DXB is the IATA code for Dubai International Airport. It is the kind of place where one usually bumps intoFormula 1 people as we tend to pass through it many times each year. Going there between Bahrain and Jeddah was a logical thing to do (in airline terms). After the Bahrain GP a lot of Formula 1 folk went straight to Jeddah, others stayed on in Bahrain to take a little sunshine, and a few went to Dubai where Expo 2020 is in its last days. Soon that excitement will be over and Dubai will go back to being a staging post for international travellers. I decided not to stay in Dubai, on the basis that I really don’t need any more probes stuck up my nose, after two years of endless PCR testing, and while it really does not upset me any longer, I just cannot be bothered to do it, unless I have to. One can fly through Dubai without needing to test, but one cannot enter UAE without a nasal assault, so I stayed in Bahrain for a day and a bit, catching up on work, and then headed off and will be in Jeddah by the time you read this.
The lounges in Dubai are wonderful and it’s a good place to get a last glass of wine before heading into Saudi Arabia, where one has to cope with Prohibition-like rules for the new six days, after which the lounges at DXB will be drunk dry as the F1 folks get back into the real world. Last year we went from Saudi to Qatar and when I arrived in the hotel in Doha, I drank two very large gin & tonics in swift succession, causing the waitress to raise an eyebrow.
“I’ve been in Saudi,” I said, and she smiled and gave up thinking that I was an alcoholic.
I flew out to Bahrain after two weeks without Internet at home. This was thanks to someone messing up the satellite that I need in order to get on to the Web, having made the wise decision a few years ago that living in the wilds of France between races was really a wonderful thing to do. The service provider explained that there had been “a cyber event” on the morning that the war began in Ukraine. It seems that the satellite was was using was also being used to a siginificant extent by the Ukranian government, so it isn’t hard to join the dots about what happened.
I must admit that it did not cross my mind that someone like Vladimir Putin would actually start a shooting war in Europe. I hope that he is now regretting what he has done. And I hope he will be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his days.
F1 has become a Russian-free zone in recent weeks although I did meet one regular in Bahrain and commiserated with him about his wayward leader. There have been one or two pre-Putin Russians in F1 in recent years but we won’t be seeing them again. Anyway, Oleg said he was not having an easy time, living in the West, but was glad that to take his mind off the serious stuff, he had got in his car and driven to Warsaw to collect refugees from Ukraine, who needed help. Not all Russians are bad guys.
People think that F1 is filled with selfish and unpleasant individuals (and there are a few truly horrible examples) but most F1 people are human and more than a few are truly remarkable. At accreditation in Bahrain on the day before the action began, I bumped into an F1 wheeler-dealer who I have known for a LOT of years. Such people are not always known for their humanity.
When I asked how he was keeping, he replied that he was fine and that he had 18 children more than he had had when I last saw him. I was somewhat taken aback by this declaration as I was pretty sure I’d seen him at some point in 2021 and, while he had always had an eye for the girls in his youth, fathering that many kids in the space of a few months would have required a lot of energy.
“I run an orphanage,” he smiled. “We have 18 new children from Ukraine. I now have 43 children.”
It is nice to be able to report on such things… rather than just the usual dog-eat-dog politics of the sport. It warms the heart.
The weekend was filled with catch-ups because there were a lot of people who I have not seen in F1 for the last two years and it was fun to have some of the old faces back in action again. There was precious real news beyond the dregs of the dreadful Abu Dhabi story from last year, with a report that is going to cost the FIA a pile of money because it appears to have dismissed a man who did nothing wrong and there is no reason why Michael Masi would want to stay with an organisation that threw him under the bus, but has no real explanation of what he did wrong to deserve it. Of course, those who are following in his wake now feel that they don’t want to be exposed to the same sort of things and I did hear that one race director was looking for some guarantees that the same thing won’t happen again. I don’t know who one should blame for this caving in to external pressures but the FIA did itself no favours.
Still, perhaps we should give the new folk a chance to prove that they can do the job properly, although the last few months have not been stellar. The FIA does not need to be loved as an organisation, but it helps if it is understood and respected and so there is a lot of work to do… I’m not sure that having two race directors and some kind of eye in the sky in Geneva will really help as there are bound to be differences of opinion and so there will be more inconsistency than was the case with one man. Still, it probably won’t hurt the place to get shaken up a bit after 12 years of Jean Todt. If the award existed then Jean would have been “Micromanager of the Year” for most of that time and now there needs to be a new structure because the new President does not give the impression that he is a man given to all-nighters.
