Driving home from Zandvoort, I passed through Crèvecoeur-le-Grand, a town in the Oise departement in France, surrounded these days by dozens of aeolian wind turbines. I find these constructions rather elegant and something of great value, but I know others think they spoil the view.
In rough translation the name Crèvecoeur-le-Grand means “The Big Heartbreak”, which is an odd name, if only because I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a small heartbreak.
If you try to trace the derivation of the name, looking perhaps for a story like Romeo and Juliet, one finds only the mists of time. The town name may have come from an ancient aristocratic family, or perhaps the family name came from the town. It is hard to tell. There are several other Crèvecoeurs in Normandy and, inevitably, the name landed on the beaches of Britain with William the Conqueror and ended up in America, where it was mangled into Croaker and Craker. And while this was going on the town of Big Heartbreak was being flattened and rebuilt twice by German guns and bombs. It was not a lucky place.
Crèvecoeur’s biggest claim to fame apart from its repeated destruction, is that it was where the exotic American dancer Josephine Baker married (from the fourth time), casting away her skirt made from bananas – it was all she wore while dancing on stage in Paris – and becoming a French citizen. Her husband, for the next 14 months, was Jean Lion, a wealthy local sugar broker and aviator. The ceremony that put Crèvecoeur on the map was performed by the mayor, who enjoyed the strange name Jammy Schmidt, a lucky name for such an unfortunate place.
Mrs Lion was splendidly eccentric and kept a perfumed pig in her nightclub in Paris. She was once photographed taking her pet swans for a walk in Budapest (on leashes, of course). As a result of this brief encounter, Josephine Baker became a French citizen and today rests in the Pantheon in Paris, alongside national heroes (and heroines) likes of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pierre and Marie Curie, Louis Braille, Jean Moulin and sundry military and political types.
The name Crèvecoeur is also employed to describe a rather exotic breed of chicken that was named after Crèvecœur-en-Auge in the Calvados region of Normandy. These heartbroken chickens were very popular (for dinner) with the bourgeoisie in the Nineteenth Century. The French, however, blame the invading Germans for eating nearly all of these succulent chucks, and the breed has been endangered ever since, although the do-gooders of today have been busy encouraging them to propagate so that future generations can enjoy the taste.
The point of all this local colour is that the story of Crèvecoeur (and the chickens) mirrors the story of Zandvoort, where heartbreaking events have led to a similar resurrection. Zandvoort was once a very chic seaside resort, with Belle Epoque hotels and villas, where the celebrities of the day bathed in the North Sea. Alas, when the armies arrived from Germany in 1940, the generals felt threatened by the lovely beaches and so demolished the fashionable town in order to build coastal defences. They used the rubble as the foundations for roads to link the blockhouses.
After the war the mayor of Zandvoort, a racing fan called Henri van Alphen, saw the opportunity to use the German roads to build a race track to promote the town. Today, Zandvoort is an ugly town, with cheap and nasty post-war apartment blocks, but it has a splendid race track, to which the Dutch now flock in vast numbers (and orange clothing) to watch Max Verstappen winning motor races. There is a certain magnificence in these vast orange crowds, particularly for older Dutch racing folk who never dreamed that such things might be possible.
Perhaps with time, the city will demolish all the horrible buildings and make Zandvoort beautiful again.
The Formula 1 Paddock in Zandvoort was bustling with the orange folk, not least McLaren team people who seemed very pleased when I emerged (not surprisingly) that they had secured the services of Oscar Piastri, following a discussion by the Contract Recognition Board, which ruled that Alpine’s claims about having him under contract were fatally flawed. The details of how this came to pass remain confidential but I am told that the story was not very complex, as the contract registered by Alpine with the CRB was no more than what is called a heads of agreement, which is a non-binding agreement to agree on a contract. Why this strange situation could have occurred is because when Piastri agreed to stay with Alpine last November, the team could not offer guarantee which car he would drive in 2023 and could only commit to “a Formula 1 car”. At the time the team was still discussing what to do in the future with Fernando Alonso and already had a deal with Esteban Ocon.
Alpine was in a difficult situation because it wanted to hire both Alonso and Piastri but could no do so. It could, in theory, have signed both and paid off Ocon, but that would have been very messy given that Esteban is French and won a race in 2021 (which was more than Alonso did). In any case, Ocon has been driving some super races of late, notably in Spa where he did a better job than the celebrated Fernando. To be doing that is quite an achievement given that Alonso is on of the finest F1 drivers in history and ended up with only two World Championships because of poor career decisions, bad management and having the reputation for being someone who damages racing teams. One can add Alpine to the list after recent events… He is a fabulous driver but his talent should have landed him five World Championships rather than just two. In any case, matching him and beating him on occasion makes Ocon a very valuable driver.
