In search of coffee

The village of Beauvoir lives up to its name. It has a great view across the Pays de Bray, with just a little mist between the gentle ridges this morning. It’s dairy country, a land of celebrated cheeses… and bucolic simplicity.

But on a Tuesday morning Beauvoir is very quiet. The kids are being dropped off at the village school, next to the mairie, but otherwise not much is happening. The old boys are out pruning and weeding their gardens, but the boulangerie doesn’t open on Tuesdays, nor does the épicerie and the cafe shows no sign of life – and no indication if it might at some point provide a coffee and a croissant.

But the little garage is busy, getting my car ready for the next F1 adventure: a 900 km run down to the Circuit Paul Ricard at Le Castellet (pretty much the same as going to Monaco a few weeks ago), followed by 1200km (give or take) along the Riviera and into Italy and then up to the Red Bull Ring for the Austrian and Styrian Grands Prix, and a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing up in the area as the accommodation available is spread far and wide.

There will then be the 1300 km run home, on the first Monday in July. So that will mean another 5000-odd clicks on the trusty automobile, which will take it over 380,000 km in total.

There really isn’t a lot of logic in going home between the three races, unless someone else is paying for air fares and hire cars. The internet pretty much everywhere these days, one can work in the gasthofs in Austria for the free days between each race – and so avoid the rush, paperwork, queues, PCR tests and other hassles of going from airport to airport to get home for very limited times.

So I’m off for 20 days, the penance one pays for a life in F1. Still, there are worse things in life than relatively free days in France, Italy and Austria. The lockdowns are easing in most places and life is less complicated than once it was.

But things are still not easy. Last weekend was supposed to be a Grand Prix weekend, originally in Canada and then in Turkey after Montreal was axed. Then Turkey was cancelled as well and so I ended up having a glorious weekend at home, working in the garden and having a barbecue with the neighbours. It’s hard to plan ahead at the moment. Logically, the British GP will follow this triple-header, but the news yesterday that Britain has delayed its lifting of restrictions on public gatherings because of the of the so-called delta variant (the one from India) means that the British GP may have to operate with a reduced crowd. Everyone is making positive noises at the moment but a reduced crowd means reduced revenues and if the limit is too low, Silverstone cannot really afford it.

It will, no doubt, ask for a cheaper deal if the circumstances require it, but the noises coming from the F1 group suggest that deals are no longer on the table. You pay or you don’t get a race. It’s hard to imagine F1 without a British GP, but the sport is unemotional. It was once hard to imagine F1 without Germany or France, but we’ve seen both disappear in the past. Money makes the cars go around…

After Silverstone Hungary should be fine (things were worse last year and we made it) and then we get to the August break. The second half of the season is pretty unclear as of now, but we know that the “orange belt” races in Belgium and the Netherlands will go ahead as there might be an uprising in the country if the great Max Verstappen cannot be celebrated… then Italy and Russia will likely be as they should be.

After that who knows? The pandemic complicates all things and although we hope we’ve seen the back of the worst of it there are still problems, as the quiet uptick of case numbers in the UK in recents weeks has shown. Last summer things went relatively quiet for a while before the second waves began. This year we have vaccines to add to the equations, but life is still not really back to normal.

But some things don’t change. The church bell is ringing on the hour, as it has done through wars, revolutions and previous pandemics. So I’m off to see if the cafe has opened.

Beautiful views are fine – but a coffee is required.

Does F1 need wind tunnels?

The wind tunnel is (by far) the most expensive bit of machinery needed by an F1 team. There was a phase when everyone sought to have their own facility, and some even built two, but these days things have changed: teams are now sharing facilities and increasingly the use of the wind tunnel is being restricted, in an effort to cut costs. The budget cap will add to pressure for more changes but there are two of the 10 teams currently building new tunnels – while others are talking about getting rid of them.

Such talk is not new. Back in 2010 Virgin Racing produced the VR-01, which was the first F1 car designed entirely with computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which models air flows in a virtual way, rather than using traditional wind tunnel development. This was not a success. The technology was not sufficiently mature at the time.

