You must remember this… the last six weeks have been brutal on F1’s travellers, with races in Singapore, Japan, Texas, Mexico and Brazil and all the other stopping off points along the way. Now, as we cycle backwards in mid-air (like Wile E. Coyote trying to reach the edge of a canyon) and head the other way through the time zones, we are all getting rather tired, and so people are saying and doing strange things
As my plane hurtles through the darkness, somewhere in the night sky above Casablanca, I can say without any need to reflect that I am weary, if only because I have watched too many bad inflight movies, of which there are plenty at the moment. Content is king, so they say, but good content seems thin on the ground and I am slightly worried about Brad Pitt making F1 movies as his latest hit, about a pacifist assassin called Ladybug (honestly) is set on a bullet train in Japan. Before I turned it off, I did begin to hope that the lethal serpent, which slithered about like an F1 reporter, might bite him and end the movie prematurely.
With this is mind, I see that Formula One has appointed a head of original content to help expand F1’s production and to build up new relationships and partnerships within the movie and TV world. Isabelle Stewart has a long history as a fixer in this world, so we can look forward (hopefully) to some quality projects in the future. F1 is staying smart by working to find content that will drive the sport forward when Drive to Survive goes stale, as eventually it may do. Having said that, people are a little strange about what they like and if The Archers, the radio show about “everyday country folk” is still going after 71 years, or the TV equivalent Coronation Street, set in a cobbled street in a Manchester suburb, has survived 62 years, a couple of years more that the US’s General Hospital and the slightly younger Days of Our Lives, there really is no reason that the show cannot be going when Guenther Seiner is retired to a rocking chair on the shores of Lake Norman.
There is no harm in looking for ways to keep F1 in the spotlight. There is plenty of room for racing movies and documentaries, but also potential for cartoons and content that will inspire younger fans to follow F1 in more than virtual form.
I also half-watched a movie about Elvis Presley, the message of which, it seemed, was that people are happy to be fleeced if they leave with a smile on their faces. This was the philosophy of Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, who was not – inevitably – what he appeared to be. I really didn’t like the character that Tom Hanks created, but blaming the actor is like saying the media is the problem when it delivers truth… On social media one man’s truth is another man’s poison. What can you do?
Anyway, it seems that Parker was not what he appeared to be and was in reality a Dutchman called Andreas van Kuijk.
In general terms, I like the Dutch, although I always laugh at the line from an Austin Powers movie: “There are only two things I can’t stand in this world: People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures, and the Dutch”. It is genius.
There are people out there who see evil in everything that Max Verstappen does, and others who think Lewis Hamilton is nasty. The virtual battles going on between their fans are ugly.
It struck me as rather odd that Max did not give back the position that Sergio Perez had given him in the closing laps in Brazil. It seemed at face value a rather self-defeating thing to do. But it was clear from what Max said that there was a very specific reason for it, and that the team knew what it was.
It did not take long for a couple of Dutch reporters to claim that this was all because Sergio crashed deliberately in qualifying at Monaco and screwed Max’s chance of taking pole position. At the time I have to admit that it did not seem suspicious, but I did write that it was “ironic that Perez ended up third” and that Max was frustrated by his team-mate’s crash. History relates, of course, that Ferrari messed it all up with poorly-timed tyre changes and Perez was able to win and while Max was third in the end, he was not a happy bunny. I have no idea whether these claims are true, but it would explain Max’s remarks after the race, and Red Bull’s reticence to explain what he meant by them.
I think it would be wise for the FIA to do two things: investigate what happened and see if there is any evidence that could prove the claim (which is probably impossible because odd data can simply mean a mistake). The Singapore scandal of 2008 was something we suspected but could not prove and it only became fact when Nelson Piquet Jr admitted it to. Secondly, and more importantly, the FIA should adjust the rules so that one cannot profit if you crash on a final run in qualifying. The fastest lap time should be taken away, just in case it was deliberate.
The Perez-Monaco story also includes elements of the other big story after Brazil which came out of Italy when the celebrated Gazzetta dello Sport reported that Mattia Binotto will soon be replaced because of all the disasters at Ferrari this year. This, one might understand, but the idea that Frederic Vasseur would be a good replacement makes the story seem either ridiculous, or an indication that the high-ups at Ferrari are actually the real problem. You might think that this is harsh and Frederic is the obvious choice, but I am afraid I really don’t see that.
