Green Notebook from Portimao

I often use the expression “pecking order” in articles about Formula 1, but I realised the other night that I had no idea what it actually meant. I discovered this vital gem of knowledge because a poorly-calibrated Portuguese rooster decided to crow at three forty-five in the morning, waking sleeping dogs who naturally wanted to continue to enjoy the Land of Nod and so barked what I took to be canine abuse at the foul fowl. I presume this included threats to turn said cockerel into a capon. I am not one who believes in violence but I have to admit that he, she or it (even chickens must be treated fairly in the Age of Woke) should have been transformed into a chicken nugget to be dunked into tomato ketchup and eaten by a fat kid, which I concluded was the ultimate in humiliation for a proud rooster.

Once I was awake, of course, that was it and so, being an inquisitive soul by nature, I decided to investigate why it is that cocks crow in the morning and I soon stumbled upon a 2013 research paper from the University of Nagoya in Japan, which explained that chickens have a very complex societal structure, which means that the most powerful hen is allowed to peck the others, but the second most powerful can only peck those less powerful and so on until there is one poor chicken who can only indulge in self-harm or trampling poor unsuspecting worms.

Amazingly, it seems that crowing is the same. The most powerful rooster gets to crow first and then the others may follow, but only in the order of their importance. So, if the leader of the gang is out of sync with nature, they all are… As to why they crow when they crow, it seems that they have some built-in mechanism that usually works.

I relate these tales only because it might help the reader to understand the trials of life as a Formula 1 racing reporter on the road in Portugal. To be fair, we don’t have much dealing with chickens in F1, although some of the Continental members of the F1 community seem to think that a deviation in the race track is called a “chicken” rather than a chicane.

Still, we do have a pecking order and after three races things are becoming a little more clear. For now, everyone can still say: “We’ve only had three races…” but a couple more Grands Prix and we’ll be getting towards a quarter of the season (because I don’t think anyone really believes we will get 23 races this year) and that means that the Silly Season can begin and decisions can be made about who is going to drive where in 2022. And the signs are that the market will probably move quite quickly because drivers and their managements will be wary of suggestions (from Zak Brown) that driver costs should be regulated to put the sport on a more level playing field. What he means by this is that drivers should have a salary cap.

Thus deals that are done early could end up being more valuable than contracts that are negotiated later in the year, if any action comes as a result of Brown’s suggestions. We know that a number of drivers are on the market at the end of the current season and there will probably be some other changes brought on by poor performances from a driver or a team. The older generation of F1 drivers are still hoping that their experience is worth more than speed, but the fact remains that racing is about getting results and if they are not doing so then they need to watch out. So, Kimi needs to beat Antonio, Seb needs to beat Lance and Fernando needs to beat Esteban. Oh, and Valtteri needs to beat Lewis as well, because George is snapping at VB’s heels. And Red Bull has to decide whether it wants to keep Sergio Perez for another year and things are complicated because the Austrians have five drivers and four seats and Alex Albon is too good to waste, as there are other teams who would be happy to get him. 

Pierre Gasly has more than proved his worth at Scuderia AlphaTauri but there are currently no obvious opportunities for him outside the Red Bull structure, unless he is pushed out. He doesn’t fit with the ethos of Scuderia AlphaTauri, which is to develop young drivers for Red Bull Racing… 

Traditionally, the start of the European season is when the talks begin to get serious and with Monaco coming up, the so-called “Silly Season” should become more lively. After five races teams and drivers are in a better position to know where there are – and what they want to do in the future.

Brown’s letter to the world, which was published by McLaren, made a few interesting points, including mentioning the fact that it is unheard of on Netflix for a series to rate better with its third iteration than with its first. He concluded that this was down to the human stories of the protagonists and because Drive to Survive is an entry level guide to a very complex sport. He was not very keen on the ever-increasing schedule of races which “places a challenging physical and mental strain on travelling personnel” and said that it would be better to race across 25 markets but have only 20 races with 15 of them fixed and five rotating between two different venues. Variety, he concluded, is good and allows room for new countries to host a grand prix, while maintaining a level of scarcity value in our sport.

My view on this is pretty much the same. I think 25 races is too many and if they want to push up revenues they should squeeze more money out of the “nasty” and rich governments and hit their revenue targets in this way. It’s not that I don’t like travelling, but I also like some time at home and as the years have gone on, that has been squeezed more and more. A season used to be just 16 races, mainly in Europe and now it is (in theory) 23 all across the world. This year, of course, it is harder than ever because of COVID restrictions. We thought it was tough last year, but this year is a lot harder and we are now down to just two journalists who have done all 20 races since the world went mental. This is hurting the sport because pay-TV, which has all the access these days can only do so much. If you look at the numbers of viewers, it is a fraction of what it used to be, even if the revenues are better. This is no good for any sport.

It is interesting to note that in Germany, where the rights are held by Sky Deutschland, he viewing numbers have collapsed of late, but the former broadcaster RTL has just done a deal with Sky to broadcast four F1 races this year because it seems to have realised that giving up F1 was not a great idea as Sebastian Vettel’s move to Aston Martin and the arrival of Mick Schumacher have made more Germans interested in the sport.

Ultimately the way to go is probably for the sport to get rid of the middle men and go direct to consumers with a reasonable price for watching a race, and if they like other levels of access for the richer folk who want more. But pay-TV does not generate new business. This is why Netflix has been so important for F1 but it is also why they need the written media (which, by the way, has a far larger reach than pay-TV) because it is the scribblers who give the TV chatterers their leads. In any case, TV can only ever tell a pretty basic story, with a few sound bites, stitched in. It is the writers who weave the tapestry that turns casual fans into people who will pay money to attend races and buy F1 merchandise. F1’s stated goal is to turn its casual fans into paying customers and so it should really be supporting the media. Some of the people at the FIA understand this but I get the impression that some of people who deal with COVID rules don’t have a clue, but are enjoying their time in power.