Despite the impressive development of simulation tools, the wind tunnel is still part of Formula 1 today, although teams can only use their tunnels for limited periods and they cannot use models larger than 60 percent. In truth, wind tunnels are now used more and more for real-world validation of CFD results than for actual development. The building of intricate scale models is a vastly expensive and labour-intensive activity and there is a strong argument that it would be wiser to use actual cars and carry out experiments in full-scale facilities, although there are not many with the kind of rolling road technology that F1 requires.

However, there is now also another option, which will soon be provided by the Catesby Aerodynamic Research Facility (CARF) in Northamptonshire (above), where a stretch of tunnel on the old Great Central Railway, nor far north of Silverstone, has been converted by Aero Research Partners Ltd into an aerodynamic testing facility, allowing full-sized cars to be monitored as they move through the air, rather than pushing the air over a static car, as happens in a conventional wind tunnel.

This could provide the validation testing that F1 needs, without the vast sums spent on model-making and while there might be competition for time in the facility, such things could be

Getting rid of wind tunnels would give F1 the added bonus of getting teams to focus more on developing CFD technologies, which would be good for the sport’s reputation for innovation.

Red Bull’s Christian Horner believes that wind tunnels are “dinosaurs of machinery” and says that a wind tunnel “isn’t particularly efficient and it’s not very environmentally friendly”.

“Formula 1 should be the cutting edge of technology,” he says. “We’re seeing more and more investment from the tech sector, so why not be the showcase for that tech?”

It is hardly surprising that not everyone thinks this is a good idea.

“Banning it completely, if you would do it today, the testing would be on track and that will be even more expensive rather than doing it at the wind tunnel,” says Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto.

“I think we all use wind tunnels, and it’s all still a very important tool,” says Jost Capito of Williams. “Computing needs a lot of energy as well, so we have to look at all the details and then come up with a well-thought and agreeable position on that.”

The good news is that F1 wind tunnels can be used for many different things and this means that there is businesses that can be developed even if F1 teams shift the tunnels off their books. Most teams rent out their tunnels when they do not need them and several teams have developed businesses from this. Mercedes came up with a more adventurous and moved one of its two wind tunnels to Silverstone, where Mercedes-Benz Applied Science is now using the facility.

Philosophically, Christian Horner is right, but convincing all is rivals that they can do without their wind tunnels may not be an easy task, although when they start looking at future budgets they will probably see the logic…

Why Ferrari has chosen Vigna…

Ferrari’s new CEO Benedetto Vigna is not “a car guy”. He’s a boffin, and obviously a very clever one. But how does that fit with a supercar company like Ferrari?

To understand the thinking behind the move one needs to look at the way in which the automotive industry is developing. The future, so we are told, is for the world to be filled with smart battery-powered cars, which offer automated driving and are linked to networks. They will have a new level of on-board digital entertainment and shared-mobility features, all under the control of a central computer that will oversee all aspects of the vehicle. The software in these “brains” will be updated by 5G mobile networks.

This will effecively mean that automobile manufacturers will become software manufacturers. It is predicted that in time there will be only a couple of viable operating systems and these will then b used by all the car manufacturers around the world. There is a race in the industry to create such systems, as those who get there first will be able to reap huge profits by supplying their software to others.

That is the theory. Ferrari would obvioulsy like to be one of the winners in this game. To give you an idea the operating systems used in smart phones are Android 47.5 percent and iOS 42 percent. One day there will be similar operating systems in cars.

So Vigna is perhaps the man who will lead the charge towards this vision of the future.

So who is he and what has he achieved?

He was born in the south of Italy, in the city of Potenza in the Basilicata region, to the east of Naples. He then studied at the University of Pisa, graduating with honours in subnuclear physics. He moved on to do research into lasers at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble and then at the Max Planck Institute in Germany before being recruited to join the STMicroelectronics research and development laboratory in Castelletto, near Milan, where he began working with laser-fabrication micromachining techniques. He would spend a couple of year as an industrial fellow and researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, investigating sensors and actuators.

He returned to ST in 1996 to become become the director of the company’s micro electro mechanical system (MEMS) division.

