When I am in Melbourne I stay always on Collins Street, in what they call “The Paris End”, where the shops are fancy (and not places I frequent). But if you need a tie from Hermès or proper-looking macarons, you can find them. It has an RM Williams store, so you can buy the best boots in the world. There is Armani and Prada, Cartier and Fendi, but also antiquarian bookshops and great little cafes, although a lot have closed down during the pandemic. They say that it was at the top end of Collins that they first had pavement cafes in Melbourne, now they are everywhere. Collins Street is lined with old trees and heritage buildings. At the top is the imposing Old Treasury building and, in the hubbub, one can always hear the clang of trams. If you jump on the 96 tram it goes door-to-door to Albert Park, although on race weekends, normal service is disrupted and you have to get off at Southern Cross and get on one of the special expresses that use the 96 route for the Grand Prix.
Sometimes, as a result of this, I take a cab and so meet the next generation of Australian entrepreneurs, immigrants who are working to build their futures, driving taxis. They come from India, Iraq and odd bits of Africa. It’s been tough, they say, because Melbourne had the longest lockdown of anywhere in the world. For them – and for many of us – Australia is still a kind of paradise.
One thing that I have always found, going right back to when I first started visiting the country in the 1980s, is that Australians complain a lot more than British people and thus it seems ironic that they often talk of “whingeing Poms” when they are the ones complaining all the time. The truth is that British people don’t like to make a fuss and will sit and smile politely, and then tell all their friends and family about the bad experience they had. Australians complain instantly and loudly, believing (probably correctly) that it will solve the problem and will improve the venue or service.
My great-grandfather arrived in Australia at the age of 16, back in 1890, after spending five and a half months on a sailing ship. The adventures he had included working a gold miner and with the pearling fleets on the Torres Strait. Perhaps it they had had more telephones he would have rung home and told his mum that he was fine and would have stayed forever, but instead to returned to the Old World in Europe. When he departed on a voyage that would go round Cape Horn and take six and a half months, he wrote: “There are no better and finer people on this earth than the Australians: man, woman and child. It is the only country where true hospitality lives.”
Much has changed over the years, but by and large I think it is still true today. Australians have a funny way of asking for things because whereas a British person might say: “Could I have a beer please”, and Australian will always say: “I’ll have a beer thanks”. They always say thank you first.
One of the things that I have always loved about Australians is that are forever inventing new words and expressions. Today half the world says “No worries” and that came from Down Under. When you think about it, there is a whole language that Australians speak: Bloody oath, bludger, bogan, chook, arvo, drongo, hoon and footy are all examples. Fantastic things are ripper, sausages are snags and if you’re stuffed, it doesn’t mean you have eaten too much. Things get complicated when you think about barbies in bathers and blokes in budgie-smugglers, and you don’t get sick, you get crook.
This year I learned a new Australianism when I reading in the local newspaper about how F1 now attracts a much bigger audience, with women and youngsters particularly having now joined the throng. It’s not just blokes these days. The girls have embraced the sport in an unusual way and it seems that they see the sport as some sort of fashion show, or at least that is how it read. One local scribe, describing the VIP hospitality, said that it was filled with “glamazons”, a splendid new word to describe well-dressed lady F1 fans.
There is one Australianism that I have never understood. They call people who have red hair “Blue” or “Bluey”. I was going to use that to greet Alex Albon, when he arrived in the paddock with what looked like a head of hair that had been dyed slightly auburn, but decided against it. I asked him what was going on.
He had been in Thailand, he said, on the way to Australia, and had visited an orphanage run by the Iceman Charity, which was set up by a bloke called Volker Capito, following the 2004 tsunami. Volker is the brother of Williams team principal Jost Capito. Alex explained that many of the kids are now in their late teens and they are mad about the Liverpool football club. In fact they are so fanatical that some have dyed their hair red to show their support. They asked Alex if he wanted to do the same and he couldn’t think of a good reason to say no… Most of it had washed out.
Anyway, for me Bluey Albon was the driver of the day on Sunday, taking his Williams from last on the grid to a World Championship point, completing all but one lap of the race on the same set of tyres. It was a mighty performance in a difficult car, and while Charles Leclerc won the Driver of the Day award for steering a dominant Ferrari to victory, I think Alex did a better job. Anyway, Leclerc’s victory was popular in Melbourne where the second largest ethnic group (after those with English roots) comes from Italy. That is about seven percent of the local population. They have a neighbourhood known as Little Italy and, naturally, they are all Ferraris fans.
