When your average Viking was slain (messily) in battle, a complicated business followed. A valkyrie would arrive (presumably with a clipboard), alerted by mystical forces. Valkyries are female. Their role is to guide dead warriors to one of two places, depending on their mood. The cool place for a dead Viking to go with his valkyrie is Valhalla, a sort of hall of fame for newly-departed Norsemen.
The mythology has all been confused by Aston Martin, which likes to have cars with names beginning with V. The Vegetarian, Vanilla, Vacuum, Va-va-voom, Vesper and Verruca may be still to come, but the recent models have been the Valkyrie, followed by the Valhalla.
I guess this is because Valkyries have been cool since the days when Francis Ford Coppola used Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie, from his Der Ring des Nibelungen series of operas, as background music in his drug-influenced but impressive Apocalypse Now movie.
Anyway, before there was a united Germany, there were lots of Germanic folk in search of a nation to belong to, and some felt that they should unite and become one nation, rather than slaughtering one another. It was a good idea.
While this process was going on Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (later King Ludwig I) came up with the idea of creating a hall of fame for eminent German sovereigns, politicians, scientists and artists and decided it should be called Walhalla (Germans pronounce W as V). Ludwig believed that a hall of fame needed a hall (which is not the case today) and so funded the construction of a neo-classical box, atop a hillside overlooking the Danube, to the east of Regensburg, where he put busts of famous Germanics. It isn’t exactly Disneyland… but it happens to be just off my usual route to the Austrian Grand Prix and so this year I stopped off to check it out.
The purpose of this visit was really to get away from the vast numbers of Dutch cars that were pottering down the autobahn towards Passau. It was reckoned that there were 55,000 Dutch folk in Austria, following the cult of Verstappen. This has created other problems in Styria, which was not designed to have 55,000 Dutch all visiting on the same weekend. The result of this was that while many of the orange-folk stayed in camper vans, tents, transit vans, or simply lay where they fell, others booked every available room for many miles around, and there are not that many… This year the first available hotel I found when I first looked was 120 km from the track, admittedly on the motorway. But this was ridiculous and so I kept looking and found something about 40km away. It looked fine, but I didn’t really check. I was happy to have it, whatever it was. We learn lessons in life and I discovered that the route between Zeltweg and the oddly-named Maria Lankowitz is about 40 km, but it has to climb up the Lavanttal Alps, through the Gaberl Pass. The road made the old Nurburgring look dull. I did it eight times in total and to pass the time I counted 215 corners (all quite quick). By the end of the weekend, I had concluded that it was roads like this which nurtured talents such as Jochen Rindt, Niki Lauda, Gerhard Berger and Helmut Marko. What I also discovered was that of the 16 Austrian F1 drivers, four went to the same school: Rindt, Marko, Lauda and Harald Ertl. It was a place in the town of Bad Aussee, designed to get troublesome children back on the straight and narrow. This was run by a man who could have been a character from a John Le Carré novel. His name was Wilhelm Höttl, who in addition to being an author, he had served with the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the rather nasty security service of the SS, in Hungary during the war. Höttl was clever and recognising that he did not have much of a future, offered his services to the Americans and became a key witness against SS members in the Nuremberg Trials. After that the Americans used him to organise a couple of anti-communist spy networks in Austria and then let him run his school. Instilling some discipline in wild youngsters was probably not such a big deal for a man with such a background, but whatever he did, the school produced young men who knew how to get what they wanted…
Marko runs the Red Bull operations with an iron fist and if you do not do the job he wants, you get axed without emotion, even if it means that your career is over. He has made a lot of stars and destroyed a few others, who did not fit his view of what makes a great racing driver. The man behind Marko’s empire is Dietrich Mateschitz, who has created all things Red Bull. The next big deal was going to be announced last weekend but faffing about at the FIA (and some can-kicking by rival manufacturers) has meant that the 2026 engine regulations are still not yet finished and no-one is announcing anything until these are set in concrete. And so Porsche’s F1 plans will have to wait – and Audi’s as well. Some rapid action would now be a good idea as there are others who are thinking along similar lines.
This has combined with a subtle industry-wide acceptance that electric cars are not perhaps the immediate future – and the Tesla share price has been trending downwards for some months. The problem is that in this world of judgmental idealists with social media tools, no-one wants to admit that the only really sensible step today is efficient hybrids with synthetic fuels, which will buy the industry more time to get electric cars to a point where people want to buy them. F1 completely failed to tell the world about its amazing engines back in 2014, but the car manufacturers have now begun to realise (and accept) that F1 got it right.
The true genius in F1 came after that when Chase Carey talked the teams into accepting a budget cap, thus ending the unlimited spending that had driven the car manufacturers away. Now, they are looking at F1 and seeing a business that will not only put value in to their firms, but will promote their activities as well. It really is a win-win despite the best efforts of those who want to go on spending crazy amounts to stay ahead. One might add that when you boil it all down, some of the teams these days are frightened of Porsche. Anyway, the new engines will be simpler, cheaper and more relevance for series production and when one adds this to the sport’s advertising power and its growth in new markets – team ownership is not a bad idea, which is why the value of teams has sky-rocketed.
The problem is that those who did not seen the opportunity have now missed the boat and if they want to get involved they will have to pay more. But for big manufacturers the billion they need to get into the game is no big deal, while for some of those currently involved, landing that kind of money for selling the team makes a heap of sense.
