A new sponsor for Aston

Aston Martin is about to name SentinelOne as its Official Cyber Security Partner. This is not overly exciting except that it shows that US tech firms are willing to invest in the sport more than ever before. The news follows the announcement of Cognizant as the team’s title sponsor. Sentinel is valued at around $3 billion.

Planning for the summer

It is interesting to note that in the last few days the word has leaked out that construction work will begin on the Monaco street circuit at the start of next week. The work involved is considerable with vast amounts of steel barriers and wreckage fencing, in addition to grandstands, the pit buildings and the race control building. It costs a lot of money to do.

The fact that Monaco has decided to go ahead suggests that the government is willing to risk losing the money if there is a third wave of COVID infections. The construction work normally takes seven weeks, while the Grand Prix itself is not scheduled until May 23, which is three months away, but the work is starting early so that the track can go ahead with a planned historic GP on April 25 and with a Formula E race on May 8. Most of the people required to do the constuction work will come from Monaco, France or Italy. Officially Monaco has had only 1,835 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, with just 22 deaths, but this is only amongst the 39,000 actual residents. There are around 48,000 people who travel in and out of the Principality every day to work. This number may have reduced with the French lockdowns and remote working, but a few hundred construction workers will not make much difference. Hopefully, this will mean that the race can go ahead, although as Monaco is completely surrounded by France, there is also a risk that new French rules might disrupt the event.

France has also decided that despite the continuing pandemic events will be allowed this summer, although attendance will be capped at 5,000 people and all those spectating must be seated. The rules apply to both indoor and outdoor activities. At the moment France has a curfew between 6pm and 6am and all restaurants, bars, museums, theatres and concert halls are still closed and all gatherings are limited to 1,000 people. The Ministry of Culture says that if the health crisis gets worse again, the cap on crowds and other safety rules might need to be changed. The government says that it has a €30 million fund to compensate events which are forced to cancel or change their plans.

It remains to be seen where this leaves the French GP, which is scheduled for June 27 at Paul Ricard, but if there is a cap of 5,000 spectators the funding is going to need to be looked at again to see if the event can be viable.

A big deal for Ferrari

Ferrari has just announced that its longtime partnership with Shell will continue. It is a relationship that dates back to 1996, although Ferrari likes to say that it all started back in the 1920s, although such commercial relationships didn’t really exist at that time. Shell did provide products to Ferrari from 1951 to 1973 but then Agip took over for 21 years, while Shell went off to become a very successful sponsor with McLaren, during its glory years in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Ferrari and Shell say that the renewed relationship will “focus on sustainability and technology transfer, from track to road”.

“We are delighted that our collaboration is now set to go on even longer,” said Mattia Binotto. “We share many common values, not least excellence, passion for racing and teamwork, which have made this partnership unique in the history of motor sport. As our Innovation Partner we will continue to work with Shell on the transfer of racing technology to mobility as well as the ambitious challenges that lie ahead in particular the aim of Formula 1 to reach a net-zero emissions level by 2030.”

Shell, which pays rather more than the signage suggests, buying such things as proximity to the Ferrari logo, is keen to keep the relationship going.

“Our partnership with Ferrari has bred truly remarkable innovations – innovations that Shell regularly relies upon when developing new fuels and lubricants for our customers,” says István Kapitány, Shell’s Global Executive Vice President for Mobility. “We’re now entering a very exciting time in our history together as we leverage this partnership to not only strive for success on the track, but also to develop cleaner fuels and lubricants for our customers.”

One of the many side-effects of this partnership was that at one point – about 20 years ago – Shell overtook Mattel to become the world’s biggest manufacturer of toy cars, having sold an astonishing 25 million Ferrari models through its 48,000 forecourt shops around the world. I am sure that these promotions are still successful but whether they are still at that level, I don’t know.

The Shell announcement, however, leads to a slightly-related question: Has Ferrari renewed yet with Philip Morris? This is a relationship that began in the 1970s and led in 1997 to Marlboro becoming the team’s title partner. The last Ferrari-Philip Morris renewal was a three year deal covering 2019-2021, which was announced early in 2018. This followed a prior three-year deal that covered 2016-2018 although this was a reduction from the usual five-year deals that existed previously, the last being from 2011-2015.

