Motorway service areas, known as aires in France, are generally not very interesting. They are named after the local hamlet or sometimes a fancy local chateau. Some have wistful names, such as the Soleil Levant (the rising sun), others have odd names such as Chien Blanc (white dog) while others act as promotional tools for the region: the aire des Volcans d’Auvergne is one. And then there is the aire du Poulet de Bresse, the aire of the Bresse chicken. This features a very large monument to chickens. If that seems a little odd, one must remember that gastronomy is important to the French and they are immensely proud of their culinary reputation, prowess and traditions. And they are very protective and object to anyone trying to copy their products. There is an elaborate system of certification for authenticity, known as appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) and one cannot legally sell Champagne or Camembert unless it comes from the right place.
Back in 1957 the first animals to be granted AOC status were the chickens of Bresse, and it would be 50 years before they were joined by the salt marsh lamb of the Baie de Somme.
The chickens of Bresse are the gallinaceous version of Wagyu beef and they are spoiled rotten before they fly off to the great coop in the sky. Each one must have 10 square metres of land for their own use. They cannot be stuffed with corn and have to live off the land a bit. Most chickens can only ever dream of a future as a golden nugget, but the chicken of Bresse are royalty. They are quite nationalistic and must have blue feet, white feathers and red combs. They are small-breasted because of their energetic lifestyles make them lean and tasty, and not chubby like their boosted supermarket-ed colleagues. They are at the top of the pecking order. Michelin chefs get starry-eyed about them. Presidents wish to devour them.
The Bresse is a region to be found at the foot of the Jura mountains, where the plains of the Rhone begin. At the centre of this is Bourg-en-Bresse and on the Monday evening after the horribly-named Made in Italy e dell’Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix, I found myself dining in the Bresse, where they even flavour their mayonnaise with chicken juices (and very nice it is too).
I had had a pleasant enough weekend in Imola, despite the poor weather, nervous Race Directors who seemed more besotted with red flags than Chairman Mao used to be, and some very muddy car parks. It had been a Red Bull rout in the end and the tifosi went home down in the mouth, rather than frothing. On Monday morning I set off to drive the 1,200km home. It had been a long night of work and I knew that I was not going to get home in one go, but I hoped that I might get to Avallon or Auxerre before night fell.
I was steaming along and happy that the traffic was light when I approached the town of Novara, to the east of Milan, where a million years ago I spent a day or two at Novamotor, watching the engine wizard John Penistan rebuilding a Formula 3 engine, and asking intelligent questions such as “What does that bit do?” I was thinking of John when there was a sudden odd vibration. A change of surface? No, it got worse and I knew it was time to get off the road as my left rear tyre was clearly falling apart. Fortunately I managed to do this before things got nasty and found myself on the hard shoulder. So I donned my gilet jaune and set about solving the problem, digging out the space-saver spare from deep in the bowels of the boot. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) I have done this a few times as French rural living does cause occasional punctures. This was a pretty impressive failure, but despite keeping a wary eye on approaching vehicles, I was able to jack up the car and loosen the wheel nuts by jumping on the tyre wrench. My plan was to drive into Novara, find a gommista (I learned a new word if nothing else) and then get back on the road again. It was then that I discovered that it was Italian Liberation Day, a national holiday, which explained the empty roads. Everything was closed. I pondered holing up in a hotel until Tuesday morning and then driving home, but that meant I would lose a day at home. Time is precious in F1 and so I decided that the best option was to head for France with the spare, driving at 50 mph up to the Mont Blanc tunnel. It was about 120 miles away, which is a bit further than one wants to go on a space saver, but I knew if I drove gently it would not be a problem. France would be open for business and I could do a quick pit stop and be on my way again.
The upside of it being a national holiday was that I was able to potter along, with my flashers on whenever an Italian approached at vast speed (speed limits in Italy seem only ever to be consultative numbers) and after about two and a half hours and no major incidents, I got to Mont Blanc and popped out of the big bore near Chamonix. Fifteen minutes later I was at a tyre dealership which had the tyres required and 15 minutes after that I was en route again. It wasn’t quite an F1 pit stop – and F1 drivers never have to show a credit card – but I was happy enough. The tyre fitter shrugged in the finest Gallic fashion when I asked why the tyre had failed. He didn’t know and he didn’t much care.
