Green Notebook from Poitiers

Jean le Bon might sound like a rock star, but he wasn’t. He was just a king, and not a very good one, although for reasons now lost in time he earned his name, which means John the Good.

Medieval kings make Vladimir Putin seem like a decent and reasonable fellow. They were basically murderous thugs, constantly fighting for land so that their kingdom could be bigger than the one next door, which belonged to some psychopathic cousin. Wars were profitable for individuals  if one plundered enough stuff. The kings told everyone that they had God on their side and if you didn’t agree with them they would string you up from a tree, if you were lucky. We won’t go into too much detail about what happened if you were unlucky, suffice to say that it was a grisly way to depart this earth.

The reason I mention Jean le Bon is that  I happened to be passing by Poitiers the other day. It was there in 1356 that Edward the Black Prince (named presumably after his Johnny Cash-style fashion choices, rather than his genetic make-up) defeated Jean le Bon in so devastating a fashion that Jean was captured and ransomed by the English for an astonishing three million crowns, which was equivalent to the English royal revenues for five years. It was probably the most significant victory of the 100 Years War, although Crecy and Agincourt always seem to get the glory and Henry V had better PR than The Black Prince. Mind you, history is a funny thing because if you ask the average Englishman about the significance of Formigny or Castillon (two battles that they lost) they will most likely reply: “Don’t they play for Chelsea?”

The F1 season may be over but normal life must now catch up and so it is a time to visit long-neglected relatives and other similar activities. This involved a trip through rain storms and rainbows to Aquitaine, by way of Le Mans and then the A10 autoroute. This modern road has little to offer, but the old RN10, which runs parallel to the motorway was the Mother Road of global motorsport, down which the early races thundered until 1903 when no fewer than 261 automobiles set off to race from Paris to Madrid. The performance of these frail and often dubious feats of engineering was diverse. The development was then moving so fast that the most advanced machines were capable of 100 mph, a concept which spectators struggled to comprehend. The dusty roads made vision almost impossible for the drivers and huge crowds were largely uncontrolled.

It was a recipe for disaster.

Even today, the exact total number of accidents and casualties is not really known. There were over a dozen crashes involving fatalities, often multiple, to both the racing crews and bystanders and a total of 40 dead is not an unreasonable estimate. One of them was Marcel Renault, who ran off the main road just south of Poitiers, while passing a rival at high speed, having failed to see the corner ahead. The Renault went off over a ditch and rolled, the driver suffered head and neck injuries. There were no medics, of course, and so the competitors who arrived at the scene did what they could. Leon Thery found a bicycle and went in search of a doctor, while Maurice Farman organised for Renault and his riding mechanic to be carried 200 metres to a farm in the hamlet of Bourdevay, just off the main road. Marcel died there two days later.

The race was called off at the end of that appalling first day and city-to-city racing died with it. Thereafter races were held on circuits.

Passing Le Mans earlier in the trip reminded me that the city is not just about the celebrated 24 Hour race, for which it is best known today. Le Mans also served as the venue for the very first Grand Prix, which took place three years after the Paris-Madrid disaster, on a large circuit was laid out on a triangle of country roads to the east of city, running from Champagné to a hairpin on the way towards Le Mans which sent the racers off to the east to Saint-Calais, then north to Vibraye and La Ferté-Bernard, and then south-west back to Champagné.

This was won by a Renault, driven by a mechanic called Ferenc Szisz, or Szisz Ferenc if one hails from his native Hungary.

The 1906 race is not the only link that Le Mans has with Grand Prix racing because after World War I a different track, to the south of the city was used for the first major motor race to take place after the war. This would be the basis of the circuit used for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and, much to the chagrin of the French, the event was won by America’s Jimmy Murphy, driving a white Duesenberg.