Anyway, the notes in the green notebook in Bahrain were somewhat limited. A lot is happening in racing terms and yet at the same time not a lot is happening in F1 news and politics. There will be an announcement soon that Qatar will step in to replace the Russian Grand Prix, which is as dead as a Norwegian Blue parrot. We will be in Doha on the Russian date and if you are reading this and have not yet booked a hotel room, it is too late…
There will also soon be an announcement about a Grand Prix on the streets of Las Vegas from 2023 until at least 2032. This will be a night race and part of the track will be a section of The Strip. It sounds amazing and will give the US three races for the next three years before the Austin date goes up for auction again.
If F1 growth rates in the US continue as they are now, that could be a fascinating battle, as there will likely be other contenders who could outspend Austin.
The Bahrain race marked the first appearance of a new managing director of commercial activities in F1, who takes up the same sort of role that Sean Bratches had. Brandon Snow in an American marketer with a background in advertising, both in the US and in Europe, specifically in Poland, Austria and Germany. He then spent some time with the NBA before moving to the games publishing firm Activision Blizzard as its head of esports. At F1 he will be responsible for sponsorship, licensing, esports and marketing.
I had a rather odd experience when I met Gilles Villeneuve in the paddock in Bahrain. Well, I met a Gilles Villeneuve, the grandson of the late, great Ferrari driver, who was killed at Zolder in 1982. Gilles II seemed to be a sweet little chap, about three months old, and was there with his father Jacques, the 1997 World Champion. JV is still commentating about F1 for France’s Canal+, while also racing NASCAR stock cars in the US as and when he can. He did a commendable job in the recent Daytona 500 and hopes to be back in action again soon. He was also showing interest in the recently-announced plan for NASCAR to run a car in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2023, which will be the 100th anniversary of the famous event. It seems that NASCAR is keen to promote itself in Europe and Le Mans wants higher profile in the United States, so it sounds a little like love at first sight. The car will be entered in the Garage 56 category, which means that it would not have any opposition, but must comply with the safety rules.
It all sounds very interesting and Jacques would be the perfect driver, although it sounds like multiple NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, who is now racing IndyCars, will be involved as well.
Bahrain showed that the new F1 regulations seem to work pretty well and so there is great excitement about what we can expect for the rest of the year. With a Ferrari 1-2 – and no questions about whether or not the cars are legal – F1 is in a healthy place. Ferrari needs some success as it has not won a World Championship since 2008, which is an unimpressive 14 years ago. Mind you, between 1983 and 1999 it was a similar – but longer – story.
The last note that I have scrawled in the notebook related to the war in Ukraine (Sorry, Vlad, but a “special military operation” is the kind of thing when shadowy figures in dark combat fatigues arrive in the night in Black Hawk choppers and slot away bad guys in an efficient manner). This has impacted the F1 world to some extent with the departure of the Russian GP, Nikita Mazepin and a few sponsors, but is likely to cause further disruption in ways that might not be immediately obvious. Last year Formula 1 had a couple of near-misses with the delivery of freight at the Brazilian and Qatar Grands Prix and during the pre-season testing Haas ran into trouble when a freight plane had technical problems. F1 logistics is one of the most impressive things about the sport, but it involves an enormous effort to get the entire circus from one track to another in just a few days. Formula 1 needs seven Boeing 747 freighters to go to each flyway event and seven more to take the equipment on to the next destination. This means that there are around 160 planes needing to be booked each year. The war in Ukraine has significantly reduced the world’s air freight capacity with one of the biggest freight operators being the Volga-Dniepr Group’s AirBridgeCargo (ABC) operation, which has a fleet of 17 Jumbos. They have all been withdrawn from international operation. There are still about 250 others but there is huge pressure in the market and so prices are rising. Other airlines have been forced to reroute to avoid flying over Russian air space and so fuel costs have gone up and delays have increased. Added to this the price of fuel has increased so it’s a double whammy. Freight prices have gone through the roof. Will this make a difference for Formula 1? Not immediately, unless freight was booked to go on Russian planes, but the danger for the sport lies ahead if planes “go technical” because replacements are hard to find. And, of course, it will add to the team costs…
Mind you, the traditional European races, which require a fleet of around 300 trucks criss-crossing Europe, is going to cause trouble as well because of the escalation of fuel costs. Not to mention all the Brexit paperwork and, of course, the issue of the environment.
My notebook is rather greener than F1 in this respect.