La Dynamite is such a great name for a village. I’ve always been a fan of eccentric place-names and La Dynamite is certainly up there with Little Snoring, Middle Wallop, Écoute-s’il-pleut (Listen-if-it’s-raining), Droop, La Roue-Qui-Tourne (The-Wheel-that-Turns), Bachelor’s Bump or plain old boring La Machine.
La Dynamite is so-named because in addition to being a good place to have a picnic and watch butterflies doing their thing, it is also the site of a very large explosives factory. This is why there are not many houses in proximity as the “blast wave overpressure” in the event of an accident would probably knock down reinforced concrete buildings and blow human being well into next week. From what I can gather this has never happened at La Dyamite, although its sister works at the daftly-named Billy-Berclau, near Lille, suffered such an event in 2003, which led to its closure and the transfer of operations (by normal transportation methods, rather than by explosive wave) to an obscure part of Poland.
Anyway, La Dynamite is a good place to stop if you are driving the 400 miles from Barcelona to Monaco, as you do in F1 these days. It’s about 250 miles into the trip. You could stop at the wonderful walled medieval city called Aigues-Mortes, which is slightly more off the route. This was once a port from which Crusaders departed to the Levant, but is now miles inland from the sea, because of the Rhône river deposits vast amounts of silt at its mouth, or rather its mouths, – as there are two of them.
Between the Petit Rhône to the west and the Grand Rhône in the east, is the Camargue, land that is as flat as a board with briney lagoons and reed-infested marshes. It is a weird and wonderful place with rice paddies and salt lakes, flamingos and cowboys. The latter, known as gardians, spend their lives corralling the famous black bulls and white horses of the Camargue.
La Dynamite is where it is because 120 years ago the area was empty of people but the PLM railway (Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée) passed through, hauling visitors to the Cote d’Azur. This could bring in the components of dynamite and carry away the finished product to the mines of the Cevennes. Railways used to be useful and they are becoming so again as everyone sees them as being more sustainable than a squillion road cars, all puffing out nasty smells and ruining the planet.
History is always useful (despite what some politicians will tell you) and back in the days before everyone had two cars, racing took place on the roads in many countries. Britain, being eccentric, insisted before 1903 that any rival to the horse-drawn carriage should require a person carrying a red flag to walk ahead of the vehicle. This handed leadership in road transport technology to the French, who allowed racing to take place on their public roads. In Britain things were liberalised after the Motor Car Act of 1903, but the 20mph speed limit on all public roads meant that racers had to go abroad, until someone with a lot of money decided to build Brooklands. The French raced everywhere and they often picked triangular circuits between towns with stations, which meant that the spectators could get close to the action.
Once more people had cars circuits moved to places where only cars can go, which is exactly NOT what is required in the modern day and age. Huge traffic jams are no longer considered cool and even that most green of competitions – Le Tour de France – has a problem because while the riders produce little pollution, the 14 million car-borne spectators out-do all other sporting events in the world in terms of pollution.
The tragedy of this is that the racing circuits which we now consider to be classic venues are largely beyond the reach of railways and putting in new ones is vastly expensive. Le Mans twigged this years ago when the city built a tramway to take thousands of spectators from the city’s railway station to the middle of the celebrated racing circuit.
Access is a problem for a number of famous F1 tracks, although Monaco and Monza are both served by railways, which makes life easier from them. But when it comes to places like Silverstone, Spa and Paul Ricard, it is a problem. The tragedy of Spa-Francorchamps is that it once had a railway station in the village and the path of the railway is still there, although the tracks were torn up in the 1970s and the path left was turned into a cycling track. A station would be invaluable today.
I mention all this because both the French and Belgian GPs are at the end of their current F1 contracts and the signs are that neither event will be renewed. Paul Ricard is struggling to meet the fee demands from the Formula 1 group, but Spa is in trouble because despite support from the Walloon provincial government – which understands the value of the event for the region – the venue has serious problems with access. Spa has undergone a massive rebuild in recent months, in order to make it safer and to allow the track to run motorcycle races again, but the access problems will not go away. Last year’s Belgian GP washout created horrendous snarl-ups after the usual car parks turned to mud – and fans parked wherever they could. And then didn’t see a race… Obviously the weather does not help and although the hard core fans still love Spa – and so they should – it is not what Formula 1 is looking for these days. It is a long circuit but has a small crowd capacity of 75,000, which means that even when full (which it is thanks largely to the Orange Army that marches south each year from Verstappenland) it cannot produce the kind of numbers that F1 wants to see.
Adding more spectator areas might be possible, although ecologists would probably chain themselves to trees, but then access would become more of a problem because there are only so many ways in and out of the circuit… It does not help that the local police force has a reputation for imposing traffic management measures which seem to makes things more difficult, but some fellow with pips on his shoulder thinks he knows what he is doing and who are we to argue.