With Ferrari doing well (finally) and with the success of Drive to Survive, F1 in Melbourne in booming and there was a huge crowd for the Grand Prix, with an official figure of 419,114 fans having gone through the turnstiles over the weekend. Everyone was busy trumpeting this as the highest F1 crowd of all time, which it definitely was not. No-one really knows the biggest crowd ever, because back in the 1950 and 1960s there were vast crowds in places like Monza and Mexico (when a large percentage of fans came over the walls). The race day crowd in Melbourne was 128,294, but this was not even close to the first Hungarian GP in 1986, when it was reckoned there were 200,000 on race day. The first United States GP at Indianapolis in 2000 had a crowd in the region of 225,000, while the last Australian GP in Adelaide had a race day figure of 210,000 and a four-day attendance figure of 525,000. If one discards the 74,000 who turned up that Thursday in Adelaide, that Grand Prix still had a three-day figure of 451,000.
Still, it is all good for promotion to say that something is popular…
One of the odd things about Albert Park this year was that the grandstands had a lot of orange and it seemed amazing that Max Verstappen’s army had travelled to Australia (or that Dutch-Australians are a big group). But, of course, when one looked closely it was not Dutch orange but rather papaya orange, in support of McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo (an Italian-Australian). There were loads of red hats for Ferrari and quite a lot of black ones, supporting Mercedes. There were not a huge number of Alpine blue hats, but the number will probably rise over time as the next big thing in Australian racing is Oscar Piastri (of Italian heritage, of course), who is now waiting for his chance to race F1 as Alpine’s reserve driver. The French team is doing quite well at the moment and that creates a bit of a problem because Fernando Alonso is still quick, despite his age, and Esteban Ocon is matching and beating Fernando on a regular basis. Ocon has a three-year deal with the team. Alonso’s contract finishes this year, but he doesn’t want to stop. At the same time the team wants to keep hold of Piastri.
Three into two doesn’t go, so Alpine is already looking around for some way of putting Piastri elsewhere for a year or two, or putting Fernando out to grass in sports cars. It is a good problem to have, of course, but Alpine does not have any customer teams and so needs to find a proper deal to place Oscar elsewhere. There are not many opportunities as other manufacturers are also trying to bring on their new talent. Piastri’s options are a bit limited.
Alpine will let him go for a year or two, but not forever, and so probably Alpine needs to find him a job in 2023, and that depends on who might take him if an Alpine contract remains in place. The whisper is that Haas might like the idea as Ferrari protege Mick Schumacher is clearly struggling to cope with the pace of Kevin Magnussen. And Kevin is not yet up to full speed. Mick’s big crash in Saudi was the sign of a youngster driving beyond his talent, trying to match his team-mate… So that’s worth watching for.
However, it may be some time before such decisions are made and if Fernando or Esteban don’t deliver the goods in 2022, it is still possible that Oscar will get a ride and turn the Melbourne grandstands blue.
Another Italian-australian who has been in the news of late is Michael Masi, and the whisper in Melbourne was that the FIA has now come up with a settlement with the former F1 Race Director, following his removal from the role as a result of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the end of last season. The federation made a bit of a big’s ear of its report on events, suggesting that Masi had not done anything wrong, as the FIA Stewards said at the time, but removed him from the role nonetheless. Why this happened is not entirely clear, although obviously there were a lot of people who didn’t agree with what was done (mainly Lewis Hamilton fans). There have been suggestions that Masi’s removal was the result of personality clashes between Michael and the FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem and the recently-appointed FIA’s head of F1 – Peter Bayer – which came to a head after Abu Dhabi.
Anyway, whatever the reasons, Masi was ejected and soon a fairly substantial cheque will arrive in his bank account. This was necessary because the FIA could not reassign roles before it had cleared away the debris. Thus as soon as the whole thing is signed off, the federation will be able to announce some of its F1 plans with DAMS’s managing director Francois Sicard expected to have some sort of FIA F1 sporting director role. The thing that does not quite make sense here is that Ben Sulayem says that he wants the federation to be more efficient and proactive and yet its structure seems to be becoming more and more bureaucratic. F1 now has to deal with the FIA President, the Deputy-President Sport Robert Reid, Bayer and soon a new sporting director as well. Efficient structures usually involve fewer people, in order to allow for swift decisions and to avoid politics.
