June 21 is the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, the longest day of the year and the official start of summer. In France it is also the Fête de la musique, a day to celebrate music, on which there are free concerts in many cities and when both amateur and professional musicians are encouraged to perform in the streets. This can be wonderful but it is also what they call a nuit blanche, which means it goes on all night and after a strenuous Grand Prix weekend with little sleep, I decided on Monday morning that if I wanted to sleep well, it might be better to leave the country, lest some misguided minstrel decided to caterwaul beneath the windows of the hotel in La Ciotat.
In any case, there were 1,200 km to be covered from Paul Ricard to the Red Bull Ring – and I wasn’t planning to go in a straight line, this being a great opportunity to visit places that one hasn’t been before.
It was a beautiful day, in stark to contrast to Sunday, which would have been a grey day if the skies had actually been grey. In fact, they were slightly brown and when it rained late in the night after the Grand Prix, the result was that all the cars that had been out in the rain were covered in sandy blotches where Saharan sand had been dropped by the troublesome sky. I set off, in search of a car wash, before hitting the motorway – but they were hard to find. The beaches were filling up with the first wave of summer holidaymakers, but the temptation to stay and take some rays was not sufficient and so I hurried down to Toulon and then across Provence, the land of Marcel Pagnol, towards the Cote d’Azur.
If you don’t know Pagnol, he is worth discovering. He was a remarkable man who made his name first as a film-maker in the 1930s – including a movie called La femme du Boulanger (The Baker’s Wife), which was shot in the village of Le Castellet. Later in life he became a novelist and wrote some wonderful stuff, such as La Gloire de Mon Père, Le Château de ma Mère, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, all about peasant life in Provence.
If there is a an equivalent in English it would be Thomas Hardy’s relationship with country life in Dorset, and in Russian it would be Mikhail Sholokhov’s stories of the Don cossacks.
By the time I reached the heights above Monaco, I was in need of a power snooze and so stopped at the Beausoleil service area, which is a great place to get a bird’s eye view of Monaco, although I had no desire to engage with the traffic down below in the Principality.
Then it was on into Italy – with no border controls to worry about these days – and I was soon on the Autostrada dei Fiori, that runs along the Italian Riviera. Sadly, this has become a 100-mile road work in recent times and you have to be careful when things are running freely because one can hit a sudden traffic jam at any moment. The road was filled with Austria-bound F1 flotsam and jetsam, with endless Aston Martin, Toro Rosso, DHL and Haas trucks lugging bits of motorhome across to the Red Bull Ring.
After sitting for 45 minutes in one jam, I decided that signs suggesting a forthcoming 11km jam might be worth paying attention to, and so I went on a unwanted tour of Savona and found myself sitting in traffic jams all along the waterfront in the seaside towns that followed. When I got back on the motorway, I wasn’t sure if I was far behind, or far ahead, of the trucks I had been travelling with previously – but I didn’t see any I recognised. So I don’t know if what I did was a good move or not. It didn’t really matter.
I set my sites on the city of Cremona, if only because it was a place I had never visited before.
It is a city famed for music, notably for Stradivarius violins. I had a marvellous dinner in a little albergo, with featherlight gnocchi in Gorgonzola, and a mozzarella and basil pizza the size of an elephant’s ear (Indian) but wafer thin, washed down by a caraffa of rustic red. It was an evening with everything that one loves about Italy, with the warmness of the people, bubbling conversations and endless energy.
The waitress was as thin as a nail – and hard, no doubt having been hit on sufficiently to render her oblivious to the local gentlemen.
I am always amazed by how much time the Italians spend on their mobile phones, talking (one presumes) to their mamas and mistresses. It struck me that nowadays it is also amazing how F1 people always get calls when I start asking questions – which I take as a compliment.
Anyway, as I sat listening to the hubbub, I am sure that I heard words like “Monza” and “Ferrari” and knew there was only one place I could be.
This brings me, in a roundabaout way to my notes from the weekend, with Ferrari appearing in France without its green Mission Winnow logos. They will not be seen again at races in the European Union and Philip Morris put out a statement which (to paraphrase dramatically) said that they are fed up with people mistrusting the tobacco industry and just want to move on and “re-frame global conversations, building communities, and supporting innovative ideas that drive positive change”.
