Green Notebook from Gaillon

So finally Formula 1 had a real news story with James Allison moving back in to the race team at Mercedes, which they hope will turn around the fortunes in Brackley. I must admit that I was a little surprised as James seemed to be done and dusted with F1, but I guess the challenge of turning the situation around appealed to him. In the overall scheme of things, it is not really surprising because, as mentioned in a previous Green Notebook, much change is expected in teams in the months ahead following Red Bull’s dominant start to the year. Such domination always leads to earthquakes.

In truth it has been pleasant to have an Easter break, albeit inadvertently, thanks to the Chinese GP being cancelled. It was a bonus that F1 folk are not used to having. Seeing the spring happening is quite a new experience for us, as we are usually anywhere but at home at this time of year.

It is the second time in three years, we have had the pleasure (given the enforced inaction during the pandemic of 2020) and it is a joy. Yes, seeing the cherry blossom in Japan is an experience, but time at home is valuable.

People sometimes have funny ideas about F1 journalists, but I understand why. We are living out the dreams of some of our readers who think that they would like the same lifestyle. It is nice to escape real life, work, mortgages and all the rest of it. Motor racing is escapism, a way to tunnel out of the drudgery to a place where anything can happen. It’s Alice going to Wonderland, Dorothy dancing down the road to the Emerald City, or running away to join the circus… We are dream salesmen (and women).

Fans (quite rightly) don’t want to hear that between races we do normal things. We go to the supermarket, we mow the lawn, we get the car serviced and we get stuck in traffic jams.

People imagine us to be hanging out on Pacific beaches, drinking kava (a strange but legal slightly narcotic drink made from the crushed root of a Polynesian shrub called the yaqona, which makes your mouth and tongue go numb). And, of course, it must be delivered by sultry island girls, although if your lips are numb, it kind of ruins the story…

I do my best to live up to these expectations by living in the French countryside, one of those romantic lifestyles for those who wonder “what it” when the afternoon is dragging a little. There is much to commend it, but it is not all hammocks and sipping rosé… Rural areas do not have many people, which means that if you are looking for specific things, you have to look a long away. Shoe repair shops or an operating railway station both require half an hour of driving. In France, one always has to contend with strikes (clichéd, but true). And then there are the mindless local bureaucrats, or fonctionnaires as they call them.

I was looking forward to receiving the Gunther Steiner book, but the publishers sent it to me by registered mail. It was addressed to Joe Saward and so the bloody-minded post office lady refused to let me have it because I have no official photo document that lists my name as Joe. At first I politely explained that Joe is a diminutive and showed her various photo IDs with that name. But these were not official documents. Even an FIA permanent F1 pass would not impress this small-minded individual. In the end, I lost it, and told her exactly where to stick the book (Gunther would have been proud of me). I departed hoping that the post office would burn down and that her pet hamster would be turned into a pavement pizza by a very large postal van. I will have to wait to read the book. She will have to wait to have a life…

Anyway, if it had been delivered to my home by the usual postperson, this would never have happened, but when they came by I was out and about. I’ve been out and about a lot in the last week and was rather shocked when I added up the kilometrage, which included a trip to Bordeaux and back on family business and then a day-trip to the UK, followed by a quick visit to Paris to pick up a visa. It all added up to 2,300km… the equivalent to driving from London to Marrakesh, or New York to Wichita, Kansas.

So I could have written this Green Notebook from any number of places: from Rouen, where the British burned Jeanne d’Arc (who was probably a troublesome postal worker) to the Pays de Bray, where they make heart-shaped cheese in Neufchatel. It could have been from Moyenneville (literally average town), near Abbeville. It could have been from Le Mans, or Brands Hatch or even from Bexleyheath, where Bernie Ecclestone grew up and ran his first motorcycle shop. It might have come from Villeperdue (Lost Town), to the south of Tours, or from a camel farm on the banks of the Garonne (Yes, there really is one).

