining the importance of French motorsport and saying that the government would help to save the French GP. Great news.
“Philip Morris” meant that the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was the last race in which the tobacco company Philip Morris International (PMI) was involved in an official capacity. The firm, which owns Marlboro, has been the biggest F1 sponsor in history, dating back to 1971 when Marlboro first sponsored the BRM team. The deal lasted for three years but without much success and in the final year Marlboro was also involved with Frank Williams’s Iso team. In 1974 Marlboro did a new deal with McLaren, starting a relationship that lasted until 1996 and then Ferrari. It was still a significant sponsor of Ferrari this year, with the Mission Winnow concept. But that has not been renewed. PMI may still have some hospitality packages in the years ahead but it looks like all sponsorships are finished – which is something that should not pass unnoticed…
The word is that Ferrari will up its links with Amazon in the future.
The note “USA 2026” is fairly self-explicit. There is a deal in place between F1 and Austin for another five years. It will be announced soon. The “Bahrain + one week” note meant that Bahrain is about to announced an extension for its deal with F1 and this will either go to 2032, or possibly to 2037.
The news that Abu Dhabi has signed a new contract to be last race of the Formula 1 season until 2030 was no real surprise, following the announcements in recent weeks about 10 year deals for Qatar (2023-2032) and Saudi Arabia (2021-2030) and it is entirely logical that Bahrain too will protect its investment in the sport. The kingdom never gave details of how long the current deal is. It was signed in 2016 and at the time there was talk of a 15 year deal. The truth is that it was a 10-year contract covering 2017-2026, with an option to continue beyond that. That option can be for either five or 10 years. Thus, F1 will have at least four races in the Middle East from 2023 until 2030, although it is unlikely to increase from that.
The “Monaco ?” note is perhaps the most interesting because it indicates that the future of the Monaco GP is not yet sorted out – and no-one wants to talk about it. Monaco and Formula 1 are like an old marriage. It is hard to imagine one without the other, but they don’t always get on. Prince Albert of Monaco said not so long ago that the Grand Prix was worth $1 billion for Monaco – just for the weekend. That did not include the value it has pulling in tourists for the rest of the year. Or to put it another way, Monaco needs F1. And F1 really needs Monaco because a World Championship without Monaco is hard to imagine. The last deal, signed in 2010, was for 10 years to cover the period between 2011 to 2020. As the final race was cancelled because of the global pandemic the F1 group offered an additional race for 2021 and a one-year deal has been cobbled together for 2022 – on the basis that Monaco would give up its four-day format. The last deal was negotiated by Bernie Ecclestone and the President of the Automobile Club de Monaco (ACM), Michel Boeri. Ecclestone is now 92 and out of the picture, but Boeri at 82 has recently been re-elected for another five-year term. He has held the office since 1972 and has some strong views about the importance of his race. His dad Etienne was President of the ACM between 1965 and 1968 and so it’s rather a personal thing. But Monaco has some significant problems in relation to F1 that need sorting. There is no overtaking and so the races are generally dull, despite the race being a great spectacle. The fee Monaco pays is fair smaller than any other race. TV coverage is also not controlled by F1 as Monaco insisted on keeping control of its role as host broadcaster. In recent years this has been well below the modern standards. The club also retains some of the trackside signage, but this is also troublesome as the ACM slots are muddled and do not follow F1’s usual one sponsor per corner philosophy. It’s a jumble of names. It also has a big deal with TAG-Heuer, which does not sit well with F1’s partner Rolex. And there are problems over hospitality as the ACM controls much of it and F1 is not cashing in on the potential value of the event. And the quality of the offering may not be up to F1’s usual standards. So there is a lot to discuss and negotiation is difficult because neither side wishes to change its demands. Monaco’s unique status has weakened somewhat in recent years with the Singapore night race and more recently with the arrival of Saudi Arabia and Miami, both of which are paying far more than Monaco. Thus Monaco’s status may not have quite the same power that it had under Bernie Ecclestone and it is clear that the ACM’s attitude, which filters through the whole organisation, seems to be that no-one in the world knows how to organise a race as well as Monaco does, which is patently not the case any longer, if indeed it ever was. It is not a favourite for those who work in F1. Not even close. And the arrogance grates on the nerves.
There is no question that F1 would be poorer without Monaco, at least in some respects, but it is also fair to say that F1 gives the Principality a huge amount and gets relatively little in return, except the intangible value of association…
It’s a tough one to negotiate.