Some TV people may have the ability to get drivers to open up and be themselves, but a TV camera is an intimidating piece of machinery and with a team PR person standing nearby, the drivers – particularly the younger ones – tend to say only bland things, if only to protect themselves. But while bland might be good for them, it very definitely isn’t the best thing for the sport. We need a grid full of characters: good guys, bad guys, monosyllabic Finns and garrulous Australians. What we don’t need is PR police so teams should allow the drivers more freedom to say what they really think. Hopefully, F1 writers will soon be allowed back into the paddock and not have to stand in a cage with COVID police peeking out of windows policing them lest they get within 1m75 of the person they are talking to. I still struggle to understand what the difference is between a TV journalist and a written journalist when it comes to our ability to spread viruses. The statistics clearly shows that the TV people are far more dangerous to the sport than the journalists are, and the worst of the lot are the drivers, who seem to be a bunch of superspreaders and should be avoided at all costs!

Anyway, I continue to avoid airports, which look more and more like virus factories. The open road is free and easy and airy and one is in control of one’s own destiny and not stuck in an airport at the mercy of airlines that cancel flights without even blinking. The paperwork involved in driving seems to be less as well, although it is still pretty daunting and if one documents is not there, you are torpedoed if anyone asks. The trip to Portugal is the longest of the year, as the drive from home to Budapest is a piffling 1,000 miles, while the trip to Portimao is a solid 1,300. I didn’t work it all out very much but I am pretty sure that driving costs more, takes longer and causes wear and tear on the person and the vehicle, but I don’t care. I get to go to the races and I feel safe doing it. I take a stack of documents wherever I go and I keep shoving bits of paper at policemen, if they ask, until they give up asking questions and wave you through.

Driving also gives you a little more respect for the F1 teams need to do, sending dozens of trucks from place to place. But we all seem to keep turning up in the right places, so we must be doing something vaguely right. I am sure that the teams have everything planned out in military detail, but I tend not to do that. I just wing it (it’s not hard these days, as there are so few people on the move) and so, after a beautiful day driving across France, I found myself in the rather unbeautiful city of Miranda de Ebro.

If I was writing a travel blog rather than a motor racing column I could wax lyrical about the glories of the A28, which crosses Normandy from Rouen to Le Mans and never has any traffic as it works it way from glory to glory, but let’s just say that it starts near the Circuit of Rouen-Les-Essarts and ends up near Circuit de La Sarthe. I had time to stop and look up Robert le Diable, because there is a chateau (ruin) named after him, which one sees on those brown “Points of interest” signs you see across Europe. I was wondering who he was because I didn’t remember the name and so I was delighted to learn that I hadn’t forgotten some obscure king with a silly name like Charles the Simple, Louis le Fainéant (Lazy) or William the Bastard, because Robert was a medieval myth, who discovered, so they say, that he was the son of Satan. I guess Mummy has a wild night out with some undesirables at some point…

The Franco-Spanish frontier had a lot of blue flashing lights but no-one paid me any attention and I was waved through without a document being inspected. After leaving France I didn’t see a non-Spanish car until I had crossed the border into Portugal. The signs in Spain declare every few miles that there is a “Estado d’alarma” – a state of emergency.

If you haven’t heard of Miranda de Ebro, you should try to imagine a sort Spanish version of Crewe, a big railway junction, where lines from east and west met those from north and south. Sadly, it’s not really remembered for that, but rather because it was a very nasty prison camp where the unlovely General Franco had lots of people killed and incarcerated international prisoners.

I left without a backward glance and pottered amid majestic cathedral-like rock formations of the Montes Obarenes range before finding the motorway again and climbing up on to the plateau of Castille, where one is about 2,500ft above sea level. The signs suggest that one should watch out for “bancos de nieblas” and there are snow poles and signs for refuges so this must be wild country when the sun is not out.

I decided at Salamanca to take a different route to last year and headed south on the Autovia de La Plata (literally, the silver motorway) which follows the path of an old pilgrimage route that goes north to Santiago de Compostela. Heading south, one crosses the Sierra de Béjar (where the fog is super-thick) and then across the plains of Extramadura to Caceres and Merida, and from there into Portugal, by way of Badajoz.

Roosters aside, it has been an enjoyable week in Portugal, even if we were under lockdown conditions in some areas (but not in others). Now F1 has gone and the hotel is filled with bicycle teams which have arrived for the Volta ao Algarve.

If people think F1 is invasive, they should watch out for cycle teams. My car in the hotel car park is completely surrounded by Ineos Grenadier vehicles are other paraphenalia and the hotel dining room (quite important in these days without restaurants) has been taken over by the said team, UAE Team Emirates and Deceuninck Quick-Step.

It’s interesting to see how they operate, but I’ll be happy to get on the road again. Next stop Ciudad Real, en route to Barcelona…

McLaren sells the farm

Twenty years ago, Mizens Farm, just outside Woking in Surrey, was an 84-acre arable farm, which had a lot of greenhouses and a minaiture railway and associated infrastructure. McLaren was looking to buy land for a new headquarters and having given up on the idea of moving to Lydden Hill in Kent, after establishing that its employees were not interested in moving, the team did a deal to buy Mizens Farm. As part of that deal McLaren agreed to relocate the railway. Once all that was done and the planning processes completed, the team built its iconic McLaren Technology Centre, designed by Norman Foster. It was an F1 factory like no other – and it still is. Since then the company has grown and established itself as a global supercar company, which was not reliant on F1 for its survival. In fact, today, the team provides only 12 percent of the company’s revenues.