ST might not be very well known to the public but it is Europe’s largest manufacturer of semiconductor chips. It dates back to 1987 when two government-owned semiconductor companies,  France’s Thomson Semiconducteurs and SGS Microelettronica of Italy were merged to form a company called SGS-Thomson. The company was later floated and Thomson sold its shareholding and so the firm became ST Micoelectronics in 1998. It is headquartered in Geneva and has research facilities and manufacturing units all over the world. The organisation even has its own university, located near Aix en Provence, in France, where ST employees are able to reinforce and update their capabilities. Vigna studied for an MBA there in the course of his later career.

Vigna and his team at MEMS began to develop a tiny gyroscopic sensor capable of detecting motion in three dimensions. Today these are present in most of our day-to-day electronic devices from our smart phones to our game controllers. In 2007, Vigna’s unit was transformed into a product division and took on a range of new development work for OEM and mass market use, including work on microphones, e-compasses, touch-screen controllers, environmental sensors, micro-actuators, industrial and automotive sensors, imaging techniques and low-power radios for Internet of Things applications. Vigna holds hundreds of patents in micromachining techniques. As a result of these achievements he became a member of the ST Executive Committee in 2018. He is a man with ideas and one who knows the technology available and what it is possible to produce.

So, don’t expect a swashbuckling automotive buccaneer like Sergio Marchionne but rather a boffin on a mission to lead the automotive world…

What this means for Formula 1 remains to be seen.

Ferrari names Vigna (who?)

Ferrari has named Benedetto Vigna as its Chief Executive Officer. He will join Ferrai on September 1, moving from a firm called STMicroelectronics, where he is currently President of its Analog, MEMS (Micro-electromechanical Systems) and Sensors Group.

It’s an odd move for a luxury car company brand but chairman John Elkann says that Vigna’s “deep understanding of the technologies driving much of the change in our industry” will be the right answer.

Vigna, 52 has been with ST since 1995. The firm deals with semiconductors, which Ferrari says is “rapidly transforming the automotive sector” and will “accelerate Ferrari’s ability to pioneer the application of next generation technologies”.

It will be interesting to see how the stock market reacts to the appointment.

Mansour Ojjeh 1952 – 2021

Mansour Ojjeh, who has died at the young age of 68, was a man who liked to keep out of the spotlight. He would often be around Formula 1 but he usually let his guests and colleagues take all the limelight. He did not feel the urge to make a lot of noise about his wealth or his achievements.

He was brought up with discretion being a byword in the family. His father Akram had made a career of staying in the shadows, putting deals together and taking commissions. He was, as a result, rather a mysterious figure. He had been born into a family of cloth merchants in Baghdad but then went to France in 1940 on a scholarship to train to be a physical education instructor. While he was there he married a French woman, with whom he had studied, and settled in France and began his deal-making career. After the war he set up a construction business in Saudi Arabia and began building houses with imported prefab materials and then expanding into infrastructure projects, petrochemical plants, bridges and barracks. Later he would build palaces as well, becoming more and more well-connected (and wealthy).

Mansour was born in France and grew up there. He was sent to the American School in Paris before going to California in 1970 to study business administration at Menlo College before moving on to study law in Santa Clara. He then began to look after his father’s ventures in the United States. Akram Ojjeh’s empire grew to extend into many different businesses, including real estate, airlines and armaments. Commissions on such deals were considerable and this allowed him to invest in other businesses, including Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG) which he established in 1974 to broker technology deals between the Arab world and Europe. The empire was very profitable but also led to him being granted Saudi Arabian citizenship by King Abdul Aziz and being awarded a Legion d’Honneur by the French government.

In 1978 the Saudi royal family and other companies invested in sponsorship of Frank Williams’s new Formula 1 team, using the Saudia Airlines company and a number of other brands. Ojjeh was asked if he could help out and agreed and, despite still being in twenties, he began funding the team and TAG sponsorship appeared on the cars in 1979. The money provided Patrick Head and his team of engineers with the opportunity to do more aerodynamic development which led to Williams becoming winners that summer, when the Williams FW07 first appeared in the hands of Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni. After Regazzoni took the first win, Jones won four other victories and in 1980 the team won six times and Alan Jones became World Champion. In consequence TAG became the Williams title sponsor in 1981 and a year later Keke Rosberg gave the team a second Drivers’ title. Ojjeh wanted Williams to diversify into building road cars (as Enzo Ferrari has done in Italy) but Frank was only interested in racing.