This is not just conjecture because in Austria, the entire top management of Honda popped up in the paddock, led by President Toshihiro Mibe, chairman Seiji Kuraishi, Honda Racing Corporation president Koji Watanabe and the man in charge of Honda’s F1 efforts Yasuaki Asaki. I don’t think it is unfair to say that Honda screwed up in 2020 when the firm decided that it should focus on electric cars and quit F1, agreeing to sell its IP to Red Bull. That was a decision taken by Takahiro Hachigo, the then president. And guess what, in the finest tradition of Honda in F1, the next year saw success… Hachigo was politely shown a different future by Honda in April last year and the signs are that Mibe may reverse the decision, but now he must find a team to take over. Several are for sale if the sum of money offered is sufficiently high.
Another rumour that has popped up in recent days, as the result of a possible road car deal between McLaren and BMW, has been the suggestion that the Munich firm might come back to F1, in order to compete head-on with rivals Mercedes, Porsche and Audi.
McLaren and BMW have long history back to the F1 supercar programme in the 1990s. McLaren does not have the money to do its own F1 engine programme, so perhaps falling into bed with BMW might be a good idea.
For the moment Formula 1 is still allowing manufacturers to get a free ride in F1 with Aston Martin, Alfa Romeo and McLaren all using engines which are coming from elsewhere. How many fans really know that the Alfa Romeo team is really Sauber-Ferrari, that Aston Martin is Aston Martin-Mercedes and that McLaren is also running Mercedes engines? I see a marketing problem with this but not really a problem if manufacturers can get away with it. The word is that Aston Martin will be building its own F1 engines (with help from Aramco), while the Sauber-Ferrari operation will be taken over by Audi. Alfa Romeo will be looking for alternatives – it is interesting to see that Alfa Romeo CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato was in Austria – and while continuing to use Ferrari engines is a possibility, it might also be sensible for Alfa Romeo’s parent company Stellantis to invest. Why? Because it has 14 different brands that it wants – and needs – to promote. A Stellantis-engine could be branded by several of them… and why not have a Dodge F1 engine alongside an Alfa Romeo or even a Peugeot? If the brands share the cost, it is really not a big deal and Dodge could be portrayed as an American team, which might stop Michael Andretti saying silly things about F1 in interviews because at the moment he cannot find a cheap way into the game. If he turned up and promised to deliver an Andretti-Dodge F1 car, F1 might be more interested in having him aboard. Last summer Stellantis confirmed plans for the launch of a Dodge plug-in hybrid, to be known as the Dodge Hornet, a revamped version of the Alfa Romeo Tonale, and it makes sense to share F1 technology around as well.
But what really gets sales going is not the involvement of a certain manufacturer, but rather the success of a driver. Everyone wants an American now that F1 is getting bigger in the US and Zak Brawn at McLaren seems to be trying to get his team to look very American. In recent days the Colton Herta testing programme has begun with a 2021 McLaren MCL35M being run in Portugal for Herta. Brown says that Daniel Ricciardo is still going to be at McLaren next year, but Herta is obviously someone who might replace the Australian in 2024. It would be lovely to report that Daniel is getting to grips with the car, but after a year and a half with the team, he is still having weekends like Silverstone. It is also interesting to note that the only other driver who is close to Formula 1 – Formula 2 racer Logan Sargeant, a Williams young driver, has recently started looking very good, winning two Feature races (the ones that count), and is now second in the championship, admittedly a ways behind the leader Felipe Drugovich, although he is in his third year of Formula 2.
Of course, everyone would love to have a Chinese driver as well, if we can get a Chinese GP back on the calendar again.
China is a monster market where F1 could make a big impact if Guanyu Zhou does well. Thus far he’s doing a very good job, scoring twice so far but suffering three mechanical failures and the crash in Britain, which was not his fault. In other races he has been hobbled by pit stops that have gone wrong and in which strategy calls did not work out, so while it looks Valtteri Bottas has dominated him, it is worth pointing out that this may not continue. He has out-qualified Bottas on three occasions which is good given their relative F1 experience.
The word is that Zhou will stay where he is next year and Sauber protege Theo Pourchaire has been pretty disappointing. Pourchaire has pace, but expectations were perhaps too high after last year.
F1 does need to sort out China, but it is hard at the moment because of politics. The biggest thing is the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party , which will take place in Beijing in November. No-one really doubts that Xi Jinping, who has ruled the country since 2013, will stay in power, but the big question is who will be around him and whether the same bosses will survive in Shanghai. If not, there have long been rumours of a desire to move the Chinese GP to a street venue in Beijing. But then there is also the question of COVID… If there is a Chinese GP in 2023, it will be in the autumn, which will give the Chinese time to sort out more stuff.
The new calendar is still only chugging along and things may become a little clearer after a meeting between F1 and the Automobile Club de Monaco, which is scheduled for the French GP weekend…
Elsewhere, Sebastian Vettel is beginning to behave more and more like a driver who will be off at the end of the year. His decision to walk out of the Drivers’ Briefing in Austria meant that he has been fined €25,000, although this is suspended for the rest of the season. Vettel fixed things up with Race Director Niels Wittich afterwards, but this is not the act of someone who is trying to build good relations with officials who will probably be around for a while…
Never mind, perhaps he will get a place in Walhalla (the earthly version) instead, although it is not easy and it takes time. Richard Strauss died in 1949 and only got into Walhalla in 1973. Albert Einstein died in 1955 and only snuck into the hall of fame in 1990. Konrad Adenauer, who oversaw the rebuilding of the country after World War II, made it in 1999, 32 years after his death while Johannes Brahms was in transit with his Valkyrie for 103 years before being allowed into Walhalla in 2000.