Usually such contracts are finalised a long way in advance and, following this logic, a new 2022-2024 deal ought to have been announced by now. It is possible that there is a deal in place and that they haven’t announced it, to avoid the usual controversy over tobacco sponsorship, but the recent Ferrari tests at Fiorano, using a 2018 car, did not feature the names of sponsors who have since departed the team: thus there was no sign of Hublot, Mahle, Singha and Lenovo, all of which were on the car in that era. The main point of interest (for me) was that the cars ran without any branding from Mission Winnow, which first appeared in 2018. This livery was seen at various races in 2019 but was not used in 2020 races, although the cars were seen sporting them at the launch and during the pre-season testing.

I am not saying that Philip Morris is giving up on its Ferrari sponsorship -it’s really too good a deal to give up – but it is odd that we have heard nothing as yet. The tobacco firm recently got a new CEO when Jacek Olczak, the COO, moved up. The transition was not expected to change anything as the company continues to move to what it calls “reduced-risk products”. Olczak says that he and André Calantzopoulos, the former CEO who has moved up to become chairman, have worked together on this strategy for years, with the vision being to leave cigarettes behind and concentrate on the new products. The primary one is the IQOS heated tobacco system and the firm has done a few minor sponsorships with it, such as the IQOS World exhibition during Milan Design Week in 2019.

The question of whether IQOS should be allowed to advertise came up during the pandemic, when the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the marketing of IQOS in the US, which caused the World Health Organisation (WHO) to object, arguing that it was still a tobacco product and all WHO members had agreed, years ago, not to allow any kind of tobacco marketing. That was, of cours, at a time when former president Donald Trump was making plans for the US to quit WHO. This was one of the first things that President Joe Biden reversed when he took office and one assumes that in the fullness of time the FDA will change its mind.

Let’s see if we hear anything from Philip Morris, but a sponsorship renewal seems overdue…

Naming conventions… and ducks

It is a quiet day in the forest, a very agreeable place to be when one is not at a noisy racing circuit. The marshes are still and the pond is doing a good impersonation of being a mirror. Even the coypu are staying in their underground nests and not splashing about and the egrets are off doing whatever it is that egrets do at this time of year. The mallards – over here they are called colverts – are off dabbling as dabbling ducks do. The weather is getting warmer (perhaps) but this may be a micro-climate caused by the first F1 car launches.

These affairs are very bad for global warming as they release a huge amount of hot air into the atmosphere, as all of those involved spout forth about their hopes and ambitions, no-one really having the faintest clue whether the cars will be better or worse than last year. Car launches are warm and pleasant events, but one should never believe a word spoken, as it is all just bla-bla-bla. The cold hard truth will arrive if not in the testing in Bahrain, then in the first three races, wherever they may be – and whenever they may be.

I spoke to Stefano Domenicali last week and he was very keen to say that F1 will be doing everything possible to keep to the schedule announced, but admits that there needs to be some flexibility if the dates have to change. There was a certain amount of irony about the conversation as he was sitting in Italy because it has not been possible in the five weeks he has had the job to get to London and set up shop there. But Stefano is one of the good guys and his enthusiasm for the sport is unbounded. He is excited about his new job, a little surprised at having been offered it, but delighted to be back in the business in which, as he put it, he was “born”.

I’ve known him for more years than I care to remember, going back to the days when he was not the big banana at Maranello and our paths would cross in F1 paddocks around the world. I’m a big fan of the way he does business. It’s so refreshing compared to some of the folk who have gone before him in the F1 world. There are still a few sharks and charlatans, and a number of snake oil salesmen (best not to name names), but with the corporate age, such behaviour has had to improve. This means that the level of mumbo jumbo has risen, as it tends to do whenever corporations are involved in anything, but people tend to be a little better behaved.

Well, in most cases…

One of the side-effects of the corporate squaddies marching into the F1 trenches is that the purity of race names is quietly going to pieces. Formula 1 was always good at maintaining standards. They do not change car liveries every other day (like NASCAR does). I suppose that if a NASCAR fan can remember the number of his hero he can just about follow the action, even if one day the car is green, the next pink. The sponsors rotate in and out and so unless you know that 24 is William Byron (no relation to the poet) and that #48 is Alex Bowman, it doesn’t make that much sense. I haven’t done the homework but there are almost no full-season sponsors left, with the possible exception of FedEx (Denny Hamlyn). I thought that Joey Logano might be as well, with his big Shell/Pennzoil deal, but sometimes his car appears in AAA colours, sometimes with AutoTrader backing and occasionally with PPG as his primary sponsor.