Tobacco is a subject that always used to divide the F1 world with some fervent in their opposition to smoking and others seeing the paradox that no country has banned tobacco itself, because of the revenues that can be obtained from heavy taxation, and yet they do not see that banning the advertising of a product that is not illegal is a fairly flawed argument.
Anyone who thinks they can see the Marlboro logo in the green Mission Winnow branding really needs to have their eyes (and heads) examined, but they still battle on trying to drive the tobacco companies into the sea.
Philip Morris International stopped putting Marlboro logos on F1 cars in 2006. They gave up with bar code logos in 2010 and then more recently tried the Mission Winnow message. PMI still supports Ferrari, so that they can entertain VIPs and corporate guests and create opportunities with B2B activity.
Personally, I thought the greatest bit of thinking was when they reversed the sponsorship in the face of such attacks and used the glamour of F1 by putting racing cars on cigarette packets, rather than cigarette packets on racing cars. That was right up there with marketing Marmite as a love-hate product.
British American Tobacco has been doing things on similar lines with McLaren using “A Better Tomorrow”, Velo and Vuse on the cars depending on the market involved.
Last year all Mission Winnow branding was removed after threats of legal action based on the concept that anything red and white might remind anti-tobacco campaigners that there are still cigarettes out there, but the switch to green this year seemed to make this an impossible argument… but obviously not.
It may be that the decision to remove the green logos will be the final straw for PMI in terms of branding, but it is unlikely to stop using F1 to entertain and encourage its staff and customers.
There is no doubt that the PMI involvement with Ferrari has reduced in the last 15 years and there are signs that it may finish once and for all at the end of the current season. There have no announcements of a contract extension and these were always done at least a year in advance. So Ferrari may be on the market for a new title sponsor.
The likelihood is that any new backer will come from the technology sector (as has the new CEO) and it is thus interesting to see a new relationship that has been announced between Ferrari and Amazon Web Services, which will help the team in various ways with its cloud service and machine learning capabilities – and the development of “a new fan engagement platform which, through personalisation tools, exclusive content and interactive applications, will strengthen the relationship between Ferrari and its millions of fans around the world, with the goal being to offer even the youngest fans more insight into the daily life of the team and its drivers.
The big news of the weekend – no real surprise – was the confirmation of Esteban Ocon as an Alpine driver for the next three years. This is interesting in that Ocon has committed himself to Alpine despite having long had an underlying Mercedes Benz contract. Thus it is far to say that Ocon has reached the conclusion that there is no chance of a ride in the short- to mid- term with Mercedes. He cannot sit around waiting forever as his career will slip by quickly and so he has jumped. This means that he sees no opportunity at Mercedes and from that one can conclude that either Valtteri Bottas will stay or George Russell will step up. The official line is that there is no decision yet, but it is interesting to note that there is now much talk about what Williams will be doing next year, which seems to suggest that George Russell is going to be on the move. No-one is talking about George staying at Williams in 2022…
With Ocon signed, there is no real point in Dany Kvyat being at Alpine as the reserve and his name has been mentioned as a possible Williams recruit.
There is a possibility, of course, that a displaced Bottas could return to Williams and it might be a good move as Williams should (in theory) be on an upward path from 2022 onwards. However, there has also been some talk that Mercedes might want to put another driver into the team to get someone experienced in F1 in case there is a need for another driver when Lewis Hamilton retires at some undetermined point. ,Mercedes has a bunch of youngsters but they are very young and the closest to F1 is Frederik Vesti in Formula 3 – and he is not doing awfully well this year.
The other name that has been mentioned is that of Nyck de Vries, the test and reserve driver of Mercedes AMG Petronas, who is currently competing with the Mercedes-EQ team in Formula E. The former double World Karting Champion, who won the Formula 2 title in 2019, is a talent but did not have the money to get an F1 drive in 2020. He seems to be hungry for success and a chance to drive F1 cars. Thus he should be considered a possible candidate given that Mercedes might be willing to help Williams pay its bills if a Mercedes driver is there (continuing the current arrangements).
