The last three weeks have been a bit of a blur of European countries. I’ve driven close to 5,000 km since setting off to go to Spa and in the interim I have been to various countries, including Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy and I’ve driven along the Swiss border a couple of times on the way to the Mont Blanc tunnel.
Driving a lot gives one plenty of time for thought and it struck me that such travels can be very confusing for those embarking on similar voyages for the first time, because of the strange European habit of having cities called by different names. To use technical terms, there are toponyms (place names), but these can be endonyms (which is what the locals call a place) and exonyms (which is what other people call it). As an example, I once caught a train from Milan to Monaco and found myself en route to Munich. Italians call Munich Monaco, while the Germans, who should know best, call it München. Still, as the Bavarians call it Minga and the Czechs call it Mnichov one can fully understand why the Poles call the city Monachium. And the Germans called Milan Mailand – probably to get their own back.
When it comes to places like Belgium, where they have several languages, things get really confusing. The city which the English call Ghent, is Gent to the Flemish and Dutch, but Gand for the French and Walloons. Lille is Rijsel for the Flemish. And then there’s Liège: the locals call it Lidje, the Flemish Luik and the Germans Luttich.
If you ask a Frenchman for directions to Aix-la-Chapelle you’ll end up in Aachen, if both parties got things right, although a local will call it Oche. Antwerp is also known as Anvers and Eupen as Neau. When you cross the border to Holland (as the English call Nederland) things can become really confused as the port of Vlissingen is called Flushing by the English. If you go to den Haag, you will find some folk who call it s-Gravenhage, but the French call it La Haye. Logically the English should call it The Hedge, which is the literal translation, but they insist on The Hague.
In motor racing there have been a few people who went to Nürnberg rather than Nürburg. This is a big mistake. Nürnberg is the German name for Nuremberg, where there is a race track called the Norisring, but Nürburg has a rather famous Ring called the Nürburgring. And if anyone mentions the Nuremberg Rallies or the Nuremberg Trials, they are not talking about motorsport events.
I could go on at length about these strange habits: Styria in Austria, is Steiermark, Cologne in Germany is Koln, Trier is also known as Trèves and Napoli as Naples. The Italians call Paris Parigi, and Nice Nizza.
Lakes and rivers have similar problems: Lac Leman is Lake Geneva while Lake Constance is Bodensee. The Danube is the Donau in Germany and the Duna in Hungary. Rivers, of course, pass through various countries but what amount of arrogance is required to call a city by a name you like, rather than what the locals want you to call it?
Yes, I know, in the Polish version of Scrabble, the letter Z is worth only one point, but one can at least try to say Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski or Tomaszów Mazowiecki.
Of course, there also have been bits of Europe that were once invaded and so the Aosta Valley in Italy is full of places with French names and the east of France, which has been regularly invaded by neighbours, has lots of places with names such as Krautergersheim.
All things considered, one can get hopelessly lost in Europe, even if you follow the road signs.
All this is a bit like trying to figure out the Formula 1 calendar for 2023. Each week we try again and each week there are things that have changed – or changed back. The fleeting appearance of Prince Albert of Monaco in company with the Automobile Club de Monaco President Michel Boeri may have escaped most people because they were not trying to be noticed, while the likes of Sylvester Stallone were only too keen to be on camera.
This led to reports that a deal has been struck with Monaco. At the time of writing (6pm on Wednesday), this was not true but it might easily be true by 6.05pm. Both sides want to agree terms, but neither wants to give way in the negotiations, so we get into a Liege/Luik situation. The question is not about money (at least not totally), it’s also about TV coverage, trackside signage, hospitality rights and track design. There is also the question of attitude at the ACM, which seems to upset most people who are not members (and some who are), although to be fair the organisers of the Italian GP at Monza also seem to think that because their race has been around a long time, they know how to organise races better than anyone else. But I guess if you want to have paddocks that smell of overflowing drains, one should follow their lead.