At the time, F1 teams needed to find turbo engines in order to be competitive and not all of them could. McLaren struggled, but the wily Ron Dennis approached Ojjeh with the offer a shareholding in the team if Ojjeh would help to provide revenues to pay for a Porsche engine, badged by TAG. The result was a huge success with McLaren-TAG drivers Niki Lauda and Alain Prost dominating the World Championship, scoring a record 12 wins in 16 races. Further World Championships would follow before the team joined forces with Honda.

At the end of 1984 Ojjeh became the 50-percent owner of TAG McLaren Holdings. The diversification would continue with TAG buying the venerable Heuer watch company and renaming it TAG-Heuer and they set off turn it into a global luxury brand.

The idea of McLaren building road cars was Ojjeh’s idea and the resulting McLaren F1 supercar helped the firm become a serious player in the automotive world. TAG also expanded into aviation and aeronautics. The relationship with McLaren saw huge racing success, although Mansour left it to Dennis to run the business. The success on and off the race tracks led to other partners joining the business, notably the Bahrain government’s sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat.

Ojjeh sold TAG-Heuer to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 1999 for a huge profit.

Ojjeh and Dennis had an agreement to always vote together and this allowed them to sell off shares in McLaren without actually losing control. There was a problem, however, in 2011 over whether McLaren should support the holding of the Bahrain Grand Prix, despite the civil disorder going on in the country. Ojjeh felt that McLaren should support its Bahraini partners, but Dennis opposed the race. Mansour voted with Dennis but on that occasion he was the chairman of the board meeting (the role alternated between the partners) and when the vote came out with a 50-50 result, Ojjeh decided to use his casting vote to support the Bahrainis, as he was fully entitled to do.

Dennis took the vote as a betrayal and the relationship between the two men soured. Ojjeh was seriously ill with a rare lung disease and was close to death when Dennis launched a bid to buy the company, but he was unable to raise the money he needed and after Ojjeh had a double lung transplant and returned to action, he felt that Dennis’s move had been similarly disloyal. It the end it was agreed that Dennis would relinquish his shares in the business (for a very considerable sum of money) and leave McLaren at the end of 2016.

For a while Ojjeh and Sheikh Mohammad Al-Khalifa ran the business but a new structure was then put in place and Ojjeh, who was again in ill-health, stood down from the company a year ago, passing his seat on the board to his son Sultan. The family still owns around 15 percent of the business, the second largest shareholding in the firm after the Bahrainis. 

Ojjeh was a great Formula 1 enthusiast, as well as being an important investor in the sport and he had many friends in the racing world.

Green Notebook from the Land of Fire

They call Azerbaijan “the land of fire”, but at least it’s friendly fire… if you see what I mean. It is a place where F1 enjoys visiting, although those who look beyond the end of their own noses realise that there is more to the picture than immediately meets the eye. Still, people believe what they want to believe.

Back before kids had the Internet, you could convince them of lots of things. Napoleon Bonaparte, a famous enemy of Britain, was portrayed in the English newspapers as a devilish individual and a tyrant. The word bogeyman does not derive from “Boney” as some would have you believe, but nursery rhymes at the time warned that Napoleon ate small children who did not behave properly. Across the water Napoleon was more revered, although like most men of power, he had his moments of excess, such as the time he kidnapped Pope Pius VII, after the latter excommunicated the self-styled Emperor. Napoleon then held the pontiff hostage for five years in the palace at Fontainbleau. Perhaps a proper tyrant would have done away with him, as King Henry II did to rid himself of the “troublesome priest” Thomas a Becket, but Napoleon did not. However, while eating children may have been a bit over the top, he wasn’t warm and cuddly.

Years later, when he was exiled to Saint Helena, Napoleon wrote that “if only the heavens had given me 20 more years of rule and a little leisure, one would vainly search today for the old Paris; nothing would remain of it”.