But it is when one gets to the names of the races that the Americans go further over the top than Kim Kardashian West (Is there a Kim Kardashian East?). No-one is ever going to use the full name of races such as the “Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard, powered by Florida Georgia Line” or “Go Bowling at the Glen” and this nasty practice has been transferred to Australia where the Bathurst 1000 has had to go by the shameful name of the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 for some years, although thankfully that deal has now ended.

Marketing folk may refer to the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, but normal human beings will call the race “The Indy 500”, although the sponsors do sometimes complain that no-one is taking them seriously.

Formula 1 has avoided making such things overly-complicated, allowing title sponsorships, but trying to avoid the names of title and “presenting” sponsors. The policy has always been to have a race that is a national event, the British Grand Prix, for example. With that you knew where you stood. If it was the Shell Oils British Grand Prix that was fine, but it was not “presented by Burger King” or “powered by Tacky Tyres”. F1 was about high-rolling big corporate names. It was part of the image of the sport. 

Last year with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an urgent need for a few different names at events because they were either at the same circuit or in the same country as other races and one could not really have the Italian Grand Prix I, II and III. There was a time when the United States had a United States GP and a United States (West) GP and there were a few oddities along the way such as the Pescara Grand Prix and the Swiss GP being held at Dijon, but the only really commercial race title was the Caesars Palace (no apostrophe) GP in Las Vegas, a title that was allowed because Bernie Ecclestone was keen to get more F1 action in America and was rather partial to the green ink used in printing dollar bills.

So last year the sanctity of F1 naming conventions changed and we had the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone and events in Styria, Tuscany, Emilio Romagna, Eifel and Sakhir. Needs must.

But this year it is rather alarming to see that rather than a Brazilian GP or a Mexican GP, we will (in theory) have a Grand Prix of Sao Paulo and a Grand Prix of Mexico City. Does it matter? These are the people paying for the races and so why would the countries get a free ride? That is a fair point, but I cannot help but think that this undermines the gravitas that F1 races have always enjoyed.  And I have heard that the race in Imola is planning to be called the Made in Italy and Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix. I do hope this is not the case but I can already hear some F1 folk spouting on about “my Kicker Shoes Benetton-Maserati being awesome today in the Made in Italy and Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix, presented by Jelly Babies”.

Yes, I do understand that the Italian government agency ITC has kicked in some cash to promote its “Made in Italy” campaigns, but I see it as being the start of a long slippery slope towards the Kangaroo Meat Dog Food Grand Prix of Australia and other such aberrations…

Commercialism and professionalism are two very different things, and I’d hate to see F1 forgetting that in pursuit of the required greenbacks.

The new McLaren MCL35M

McLaren Racing has given a first glimpse of the McLaren MCL35M, the team’s 2021 race car. The MCL35M is an evolution of the 2020 contender, the MCL35, and benefits from aerodynamic and chassis developments by the team throughout the winter. Alongside these developments comes the introduction of a new power unit, supplied by Mercedes-AMG. The Mercedes-AMG M12 E Performance was integrated into the design of the MCL35M by McLaren with the support of Mercedes High Performance Powertrains and represents one of several key changes to the car as part of its evolution into the MCL35M.

“We’re thrilled to launch our 2021 team with Lando and Daniel, as we prepare to get the Formula 1 season started,” said team boss Zak Brown. “We’ve got an incredibly exciting driver line-up this year, both are formidable racers on-track and great characters off-track. Lando is a naturally fast and intelligent racer on an exciting trajectory, while Daniel is a multiple grand prix winner with a sharp racer’s edge and exceptional talent. After a challenging but rewarding 2020, we have firmly hit the reset button for this season as we continue on our path towards the front of the grid. This will be an even tougher season but we’re ready to meet the challenge.

“We head into this season with an incredible group of committed and valuable partners at our side, who are such a vital part of our team. 2020 represented a significant challenge, not just for McLaren Racing but also many of our partners, so to have maintained their support is a testament to the quality of our partners and the relationships we have formed on our journey together.”

The Technical Director James Key says that the car is quite different to the 2020 car.