The new FIA Race Directors were in the meantime much in evidence in Australia (except the virtual one, whoever that is). The new folks are trying to build relationships within F1 and there has been more than a little pushing and shoving over things like DRS zones in Albert Park, jewellery and fire-proof underwear. Sebastian Vettel was upset for being fined for riding a motor scooter on the track while returning to the pits after one of his many incidents during the weekend, while Lewis Hamilton said that they would have to cut his ear off to remove some of his jewellery. The need to change their underwear caused some amusement amongst the drivers about the checking process. All these rules exist for good reasons – mainly safety – but they have not been heavily-policed because Masi – and Charlie Whiting before him – were quite flexible. If that sounds odd, one must remember that in a fire metal jewellery and watches conduct heat that will burn a driver while the fire retardant materials are meant to stop that happening. That is the logic and the science of the rule. I guess that if Hamilton wishes to risk having his ears burned and is willing to sign a suitable waiver then he can keep his bling, although creating paperwork to allow him to express himself is probably not the most efficient way of doing things.
F1’s booming popularity is the reason for another of the big rumours over the Australian GP weekend: that the replacement for the Russian GP will be held in Singapore, a week before the Singapore GP. There are some very good reasons why this is a better choice than Qatar, which was originally rumoured to get the date.
Firstly, Qatar in December is hot and F1 teams don’t want their cars to melt, their tyres to turn to gloop and the spectators to be toasted. The fact that there were almost no spectators for the first Qatar race is neither here nor there. The time to have a race in Doha is November and that cannot happen this year because of the World Cup soccer competition.
F1 does not want to have to rejig the calendar more than is absolutely necessary because of the freight crisis that is ongoing at the moment and so having two races in the same place makes a lot of sense. It would also allow F1 to trial the idea of a two-day Grand Prix, and the word is that the folks in Singapore are confident that the demand for F1 at the moment means that they could sell tickets for two events. The two could be differentiated by being run at different times: one in daylight, the other at night, and one must remember that the fees paid are largely met by a special hotel tax that exists in the city over Grands Prix weekends, so the actual cost to Singapore would not be huge; would bring in more people; and would thus generate additional revenues and more global coverage for the city, showing the world what Singapore looks like in daylight as well as in darkness.
It is probably not yet decided what the event would be called, but one can expect something like the Marina Bay GP or the Lion City GP. Both would do nicely.
F1’s popularity is also causing media rights deals to go up in value, and with the US rights up for sale at the moment for 2023 and beyond, there seems to be quite an auction going on, with Liberty Media aiming for the stars, hoping for $75 million a year, compared to the current $5 million. The likely figure is probably somewhere in the $40-50 million bracket. ESPN (which is part of Disney) wants the rights, but NBC, Fox Sports and perhaps even some streaming services such as Amazon or Netflix, are all supposed to be in the bidding. The number of US viewers is growing fast, but there is still a lot of potential for growth – so it will be worth watching wha happens.
The current growth of the sport and the rise in value of the F1 teams is also leading to chat about the 11th and 12th team slots that exist – in principle – in the commercial agreements of the sport. F1 is quite happy with 10 teams, all of which are now pretty solid and the sport does not need a couple of extra outfits which could become cannon-fodder, as has happened with almost all new teams in the sport in recent years.
There were three new teams in 2009: Campos Meta, Manor Grand Prix and USF1.
USF1 never materialised, but an entry was given to Lotus Grand Prix (later to become Caterham).
Manor became Virgin (and then Marussia).
Campos turned into Hispania (and then HRT), but disappeared at the end of 2012. Caterham died in 2014 and Virgin/Marussia/Manor ground to a halt in 2016.
Today there are at least four groups making noises about wanting an entry. There is Andretti, one from Monaco, one based around an existing Formula 2 team and another that I cannot discuss because I have agreed not to say anything, on the basis that I might get the story as and when it happens (I’ll probably get screwed on that one).
There may be others I haven’t heard about. The problem with all of this is that ambition is free, but to create an F1 team requires something in the region of $1 billion. You can do it in a different way (as Haas showed) but Gene Haas is a billionaire and so there is a safety net. The reality is that buying a team is still probably the best way to do it, but as the asking price has now risen to about $700 million, there are some folk who think that starting something new might have become a better option.
Andretti has been talking rather more than is good for such projects, as it is usually best not to say too much and keep things quiet until an entry has been secured.
This process is quite complicated, but the first step required is for Formula 1 and the FIA to agree that a new team is worth having. There are huge complications involved because one needs to consider the impact of new teams on all the stakeholders in the sport. Race promoters, for example, might need to build new facilities because the existing garages/paddocks are insufficient to cope with a larger number of cars.