When you look at the history of the place and the geographical location of Le Mans, within easy reach of Paris by car or train, with a tramway that runs right into the middle of the circuit, one can only wonder why France has struggled to find a venue for Formula 1 for so many years. There is even a short version of the Le Mans track, known as the Bugatti circuit, which runs through the sandy, pine-covered area south of the impressive pits, grandstands and paddock. This hosted one Grand Prix, back in 1967, but it was not considered a very good circuit at the time (not surprising given its rivals Reims and Rouen) and few spectators turned up. That mean that the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which runs the track, turned its back on F1 and continues to look down on F1 to this day, there is no doubt that if a race was held there today it would be a great success and would give Le Mans a more valid claim to be the racing capital of the world.

But club presidents quite often do not see the wood from the trees and so Le Mans steers clear of Formula 1. Liberty Media isn’t really bothered about France, despite the country’s history as the birthplace of motorsport, and probably views Le Mans as a provincial city of little interest, rather than being “a destination city”. It is a shame…

Not many people know that there is a direct link between Alpine, which today waves the French flag in Formula 1, and those early days of the sport. One of the Renault mechanics in those days, who sat alongside Szisz on several occasions, was a fellow called Emile Rédélé, who was a pal of the company boss Louis Renault. After the war, as Renault began expanding into a mass market car company, Louis sent Redele to Dieppe to open one of the earliest Renault dealerships. Emile’s son Jean grew up as a mad racing fan but Renault showed little interest in the sport and so Jean Redele began converting 4CVs into racing machines in the late 1940s. These were quite successful and in 1951 he set up Automobiles Alpine and began producing roadgoing versions of the cars. They were sexy and successful Renaults. Later Redele took Alpine into single-seater races and won in Formula 3, Formula 2 and at Le Mans, in addition to being successful in international rallying with wins on the Monte Carlo Rally and World Rally Championship success.. Alpine even built the first prototype for Renault’s F1 turbo programme in the 1970s but in the years that followed after Renault bought the brand it was left to fade away and was not revived until Malaysian aviation magnate Tony Fernandes decided to expand into the car business and did a deal with Renault to revive the road car brand and provide the same basic car for his Caterham operation. When Fernandes ran out of money, Renault was left with a half-finished project and decided to go ahead and so Alpine began again and the F1 programme today is the next chapter in the story and a key part of Renault’s strategy for the future.

Renault’s progress has been slow but it is moving forwards and having overtaken McLaren this year in fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship is now focussing on closing the gap to the big three: Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari. It is an epic challenge but in F1 empires rise and fall and one never knows who will get it right. Mercedes had a tough year in 2022, while Red Bull Racing flew away with the titles, while Ferrari should have done a great deal better than it did. This is the big story at the moment as Ferrari decides what to do for the future. While there is no question that mistakes were made in 2022, both by the team and by the drivers, the idea that a change of management is a good idea is probably not the smartest thing to do, as it will mean another period of getting things in whatever order the new incumbent thinks is best and then seeing if it works. By the time all of that is done it will be halfway through the 2023 season and there are no guarantees that the result will be any better than in 2022. A new person will also probably want his own people around him and that will take time. If you look back in history Jean Todt took control of the team in July 1993 but Ferrari did not win a World Championship until 1999. If anything the cycles of F1 success are these days longer than they used to be and so changing a lot is not a good idea, unless the new person concludes there is no choice. Mattia Binotto may not be Toto Wolff, but he has overseen an upshift in Ferrari performance thanks to providing stability and a culture in which people are willing to take risks and come up with new ideas.

Binotto was fortunate (probably) to survive the cataclysmic 2020 season  – the team’s worst for 40 years – which was the result of the secret deal that was struck with the FIA regarding the Ferrari engine, after the controversies at the tail end of 2019. He was probably saved by the fact that there was an interregnum following the unexpected retirement of chief executive officer Louis Camillieri and the long wait before Benedetto Vigna took over nine months later. Vigna, who has no background in racing, is now 15 months into his time as CEO and one can only hope that this is not his decision because 15 months in F1 is not sufficient to understand how it all works. And, as many executives have learned over time, it is not like any other business and those who think it is, usually end up with omelettes on their heads. Binotto has been around the block enough times to avoid the obvious pitfalls and the last couple of months have been pretty unpleasant to watch as  the bullets have landed closer and closer to his dancing feet.