McLaren is doing well in Formula 1 this season but the company as a whole has been facing a lot of challenges since the start of the global pandemic a year ago. This is reflected in the sales of the McLaren supercars. The company sold 4,806 cars in 2018, 4,662 in 2019 and it expects to announce around 2,700 sales in 2020, when the full-year results come out in June. This means that revenues have dropped significantly and that means that the company, which has considerable debts (in the region of $700 million) has been facing a liquidity crunch. There was a cash injection last year of $370 million from the shareholders but more was required and this is why it was decided that 33 percent of the shares in McLaren Racing would be sold to a US consortium, in a deal that runs until the end of 2022. This will raise $240 million when completed. The buyers are MSP Sports Capital, run by investor Jeff Moorad and including Jahm Najafi, who became the vice-chairman of the team as a result.

But it seems that this was still not enough and with other sources of financing become less available and more expensive, a sale and leaseback of the McLaren headquarters became the most sensible thing to do.  The deal includes three buildings: the original McLaren Technology Centre, the McLaren Production Centre and the underground McLaren Thought Leadership Centre. A sale and lease back converts a company’s property assets into capital, without the company losing control of the building.  It avoids additional debt costs and rental payments are tax-deductible. It also removes debts secured on the property from the balance sheet and so improves the company’s debt-to-equity ratio, which makes it easier to borrow. The deal is worth about $240 million  for McLaren with a real estate investment company from New York called Global Net Lease agreeing to a 20-year triple-net lease, which means that the tenant agrees to pay all the expenses. The deal will also, no doubt, include a buy-back clause that will enable McLaren to take control again at some point, or perhaps to extend the lease for a further period of time.

Sale and lease back is something that has been used by a number of big British companies in recent times with firms like BP, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Next all improving their balance sheets by selling their real estate but leasing it back. The deal also means that if McLaren has expanded significantly in 20 years from now, it could move to new premises better-suited for its needs in the future.

For an investment firm, such a deal means that there is a  guaranteed income stream which means that it is easier to find investors who are happy to get involved.

Green Notebook from Avallon

In a world without electronic boxes that show pictures and appropriate sounds, people had quieter lives. There were no soap operas to be addicted to, no football crises, no Formula 1 crashes and so they had to find other ways to amuse themselves. They didn’t flop on to the couch to look at the wall, instead they made tapestries, played music and sang songs, and they made up or read fantastic tales of mystical knights, wizards, monsters and grails. It was popular then and if you look at the success of Star Wars or Harry Potter in the modern era, it is still popular today.

One of the most enduring and popular legends is that of King Arthur, which is a story one finds not only in England and Wales but also in France as well. It is regurgitated from time to time on television and in the cinema and each time there are new twists and new suppositions, while historiographers battle over new theories about who Arthur was and where Camelot and Avalon might have been. Avalon is the mystical island where crops flourished and people lived for hundreds of years. It was where King Arthur was taken after he was wounded in his final battle at Camlann, and where he was looked after by Morgan le Fay, the ruler of the island, along with her eight sisters: Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thiten and Thiton. It is also where the celebrated sword Excaliber is supposed to have come from. Some think that it was Glastonbury, which was an island in a marsh. I have no idea, but it struck me that it might also be at Avallon, in Burgundy. So I decided to stop there on the way home from Imola, if only because I was pretty tired by then and I arrived with five minutes to go before France went under curfew at 7pm on Monday night, as it does every night at the moment.

Going to Imola and back by car is a 1,700 mile round trip, which involves driving about halfway across France and halfway across Italy. The only other country one sees on the way is on the outskirts of Geneva, where one gets within 100 metres of Swiss territory near a village called Troinex (on the Swiss side), beneath a large rock called the Salève, sometimes known as le balcon de Genève (Geneva’s balcony) as one can ride a téléphérique to the top and get great views of the city and its environs. If you’re so inclined you can also jump off the cliff and paraglide around.

Anyway, once I was in Avallon, eating dinner in my hotel room, as one must in France these days, I decided to look into Avalon and Avallon to discover if perhaps King Arthur has stayed in the same hotel. In old Breton, I learned, the word aball meant apple tree, and the word avallen meant fruit tree and thus the chances are the towns, real and mystical, were named because they had apple trees. This was all rather dull but I am sure that like most good myths it serves a purpose, legends tend to attract tourists and smart people who don’t have any good tales make them up. I think, specifically, in this respect of the town of Bergerac in the south west of France which stuck up a statue with a long nose to make tourists happy, even though Cyrano de Bergerac had no obvious link with the neighbourhood. If truth be told the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola was a bit the same as the town named the track after Dino Ferrari first, in the hope that Enzo Ferrari would support the circuit.

Going to Imola is always a pleasure, even under lockdown, as it is a part of the world where motor racing is alive every day and people don’t say “It’s race week” because the sport is part of their lives. This is all due to Mr Ferrari, of course.

Stefano Domenicali, the CEO of Formula 1, is a man who likes Imola, not least because it is his home town, where he grew up, working at the circuit as a car park attendant and pit marshal in his teenage years. I’m sure that Stefano would love to have a race each year in Imola but that might not be possible, as he says “we cannot have 52 races each year”.