In the end, I chose Gaillon, where I spent half an hour on the way back from Paris. Readers will know that France is rich in racing history while Britain had rules to stop racing on the roads, so the British were years behind the French in terms of automotive development. The Brits could only go racing at Brooklands, while the French raced on dozens of public road circuits. When I am pottering around I like to visit to see what is left.

The Seine valley played an important role in the world of the automobile, from the very first race that ran from Paris to Rouen in 1894.

If you jump in the Seine at the Eiffel Tower (something I now recommend for all French postal workers), the river will take you lazily downstream, looping around. If you’re a good swimmer you might still be afloat when you pass Boulogne-Billancourt, the home of Renault.  A while later (as a corpse) you will float past the massive Stellantis (read Peugeot) works at Poissy. Away to the right is the world’s first hillclimb course at Chanteloup-les-Vignes, which dates from 1898. Some claim that La Turbie came first, although the climb from Nice to La Turbie was really only a part of a much bigger event in 1897, and not a hillclimb in its own right.

After that you will bob past Flins, a huge Renault factory and then you will be out in the country. You will pass Giverny, where Claude Monet used to paint waterlilies, and Vernon, where half a medieval bridge juts out (oddly) into the river. If they hook your body out of the river at Courcelles-sur-Seine, they will probably take you to nearby Gaillon. Turn right there, on to the old Nationale 15, and the road will begin to climb, gently at first and then more steeply. It rises 88 metres in one kilometre, a nine percent climb. These days any old hearse will get up the hill without a problem, but back at the very end of 1899 this little bit of road was a real challenge. The hill had featured in the aforementioned Paris-Rouen race and made an impression on those who puffed and panted to the top. It was a real test and so five years later they went back. In the first year there were 73 entries and on a foggy December day, a Stanley Steamer, driven by a Mr G Debacker, took 1m45s to climb the hill. Such as progress in that era that five years later the record was taken down to 33.6s by Louis Rigolly in a Gobron-Brillié. The British turned up, having nothing better to do, and in 1906 Algernon Lee Guinness’s Darracq went up the hill in 25s. That year the Paris-Le Havre Express stopped at the local station to bring spectators and Monet turned up to watch his son competing. It was a place of many firsts: the famous photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue tooks some famous shots there and the hillclimb played host to Grand Prix cars and land speed record machinery until the end of the 1930s when it faded away, no longer being the great challenge it had once been. Still, in 1928, Madame Janine Jennky, admittedly the only driver in a Bugatti Type 35, set the fastest time, albeit way off the hill record, although a woman winning the event was still big news. The hillclimb died in 1932 – but the road is still there.

At the top of a hill is a new roundabout with a turning into a vast secret Renault test facility, hidden in woodland that was once the hunting ground of the Chateau de Gaillon. Take a look on Google Earth. It’s impressive…

While I’ve been gallivanting and ranting, the F1 teams are no doubt busy trying to figure out how to catch up with Red Bull, but there has been a fair bit of desperation in the media coverage of the sport.  We had Stefano Domenicali going to Hanoi, when he did not. We’ve had a bunch of chatter about Malaysia and South Africa, both of which seem thoroughly dead stories. Adrian Newey leaving Red Bull is about as likely as a penguin winning a crossword competition and there have been Harry Potter levels of fantasy about Lewis Hamilton going to Ferrari, which can only be true if Lewis has truly lost his marbles.

McLaren produced one real piece of news by announcing that it intends to have a new young driver scheme. This is good news although most of the newest talents are under contract with rivals. You have to start young these days, if you want to grab the good ones. Emanuele Pirro is a wise choice to lead the programme, as he was not only a multi-faceted driver, having raced in F1 where he was in the right place at the wrong time. He then played a much underestimated role as McLaren’s test driver in the glory years between 1988 and 1991 while also enjoying a hugely successful career in other championships, notably sports cars, as a five-time Le Mans winner. His list of wins is very impressive. In recent years, feeling the need to give back to the sport that looked after him well, he has worked as an FIA Steward in F1 and other series. He will know how to spot good youngsters and is well-equipped to help to guide them.

