The sun is coming up in Mosonmagyaróvár, or perhaps it is better to say that the skies are lightening across the Pannonian Plain. You can tell already that it is going to be a blisteringly hot day across Europe, but the sun will not make an appearance until about five thirty. By then I hope to be across the Austrian border and wiggling through the Wienerwald, where Johann Strauss wrote waltzes and where today the Vienna ring road helps one avoid traffic jams in the city.
I am glad that I am not driving east, but I know that by evening I will be heading straight into the setting sun, which will make things a bit more complicated in the final few miles, when I will be closer to home, in country lanes, with a million dead bugs on the windscreen.
I know it doesn’t sound very sensible to set off to drive 1,600 km after a night without sleep (Hey kids, don’t try this at home) but there are times in F1 when you do what you have to do, no matter what it takes. I am used to long drives when I am tired. It’s my wife’s birthday and it’s never nice to celebrate alone, so I’m heading home to start the summer break a day earlier than planned – and I haven’t told her and I have cursed the calendar-makers of F1 for putting the race on the wrong weekend, so that it will all be a big surprise for her.
I’ve already covered a couple of hundred kilometres, but home is still 1,400kms away. The journey will take me by way of Linz, Munich, Stuttgart, Metz and Reims. If I drive all day, I should be home before the sun sets.
The Formula 1 summer holiday has begun and the idea of spending time at home is most appealing, particularly after four races in five weekends. I drive because I no longer want the stress of airports and planes at a time when everything is up the creek following the COVID pandemic. At every race I hear the tales of travel horrors from those who are condemned to fly everywhere, of missing bags and queues as far as the eye can see.
Driving may not always be easy, but at least you are in control of your own destiny – and you can leave a jam and find another way to get home. That sense of freedom and the lack of stress makes it worthwhile. Stress, as the old F1 doctor Sid Watkins always used to say, kills more people than other things – and so I take Sid’s advice and make new discoveries every day.
When I crossed the Austro-Hungarian border on the way out to Budapest, I did what I always do and switched the radio to a local station. You learn a lot just by listening to a language and these days I can understand far more languages than used to be the case, thanks to listening to traffic reports and news bulletins. I am convinced, however, that I will never understand a single word of Hungarian. I was impressed by the road signs that screamed “Tartson Jobbra!” – which sounded vaguely rude – but I learned that it means “Keep right”.
After a while I realised I had some time to spare and decided to have a bit of a wander around and headed down Route 82, which goes from Györ to Veszprem, over the Bakony mountains, which run diagonally across the western part of the country, splitting the Great Hungarian Plain from the Little Hungarian Plain.
It was not long before I encountered a horse and cart… then the magnificent castle of Csesznek, or at least the ruins of it. I guess it lies in ruins because of battles between the feuding clans of Hungary in another age, but in truth I was more interested in the fact that the town of Papa is about 50 miles from the village of Dad, by way of a lot of villages that would score very highly when playing Scrabble.
I also discovered that Veszprém will be the European Capital of Culture in 2023, which means that they are digging up all the roads at the moment and their signposting is so poor that I ended up in a place called Marko and wondered if the family of the good doctor of Red Bull fame might have hailed from these parts.
Anyway, all of this gave me plenty of time to think about the F1 calendar and what a difficult beast it is to tame.
In a normal year in Formula 1 there would be a draft of next season’s calendar before the summer break and the folks at Liberty Media, while still wet behind the ears, talked of producing calendars earlier and more regionalised than used to be the case in the Ecclestone Era. This was commendable, but the desire for more dates means that things are much more complicated. Race promoters have their own ideas about what they want and they do not much care about other races – except to avoid them, if they consider another Grand Prix will take away some of their spectators. Having a better calendar would also help F1 in its desire to reduce emissions, which is one of the goals that the sport has set itself, in order to stay out of trouble with activist environmental groups.