“Despite relatively stable technical regulations from 2020, there are several significant aerodynamic changes to the rules that are important to get right,” he explains. “Every change to these regulations presents an opportunity, and the team in Woking has been working incredibly hard in difficult conditions to maximise those opportunities. One of the key elements of the MCL35M design is the integration of the Mercedes-AMG power unit, which has taken a considerable effort from the team in Woking, as well as our colleagues at Mercedes. Despite our limited scope for installation in a homologated car, the team has done a fantastic job of optimising our design work.

“Building a Formula 1 car is never easy. These are the fastest and most technically complex racing cars in the world and that challenge has only been compounded by the covid-19 pandemic. Over the past year, the team in the factory has been subject to incredibly strict, rigorous testing and working procedures aimed at keeping our people safe. I’m immensely proud of how our incredible group of people has risen to this challenge and developed the best possible package.”

Red Bull announces engine company

Following Honda’s decision to exit Formula One as a power unit manufacturer at the end of the 2021 season, Red Bull has reached an agreement with Honda Motor Co Ltd to use Honda F1 power unit technology from the beginning of the 2022 season.

This follows the FIA’s introduction of a Formula 1 power unit development freeze that takes effect from the beginning of the 2022 season. The Red Bull/Honda agreement covers the duration of the development freeze, enabling the use of Honda power unit technology in both Red Bull Racing and, sister team, Scuderia AlphaTauri’s cars until the next generation engines are introduced in 2025.

In order to run the project, a new company named Red Bull Powertrains Limited has been formed. This new division will be housed and operated from Red Bull Racing’s F1 Team base on the Red Bull Technology Campus in Milton Keynes.

“We have been discussing this topic with Honda for some time and following the FIA’s decision to freeze power unit development from 2022, we could at last reach an agreement regarding the continued use of Honda’s hybrid power units,” said Red Bull Motorsport Advisor, Dr Helmut Marko. “We are grateful for Honda’s collaboration in this regard and for helping to ensure that both Red Bull Racing and Scuderia AlphaTauri continue to have competitive power units. The establishment of Red Bull Powertrains Limited is a bold move by Red Bull but it is one we have made after careful and detailed consideration. We are aware of the huge commitment required but we believe the creation of this new company is the most competitive option for both teams.”

More on Alonso

The Alpine F1 team reports that Fernando Alonso has undergone a corrective operation to repair a fracture in his upper jaw. This has been successful and he will stay in hospital for a while under observation. The upper jaw is known as the maxilla and holds the upper teeth and shapes the middle of the face and supports the nose.

The doctors are satisfied with his progress. Alonso should be able to resume training in a few days and the team expects him be fully operational to undertake preparation for the season.

One presumes that somewhere along the way any missing or damaged teeth will also have to be repaired or replaced.

Decisions and proposals

So we have heard a little more today about what the F1 Commission has been discussing. It is the first time this new body has met and as a result it is a bit new for everyone. January 1 2021 marked the start of the new commercial agreements and with them came a new regulatory structure, which seems a little fairer. I have already been into some detail on this in previous posts so we will just plough on rather than trying to further explain the impenetrable voting system, but as it is all supposed to be more secret than Donald Trump’s tax returns, I am not sure it matters so much.

However, for now that is not an issue because the big thing in the meeting was agreed unanimously – on the basis, I presume, that the deal included a little something for everyone. There were various topics of discussion, so they say, and two are of particular immediate interest: the 2022 engine freeze, and the race formats that are under discussion.

I think others will develop into interesting topics in time (not least the salary cap, the new engine rules and the aim to have another Portuguese GP) but we will gloss over these to some extent and concentrate on the important stuff. The engine freeze, which was asked for by Red Bull, is agreed. And the FIA will not block it. This is very sensible because it means that Red Bull will now be willing to go ahead with its project to take over the Honda engine project and call it whatever they want, depending on what terms Honda was willing to accept.