The big news of the Imola weekend was the announcement that the Miami GP will go ahead in 2022 (unless disappointed trouble-causers start to throw more lawsuits about, as can happen in the litigious world of the US). To be honest, the whole opposition thing is more to do with ego than logic now the city of Miami Gardens has been given a $5 million a year payment (I won’t say pay-off) to make them like the race more. There are always people who object to races, but often they have trouble accepting defeat or even evidence that the race has been good for their community. The local politician Betty Ferguson (76) seems like one of these people. She has been battling non-stop to block the race for the last few years, but has now been blind-sided by her own community. She’s not got the power she once had because of term limits and so she’s upset that the city has voted for the race. I think the best solution to the problem is to be nice to Ms Ferguson and to name a chicane after her, in recognition of her efforts to slow F1 down… The big question is whether she’d appreciate the joke…

The continued lack of access for the written media to the paddock remains a problem, which is becoming increasingly annoying when one sees some of the people being allowed in. Still, there is some progress with a “mixed zone” where people can talk to journalists over a two metre gap if they want to go there for a chat. Some do and in fact a couple I spoke to did say that they want the media back because there is no gossip these days and F1 is all about people and thus gossip, while being annoying, is key to maintaining interest.

Something I think is very important for F1 is news that is coming out of the European Union about  something terminally dull called ecological taxonomy. When you strip out the jargon this means that the EU is making a list of what is environmentally-sustainable economic activity and what is not. The EU believes in electric vehicles (don’t we all) but it does so without really having the charging stations that will be required and even if that is the case, where the electricity is going to come from. Electric vehicles are only as green as the electricity they use and so making judgements on vehicle emissions is only part of the picture. They cannot have diesel generators hidden around the corner at recharge stops… Actually, when it comes to politicians they probably can as most of them seem quite willing to lie and cheat as required to get what they want for whichever lobby they are representing. 

Anyway, the EU is discussing whether to reclassify vehicles differently starting from January 2026. One suggestion is that one will not be allowed to use the “sustainable” tag unless the vehicle has zero tailpipe emissions. The aim of this is to drive investment towards fully electric vehicles. As Formula 1 discusses what the engines in the future should be, beginning in 2025, one needs to consider the impact of this on the desire for better hybrid technology. Most car companies agree that hybrid cars are a transition technology with the long-term future being either fully electric machines or hydrogen-fueled cars that would use electric motors. If all the investment is going to fully electric cars there will be less interest and less demand for hybrid vehicles. At the moment sales of both types of car are increasing but they still make up only a small percentage of the whole market, and the EU wants to increase that. Up to now the EU has treated hybrids in the same way as all-electric cars but if this change goes through, F1 could be charging up a blind alley. The obvious way forward, albeit a bit late in terms of technical development would be to go straight to hydrogen, which is probably better than battery power.

It has always been a bit odd that a drinks company like Red Bull has decided to get itself into building racing engines and spending a lot of money to have IP that cannot be sold to other car companies. Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin and McLaren might all get more credible F1 programmes if they had their own engines, as using Ferrari and Mercedes respectively means that their cars are only factory teams in name alone and thus, one can argue, might not be as efficient promotional units as they could be. However, the word is that Red Bull cannot just flog the technology elsewhere as Honda might have learned from giving its F1 team to Ross Brawn, who then sold it to Mercedes for a vast profit, was perhaps not the smartest move it ever made. Having said that the firm has a history of almost getting things right and then leaving F1, which dates back to the 1960s. The Red Bull engines will continue to be Honda-based in 2022, 2023 and 2024 but by the time the new F1 rules arrive in 2025 Red Bull will be a position to design, manufacture and build its own engines, independent of Honda. And at that point it may then want to do deals to sell the whole thing – teams and all to companies with the money and the desire to be in the car business. And who knows what kind of companies that might include. A few years ago you wouldn’t think Amazon or Apple would be buying sports rights, but they are, so who knows who will be building cars in five years from now.

In the meantime, F1 has more pressing problems, notably getting as many races done as is possible with all the restrictions that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating. This year, even with the vaccination programmes, life is much more complicated for F1 and which races will or won’t happen. These things change week by week, country by country and border by border.

That doesn’t mean that F1 bosses haven’t got time to chatter about their future driver line-ups, but this is not really a priority at the moment, even if the driver managers are back in the paddock, trying to keep track on who is doing what. Much of the focus is on what happens at Mercedes where Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are both on one-year deals and are out of contract next year. Mercedes youngster George Russell is also going to be out of contract after three years at Williams and he is keen to move on. Thus the crash between Russell and Bottas was an interesting moment because it made people ask too things: why was Bottas being overtaken by a Williams? And is George too impetuous for a top drive? One can feel for George because he is clearly frustrated and was on his way to what could have been his best result, while Bottas generally does a decent job but was having a bad weekend.

We’re not expecting changes at Ferrari or Red Bull, although Perez will need to have his one-year deal renewed. There has been talk of Yuki Tsunoda moving up to Red Bull, but his performance at Imola shows that he really isn’t ready for that and Red Bull is trying to avoid throwing another of its drivers on to a pretty impressive scrapheap. The big question is what happens with Pierre Gasly, who is out of contract, and looking to move on. The whisper is that Alex Albon could be drafted back to AlphaTauri in his place. But where would Gasly go? Some say Alpine is the obvious choice but while the team wants one Frenchman, does it really want two? Getting rid of Esteban Ocon would not be sensible if he goes on beating Fernando Alonso. One can ask if Fernando will be happy putting up with that situation. He has a two-year deal but has been known to blow his top when things don’t go his way…

McLaren has both drivers under contract next year while Aston Martin is hardly going to change Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel has a three-year deal but needs to produce some better results if Aston is going to get value for money. And money is important at Aston Martin as life is not easy when you are running a loss-making car company as well as an F1 team. For now, let’s say that Lawrence Stroll selling off things like car collections and his racing circuit in Canada is because he is too busy to enjoy them, but cynics might say that it is an odd coincidence given the Aston Martin story. Hopefully the DBX SUV will sell well and the whole thing will get to be more stable.