By all accounts at the time, Paris was a dump, filled with pestilence and filth. It was dark and dangerous and very unhealthy. Napoleon wanted to flatten it and start again. It took a while but when his nephew Louis-Napoleon was elected president in 1848, promising to end poverty and improve the lives of ordinary people, he planned to do what his uncle had failed to achieve. According to the constitution he could not stand again in 1852 and so he organised a coup d’etat (as you do) and seized power, getting rid of opponents and declaring himself Emperor Napoleon III. He had been exiled in London for some years before the revolution that overthrew King Louis-Philippe before the 1848 election and had been impressed by London’s large public parks, wide tree-lined streets and impressive squares. And so, once he was in charge, he went to work to do what Napoleon had been unable to do: demolish the place and then build proper sewers, create proper water supplies and follow the ideas in London and lay out wide boulevards and parks and nice buidling. A lot of people weren’t happy with this but today the work of Baron Haussmann, who led the reconstruction programme, is much appreciated. Paris is lovely and among the most visited cities in the world, with with close to 20 millions tourists a year – before the pandemic.

Anyway, the point I am trying to make here is that perhaps we should not criticise the folk in Baku for flattening 500 acres of the city centre a few years ago in order to get rid of nasty Soviet developments, which were falling apart, and instead building a facsimile of Paris, even down to the shape and colour of the road signs. If you are going to try to build a tourist industry why not simply copy the market leader?

Azerbaijan, of course, needs new industries as its dependence on oil is shocking – at around 90 percent of the country’s exports, and so once it had built this new Paris between the old medieval walled city and the imposing Government House, running alongside the Caspian shoreline, now filled with gardens, fountains and iconic buildings, it was necessary to find a way to put the city on the international map. Prior to F1, locating Baku on a map was akin to the game Pin the Tail on the Donkey. It was somewhere over there in the middle, but very few knew where it was and how it related to the mish-mash of ‘Stans left behind as independent countries when Soviet Russia collapsed. Today, Azerbaijan is a little better known and using F1 to attract visitors seems to be working well. In 2015 the country had two million visitors a year, most of them Russians. A year later that grew to 2.24 million and in 2017 it had climbed to 2.69 million. In 2018 it reached 2.85 million and in 2019 was up to 3.17 million. We will have to see what the long-term impact of the pandemic will be, but things will probably bounce back. 

Formula 1 needed a bit of convincing back when the deal was done but money has a way of making people think differently and as Baku pays about the twice the fees of the European races, it has been good for F1, not least because the races have always been wild because of the nature of the track. So long as F1 understands that all comparisons with Paris end with the buildings, things will be fine.

Travelling in the age of COVID has been fascinating. It’s complicated and things are not always as they are supposed to be, but one must make allowances. If people are doing their best that’s all that one can expect. I have to admit that when I got to Baku the hotel did not at all live up to the claims on and I was less than happy until the hotel owner invited me to tea to explain the problems. Tea is part of the local culture and tradition and is rather bright in colour and comes in pear-shaped crystal glasses. It is their way of welcoming guests and enjoying discussions with them. The hotel owner explained that although the majority of his guests might be Russians, the British were the next most numerous nation and although he struggled to understand people from Manchester and Glasgow, he was an admirer of the British because they did not complain as much as other nations… and they did not get as drunk as the Russians. In the end his humanity and humour saved the day. The hotel was right next to the paddock, two minutes from the Media Center in the Hilton and 20 percent of the price of said establishment. There was no operational restaurant, no room service, not even breakfast, and the shower wasn’t working that well, but there was a bed and good internet – so it was survivable. The media centre had food: morning, noon and night and I could have eaten out if I wanted to do so, but I was in a small bubble (the media numbers were pretty low) and we were all staying in different places. I have pretty much lost interest in eating alone in restaurants outside hotels and so I made do for the duration of the trip.