Back in 2009, when the Japanese manufacturer last walked out, the Honda F1 team became Brawn for a year and then transformed into Mercedes. If one has something similar in 2022 then it could be that in 2023 Red Bull might be using Honda-derived engines badged by a different manufacturer. (Step up to the plate anyone wanting a cheap deal…)

And who is to say that the same package could not be sold more than once? Anyway, we will see how it all pans out, but what we know is that early in 2022 the engine manufacturers will have to deliver a specification of engine that will stay basically the same in 2022, 2023 and 2024, the big difference being that the sport wants to introduce sustainable fuels during this period, which will mean that manufacturers who work closely with their fuel partners might be able to get (or lose) an advantage. We will all start discussing such things as direct air capture, which is quite fascinating…

The quid pro quo for everyone agreeing to this freeze is that they will get new engines in 2025, rather than 2026. And, if all goes to plan, these engines will be cheaper, sexier (noise-wise) and more sustainable. If these goals can be achieved, people think, we will see more manufacturers rushing in as the aim is to create more hybridisation, which people increasingly seem to want, as electric cars still have drawbacks, despite what some of the green mountebanks would have us believe. And just remember before you invest in a fully electric car that snake oil is not always green… even if the snakes are.

However, what I think is the most interesting part of the discussion today is that of the race formats. The plan I hear is for three races in 2021 to have something a bit different. And, Canadians, buy your tickets now if you want to be the first to see it… It’s a risk, of course, because COVID-19 is still swirling around, but F1 says it is going to do everything possible (and perhaps a few things that seem impossible) to have a full season as announced and running the new concept in Montreal is the plan. Having said that there is a clear message about the calendar as well, with the reference to a need to be flexible, which translates into a very clear message: “Things may change”.

So what are these race format proposals? Well, that is still a little bit under discussion but I am told that the idea is to have a Sprint race instead of the qualifying session. This will dictate the grid and it will not feature any kind of grid position reversals (Thank God). It is suggested that the first eight finishers will score points, but the scale of the points will be reduced.

This already happens in Formula 2 where the main race scores 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 and the Sprint race scores 15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1. Thus, winning both races and scoring two fastest laps might, for example, be worth 42 points a weekend. That will make things a little more interesting in the World Championship. However, if one has a bad weekend, it will likely be a very bad one as a no-score in the Sprint Race and a lowly grid position in the main race will mean that a good driver could end up with very little. I spent some of yesterday listening to Formula 2 drivers talking about how important it is to be consistent and so this is what F1 drivers will need to be. Whether than is a good thing for producing better racing is a question worth debating.

What you can say is that the idea being put forward is not philosophically poisonous, as was the reversed grid mumbo-jumbo. The essence of the sport must remain the same, if a little compromised. We don’t yet know about tyre allocations or pit stops but a Sprint race will inevitably be shorter and allow teams to run softer rubber (at least, in theory) and there will be little gain from pit stops.

So what is good about it? Well, assuming it creates more action, there will be that for a start. It will also be good news for fans who find Fridays and Saturdays to be rather dull, adding spice to the current mix. You have to be REALLY passionate about the sport to pay any attention to the Free Practice sessions and some folks even find it hard to get excited about qualifying (although I am not one of them). If there is a Q session in place of FP2 which creates a race to determine the grid, then that’s not such a bad idea. More fans will watch on TV (and other devices), more will go to the tracks. The numbers will go up and, if all goes to plan, the revenues will follow. That’s the plan. I don’t see this being good news for young drivers who want to do FP1 sessions to get experience, but at the same time, I’m not really bothered because an awful lot of the people doing this at the moment are there because of the money they bring, not the talent they have. So, it will mean that when they get to F1 proper (if their money allows them do it) they will have to learn to swim or sink quite quickly. So, is that a bad thing?

I am sure that lot of people have opinions on such matters, so please feel free to make comments (polite ones please…)

Whispers from the F1 Commission

The word from the F1 Commission is that the body has agreed to the planned engine freeze in 2022 and that this will mean that the new engine regulations will be introduced in 2025, rather than in 2026. This is good news as Red Bull can now get on and decide what the engines will be called, and so on. The confirmation of the freeze will have to be cleared with the FIA World Council, but we should expect an announcement at some point shortly.

The meeting also discussed the idea of having a sprint race on Saturday on occasion and there are some positive noises being made, but the word is that there is still no final decision as yet – and there is also discussion ongoing about the idea of a drivers’ salary cap. This will be complicated from a legal standpoint, as one needs to be careful with the wording with such things.

There is no word as yet on whether there will any change in the F1 calendar this year, but that may not require the F1 Commission, as it will largely depend on how thngs develop nearer the time.