Haas has both drivers contracted for 2022 while Williams has both drivers without contracts for 2022. Nicholas Latifi brings a lot of money to the team and is doing better this year than last, while Russell clearly wants to move up. China’s Guanyu Zhou is tipped as the likely successor to one or the other. Being Chinese, well-supported and clearly quite talented should help him get him a seat in F1.

And then we have Alfa Romeo and this is a puzzle. Both drivers are out of contract and the Alfa Romeo sponsorship of Sauber is up for renewal again. It is even suggested that the team boss Fred Vasseur is currently out of contract after his three-year deal signed in July 2017 has not been renewed. It is a little odd but there hasn’t been any announcement… Who drives for Alfa Romeo next year depends on who pays what and that really depends on what Alfa Romeo’s parent company Stellantis wants to do in the future. In recent days the firm’s new CEO, Frenchman Jean-Philippe Imparato, decided to delay the introduction of the new plug-in hybrid version of Alfa Romeo Tonale SUV because the car does not have sufficient performance. That is a setback. Imparato’s boss is Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares, once a big banana at Renault in the days of Carlos Ghosn. In fact, he left Renault because at that point Ghosn was in his way and he wanted to be the boss of a big car manufacturer. He has made that happen with Stellantis. And now he needs to figure out what to do with Alfa Romeo and Formula 1. There are two basic choices: he can stop the current activity and promote Alfa in other ways; or he can take over the whole thing and do the job more effectively. It is hard to know which way that decision will go, but floating along not doing much has never been Tavares’s way… So expect action now that the Stellantis deal is done. Last year it was still to be completed.

I am sure that Cyril Abiteboul, the former boss of Renault F1, visited to Hinwil in the wake of his departure from his role a Enstone and it should be noted that he was close to Tavares, when the latter was COO at Renault. And, if you remember back a few years, Alpine was a Tavares project (in league with Caterham) and Abiteboul ended up as team principal of Caterham for a while, as a result of that relationship.

Still, you never know what car manufacturers will do when they come into the sport. They are often pretty arrogant and think they know far more than the people who run the teams and they do daft things like bring in new leadership with no clue about the sport and so on… Let’s not go into names but the list is long and not very distinguished.

One man who passed through F1 about 20 years ago was Richard Parry-Jones and it was sad to hear of his death over the weekend in a tractor accident at his home in Wales. Richard was a proper racer at heart and there is a great story about how he decided that Ford was the company for him when he wrote asking for advice about a career in automotive engineering and receiving signed photographs of Jim Clark and Graham Hill as part of the response. When he was chief technical officer of Ford he had to sort out the mess that was Jaguar Racing, which had been a political bloodbath before his arrival. He conducted a major review of the F1 operations and changed the management (again) but he also cut costs significantly and this led to his proposal for F1 to have a budget cap, arguing that costs were unsustainable and that there was no reason that F1 could not follow other sports and limit its spending. He was 15 years ahead of his time…

After a night in Avallon, pondering King Arthur, I set off for home on Tuesday morning deciding to take it easy and get off the motorways for a while and travel for a while on the old Routes Nationales, with their avenues of plane trees, dilapidated chateaux, cafes with fading Dubonnet signs painted large on the walls, their Notre Dames and their disused railways, their grottes and rivers called the Cure, the Cousin and Serein.

It takes twice as long to get anywhere, but it was an hour well-wasted.

On the road to Imola…

Apologies for the blog being quiet for a while. I have lots of excuses, but no really good ones and I cannot even claim to have been lazy as I seem to have been working every day since Bahrain.

Still, I opened the gate yesterday at an early-ish hour, early enough to watch a fiery orange ball of sunlight appearing on the horizon as I belted across the locked down French countryside. It is amazing to me that when everyone is supposed to be hunkering down at home that the French still manage to have traffic jams.  I was soon frustrated to be at a standstill so early in my trip to Italy and so I deserted the autoroute and worked my way through suburbs with names like Antony (once the home of Gerard Larrousse’s F1 team) and Chilly-Mazarin (which sounds like a cool cardinal) before finding open roads again not far from Alpine country at Viry-Chatillon.

A few hours later I was in real Alpine country and stuck in a jam at the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel. It took an hour to climb the hill from Chamonix. This was because the COVID-19 pandemic has created an opportunity for the tunnel authorities to take advantage of the low levels of traffic to do repairs… and so there are still delays.

When I emerged on the Italian side, after 7.2 miles inside the mountain, the sun was shining and the valley at Courmayeur was beautiful. An Italian policemen stopped me and asked where I was going. I showed him a pile of paperwork that indicated that I was allowed to go to Imola and with a shrug he waved me on…

What no-one ever tells you about the Mont Blanc tunnel is that when you emerge in Italy, with all the joys that come with that, you then go into a series of 10 tunnels that cover almost all of the 22 miles between the famous tunnel and the town of Aosta. After finishing the main tunnel in 1965 the Italians seem to have developed a taste for further underground activities, presumably in an effort to speed things up and to preserve the valley as much as possible, and by the time you get to Aosta you are beginning to wonder if there really is light at the end of the tunnel. As a feat of engineering it is impressive.