It has felt like some strange modern version of the auto-da-fé, a ritual process used by the Inquisition centuries ago during which getting rid of heretics became a sort of public entertainment, which included a mass, a procession, the reading of the sentences and then finally the punishment, including the ultimate sanction, which was to be burned at the stake.

As to what happens after the Binotto’s funeral pyre burns out, we will have to see. The only people who seem to want the job are people who are not qualified to do it. There have been some pretty wild rumours which I think probably reflects Ferrari’s struggle to find a suitable replacement. It is a poisoned chalice, with far more chance of failure than success, unless the chosen one is given complete freedom and the high-ups at Ferrari are kept out of the equation. Todt did it by insisting that he be left alone and was able to develop the right atmosphere within the team. I cannot see why those who have been there before would want to go back and reprise the roles they had 30 years ago. An outsider is unlikely to work because it will take years for a newcomer to understand the politics that goes on down there. Perhaps the best chance is to have someone with some industry clout, who will take the flak and let the team get on doing what it is doing. Obviously there do need to be some changes because the mistakes made have often been repeated… which is never a good sign.

In the interim, the other F1 teams will continue to accelerate away, racing one another and sniggering quietly at Ferrari’s misfortunes… Still, a massive failure can be a good source of motivation. In the end, the departure of Binotto can only be seen as the result of the top management thinking they know best. Binotto would not have left if he had felt protected from on high. Clearly he did not.

In order to have any success in Formula 1 a team must feel that it is a team. It is ultimately irrelevant whether Binotto was fired or resigned because the cause is the same.

The next chapter of Ferrari history will judge not only whoever drinks from the chalice that is offered, but also the people who offer it.

73 thoughts on “Green Notebook from Poitiers

      1. Do you think Budkowski would be interested? He certainly knows how winning teams operate.

        I thought of you when I read Vigna’s “not satisfied with second” quote somewhere. It is such a wonderful example of the ivory tower crowd really having no idea what it takes to win in F1. The new TP may want to phone Brawn and Todt and ask how they worded the “boss buffer” clause in the contract.

        1. Because he’s very smart, has experience at Ferrari, McLaren, Alpine and way back at Prost. He knows the FIA and he’s a smart engineer. He’s also available…

        1. sorry – Colin.
          there was a lad by similar name who could do (all possible results and) wonders to keep going F1 teams with zero budget. With ∞ budget, you know, and maybe no Italian he could be the man to turn Ferrari around in a blink.
          However – does it really matter who’s going to be Binotto’s successor – upper forces will hang them as soon as they are not the first in standings. Will they give to the next guy 3-5-7 years to turn things around to be the first?
          I doubt they will, but they should

  1. Immensely enjoyed reading this, as always, but I must disagree on one point, Joe. You say it is a “shame” Le Mans doesn’t seem to want F1. We should thank God that F1 goes nowhere near Le Mans. Le Mans is fantastic. Don’t ruin it by bringing F1 there. My local track is Zandvoort and I can tell there are probably very few true racing enthusiasts that are happy with the arrival of F1 and all the “improvements” that have spoilt the place we loved.

  2. Interesting as ever, Joe and you are probably right that Ferrari might have set themselves back a couple of years as opposed to some relatively minor restructuring eliminating the obvious mistakes of 2022.
    Jean Todt, whatever your feelings about his time at FIA, must be one of the most successful managers in any industry during his time at Ferrari, welding together a multi national team of pretty strong characters to achieve success through hard work.
    I hope one day he writes “the book” because most of us would be able to learn something from it.
    Enjoy your well earned break, I wish I had been in Poitiers last week instead of middle England!

    1. I wonder how successful Jean Todt and Ferrari would have been had they not had Ferrari’s ex-legal counsel as president of the FIA and appearing to ‘run interference’ for them on a fairly regular basis?
      Additionally, without Schumacher, Brawn, Byrne et al would he have achieved anything at all?
      I believe that it was the right people, with the same principles (or lack of, some might say) in the right positions, at the right time that brought about Ferrari’s run of success.