As I wander the paddocks of the world, I have found that if one is looking for Vasseur the best place to find him is usually at Mercedes where – no doubt – the multiple World Championship-winning Toto Wolff is getting Fred’s advice about how to best run a racing team. I cannot remember the exact details, but one of them was a witness at the other one’s wedding, and so having the Ferrari team principal as the best buddy of the Mercedes F1 boss seems a wholly unlikely situation.
The key point, I fear, has nothing to with that. F1 is a numbers game when it comes to success. You are only as good as your last result and in the five years that Vasseur has been running the Sauber/Alfa Romeo team, with funding from one of the richest men in the world and from Alfa Romeo, the team has managed to collect just 181 points. That is 36 a season, which is 10 fewer points than Red Bull scores on a good F1 weekend.
Having said all of that, I think I have reached the conclusion that Ferrari could put Liz Truss in charge of the F1 team and it really would not matter. Despite not winning a World Championship title for 14 years and with all the mistakes that have been made this year, the company continues to sell cars and make pots of money. Ferrari has just published its Q3 results for 2022 and despite the world’s car markets being at best dodgy, it reported earnings up 17 percent compared to last year, to an eye-watering $427 million. Ferrari expects to make about $1.7 billion this year.
So, frankly, who cares who is running things in F1, if the performance has zero impact on the brand or the sales? To see Vasseur dress up in a red suit and jump into the bubbling cauldron with some vegetables and watch him turn into a pot-au-feu and be devoured by the Italian media, will be a spectacle that will keep fans amused while the other teams do the winning… as usual.
Quite how and why Ferrari is so successful is a mystery that Sherlock Holmes would struggle to solve, even with the help of Enola. And it is a risky business to think that one can emulate what Ferrari does. Some years ago I heard Steve Wozniak talking about self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. He made a very good point: how can we hope to build artificial intelligence if we do not understand how the human brain works?
Aston Martin has been trying to do what Ferrari has done for 60 years longer than Ferrari has been in existence. It has declared bankruptcy no fewer than seven times (in 1924, 1925, 1932, 1947, 1974, 1981 and 2007) and each time it has been rescued by someone who believes that they can make the difference. James Bond has been doing his best to help, but even 007 cannot fix this conundrum. Printing money is not a trick that many can achieve.
Lawrence Stroll and his Yew Tree consortium are brave to try and stubborn as well, but they seem committed, at least until it gets too painful to continue. Their position as the biggest shareholder in the firm has been undermined in recent months by refinancing, which has diluted the shareholdings of those involved. This has been done largely to try to reduce the company’s debt load and to make sure there is sufficient cash to keep the doors from closing. Sales have been impacted for various reasons, notably the global pandemic and the resulting economic upheavals that have been impacting the car industry, with logistical problems and difficulties with parts supply chains. The firm is expected to suffer pre-tax losses that will be twice those in 2021 but they are standing by their ambitious long-term growth plans. Yew Tree’s share was down to 19 percent, with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund owning 18.7 percent and China’s Geely having 7.6 percent. In order to stay in control Yew Tree has now spent around $35 million to buy an additional 4.25 percent on the open market, admittedly because the share price is low, thus boosting its share to 23.3 percent and thus maintaining control. This matters only because Aston Martin Lagonda is reckoned to be paying around $28 million a year to the F1 team, although it is not owned by the company, of which the shareholders are rather different. If Aston Martin decided that the F1 investment was not worth it, that could cause considerable problems for the team.
Any how, back to Ferrari, I would argue that some things are just not fixable, at least not in any short-term fashion. I think the team is a bit like Sao Paulo.
When I first visited, back in 1990, it was a really horrible city. This was due to millions of Brazilians leaving the farms where they worked to move to the cities to find a better life. Many had no money and lived in shanty towns. These were everywhere. Because of poverty, crime was awful and it was dangerous to walk around in a lot of neighbourhoods. People used to joke that Brazil was a country with a great future – and always would be. But it was a city of life and passion and much of this was focussed on Ayrton Senna, a Paulista. Even after he was gone, the Brazilians kept on loving Formula 1 and the only thing that made the trip to Brazil each year worth the pain was to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the wonderful races that Interlagos produced, some of the greatest we have ever seen. I hope we always come back for that reason alone.
