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.