What else? There have been some strange attempts to get the FIA to change history and award World titles to Felipe Massa, Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Reutemann because there is nothing else to write about. There has been some idle speculation, emanating from Red Bull (funnily enough) that several teams might be in breach of the budget cap. There have been the usual Formula E and IndyCar drivers taking pot shots at F1 because they never made it.

The daftest story of all seems to have been in a German publication which produced an interview with Michael Schumacher created using artificial intelligence. This can only be described as a bizarre (and very bad) idea. I have not read the piece and do not intend to. There is still much to be written about Michael and his career, but artificial interviews are not going to help. One day there will come a moment when this complex individual can be properly explained. But not yet.

The only good thing about all this is that it wasn’t the usual dull stuff. One of the problems that F1 needs to be careful about in the years ahead is “news management”. I don’t know what they teach in public relations classes but I think Formula 1 offers a very good illustration of the right and wrong. PR people have increasingly anaesthetised the sport. Drivers say what they are told to say. Everyone has briefing notes before they go into press conferences. They all say the same rubbish: “Things didn’t work out today as we had hoped. We’ll keep working hard to get better” and “the team back in the factory is working so hard”. It is all very worthy but inspires no interest at all.

To be fair to the PR people, they are just doing what they are told to do and trying to protect the team for which they work. The obvious conclusion is that the real problem comes from the owners and team bosses who want only warm fuzzy air in their incubated lives and shy away from cold blasts of reality.

Actually isn’t just F1 that suffers from this sort of thing. In recent days we have seen a couple of spectacular examples of vapid and dishonest PR. The SpaceX explosion was described as a “rapid, unscheduled disassembly” while Florida’s Emergency Alert System sending out a screeching alert at 04.45 was a situation that “isn’t ideal”.

The point that is being missed in all of this is that real people like real people. Grannies, vicars and PR people may tut-tut at his language, but Guenther Steiner is the single most popular figure in Formula 1 these days, thanks to Drive to Survive.

How can that be? Because he’s real. Real people swear. Real people call a vanker a vanker.

Which brings me back to the lady in the post office…

43 thoughts on “Green Notebook from Gaillon

  1. It was so refreshing to be at the memorial last week of a proper racer, with proper racing people from the very highest end of the sport.
    Irreverence was the order of the day, from all concerned, with no one putting words into people’s mouths and then worrying about the consequences. None of these people cared, and life was so much more refreshing for it.
    No other racing man of this day and age, or many before will hold a candle to Dave Price.
    You had to be there to understand this. And the right people were all there to remember him.

      1. Cheers Joe, you would have enjoyed it. Herbie, EJ, Martin’s Brundle and Donnelly, Mark Blundell, Teach…… many damn good people from damn good days!! It was a privilege to be a part of it back then. As most of us agreed….F1 would have sacked most of us before morning tea break!!

  2. Fantastic joe
    One of your best ever and i have known you a long time going back to the annual JH karting events when i kicked yr arse on track.
    even b4 that
    When Karting was with a donkey kart.
    i have subscribed to the mag but due to comp hack i no longer have the access code.
    Howard Scaife

      1. maybe you were at Kings cross kart track for summat else .
        I thought you were at an event with a young lad..
        Meanwhile this poor old Yorkshire Viking asks.
        Kindly advise how i can get my paid for access to yr mag as my system was hacked and for sure i have paid for it.

  3. Ah, the joys of dealing with petty officialdom! Your post office pal’s American cousin wouldn’t let me airside at Atlanta airport because my boarding pass only had my initial on it rather than full name. I had to hobble the full length of the terminal on an ankle crippled by three weeks of driving a Chrysler 200 to get it changed.

    And by the time I’d got back to the security gate, she’d gone off duty 🤬

  4. I agree, Guenther Steiner is very popular and the right person to lead Haas. He is funny and down to earth. I’m also impressed that he and his wife reside in North Carolina. However, I don’t believe that to be considered a real person that foul language must be a part of your vernacular. I know plenty of people who are great leaders, opinionated, thoughtful, funny, a joy to converse with, be in their presence but find no need to use offensive language. The lack of those words in no way diminishes the fact that they are a very real and genuine person. Although this is obviously not the case with Steiner, I have come across more than a few people who pretend to be something they are not by playing up the use of their offensive language.

