Getting home from the British Grand Prix normally involves driving south from Silverstone, around the miserable M25 and then south to Newhaven (which has not been new since the 16th century). This is a small port on the south coast on England, to the east of Brighton, between chalk cliffs. From there one takes a ferry across The Channel to Dieppe, a similar port between two chalk cliffs. The journey takes around five hours and one can get a cabin and sleep half a night before setting off across France. The Newhaven-Dieppe ferry is not very glamorous, although those with a taste for the bizarre might like to know that Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh spent time as a crew member on the ferry route, going backwards and forwards between France and England. It is doubtful that he gained much inspiration from this, although white cliffs have been known to inspire.
When you leave the ferry port in Dieppe the road climbs quickly to the top of the chalk plateau (the reason for the white cliffs) and soon you arrive at a roundabout. Dull stuff, unless you know the history. If you turn to the east you are on the main straight of the Circuit de la Seine-Inférieure, home of the second the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France in 1907. There is nothing there now, but once there were pits, a vast ornate wooden grandstand and a giant scoreboard, which was never up to date.
Today most travellers turn west and the road they take descends into the flat valley of the River Arques, close to Dieppe’s hippodrome and to the Alpine car factory (Dieppe is Alpine’s home town). You arrive in the strangely-named suburb of Rouxmesnil-Bouteilles, now a drab industrial area with its only saving grace being a kart track, hidden away behind a Nestlé factory, where they manufacture Nescafe. You are soon out in the country and it is a delight to be rushing through the lanes at an hour when these still belong to crows and rabbits, with occasional cats on the prowl for small animals to torture. It is a bewitching time of day, particularly in the summer, when the warmth from the earth rises into the cool sky and mists form before your eyes. If lit by the sun these turn the world into an unworldly and beautiful place.
And thus it was that I found myself in a misty Mauquenchy, the perfect antidote after the Silverstone weekend, filled as it was with people and traffic jams.
There was a time, 35 years ago, when the village of Mauquenchy nearly became famous in Formula 1. The Automobile Club Normand (ACN), which ran the Rouen Les Essarts racing circuit, realised that its track was to dangerous for international races and was looking for somewhere to build a new F1-spec race track. Mauquenchy has a quiet and secluded valley, surrounded by hills on all sides, and the ACN thought this would be a great venue for a circuit. The mayor of Forges-Les-Eaux, a picturesque spa town nearby, was excited by the project, as was Jean-Luc Therier, a local who was one of France’s biggest rallying stars at the time. The Larousse-Calmels F1 team also liked the idea as it would provide them with a new home, which would develop into a motorsport hub and thus help the local economy.
It was all sound logic.
The bad news was that France’s President at the time, Francois Mitterrand, was a man who knew how to keep his friends happy and had a plan to redevelop the Magny-Cours circuit. This would become the home of the Ligier F1 team (and a motorsport hub… etc etc). With the help of Pierre Beregovoy, who was the mayor of nearby Nevers (and Mitterand’s Minister of the Economy), the project in Magny-Cours trumped Mauquenchy. And so the Norman plan was recycled and they built a hippodrome instead. This pulls in a few people, no doubt, but for Forges-Les-Eaux many of its visitors today come on two wheels, on a cycle path that links London to Paris, known as the “Avenue Verte” (the green avenue), which uses disused railways converted into cycle paths. It always make me smile when cyclists try to exercise their moral superiority about the environment, because it brings out the devil in me and I ask: “What’s the most polluting sporting event in the world?” The answer, of course, is the Tour de France because while the 176 riders involved don’t leave much of an environmental footprint, the 14 million fans who drive to watch pump out a lot of exhaust gases.
Protesters do not generally target the Tour de France because everyone thinks that riding bicycles transforms a person into an angel with toe-clips. F1 on the other hand, ends with up a bunch of people thinking it is smart to walk on to a racing circuit to draw attention to the use of oil. Well, David Baldwin, Emily Brocklebank, Alasdair Gibson, Louis McKechnie, Bethany Mogie and Joshua Smith (collectively known as the Silverstone protesters), if you knew what you were talking about you would have targeted the Tour de France.
I bumped into David Richards of Motorsport UK at one point during the weekend and he said that he was busy trying to get a meeting with the protesters, in order to explain to them why they would be wrong to target the Grand Prix, because they obviously did not know about F1’s amazingly efficient engines and how this is filtering down through the industry…
Silverstone saw the launches of various worthy projects, designed to create a perfect world. I do worry about the F1 campaign to be carbon neutral by 2030, not because I am opposed to the concept, which clearly I am not, but I do think that if the sport is going to make such claims, it must also include the emissions created by spectators in the calculations.