Alpine must now find replacements for Alonso and Piastri and the team must be aware that when all is said and done that it was to blame for losing the pair. Such setbacks always provide good lessons for those new to F1 and so it is best for Alpine not to get into a panic and sign up the wrong people but rather to wait and watch and make sensible decisions about what to do next. There is no great rush to do deals. Piastri was the team’s future, but there are other drivers in the Alpine Academy, notably Jack Doohan, who is showing signs that he is good enough for F1. It is too early for him, and the best move would probably be to give him a year testing with older cars and becoming part of the team, rather than throwing him in at the deep end. Thus, Alpine needs a driver who is willing to do a one-year deal.
Perhaps the team would do OK with a Mick Schumacher, a Nico Hulkenberg or a Nyck de Vries, but one-year deals can be fraught arrangements because a driver with no future in a team wants only to show what he can do, rather than how he can help the team. Daniel Ricciardo looks like a man who needs to rest and get his head in gear, while Pierre Gasly would be a good choice were it not for the fact that he is French (and why would the team want two Frenchmen?). There is also the fact that he and Ocon do not get on. They are the worst kind of rivals because they were best friends when they were young, before they fell out. One should add that Pierre is also locked in a contract with Red Bull (to race for AlphaTauri) and it will cost money to get him out, as Red Bull really needs him in reserve in case something happens to one of the Red Bull drivers.
It is a bit odd that Dr Helmut Marko has got excited about Colton Herta and says that he will sell Gasly if he can get Herta. It looks from the outside like Marko is playing games to disrupt rival teams as it is a tough project to extract Herta from an IndyCar contract with Andretti Autosport in 2023, get him up to speed in F1 rapidly and try to get agreement for him to be given a Superlicence he has not earned. On can argue that the Superlicence rules should be tweaked in future to allow Indycar race winners to jump into Formula 1, but there should not be a precedent set that allows the rules to be bent. This will only lead to problems in the future. The rules exist to ensure that the quality of driving in F1 is maintained and while Herta may (or may not) have what it takes, there are others who might get in later, based on money rather than talents. A driver who earns a Superlicence (even a rich one) has still earned the right to race F1. Undermining the Superlicence system would undermine the FIA’s reputation in F1.
The argument that F1 needs an American driver is utterly flawed, unless the American is the right one. Right now, Williams is supporting the efforts of 21-year-old Florida driver Logan Sargeant, who is currently in the process of gaining a Superlicence in the prescribed way, and despite some mishaps in Formula 2 is still in a position to have one next year. Herta is clearly talented, but neither he nor Marko should be helped to get him a licence. If he has the talent needed and the will to succeed then he will find a way without help with the licence.
Driver success in F1 is based so much these days on driver psychology that it is always best to find the right fit rather than trying to ram a driver who is a square ped trying to get into a round hole.
Ricciardo is a good example of a driver who has super ability but just does not fit in the team. No-one can figure out why and the Australian’s confidence has been battered by what has happened. This does not mean that Daniel is useless and finished, it means he needs to rebuild, rethink his priorities and find a way to get back his missing mojo.