The note “RB dept moving in-house to FIA” means that there will be changes within the Formula 1 group during 2022 with the company’s managing director of motorsport Ross Brawn (67) expected to retire and the chief technical officer Pat Symonds (68) also standing down. The F1 technical group in London is out of place and so will soon come under the control of the FIA, with the remaining engineers reporting to FIA chief technology officer Nikolas Tombazis. This is entirely logical as the idea of the commercial rights holder running a technical operation to work on car design regulations and to help with circuit design, never really made much sense. It is a little known fact that before he joined the FIA Tombazis spent some months working as a consultant with the Formula 1 team of engineers in London, and so he knows them well. The principal members of the group are the F1 head of aerodynamics Jason Somerville and the head of vehicle performance, who also plays a big role in circuit work, is Craig Wilson.
The FIA operation is located at the FIA Logistics and Technical Centre, in Valleiry, in the Haute-Savoie region of France, close to the Swiss border and the FIA offices in Geneva. It is not clear whether the London-based engineers will be based in Europe, or whether they will work remotely, or whether they will leave. The FIA already has a number of engineers working at Valleiry, including Tim Goss, who works as Tombazis’s deputy. However, not all of the FIA engineers are there as Dominic Harlow, who is the head of F1 technical audit, operates from the UK.
This will not impact on the sporting side of the organisation, which is headed by Steve Nielsen, which will continue to operate from London.
The note about VIPs in Abu Dhabi was self-explanatory with the most interesting for racing folks being that NASCAR champion Kyle Larson was in the F1 house. And he was drooling. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with him, showing him around and introducing him to a few people. Nothing shows the blinkered nature of F1 better than the NASCAR champion walking into the paddock and not being recognised by photographers (who are usually good at this stuff) or journalists. Anyway Larson was loving it. And wanted to have a go in an F1 car… There was an interesting conversation too between Kyle and Dani Kvaat, who wants to go to race in NASCAR…
Larson said that he hadn’t been into F1 much before the started watching Drive to Survive on Netflix. Boom! That shows you the kind of impact that the series has had and the future impact it will have with F1 growing in the US markets. After Abu Dhabi most folks went home, but some went off to Nevada where a number of F1 execs went to work on closing a deal with the city and to plan exactly where the race track could be…
The recent months has seen a scramble in F1 circles as race promoters begin to realise that the growth of F1 is causing more demand for Grands Prix and so it is best to get new long-term contracts done quickly, so as to avoid losing out in what will become a game of musical chairs in the future.
F1 remains big news around the world but, as I wrote in my GP+ column, it is not the only thing in the world.
“They say that people on islands tend to have less of a global view than those who live on the mainland,” I wrote. “It certainly felt that way on Yas Island over the weekend, where a lot of the Formula 1 circus believed that there was nothing in the world apart from the World Championship showdown between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen; and the fight for the Constructors’ title between Red Bull Racing and Mercedes. In the heat of a battle one can lose perspective about what is important and one does things which later on, when things have calmed down and there are cooler heads, seem to have been a little excessive.
“The 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was a strange affair, a story so bizarre that no-one could have imagined such an outcome. If it was a film script it would have been thrown out as being unrealistic. For some It was a fabulous story, for others it was unfair? Was it luck? Was it a situation where the Race Director, trying to do the right thing, created something very wrong? These are the kind of questions that will be asked in the days ahead. The sport did not want to end an epic F1 season with the cars crossing the finish line running line astern – under caution – unable to fight. Did Mercedes get it wrong by not pitting Hamilton? Was Michael Masi right to call the race as he did? What we got in the end seemed unfair.
“What is important now, unsatisfactory though it may be, is to protect the World Championship. One cannot overturn the result. It happened. You cannot take a World Championship away after the event. It would make a mockery of the sport and would, inevitably lead to endless law suits flying about that no-one wants and nobody needs. It’s just sport. Will Mercedes sell more cars if they win another title? Will Red Bull become cooler to its target audience because it won another title?
“The sport should be treated with respect. I detest the Verstappen fans who boo Lewis, the greatest Formula 1 driver we have ever seen. He deserves more respect. He is one of the cleanest racers there has ever been. I dislike people who suggested that Max would settle the title by driving into Lewis. He too deserves more respect.
“I have enormous respect for both men and I think what we are seeing at the moment is epic stuff and we will be talking about it years from now, remembering a time when the old lion Lewis Hamilton battled with the rising star Max Verstappen to be the leader of the pride.
“Formula 1 is about passion but it should never be treated as something other than that. Yes, winning and losing are important but the world outside the Yas Marina Circuit did not stop because of what happened on the island on Sunday evening.
“Perhaps this was a pivotal moment in Formula 1 history, but elsewhere babies were born, old folks passed on, people still fell in and out of love.
“The world turned ever onwards. On Monday, Abu Dhabi moves on to the next event: the FINA World Swimming Championships, in which another group of elite athletes would be battling for titles. As Kimi Raikkonen would say, it is what it is. It’s happened. It’s gone. The sport should learn the lessons, if there are lessons that need to be learned, but that should be the end of it. It should not become a court room battle.”