Martin Whitmarsh has been recruited to the new role of Group Chief Executive Officer of Aston Martin Performance Technologies, a new entity which will encompass the firm’s F1 activities and will also “develop, apply and take to market the group’s technical capabilities and intellectual property, with the aim of providing best-in-class innovation, engineering, testing and manufacturing services across a variety of key industry sectors”.
In essence, however, this puts Whitmarsh in charge of the whole of the F1 business, which means that owner Lawrence Stroll’s recent denials that there would be someone put in above Otmar Szafnauer seem a little out of place.
Whitmarsh worked for McLaren from 1989 to 2014 including being the group Chief Executive Officer and Formula 1 Team Principal from 2008-2014. Under his leadership McLaren diversified its business activities with McLaren Automotive and McLaren Applied Technologies.
“Martin will enjoy senior leadership responsibility and will assist and support me in setting the new strategic direction for Aston Martin Performance Technologies and its subsidiaries, including the crucial objective of leading the transformation of Aston Martin Cognizant F1 Team into a Formula One World Championship-winning organisation within the next four to five years, and evolving it into a £1 billion business over a similar time period,” said Stroll. “Martin has enjoyed a long, successful and high-profile career, spanning the motorsport, automotive, aerospace, marine and renewable-energy sectors.”
Whitmarsh will start work on October 1.
Since departing from F1 Whitmarsh has been involved in the world of sailing and in wind technology.
Readers of the JSBM newsletter will have learned last week that Whitmarsh was joining the team, although Stroll’s denials made it rather difficult to pin-point the role.
I wish I could report that the Bar Caracciola was named in honour of the great German racing driver Rudolf Caracciola, but it isn’t.
It is named after Francisco Caracciola, the Duke of Brienza, to whom Rudolf may have been related to back in the mists of time. He is best known for being an admiral, who fought against the British in 1799 (I cannot remember why the Italians and the British were fighting on this occasion). He had the great misfortune to encounter Admiral Lord Nelson, the well known British columnist.
The result of this encounter was that Caracciola was hanged from a British yard-arm, despite a request to be shot – as any nobleman should be – and his body was then thrown into the sea, in an ignominious and beastly fashion by the nasty old British admiral.
The only positive thing to say about this unfortunate demise was that Caracciola became a national hero in Italy and an entire class of super-dreadnought battleships were named in his honour prior to the First World War, more than a century later. There were streets named after him across Italy and the one in Milan, which crosses the Via MacMahon, named after the French general Patrice Maurice MacMahon, who obviously came from an family with its roots in Ireland, became the site of a Bar Caracciola.
In the middle of Monday afternoon, the bar was pretty quiet. There were a couple of old boys, looking rather sweaty in their vests, trying to make their espressos last for more than 12 seconds. I was there, killing time, while I waited for the Russian visa office to reopen and give me the necessary documentation to allow me to go to Sochi for the Russian Grand Prix.
The Milan consulate is super-efficient – much more so than some other visa centres I have known. I delivered the passport and applications forms at nine on Monday morning and picked up the finished product at four in the afternoon.
This meant that I had to spend a few hours wandering around Milan, which is no bad thing, although I was feeling a bit jaded after a long night producing magazines.
Still, one can only be perked up by the magnificent Milano Centrale railway station, the La Scala opera house, the fabulous Galleria (not the one in The Italian Job – which is over in Turin) and, of course, Il Duomo, the magnificent cathedral in the centre of the city. I didn’t have the energy to take in the castle of the Sforzas as well, but I had a pleasant morning.
The city was filled with ice-cool fashion mavens, some with very long legs, with Fashion Week in New York obviously not a big draw for them.
The folk of Formula 1 have spent a huge amount of time in Italy in the last year with no fewer than five Grands Prix in 372 days. I am not sure why it was but by the end of the weekend I didn’t want to see any more pasta, I dreaded the idea of pizza and was not the least bit interested in another scaloppine alla milanese. I wanted to eat something that felt healthy and so I went in search of sashimi alla milanese, one of the country’s lesser known dishes. Feeling suitably revived and knowing that it would be pointless to try to visit the Ascaris, as the Cimitero Monumentale, near the Via MacMahon, is closed on Mondays (something I discovered while doing the same thing last year), I thought I would nip over to the old Portello district which Alfa Romeo made famous and see what had become of the place.
The Alfa Romeo factory, wherein the racing department was based, was closed in the mid-1980s and the facilities gradually fell apart until someone came up with a plan to regenerate the district and create a post-industrial mixed-use development with parks, offices, houses and shopping. You know the kind of thing…
This included a number of large earth mounds known, imaginatively, as Mound1, Mound2 and Mound3. I am sure they all have deep cultural significance but they looked like mounds to me… Still, anything is possible in this part of the world and I’m told that if you go to Montevecchia, which is up towards Lecco, to the north of Milan, there are three mysterious pyramids, presumably built by the same architect’s forefathers, back in the age when people built such things, probably because there wasn’t much on telly.
The Monza weekend was a pleasure in many ways, as it always is, when one is at the Autodromo Nazionale. There are lots of things wrong with it, but the magic makes up for it.
Next year it will be 100 years old.
This year’s race was brilliant – and unexpected. I won’t dwell on the incident, except to say that the blame was apportioned “predominantly” to Max Verstappen, which was the opposite call to the crash at Silverstone where Lewis Hamilton was deemed to be “predominantly” at fault. Thus, one must conclude – whether one agrees or not – that the FIA Stewards in both cases felt that there was a level of fault on both sides. We used to call that a racing incident but for some reason these days folks want blame to be handed down for almost everything. Whatever the analysis, however, this was a clear indication of the value of the halo.
Sport can be very divisive in some respects – when rivals fans don’t agree on who is to blame – but it can also be incredibly joyful and healing. We saw that on Saturday night when the whole of Britain seemed to be delighted when 18-year-old Emma Raducanu won the US Open tennis tournament, becoming the first player in history to win after having to qualify for the tournament. Even those who don’t like immigrants cheered the Canadian-born Brit, the daughter of a Romanian father and a Chinese mother, who has lived in the UK since she was two. It was nice to see that happen at a time when so many aspects of British life, be that the pandemic, the B-word, the economy and the shocking nature of low behaviour seen in politics are causing such deep division. Sport can heal rifts and uplift battered souls…
After the race both McLaren drivers admitted that they had stayed up to watch Raducanu, way past their bed times, but it hadn’t really hurt their performances. Valtteri Bottas, on the other hand, admitted that he had not got a clue what everyone was talking about. Which, I suppose, is best seen as being a tribute to his focus on F1…
On Sunday evening at Monza, everyone was happy (apart from Mercedes and Red Bull) because a joyous event is a joyous event and Danny Ric and Lando finishing 1-2 for McLaren was such a great thing for everyone, including F1 as a whole. If Danny Ric spoke Mandarin Chinese it would have been perfect.
The unifying and healing power of sport is all too often drowned out by the noise of what is wrong with everything, which I must say I find rather dull. We should always try to improve the sport, but improvement comes from a positive attitude, not from negativity.
The Sprint Qualifying was never going to work very well at Monza, but it could have been worse… The race itself was cracking… and grand entertainment.
The rest of the weekend was rather quiet, after the 2022 driver market came and went. The identity of the second Alfa Romeo driver is not that interesting – unless the cars improve rather a lot – but I suspect that the new driver will be able to speak Chinese…
There was some talk in the paddock of the engine discussions that are ongoing, with the current manufacturers being joined in these meetings by the big cheeses from Audi and Porsche. The sooner we all know the rules, the better it will be… I still believe that hybrid is the right path to follow and there is more and more resistance from the car companies to the limits that have been dreamed up by politicians, as the firms are now finally realising that the dash into electric mobility needs to be more measured, because the market is not ready to switch. Trying to pretend it is, is simply politicians playing to the electorates, who, by the way, are the people who are NOT buying sufficient electric cars.