And it’s Italy, of course, where the joy of living is more evident than in northern climes. The speed limits are signposted everywhere but they seem to be ambitions rather than aspirations and none of the locals seem to believe the signs that say that they have speed traps. The one thing you notice about the road down through the mountains is that Italians have some odd names (take Guenther Steiner, for example). As I was whizzing down the Dora Baltea Valley, listening to an RMC DJ called Kay Rush, I noted a village not far away called Etroubles, which is close to Derby and not a million miles from Champagne, all settlements in this same charming bit of Italy. It may just be me, but Etroubles sounds either like a kind of greeting in Yorkshire or it is what happens when things go wrong for Alejandro Agag…

Anyway, driving from Normandy to Imola gives you plenty of time for thinking and I concluded on my way that the “Gran Premio del Made in Italy e dell’Emilia-Romagna” is a truly awful name for a motor race – and a very bad precedent for the sport. If money is allowed to dictate race titles (rather than sponsors) we will soon be attending the “We love Vlad Russian GP” and the “It’s bigger than Texas United States Grand Prix in Miami Gardens, powered by Hard Rocks”.

For me, all this verbiage is far less interesting than dull names like “The German Grand Prix”, but I guess that is what happens when one lets Americans “reach out” to sponsors.

NASCAR has long won the prize for the most horrible names for motor races, with such gems as the “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner 300”, or the “Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500”. You are not going to get me calling a race the “SpongeBob SquarePants 400” or the “Subway Jalapeño 250, powered by Coca-Cola”.

Actually, there is one that is worse than all of these, but I don’t have the energy to type the whole thing out. I’ll just have to cut-and-paste. Yes, folks, don’t miss the “Crown Royal Presents the [Your Hero’s Name Here] 400 at the Brickyard powered by”.

I honestly think that the marketing people over there in the US have a contest to see if there are any journalists sufficiently ingratiating to actually use these appalling names, which roll off the tongue like detached teeth.

The key question for me is this: Do people acually go out and buy enthusiastic sea sponges called Bob because he (Does a sponge have a sex? I am sure that woke folk will have a view.) sponsored a motor race? I have my doubts. 

Anyway, please excuse me if I drop all the crap and call it the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix, at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari – otherwise known as Imola.


Foolish thoughts

I always like April Fool’s Day, and (I think) I am now wary enough not to fall for daft stories on April 1. This year I though Alpine F1 won the game by announcing that it was signing Pierre Gasly for 2022. The Gasly quote was a work of genius.

“Bonjour everyone. Pierre here. I’m very glad to announce that I will be racing for Alpine next season,” the statement said. “It has always been a dream of mine to race at the pinnacle of motorsport, even more so with a French team. If there are any media outlets reposting this blindly, they should re-assess their staff capabilities imo. For legal reasons, this is a total joke, but if Pierre actually moves to Alpine next year you didn’t hear it from me.”

The thing about an April Fool is that it should be just believable enough to take in the gullible and Pierre to Alpine is something that might actually happen in 2022. And let’s face it, motor racing has some daft stories that don’t sound very likely. If, for example, one announced on April 1 that the Shanghai International Circuit is built on a giant polystyrene platform floating in a marsh, who would believe it to be true?

But it is…

In 1999 one April Fool circulating in Germany suggested that there would be an F1 race at night… Little did they know.

My favourite motor racing April Fool was the idea of a Grand Prix at Heathrow. The problem was that the airport couldn’t close down on Fridays and Saturdays and so the cars would run one by one in qualifying and it would be timed so that a car would run between each arriving flight…

No-one seems to really know where this daft tradition of telling tall stories comes from but there are theories that suggest the Sixteenth Century when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian version, which moved the New Year to January 1 from April 1 and that those who continued to celebrate on the old date were looked upon as fools, or poisson d’avril (April fish), on the basis that they were easily hooked…

There have been some truly splendid examples over time including BBC Panorama’s celebrated item about Swiss farmers picking freshly-grown spaghetti from their trees, which led to large numbers of requests to the BBC asking where one might buy spaghetti trees. And there was a famous 1977 April Fool in The Guardian, when they included a seven-page travel supplement about an island called San Serriffe, a small archipelago, its main islands (Upper and Lower Caisse) “ressembling a semi-colon” in the Indian Ocean. This was reported to be moving slowly across the ocean, but the supplement included all kinds of advertising from big name companies that made it very convincing – unless, of course, you understand a little about the world of typography.

This year I suppose the prize should really go to Volkswagen US, although they broke the cardinal rule of April Fool jokes. An April Fool joke can only be perpetrated before lunch, otherwise you are a fool yourself. Nonetheless, they announced that as a result of its switch to electric cars in the future, the company was going to change its name to Voltswagen. I read one super suggestion that the VW Camper should be relaunched and renamed the Voltswagen Ampere. However I also saw that some of the Internet neo-puritans who didn’t think this was funny and accused VW of telling lies.

I did also hear that there is a new ship being built in Plymouth called Mayflower II designed to transport all the neo-puritans to South Georgia, but sadly I doubt that was true…

Green Notebook from Juffair

They play cricket in Juffair. Bahrain is a funny place like that. It has loads of high-rise buildings but between them there are sandy patches of ground, where presumably one day another skyscraper will be built. But for the moment these are used as parking lots – and cricket grounds.

You may be scratching your head about Arabs playing cricket but I read a wonderful story the other day about the late King Hussein of Jordan, who adored playing the game. The story was told by Mordechai Beyan, who was an Israeli spy, who was out in the desert one day, in Jordan.

“All at once,” he wrote, “a glittering bevy of camel-riders appeared from nowhere and surrounded me. I was resigning myself to a bullet in the head or at very least 20 years in an Amman jail, when the leader, who was none other than King Hussein, revealed that they were about to play a game of cricket and were one man short. ‘Tell me, O traveller,’ he asked, in the courteous tones for which he was world famous, ‘would you care to join us to make up one of our number whose camel has gone lame some miles back. Do you bowl or bat?’

