Yeah, I know. Route 66 does not go through Florida. In fact, if one is being 100 percent accurate, Route 66 no longer exists. It was removed from the US Highway System in 1985, decommissioned because it had been replaced by new Interstates along its entire length.
But it takes time for legends to die, a fact I was reminded of on Sunday – the 40th anniversary of the death of Gilles Villeneuve – in addition to being the first Formula 1 race in Miami.
The latter was, of course, treated on social media as the sporting equivalent of the Red Sea parting and Moses putting a pass around his neck and leading his flock on to the grid…
It seems that every commentator from Boca Raton to Sausage Gully in Australia overlooked the fact that this was not the first Miami Grand Prix. There were 11 IMSA races that used the Miami Grand Prix name between 1983 and 1993, not to mention a string of GrandAm races in the Noughties. Never mind. Media inexactitude was in fashion in southern Florida, which might have been a good thing given Formula 1’s pretty awful history in the United States.
The good news (I think) is that we are entering a new age. And while some of the Old School F1 types might hrmph at the idea that the Miami International Autodrome is not a patch on the old Nürburgring, or laugh at the idea that it made perfect sense to build a fake marina, the whole thing passed off pretty well despite the fact that southern Florida is flat as a (European) pancake and utterly featureless, it’s only saving grace in physical terms is a string of beaches, and some (but not all) human bodies which appear on them to catch some rays.
Anyway, to return to the point, US Highway 66, known as Route 66, was an important road that linked Chicago to Los Angeles, from 1926 until 1985. It became one of the great American icons, symbolising progress and optimism, not to mention the sense of freedom that came with the automobile.
It was more than just another highway. It unified the US and encapsulated the American Dream.
What does it have to do with Miami? Not much, except that today there is a sense of optimism and excitement across the United States about another great automotive activity… Formula 1, big news thanks to Netflix’s Drive to Survive.
The race was held on the same weekend as the Kentucky Derby and that would not have got as much coverage if it hadn’t been won by an 80-to-1 outsider, which was the equivalent of the Haas team winning a Grand Prix.
I find myself on Route 66 because F1 lives are complicated. They leave relatives and friends strewn around the globe, although the sport also provides a means by which one can see them from time to time, even if it means more time away from the homestead.
Unlike most of the F1 circus, I didn’t hightail it to the international departure lounge as soon as the chequered flag had been shown, but stayed on and joined the queues on Monday in the domestic terminal, and listened to Americans on their ways home. This isn’t difficult because Americans often talk very loudly and express their feelings for all to hear. Everyone had bought merchandise to reflect their support of one team or another, or the race itself, and it was fun to sit, plain-clothed, and watch all the interactions. The message was clear, they’d all loved it. It was cool, it was friendly and it had been fun. For many it was their first race – and they said they’d be back.
As there were not any VIPs on the flights I was taking, I didn’t hear the complaints about the poor quality hospitality experience. F1 can blame the promoter for not using Do&Co, the experts who know what it takes, but in truth a share of the blame should go to the sport itself, for not insisting that the Austrian firm be used, in order to ensure the highest standards and justify the wildly expensive Paddock Club tickets. A three-day ticket cost $12,000 a head, although they were changing hands on the black market at up to $35,000, a clear sign that the people buying were not there to go racing, but rather for some other ego-related activity.
Being there was what mattered.
To give you an idea, a Monaco GP Paddock Club ticket will cost you $8,000, while the average European race will mean about $4,500 for the privilege. It felt like every VIP in Miami was there to be seen to have been there, perhaps with a selfie with a driver, or the ultimate prize, a selfie with Gunther F*cking Steiner.
The crowd capacity was only 82,500, but only around 50,000 were in grandstands. The rest were VIPs. And everyone was paying a lot. One had to be impressed by the scale of the event. It must have cost a fortune to create the whole concept, but it will pay back massively over the next 10 years, once they sort out the glitches. The track was terrific (but needs some work) and the hype was mad, but that is America for you. The Miami Grand Prix was a festival of self-absorbed people, getting ready to tell their friends that: “You really should have been there”.
The sporting event was the peg on which they hung their overpriced hats.