The last couple of weeks have seen me driving nearly 5,000 km, with another 4,000 in the fortnight before that. This could hardly be described as environmentally-friendly, particularly when one considers that the F1 circus requires around 300 big thirsty trucks to go from place to place. They always look nice and shiny, which is a good advert for the sport, but they pump out fumes aplenty. This fleet has gone from Britain to Austria then back to France and then back to Hungary before heading home for the break. This means a great deal of needless emissions for which F1 gets the blame, although to be fair it is because the race promoters in Austria and Hungary think the races are too close together (geographically) to be back-to-back. This is not a very sensible argument because some of the fans (particularly the Dutch) will go anywhere and will often combine two events with their summer holidays.
The biggest problem for F1’s regionalization programmes is that some of the promoters have the date of their races written into the contracts and are unwilling to change the terms of the deal. This means that F1 cannot change the dates unless compromises can be found.
This is particularly obvious with Miami and Montreal, one in May and the other in June. The two races are far enough apart on a map to not create a problem, but Montreal wants to keep its June date, which it views as being key to its success, and Miami has a 10-year deal for early May, between its Miami Open tennis competition and the point at which the weather in Florida gets too hot.
Moving Montreal into May would create the opposite problem because in Canada it can still be pretty wintry at that point. So F1 has to go backwards and forwards across the Atlantic twice each spring.
One has to add the fact that (quite rightly) the teams do not want triple-headers (because F1 people need lives as well), plus the freight difficulties and the usual desires to have a race fitting in with a local holiday, such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead. And, on top of all this, there are other sports events that are best avoided. These days one had COVID problems as well because China and Japan have not got it sorted yet and then there are ego problems with Monaco and money to be found in South Africa. In short, it is a complete nightmare.
Thus there are various different draft calendars at the moment, each dependent on which race agrees to go where. Until recently it looked like the start of 2023 was sorted out with the first race being in Bahrain on March 5 with a break and Saudi Arabia back-to-back with Australia, on March 19 and March 26. However it now seems that this has been vetoed, although I did note the presence of the race promoters from Australia and Saudi Arabia in Budapest.
For now, however, it seems that there will be a weekend off between Saudi and Australia (and thus more people flying out and back and out and back).
Australia was then going to go back-to-back with South Africa, but the Kyalami contract is not yet signed off because of money.
We also hear that Qatar has now decided that it does not want to be twinned with Abu Dhabi and would prefer a spring date… and, of course, Doha is paying a lot of money.
As an aside, I also discovered that the plan to have a waterfront event in Doha has evaporated and the Qataris now think it is better to upgrade the Losail facility. I am not quite sure why a track surrounded by sand will sell the country better than a track along a waterfront, but perhaps it is because Qatar does not want to seen to be copying Saudi Arabia. Oddly enough, however, the Saudis are still planning on moving their race from Jeddah to a wadi near Riyadh, so maybe the Qataris will change their mind once the Saudis have finished that…
The inclusion of the Belgian GP seems to be conditional on China and/or South Africa not happening, but no-one seems sure about where Imola, Barcelona, Baku and Belgium will fall, and whether Monaco will happen. Is there any part of the calendar that is actually settled? Well, it is difficult to say, but I hear that the crazy Britain-Austria-France-Hungary leg will become Austria-Britain-Something-Hungary, which makes a bit more sense. The something could be one of the above…
I am pretty sure that the Dutch GP will be at the end of August, with the Italian GP a week later and the Singapore-Japan back-to-back will be in September, although China will be moving to the autumn, if it happens at all. I also hear that Austin, Mexico and Brazil will be a triple-header and that Vegas will go back-to-back with Abu Dhabi. The good news, however, is that it looks like the season will be finished by the end of November, which means that F1 families should be happy as there will be some time for Christmas shopping…
What I can tell you with confidence (as much as you can with anything in F1) is that the Australian Grand Prix will be the opening race of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship in 2024 and 2025, because the Middle Eastern races need to take place later because of Ramadan.
Still, in F1 one needs to be wary of “certainties”. I was just a tad irritated when I heard that Fernando Alonso had signed for Aston Martin because it seemed before that came that he would be staying at Alpine in 2023. It was a big surprise in that it is utterly illogical (except from a financial point of view) and it came as a shock to everyone, even Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer.