There is no question that Nicholas Latifi is competent and brings considerable finance from his family’s connections with Sofina and Lavazza, but he has yet to show any signs that he is a potential F1 winner. The other name being mentioned is Guanyu Zhou, the Chinese driver. He is a decent option, but has yet to show that he will ever be more than an also-ran in F1. His primary advantage is that being Chinese he is someone that everyone in F1 wants to see in an F1 seat because it will help boost the sport in the world’s biggest car market.
To be brutal, Williams has no excuse for performing as poorly as has been the case when one has a Mercedes engine. Next year the team will have a Mercedes rear end and so it only has to get the chassis right to be in the mix. The good news for Williams fans is that Dorilton (or whoever is behind the company) seems to be willing to invest. The focus in recent days has been on the departure of team principal Simon Roberts, but in the background there has been another significant change with the departure of design director Doug McKiernan, and the tweaking of the team’s technical management under new technical director François-Xavier Demaison.
Demaison may be a brilliant fellow but he has no F1 experience and so to overcome this team boss Jost Capito has drafted in another former Volkswagen colleague Willy Rampf, who has many years experience as the technical director of Sauber, although that was a while ago now.
The other team that is much in the paddock chatter is Alfa Romeo (aka Sauber). There is still no decision from Alfa Romeo as to whether there will be a continued sponsorship in 2022. Given that it was a cheap deal this year, it might go on as the money involved is really minimal for a big car company, but the key question is whether it makes strategic sense given that Alfa Romeo seems to be moving into a more electric car future. There are also questions about Orlen funding as without Robert Kubica in a race seat there is not much logic in that relationship. The team has grown from 300 to 500 people in the last few years but has not gained anything in terms of championship position, so the investment in new staff has not brought additional prize money – and let’s not forget that this year F1’s prize money has dived by nearly half.
There are signs of discontent with the team’s imported expertise and the recent weeks have seen the departures of chief designer Luca Furbatto, to become engineering director at Aston Martin, and Frenchman Nicolas Hennel de Beaupreau, who has been the team’s chief aerodynamicist for the last five years. He has top level experience in F1 going back to 1997 so he’s not someone a team really wants to lose. He has previously worked at Enstone (twice), Ferrari (twice), McLaren and Toyota.
A whisper from Asia the other day suggested that an investment bank out there is circulating a prospectus offering 60 percent of Sauber for sale, although the price would value the team at $750 million. This is far too high and it would seem to suggest that the current owner is looking to find someone who will help him pay off the huge investments he has made.Whether there is anyone out there to buy is another story.
I was also told that there is a hurry-up suggestion that a buyer needs to move quickly because VW’s Lamborghini might buy it. This should not be taken seriously, as I really cannot imagine a Lamborghini car powered by a Ferrari engine – and no company is going to build a new engine before the engine rules change in 2025. It is also unlikely that any manufacturer would want to fund a team for three seasons without promoting a brand – so a clandestine operation is unlikely as well. On top of all this the word is that team principal Fred Vasseur is working on a month-by-month contract at the moment, which suggests that the owners aren’t ready to extend a deal, but cannot find a replacement who wants to take the job. They need someone who could get Sauber going forward again and with Andreas Seidl gone to McLaren and Capito at Williams, potential new leaders are thin on the ground.
Right, onward we go. I was reading the other day about Ove Andersson, who died 13 years ago last week. At the time, Andersson and I had agreed to work together on a biography – but he had gone to South Africa which slowed things down. Then he was killed and the project faded away. I still have his handwritten story about his early years, in a hand-written notebook. This is a wonderful glimpse into motorsport in the 1960s and includes a story about how Saab wanted him to take part in the Acropolis Rally – and gave him some money to cover expenses, and told him to drive there! He and his co-driver drove the rally car down through Germany and Austria and across what used to be Yugoslavia until they finally arrived in Greece, where they celebrated by spending all the money on a party to mar the end of the journey. They took part in the rally and managed to borrow some cash to take a ferry back to Brindisi and then drove back home – through Italy, France and Germany. Ove wrote that this was a great adventure and that the world would be a better place if people didn’t jump on planes to go places and instead travelled on the ground, to broaden their minds, increase their knowledge and tolerance of others.
It teaches you that your home country is not necessarily the best and gives you perspective.
Wise words indeed… Right, I’m off to the mountains…