“It so happened that when I joined Mossad I had undergone an intensive period of cricket training, prior to being posted to Britain, so I willingly joined him as a fast medium utility seam bowler. It was a most enjoyable game, and we won by three wickets. ‘Well played, sir,’ said the King to me afterwards. ‘I had no idea the Jews had a talent for ball games.’

“You know that I am…?” I gasped.

“‘We Arabs have some talent for intelligence-gathering too,’ he smiled. ‘Perhaps we should play again soon. An Arab-Israeli cricket match might make breakthroughs unattainable in other ways.’”

Anyway, in Bahrain it is not the King, nor even the Crown Prince who play cricket (although I suspect the latter knows how to), but rather the vast numbers of Indians, who live and work in Bahrain, as traders and construction workers. You will regularly see them playing cricket on the dust patches of Juffair.

The Bahrain International Circuit is a sports ground on a rather bigger dust patch, out in the desert, about halfway down the island. Out there one can make lots of noise and no-one cares.

We’ve spent a lot of time in Bahrain in recent months and, if you stop to think about it, three of the last four Grands Prix, and the only winter test, have all taken place in Bahrain, which is a record that is unlikely to ever be beaten. You would think that a season when the teams agreed to use the same chassis as the previous season would mean that the the pecking order would be largely the same, as around 60 percent of the parts were unchanged. However, some teams worked harder than others on development because of the strange situation in which we find the sport.

Some teams are focussing on the future, because they think that the 2022 rules changes offer a better chance to move up the F1 ladder, while other teams have more pressing needs and so are focussing on impressing in 2021. Both Williams and Haas have said that they are going to put their efforts into 2022 because they don’t see anything to be gained by spending money this year. One can see that Alfa Romeo, for example, has a different focus. This is the last year of the Alfa Romeo sponsorship (at the moment) and so the team wants to look good. But is there logic in spending tens of millions to develop a car if one only gains one place in the Constructors’ Championship – which might mean another $7 million in prize money? The answer is yes, if a big sponsorship is at risk…

And then there is the Ferrari situation. The team was horrible last year for reasons that we have been into before. They really had to do a better job and so a lot was spent to get a better engine, however without any troublesome grey areas. There is no question that the car is now quicker and having Charles Leclerc fourth on the grid and Carlos Sainz eighth looked quite decent. However, it must be said that this may have had a touch more PR value than racing logic. Getting through Q2 using softs meant that the team looked good on the grid and people who analyse gaps and things will say nice things, but they did so at the expense of a good performance in the race. Starting on soft tyres was definitely not the best strategy, particularly at a track where overtaking is relatively easy. Thus Leclerc went from fourth to sixth in the race. The key point I think was that Charles still finished 59 secs behind the winner, which is one second a lap off the pace in terms of race pace… And they weren’t the only ones to try the Q2 soft trick…

And, of course, you have Honda. They are leaving at the end of the year and they want to go out on a high because the Honda F1 programme up to now has been wildly average (at best). Going out on a high is important from a pride point of view…

Anyway, we don’t really know the full picture as yet but what we do know is that the racing is going to be good because the midfield is really tight.

F1 fans voted Sergio Perez as the driver of the day (the Dutch fans were presumably asleep) but I must say that I thought it should have gone to Yuki Tsunoda, who became the first driver in five years to score points on his F1 debut and the first Japanese driver to score points in nearly a decade, the last being Kamui Kobayashi in 2012. There was no luck involved in this performance. He was caught out in Q2 by the soft users and so ended up qualifying only 13th on the grid. He made a bit of a slow start and dropped to 16th but then passed George Russell, Sebastian Vettel (twice), Esteban Ocon, Fernando Alonso and then Kimi Raikkonen to get into the top 10 with 20 laps to go. He then hunted down Lance Stroll and took ninth on the last lap. Afterwards, he said that he felt a bit sorry when he overtook Alonso and admitted it was quite emotional for him.

Ross Brawn was impressed too although he did point out that “his language in the car can be a bit fruity”, which just goes to show that children and nuns should not watch F1 and certainly not indulge in “Drive to Survive” with Guenther F**king Steiner and others…

Japanese fans are excited with Tsunoda making a good impression and in China there is a lot of excitement as well as Guanyu Zhou is beginning to look like an F1 driver of the future.

The Alpine young driver did an impressive job in the three Formula 2 races in Bahrain and has a big lead in the championship. There is already talk that he might be seen next year at Williams and there are even suggestions that the team could switch to Renault power as part of that deal. I don’t know if that is a good idea or not but being the second Renault team might be better than being the fourth Mercedes team…

Aston Martin’s return to F1 was a little bit in the tradition of the company in F1. It was not good. Lance Stroll was 11th and if one thinks that Sergio Perez won in Bahrain just a few months ago, this was not a good sign. Sebastian Vettel’s weekend was awful, qualifying 18th and then getting a penalty for ignoring yellow flags and so started he started the race from the back of the grid. And he finished 15th, behind the Williams of George Russell, after ruining Esteban Ocon’s race and getting a 10-second penalty for it. The only points that Seb scored all weekend were penalty points – and he got an armful of them. Maybe it is just me, but in the darkness in Bahrain I kept mistaking the Aston Martin for the Mercedes as the liveries seem very similar when there isn’t much light. I hope that the green looks better in bright sunlight…

The media did get some chance to mix with the F1 folk at the weekend, although we were confined to a sort of cage with a gap of two metres being policed by the FIA guard dogs and the COVID delegate in his watch tower. Some felt it was rather insulting to be caged up, but my view is that some access is better than no access and I had a number of useful chats, although people can still see who you are talking to. Still, it’s a move in the right direction and I hope that before too long these charades will end and we will be back as normal F1 citizens…

One of the things that I learned while chatting over the wall was that Mercedes is cleverer than some of the other teams as they craftily arrived offering drinks to the imprisoned pressmen. I am told that one could also order a coffee from Sauber (although it is a long walk from the end of the paddock to the media centre) so it might have been cold by the time it arrived…

Still, one cannot complain.

