It’s four in the morning and it’s already Christmas in Manila. OK, that seems a little odd in October, but the decorations are up and the halls of the darkened airport are decked with boughs of holly. There are no bells jingling, no children listening, nor any treetops glistening and if there are snowmen somewhere, they will not be frosty because it is too damned hot.
Still, this is an eccentric part of the world. On the flight across the South China Sea from Singapore, the plane passed over the much-disputed Spratly Islands, which multiple countries wish to control, presumably because they find it useful to have limited supplies of guano (which is the excrement of seabirds). The Chinese have even built some air bases so that they will have squadrons of fighters ready to be scrambled, to defend their guano from evil foreign invaders.
We live in a bizarre world at the moment. In the airport in Manila there are kiosks selling food (cash only) which include several culinary crimes against humanity: croissants with sausages inside them and pizzas topped with roast beef and bacon (together). Yet no-one here seems to be perturbed by such atrocities. They would prefer to argue over guano.
For reasons that I cannot quite explain, Manilla reminded me of a sinister American counter-insurgency expert called Edward G Lansdale, about whom I studied many years ago. Lansdale was a man of his era, convinced that Communists wanted to rule the world and he was intent on stopping them. In his quest to discombobulate the Reds, he effectively invented psychological warfare, using local superstitions and folklore tales to terrify anyone who was supporting communist rebels in the Philippines. He did have some odd ideas, including flying quiet planes over rebel areas on cloudy days, with loudspeakers blasting out curses in the Tagalog language to convince the locals that the gods were unhappy with them. He had teams of graffiti artists who went out at night and painted evil eyes on the walls of houses belonging to supporters of the rebels.
My particular favourite was when he discovered the legend of the aswang, a blood-drinking vampire-like creature that lived in the forests of Luzon. He decided it would be good to liquidate a few captured rebels, drain their blood and make holes in their necks, and by doing so convince others not to go into the forests…
At one point, however, he went a little far when he suggested that they could simulate the second coming, using phosphorous flares to create celestial light, in order to show the god-less locals that Christianity was the right path.
He was sent into retirement in La-La Land.
Still, Lansdale had a point. In South East Asia some of the people believe some very odd things (such as the Spratly Islands having any value).
It rained rather a lot in Singapore on Sunday night, delaying the start of the Grand Prix. It was the first time that this had happened in the history of the race, despite the fact that it has been going since 2008 and is always held in the typhoon season, when there is rarely a day without a big storm. My source for the following story is highly reliable, but I will leave it to you decide if it is credible. The Singapore Grand Prix, so they say, employed a local witch doctor to cast spells to ensure that rain did not fall when the races were on. Along came the pandemic and Singapore disappeared from F1 for three years. When the race was revived this year, the Grand Prix called up the witch doctor and discovered that the old fellow had gone to the great witch surgery in the sky and so a new witch doctor was required. A suitable replacement was found but no-one was quite sure if his magic would work. It didn’t.
If you don’t believe a word of this, I am not surprised, but while researching the idea I did stumble on the fact that there is a shopping mall in Singapore, called the Fu Lu Shou Complex, which specialises in mystical and magical products. I also read a wonderful story of a Singaporean lady called Bambi, who says that she earns $50,000 a month casting spells, selling haunted dolls, reading tarot cards and making candles in the form of genitalia, which are popular because they are supposed to aid reproduction when you light them.
Perhaps she could earn more if she bundled the candles with bottles of Champagne as candlelight and bubbles have often worked in these matters in the past…
F1 seems to be in the thrall of Asia at the moment (probably because the travelling circus is currently over there) and the paddock in Singapore was a busy place – when it was not raining. The topics were much as normal, although there was the added conundrum of whether Dietrich Mateschitz, the force behind Red Bull, was dead (as some insisted), or whether he was still alive and people (for reasons unknown) were trying to hide this fact. I honestly cannot see why anyone would want to do that, but there is no question that the sources were at odds. This would probably amuse Mateschitz (in the past or present tense) because he always liked to be rather secretive.
Th paddock had a few visitors with ambitions to run Formula 1 races in the future (which is not unusual). The most interesting for me was the delegation from Osaka. For those who don’t know the difference between Fukui and Fukuoka, or that Kyoto is an anagram of Tokyo, it is best to say that Osaka is 500 miles to the west of Tokyo, on the shores of the Inland Sea. If you take the fastest Shinkansen “bullet train” (known as the Nozomi) it takes two and a half hours to travel the 300 or so miles between the two cities. Osaka is either the second or third largest city in Japan, depending on your interpretation of the country’s complicated administrative boundaries.