This made me feel a little better as a few hours earlier I had written confidently in my JSBM newsletter that Alonso would stay, based on the fact that all my best sources seemed to be agreed on it. The newsletter also included a lot of detail about Oscar Piastri joining McLaren and how that might be possible.
What was clear was that Oscar could not afford to sit out another year without racing and Alpine had to decide whether to keep Alonso, who is doing a great job, or dropping the old lion and putting in a feisty pup. It was a tough call.
On paper, of course, McLaren has contracts with Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo – and has a testing programme going on with Colton Herta.
Piastri is seen as being a bit special and Alpine was in a difficult spot, it seems like McLaren saw a chance to grab him. Teams always want to avoid the bad publicity that comes with dubious contractual behaviour, although history relates that all contacts can be broken if a team is desperate enough – and rich enough. Piastri has a contact with Alpine (so they say) which guarantees him a race seat in 2023. This may not say which team that seat would be with, and the word is that Alpine offered to put Oscar into Williams. This is not a good choice for him. The rest of the story depends on the wording of the contract options, to which we are never privy.
Ricciardo has a contract for next year but, popular though he is, Daniel has been disappointing in his time with McLaren, except that he won a race last year. Lando has yet to win but clearly has the advantage at the moment. Ricciardo is saying that he has no intention of moving, but one can see why McLaren might want to off-load him and grab Piastri. Pushing Daniel out of the way would require a contract settlement and how this could be achieved is unclear because money is not the only thing.
Without a McLaren drive, Ricciardo’s F1 future is not looking great. McLaren seems to have got itself into a similar mess in the US where the Indycar team is also overstocked with drivers with Pato O’Ward, Alex Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist on the books and some kind of deal going down with Álex Palou.
The Spanish driver’s current employer Chip Ganassi says he has a valid option with Palou and it all seems to be heading into the hands of lawyers. This is all a little strange. The problem between Palou and Ganassi is clearly about money. Chip made him a star and now wants a third season cheap. There is an option (wording unknown), Palou thinks he can get out, Ganassi thinks Palou has to stay.
One imaginative solution (which perhaps McLaren had thought about) is for McLaren to offer Ricciardo to Ganassi, in place of Palou If McLaren agreed to pay Daniel a suitable salary (a lot less than in F1) it would put him into a top IndyCar drive, would leave McLaren with enough to pay Piastri, put Palou into a McLaren IndyCar and secure two hot talents at the same time. Rosenqvist would then be shunted into Formula E.
The downside of all of this is that there would be no room at McLaren for Herta. He has, in any case, a contract with Andretti to race IndyCars until the end of 2023 and he does not have a Superlicence required to race in F1, so he could not join McLaren until 2024 at the earliest, although with Piastri and Norris there would be no room for him until 2026.
One can perhaps also argue that the testing deal that Herta has with McLaren could be designed to help Michael Andretti developing a driver for a possible Formula 1 team – if that ever comes to fruition.
Losing Daniel would be a loss for F1 but might be best for him, better for McLaren, great for Ganassi and perfect for Palou. And Zak Brown would look very clever for having put it all together.
As I write this Notebook an email has arrived from Alpine announcing Piastri. This was a surprise and it was immediately suspect when I saw that there was no quote from Oscar. Every new driver press release has a quote from the driver saying that he is delighted to be joining etc etc. No quote, for me, means no agreement or at worst a bad start to the relationship.
One might ask why Alonso wants to join Aston Martin, given the lack of performance. There is, of course, the chance of a longer contract, more money, a team-mate who might not be too difficult to beat and one day a better car, but it is an odd move in many respects. Alpine probably thought that Alonso would reduce his salary demands to stay on and so the team would be getting a good deal. Perhaps. Perhaps, also, Alpine annoyed Fernando over this question.
Will Alonso and Aston Martin be a match made in heaven? Probably not. Fernando is not easy (although he is more relaxed these days). Lawrence Stroll is not known for being an easy companion. What he is known for is his belief that Lance is an undiscovered genius, capable of winning World Championships. Being a racing dad and a team owner is not a good combination and one wonders what will happen when Alonso beats Lance every weekend. Fernando is smart, but he is not ever going to say “After you Lance…”
It has all the makings of a disaster ahead… but let’s wait and see. Lawrence seems to think that all is well with the car company but reality checks in from time to time. Last week Aston Martin reported first half losses for 2022 of £285.4 million, saying that supply chain shortages hit production which meant that it could not meet the demand for its cars.