And so I ended up in Chickenville, as I reached a point at which it was unwise to go driving as I had worn myself out and the risks-versus-reward calculation made no sense. As I sat down to dinner I watched a McLaren transporter whizzing past. When I had breakfast the next morning there were a fleet (or at least a flotilla) of F1-branded trucks, lugging equipment home.
Risk assessment is a big part of Formula 1 these days, not just in terms of race strategies but in all decision-making and I suspect that some of the teams probably have chief risk officers, who sit in offices and worry about how things can go wrong. If I was CRO at Mercedes, I mulled while watching a coypu frolicking in the pond next to the hotel, I’d be worried now about Lewis Hamilton. It’s a difficult thing to predict because it is based on emotions, but I would nibble my nails about Sir Lewis walking away. Just as Nico Rosberg famously did back in 2016, catching everyone on the hop. Lewis had been asked the question at Imola and said he was 100 percent committed to the team, and Toto Wolff had said the same to me when I asked if he was worried. I feel that Lewis would not dump the team in it because he is always banging on about everyone being responsible. It was hard to imagine him walking away mid-season, as some have done in the past. “It will be a painful year that we will have to ride out together,” he said. That was an interesting comment, because it basically said that there is no real chance for the team to fight back. After Imola, Ferrari has 124 points and Mercedes 77, and that gap had been achieved without Carlos Sainz scoring in the last two races. In the Drivers’ Championship, Chuck Le Cluck (nothing to do with chickens) had 86 points, with Lewis on 28, a gap of 58 points.
Given the normal levels of F1 reliability, where cars rarely break down and drivers are so good that they deliver week after week, closing big gaps is not easy. With the budget cap getting in the way of massive splurges, the CRO might argue that the best thing to do would be to give up on the W13 and focus the resources on the W14.
This new generation of cars are not yet fully understood, and that means that there is potential for big gains as the engineers get the hang of the 2022 cars. But that is true for all the teams, not just Mercedes. There is the added problem that there are several other teams ahead of Mercedes in terms of pace and so collecting big scores is slowed because others are getting those points, which helps Ferrari and Red Bull pull further away. If you put this into perspective, if Lewis starts dominating in Miami and Leclerc finishes second on all occasions, it will still take Lewis until the summer break before he can get back into contention – and it is pretty safe to say that this isn’t going to happen. So really the big question is whether Hamilton has faith that the team will do a better job in 2023 and give him the chance to win an eighth title, or whether the time has come to admit that at 37 he might call it a day and change his lifestyle and go do all those things other things he wants to do, like becoming a shareholder in a soccer team, fashion design, or whatever.
I think it would annoy Lewis to have to leave the record-breaking eighth title on the table, having beaten all of the other F1 records, but there is the also the possibility that he might become a driver who stayed on too long, as Michael Schumacher did.
On the other hand, Lewis might look at his old rival Fernando Alonso and conclude that the Spaniard is competitive at 40 – so why not continue.
All the signs in the paddock are that Fernando will soon sign a new two-year deal with Alpine, which will mean that he stays until the end of 2024. After that the French firm may wish him to move into its LMDh sports car programme. Fernando is a smart cookie and knows that dumping him would be a negative thing for Alpine, but with Oscari Piastri sitting uncomfortably in the wings, Fernando needs not only to perform but also to get support. He has just announced a personal sponsorship deal with Castrol, Alpine’s oil sponsor, which makes it harder for Alpine to move him on. A clever move.
So, with Esteban Ocon under contract until the end of 2024, Alpine needs to find Oscar a job, before some else does… The Australian has marked himself out as a major future talent in F1 with victories in the 2019 Formula Renault Eurocup, the 2020 FIA Formula 3 Championship and the 2021 Formula 2 Championship. These three titles (each in a rookie year) are mightily impressive, particularly when you compare them to Charles Leclerc (GP3 and F2 in 2016 and 2017) and George Russell (GP3 and F2 in 2017 and 2018). Neither managed three titles in three years – and now they are the future stars of the F1 game. So Alpine needs to find Oscar a home for a couple of years so that he can be trained up and then step into a top drive in 2025 (hoping that Alpine is a top drive by then).