Spa’s Commercial Director Stijn de Boever was in Barcelona for discussions with F1, but the word is that the series promoter isn’t too keen on doing another deal, even if the provincial government ups the money, which it is willing to do. It may be considered a crime against humanity by hard core F1 fans not to have a race at Spa, but the sport wants to appeal to fans of all kinds – and Spa does not fit in this respect.
After the calendar disruptions caused by the pandemic, it is hoped that things will get back together more in 2023, but there remain question marks about China and how all the races will fit together next year. I bumped into Circuit of the Americas boss Bobby Epstein in Barcelona (he’s often there) and he said it was news to him that his race might move to the spring. It sounds more like there might be an Austin-Mexico-Vegas swing, but F1 teams don’t want more triple-headers if they can be avoided (as they were only supposed to happen during the pandemic).
The team bosses met with Stefano Domenicali in Barcelona and he explained that he would try to create a more regionalised calendar in order for things to be more efficient, more cost-effective and more sustainable (that word again). There are also the problems for the next few years with Ramadan, mentioned in the last Green Notebook, and so it could be that Australia will pop up at the start of the year again for a year or two to ensure that Bahrain and Saudi Arabia don’t upset local sensitivities… There could be a test in Bahrain and then a two-week gap to Australia and then the Middle Eastern races after that (before it gets too hot).
It would be nice to report that South Africa will be back in 2023 but it is going to be tough to achieve given the political instability in the country and the constant bickering that seems to exist within the ruling African National Congress party. These fights have become so bad that former President Kgalema Motlanthe recently said that the rule of the ANC, which has run the country since 1994, is coming to an end because it is steadily losing the support of the people. Against that background it may be hard to get a race up and running any time soon.
The basic concept of regionalisation is to have a calendar that groups the races so that logistical problems are less complicated. Thus the season would begin in the Middle East in the early spring, with Australia and another Asia-Pacific race (normally China) following on. There would then be a swift double-header in the Americas before the European season in the summer. With some of the European races being weeded out, that opens the way for Eurasia as well. After the summer break (which no-one wants to lose) it would be a second Asian trip (logically Singapore and Japan) although there is also the desire for a race in Korea, although there seems to be little interest in reviving either Malaysia or the Grand Prix that never was in Vietnam. After that the focus would switch to the Americas again in the autumn months, with the likes of Mexico, Austin, Brazil, Vegas and perhaps something in the Caribbean, and then the season would finish off with a pair of evening races in the Middle East, to maximise global TV audiences for the finale. This would mean that Asia and the Americas would each get two hits of F1 per year, which will help build interest.
The problem with all this is that Montreal in June gets in the way. In a perfect world Montreal would be twinned with Miami and held in May, when temperatures in Canada are a little lower. But that would move it off the traditional start-of-summer weekend, which makes it a big party for thousands of Canadians who don’t actually attend the race. The event is coupled with graduation ceremonies and proms and it is huge earning weekend for the city. Miami cannot go any later because of the heat in Florida in June. And Miami cannot have the Grand Prix in the autumn because of the NFL season that runs from September – January, which is the prime purpose of the Hard Rock Stadium. The Canadians have a contract that guarantees the current date and so to get them to change will be difficult, although the race promoter is now owned by Bell Media, which is also the F1 TV rights holder in Canada and so the date of the race may be negotiable given the other interests involved.
Monaco is still to be fixed as F1 wants more concessions and more money from the Principality and, if possible, a race track that allows for racing. Still, the race is no longer tied to the Ascension Day holiday and does not have an extra day, which makes it possible to be back-to-back with Spain, although it is a logistical struggle getting everything into and out of the pokey little paddock in Monaco, which is not VIP-friendly unless you have a yacht.
New races are adding to the prize money, but they also add to the costs and the human wear-and-tear. However at the moment this is not the primary worry in the minds of F1 team bosses. On Saturday in Spain, just after qualifying, there was a very low-key meeting in the McLaren hospitality unit, involving FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the FIA’s head of F1 Peter Bayer, Ferrari’s Mattia Binotto, Red Bull’s Christian Horner, Mercedes’s Toto Wolff and McLaren’s Zak Brown. Those involved entered and departed individually so it was not obvious – and the “smaller” teams were not part of the discussion. This was all about the impact of inflation on the F1 budget cap. Inflation was rising in many countries before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, because the global pandemic had created serious supply-demand imbalances. The war added new supply shocks to the global economy which we are now feeling with dramatic hikes in the price of many items and disruption in the supply chains. The big teams are arguing that $140 million is not enough (although, of course, they spend a lot more when all the exclusions are included). They have had to make serious reductions to adapt to the limits and now want to use the global situation to puff up the budget again. The FIA seems to be smiling and nodding and letting them have their say, but there are no signs that the federation’s cap will be doffed for anyone. This has led Christian Horner to suggest that the teams might not be able to afford the last few races and so will not appear, which is headline-grabbing but not realistic if Christian wants to keep his job. Still, given the amount of time he spends on Sky TV, he probably has a future in broadcasting if his days as a team principal ever come to an end (assuming, of course, that Sky is still around).