      1. I think part of what Todd did so well at Ferrari was hiring the right people. It is all very well saying he owes his succes from Brawn, Byrne and Schumacher, but you should realize he was the one who assembled that team in the first place.

  3. Ferrari have to go back to the future, their stellar periods have been when the Team Principle / Team Manager was his own man who knew what was needed, there have been two outstanding men, Luca di Montezemolo and Jean Todt. If they could convince a certain Mr Brawn that would throw the pigeons into the cattery. But what I really mean is someone who does not have to be a slave to the politics.

  4. Another terrific read, thanks, Joe.

    Two questions:

    1. Is the Bugatti circuit at Le Mans what MotoGP use?

    2. Are you still doing the occasional Missed Apex podcast? I haven’t heard you in a while, not sure if I just missed it.

    Thanks, enjoy your break.

    Mike Hodish
    Bethel, CT USA

  5. Interesting this. Thanks. Most interesting was this sentence….

    Perhaps the best chance is to have someone with some industry clout, who will take the flak and let the team get on doing what it is doing.

    And who might that be?

  6. As has been widely disseminated Vasseur is apparently favourite.
    Who would want the job? So much pressure and politics.
    Someone needs to do a Todt to protect team from bosses and media.
    Easier said. Plus cut out the strategic mistakes or at least do a much better job on this. Design wise thay must have a pretty good platform with which to attack next year. So it’s not all bad news. Make Leclerc No 1. Maybe it’s a good idea , would help to simplify strategy. Good luck to him or her……

  7. I presume Mr Brawn has been invited to specify a number ending in as many zeroes as take his fancy, but is far too sensible to do so?

  8. Joe: Many thanks for your terrific Green Notebook and reports. Are Team Principals typically shareholders like Toto, or highly paid and incentivized hired guns?

  9. Hi Joe, thank you so much for this excellent insight into Binotto’s resignation. It is sadly something I have witnessed many times from up close in the investment banking sector. As long as the profits are good, a good team is allowed to carry on but the moment a unit loses money, the board would ask for changes and give the MD a choice fire or resign. In the end the best organizations are able to maintain continuity. I also think that Chase Carey was the executive of the decade because nobody and I mean nobody believed in him and Sean Bratches, heck the teams didn’t even dare to buy a stake in FOM at a discount!

  10. Thank you again Joe. Always a joy to read.

    And that old game known as Maranello Musical Chairs once again provides something for us pondering classes to muse about until February, or perhaps 2024, or maybe 2025, or (add a year here), instead of just playing chess. Although the two possibly have a commonality.

    I have 2 questions:

    1. Leaving aside real world political issues, those of Auto Club de l’Ouest, the (probably) differing opinions of the teams and the whims of possible well-heeled sponsors, do you think les Connaisseurs Français de la F1 would flock to a round at Le Mans?

    2. Yes, I know it’s virtually old history now and appears resolved, but is it possible that the fingers of a certain previous F1 supremo may have been fairly closely involved in brokering the deal apparently struck between the FIA, F1 and RB over the cost cap issue ?

  11. Who would be the right pair of hands now Joe to steady the 2023 Ferrari ship?
    Will they throw someone like Andrea Stella in or so you buy the Vasseur narrative, even if I know you have written about your observations on that?
    Andreas Siedel, would have maybe been a choice but rumours are he turned it down?

  12. Online I’ve seen anything from Eric Boullier, Nicholas Todt, Manfredi Ravetto, a return for Maurizio Arrivabene (now he’s got time on his hands 😂) or some makes I’ve never heard of from Ducati ( I don’t follow bikes).

    Any ideas on who it could be, or is it actually going to be Fred

    1. One story I read, with a bucket of NaCl to hand, is that Ferrari offered the job to…

      …Christian Horner! And it wasn’t on Newsthump of The Daily Mash either. Others are predicting yet another comeback for Ross Brawn. I gave up following the story and will rely on sensible chaps like Joe in future.