Why? Because the cars are too expensive, the infrastructure is not good enough and there is not sufficient confidence in the range of the cars and the ease and speed of recharging them. And, there still needs to be more ways to create green electricity because electric cars being powered by dirty electricity is no better for the world…
Anyway, my primary quest at Monza was to try to figure out the 2022 calendar. It is nearly ready, so they say, with the first drafts due to go to teams at some point very soon.
So what will it look like? Here is what I know and what to expect.
There are still some elements that are still to be settled but this will give you an idea. There will be 23 races, no more. And the season will kick off in Bahrain on March 20.
Prior to that there will be a Bahrain test, between March 11-13, and there will be testing action before that in Barcelona on February 23-25. The second race will be a week after Bahrain in Saudi Arabian (March 27). The cars will then be shipped off to Australia and China for races on April 10 and April 17. If the Australian government continues to be difficult, the Melbourne race will be kicked off the schedule again. The problem is that if Australia wants to remain a sporting centre of the world, it needs to tear down the walls before the big sports give up and go elsewhere instead.
The fifth race will be in Miami on May 8, which will hopefully be a little easier for those wishing to visit the US than it is at the moment – with the current ban on all those from Europe – particularly when there are tens of thousands of American wandering all over Europe. They are allowed to go home from Europe, but Europeans are not allowed in. This is daft, particularly given the levels of COVID (and the lower levels of vaccination) in the US. No-one in officialdom seems to understand that visiting the US is far more dangerous for us than staying at home…
It isn’t particularly logical to have a single race in the Americas in the spring, but this does mean that there will in the future be an opportunity for a second event at this time of year as the teams will have accepted three visits a year to the Americas. Work is still going on in Las Vegas… but it is probably still a couple of years away.
The first European race will be the Spanish GP, which is scheduled for May 21, after the folk in Barcelona fought off a bid from Imola to grab their slot. This will be a week before Monaco and, in order to achieve this, the Monaco GP will be switching to a three-day event, rather than the traditional four days.
The next bit of the calendar is a little blurry as it will be Canada or Baku, or perhaps Baku and Canada. One will be June 12 and the other June 19.
Britain surprised the F1 circus just before Monza by announcing its date as July 3. Normally race promoters wait for the calendar to become official before announcing, but Silverstone has gone ahead, presumably on the basis that if they announce it, it is more difficult to change. The date is in the middle of the Wimbledon fortnight and Silverstone is keen not to clash with the finals on the July 10 weekend, with Raducanu likely to have the country glued to their televisions. Better to have a Hamilton-fest one weekend and a Raducanu-fest the next.
Before the summer break there will be a triple-header and again there is a little bit of blur. Logic suggests that the races ought to be in France (July 17), Austria (July 24) and Hungary (July 31), but the French situation is not easy financially and they may not wish to have the race on the first weekend of the French holidays (which traditionally begin on July 14) and would prefer the end of the month. We shall see. France knows that it needs to get a big crowd after two tough years – and there are several races keen to jump in if Paul Ricard cannot hit the numbers. The whisper is that 2022 could be the last roll of the dice.
The second half of the season will begin with the same triple-header as this year with Belgium-Holland and Italy (August 28, September 4 and September 11). It was hard work but it seemed to have worked OK. There is no problem with the proximity of Belgium and the Netherlands because there are plenty of Dutch fans to fill Spa as well as Zandvoort.
Russia will follow as it is this year (September 25) and it seems fairly clear that Singapore is going to make a comeback (at least for the next couple of years) with the 2022 race on October 9. Singapore will go back-to-back with Japan on October 16.
The focus will then switch back to the Americas with the Mexican race on the last weekend of October, to fit in with the annual Day of the Dead festival and then Austin a week later. Brazil will follow a fortnight after that (November 20) with Abu Dhabi finishing off the season on December 4, although I have also heard it could be back-to-back with Brazil on November 27. This might be an idea to avoid World Cup clashes.
There will not be a Qatar Grand Prix in 2022 as the country is going to be tied up with the World Cup soccer from November 21 to December 18. However Qatar will be on the calendar from 2023 onwards…
We’ll see what actually comes out, but I am confident that most of the dates and venues are correct (at the time of writing).
Leaving Milan and heading home on Monday evening was a good feeling. It seems a long time since I departed to go to Spa. Still, travel is never a bad thing and as I went up the Aosta Valley as evening was drawing in, the hills and mountains ahead were each highlighted in a different shade of blue, seemingly superimposed one on another.
These are things that one rarely sees and cameras struggle to capture…
The problem with having an empire is that you need to have ways to get around it quickly, to enjoy the benefits of the expansionism – and to quell any unrest that may develop.
The Austrian Empire was particularly troublesome in this respect because of all the mountains. Expanding an empire is all very well, if you can march an army across flat land… although in the Netherlands, this was complicated because of all the waterways.
The Austrians were inventive folk and much of their expansion was eastward (which was easier) but at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, to clear up the mess left by Napoleon, they acquired the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, which stretched to the River Po in the south, to the Ticino in the west, and included Milan, or Mailand as they called it.
The only problem was getting there…
So they built a railway from Vienna to Trieste, no mean feat. And they then built a road that climbed to 9,000ft above sea level, including 75 hairpins. The Stelvio Pass is bonkers. It is challenging piece of road, made all the more complex by panting cyclists and thrill-seeking bikers, not to mention the occasional lunatic (usually Dutch) with a camper van. I even encountered a bus, which must have had a very cool and skilled driver as it seemed to be longer than the available turning areas…
Anyway, to begin the story close to the end is not necessarily logical, so let’s rewind a way to the polders of Haarlemmermeer, which – as the name suggests – used to be lake before the empire-builders of Amsterdam, diked and drained it – around the same time as the Austrians were building zigzagging paths up the Stelvio. It took four years of pumping by eventually 800 million tons of water were displaced and land appeared. It’s very flat and as a result of this it is now the home of Schipol Airport, where many of the F1 folk stayed during the Dutch GP weekend, because of the daft prices being asked in and around Zandvoort itself.
There was a beautiful irony in that some protesters reckoned they should disrupt the Grand Prix because it was not green enough for their tastes. It was strange choice because the Dutch GP was the greenest of all F1 races as the crowds came by train or by bicycle and there were very few cars allowed in the town itself. To the amazement of everyone, this worked brilliantly. If there were protesters they were probably run over by orange bikes.
After the massive muddy snarl-up in Spa the previous weekend the Zandvoort race was a joy. OK, there were too many people dressed in orange, a colour that I always associate with ibuprofen, but it was a real pleasure and a wonderful event, filled with energy and emotion. This was what F1 is all about – or at least should be… And there was a happy ending and so the orange people bicycled home, some zigzagging more than others, and they whipped out their dancing clogs.
The day after the race, once the last work was done, I set off on the 1200 km trek to Milan, rather less bright than a button, with no fixed plans except to explore bits of Europe that I did not know, or wanted to visit. And to sleep when the urge took me.
I went first in the direction of Utrecht and then, by accident, passed Maarsbergen, from where Holland’s most famous F1 team – Ecurie Maarsbergen – operated in the 1950s and 1960s. This was led by the charismatic aristocrat Jonkheer Carel Godin de Beaufort, who ran his team from the family castle. He painted his cars orange.
From there it was on eastward to the heathlands of Ede, where I snuck off the motorway to cut a corner and to explore the area where in 1944 the First Airborne Division landed – with the goal of capturing the bridge at Arnhem. My grandfather, about whom I could write an entire column on the subject of having an astonishing wartime record, without ever firing a gun, was a member of 2 Para, the famous battalion that held the bridge – although Grandad was not one of them. Being support staff he was not due to go into Arnhem until after the shooting was over. When it didn’t stop, he stayed in England. Still, he knew many of those who were involved…
It is just coming up to the 77th anniversary of the battle and it was astonishing to see so many of the houses flying flags of the Parachute Regiment in memory of those involved. It was very touching.