I’ve always been a fan of Carlos Sainz (senior and junior) and I find the younger version to be smart, intelligent and charming. One gets the impression that he is actually interested in other people, which makes him not unique but relatively unusual amongst F1 drivers. Anyway, Carlos understands that teamwork is all about people and so rather than flying in to Maranello from time to time from a tax haven, he has taken an apartment in a nearby town and is spending his life there, visiting the factory all the time and getting to know everyone. I cannot remember who it was but one driver said to me one time that it was important to buy your mechanics a pizza and some beer and they’d love you forever. I think Carlos is working on a similar theme.

In the course of the weekend I bumped into several old pals, notably Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, who were both in Bahrain to watch the action. It is always fun to catch up with the old campaigners and chew the cud a bit, even if one had to do it with face masks.

Travelling to and from the race proved to be quite a challenge when it came to paperwork, but the biggest problems were not COVID-19 related, but rather the result of the complexities of being a Brit living in France in the post-Brexit age and trying to explain to Arabs that a resident’s card is not required until October… although one would certainly be useful.

Next stop Imola.

Don’t miss the next Audience

The first race of the year has been and gone and I was out in Bahrain to watch the action.

I am hosting another online Audience with Joe tomorrow, and there are still a few tickets left, so if you want to be part of a private two hour zoom conference call to ask questions about Formula 1 – anything at all – you can sign up by Clicking here.

But hurry because there are not many of them… We limit access so that everyone has a chance to ask a question or two.

Williams signs Demaison

Williams Racing has appointed François-Xavier Demaison as its new Technical Director. He will take overall responsibility for the technical operation of the team including the design and aerodynamic functions, reporting to CEO, Jost Capito.

After studying at two of France’s most famous engineering schools, the École Supérieure des Techniques Aéronautiques et de Construction Automobile (ESTACA) and then École Nationale Supérieure du Pétrole et des Moteurs (now known as IFP), he was recruited by Renault and went to work in the UK, initially at Swindon and then in the Renault UK headquarters in Rickmansworth. He then decided to return to France and joined Peugeot Sport, working on the F1 engine programme at Velizy Villacoublay. He moved from there to the World Rally Championship programme and in 2006 was taken on by Prodive to be chief rally engineer for Subaru in the WRC but in 2008 was back in France, working with Citroen in the WRC.

He was named technical director of Petter Solberg World Rally Team in 2010 and stayed for a year before taken on by Volkswagen as project manager for the Volkswagen Polo WRC programme. he then became technical director of VW Motorsport in 2016 but with the closure of the division last year he was on the market and Capito, who used to head VW Motorsport snapped him up for Williams.

François-Xavier has spent the last few years overseeing the technical development of the ground-breaking ID.R electric race car, that achieved multiple records at Pikes Peak and around the old Nurburgring.

“We are delighted to welcome FX to the team,” says Capito. “I have seen his technical capabilities first-hand, and his sporting successes speak for themselves. Bringing in someone of his calibre to our already experienced technical team will help drive the future direction of our operation and strengthen our team. I have no doubt that his knowledge will contribute to us taking another important step towards our ambitions of winning again.”

Johnny Dumfries 1958 – 2021

I am very sad to have to report the death of the man Formula 1 knew as Johnny Dumfries, but was also known as John Bute and as John Crichton-Stuart. Johnny was born into the Scottish aristocracy and had a string of titles including becoming the Marquis of Bute, the Earl of Windsor, Viscount Ayr, Lord Crichton of Sanquhar and Cumnock, Viscount Kingarth, Lord Montstuart Cumbrae and Inchmarnock, Baron Cardiff, and Viscount Mountjoy. However he was, for a time, the Earl of Dumfries and it was under that name that he is best known.

Born in the family castle at Rothesay on the island of Bute in 1958, Johnny turned his back on an expensive education and took a job as a van driver with Williams thanks to his cousin Charlie Crichton-Stuart, the team’s sponsorship guru at the time. He then began working in London as a painter and decorator, not wanting to use family money and not wanting the racing world to know who he was. He scraped together the money to race in Formula Ford 1600 and then in Formula 3, where he made his first significant impression in 1983 when he battled with Ayrton Senna in a round of the European F3 series at Silverstone, driving a car known as The Red Rocket. It was a mighty performance and attracted the attention of Dave Price who had a budget to run youngsters from BP. The team dominated the British Formula 3 series, winning 10 times, and also competed in European races, finishing runner-up to Ivan Capelli, which earned him a Ferrari test contract while racing in Formula 3000 with the Onyx team. When Ayrton Senna vetoed the choice of Derek Warwick at Team Lotus for 1986, Lotus signed Dumfries, but he was in a tough place, struggled against the mighty Senna, without much experience, and was dumped by the team after just one year.

He turned instead to sports car racing and signed to drive with fellow Scot Tom Walkinshaw’s Jaguar team in 1987 and won a number of races including the 1988 Le Mans 24 Hours. He finished off his career with the Toyota factory sports car team in 1989 and 1990 and then retired from racing to run the family empire, which consisted of a huge amount of property. In 2002 he returned to the sport to promote the Mount Stuart Motorsport Classic – a motoring festival at his family home on the Isle of Bute, modelled on Goodwood, but this was too successful for the local infrastructure to cope with.

Johnny died of cancer at the age of just 62. One of a gang of drivers from that era, known as The Rat Pack, Johnny was unfortunate to come up against Senna. In another era he might have survived longer as an F1 driver.