At the moment, the FIA seems to be more fixated an the question of jewellery, which seems to be a fight that is not really required, but must be viewed as arm-wrestling between the sport and the federation over who is the boss when it comes to the rules. Clearly, the boss of F1 is not Lewis Hamilton and so he may have to divest himself of his bling if he wants to race on in F1. This is sensible and logical – and safer – but Lewis seems to think it is against him, while others feel that it is a fight that F1 really does not need right now.
It is a time of change at the FIA and it is clear that we have not seen all the changes yet. More are expected in the weeks ahead as the new leadership cleans up the messes and structures left by the ancien regime. In the finest French traditions, some heads will roll.
As part of this process there is a new chief of staff at the FIA, with the appointment of 54-year-old British-born Anglo-Indian Shaila-Ann Rao. No-one seems to know what the difference is between a chief of staff and a CEO, but perhaps the President will explain that at some point once he has put out all the fires he has been fighting. Rao is a lawyer who spent years in TV rights negotiation with TF1 and Lagardere before joining the FIA as Legal Director in 2016. She moved on two years later to join Mercedes AMG Petronas… but is now going back to the federation, presumably because it has a new president.
The FIA was much in the news in Barcelona thanks to Aston Martin turning up with cars that looked like green Red Bulls. The team has “previous” with regard to copycatism and so the feds had to go through the process of finding out how this had been done without anyone nicking any designs or using photographs and scans (which are no longer allowed). This was a lengthy process which has been going on for a while under the radar and the FIA boffins say that there is no evidence of any wrongdoing. Red Bull says that some of its IP has been downloaded by staff who left the team but while that can be proved, it is hard to prove that it was used elsewhere. However there is still the possibility of Red Bull taking action against individuals if they have breached their contracts, but showing that Aston Martin used the data is impossible. Cyber-security in F1 is well-advanced these days and there are almost certainly security markers hidden away in software to stop “cutting-and-pasting” of data. The fact that Red Bull knows about downloads says it all: there are elaborate systems that know exactly where all confidential information is, and who has accessed it. Everything is logged and there are multiple firewalls and multi-stage authentication techniques. Even if someone gets through all of this, the team will still know what data has been moved, which apparently it does… Espionage is thus a dangerous business.
Horner and his crew are good at technology and the word is that in order to stay atop the rigging in F1, the team is now aiming to build a new windtunnel on its campus in Milton Keynes, because it fears that others may catch up. Windtunnels are huge, expensive, not sustainable and much work can be done these days with computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which simulates what windtunnels do. In a perfect world windtunnels would be gone but Red Bull still sees the value in them and has the money to spend on them… even if there are restrictions on how much they can be used. It would be better, perhaps, to ban them but then at least three teams would oppose this… because they are building new ones.
The budget cap has put value into the teams and the cost of buying a team has now risen dramatically, making life hard for those who want to break into the sport. At the same time, there is more demand as sports investors see the potential of F1 growth. Thus to get hold of a team today will cost about $700 million. This basically means that a buyer needs to have a billon or so to spare in order to buy and run a team. Obviously some of this would be offset with sponsorship (which is getting better) and prize money (which is also rising), but it does mean that Grand Prix racing is an expensive business. Every now and then one hears from financial circles that a team is looking for investors (or buyers) but most of these rumours seem to relate to “fishing trips” with the owners dipping their toes in the water to see if anyone bites at a big valuation. The most recent rumour is that Alpine has been sniffing around for a valuation, although it is unlikely that the team would be sold. However, bringing in partners to share the burden (as Mercedes, McLaren and others have done) is not impossible. Renault is still very keen on electric vehicles, although the bosses believe that ultimately the future lies in hydrogen, and it is worth noting that in rcent weeks the Nissan Formula E programme has been moved from the DAMS headquarters near Le Mans to the Renault motorsport engine facility in Viry-Chatillon. Elsewhere the Mercedes Formula E operation is being moved out of Brackley now that the team has been taken over by McLaren. This rather sums up the state of the car industry at the moment. Some folk running one way, others doing the opposite…
There is little chatter on the driver front yet although Williams sources say that the team is not going to kick out Nicholas Latifi and replace him with Nyck de Vries before the end of the year. There is no guarantee that the Dutchman will sign for 2023 because he’s not a youngster willing to grab an F1 chance at any opportunity, but rather at 27 wants to make decent money from his career and can live without F1 if there is a high-paying job in sports car racing which would mean winning races, allied to a drive in Formula E. If one looks at Sebastien Buemi one can see that there are lots of options. The Swiss used to be a Red Bull-sponsored F1 driver. Today he still works with Red Bull in the simulator, but also has a factory drive in WEC with Toyota and a Nissan works drive in Formula E. Quite how he has managed to represent two rival Japanese manufacturers at the same time is not clear, but he’s probably pulling in a truckload of greenbacks as a result… and good for him.