I headed on to Venlo and the German border to begin my trek down Bundesautobahn 61.
Germany’s tourism bodies have a liking for linking together places that share a particular feature: there is the famous Romantische Straße (which goes to pretty places), the Weinstraße (that passes by famous vineyards), there are also lesser known routes, such as the Uhrenstraße (the route of cuckoo clocks), the Märchenstraße (the fairy tale road) and, of course, that classic of all famous routes: the Niedersächsische Spargelstraße, which translates as the Lower Saxon Asparagus Road. There is also the Bertha Benz Memorial Road which, inaugurated in 2015, follows the route that Bertha Benz (as in Mercedes Benz) drove in 1888 from Mannheim to Pforzheim, without telling her husband she was borrowing the world’s first car. It was quite an adventure, involving repairs using hatpins and garters – and trips to various pharmacies to buy fuel…
Anyway, I have long believed that the country should have a Rennsportstraße (a motorsport road) and I would argue that it should begin near the border town of Venlo… The first German town one encounters is Mönchengladbach, where Heinz-Harald Frentzen was born and spent much of his childhood.
After that the road goes a bit odd because it has to go around a vast hole in the ground created by the surface mining of lignite, brown coal that is burned to produce electricity. This is an impressive thing, which currently covers nearly 12,000 acres with a depth of up to 200 metres. One day, so they say, it will become a very big lake, with plans for an innovation hub. But right now, it’s just an impressive hole in the ground… needed to meet the country’s energy needs for many years to come. And electric cars will just add to the demand. This is one reason why the rush to electric vehicles is not necessarily the right choice… and hybrid technology may still be the better option – while alternative sources of electricity are developed.
The next town of note on the A61 is a place called Kerpen, which racing fans will know as being the town where the Schumacher brothers grew up. A lesser-known fact is that there was another F1 driver from there, Wolfgang, Graf Berghe Van Trips, who lived in the Hemmersbach castle in the Kerpen municipality. Today (Friday) will be the 60th anniversary of his death, fighting for the World Championship with Phil Hill at Monza in 1961.
Kerpen is just a few miles from Toyota’s vast motorsport factory – once the F1 team base – in Marsdorf.
The bad news was that the A61 was closed at this point with whole sections of the road having been washed away during the flooding in the region in July.
I didn’t fancy being stuck in a big traffic jam outside the Toyota factory and so I didn’t take the suggested diversion and went in the other direction to find a way around the problem.
I didn’t really know here I was going, except that I was aiming to rejoin the road further south. So I ended up working my way through the Eifel and found myself in the upper reaches of the Ahr Valley. I was aware that the flooding had damaged the valley but it wasn’t until I reached the village of Müsch, where I saw the bridge had gone – and multiple buildings had been destroyed by the water – that it really hit home. Just as it had a few days earlier in Verviers. It was profoundly shocking. Mother Nature isn’t always nice.
I continued on and suddenly recognised a village and realised that I had once stayed there while visiting the Nürburgring. A few minutes later I was driving past the Ring itself and finally found my way back to the A61, not far south of Niederzissen – once the home of the Zakspeed F1 team – and Remagen, Rudi Caracciola’s home town. You see what I mean about the Rennsportstraße?
It was by then getting towards the evening and it was clear that I wasn’t going to get down to Stuttgart and so I decided to take it easy and detoured off to go down the Rhine Gorge and found a suitable room in a fantastic castle overlooking the river, not far from the Lorelei. This is a rock that rises 400 ft above the river and is a famous place for sailors and bargemen to drown. There is, so they say, a quiet murmuring near the cliffs, caused by some acoustic anomaly related to a waterfall, which sounds like the whisperings of wicked women (sailors have great imaginations) and this lures them to the rocks and an untimely death.
I cannot say I heard any seductive noises at all, as they were probably drowned out by passing trains, thumping great barges and coaches from which echoed noises like: “Oh, my god, like totally awesome”.
I rejoined the A61 in the morning down near Bingen and headed towards the land of Bernd Rosemeyer and Nico Rosberg, the latter being born in Wiesbaden – although he moved to Monaco when less than a year old, a sign not of a precocious talent but rather because his dad was earning good money at the time with McLaren.
After that the signs started to indicate that we were approaching Worm. I always smile when I see the name as I am transported back to school days when as scruffy kids we used to snigger in history lessons about the Diet of Worms, which was much more interesting when one considered it as a way to lose weight rather than dull days when the Holy Roman Emperor held an imperial diet – a sort of parliament – in Worms. Anyway, this is also Vettel country, as he hails from Heppenheim, a few miles up the road.
The A61 runs south from there towards Speyer, where it swoops across the Rhine and arrives at the Autobahndreieck Hockenheim, right by the circuit, where it stops dead.
I travelled on to Stuttgart, passing the old Solitude race track and Porsche’s racing headquarters at Weissach. After that racing cars faded, although George Russell had been announced as a Mercedes driver as I was passing Stuttgart. I belted across country to Ulm and then south to the land where the mad king Ludwig II of Bavaria built several eccentric castles, notably Neuschwanstein, in the Fussen area, where one goes into a tunnel that takes you into Austria.
The terrain is much more difficult after the border and the quality of the roads changes and I found myself in a rather strange traffic jam, heading up towards the Fern Pass. On the way, I went under a rather entertaining-looking suspended footbridge, across the valley, which must have been about 300 ft above the road and several hundred metres in length. But I was in a hurry and time was ticking onward and so I went on without stopping, down to the Inn valley.
For those who like esoteric facts, this was the valley along which the Paris-Vienna race travelled in 1902, heading east towards Innsbruck. I pondered for a moment whether I might go straight on and go through the Arlberg Pass where the racers 99 years ago suffered some wild adventures.
“Max, a driver of a Darracq car, had gone clean over the precipice,” wrote Charles Jarrott after the event. “As the car leaped over the edge, the mechanician had been thrown out on to the road. Max was also thrown out of the car after it had disappeared over the edge, and landed on a ledge some distance down, while the car was dashed to pieces in the depths below.”
The race, by the way, was Renault’s first major victory and helped turn what had been a cottage industry into a big player in the industry.
In the end, however, I stuck to my plan and turned south and climbed up to the Rechen Pass, where Austria becomes Italy and spent the night in a ski resort at Nauders, before going up the Stelvio the following morning. It’s a funny part of the world, where Italians speak German (hence Gunther Steiner being an Italian). At one point I passed a strange bell tower in the middle of a lake, left behind one supposes when the valley was dammed to create a lake. A funny lot, as I said.
As I was on the road there were further F1 announcements from Williams and Scuderia AlphaTauri, all which went entirely according to the stories already written – and so I didn’t need to worry too much about churning out copy. There is now just one F1 seat left for 2022 and it would be astonishing if this did not go to Guanyu Zhou, as he has considerable funding behind him, has done a good job in Formula 2, and the Alfa Romeo team, despite sounding all rather flash, is lacking money…
I spent some time thinking about the calendar on 2022, trying to put together all. The 2021 calendar is now done, despite some folk still looking for problems. The missing race will be in Qatar and will be confirmed once Monza is out of the way. Qatar will be on the calendar for the next 10 years and will be a night race. The other key thing of note is that Monaco will finally switch to being a three-day race meeting, rather than having an extra day. This means that the weekend before Monaco can host the Spanish GP and everyone can be in Monaco in time, including building the daft motorhomes that are barely being used these days… given the COVID restrictions.
And that is another story… the FIA COVID-19 Code of Conduct has been looking increasing feeble in recent weeks and things came to a head in Zandvoort where Kimi Raikkonen tested positive. The Finn had to give details of contacts and noted that he has had dined the previous evening with Williams team boss Jost Capito and others.