Anyway, the Italians have a strong tradition of complicated and slow-moving bureaucracy, although they do seem to be pretty hot when it comes to building permits. It would be useful if they turn this speed into rebuilding Monza access roads. The Formula 1 group (no less) ran into trouble this year with its plans to construct a Fan Zone behind the main grandstand at Monza. Work had to be stopped until a permit was granted and as a consequence, things were still being finished when the race meeting began. A little further down the main straight, a group of 80 Dutch fans decided on an odd idea for the famous campsite that is located next to the first chicane. They arrived from Holland (or should I say Nederland) with tents, orange shirts, flares and copious amounts of beer – and tons of scaffolding. Having staked out their plots they then began to build their own grandstand. This drew them to the attention of the local police and at vast speed they were ordered to disassemble their structure.
The Dutch are beginning to make the tifosi look sane and sober, although I did spot a few red flares on Sunday at Monza. The good news, however, is that Monza remains on the calendar for now, despite the encroaching Imolese… And long may that be the case. Monza is 100 years old and wonderful and should always be on the F1 calendar.
The calendar problems are caused not only by Monaco but also by the Chinese. They want to get back onto F1 calendar, but they want a date in the autumn because they are still locking down cities every so often because someone tests positive to COVID-19. The problem with this theory is that only date available is October 8 and that is also the only date that Doha can manage because the Losail circuit is currently rebuilding its pits and cannot be ready in the spring, where it really wants to be. There is also a problem with Baku not wanting an April date – and insisting on a race in June (presumably because drains smell less at that time of year). This all means that races which can slot in anywhere are just floating about at the moment, so we don’t really know what will happen with Imola and Spain until the other problems are solved.
But then we have races that want to change their dates with one another and we have had two them, with the British and Austrian GPs having agreed to switch: Austria moving to July 2, with Britain to July 9. This is something to do with tennis. The Belgian and Hungarian GP, which were scheduled for July 23 and July 30, have also agreed to switch, in order to avoid a clash of the Belgian race with the country’s National Day on July 21. This means that the annual Spa 24 Hours, scheduled for July 30, will now have to move elsewhere.
However when you boil it all down, there is a very simple reason for the problem. There are too many pieces trying to be fitted into a complex jigsaw puzzle and it might be wise to throw a couple of pieces away so that it all fits nicely…
There seems to be a similar (but not unusual) problem of there being too many drivers for the number of available drives in 2023.
The German media is spending much of its time trying to work out what will happen with Mick Schumacher and is ignoring the fact that he has not done enough to be retained by Ferrari and thus has no real possibility at Haas, as the team is looking for an experienced driver, such as Giovinazzi or Nico Hulkenberg. There is speculation that Schumacher could sit out a year before joining Sauber when it comes under Audi ownership. The argument is that the sport needs a German driver, now that Sebastian Vettel is retiring.
But, if Mick had done enough, Ferrari would still be interested…
Much of the ongoing driver gossip relates to the situation at Alpine where Fernando Alonso is departing to join Aston Martin and Oscar Piastri will join McLaren. Esteban Ocon has a three-year contract until the end of 2024 and has been doing a good job, up against Alonso, but the team must now decide what to do next. Alpine boss Laurent Rossi says he is in no rush to make a decision. There are some in the team who understand that a Gasly-Ocon line-up would be too risky given the history of the two men. Doohan is considered too risky because he needs more time to develop. Alpine had planned to put Piastri into a Williams for a year or two, but he was not interested in that and so ran off to McLaren.
Williams is not too keen on taking on those who are contracted elsewhere and so Nyck de Vries is a good fit, but he has to give up a Toyota WEC contract and a deal to race for Maserati in Formula E if he wants to be an F1 driver. Having said that he did a great job at Monza to score points on his F1 debut, when he stepped in at the last minute for Alex Albon. If anything, this drive was the evidence (if it was ever needed) that Nicholas Latifi needs to look for other things to do in the future. With Albon and de Vries Williams would have a great driver pairing. Of course, the team has a young driver programme as well, which could mean that American Logan Sargeant might step into F1 next year, but it would be a little early for him… The same is pretty much true at Alpine where the team has Jack Doohan (who is keen to land the empty Alpine seat). If one was looking for ironies, it was rather extraordinary when Doohan and Sargeant tangled in the Formula 2 race at Monza on Sunday and dented one another’s F1 ambitions… although to be fair neither was really to blame.
