Memory is an amazing thing. As I drove past a sign to the village of Oudenaarde, bells rang in a dusty corridor in my brain and a messenger came running along shouting the words: “Marlborough” and muttered something about Spaniards and Austrians. It has been a while since I last heard the name – about half a century – and I had no idea exactly why the Duke of Marlborough was marching armies around a very flat part of Belgium, but I concluded it was all something to do with quibbling European nations and Kings with boots too big for their feet. And I pondered that, in the overall scheme of things, little has changed since then (whenever then was) and that the world remains driven by greed, ambition and, of course, sex. I had a conversation on this very subject with an Alpine PR man in Spa, who was trying to convince me that the Oscar Piastri business was all about money.
I argued that it was probably not, because ambitious young drivers often break contracts in order to get into a place they consider better than previous choices. It is normal behaviour and one can say the same thing about Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher. They all did things which resulted in tut-tutting in the F1 Paddock, but they got where they wanted to be.
Whether the choice of McLaren over Alpine is ultimately the right thing to do remains to be seen, but it is probably a wiser choice than leaping from Alpine to Aston Martin. Still, when it comes to career moves, there is a reason that Fernando Alonso won fewer championships than the eminent list above…
Anyway, Spaniards and Austrians were much in discussion in the Paddock in Spa, with regard to the F1 silly season, rather than the impact of said countries in Belgian history.
Of course, when it comes to simplicity, Belgian does not win many prizes. It is an amazing country. In 2020 it broke its own record for the longest period for a country without an elected government after 592 days. The record had previously stood at 541 days back in 2010 and 2011. Is it any wonder that organising a sensible traffic plan around Spa-Francorchamps is a bit of a challenge. Of course, in addition to Belgium’s three federal police forces, there are 185 local police forces – the latter being in charge of maintain public order and traffic for big events.
Who knows how many police commissioners were involved in Spa’s traffic plans. It does not really matter because none of it worked (again). I am a big advocate of posting the local police chief(s) to Outer Mongolia (on a permanent basis) to help with law and order there and asking the Mongolians to work on a new traffic plan for Francorchamps, as they can hardly do a worse job.
This seems to be the primary reason that F1 decided that it had had enough of Spa, particularly after the non-race mud-bath of 2021. The race promoters seem to have found the cash to keep the race and have invested a fortune in upgrading the circuit, to allow for MotoGP events, but no-one thought that it might be wise to drive a four-lane highway straight into the circuit. Having spent my weekend driving through winding forests, going backwards and forwards to a hotel in Germany, there does not seem to be a problem with cutting down trees…
The reason I was staying in Germany was that there has been a very nasty outbreak of naked greed in the Spa region and hotel prices have reached insane levels. The same is happening with lots of race at the moment but the Walloons are really gouging their visitors. Yes, I know, it’s supply and demand and that is why I went to Germany: to give them some money and not spend it in Belgium. This meant that by the end of the weekend I was rather weary as I was setting off each morning in the dark and returning each evening in the dark, the only way to avoid wasting time and polluting the universe by being part of a traffic jam. I did at one point consider stealing an old tank that was sitting in the middle of a roundabout in Butgenbach and driving it through the forest to the paddock, thus creating the path for a new road, although I suspect some folks might say this would be a horrible thing to do.
Anyway, it was worth noting the appearance of Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo on the grid (and podium) on Sunday. This was a first and very significant. De Croo is Flemish. The race is in Wallonia. These things matter in Belgium… One wonders what brought him to Spa, but I suspect that a new five-year deal is in the pipeline and Belgium will remain an F1 nation if the PM agrees to do all the right things, whatever they may be…
The F1 calendar is proving complicated this year, which is what happens when you try to squeeze too many things into a small space. Each promoter has its own wishes and requirements, some of them written into contracts. Others have ambitions that they cannot meet, or bosses they cannot control. It is clear that Belgium is back on the calendar in 2023 because South Africa is gone. It remains to be seen if a race can be put together in ZA in 2024 but otherwise F1 is going to start looking at other options in Africa.
The word is that Belgium will take the July 23 slot, fitting in the week before Hungary (July 30). This will follow on from a double-header in Britain (July 2) and Austria (July 9). The Dutch will take over the current Belgian date (August 27) and Italy will follow on September 3. Singapore will have its usual September 17 date and logically Japan would be a week later.