This was by no means the only such breach of the Code over the weekend in Zandvoort but the high profile nature of it brought the whole process into the spotlight.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the COVID rules differ from country to country and what is sensible in one country is not sensible in another. Everyone involved in F1 is at the events to work and while some think their work more important than the work of others, the reality is that everyone is in the same situation and the sport should either police the rules that exist, or get rid of the restrictions for everyone.
The Code has done a great job of reducing the risks faced by the sport but almost everyone is now vaccinated and people are breaking the rules left, right and centre, although some are forced to still live by them and respect the intention to protect the sport. Others, however, have less respect and some team principals in particular have been behaving as though they are above the Code of Conduct and have been barely hiding visits to rival motorhomes, dinners and other interactions.
As the rules are seen to be broken without any penalties from the FIA, more breaches have occurred and the discipline that F1 has had for the last 14 months is breaking down. Some of those in powerful positions seem to think that they can now do whatever they like, while still expecting everyone else to behave as before. It is very much a case of “do what I say, not what I do”.
Having no defined plan beyond a lunch on Tuesday “somewhere between Antwerp and Hasselt”, I set off on Monday morning from the place I was staying near Malmedy with no destination in mind. It had been a long, long night, working to finish various publications and I would happily have retired to bed, but as I couldn’t stay in the hotel I decided to see where Fate took me, beginning with a tour around the Spa circuit to see the carnage that had been created over of the weekend – and to work out which roads had been closed, so that in future I know all the rat runs on a Grand Prix weekend. One could tell from the steel barriers and attached road signs – that had yet to be collected up but had been pushed aside – which roads could have been used. And, no doubt, it will be the same next year.
The traffic jams had been bad at Spa all weekend, but early morning starts and knowing a few tricks had meant there were no real problems until Sunday morning when I arrived to find access from Malmedy jammed at 07.15. The Belgian police force does not command much love and affection in F1 circles, but on this occasion one officer came to my rescue, having noticed my F1 Personnel parking pass on the windscreen. He created space enough for me to squeeze through to a closed turn-off and then moved some bollards to let me past. I was surprised, but very thankful as he saved me hours of sitting in a jam for no reason, when there was work that needed to be done.
At the nearby checkpoint before Burnenville they told me not to even try to go up the normal road to the circuit because there was a mud bath and everything was blocked. It would take hours to get through to the media parking.
So it was time to get creative and I tried various ploys to get into the correct parking area. After being turned away at my first attempt I embarked on an entertaining rally stage on a gravel road and found my way to Francorchamps village, and the job was done. All that was required before I started bashing the computer keys was to nip down to the test centre for a quick nasal rape and then I was being productive again.
Others journalists drifted gradually in, each with stories to tell of their adventures.
An hour spent touring around on Monday seemed a sensible investment for the future. I slipped and slithered through muddy places and bounced along rocky roads but learned a great deal, and then I went a little further afield looking for places where it might be good to stay in the future. This led me gradually to the north where I began to see evidence of the recent flooding in the Vesdre valley and its tributaries. More than 40 people were killed when intense storms drenched these hills in July. To give you an idea, there were 10.69 inches of rain in a 48 hour period in the Jalhay district, next to Spa, an all-time record for Belgium. Spa recorded 8.5 inches. During the race weekend I bought a booklet about the floods, in part because the money was going to help rebuild the area. To give you an idea about the flooding, there was one photo in the booklet which showed a 40-ft steel shipping container on top of cars outside a Peugeot dealership in Verviers. This container had come from seven miles up the river in Eupen and had been washed over, under or through a number of bridges.
In the end, I found myself in some of the areas which had been hardest hit. I’ve never seen anything like it. Six weeks after the floods there were still crushed cars, smashed buildings and road surfaces that had been torn away by the flood water. Along the river the branches of the trees that had not been torn off were draped in flotsam and jetsam, like strange Christmas tree decorations.
Many roads were still closed but it was a sobering experience.
Mother Nature is a very troublesome and dangerous woman. In my column in GP+ magazine in the Spa issue, I included a picture of Glenn Close from the movie Fatal Attraction, attacking Michael Douglas with a knife. I used this because I was trying to explain what Spa is like. I’ve been coming to races here for 35 years and some of the moments I have spent here have produced magical memories.
“For many racing folk Spa and Monza are the celestial cities,” I wrote. “The perfect places where you see drivers at their very best. It is a place of highs and lows because with the thrills of Spa, one must also accept the darker side of the sport. On a good day Spa is warm and seductive, on a bad day it leaps chillingly out of the wardrobe with a knife, or boils your pet bunny. When you set off for Spa you pack shorts and heavy jackets, sunglasses and gumboots. But, early in the morning, with the pine forests clothed in a sunny mist and the sound of engines cutting through the still air from the distant hillsides, it seems like the most wonderful place to be.”
The muddy fields and abandoned vehicles I saw on Monday attested to the struggles that went on beyond the circuit fences. In time, I am sure, the fans who lived through this will be happy telling stories about how they were there to see the 2021 disaster. Those who were naive enough to suggest that the fans should be given their money back, do not perhaps understand that if that was to be the case, the future of Spa would be placed in financial jeopardy, which could mean that we would lose the track from F1 forever. Even if those who earn money from the ticket sales, directly or indirectly, agree to pay 4.5 percent of their annual salaries (representing one of the 22 races), the track would still be left with the bills that would have to be paid for the preparations for the event. We know that Lewis Hamilton is a generous fellow, so perhaps he could start the ball rolling by handing over a couple of million which some argue he did not properly earn at the weekend. You see, it’s a complicated business asking for refunds. And Alfa Romeo, which made similar crowd-pleasing noises, might not be happy to hand back the millions they will eventually take home from Spa…
On Sunday it was anything but wonderful, but what happened could not really have been otherwise. I think the FIA handled things very well, but I understand – as they also do – that the outcome was anything but perfect. There were no other options. Now, in the aftermath, rules can be tweaked so that if there are ever similar conditions, there will be a better route to take, but it was what it was. Imperfect and unsatisfying. And we all felt for the fans, who were the ones who really suffered.
With a car well-caked in mud, I set off for a drab lunch in a drab Liege and then headed north, passing a closed section of motorway that was piled high as far as I could see with debris from the flooding. I headed up towards Zolder, but I didn’t stop. I was feeling rather weary and so pulled into a motorway rest area and had a snooze and then visited booking.com in search of a place to stay on Monday night. I ended up in town called Westerlo, for no reason other than the hotel looking nice enough.
Westerlo is in the Flemish part of Belgium, in a region that the locals call De Kempen and the Walloons call the Campine. It’s a flat area with much heathland, pine forest and soggy marshes. The soil is sandy and not very useful for farming. This region became a place where the local big wigs built big castles and monks settled to pray and brew beer. Before the invention of TV, everyone had time to dream up bizarre folklore, including the bokkenrijders, who were brigands who rode through the sky on flying goats (Yeehah!), and legendary gnomes called kabouters, who were led by a king called Kyrië. The kabouters helped the local farmers, while the bokkenrijders ran what amounted to a protection racket.
Don’t you love folklore?
Westerlo also featured a rather grand castle, owned by the de Merode family. The name seemed familiar and I remembered that Prince de Merode was an FIA President back in the 1970s. The family was also related by marriage to the de Vogüé family, who also had an FIA President at one point. That was how it was done in that time…
It’s a bit different these days.
The green notebook from Spa had very little in it because the press is not being allowed to enter motorhomes and that makes life rather difficult because people don’t want to come out and chat on rainy weekends. It’s frustrating to see how some folks don’t abide by the protocols, but insist that others do, which is the sort of hypocrisy that one sees in politics… If there is one rule for one group of people, there should be one rule for everyone.
The media in F1 are not super-spreaders and have been far better-behaved than many others.