  13. With McLaren Group running out of money again, is McLaren Racing sufficiently independent to survive, Joe, if McLaren Automotive collapses? The racing side is burning cash too, it seems.

  14. Joe, have a great winter break, you must be exhausted from the late season’s compressed schedule.

    I shared this article with an Italian friend of mine. He said that it was the first time he had read an F1 article that read like a TED talk.

    Have a healthy and happy Christmas with your family and we look forward to hearing from you in 2023.

  15. I don’t know why Ferrari don’t just sub contract out the racing team to someone who knows how to build and race cars as they obviously don’t know how to do that. Perhaps someone at Milton Keynes or Brackley might find that they have extra capacity somewhere to operate the Italian Racing Team.

    On a serious note I discounted the Binotto departure rumours as utter stupidity. Leclerc and Sainz must be wondering about their next move as obviously Ferrari are going to slip down the competitive order now for a while. Hard to believe now that everybody thought they were going to walk away with the Championship after Melbourne.

  16. Now that he has resigned, who do you think (in realistic terms) the ideal TP at ferrari ? If Elkann & the Leclerc camp are solid allies, perhaps it may be that they will go with Fred and stick with him for 3-4 years since Lec wants to be number one, Elkann wants to keep him happy and Fred likes Leclerc. I can see why this Binotto episode is part of the Ferrari pattern but it may not be so bleak after all.

  17. It seems like Ferrari’s lack of results in F1 doesn’t negatively impact their road car sales. So, maybe the solution would be to imitate Lamborghini and organize track days for rich old guys and forget F1 altogether. Obviously, F1 success is unattainable for Ferrari and it may be time to take their money off the table and walk away. The only racing they could win is a one-make championship.

    Over the years F1 lost some very great names such as Vanwall, BRM, Lotus, Tyrell, etc. It might now be Ferrari’s turn. What a waste of talent and potential.

  18. Interesting fact (or not)… King Jean le Bon was born in Le Mans, about 500m from the route of the tramline that runs from the city’s main railway station to the track

  19. Hi Joe. Re Binotta – assuming he wants to stay in F1, if Audi F! offered him a consultancy could he accept it right away or do gardening leave rules apply even if the team is not on the grid?

  20. Hi Joe a topic about nothing, but when you are writing your articles and when you are responding to questions, I notice you are very correct in responding in the exact syntax relevant to the question. Do you have a legal background as well as the journalistic or is it just a process of years of assimilating information and reporting it to ensure you stay clear of anything that can be misconstrued. Hope you don’t mind me asking just interested in the journalistic process.

  21. The ACO are doing a stirling job “improving” Le Mans by themselves at the moment 😦 Last year was the worse since I started going in 2010. Grandstand seats moved closure together, Entrances closed, campsites left without water, Stewards not knowing the rules for bringing water into the track and a general feeling of if you are not a VIP you can **** off. It is a magical place and a wonderful event that is being ruined by the ACO’s greed and incompetence. (See ticketing fiasco this week) With regards to F1, I would love to see them competing on the Circuit de la sarthe, but I guess its more likely the Bugatti circuit would be the choice, Shame.

    1. If you want another example of the ACO’s arrogance and stupidity here’s one.
      For the past decade they have licensed Duke Marketing to make a great 4 hour Bluray race review.It has been fantastic.
      This year they told Duke Marketing they couldn’t do it as they were doing it themselves.All they are putting out is their usual 90 minute DVD only Official Film which on past patterns has about 45 minutes of racing and 45 minutes of padding.An easy pass.
      Have a great holiday Joe.

  22. Joe,

    In your opinion, what is the proper criteria by which to evaluate a Team Principle? I am used to judging football/basketball/baseball coaches by their win-loss record. Doesn’t seem like it’s as simple in F1.

    Progress year over year? Team esprit de corps? Sponsorships?

    Maybe I’m not even sure of a Team Principle’s main function.

