If you happen to be in Monza and go north on the Arcore road towards Lecco, you will soon find yourself in a town called Cernusco Lombardone.
While the name sounds like a Soprano, it rolls off the tongue like a lazy river meandering through linguistic meadows. Turn to the left there and you will pass through Quattro Strade, a placename that tells you (with admirable brevity) that the town has four streets. You will then see signs to Montevecchia, the old mountain, which explains nothing of an extraordinary place where a few years ago geologists, archaeologists and astrophysicists worked arm in arm to discover three pyramids built by an ancient civilisation.
Just like the Egyptian pyramids, but taller. And without burial chambers within. They were built by shaping limestone hills into matching monuments, which were used for reasons unclear, but were probably related to astronomical or religious beliefs.
I guess you might call it an Italian Stonehenge, but built without moving mountains.
Why am I going on about pyramids in Italy when the last Grand Prix was in France? Well, the world is filled with surprises that we often rush past without even seeing. I was pottering through, bound for Budapest and the pyramids attracted my attention…
Paul Ricard is a monument of sorts, recalling a very smart man who created not only an eponymous drink, a kind of hooch called pastis, which is flavoured with Provencal things and is 45 percent proof. Having done this in 1932, he got very rich and then used a bulldozer to turn his name into a global advertisement for an alcoholic drink which today cannot legally be advertised. Yes, the Circuit Paul Ricard is a monument to Ricard, but it is also an advertisement for his drink…
Anyway, it will still be there for many years to come, but the French Grand Prix is unlikely to be. There is a break clause in the contract and Formula 1 wants a break. It has other venues in better places, willing to pay more, or without all the hassles that come when a drinks magnate builds a circuit in the middle of nowhere – with no possibility to improve the access roads.
We’ll not talk too much about French policemen, of course, but let us just say that perhaps they lack imagination and do what they are told to do without ever applying logic to the situation. Thus even team bosses and other stars of Drive to Survive were turned away from the logical route to the track because a special lane had been invented for F1 people, even if that meant you had to drive 30 miles to get to the so-called “F1 Lane”. To be honest I had no problems getting into the track, but I was getting there every day at seven o’clock in the morning because I hate wasting time in traffic jams. The evenings were less successful.
The access problems are certainly not unique in F1 and France does not appear to have a problem with money, but the decision not to race in France is rather a case of the Formula 1 group not being happy with the venue. It is 37 miles, much of it on wiggly roads, from Marseilles and there are some who dare to suggest that the city is not really a destination city (at least not in the terms F1 applies) and there is no getting away from the fact that while there have been attempts to regenerate parts of the city, it still has a bad image and people are nervous about visiting. This is based on the poverty that exists there and in consequence a high level of crime, often very violent. It is one of the biggest ports in Europe and rather a lot of dodgy stuff comes in and causes problems amongst the crime gangs.
The nearest “destination city” is probably Nice, as Toulon is traditionally a naval town, filled with rowdy sailors.
This is not to say that the region is not delightful. The coastal towns between Marseilles and Toulon are wondrful but there are still insufficient hotels for F1 and while the circuit could increase its crowd capacity quite easily and its VIP count, the problem remains: where are these people going to stay when they emerge from the traffic?
This is not to say that I am favour of dropping the French Grand Prix from the calendar. It does not seem right to do that. History may not matter much in the F1 world, but it should always be remembered that once there was only one Grand Prix a year – and it was French. Originally known as the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, the race was hugely significant not just in terms of racing, but also in the car industry. France was so dominant in the early years of the sport that the FIA was headquartered there, squatting in a building next door to the Automobile Club de France. Does that mean that the French Grand Prix should always be on the calendar? No, perhaps not, but running Grands Prix without France is a bit like running the IndyCar Championship without the Indy 500 – or at least one can argue that case.
Actually, when it comes to races that argue such things, Monaco seems to have the belief that F1 cannot exist without it. However, I believe there was a meeting recently at which some of the points of contention between F1 and Monaco were fixed, although there still remain significant problems between them. There will come a point at which a calendar will need to appear and we will see how serious F1 is about getting the deals it wants.
What is very interesting is that the company that organises the French Grand Prix is called “GIP Grand Prix de France”. This can organise a race wherever it wants to host one, as long as the the local ASN, the Fédération Française du Sport Automobile (FFSA), agrees. At the moment the firm rents the Circuit Paul Ricard, but it could do whatever it wants. The man behind this firm is the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, a former racer, who is a political fixer, and a former government minister. He is close to President Emmanuel Macron. The President recently said that France must protect its Grand Prix and that “the state is ready to participate”. The other point worth noting about the French GP weekend was that there was a dinner of Saturday night that featured around 15 of the CEOs of France’s biggest companies, which are included in the CAC 40 stock market index. These included L’Oreal, Sanofi, Bolloré, Accor, Air France and Pernod Ricard. So there is some serious clout behind the idea of a French GP, if the country can find a venue. At the moment they are trying out the idea of a race around the Allianz stadium in Nice. Oddly enough, on Monday morning, as I was heading towards the pyramids near Milan, it struck me that perhaps I should stop and visit the stadium as it would be a logical time for F1 types to visit and I might bump into them as they inspected the idea. In the end I didn’t bother because I don’t like the idea and I don’t think it will work.