The obvious choice would be a two-year deal for Piastri at Williams, which needs a stronger second driver than Nicholas Latifi. The team does not need funding these days and wants two competitive drivers as results will pay as much as the Canadian’s sponsors will do. The team is happy to take young drivers who might go on to better things (a la Bottas and Russell), but it also wants to build up its own driver squad. In this respect Piastri does not fit in and the team would be better off going with Nyck de Vries, a Mercedes Formula E champion, who is looking for things to do in the future as Mercedes is leaving the all-electric series soon and will sell its team to McLaren. De Vries used to be a McLaren driver and was ditched by the current management in 2019 and so he would rather look for a job in F1, if there are any options available.
Down at Williams, they quite like the look for the strong-jawed Dutch imp.
The other problem is that while getting Piastri for a couple of years might be possible, it is not much good for him if the Williams is not very competitive… and he might think that a stopover at Haas would be a better option.
Ferrari has some influence at Haas but does not have the right to nominate drivers, as once it did when it lumbered Sauber with the ageing Kimi Raikkonen. Mick Schumacher is a Ferrari future project and he looked half-decent last year but the arrival of the Viking Kevin Magnussen has been a shock for Mick and he now needs to prove that he can he play at the big table. The only way he can do that is to beat Kevin – and Magnussen has still some more preparation to do before he gets fully up the speed, as he jumped into the seat at the last minute and was not really fit enough. If Kevin shows Mick the way around this year, Ferrari might give up the dream of “Schumacher II – The Sequel” and look for a new idea.
Australians are pretty excited about F1 at the moment, although Daniel Ricciardo seems a little lost at McLaren and there continue to be rumours that in 2024 (if not earlier) Daniel will be replaced by Colton Herta, the American who Zak Brown believes could open the gates of Formula 1 to corporate America. We will have to see if Herta has everything needed to be an F1 star, but he seems to have the speed, whether he can go on being a drummer in a rock band called Zibs in his spare time remains to be seen, as F1 is a fulltime job.
Anyway, Australia is excited about Piastri and having had a massive sell-out crowd a few weeks ago, the talks are now ongoing about where the race should be on the F1 calendar as a stand-alone intercontinental flyaway is not the best option for Formula 1, which wants to cut is costs by twinning Australia with an Asian race. That might be possible if China came back in the spring but the way things are going in Shanghai at the moment suggests that it may be a while before F1 goes racing in China again.
The alternative would be to move the Australian GP to the end of the season, but that would require the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix to move to earlier in the years, as both events are organised by the Australian Grand Prix Corporation and so a clash needs to be avoided. The days when Australia opened the season are gone as Bahrain is now believed to have a deal for years to come.
The calendar chat at the moment is largely related to which event will replace Russia in September and my understanding is that it will either be a second race in Singapore, or it will be nothing at all, as Qatar seems to have dropped from the equation. Still the Qatar race will be back in 2023. I did hear whispers that Saudi Arabia would like to throw its financial weight around a bit more and thinks that a Grand Prix at each end of the season would be a good thing: with one race in the spring in Jeddah and the other in the autumn up in Riyadh. The F1 group may not like the idea much as there are sufficient Middle Eastern races now and there are other priorities, but the Saudis do have an awful of money and, as the old song goes, this is what makes the world go around.
F1 fans in Europe are increasingly worried that the number of races in F1’s traditional homelands is going to reduce. This is almost certainly true, but I am not sure it will go much lower than eight, even if Monaco gets put in the corner with a hat marked with a big D for one year, if the Monégasques fail to recognise the danger of not agreeing to a deal that is less dismissive of what F1 does for the Principality.
I have been hearing for some weeks that the Germans are getting more and more ambitious and want to get a 10-year deal for a race. This is probably only going to happen at Hockenheim as the Nürburgring finds itself in a troublesome situation as it is owned by a Russian oligarch and F1 is not about to do a deal with one of those folk. It is bad for the share price. It is also doubtful, by the way, that the Nürburgring will be able to get an international circuit licence as the FIA does not seem to be keen to dole these out to anyone with Russian connections.
Russians can complain about that if they like, but sadly the actions of President Putin and the lack of opposition to his activities at home have meant that Russia is no longer a big player in international motorsport.