The news that Sergio Perez has re-signed for Red Bull is effectively a confirmation that George Russell is going to Mercedes – and that Valtteri Bottas will likely end up at Alfa Romeo. Even if they won’t say it out loud, Red Bull would grab Russell in a heartbeat if they thought he was available, as he is out of contract at Williams. If Mercedes didn’t want him, George would be available… so you can assume that it is only a matter of time until that news breaks. I have been sure of this for several months.
Bottas could, in theory, go back to Williams but it would probably not pay as well as Alfa Romeo and would, in any case, be a step backwards for him, while joining a manufacturer-backed team is enough of a fig leaf to protect Valtteri’s delicate sensibilities, if there are any. That was effectively what Kimi Raikkonen did when Ferrari shunted him out to Alfa Romeo…
So, that leaves the question of what Williams does for a replacement for George and what Alfa Romeo does about its second driver. There is no doubt that Fred Vasseur would like to see Theo Pourchaire in the team, but it is still a bit early for the young Frenchman and so the second seat at Alfa Romeo may need a stop-gap for a year, which would mean that Giovinazzi might not be a bad idea. The team needs to focus on building a good car for 2022 rather than worrying about drivers, because finishing ninth in the Constructors Chmapionship having invested a pile of money is really not awfully impressive. Team owners don’t like such things.
Still the investment will probably work out OK in the end as the budget cap has meant that the teams now have much more value that once they did. More of that in a minute. Let’s finish the drivers first…
Williams is believed to have been talking to Perez (again) about 2022 with the Mexican hedging his bets in case Red Bull decided not to keep him, but now he’s gone, Williams need to think carefully. Latifi is there next year and team boss Jost Capito said that what the team wants is to decide on whether they want experience or potential, but added that the key deciding factor is that the driver will fit with Williams’s long-term thinking. I took this to mean that they want youngsters around which to build a great future.
What is not widely known is that just before the Belgian Grand Prix, Nicholas Latifi had a COVID-19 test that was unclear and while the Canadian had to go through the process of more tests to get the all clear, Williams needed to look into replacing him for Spa.
The word is that the first choice to take the role for the weekend was Alex Albon, currently Red Bull’s reserve driver, who has immediate experience in one of the top F1 teams. With Perez staying there at Red Bull in 2022, the Austrian drinks company has nothing worth for Albon that is worth having, unless they change AlphaTauri, which is not likely. Thus Albon has little reason to stay with Red Bull if there are other options available. This was shown when he turned up at the recent IndyCar race in Indianapolis, where there were rumours that he might take over Romain Grosjean’s drive when the Frenchman moves to Andretti in 2022.
The other point to consider is that Russell will no doubt vouch for his friend Albon if Williams asks who is the best choice for the team. George knows how good Alex is… Nyck de Vries might also be under consideration by Williams but his long-term future would be linked to Mercedes, not to Williams, so Nyck’s not quite what Capito said he was looking for.
If I was making decisions at Williams I don’t think I would sit around waiting for things to happen, and I doubt that Capito is really doing that. Right now, oddly, no-one is talking about the obvious choice for a team looking for a young driver. Oscar Piastri is an Alpine driver but Alpine has nothing to offer him, having just re-signed Alonso. So Piastri, who looks like winning F2 at his first attempt, should be available. Alpine has no customer teams and so cannot incubate the youngster elsewhere and so Oscar’s only choice is to move. Joining Williams as a reserve driver in 2022 with race drive in 2023 and beyond is an obvious deal for all concerned. And in the middle of it all is a bloke called Mark Webber, who knows the right people at Williams and helps to guide Oscar’s career. I don’t gamble on driver movements in F1, but this seems a sensible move. If Piastri wins the F2 title this year he will have won three consecutive junior titles at his first attempt, following his championships in 2019 in the Formula Renault Eurocup and in 2020 in the FIA Formula 3 Championship. That is a better calling card than Charles Leclerc and George Russell had when they broke into F1.
In recent weeks there have been some suggestions that Mick Schumacher could be moving in 2022 to Alfa Romeo. These are not true. Schumacher has done well this year at Haas, better than many expected, but in recent weeks Nikita Mazepin has begun to beat him, as the Russian driver’s confidence has grown, largely due to a change of chassis at Haas. Schumacher has had a long-term deal with Ferrari in recent years and that is currently being renegotiated. I would hazard a guess that this will be announced in Italy next week when Ferrari usually makes announcements. If he does well in 2022 with the Haas team, then Mick could (not would) move up to replace Carlos Sainz Jr in 2023. It’s a big if and Carlos is doing a good job, but that seems the most likely scenario.
Returning to the question of team ownership, we should address the rumours that Michael Andretti wants to buy an F1 team. I want to buy diamonds for my wife but I cannot afford it and so there is not a lot of point in discussing it… However, the Andretti F1 rumours have come because Michael launched a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) called Andretti Acquisition, back in March aiming to raise $250 million on the New York Stock Exchange. Hidden away in the pages of financial prospectus are two things of note: the first is that McLaren’s Zak Brown is listed as a non-executive director of the firm. One might suggest that this could lead to speculation that Andretti might buy into McLaren, as the firm is selling a lot of stuff at the moment. However, a SPAC is not a licence to print money. There are very clear rules, including having to explain what the money is intended to be used for. According to the Andretti Acquisition prospectus the money is intended to fund the firm’s activities in the world of electric mobility. And F1 does not (yet) qualify at electric mobility (thank God).
Elsewhere, the new calendar features a TBC which will be in Qatar. The reason it is a TBC is probably that the Qataris want to make their own announcements about the race, rather than it being revealed in an F1 calendar revamp press release.
Right, that’s it for now. I’m off to Holland tomorrow but right now I’d like to drop in to Tongerlo Abbey, which is just up the road from here, as I have read that it contains a perfect copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which is in a far better conditions than the original. I’m told that they also have a beer there called Tongerlo Abbey.
It’s a little known fact that Le Mans has its own Alps. I’m not kidding. They are called the Alpes Mancelles (pronounced à la Nigel Mansell) and are to be found around 35 miles to the north of the celebrated motor racing city. For those who enjoy linguistics, Mancelles is the plural form of females from Le Mans (the men are known as Manceaux) and for some reason an Alp is a feminine word.
Still, as we passed through a village called Sainte-James (the e on Saint meaning a feminine saint), these things can get quite confusing…
This being the Formula 1 summer break, I spent my time off enjoying pottering about on road trips to visit places I didn’t know and meet up with relatives in various places, which was a pleasure. This was the perfect antidote to Formula 1.
I didn’t fire up the computer more than once in the fortnight and I didn’t read emails to any great extent. Some folks seem to think that the word “holiday” does not apply to journalists and continue to send out things that they want the world to know. They didn’t have much luck with me, I’m afraid. A break is a break. You cannot have half a break…
Given the F1 calendar these days it is absolutely necessary for those who still travel to all the races to use the opportunity wisely, and spending leisure time with family is never a bad idea. And once we get going again next week the plan is to cram 12 races into 15 weekends. And then, as if by magic, it will be Christmas.
At one point I had the idea of going to the unique NASCAR/IndyCar double-header weekend at Indianapolis in mid-August as this would be an unheard opportunity to meet all the big players in the sport in one place at the same time – and consequently to promote US motorsport around the globe. I thought this was a very good idea, which would also allow me to see my long lost son, who could have flown from his home on the West Coast to meet up with his father after two years during which we have only seen one another electronically.
At the moment the US has a policy of not allowing many people in on the basis that they don’t need any more COVID-19 than they already have, although they seem happy enough to ship out their nationals to be tourists elsewhere. In order to get through Homeland Security one needs to be vaccinated, have a suitable and valid visa, and have something called an NIE (a National Interest Exemption) which means that you have to show that your presence in the US is absolutely essential for the future of the nation. Apparently being a racing driver qualifies as a good reason, but being someone who promotes racing globally does not.