There is a process, outlined in the commercial agreements, that allows for two new teams to get a share of revenues as soon as they start operating, but in order to access that one needs to buy your right to earn the money and so must commit to pay an anti-dilution payment of $200 million. This is then split between the existing stakeholders to make sure they do not lose money by allowing more competition.
If one has the money to pay that fee, and then the entry fee and the cost of creating a team, the numbers quickly add up and so buying a team has been a better option. However the new commercial agreements have pushed up the value of teams and made existing operations more stable, and so there are fewer opportunities to acquire “distressed” teams. The last opportunities were William and Force India. At the moment no-one looks like they need to sell and most of the teams are supported either by a car manufacturer, or by a billionaire.
The Haas business model is not a bad idea, but there are not many opportunities to do the same thing. Aston Martin is using the Mercedes F1 windtunnel in Brackley, Haas uses the Ferrari tunnel at Maranello and Scuderia AlphaTauri is using the Red Bull tunnel in Bedford. Haas uses Dallara to manufacture chassis and while there are chassis-making companies such as Multimatic, ORECA and Ligier, they would need big investment to embark on F1 programmes. Engines are not difficult. Alpine would like to have customers – but it doesn’t need them.
For the moment no-one has convinced the FIA and F1 to start a bidding process. They could do it, I suppose, but the other thing to bear in mind is that there is no requirement to accept any project if the FIA does not think it is sensible. Which is why buying teams still makes more sense for those who have money to burn (and products to sell). At the moment there is much talk of Volkswagen having decided to enter Formula 1 in 2026, with the Audi and Porsche brands, although final official decisions on this will not be made until the rules are finally set in stone.
There continue to be reports that Audi will buy into McLaren, initially taking shares in the McLaren F1 team and then perhaps buying into the McLaren Group as well. But it seems that there is no agreement as yet regarding the price, although there has been speculation in Germany that Audi is willing to pay more than $700 million to buy the F1 team. McLaren wants more than that.
So there have been rumours that Audi is now shopping around, if only to get McLaren to negotiate downwards. The word is that Audi could buy Aston Martin or Sauber. The first is a complete long shot because the car company and the racing team both use Mercedes engines, and you are not going to get an Audi-Mercedes F1 car any time soon. An Aston-Mercedes, a McLaren-Mercedes and an Alfa Romeo-Ferrari are already daft enough concepts – but there are limits.
In addition, it is not entirely clear why Volkswagen would want to add a new supercar brand to its portfolio. Right now it has Porsche and Lamborghini and has effectively sold to Bugatti to Rimac. VW is planning to spin off Porsche soon to turn its value into cash, just as Fiat did a few years back with Ferrari.
Audi buying another supercar brand does not make a heap of sense and McLaren is something that BMW might want to pursue, because it does not own any supercar brands.
Stellantis (the company that grew from the Fiat-Peugeot merger) owns Alfa Romeo and is involved in F1 (in a cut-price kind of way), but needs to make its own engines in the future if it is going to be serious. It also owns Maserati, but wants to turn this into an electric-only business.
Renault has Alpine.
Aston Martin is currently chomping its way through vast prairies of cash belonging to Lawrence Stroll and folks who think he might make the brand successful. Maybe he will, but there is also a strong possibility that it could all flop horribly as Aston Martin as a brand has never been a great commercial success, even with the help of James Bond. For the moment, Stroll is still pursuing the dream, hoping to turn the team into something that will allow Lance Stroll to win the World Championship. We are at the early stages of that programme and in Melbourne things were definitely not going well, with green bits of bodywork all over the shop and there were even complaints about how the Aston Martin Safety Car needed to be quicker.
The good thing was that the Safety Car did not collide with either of the Aston F1 cars, but it was all a bit of comedy store last weekend. Lawrence Stroll’s management style may work in the fashion world, but there is no sign at the moment that it will build a great team for the future.