Let’s not dwell on that…
Elsewhere, Williams was hoping that Piastri might come its way but has been in deep discussions with Nyck de Vries, the Dutch Formula E World Champion. Nyck has a couple of drives up his sleeve which have yet to be announced in WEC and Formula E and he must soon decide whether to give it all up to become an F1 driver. He’s a little older than your average F1 debutant and so might conclude that it is a bit late to dream of glory in F1 and better to take winning drives (and a chunk of cash) elsewhere. Nyck must decide at some point but Williams is in a difficult situation in that the choice of its test driver Logan Sargeant is not a bad idea as the 21-year-old Floridian driver might unlock the doors to US sponsorships as F1 grows in America. The problem is that Logan does not have a Superlicence and the F2 championship is quite close and so confirmation of the licence might come too late for the team to rely on it happening. And if de Vries signs elsewhere and Sargeant misses out… Oh dear.
The details of the yet-to-be-announced Porsche-Red Bull alliance have emerged from the unlikely source of the Moroccan government’s competition authority in Rabat, which says it is considering the deal on the grounds of competition questions. It is hard to imagine how this might be he case, but the paperwork does include details of the planned transaction in order to get clearance for the deal. It is unlikely that any F1 journalist would have considered looking for competition clearance for a deal in Morocco and so it is most likely to have been a leak. One might speculate that such news would do no harm at all to the Porsche share price as the firm prepares an IPO. Anyway, the document reveals a joint venture between Porsche AG and Red Bull GmbH and the purchase of 50 percent of Red Bull Technology Ltd shares by Porsche. It is interesting that neither party seems to have control, although that could depend on who the chairman of the board would be, although in such a situation one can have a different chairman at each meeting. The danger with 50-50 partnerships is that they can become deadlocked if the parties do not agree on their strategy, unless there are clear rules about who makes the decisions. One should also note that the world has changed a little since the documents were filed with Herbert Diess being replaced as the head of the Volkswagen Group, with the role going to the Porsche CEO Oliver Blume. This might impact on Audi’s plan to enter F1 as the brand is also owned by Volkswagen. Audi boss Markus Duesmann was a rival to Blume for the VW role and he may now decide to move elsewhere. Duesmann is a former F1 engineer from BMW who believes that the sport is best way to sell cars and to develop new technology. His plan to make Audi more successful rests on the idea that the firm will get rid of its smaller cars and focus more on the lucrative luxury segment, which he wants to expand.
Much of this depends on the 2026 regulations but the word is that the F1 Commission will vote on this shortly and the rules will be published after the FIA World Motor Sport Council has an electronic vote.
The goal then is to have 50-50 super-efficient ICE-electric power units, with synthetic fuels. Formula E may have painted itself green more successfully than F1 has done, but the world is beginning to realise that F1 engines are a better long-term option and astonishing pieces of kit. My favourite statistic in this respect is thermal efficiency (the percentage of energy in the fuel that makes it to become energy in the rear wheels) because it really shows what F1 has done. If one considers that the first practical automobile powered by an internal-combustion engine arrived in 1885 and in the 128 years that followed the best that generations of brilliant engineers could achieve was a rather disappointing 35 percent thermal efficiency, which meant that a huge amount of energy was being wasted. In the nine years since 2013 F1 has driven that figure up to around 52 percent.
Synthetic fuel is interesting but in the rush of recent races I noted that Mercedes-AMG Petronas has announced that it is becoming the first global sports team to invest in Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). The team says that it uses a lot of fuel flying around and wants to reduce its global footprint but of course it might also want to make some money and what is required in SAF is not very different to what is required (or will be required) in F1 fuels.
“We aim to be on the cutting edge of change, using our global motorsport platform as a model for a more sustainable and diversified future,” said Toto Wolff, a man who has made a few quid over the years by betting on new ideas.
And on that green (as in greenbacks) note, I will sign off for the summer break.
The Green Notebook will be back soon…