Anyway no-one managed to reply to my application, which was made weeks in advance, until the day after the event was finished. I hope that they will get themselves sorted out a bit more by the time we have the United States Grand Prix in the autumn. In any case, I wrote not one word about Indianapolis as a result and went to Macau instead.
Now you may think that this is strange given that the FIA has recently called off all its events at the Macau GP because of a 21-day quarantine that the locals insist upon, and you’d be entirely right, except that there is another Macau you might not have heard about, which is to be found in the Médoc, where the big thing is wine, rather than racing cars. It’s true that one of the most famous wine-making establishments in the region (one cannot call it a winery) is Château Mouton Rothschild, which is just up the road from Macau. This has been very famous for a very long time but it is a global icon largely thanks to Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who was a pretty impressive fellow in lots of respects, including being a rather good Grand Prix driver, using the pseudonym “Georges Philippe”. If you ask Professor Google you will discover that “Georges Philippe” finished fourth at Monaco in 1929 and scored some other notable results before his family found out what he was doing and pressured him into doing something a bit more sensible and so he went back to being a vigneron, became a film producer, a screenwriter and a yachtsman as well. Sadly, the old fellow died in 1988 and so I never had the chance to meet him, although there is a splendid book about his life called “Milady Vine”, which was written by his companion in later years, the celebrated theatre producer Joan Littlewood.
I would drink his wine every day if I could afford it…
Macau is close to Chateau Margaux, which for some reason always reminds me of Margot Laffite, the multi-talented daughter of F1 driver Jacques Laffite, who races herself while also being one of the presenters of the Canal+ French coverage of Formula 1. Sadly, for her, she is not related to Château Lafite Rothschild, which is one of Mouton’s biggest rivals and neighbours – but is owned by a different branch of the Rothschild family.
Anyway, this explains, in a round about way, how it was that I found myself heading up to Le Mans on the day of the 24 hours, having realised only the day before that my return trip would coincide with the race, and that the route would take me past Le Mans. It seemed a strange thing for a motor racing journalist to be driving past one of the biggest motor racing events of the year… with no intention to get involved.
There was a time when having a permanent FIA Formula 1 pass allowed one access to any big event without question but I had heard from colleagues in the period before the summer break that the Automobile Club de l’Ouest was not being very helpful with passes (nothing new there, then) and so the idea of going to Le Mans was soon forgotten.
But when I found myself on the old Route Nationale 23, renumbered by some bureaucrat with no understanding of romance, heading in the vague direction of Le Mans, passing through places with vast chateaux and pretty rivers with evocative names like Seiches-sur-Le-Loir, Huillé-Lézigné and Durtal, the great conductor in the sky waved his baton in the vague direction of the string section of my heart and there was a scramble to hit the right notes to create harmonious sounds. This happens now and then when I find myself thinking about experiences I have had in that wonderful and wistful foreign country known as the past, where things were done differently. These intangible and unreliable memories are of places where one recalls the good times and forgets the painful bits.
Normally one would whizz up the motorway and around Le Mans on its ring road but this being a Saturday in August this was not a good idea because the race coincided with a day on which millions of Parisians were turfed out of their holiday rentals and headed grumpily home, converging on the capital from all directions to return to normal life.
For a brief period I remembered previous visits to the Le Mans 24 Hours, a race which I reported on several (three or four) times in the 1980s, They were nostalgic thoughts of what a fine old time it was, commentating with the very first Radio Le Mans and other such things. The race is not usually in August and so it has never been on the radar since those days when Saubers were looping loops on the Mulsanne and Rothmans were sponsoring Porsches. Even if there was a vague longing to return, the idea of watching a Toyota procession was not that interesting a thought and so I turned my attention to finding a way of avoiding the inevitable traffic jams ahead and so found myself going cross country from Angers to Alencon, initially on the old RN23 and then on smaller roads to Sablé-sur-Sarthe and Sillé-le-Guillaume, which is how I stumbled upon the Alpes of Le Mans….
The F1 world’s news (worth reporting) over the break consisted of Renault having parted company with the head of its motorsport engine division, the F1 financial results for the second quarter (which were not bad), the cancellation of the Japanese GP and the sale of another part of the McLaren empire, with some of the money raised being used to gain control of the Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team. Other stories include Mercedes’s withdrawal from Formula E being announced, a messy murder story involving the CEO of Spa Francorchamps, George Russell doing a tyre test for Mercedes and Alfa Romeo running a 2019 car for the promising Theo Pourchaire and unpromising Mahaveer Raghunathan. Dan Ticktum’s topsy-turvy career continued with the news that his role as Williams test driver had been terminated with speculation that this related to remarks he made during a online gaming session about Williams race driver Nicholas Latifi. The other points of interest were an announcement in Brazil the governor of Sao Paulo has requested a change of date for the Sao Paulo GP from November 7 to November 14. This opened the way for a double-header in Austin, while also making it possible to have an end-of-season triple-header with Qatar joining Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. It’s still all being sorted out as nothing is simple when it comes to international travel at the moment.
The Formula 1 group did however indicate that it hopes to produce a calendar (for next year) some time in September with the revelation that the new race in Miami will take place in May. This was an odd thing which suggested that F1 is planning to have three distinct trips to the Americas in 2022. That does not make sense in the short term but once the teams have done it once, they won’t complain in the future and so there is the potential to add double-headers in place of single events, which could open the way for two more US events: one twinned with Miami in the spring, and another with Canada a few weeks later. The race in Austin is already twinned with Mexico. So for me this looks like the US expansion plans are beginning to heat up – and that we should watch out for activity in Las Vegas (in particular).
This week we’re off on the marathon that will take uo to Spa, Zandvoort and Monza on consecutive weekends…
Sunday was one of those lovely happy days that Formula 1 has from time to time when almost everyone is happy to see a new and (sometimes) unlikely winner. We had that in 2017 in Sochi when Valtteri Bottas won his first victory and then in 2019 with Charles Leclerc. Last year we were spoiled with Pierre Gasly and Sergio Perez and, oh so very nearly, George Russell.
I was delighted with Esteban Ocon’s win for a number of reasons. Firstly, he’s always been a good bloke and F1 has not changed him at all. Secondly, he’s not had an easy path in his career. And thirdly, as readers may know I live in Normandy and so my two “local” F1 drivers are Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon. It is also where Alpine was first established (in Dieppe). Regulars will know that I love to find out the intricacies of racing history and Alpine is a great story.
The firm was founded by Jean Rédélé in the late 1940s. He converted Renault 4CVs into rally cars for his own benefit initially and then expanded to sell the cars to customers and to produce road car models. What few people know is that the links to Renault are even stronger than that because Jean’s father Emile was one of the very first Renault employees at Boulogne-Billancourt, and he was Ferenc Szisz’s mechanic in the very first Grand Prix de l’ACF at Le Mans in 1906. Emile decided to start a taxi business in Dieppe after World War I and Louis Renault himself asked him to become a Renault dealer.
Now a Dane will tell you that Normans are all descended from the Vikings (as the name North Man suggests) and if you go back 13 centuries you can discover that yes, it is true. The Vikings were pretty good at rape and pillage and they not only burned down Rouen but also beseiged Paris on a couple of occasions. In the end the first Duke of Normandy was Rollo, a Viking raider. William the Conqueror was a descendant.
If you happen to be driving down the A13 motorway near Rouen, you may see a large metal monument with a globe and arrows going in different directions. You can find it as you pass Sotteville-sous-le-Val. This was erected in 1990 and was by the sculptor Georges Saulterre. It is called “Sur les traces des Vikings” (which translates as “In the footsteps of the Vikings”).
At the bottom of the hill you might also see a kart track next to the motorway. It is called the Circuit de l’Europe and it is significant because this was where Pierre and Esteban first began competing. When they were nine they were best buddies.