From those of us from more reserved cultures it all felt a little much, but it was kind of magnificent in the same way. F1 often says it wants each F1 race to be like the Super Bowl, and this was definitely a step in that direction.
The paddock access, one can argue, went too far, which meant it was harder for those working. There was no possibility of quiet chats with team bosses because they were run off their feet by TV crews, selfie-seekers and VIPs who needed to be adored. Some of the team bosses, who don’t need the adulation, took to hiding in their cramped hospitality units. And we all began to wonder what on earth it is going to be like when F1 goes to Las Vegas next year, where they have elevated such activities into an art form.
The great news in all of this is that Formula 1 is healthier than it has ever been, and its getting healthier all the time. OK, it isn’t very chic, but in the end, who cares? This is the modern face of F1, brassy and filled with social influencers filming themselves and big watch-jangling types chest-bumping and talking about yachts. In the future, with a little more work on transportation, the crowd in Miami can grow considerably and there really is no reason why racing fans cannot enjoy themselves alongside the party animals, mermaids and fake body parts. They may not start screaming when they see a driver (which seems to be a hallmark of the new F1 fan), but they can see the stars working their magic on the circuit.
The news that there will be another two series of Drive to Survive and that Formula 1 itself will buy a piece of land in Las Vegas is all good for the sport.
I guess that the number of VIPs is a measure of how good an event is, a bit like finding a good breakfast in the United States. You can go to a fast food joint, but the best way to find a good place is to look for police cars. The more police cars there are, the better the breakfast – unless it is a crime scene. There were five police cars at the place I chose on the first day in Miami and the breakfast was excellent…
Inside the F1 Paddock there was not much time for meaningful chatter, amidst all the goings-on. There was the jewellery issue, which is obviously about safety and not about freedom of expression. The drivers banging on that drum need to spend more time in the real world. There was Sebastian Vettel showing off his crown jewels by parading in the paddock with his underpants over his overalls. If he wanted attention (or perhaps sponsorship from an underwear manufacturer) he succeeded, but it did not add much to the argument that F1 drivers be protected in case of fire.
And then there was Michael Andretti doing the rounds of the F1 big cheeses, hoping to be allowed a sniff of the action. It will not be an easy task to convince everyone and it is not being helped by the fact that it is all being done in the public domain, largely due to Michael’s father Mario, who seems to be happy to talk publicly about the project. At one point Mario told Sky they were able to pay the $200 million to enter. “You get nothing for that… But we are ready,” he said.
This is not strictly true. The $200 million is an anti-dilution fund which opens the way for a new team to immediately begin collecting prize money. This is valuable and means that new teams do not have to soak up pain for several seasons before being allowed to join the club. It also means that the teams will likely survive those early times, which was not the case before when most new teams went to the wall, when the owners found themselves running on air, like Wile E. Coyote, and then plunged to become a distant cloud of dust at the bottom of the F1 canyon.
This money is (in theory) divided between the existing teams, to offset the loss of prize money that would occur if they agree to divide the funds 11 ways, rather than 10. This effectively means that they must each agree to take a 10 percent cut and gain another rival. So there is little motivation to make their own lives more difficult, particularly among the smaller teams. There are other less obvious problems that would result from an 11th or 12th team. Additional space is needed and additional freight must be shifted. Thus facilities and logistics operations have to be expanded.
There is a stupid argument that Andretti might take legal action and that the anti-dilution provisions are anti-competitive. It is possible they are, but finding this out will take years of legal battles, will cost a fortune and will mean that if a team does eventually win, it will arrive in F1 one day with no friends, in a sport where alliances are important. So that is a non-starter because the important thing is to get an entry, which the $200 million does not buy. To get an entry one has to convince the FIA and the F1 group that what you are bringing to the party is worthwhile and (most importantly) will add to the show. Andretti has therefore to convince everyone that he brings value, helping to build the sport in the US. The Andretti brand is widely-known in the world of motorsport and has enjoyed a fair amount of success, winning the Indy 500 five times in the last seven years, but has not won the IndyCar title since 2012, although the team collected four titles between 2004 and 2012. It has enjoyed more success in Indy Lights, where the opposition is less intense. The team runs various other operations in other championships. However, much of the brand value of the Andretti name derives from Mario’s exploits as racer, albeit many years ago.