What the sport has to do is to tell the story of what it is doing for emissions technology (which is amazing) and to argue that it should be viewed as part of the solution, rather than the problem. In this respect the sport has only itself to blame.
The Formula 1 group is looking more and more at urban circuits with mass transit in order to address this problem, but the down side of this is that in time we will lose some famous places if the strategy continues. Races in the middle of nowhere are no longer popular. Circuits out in the wilds are struggling to get F1’s attention. The Nürburgring is gone already. Paul Ricard and Spa are on the verge of disappearing. Everyone loves Spa, despite its drawbacks, but it is hard to argue that because it is a famous place in racing, it should be allowed to produce lots of emissions. The ultimate irony is that Spa was originally laid out where it is because it had railway stations in Francorchamps, Stavelot and Malmedy. The latter two were lost when the circuit was shortened and passenger trains to Francorchamps stopped in 1959, with the rails being torn up in the early 1970s. You can still see where the tracks used to run and ponder that if they were still there today, the track might have a very different future. Putting back railways costs a fortune but at Spa the path of the old railway was transformed into a cycle track, known as Pré-Ravel Ligne 44a and so those of an energetic nature can still cycle to the races. But will they?
A sport is only as good as its fans. It’s no good fixing all the F1 emissions if the fans arrive in gas-guzzling urban tractors and sit in jams for hours on end, pumping out exhaust fumes.
We had a race last year at Zandvoort where most cars were banned and fans came either by train or by bicycle and it worked out very well.
The truth is that if these old rural circuits want to survive, they need to adapt and transportation infrastructure is important.
All this brings me, by a roundabout route, to the big rumour of the Silverstone weekend which is that Audi AG has reached an agreement to acquire the Sauber team. We already know that Porsche is leaping enthusiastically into bed with Red Bull and now its sister brand Audi wants to go racing as well. Why? Because the new F1 rules in 2026 are exactly what the industry wants as it heads towards sustainability, with hyper-efficient engines and synthetic fuels. There may be others that want to jump on the bandwagon as well…
The whisper is that the deal is worth around $450 million and will see Audi acquiring 75 percent of the shares in the team, valuing it at $600 million. The sale is conditional on the technical rules of F1 for 2026 being confirmed by the FIA but will be a phased deal over three years with Audi taking control of a first 25 percent of the shares in 2023, another 25 percent in 2024 and a third 25 percent in 2025. The remaining 25 percent will be retained by Finn Rausing – who is one of the owners of Tetra Pak Laval, a firm which has annual revenues of $16.3 billion. The team will go on using Ferrari engines and being called Alfa Romeo until the end of the current formula at the end of 2025. After that it will transform into an Audi operation, with engines being built by Audi Sport GmbH in Germany. It cannot happen any quicker than that because you cannot have an Audi chassis powered by a Ferrari engine.
There was another interesting rumour kicking around in Silverstone about Alpine selling some of its shares to the Chinese car company Geely. This makes perfect sense given that Geely owns Lotus and the Norfolk firm is involved in joint venture with Alpine to build electric cars, while Alpine’s parent Renault and Geely are reportedly planning a joint venture to sell hybrid cars in the Chinese market. Renault is also helping Geely get into the US market using the Renault Samsung plant in South Korea. There is a trade deal between South Korea and the US which allows Korean automakers to import vehicles into the US tariff-free. There is no doubt that the best way to promote Lotus would be to use Grand Prix racing, where the firm has huge heritage, so perhaps we might one day see Alpine (which was called Lotus F1 a few years ago) either reverting to that name or with an engine supply to a Lotus-branded team. Who knows?
While on this subject, it is also said that part of the Aramco sponsorship deal with Aston Martin was a commitment from the team to build its own F1 engines in 2026. That will cost a lot… Aston Martin’s financial situation is creating headlines in financial newspapers as the firm’s share price is light and its debt load heavy. The company continues to make positive noises but the number-crunchers are sceptical. There are rumours that the Saudis might buy into the business.