Now, the two are both Grand Prix winners and this caused French TV commentator Julien Fébreau to get VERY excited. He’s already famous for going completely crazy when Gasly won at Monza last year and as Ocon crossed the line in Budapest Fébreau was screaming again. There’s nothing like enthusiasm – and he has it by the bucketload.
The naysayers of social media always find fault in everything and say that it was all down to luck, or whatever. But it has to be said that Esteban drove a stunning race, free from error and under intense pressure all the way from Sebastian Vettel, a four-time World Champion. It was a day when it was easier to get things wrong than to get things right and Ocon got it all right. If you listen to what other drivers said you will see that Ocon is a popular fellow, with Vettel, Hamilton and Alonso all singing his praises. He has made it to F1 from very humble beginnings and has been completely unchanged by the experience.
It is a great story if you don’t know it already. Esteban’s parents moved to France in the 1980s, when they were in their late teens. His father was Spanish and his mother of Algerian descent and they settled in Evreux, in Normandy, where his dad worked as a mechanic and built up a small garage business. Esteban is named after a cartoon character that his mother loved from a TV series called “Esteban, Child of the Sun” in the original Japanese version but “Les Mystérieuses Cités d’Or” (The Mysterious Cities of Gold) when dubbed in French. Esteban went to search of lost cities in the New World…
The Ocons stumbled into racing by accident when Esteban was a very small boy. He loved driving microkarts and it quickly became obvious that he was very good.
They bought a kart from a family who lived 40 miles away in Rouen. Their name was Gasly. The kart had belonged to Pierre’s brother. So Pierre and Esteban would meet on Wednesdays and at weekends, when there was no school, and they would hammer around the Circuit de l’Europe.
As they grew up things became more serious and the Ocons literally sold everything to give Esteban a chance. They won a lot with little money, but they lived in a caravan and they got their tyres by picking up what bigger teams had thrown away.
In 2009, when Esteban was 12, he was spotted by an aspiring racing entrepreneur with the unusual name of Gwen Lagrue, who was pals with the new Lotus F1 team principal Eric Boullier. Eric was beginning to build a stable of young drivers under the Gravity Management banner and so they took on Ocon and found some money to help him, but in the KF3 World Cup in Braga in 2010 Pierre and Esteban had a crash that ended their friendship. Pierre became best mates with another youngster called Charles Leclerc…
With money from Lotus things were fine and in 2013 Ocon was hooked up with ART to race in Formula Renault. The following year he switched to Prema Racing in Formula 3 and won the title first time out. But then things went wrong. Lotus was running out of money and Boullier moved to McLaren. Suddenly there was no budget for Ocon to move up to GP3.
Fred Vasseur came to his rescue at this point, although it was not perhaps as altruistic as that sounds because ART didn’t have a driver capable of fighting for the GP3 title. The car carried almost no sponsorship but Ocon won the title at his first attempt. This led to him becoming a Mercedes driver. To understand that one needs to know about Vasseur and Toto Wolff. They may be rival team principals these days (although it is a bit of a one-sided contest) but they go back 15 years, to when Wolff first bought a stake in AMG, which was supplying Mercedes Formula 3 engines to Vasseur’s ASM.
The two men hit it off, sharing a passion for winning races and making money. They enjoyed huge success in Formula 3 with the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Paul di Resta and then after the team became ART with Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg and Jules Bianchi. Wolff was also part of the management of Valtteri Bottas when the Finn raced for ART in 2009 and won the GP3 title for Vasseur in 2010. By then Wolff had bought into Williams and Bottas became reserve driver. Later ART would also run a team in DTM for Mercedes. If you dig deep enough you find that when Wolff got married in 2011 one of his witnesses was a certain F Vasseur. And the pair also ended up using the same apartment in Oxford for a while when Toto was running Mercedes and Vasseur was at Enstone. The pair are close and one might perhaps ask whether this will end up being part of why Bottas will likely end up at Alfa Romeo in 2022.
The story of Alfa Romeo in Budapest was at best a total disaster. There were penalties aplenty and Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi ended up 11th and 14th on a day when points were up for grabs in the most dramatic fashion. The opportunity was completely lost. But it actually got worse as night fell because Sebastian Vettel’s disqualification meant that while Raikkonen picked up a point for 10th, the team’s situation dived because the two Williams drivers moved from eighth and ninth to seventh and eighth and the team doubled its points from five to 10. This means that Alfa Romeo will need to score eight points (at least) in the rest of the year to be eighth in the Constructors’ Championship (the usual position). Given that they have managed just three points in the first 11 races that is going to be a real cliff to climb in the second 11. And if the team ends up ninth, the prize money will be significantly reduced, despite the investment and expansion that Hinwil has seen in the last few years. It is clearly something that is frustrating Raikkonen, as after the British Grand Prix when his engineer suggested he could have been 10th without a collision with Sergio Perez, Kimi replied: “Maybe, or maybe we need to make the car fast, it’s simple. It’s impossible to fight against them. Same this. Same that. And try to fight with the other cars. Come on, we’ve got to wake up and do something.”
In theory, Alfa Romeo has both seats open next year but there are multiple repliable sources saying that Bottas is close to signing a deal. That means Raikkonen won’t be staying. Giovinazzi is the only Italian driver in F1 and dumping him would be troublesome for Alfa Romeo, particularly as he has not done a bad job. But Alfa Romeo no longer has the right to nominate a driver. Ferrari doesn’t either, but it would be wise for the Swiss team to stay sweet with its engine supplier, which appears to be getting much closer to Haas these days. Still, there is a Ferrari deal in place for some years to come.
Having said that, in F1 a contract is always something that can be negotiated away. A switch to Renault power is an option in the longer term, which Renault would like as it is lining up good youngsters and has nowhere to put them.
In the short-term, it would probably help if Alfa Romeo went with a Ferrari youngster: Giovinazzi is one, so are reserve driver Callum Ilott and Russia’s Robert Shwartzman, the last-named being highly-regarded at Maranello.
Vasseur may well argue that the team should take a risk and go for something a little different. Theo Pourchaire has almost got enough points to get a superlicence – and he’s testing an Alfa Romeo this week. He turns 18, the minimum age for a superlicence these days, on August 20.
He’s not really ready for F1 yet, but seats are few and far between and so the team might think that Pourchaire is a risk worth taking. If you see the impact that running Charles Leclerc had on the team a few years back, it might be an option to galvanise the staff. And it might help Renault get Pourchaire into its stable, which would be an incentive for a big French firm. The driver decision is due at Monza, after the summer break.
But, in the short term, a fast car is really what is required…
The other team with a seat that’s really available (as opposed to being available in theory, like the second Red Bull, the second Mercedes and so on) is Williams. Nicholas Latifi has a contract for next year and so the opportunities for others are rather limited. The team says it doesn’t yet know if George Russell is leaving, but there are a lot of people trying hard to get the team’s attention. One man who was much in evidence in the paddock in Budapest was Nyck de Vries, the Mercedes Formula E driver and an F1 reserve. He is keen to find a ride in a Mercedes-engined team and is being talked about as a possible Williams driver, but he was also to be found chatting in a serious fashion with Aston Martin types in Hungary. One man who we know won’t be at Williams next year is Dan Ticktum, who has been released from his contract in recent days. Don’t hold out any hopes for Roy Nissany, Jack Aitken (who broke his collarbone and fractured some vertebrae in a big shunt in the Spa 24 Hours last weekend) or Jamie Chadwick.
I did hear a whisper that there might be some major excitements at Aston Martin over the summer break, but I do not know any more – although the source was good. I wouldn’t mention it otherwise…
Anyway, that is the main action noted in the green book from Budapest, with a few nuggets added.