An illustration of the value of this came for me in Australia when I was asked to chat to a group of kids who are keen to get into F1. They had won the right to visit the F1 Paddock (a great prize). In the course of the chat Sir Jackie Stewart appeared, in his trademark tartan trousers, in the company of Mark Webber. Jackie gave a few cheery words of encouragement and then continued on his way. The kids seemed none the wiser. So I asked: “Does anyone know who that was?” The response was 100 percent negative. “Has anyone heard of Ayrton Senna?” I asked. The response was the same. For traditional racing fans this might seem appalling, but this is the reality of the modern world.
Success in other formulae and having loads of money does not guarantee success in Formula 1.
The first step in the process is to get the FIA and the Formula 1 group to agree to open up a tender process. The team must then win that process. No-one in F1 wants a team that is simply a passenger. The business model is key in this process and Andretti seems to be trying to create a team that operates from a European base, but using a US-built chassis. The Haas model relies on Dallara to manufacture the cars in Italy and that firm cannot supply two teams, so Andretti must either build its own capability (which will cost a fortune and take time) or find another partner to do that work. There are specialist firms that could do it, but none of them has a proven track record in Formula 1, nor the level of infrastructure needed for F1. And this is where the project runs into trouble because building all this – and sustaining it all for a number of years – would require so much money that it is still a better idea to buy an existing operation and get rid of all these problems.
Andretti says that there are no teams available, although this is not strictly true as what he means is that there is no team available at a price he wants to pay. Audi is also in the market and obviously has more available cash.
If Michael was coming in with a US automobile brand behind him then he would be very attractive, but it is not likely to happen.
If there is enough money, F1 is not a closed shop as Lawrence Stroll (Aston Martin), Dorilton Capital (Williams) and Finn Rausing (Alfa Romeo Racing) might all sell. McLaren says it won’t, but it might if the numbers added up to a big enough total.
From an F1 point view, it is clear that the popularity of the sport is not dependent on a team, but rather on a successful driver, so what is really important for US growth is to find an American driver to get the country excited (as Max Verstappen has done in Holland, Sergio Perez in Mexico etc etc). Michael’s prize asset in this respect is Colton Herta, but the youngster seems to be a path to join McLaren in F1, while Andretti is also about to lose the last F1 American driver Alex Rossi, who is expected to join the McLaren IndyCar team in 2022.
On Sunday Michael was accompanied on the grid by Mark Walter, the CEO of Guggenheim Partners and Daniel Towriss, the CEO of Guggenheim Life, the parent company of the Gainbridge insurance firm
But money is only important if you spend it. The fact that money does not help much in success is also highlighted with a couple of other stories kicking about in the Miami paddock. One suggested that Williams is looking to change drivers for the second part of the year as Nicholas Latifi has not done a good enough job. Things are complicated by money that the Canadian brings and by contracts, but if it happens, expect Nyck de Vries to take the drive.
The other story along these lines is that of Audi, which is looking to buy a team. This has now been confirmed by VW group boss Herbert Diess. It is clear that Porsche will join forces with Red Bull and will effectively badge the Red Bull Powertrains engines in 2026, and there is speculation that there will be some kind of long-term option for Porsche to take over the whole team, if Red Bull decides that it has done enough in F1. Audi might come in sooner, because it has more to do, but it will be very difficult for the German firm to brand an existing team because of the current engine arrangements.
If, for example, Audi was to buy Aston Martin, it could not run Audi-Mercedes cars, as the two firms are clearly in competition in the real world. Ferrari is unlikely to agree to Audi badging one of its engines, Renault says it is not even thinking about such matters, while Red Bull Powertrains has a deal with Honda which precludes any customer arrangements before the rule changes in 2026.
Audi could build a current engine in addition to 2026 one, but that would be a little silly given the timescales involved and the best course of action would be to become a silent partner of a team and get things ready for 2026. Audi appears to be focussed on acquiring either Aston Martin or Sauber. In both cases the branding would change but Audi could not be used because of the engine situation.