  23. Joe, Off this topic, a question: One reads quotes (e.g. Valterri Bottas, Autosport, 24 Nov, 2022, p. 25, referring to manufacturers championship prize money: “At least we have some millions more now to spend on the car development and hopefully some more people.”

    This implies that the prize money is not counted in the budget cap, is that correct? It doesn’t make sense that it would be that way. I could see that prize money should drop down to a team’s bottom line, increasing profit, but it shouldn’t increase what they can spend on dev or people, otherwise, the winningest teams will get a spending advantage, which is the opposite to the intent of the rules.

    How does this actually work?

    Thanks, Mike Hodish

      1. Thanks. Are any of the teams underfunded, so that they cannot reach the budget cap, and so winnings would potentially help the development budget?

    1. They were referring to the Alfa team, whose funding is less than the cap. The increase in prize money will move them closer to the cap.

  24. Thanks for your wonderfully insightful Green Notebooks. Ferrari seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and have no clue what to do next. Binotto seemed like a sincere and personable fellow but really a tad clueless about running the entire operation.
    A person in the mold of a Todt or Dr. Ulrich is what Ferrari need. The higher ups need to let that person run the show without interference.
    Anyhow you and your family enjoy the holidays and have a needed rest.

  25. Ross Brawn just became available. Would he be ineligible to work for a team as a result of his hand in creating the current technical regulations?

    I think he’d enjoy the chance to get a measure of payback from Mercedes and Toto Wolff after he was ousted at that team by their current boss.

      1. What do you recommend they do? (this is a real question, not snark). The underlying premise is that they have 3 days of cars on track, so they want to have 3 days of TV audience. I think that’s pretty much non-negotiable. (Plus, it’s not an unreasonable thing to aspire to.)

        So, how would you arrange things so you get 3 days worth of TV audience (while minimizing collateral damage to F1 integrity, etc) ?

        1. AS you know I am very old, thus my solution would be to revert to the original two day test/qualifying with agrigate times over Fr/Sat.

  26. Talking of team principals, where on earth has Ron Dennis’s book got to? Do you know if it’s any nearer, Joe?

  27. As an F1 fan, Ferrari just leave you dumbfounded at their antics. Italian engineers are famed for their excellence, but, they have to be left alone to get on with thier job. Ferrari just seem inherently unable to let the staff get on with the job and then we get all these flash points.

    It’s sad really because when they are left alone to get on with it, look what happens – total dominance in the Todt/Brawn/Schumacher era. The team are a thing to behold when they get their act together. I just cannot see why they just keep on insisting that they ruin their own chances. The only answer must be, they just don’t understand what effect their behaviour is having, so just keep on repeating the same mistake.

    Well, I really feel for whoever takes over, as it seems an impossible task as that team is a nest of snakes at the moment. As for their rivals – they must be laughing up their sleeves as they continue on into the distance whilst Ferrari stay static – or even go backwards. All their rivals have to do now is follow the old maxim – never interrupt your enemy when they are making a mistake.

  28. In all of this nobody is talking about the Ferrari drivers, will they want to continue much beyond another year of failure? Can’t see Leclerc staying for another ‘re-building’ year and Sainz is pretty savvy and will know what’s coming. 2 drivers on the market by mid 2023? Can’t see the point in getting Fred either, he’s never won anything, he’s great for a midfield team, kicking butts to punch above their weight, but Ferrari? Maybe with the cost cap that’s what they think will work. Budkowski would be great but again can he field the higher ups and protect the team, morale must be pretty low right now. It all reminds me of the 80s and early 90s, after 1982 endless chaos and drama with the occaisional win and damp squib of a drivers challenge of which 85 was probably the best.

  29. I’m late to this one, but the Agnelli family’s “issues” at Juventus may explain a lot.

    And Juventus’ CEO in all of this is one Mr Arrrivabene.

    I wonder if he will make it back to Maranello?

  30. Totally non-F1 question: what quality wines have you been able to enjoy since the season’s end, Joe? I do hope one or three. Enjoy Christmas and the remainder until ’23 starts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s