I did hear over the Melbourne weekend that Stroll, in an effort to find a way to build his own F1 engines, asked if he might buy part (or all) of the Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains company in Brixworth. The proposal was, by all accounts, politely declined. Mercedes is happy to have Aston Martin as a customer, but does not seem to be overly interested beyond that. Still, I suppose Stroll’s logic was that Mercedes has recently reduced its involvement in the F1 team, has sold off its truck division and will soon announce that it is selling its Formula E team to McLaren…
The most logical choice for Audi would seem to be to acquire Sauber and turn that into an Audi F1 team, in much the same way as BMW did with the Swiss team 20 years ago. In many respects this might be a better deal than buying McLaren because of the Germanic approach that Audi and Sauber share. Audi has long been a major customer of the Sauber wind tunnel and so knows what it is buying, and the proximity of Sauber to Germany would obviously help. That would mean that Alfa Romeo would have to think again about F1, but at the moment the firm is getting a bit of a free ride off the sport and at some point needs to either get serious or to get out.
The possibility of a Porsche F1 project at the same time as Audi might seem strange, but there are going to be clear differences between the two and by the time it all happens they will pobably be part of different companies, as Porsche will be independent of VW.
In a normal situation, Porsche would always do its own thing and build everything in-house, but it looks like the F1 plan in 2022 is more to do with marketing than technology. Thus, badging the Red Bull Power Trains power units makes sense. Red Bull has spent a huge amount of money (rumoured to be $400 million) on its new engine facility at the Red Bull Technology Campus. This leaves the Austrian drinks company with lots of options. It can go on doing its own thing and not have to worry about partnerships with manufacturers; it can have partnerships and they can change over time; or it can sell the whole thing if the right manufacturer comes along. Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz is now 77 and the future of the company is not clear. Mateschitz has an heir, but he also has partners in Thailand who probably have a say in who manages the business.
Perhaps the future will be for Red Bull to go public and all concerned take the money and leave the business to others. Who knows? Perhaps Porsche is thus positioned to get the whole racing business as and when things happen.
Porsche is also heavily involved in synthetic fuel, as a fuel manufacturer in addition to building super-efficient internal combustion engines/hybrid engines, and this will be part of the F1 rules of the future.
It is all fascinating stuff.
The other thing that should be considered is the rumours that South Africa will join the F1 calendar. This is not really big news because the intention has always been there.
I know this because back in 1993 Bernie Ecclestone introduced me to an official from the African National Congress (ANC) – Nelson Mandela’s party – who was there to represent the organisation. It was a long time ago, but the bloke was completely mad about F1, while also coming across as being very clever. I was impressed and so I wrote down his name in my notebook and then watched over the years to see what would become of him. His name was Cyril Ramaphosa and he has been President of South Africa since 2019.
He wanted a Grand Prix as soon as he took office and F1’s Chase Carey went to South Africa a couple of times in that era to discuss possibilities. The problem was that South Africa was gripped in a crisis over electricity supplies. Then came the pandemic and throughout all this Ramaphosa has been fighting to change the ANC and renew its image, which is not good. National liberation movements in Africa tend to fade away as political parties as time passes. Ramaphosa has been trying to oust some of those in the party who want him out and that has meant that his reforms have had to be hesitant. It is all going to come to a head in December this year when the ANC holds a national elective conference, prior to the next general election in 2024.
Ramaphosa’s popularity was once at 70 percent, but it has fallen although he remains the most popular leader in the country. And he is so popular that some think that the ANC is holding him back. This means that he can either reform the ANC and reverse its gradual decline (which is the first option) or perhaps set up his own new party in order to win power in 2024.
Holding a Grand Prix is not thus a primary priority for the President, but he knows that it is a good idea and that it will help boost the South African image and economy, although some might try to use it against him if he starts the project too early…
So, we will see. If he has control of the ANC by the end of this year then a race in 2024 is quite possible. If other scenarios play out, then things may be different.
Finally, there is just one point worth mentioning about Melbourne. The Media Centre was deserted. This is worrying, but also understandable. The written media in F1 took a huge hit in the pandemic and new processes developed to maintain coverage without writers travelling were introduced. The problem is that these processes remain in place and editors and publishers don’t want to spend money sending their people halfway around the world for just a few days. If Australia was twinned with a race in Asia, then perhaps it would have been more cost-effective. The fact that Melbourne was on its own this year was a problem. There were about 50 international journalists in total, down from the pre-COVID number of round 300. Hopefully, it will bounce back, but there are no guarantees. During the pandemic the press corps went down to a low point of nine in Russia in 2020. There were several races with less than 20 reporters.
While F1 thrives on TV, the sports still needs written journalists to weave the tapestry behind the coverage. Netflix tapped into this need but it too has limited available time.
OK, in the modern era, some people cannot read 5,000 words without their heads exploding, but those who are reading this sentence have done it…
It’s not impossible if you love the sport and want to know more.