Buying the Aston Martin team does not make a lot of sense, unless the current owners wants to offload the car company – which may be the case given that neither the team nor the car company are doing well at the moment. Aston Martin’s Q1 results for 2022 make grim reading, particularly when compared with previous predictions of a resurrection led by the DBX, which was first unveiled in November 2019. Production began in July 2020 and Aston sold 1,516 DBXs that year. In 2021 the firm sold 3,000 DBXs, of which 746 were sold in the first quarter. This year that fell to 421, a drop of 44 percent, which suggests that demand is easing off. Other indicators are also not good. Overall sales in Q1 dropped 14 percent while net debt rose from £722 million a year ago to £957 million. The only real bright spot in the story was that sales of the expensive specials meant that overall revenues went up four percent. Although the company says that things remain on target it has dumped CEO Tobias Moers and has appointed the 76-year-old Italian Amedeo Felisa as his replacement.
The word is that Stroll and his investors are now actively looking for ways to sell the firm to Audi, which will give them a fig leaf of having saved the firm and handing it on to an industry major. The racing team is also very disappointing. The team was in a mess in 2018 when Lawrence Stroll bought it (largely to provide his son Lance with an F1 drive) and the 2020 results were good because the team copied the Mercedes design, which resulted in Sergio Perez winning a race, but since the transformation into Aston Martin the team has failed to deliver, dropping from fourth in the Constructors’ Championship in 2020 to seventh last year. This year it is currently ninth. Lance is quick from time to time, but is not the full package and has been overshadowed this year by Sebastian Vettel, despite the fact that the German missed two races with Covid-19. Vettel is seen in F1 as being well past his best and prone to mistakes. Stroll is buying in talent and investing in a new facility which increases the potential value of the team.
The word is that Audi is now leaning more towards Sauber, which is for sale if the price and conditions are right. There is one key reason why this may be the best option. Sauber was owned by BMW between 2005 and 2009. It did well and was a World Championship challenger in 2008 before BMW pulled the plug after the global financial crisis. The people who were at BMW at the time thus know that the team could be a contender with the right leadership and the right resources. Audi CEO Markus Duesmann was one of the BMW F1 engineers in that era, and last year he appointed Australian Adam Baker, another ex-BMW man to formulate Audi’s motorsport strategy. Another man who was involved was Mike Krack, who is currently learning how to be a Formula 1 team principal with Aston Martin…
Many of the big names from Audi’s glorious motorsport past have retired now and the new generation have yet to prove their worth and there are some in Germany who think Audi’s reputation may now be a little overblown and the attitude a little bit too arrogant. Still, the people at the top understand the task in hand and seem to have the money to do the job… and they also know that Hinwil can produce competitive cars.
Other stories worthy of mention from Miami, include the suggestions that the FIA has now agreed to the plan to have six F1 Sprint races in 2023, although it is not yet clear where these will be.
Calendars remain the source of much F1 discussion at a time before the Silly Season really begins and the sport has still to finalise a race to replace Russia in the autumn. This will be Singapore – if it happens at all. The plan is to have a two-day race meeting on the weekend before the main event, with the first race taking place in daylight, the second at night. It is a good opportunity for F1 to trial a two-day event.
Interestingly, night and day are becoming an issue in Grand Prix racing for a rather left-field reason. There are some races that are stuck with certain dates and do not want to change: Miami, Monaco and Montreal being three of them. This means that F1 must fly backwards and forwards across the Atlantic, rather than adopting a more sensible strategy and creating a US “swing”, with several races paired up to reduce costs and wear-and-tear. In a perfect world Montreal and Miami would be linked, but Montreal does not want to move forward from its summer-opening festival and Miami doesn’t want to move earlier because of tennis.
Australia might like to regain its season-opening date, but the teams prefer to go to Bahrain so they can test and race in warm weather, without being too far from home, which means that when things go wrong, they can get stuff back to base more easily. The night and day problem is because of the Muslim practice of Ramadan, the 30-day period during which they abstain from all the fun stuff and focus on religion and clean-living, at least during daylight hours. Going racing in Ramadan is obviously not a good idea. This year Ramadan was from April 1 until May 1, which meant that the Grands Prix in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia both took place before it began. The problem is that each year Ramadan moves and next year it will begin on March 22 and end on April 20, which means that the two races need to be on March 12 and 19, with the pre-season test on March 5. But the teams want a break after Bahrain to avoid what is in effect a triple-header and that would mean that the season would need to start in February in Bahrain, in order to get both races done before Ramadan. F1 argues that if the racing is at night, that would be OK, but this pragmatic approach might not square with all Muslim believers. And things are more complicated in 2024, 2025 and 2026 after which Ramadan will not be a problem again for F1 until the mid 2030s, when it will be happening in November.