The front end of the calendar seems settled now with Bahrain opening the season on March 6, followed by Saudi Arabia on March 19 with Australia a fortnight after that. April is complicated with Imola and Baku likely, but the possibility of China is still floating. Qatar did want to be up front as well but it has just demolished the pits at Losail and the new buildings will not be ready until the autumn. This is clear confirmation that the planned street circuit in Doha is history (at least for now). Why? Who knows? Perhaps Doha did not want to be seen copying what Jeddah had done…
Doha will probably follow on from Singapore and Japan. There will then be the races in Austin, Mexico, Sao Paulo (a triple header?) and Las Vegas, with the season ending on the last weekend of November in Abu Dhabi.
Canada will have its usual June date and Miami will stick with its May 5 date, and Monaco (if it happens) looks like being part of a triple-header involving Imola and Spain. But how it all fits together with the floating races remains to be seen. Draft calenders were flying around all weekend, like confetti in June.
Talking of confusions, the announcement that Audi will be entering F1 as an engine supplier in 2026 was celebrated by the German firm’s CEO Markus Duesmann standing next to an Audi-branded car, which was a massive piece of mixed messaging, suggesting that Audi is not just planning engines but also a full factory operation. Given that soon after the Audi announcement Alfa Romeo announced it is giving up the title sponsorship of Sauber at the end of 2023 it pretty much confirmed what will happen. By the start of 2024 Audi will own 50 percent of Sauber, according to my sources, and so Alfa Romeo will no longer be welcome.
All things considered the Audi announcement was pretty odd as the brand’s sister firm Porsche is also planning to race in F1 and the Audi announcement came just a few days before Porsche boss Oliver Blume takes over as chief executive of the entire Volkswagen Group, Audi’s parent company.
Duesmann was a rival for that job, but in the end lost out. It may just be a coincidence that the Audi F1 announcement came just a few days before Duesmann got his new boss…
It has been rumoured for a long time that Volkswagen would have two brands in Formula 1, although on paper that is strange when the automotive industry is always focussed on creating synergies and saving costs, but the announcement of the Porsche IPO should come in the next few days and the word is that this will raise $85 billion, so there will be some money sloshing about.
However there have been whispers inside and outside the paddock that Porsche and Red Bull may not go ahead as planned because Red Bull might have got a better offer from Honda. In one of his answers in Spa, Duesmann said something interesting (not much of it was).
“We will have completely separate operations,” he said. “We will have our operations in Germany and, if Porsche enters, they will have their operations in the UK.”
Duesmann thus confirmed the Porsche project, but at the same time cast doubt on it with the word “if”. Given that he is neither the boss of Porsche nor the VW Group, this is strange behaviour although the Audi contingent present at Spa were keen to bang the drum that all is perfectly harmonious in the VW empire. It does not feel that way. Still, I guess we will find out soon enough. Today (Thursday) Blume ceases to be Duesmann’s rival and becomes his boss… One wonders if there will be some fireworks.
Talking of fireworks, one place where there were none at all was in the McLaren company’s half-year results, up to June 30. This made pretty grim reading with sales and revenues significantly lower than the same period last year. The firm blamed this on semi-conductor shortages but sales of only 850 cars – down 24 percent – is not great. Revenues were down 23 percent from £350 million in 2021 to £258 million this year. The company thus booked a loss. However, McLaren did get a new CEO in Michael Leiters, who joined in July. He is believed to be planning to follow the current trend for such companies and create a McLaren SUV.
Talking of McLaren, it is clear that fairly soon the company will announce that Oscar Piastri is joining the team. The Contract Recognition Board met on Monday and there will be a result by now, but these things are secret and so the first the world will know is when either McLaren confirms Oscar, or Alpine signs someone else. The result of the CRB is really only to establish whether Alpine should be compensated, although the board does not deal with money. That is up to the teams. The word I heard was that while Alpine says Piastri signed a contract in November last year, he may not have actually signed a long form contract. This would explain why Alpine says he signed a deal and Piastri and his management say there is nothing binding. He signed a McLaren contract on July 4 and so clearly believed he was free to do so. One can perhaps theorise that Oscar signed a “heads of agreement” document but this is, by nature, a tentative document, which is usually considered non-binding… It could also be a question of wording but whatever Oscar signed it could not have been to race for Alpine in 2023 because the team at that point did not have a seat available to commit to Piastri. Thus the wording of any deal would have had to be a commitment to provide Piastri with “a Formula 1 drive” or something along those lines.
If the car was not specified there is an argument that this could be deemed unfair in a regular commercial court… As we do not know these things, we can only guess. What we do know is that his relationship with Alpine is broken.