The latest word is that Daniel might take a year off in 2023 if he is not offered the Alpine drive. Then, as an experienced F1 winner, he could return to the sport as a reserve in 2024, helping to rebuild his confidence by measuring his performance against the top names. I hear he has been talking to Mercedes about such a role, which would put him in with a chance of a race drive in the future if Lewis Hamilton decides that he has had enough. That must happen eventually and while Mercedes has George Russell in place, it is waiting for the next big thing. This appears to be a 16-year-old youngster it manages called Andrea Kimi Antonelli, who is wowing everyone at the moment in Formula 4. He is at least three or four years away from F1, so there is likely to be a gap between Hamilton’s departure and Antonelli’s arrival…
It is tough getting a break into Formula 1, even if you are talented, and I have rather enjoyed rumours in recent days that Formula 2 champion-to-be Felipe Drugovich could be joining Aston Martin in 2023 as a test and reserve driver. This is smart thinking. Drugovich has dominated F2 this year but it is his third year in the formula and F1 teams tend not to look at such drivers. However, Drugovich is smart enough to realise that jumping straight into F1 will be almost impossible and going to Aston Martin is a decent gamble because Alonso and Lawrence Stroll may not get on, and even if they do, that will come at the expense of Lance Stroll, so one can wager that one or the other will be gone by 2024 and being integrated into the team, Drugovich would be a good bet as a replacement for one or the other… This would also be good for F1 as the sport could use another Brazilian…
On final thought on the subject of drivers, I that Marko could be stirring up a storm in the driver market because he does not want F1 scribblers focussing on Red Bull’s other big story at the moment: the fact that its planned relationship with Porsche is coming undone and Porsche will not become a shareholder in the team. It seems that Red Bull has concluded that it would rather stay as it is and run its own engine programme, rather than have other folk coming in and disrupting the successful squad that it is today. Red Bull now has its own engine programme – the first prototype ran recently on a dyno in Milton Keynes – and the firm does not really need Porsche, unless it wants money, which has never been Red Bull’s problem…
The team can do as it pleases with its engines in 2026 and is happy to be independent and not have to answer to a partner or be dependent on an engine supplier. Red Bull can accept money from someone who is willing to pay to badge the engines, but it wishes to retain control. The whisper in F1 circles is that Red Bull was unimpressed by leaks about Porsche in the media as these were seen as being designed to boost the value of the Porsche IPO that will be happening in the next few weeks.
This leaves Porsche in a complicated situation as it does not have the thing it needs to build F1 engines on its own. It does however want to use the sport to highlight its involvement in sustainable fuel development. The recent Audi announcement has similar problems because there is a lot to be done if Audi is to get a team competitive by 2026. And there is more politics to come within the VW empire (which owns both the Porsche and Audi brands).
Elsewhere in the car industry there is a very interesting development at Renault (which owns Alpine) where the boss Luca de Meo is planning to revamp the whole company by making some dramatic changes. One of these is to lump together the company’s traditional internal combustion businesses in a business based outside France and sell off much of the business. This will mean that Renault can claim to be an all-electric firm and he hopes that the electric side of the business, which is currently being labelled as Ampere, a similar independent firm, based in France, but with Renault keeping control, will attract more investors and the kind of valuation that Tesla has managed to achieve.
The traditional ICE business has been given the codename “Horse” and the word is that Renault will would keep only 40 percent with China’s Geely taking another 40 percent and the Saudi Aramco oil company taking the remaining 20 percent.
Logically, Renault’s motorsport engine design hub at Viry-Châtillon would become part of “Horse” and that would mean that the three shareholders might all be able to get hybrid F1 engines. Alpine could continue with Renault, Geely is the owner of Lotus and there is a strong argument that if one wants to expand Lotus road car sales the best way to do it would be an F1 programme, given the heritage of the brand in the sport. And Aramco is the primary sponsor of Aston Martin Racing and wants to have an F1 engine so that it can show off its synthetic fuel programmes, and provide Aston Martin will its own brand engine…
Still, F1’s relationship with China is still less than easy and the Chinese are one of the problems that F1 has creating its 2023 calendar. Things are moving onwards with no resolution to the Miami and Montreal impasse, which means that F1 has to criss-cross the Atlantic twice in the spring. Monaco is still a problem and Baku is not happy about being asked to move from its June date. We know that South Africa has now dropped out of the running for 2023 because money did not arrive, that Doha is not moving to the front of the calendar (because they have demolished the pit buildings and these cannot be rebuilt in time for next spring). We know also that the British GP and Austria have switched dates in July with Silverstone on the second and Austria on the ninth. We also know that Zandvoort is taking Spa’s date on August 27 and that Spa is jumping back into the calendar on July 23. But what we don’t know is what happens with China because it is unclear whether the country can commit to a race because of its COVID-19 policies. At the moment the government continues to try to maintain a zero COVID policy and in recent days has shut down the cities of Shenzhen and Chengdu. It is difficult for any sport to plan around such decisions and a string of big international events have been postponed or cancelled in recent weeks. The policies may change after the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which happens only once every five years. This decides the country’s leadership and thus the policies for the next five years. This happens in late October, but F1 wants a calendar before then. Once China is settled on a date, the other races can slot into the available slots.
Once that is done, the F1 group can start worrying about what to do in 2024…
One race that will be up for renegotiation is Zandvoort… which will have ended its initial three-year deal.