    Keep up the good work! I greatly enjoy the Green Notebook, your insight and trustworthy F1 news. There truly is nothing else like it in F1.

    Thank you!

  5. Meanwhile in Canada, Nikita Mazepin has asked our Supreme Court to remove him from our sanctions list. Says it prevents him from entering Canada and thus competing in any future F1 seasons. Hmmm, really?

    1. Think just on the grounds of talent he shouldn’t be allowed back into F1. Might be a bit much, but I’d let Russians back in if they denounced the invasion – but then we’d probably end up banning UK and American drivers for Iraq, etc.

  6. Thanks Joe, for a thoroughly delightful (and informative) read while passing the time at an airport gate. I certainly DON’T envy this part of your life!

  7. Great comments about the reality of working the races. From personal experience, you get excited that the races are finally here, start working, for four days, and halfway through, after being mentally and physically drained, just swear that you can’t wait for the f**king weekend to end. But still, wouldn’t miss it, for the world. Your friends, keep asking you about the exotic places you go to, the cities you visit, and all you do is not your head, and don’ t even try to explain, that it was just hotel to the track, back to the hotel, dinner, and bed. Rarely if ever, is there time to see where you are.

  8. The greatest faux pas we had from La Poste was when we forwarded our post to the UK for a 5-month period. Our 7 alphanumeric uk postcode did not fit the 5-spaces used for French postcodes and so we received no post. I had to return to France for some reason and visited La Poste and discovered the issue. I explained their error, so they made changes.

    They had edited my WA16, north of England postcode, to a W1 west-London address near Centrepoint. No problem, I thought I will call the west-London sorting office. Well that did not go at all well, way more than any local jobsworth could resolve without calling for 3-months strike action.

    C’est la vie! At least we will receive our mail from now on. No chance, La Poste in Angers edited it to somewhere else, but not our postcode provided by our local postie.

    Most normal people write emails now, except when it comes to Christmas cards, or really important stuff from Finances Public, and RSI etc.

    And that created a huge load of problems, over time.

  9. Re. SpaceX: ‘Rapid unscheduled disassembly’ is both a direct quote from their in-house commentary team, and a long-running joke – they have been calling explosions ‘RUDs’ for a while now.

    The Starship launch had a somewhat F1 defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory feel to me – the vehicle itself performed rather well, all things considered; but the chances are it was damaged by the inadequacies of the pad it was standing on, parts of whose rapid disassembly was unscheduled but definitely not unpredicted.

  10. Not on topic Joe, but the sprint/race qualifying to me seems messed up. Now the GP qualifying will be on Friday, robbing long terms fans of seeing it live on Saturday (making sweeping generalisation that most work Mon-Fri).

    Sprint races don’t do it for me as a
    TV viewer, sure it’s better value for those attending though.

  11. Thanks for an entertaining piece written by a human.

    Regarding :-
    ‘Things didn’t work out today as we had hoped. We’ll keep working hard to get better’ and ‘the team back in the factory is working so hard’

    This is well into ChatBot territory. The majority of the articles on the official F1 website could easily be ‘engineered’ by A.I. Not to mention the amount of copy/pasting between those articles to redundantly fill space . . !

    I gave Google ‘Bard’ a try :-
    ‘Given Ferrari F1’s current standing in the 2023 season, write a short article, from Fred Vasseur’s viewpoint, about how they intend addressing their current performance issues.’
    I got a 330-word reply after around 5 seconds which would easily satisfy the F1 site’s stringent requirements.

    So the question is, who is using this tool? The F1-at-home journalists or the F1 teams themselves for passing on verbatim for publication? I suspect the latter.

  12. The SpaceX explosion was described as a “rapid, unscheduled disassembly” – that quote has to be in running for quote of the year at the 2023 RonSpeak awards!