In fact, McLaren may end up in a stronger financial position now that a settlement has been agreed with Daniel Riccardo. The team was due to pay Daniel $16 million in 2023 but the whisper in the paddock was that a settlement was reached at $10 million. That sounds about right. However, it does mean that McLaren will have $6 million more to spend on driver budgets… Piastri will be cheaper than that (for a while) and so there might even be some cash left over to sort out the mess in Indycar where the team has a problem securing the services of Alex Palou. A couple of million might help convince Ganassi that a bird in the bush is worth more than one in the hand. Still, these kinds of dealings do not help to foster trusting relationships…
So who will Alpine get? That is a good question without an obvious answer. There has been much talk of Pierre Gasly but this may just have been because Alpine went asking around about who was available. Red Bull’s Helmut Marko is not averse to stirring up excitement in the media, either just for fun or to make noise at a time when there are other things going on. It’s a classic F1 strategy: make a large bang and when the media runs off towards it, do whatever you are trying to do without anyone noticing. That was a favourite trick of Mr Bernie Ecclestone. It does not always work with judges…
The Gasly theory is sensible in that he is the best option given that Ricciardo is disheartened and Alex Albon has been quickly re-signed by Williams. Esteban Ocon says he would like to see Mick Schumacher in the team but that seems pretty unlikely given that Ferrari and Haas have made it clear that they are not interested in him and so it is hard to imagine that Red Bull would be.
There is also no reason that Red Bull would want to let Gasly go early, unless there is a suitable replacement. Pierre was confirmed in June on this basis and nothing has much changed. He is there if he is needed. He does a decent job for AlphaTauri but he is not part of the long-term Red Bull plan. Still it is better to have him on the books, rather than letting a rival team take him. Marko does not seem overly impressed with his current crop of youngsters in Formula 2. Most of been disappointing this season, although Ayumu Iwasa has generally made a good impression. Marko’s latest focus seems to be on Formula 3 racer Isack Hadjar, who has been fighting for the FIA Formula 3 title in his first season. He will move up into Formula 2 next year.
The other difficult problem with Gasly is that while some folks say he does not get on with Ocon, they fail to understand the level of friction between the pair. Ocon (or rather his Dad) bought his first kart from Pierre’s brother and, at the age of eight or nine, Pierre and Esteban were best friends. The problem was that they fell out at about 11 and while both can be professional and say the right things, the hurt is still there and the relationship could crumble quite easily. There is also the question of Alpine marketing goals. Car companies go racing to sell cars. Alpine is a Norman firm, based in Dieppe. Ocon and Gasly are Normans as well: one from Evreux, the other from Rouen. It will be great news for Alpine sales in the region, but it is doubtful that Alpine will sell much in Outer Mongolia (unless the Belgian police chief wants one). It would be better to have someone more international… One possible option might be Nyck de Vries, although he is more likely to sign for Williams and ditch his WEC contract with Toyota and his Formula E drive with Maserati.
Alpine’s next young driver is Jack Doohan, the Australia. He has qualified for a Superlicence and is starting to come good in Formula 2. He would be a risky option for the team, but the aim of a junior team is to provide a cheap supply of drivers, who are integrated into the team’s ways over time. Thus he should not be excluded as an option… If he can do more good things in Formula 2 in the next weeks perhaps he has a chance.
Perhaps the strangest of the Spa rumours was the one about Colton Herta becoming an AlphaTauri F1 driver. The Californian does not have a Superlicence, he has yet to prove himself in F1 terms and would obviously need time, and he has a contract with Andretti Autosport in IndyCar next year and is one of the team’s biggest assets. It is always possible that Marko might like the look of him, but getting him would not be easy.
Elsewhere, I did hear that Brazil’s Felipe Drugovich is talking seriously to Aston Martin about a reserve driver deal and is believed to be supported by a Brazilian bank, while it has been also been suggested that Ricciardo’s best move might be to become reserve driver at Mercedes, to help build up his confidence again…
One Alpine driver that has not been seriously considered by the rumour-mongers is no less a figure than Jacques Villeneuve. I am joking, but Jacques, now a commentator, is to test a 2021 Alpine next week at Monza, to give him an insight into how the modern cars are. JV has already been in the simulator and is excited about the chance.
While on the subject of unusual stories in Italy, Emerson Fittipaldi is going to be standing for election to the Italian Senate, as a candidate for the Fratelli d’Italia, a national-conservative and right-wing populist political party led by Giorgia Meloni, who is a sort of Italian version of Marine Le Pen…
On Monday after Spa, I did not – sadly – go pottering off around Belgium, as the plan had originally been. Instead I went back to Paris because the Japanese decided that anyone who wants to go to the Grand Prix in Suzuka must now have a visa, which was never the case before. So rather than a leisurely life, I had to rush home to lots of Japanese paperwork which the embassy looked out and handed back to me as being not relevant, and then headed north again…
…which is how I ended up in Oudenaarde.