Anyway, race fans will know that the home of F1 in Japan is Suzuka, the Honda-owned circuit located close to Ise Bay, south of Nagoya, which is between Tokyo and Osaka. Pretty much everyone likes Suzuka and it has always had a big crowd, although it is not an easy place to get to. F1 currently has a contract to continue to race there until the end of 2024 and will probably stay longer if Honda decides to remain active in F1. The Formula 1 group, however, might prefer somewhere else. The Japanese GP has been held at Mount Fuji in the past but this is prone to torrential rain and equally difficult to access. And neither venue is “a destination city”.
In 2025 the city will host the World Expo on an artificial island, called Yumeshima (literally “Dream Island”). The plans allow for 285,000 visitors a day, with a new station linked to the Osaka Metro. The big question is what happens to the site after Expo. In recent days MGM Resorts International has announced that it has agreement to develop Yumeshima into “an integrated resort” which will include three hotels, a casino, convention and exhibition space, banqueting halls, entertainment venues and so on. This will cost $9 billion and will aim to attract millions of visitors each year. It was interesting to see a number of people from the Osaka Convention & Tourism Bureau turning up in Singapore to discuss putting a circuit on the island. One of them even had a business card which said: ‘F1 Business Development Manager”.
Those who know about MGM might leap to the conclusion that this could all be linked to the ongoing F1 project in Las Vegas, but I am told it is a pure coincidence…
Talking of Vegas, F1 will soon be able to reveal its plans for its pit and paddock development in the city. It all seems quite impressive ad I am told the big push will be to promote the facilities as being the most technologically-advanced building in the world. What this means is not entirely clear at the moment but it is certain to include unprecedented levels of resource efficiency and intelligent features. This will be a useful promotional tool for the sport. I am told that it will not only be sustainable but will be so efficient that it will balance all emissions created during construction and even, perhaps, in the manufacturing of all materials required for the construction. It is all good for F1’s sustainability programmes, although until the sport counts the emissions produced by spectators on their way to and from the track, it is all a bit airy-fairy. From what I hear there will be a covered paddock, between the pit buildings and the team offices, and there will be bridges linking the two, so that VIPs can swan around without getting in the way as much as they currently do. The pit building will also feature a huge F1 logo, which will be flat on the roof, this will use dynamic digital illumination techniques to promote F1 day and night as it will visible from all planes going into and out of the airport. The facilities will include some form of permanent F1 exhibition space that will aim to draw visitors all through the year, helping to promote the sport and generate revenues at the same time.
Stefano Domenicali has been particularly busy in recent weeks with rumoured trips to Panama and Seoul. Both are interesting prospects. Panama is looking for ways to rebuild its tourist industry, which used to attract 2.5 million visitors a year but managed only 1.2 million in 2021.
Seoul is a great idea as well, although F1’s history in Korea is not brilliant following the hopeless Korean Grand Prix, which was held in the marshes of Mokpo, 250 miles from the capital on the country’s west coast. The idea was to build a city around the circuit and generate a tourist industry for the whole region. It was an expensive failure and the race stopped after four years. But Korea remains a big player in the global car industry, ranking fifth in automobile production behind China, the USA, Japan and India, but ahead of Germany. There is a new president who seems keen to use sport to promote the country and is currently bidding for the Asian Cup soccer competition in 2023, which was to be in China but was dumped by the Chinese because of the pandemic.
Seoul has also recently played host to Formula E although few noticed that this was happening. Still, there is huge potential to build an Albert Park-like track in public parkland alongside the Hangang river, with easy access to the city’s mass transit system. This is now a vital element in all new races because spectator emissions are a problem for all sports to which people drive. Mass transit systems are good. Cars are bad. Or that is the theory at the moment.
The failure of the South African GP to deliver the goods has led to new thinking in Africa. Kyalami is the only permanent track that is up to anything close to F1 standards, but there is the possibility of temporary or semi-permanent tracks in Johannesburg. It is worth noting that there were some street races in Soweto in 2008 and 2009 and these were followed by a number of F1 demonstration runs dating back to 2014 when Ferrari ran a big street event in Soweto with Marc Gene driving an old Ferrari F60 to the delight of thousands of spectators. Soweto is now quite a chic place and one of the primary tourist areas in Johannesburg. The district where the Ferrari demonstration took place is next to the FNB Stadium, alongside the Johannesburg Expo Centre, which might be a great venue, along the lines of the track at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.