The irony, of course, is that France has three tracks that could host F1 races without too much trouble: Ricard, Magny-Cours and the Le Mans Bugatti circuit. The problem is that Ricard and Magny-Cours are both deemed wrong for F1 because of their infrastructure and access (and image) problems and Le Mans does not want a Grand Prix because the Automobile Club de l’Ouest is scared it might undermine the status of the Le Mans 24 Hours….
So, if France wants a Grand Prix any time soon, it is going to have to create a new idea. There have been some good projects over time but nothing happened mainly because of money, but also because of environmental questions. This is daft in an age when F1 is really setting the trend for environmentally-friendly engines that people want to buy. Formula E has been brilliant at promoting itself as being the best of all possible worlds, but in truth electric car sales are still pretty hopeless when you look at the big picture, because people just don’t want to buy them. Smoke and mirrors from Fromula E boss Alejandro Agag has kept the plates spinning up to now, but it’s a high wire act. Formula 1’s approach is a great deal more practical and the industry seems to like it.
Anyway, I have long had the belief that the best idea for the French GP would be to hold the race in the Bois de Boulogne, the huge public park that sits next to the city’s famous Boulevard Périphérique, the city’s inner ring road. For those who don’t know Paris well, if you go under the Arc de Triomphe and straight on, down the road directly opposite the Champs Elysees, you arrive at the Porte Maillot. This is where the Bois de Boulogne begins. It is less about 750 metres from the Arc de Triomphe. The park boasts existing roadways, a number of lakes, two racecourses (Longchamp and Auteuil) and is adjacent to the Stade Roland Garros (home of the French Open tennis competition) and the Parc des Princes stadium. The park is served by a string of Metro stations, features the dramatic Fondation Louis Vuitton building (the most interesting new building in France since the Pompidou Centre). And the park exists for the enjoyment of the citizens of Paris.
From a motorsport point of view, it has heritage as the world’s first motor race, the Paris-Rouen Trial of 1894, started at the Porte Maillot. The first motor race after War World II, known as the Grand Prix de la Libération, took place in the park. It is easy to see such an event as a French version of Albert Park. The problem is that everyone thinks it would be a nightmare to organise. That is probably true but if the President was behind it, and the CEOs of the CAC 40, the biggest problem is really the mayor of Paris. Her name is Anne Hidalgo and she is opposed to automobiles. However, she believed all the gumph about Formula E and allowed the series to race on the streets. F1 has long had a habit of screwing up its environmental messaging but if it can get that right (and the signs are that this is now happening), Ms Hidalgo will struggle to find a good argument against it and should therefore embrace it with fervour. Having said that she is a socialist and would not be too keen to agree with Macron, but given that her recent presidential bid, as the Socialist Party candidate against Macron was little short of a disaster, it might be wise for her to cuddle up to the President.
Anyway, the idea of city racing, which Grand Prix racing began in 1929 with Monaco, is still a popular idea. The latest racing series to leap on the bandwagon is NASCAR which has just announced that it intends to run its big stock car around the street of Chicago. It is an interesting idea, particularly as the race will be part of the July 4 Independence Day holiday. It all sounds great but I am slightly worried that big heavy stock cars (which weigh 1,450 kg) and are very powerful might be a little too much for the usual concrete barriers to handle. F1 cars tend to bounce off concrete blocks, but when it comes to NASCAR I fear that the concrete blocks will be bouncing off the cars…
Anyway, Because the French GP is not overly popular with Beautiful People and the weather was hot, the event was a little short of good gossip. Things were boosted a little by news from Germany that Herbert Diess is to be removed as the head of Volkswagen. His role will now go to the Porsche CEO Oliver Blume. The good news for F1 is that Blume is very keen on what F1 can offer the industry and he already has a deal (yet to be confirmed) that Porsche will partner with Red Bull Racing in 2026. At the moment F1 is waiting for an announcement, but this is expected as soon as the FIA gets its act together and publishes the 2026 rules.
It is expected that Audi (a VW brand) will also then announce that it is buying Sauber is a phased deal over three years. This will mean that Alfa Romeo will get squeezed out, but as the Italian brand is getting a cheap ride in the sport, as it sponsors the team, which uses Ferrari engines, no-one is particularly bothered if Alfa Romeo disappears. It isn’t a proper factory team….