The guy who does seem to have it all sorted is the new Aston Martin reserve driver, F2 champion-in-waiting Felipe Drugovich. Aston Martin might not be the obvious choice at the moment but Drugovich is bargaining on two things happening: the car has to be better than this year (it could not be much worse) and the team’s new signing Fernando Alonso and current incumbent Lance Stroll are going to produce fireworks, one way or the other, as Stroll’s dad is going to run into grief whatever happens. One driver is inevitably going to be faster than the other…
The next big thing in the silly season is a private Alpine test, using an old car, in Budapest later this month. The team is not saying who is driving but it is being billed as a shootout between de Vries, Doohan, Colton Herta, and Schumacher. Whether they all appear remains to be seen.
There are some who think that the whole Colton Herta business is a giant smokescreen to keep the media amused while Porsche and Red Bull fall out of bed with one another. Without all the speculation about Gasly and Herta, the Porsche and Red Bull relationship (which looks like a fling that ran out of steam quite quickly after Red Bull met Porsche’s parents) would have been front page news. Now it isn’t.
The Gasly-Herta shuffle was all rather unlikely with Herta under contract to Andretti next year, only 10th in the IndyCar championship this year – and not the holder of a super licence. Trying to change the super licence rules makes no sense at all because F1 does not want to create precedents and undermine the structure that means that that the sport has more top quality drivers than ever before.
Anyway, Porsche now needs to look at other alternatives, but these are thin on the ground. The Red Bull engine programme was always going to be a badging exercise using Red Bull Powertrains power trains and so Porsche was not going to invest in its own engine programme. The obvious thing now, if Porsche really does still want to join F1 would be to work with Audi and share technology. The latter has publicly committed to F1 in 2026, but it has been working on the programme for some time and has laid the groundwork for such a project, by buying dynos and doing a (supposedly secret) deal with Sauber. Porsche has done some design studies into F1 engines, but there is a big difference between building prototypes and manufacturing competitive engines.
There are good reasons for Porsche to want to be involved in F1, specifically because of the firm’s interest in synthetic fuels, which F1 will adopt and sharing technology makes total sense in the modern automotive world where it happens all the time between sister brands. The two marques already share a couple of automotive “platforms” in an effort to save money… However, things will go quiet for a while now until the Porsche IPO is out of the way.
The Renault group is also likely to share its F1 engine platform in the years ahead, or at least it is open to do so. The firm’s own F1 brand is Alpine and there are big plans to develop this into a wider technology firm. I hear that Viry-Chatillon, where Renault designs and develops its F1 engines will not be hived off into or other of the planned production power unit divisions (known as Horse and Ampere) but will stay as part of the expanding Alpine unit. However, Renault is happy to share its technology with the new partners in Horse – Geely, the Chinese firm that owns Lotus – and Aramco, the oil company that is in bed with Aston Martin with the plan to build F1 engines together.
Elsewhere, I hear that Alfa Romeo bods have been banging on the door at Haas, offering the team the same deal that Sauber has had, which is sponsorship to go with a Ferrari engine. I am not sure that this will happen because I also hear that there is a massive title sponsorship deal coming soon for Haas from a big American corporation, which will fund the team for at least the next three seasons and perhaps beyond that. One can only guess who this will be, but I don’t believe it is an OEM.
Alfa Romeo’s parent Stellantis (the merged PSA Peugeot-Fiat Chrysler with a fancy marketing name) has a lot of shareholders in common with Ferrari. The Ferrari President John Elkann is also President of Stellantis and so one can imagine some badge engineering going on with Ferrari technology as well – which makes sense. Alfa Romeo is being pushed upmarket by Stellantis and is aiming to make a dent in the luxury sporting market sector, taking on BMWs, Audis and Mercedes. Cynics may say that trying to crash into that market might dent Alfa Romeo more than it dents to market. But if there was a real (pretend) F1 programme it might help.
Who knows what will happen? Car company executives are a strange breed (based on some of the characters who have gone before). Experience has taught me that quite often when someone expresses confidence in someone else, it usually means that they have no confidence at all and that the person is about to be ousted.
Thus, if I were Mattia Binotto I might be looking over my shoulder because Ferrari chairman John Elkann felt the need before of Monza to say that: “We have great faith in Mattia Binotto”. Given that Ferrari screw-ups this year have not been in short supply, and Max Verstappen is in a situation where he can win the World Championship in Singapore, if I was Binotto I would be taking occasional glances in the mirror to make sure no-one with an axe is anywhere close.
But then again maybe Elkann is different…
Right, I’m off to Parigi…