Today Sao Paulo – like Ferrari – is better than it used to be. Much has been done. The favelas have faded, transportation is better. There are leafy parks and cycle paths. There are bright shiny glass-fronted tower blocks and shopping centres. Today there are many more neighbourhoods where one feels safe, but you only need to go a block or two in the wrong direction and you find yourself back in a place you do not want to be. But the locals are proud when you say that it is better than it used to be. This is not to say that I am a fan of the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere, which now boasts around 22.4 million people. It has wonderful jacaranda trees and an energy that is hard to find elsewhere. There really is nowhere like it.
Most of F1 these days stays in the Morumbi area, where a large representation of a Christmas tree stands outside a glitzy shopping centre. It reminded us all that the end of the season is finally upon us. We are all tired. Stefano Domenicali spent much to the weekend without a voice and Lando Norris looked rather grey all weekend. We all just want to get the season finished.
Morumbi is nice enough. It is where Senna is buried (below), if you can find the place.
The thing you need to know about it is that Brazilians use the letter r in a rather different way than the rest of the world and so Morumbi sounds like Mohumbi, while you must say Hubens Bahichello if you want the Brazilian to understand who you are talking about. If you wish to go to the Autodromo by taxi, you have to say “Ow-toe-drome – Oh!”, which sounds like you might have stubbed your foot. If you say Bom Dia (good morning) you have to say “bonjee-a”. The language is complicated, but it is all still worth it, if you can get into Interlagos. Just for the passion.
It was nice to see Bernie Ecclestone wandering about, even if we are all supposed to tut-tut and say that he is horrid because he likes Vladimir Putin. Bernie is farming coffee in Brazil these days (or at least getting someone else to do it while he watches) but he’s unbelievably sprightly for a man of 92. When I mentioned he was looking well, Mr E, gave a little twinkle and said that it was all down to his clean living ways… which made us both giggle. The ultimate laugh, however, was that Bernie was there not because of what he did for F1 for so many years, but rather because his wife Fabiana, was the highest-ranking FIA official at the event, now that she is the Vice President of Sport (Latin America). I have no doubt that Bernie ended up in the corner office…
The paddock gossip was minimal, with stories suggesting that Portugal could replace China in 2023. This is not going to happen. So, race fans, be prepared to have a four-week break from F1 next year between the Australian GP on April 2, and the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on April 30.
It would be a good time to plan a holiday…
The Germans are rather worried that they are about to lose their two active F1 drivers, with the retirement of Sebastian Vettel and the fact that Mick Schumacher is about to be drop-kicked off the F1 playing field. The good news is that Nico Hulkenberg will be slipping into the cockpit of the second Haas. This will confirmed some point soon.
There has been chat for a while that Daniel Ricciardo will be joining Mercedes to help out. There is some logic in this, but the latest whispers in the wind are that Mercedes may be convinced that taking on Mick would be a good PR move. We shall see.
Daniel has also been mentioned as a possible reserve at Red Bull, where he learned to be the character that he is. We will have to see about that. Other stories suggest that the role is going to be given to Norway’s Dennis Hauger, who Red Bull hopes will become an F2 winner in 2023 after a rather average season in 2022. It seems also that Enzo Fittipaldi is joining the Red Bull flock (if the collective noun for Red Bulls is a flock, rather than a herd) and that he may also be named as Haas’s reserve driver as his brother Pietro is hoping to go racing in the United States, where there is nice IndyCar drive going if one has the money to pay Chip Ganassi what he wants (which is rather a lot).
Anyway, now it’s off to the onomatopoeic Abu Dhabi “do”, where hopefully things will be less stressed than they were a year ago.
We will say goodbye to Vettel, who is planning a career saving the world and raising awareness for exploited folks and minorities, by selling teeshirts supporting his campaigns, at a thoroughly unreasonable €70 a pop. I’m all for good works and charitable gestures, but I am troubled by the idea of spending €70 for a teeshirt, even if it miraculously turns into artichoke soup after being used a few times.
Still, Ferrari can demand such prices, so there is hope for the rest of us…