On Sunday evening French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted congratulations to Ocon, having learned after Gasly’s win in Monza last year that trying to contact a race winner in F1 by mobile is really a waste of time. Macron was delighted that Ocon and Alpine had both become winners. The French government, by the way, still owns a significant share in Renault.
Politicians love F1 when things go right for them, but getting more involved is never a great idea. And vice-versa. After Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel protested about new laws being proposed in Hungary, the country’s Minister of Justice Judit Varga was obviously not impressed.
“I have seen that sadly Lewis Hamilton is joining the manufacturers of international fake news by attacking our child protection law,” she said. A shoe-maker should stick to making shoes – and a F1 driver should stick to driving.”
Varga says that the law is being introduced to prevent child abuse and to stop LGBT indoctrination.
“I suggest that Lewis Hamilton read the Hungarian Child Protection Act,” she added.
One hopes that he and Sebastian already have.
The sport has enough politics of its own without getting involved with real world controversies, which inevitably end up with this kind of response from politicians. One can only wonder what F1 teams and drivers would say if a government minister suggested set-up changes that might be made to make cars go faster…
When it comes to F1’s politics, the FIA President Jean Todt recently suggested that there might be more candidates in the presidential election that is due later this year.
“The closing date is sometime in October,” he told media at the French Grand Prix, “so there is still time.”
This was perplexing because the system is such that it is very difficult to find the necessary representatives required to create an election “ticket” because of the requirement to have people from different regions and from both touring and sport clubs. Todt knows that this is the case and so the suggestion that there might be another candidate was interesting because that would require one or other of the contenders to withdraw. It is no secret that in some FIA circles the choice on offer is not generating much excitement, but is there enough to create an earthquake?
Much news these days is about the calendar – not 2022, but 2021. It is a complete nightmare as F1 tries to find another 12 races that will fit together with one another, with the complex (and changing) government restrictions, with red lists and quarantine requirements. It is fairly pointless speculating at the moment because nothing can be decided before August 10 when there will be a decision about Japan, after the Olympic Games is over. After that, dominoes will start to fall. I could go into complex speculation about all of this but I see no point. I do expect to see a race in Qatar this year and I would suggest that the most likely date is November 21 because when there are new races on the F1 calendar there are generally free weekends before and afterwards to make sure that there are no problems with customs authorities and so on. What I do hear, however, is that with Qatar paying a LOT of money, F1 might not need to have 23 races to hit its financial goals.
It is also worth noting that Circuit of the Americas (COTA) promoter Bobby Epstein was in Hungary on his second visit to a European race in recent months. Epstein is negotiating a new long-term deal for COTA – and discussing whether or not there could be a second Formula 1 race this year, with the United States Grand Prix, scheduled for October 24. The suggestion is that there could be a second Grand Prix of the Americas on October 17, but that could only happen if the Japanese Grand Prix drops off the F1 schedule.
But that would also create problems for the Turkish Grand Prix as the country is on Britain’s Red List which would mean another race in a non-red list country would be needed afterwards to avoid all the British-based F1 personnel being put into expensive government-regulated hotels for 10 days on their return to the UK. No-one is going to agree to do that… although one might suppose that to avoid such a thing staff could be given paid holidays in low-risk places… No, you’re right, that’s not very likely, is it?
And would it be included in the budget cap?
I drove for a day and a half to get home from Budapest, which gave me plenty of time to consider the options. I reached no conclusions because it is impossible to do so. One can only come up with possible outcomes: Plans A to Z. And you need always to think about the weather as well.
The recent weeks have been awful in Europe, with constant rain and devastating flooding in places. The run from Budapest, heading home to France, was pretty nice until I got to the Rhine. I crossed the river near Speyer and rain began to fall as I climbed up the hill to go through the Pfälzerwald, the forested area between the Rhineland and the French border at Saarbrucken, where the US military has a big presence. It’s a pretty bleak area on a wet day. It was not a fun moment because there are always dangerous idiots who are driving without lights in the spray, or others who think that it is logical to be going 60km/h in the fast lane in such conditions. When it comes to road safety, the world still has a lot to do.
As the rains began to fall, the German radio station I was listening to decided to play “Love is all around”, by Wet Wet Wet, which seemed entirely appropriate. German radio stations love to play 1980s hits endlessly and so I drove through the October weather listening to the likes of Tina Turner, Supertramp and James Taylor, with the occasional local hit, although most of these sound like the awful British football team singalongs that used to be produced before big matches.
The rain continued right through to the French border at a place they call Goldene Bremme, named after a tavern on the old road.
I didn’t see blue skies until I reached the Argonne Forest, a scenic spot to the west of Verdun. Once this was famed for its highwaymen and later for violent battles during World War I.
And, of course, there was a racing circuit there too. But that’s another story…
The FIA Stewards have rejected Red Bull’s application to review the Silverstone stewards’ decision, on the basis that : the evidence presented to the Stewards was not “a significant and relevant new element [that was] discovered which was unavailable to the parties seeking the review at the time of the decision concerned”.
The word in the Middle East is that a deal has been struck for a Formula 1 race in the final part of this season at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar. The news is yet to be officially confirmed.
The race would be an addition to the calendar to replace Australia, for financial reasons rather than to help F1 get around quarantine problems. At the moment Qatar and the UAE (Abu Dhabi) are both on Britain’s red list. Saudi Arabia is not.
This means that the best course of action would be to have the Jeddah race as the last event, so that the majority of the 10 days after leaving a red list country would be spent in Saudi Arabia, which is on the amber list.
This would not be important if the World Championship is settled before the last race, but Abu Dhabi is believed to pay a premium to host the final event. Having the three races back to back on Nov 28/Dec 5/Dec 12 would guarantee three high-paying races, without quarantine problems if F1 people stayed on for a couple of extra days after the last event.
F1 must wait to see if the British shift some countries from red to amber next week when revisions are due. This is also important with regard to the Brazilian and Turkish GPs, as both are still on the red list. However if both have a race in a non-red list country a week afterwards, the quarantine requirement can be largely avoided. At the moment Japan is scheduled after Turkey but we don’t yet have any event that fits the bill for Brazil.
With Qatar, however, F1 would get the 23 races it wants.
Qatar has long had ambitions to host a Grand Prix, but Bahrain and Abu Dhabi have monopolised the Middle Eastern dates on the F1 calendar. The arrival this year of regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia seems to have changed the landscape somewhat, and the inclusion of Qatar is particularly interesting given the problems in recent years between the country and its Gulf neighbours, which led to diplomatic relations being severed in 2017. A settlement was reached to normalise the situation only in January this year.
Qatar has been hosting MotoGP races since 2004 and held the first MotoGP night race in 2008, but its biggest sporting coup was winning the FIFA World Cup soccer competition back in 2010. The World Cup will take place at the end of 2022 despite claims that the process was conducted in a corrupt fashion. These claims and legal actions pertaining to them continue, but it looks like the tournament will go ahead as planned. Qatar will be the first Arab nation to host the World Cup.
It is not unusual for countries to turn to F1 after other big events such as the Olympics and the World Cup, in order to maintain their international profile, with Barcelona and Sochi being good examples of this concept. Thus it is quite likely that a 2021 race could be a precursor for a bid for a permanent place on the F1 calendar, which might explain Qatar’s sudden willingness to join the party.
This would suit F1 as it seeks to boost the number of World Championship races each year – and the annual revenues of the sport. It could also help other Middle Eastern races as it might boost interest in F1 in the region and generate more spectators at each event, although none of them currently requires ticket sales to pay the race fees.
The Dutch government has decided to ban large-scale festivals in August because of an increase in case numbers a result of the COVID pandemic and specifically of the Delta variant, which is causing trouble across much of Europe. The government says a decision about the Dutch Grand Prix in Zandvoort, scheduled for September, will be made on August 13. If the track is not allowed a full crowd the race will be cancelled as it cannot have a financially viable event.