This may explain why there is much interest in a race in Africa at the moment, because South Africa could, for example, take over pre-season testing and the first race at a time when the weather is best and there would be no jet-lag, and then F1 could return to the Middle East after that. The sport used to go to South Africa at the start of each year, although it has also started the season in South America in the past. One idea that is kicking around is a race in Colombia with a very solid project under development in the city of Barranquilla. The word is that this is funded with private money and will not need public funding, although perhaps the authorities will be asked to kick in some cash for infrastructure work. I heard in Miami that this would be called the Caribbean Grand Prix, which would create a race that could move around the region over time, if other projects can come to fruition. This would operate along similar lines to the European GP title, which has been applied to different events in different countries. Colombia has a couple of young drivers beginning to climb through the ranks: Sebastián Montoya (son of) and Nicolás Baptiste, who is a protege of Fernando Alonso. This event might also help F1 with its problem of fitting in races in the US time zones as it could twin with one of the US events, or with Brazil, to streamline the calendar a little.
The signs are that the new race in Las Vegas is going to take Austin’s date in early November, rather than being held at Thanksgiving, which will mean that it will go back-to-back with the Mexican Grand Prix, which will keep its Day of the Dead holiday weekend. This means that Austin will have to move to somewhere else on the calendar, and could be switched to the spring, to be twinned with Miami, because the end-of-season is becoming more and more congested with races in Asia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Brazil and potentially Australia as well. Teams don’t like triple-headers and so an Austin-Mexico-Las Vegas swing would not be popular.
The Las Vegas at the end of next year and will be promoted by Liberty Media itself and so the profits generated will go straight into the F1 bottom line, without a promoter taking much of the loot and paying a fee. This is an important step as the Q1 figures for Formula 1 show just that these fees and hospitality earnings are important. This year the sport raked in $360 million in Q1, compared to $180 million in the same period last year. There were two races this year, rather than one in 2021. These were both held without any major crowd and hospitality restrictions, which was not the case last year. Hence the big increase. F1’s cash pile has also grown from $2.074 billion last year to $2.265 billion but the sport is about to splash out $240 million buying a 39-acre plot of land in Vegas, where it will build a permanent pit lane and paddock complex. If that sounds profligate, it is clear that there is more to this than meets the eye and we can expect to see the land being used for other things as well.
The investment sends a strong message to Las Vegas that F1 is serious about the relationship, which is currently just for three years. It also adds the asset to the F1 balance sheet (which is important for the bean-counter types in Colorado). The whisper is that the land – which is located between East Harmon Avenue and East Rochelle Avenue, and between Koval Lane and Kishner Drive – will feature permanent facilities that will give F1 an all-year presence in Las Vegas, converting into garages and hospitality units for the race. This could be an F1 showcase which would highlight the history, heritage and power of the sport with permanent exhibitions, although there is also obvious potential for such things as convention space and even may hotel facilities, in addition to retail outlets. If you think NASCAR Hall of Fame with garages, offices and so on, it is probably what will happen.
The price for the land is high as the current owners 3D Investments, which is run by the Daneshgar Family, paid $130 million in 2019 for the land and another adjacent 21-acre parcel, on which the Harbor Island apartment complex sits. The project they had went west with the pandemic, but they will make a killing on the F1 deal and will still be able to develop the apartment complex into something nicer. As for the Las Vegas race itself, work is needed rapidly to get everything done and the word is that the F1-owned promotion firm will be headed by Renee Wilm, Liberty Media’s chief legal officer, with the day-to-day management being done by F1’s Emily Prazer, who has been Head of Commercial Development of Race Promotion up to now.
Finally, I hear that the project will include a facsimile F1 paddock area on land north of Caesars Palace casino on The Strip, where the public will be able to get a feel for the sport, up close and personnel, without disrupting the actual operations.
This is good news for the battle-hardened F1 folk who fought through the Miami weekend…