When it comes to engines in the future, the word is that Honda may be looking to do a sponsorship deal with Red Bull Racing, in order to take advantage of the ongoing success of the team. This could only be a sponsorship and engine-badging deal and it would end, by necessity, in 2025 when Red Bull is (expected to be) committed to Porsche. It seems that Honda, which always makes bad decisions when it comes to F1, now thinks it might be good to get back into the sport in 2026. But it cannot leap back into bed with Red Bull after 2025 as the team will be working with Porsche. Honda’s timing in F1 terms has often been poor and this is all in the traditions of the firm. It joined forces with Red Bull Racing in 2019, just after the team had done a title sponsorship with Aston Martin so it was not until 2020 that the team became known as Red Bull Racing Honda. And then Honda decided to end the relationship at the end of 2021, although a deal was struck for Red Bull to continue to use the engines. After the Honda announcement Red Bull went out and sold its title sponsorship to Oracle. The team would thus have to become Oracle Red Bull Racing Honda in 2023 with the engines switching from being called Red Bulls to being Hondas again, but the Japanese firm then needs to decide (rapidly) if it wants to stay in F1 beyond 2025 – and what form that programme might take.
The options include being engine supplier to a different team, or buying a team…
Talking of buying and selling teams, Alpine is definitely selling a portion of its F1 team, but has no intention of losing control of the operation. This might sound odd given that the team bought Genii Capital’s minority shareholding at the start of this year, but the truth is that the team wants a different kind of partner. The team has tight budgets but feels that it needs to improve facilities and increase staff in order to be fully competitive. Both the Enstone and Viry-Chatillon have been expanded and modernised in recent years and Renault is looking for at least one engine customer for the future, although it makes little sense for teams to change before the new engine formula begins in 2026. The engines are now fairly similar in terms of performance and the disruption of an engine change today means that it takes at least a year to get up to speed.
The decision to sell some of the shares is the result of a desire to invest more, while at the same time giving the team a concrete valuation. New shareholders would obviously benefit from any profits that are made in the future and from the increase in the enterprise value, but they could also be called upon to help funding if the team requires more money, so it is a bit of an insurance policy as well. Perhaps there would also be an option to buy more shares in the future, if Renault one day decides to offload the team again…
Money is important at Alpine and thus negotiating a new deal with Fernando Alonso has been quite complex as the Spaniard has ideas of his own worth which are, how shall we say, impressive. However the threat of the team signing up a talented youngster called Oscar Piastri was obviously helpful in the negotiations. Anyway, the word is that Fernando now has a new two year deal (perhaps one plus one) and this will be announced after August 1 when an option date will pass. This, of course, means that the team will have to release Oscar Piastri unless it can convince him to join Williams for a year or two. However it seems that Oscar is more interested in an offer from McLaren that would require him ceasing to be part of the Alpine Academy.
Of course, things would be complicated at McLaren as the Woking team appears to have contracts with Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo in 2023 – and has a testing programme going on with Colton Herta, with the goal being to have an American driver in the future. Ricciardo says he is staying where he is, so if the Piastri is to join, Daniel has to go. That would require a contract settlement, and while it is fair to say that his performances over the last two years have not been what was expected, there does not appear to be a specific performance clause in the contract, so the situation could get messy. There are options for the team to offer Daniel a deal with the McLaren IndyCar team but that all seems pretty confused at the moment as Pato O’Ward and Alex Rossi could be joined by Felix Rosenqvist but the team recently announced a deal with 2021 IndyCar champion Alex Palou. This has turned very messy with Palou’s employer – Ganassi – saying that he cannot leave because it has an option on his services and that this has been taken up. Rosenqvist can be offloaded into the McLaren Formula E team while the Palou deal seems to have gone haywire with Ganassi filing a law suit against the driver. McLaren says that it won’t pay for Palou to get out of a deal it did not know about.
Williams, in the meantime, appears to be focussing on Logan Sargent. The 21-year-old Florida driver has come good in F2 in recent weeks and has won feature races in Silverstone and Red Bull Ring. He is the best rookie in the series this year and currently third behind the more experienced Felipe Drugovich and Theo Pourchaire.
If Piastri does decide to leave Alpine, it still has Jack Doohan and Victor Martins on the books for the future, while Alonso could transition into the Alpine LMDh team in the longer term.
The driver market might get a bit more lively in Budapest. We still need to find out whether Sebastian Vettel will retire… to be replaced at Aston Martin by Mick Schumacher.
It is all bubbling away in the pot at the moment… in the interim everyone is looking forward to the summer break, after four races in five weekends.