  13. Fun and informative Joe. Flow and rhythm reminds me of the wonderful Clive James. I couldn’t pay anyone a higher compliment

  14. I love the off weeks posts! It adds the human element and that you’re a real human being and not some computer posting a blog. So, please let the postal worker have it. guenter Steiner? YES!!!!! Love him!

  15. excellent piece Joe. as an historic buff i really like the historic places and events you describe. please continue

  16. As Joe says
    “They all say the same rubbish: “Things didn’t work out today as we had hoped. We’ll keep working hard to get better” and “the team back in the factory is working so hard”. It is all very worthy but inspires no interest at all.”

    Which is why there should be less yap yap time not more. Fans do not need to hear from every driver on their way to the grid, for example. Nor for that matter, after the race.
    Let’s have Kimi as the new F1 media supremo.

  17. I don’t think anyone (or only a few) would as a fan dream of being an F1 ‘journalist’.
    Fans dream about driving first, and rest like us being engineers or being directly involved with racing, not writing about it.

    Certainly no fancy life coming out of being in a peripherial activity is expected I’d say, compared to those who make and run the sport actually.

    Entertaining read as always!

    1. ‘Fans dream about driving first’

      Yes – and for those with limited opportunity or budget the following go a long way.
      VR headset + racing sim software + hardware rig.
      (Meta Quest + Assetto Corsa + Thrustmaster, in my case)

      Far better value than a Sky F1 subscription in the U.K.
      (I just dip into highlight replays on Channel4)

  18. A good read as always, which makes me wonder, as someone who has followed motor racing in all it’s many forms for over 60 years, who takes up the stylus when you and your ilk are sitting in your bath chairs at the retired journalist home.

    I remember with much appreciation the words of, apart from yourself, such literary luminaries such as Denis Jenkinson, Eoin Young, Alan Henry, Pete Lyons etc.

    Given the cost of getting accreditation and actually reporting from the grid, are there young, or at least, younger journalists actively learning the craft or will we be reduced to formulaic “reporting” gleaned from tv broadcasts.?

  19. Hi Joe,
    Great post as ever 🙂
    In what way was/is Michael Schumi a complex person?
    Was it his win at all costs makeup or his public vs personal side of him?
    I really enjoyed the film made about him on Netflix, just felt there is so much more to him then we ever get to know.
    Safe travels to Baku!

  20. Any truth to the Massa legal challenge, or is this another crazy beat up to entertain us…..

    This is not for the blog, just the only way l can find to contact you.

    1. He may be trying… but it will not succeed. Every F1 season has what ifs, but one cannot make them into realities because that is what suits you.

  21. Although the English were involved in the capture of Jeanne d’Arc, and were not unhappy to see her demise, it was their Burgundian allies — identifiable today as Frenchmen — who tried, condemned and burned the young lady. I thought most students of history knew this.

      1. But there are those in Burgundy who suggest she missed the bonfire party and lived to a ripe old age in a small chateaux in the region.
        On the contrary I was told a few times, with some vehemence, during my time in France that I was personally responsible for her death. I pleaded that my name suggested that my ancestors had deserted La Belle France in favour of a soggier place.

  22. Meanwhile Azerbaijan seems to have its shorts in a knot with one of its neighbours (cue the Worldle fans) and French power workers threaten “lights out” in Monaco. Def puts a spin on SQ1-2-3. I even attempt French Wordle to keep my skills au courant.

  23. Thank-you Joe for bringing “sunshine” to this ex-pat in my piece of paradise in the north Georgia mountains (USA) which has been enduring a few days of British weather. The local postal workers are helpful however I would not wish the US immigration system on my worst enemy, so the problem is universal. I hope you get to enjoy Gunter’s book soon. Safe travels and thanks again for your insight to F!.

  24. Little brother and I stayed in Gaillon one night on a lazy drive home from Classic Le Mans. We were in an old Porsche and got chatted up by two lovely ladies in a Peugeot cabriolet. Next day was Bastille Day and we stayed for some of the craic, sitting in a cafe on the corner and enjoying the weather. Absolutely brilliant 🤩

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