Billionaires have different rules to the rest of us, although the presence of Vijay Mallya was a reminder that things don’t always end up well. Still, the bigger the billionaire the more fluffy the cushions that they have to break their fall. When it comes to billionaires F1 has a lot of them – some with more cash than others. One thinks of Mateschitz, Latifi, Rausing and the Strolls. Not to mention the Al-Khalifas of Bahrain, the Agnellis and others who like to play at the F1 tables.
I’ve always found that the richest folk always make the least noise and that was definitely true at Silverstone where there was a man who is worth more than Mateschitz, Rausing and the Latifis combined, walking around the paddock. Rob Walton mentioned in conversation that he was a small investor in McLaren, as a member of the consortium that owns about 33 percent of the team. He does like cars (he has a car collection worth several hundred million) and it is said that he has about $60 billion to play with thanks to the family’s involvement in Walmart… and so F1 does not really faze him. He seemed to be enjoying his weekend.
When one considers the big players in this world, the scrambling over a few millions seems somehow rather tawdry, but that is part of the F1 game from week to week.
The driver market is beginning to burble and it may be that we are going to have some earthquakes soon. There are lots of assumptions being made about who will go where in 2023 and I sense that some of them are false assumptions. There have been rumours for some time regarding the future of Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin F1, with the suggestion being that the four-time World Champion will retire at the end of the year, at the age of 35, and will be replaced by 23-year-old Mick Schumacher. There is much interest as well in Alpine. The team saying that there are no decisions yet about the team’s driver line-up for 2023, but things seem to be on the move. Esteban Ocon is under contract until the end of 2024, while Fernando Alonso’s contract with Alpine finishes this year. The team’s third driver Oscar Piastri has a contract, but Alpine must provide the Australian with an F1 drive in 2023 or else he is free to leave. As with all F1 contracts there is an option date by which point a deal must be agreed. This is often the end of July, which means that a driver who does not have a deal for the following year still has the time to find an alternative. The thinking in recent weeks has been that the team would agree to another two-year contract with Fernando Alonso for 2023 and 2024. Alonso is 41 at the end of July and so would be 43 by the end of the contract. Having said that, Fernando is obviously still quick, having started on the front row of the grid in Canada recently. Dropping Alonso in favour of Piastri would be a controversial thing to do, even if the logic is to prepare Piastri and not risk losing him. On the face of it, Piastri’s only real option was to join Williams, replacing Nicholas Latifi, but Piastri’s manager Mark Webber is a cunning fellow and also a mate of his former Porsche colleague Andreas Seidl, now team principal of McLaren. Seidl it seems is interested in Piastri.
Daniel has a McLaren contract for next year but it is fair to say that he has been a disappointment, despite winning last year in Italy. One might conjecture that McLaren might offer Daniel an elegant exit by putting him into IndyCars as it has not yet confirmed whether Felix Rosenqvist will race IndyCar or Formula E next year. But spies in the US are suggesting that this is not a real option as McLaren will be running Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Alex Palou, the current IndyCar champion, who is currently racing for Chip Ganassi.
If McLaren makes Piastri an offer, it would probably be a better choice than a Williams and so one can see that Oscar would prefer that. It is also a splendid lever to get Alpine to ditch Alonso because Piastri is seen as the real deal, rather than being Alonso the real deal from 20 years ago, who never quite delivered on his potential. Alpine has already lost Guanyu Zhou to Alfa Romeo and the Chinese driver is now beginning to show his paces and his value for the Chinese market… The thing that might mess up this scenario is that McLaren remains intent on becoming an American-style F1 team with Zak Brown, some US investors, who have the clout to buy out the Bahrainis, if they wish to depart and the possibility of Colton Herta being good enough for F1. He should begin testing soon and so we can find out, but he has an IndyCar deal with Andretti for 2023 so his arrival would not be before 2024.
The only other story of major interest in the Green Notebook in Silverstone is the suggestion that South Africa will definitely have a place on the 2023 calendar. The word is that a deal has been agreed with a South African promoter to hold a race, but that the event will no have any overt funding from the government. This does not mean the authorities will not help with tax breaks and such things but it will not provide actual funding, because President Cyril Ramaphosa does not want to put himself into a situation where he could be accused of spending government money on a sport he enjoys, when the country (and he himself) have other problems. The government can always get involved later if things improve. Formula 1 wants to visit Africa in order to strengthen its inclusion programmes, which aim to treat everywhere the same – and make money from everyone.
As I finish writing up these notes, I find myself in Nuremberg, bound for Austria where we will have another race… and another Green Notebook…