There was a pleasant brunch involving Saudi Arabian GP figures and they were keen to discuss whatever we wanted to talk about, which provided some interesting discussion about the goings-on in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a while ago, plus discussions about Houti missiles and the explosion on the Paris-Dakar Rally. This is actually a pretty good thing because talking about problems and perceptions in an open fashion is a step in the right direction. The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, by the way, is likely to remain in Jeddah until 2028 because although work is progressing on the construction of a new circuit at Qiddiya, near Riyadh, and the recent announcement of a contract with MotoGP (without mention of a date or a venue), the aim is to bring the races to Qiddiya when the whole city is finished, because no-one wants to go racing on a building site.
There were a couple of big TV announcements in Singapore, notably about Sky renewing its deals in all three of its F1 markets: Britain, Germany and Italy. There was less coverage given to a deal that will see China Telecom acquiring the streaming rights for F1 in China for the remainder of the 2022 Formula 1 season. Chinese interest in F1 has not grown much despite the fact that my namesake Guanyu Zhou has had a promising first season, albeit hobbled somewhat by Alfa Romeo’s unreliability. Without that he and Valtteri Bottas would have looked a great deal better. Although the Chinese Grand Prix is on the calendar for 2023, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks it will happen. Much will depend on what happens with the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which is due to begin in Beijing on October 16. This will likely grant President Xi Jinping a third term as leader, but it will give him the opportunity to surround himself with new people and perhaps some new policies. The new leadership will set the tone for the country’s foreign relations and will make decisions regarding China’s COVID-19 policy. These might impact on F1 if Xi continues to make belligerent noises about Taiwan (and the Spratly Islands, for that matter), but it might also result in the race shifting from Shanghai to Beijing. The two cities are constantly trying to outdo one another (in the tradition of Sydney and Melbourne) and that would be a big win for Beijing. The word is that Xi would like to have a night race in the capital.
There was more Chinese news in the days before the Singapore race as Geely took a 7.6 percent stake in Aston Martin Lagonda, the troubled car company that Lawrence Stroll is trying to promote using the Aston Martin F1 team. This was yet another refinancing of a firm that Stroll keeps saying is fully-funded. It seems like there is some kind of hole in the bottom of the Aston Martin bucket because money just keeps draining away. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund now owns 18.7 percent of the business, while Stroll’s Yew Tree owns 19 percent.
There was some discussions about the F1 driver market but as things stand it looks like Alpine will soon announce that it has signed Pierre Gasly to partner Esteban Ocon. The team will probably have Jack Doohan as the reserve driver in 2023. Scuderia AlphaTauri is expected to take Nyck de Vries in place of Gasly. Williams is still working on a deal for Formula 2 driver Logan Sargeant, while Haas says it has not decided anything but the rumours suggest that Nico Hulkenberg is being considered as Kevin Magnussen’s team-mate.
Daniel Ricciardo looks set for a reserve driver role at Mercedes.
An awful lot of waffle was flying around about the Cost Cap with spin doctors doing their thing to stir up the media into a feeding frenzy on the subject. The message being peddled was that two teams have broken the cost cap limits for 2021 – and there was plenty of speculation about the FIA might do about it. The aim of all this seems to have been to make sure that topic remains in the spotlight so that it cannot be brushed swiftly beneath the carpet. The rules are actually fairly clear about what constitutes a breach and what the range of penalties there can be.
The vagueness of the penalties is something that can cause trouble and it might be wiser if the FIA rid itself of the uncertainty of the sanctions and simply introduced a system similar to some American sports, where there are spending restrictions in order to stop big teams spending too much. Teams ARE allowed to overspend but are then subject to a so-called “luxury tax”, which is basically a surcharge when a team exceeds the allowable limits. This is usually a multiple of the amount overspent (perhaps three or five times the overspend) and this money is then put into a pot and divided up between the guilty team’s rivals. It is a neat solution but, of course, it does not much matter if you are a team without any restrictions on spending.
Some of the more eccentric media have billed the matter as an attempt by interested parties to rearrange the result of the 2021 Worrd Championship to allow Lewis Hamilton to win. I cannot say I believe a word of that – and it would be a very bad idea because some might then like to ask questions about other dubious championship outcomes in the history of the sport. Similarly, one does not want too much digging around about back room deals because that might leave a number of teams red-faced from past adventures.
If that was the thinking behind Cost Cap Gate, or whatever it is being called, then Edward G Lansdale would be proud of the spin doctors involved. Still, it’s not Christmas, is it? So don’t expect any such presents in the days ahead.
We have to get through the horrors of Halloween first.