Germany has a few things in its favour, even if the German drivers are not setting the world on fire, and no-one in Germany sees Mercedes as being a German team. It is the home of Audi and Porsche and the word continues to be that they will both come wading into F1 in 2026 if the sport can get its act together and produce some rules. This needs to be done quickly because time is short. It is fairly clear that Porsche is going to come in alliance with Red Bull, while the Audi rumours flit about from week to week. Last week it was McLaren that Audi will buy, this week it was Sauber, next week it will be Aston Martin. Whatever the details, the word is that the Automobilclub von Deutschland (AvD) is very keen on putting Germany back on the F1 map and while there is some regional money for the track, the best hope may come from federal sources as the new finance minister is a fellow called Christian Lindner, who loves cars and I am told is a Porsche freak – with a competition licence.
The rumours about Audi buying Sauber seem to have come to the attention of Alfa Romeo, as Imola saw the appearance in the F1 paddock of Carlos Tavares, the president and CEO of Stellantis, which owns the Alfa Romeo brand, and Alfa’s own CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato. They have been funnelling some money into Sauber in recent years, dressing the Sauber-Ferrari up as an Alfa Romeo but obviously no-one really believes the team is actually a factory Alfa Romeo programme.
This has made very little obvious difference to Alfa Romeo sales, which are pretty poor given that 2020 was a bad year for everyone and 2021 was supposed to be the year when things bounced back. Alfa Romeo sold 63,000 cars in 2020 and then bounced back to 55,000 in 2021…
This is not good. Imparato says that the brand will be selling 200,000 a year by 2027 and I’d love to see that but they need to find a way to make Alfa Romeo look like a sexy brand if that is going to happen. Dressing up Sauber-Ferraris is probably not the right answer. Alfa Romeo has a great history as a firm that was once known for its luxury, technology, Italian style, high performance and racing passion. It is an obvious brand to try to use in F1 but it looks like Tavares will need to be a big more serious about F1 if that is going to happen. The good news is that Swedish billionaire Finn Rausing would be happy to sell the team to someone with sensible plans in F1 and so there is potential for a proper Alfa Romeo team. With new engine rules and budget caps in F1, there is an opportunity for all car manufacturers to get involved in F1 with technologies that are quite useful when one considers that the take up of electric cars is not going to meet predictions and F1’s move to synthetic fuels is a good way for a car company to paint itself green. F1 is a brilliant marketing tool, if you do it right, and the popularity of F1 and the development of new, younger and global fans, is something that is causing car companies to think about the idea. Tavares is (quietly) a racing nut and has competed in some pretty exotic machinery over the years, but he is always careful not to let his passion put him in a difficult situation within a car company, as he does not want accusations that his passion caused the company to lose money. There are plenty of clever engineers within the Stellantis motorsport ranks and the company has money if it wants to spend it. The company chairman, by the way, is also pretty keen on racing, as Jon Elkann’s other job is as chairman of Ferrari. At Imola he was in Ferrari gear, Tavares and Imparato were wearing Alfa clothing. Rausing was in plain clothes as usual.
Passion is what drives the sport and if you want evidence that Tavares might do something with Alfa Romeo, you need only to look back to his days at Renault, before he left from Peugeot and then worked the deal to merge with Fiat Chrysler to form Stellantis. Tavares thought that a bloke called Tony Fernandes was manna from heaven when the Malaysian turned up in 2011 suggesting that Renault and Caterham create a joint venture to build road-going sports cars. The Caterham version never appeared but Renault decided to push ahead without Fernandes, to develop the Alpine… which is now a Formula 1 brand.
I was reminded of the importance of passion at Imola where I kept bumping into old friends from the days when I was a Formula 3 reporter back in the early 1980s. We went to Imola in 1983 and many of those who raced that day went on to big things in F1, or won big in other championships, or headed teams or manufacturer departments. As I walked through the paddock I met three of the top six from that European Formula 3 race at Imola in 1983 and we discussed who else might have been there. Stefano Domenicali seemed like a good bet. Imola is his home town and he started out young as a racing fan. I bumped into Stefano and asked him the question: “Yes, I was there,” he said. “I was organising the parking in the paddock…”