It was a funny state of affairs because the population in Baku is no longer required to wear masks, but in the F1 world they are still de rigeur and so we wandered around with our masks and the local wandered around without them. At the airport we all had to wear them but the Azerbajianis have obviously forgotten how to do it, because every nose was fully visible…

In the F1 Paddock it was quiet. With so few journalists at work and TV crews still at a minimum, and the teams still (largely) sticking to their own areas, it was calm, but there was access enough to meet the movers and shakers and find out what is really going on, although some are still using the pandemic as a way to hide and avoid having to deal with difficult questions. The driver market is set to take off soon, but Sergio Perez’s victory in Baku will no doubt have cemented his place with Red Bull Racing in 2022 and with Pierre Gasly and, presumably, Yuki Tsunoda under contract to Scuderia AlphaTauri for next year. There is not a lot left. Esteban Ocon is going to stay where he is and one can expect an announcement to that effect at Paul Ricard while decisions from Mercedes may take a little longer to come out – Silverstone being the obvious place for that to happen. For the moment it looks like Lewis Hamilton will be a back, probably for another one-year contract in 2022 and it is a matter of public speculation about who will take the other Mercedes. I get the feeling that there could be wild celebrations during the British GP weekend.

Elsewhere, there seems to be little change at Alfa Romeo at the moment although the company’s CEO is making positive noises about F1 – at least in public. This might not make much sense in racing terms, but the amount that Alfa Romeo puts in to get global coverage from F1, despite no real hope of any success, is still cheaper than chips and it keeps alive the idea that Alfa Romeo is a sporting brand. The fact that it is not a successful sporting image is another matter…

The big topic of conversation was the calendar because no-one really knows what is going to happen later this year. The cancellation of Singapore was no big surprise and we should wait a few more weeks before Melbourne has to throw itself under the bus as well. The Australian Grand Prix Corporation is keen to go ahead but Fortress Australia wants guarantees that there will be no COVID-19 cases and that is something that no-one can give. The last thing F1 is going to do is put itself into a situation where the whole F1 circus turns up in Melbourne and someone tests positive and the race is called off. As someone in F1 once said, it would be “déjà vu all over again”.

So we wait to see what the travel schedules will be later in the year with question marks over Japan (OK if the Olympics happen), Australia, Mexico and Brazil. F1 has races in China and Turkey currently in reserve, in case they are needed, but the concept of another race in Bahrain can probably be written off for now as Bahrain has been put on Britain’s red list, which effectively means that F1 will not go there because of quarantine complications on the way home.

So, if the sport is going to be short of a few races this year it is worth looking at the possibility of spending two weeks in Austin with a United States Grand Prix one weekend and the Grand Prix of Texas (brought to you by “Yee ha!”) on the second weekend, as previously mentioned here on the blog. Sounds like fun.

What we all hope is that we will home by Christmas…

Roberts leaves Williams

Williams Racing team principal, Simon Roberts, will leave the team after only a year. This is no great surprise as his role has been considerably reduced with the recruitment of Jost Capito as CEO and FX Demaison as techncial director. It was seen as only a matter of time before Roberts moved on and there is not likely to be a shortage of offers for the ex-McLaren man. The Team Principal responsibilities will be taken over by Capito.

“Simon has played an integral role in managing the transition over the last 12 months and I would like to thank him for his great contribution during that time,” Capito said.

Roberts said that he wishes the team well in the future and is looking forward to moving on to a new challenge.

Could there be two US Grands Prix this year?

Formula 1 is struggling with its calendars because of the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions and quarantine requirements in multiple countries. It is far more difficult this year than last because of the constantly-shifting rules and the paperwork involved in moving the F1 circus from country to country.

“We thought that this year would be tough at the start of the season and then get easier as the situation improved,” said F1’s sporting director Steve Nielsen, “but the reality is that it is getting more and more difficult.”

This is because of the different variants that mean that countries are protecting their borders from foreign visitors. Most of the races now and being run only thanks to government exemptions.

The one place where restrictions are more limited is the United States, where things are returning to normal more rapidly than elsewhere, even if deaths are still running at more than 500 a day. In Australia, for example, the whole state of Victoria (where Melbourne is located) was locked down last week because of 60 cases. You can all it over-reaction if you like but Australia’s death total in the last 15 months has been only 910 people.

However it means that the rescheduled Australian Grand Prix and several other races probably won’t happen. Singapore has just cancelled and F1 is worried about Brazil and Japan. And there are also question about Mexico. There are races in China and Turkey waiting in the wings to step in if gaps appear, but that still will not get the sport to 23 races.

In Baku there were rumours that we might see two races this year in the United States, as a result of the ongoing problems. One suggestion is that F1 could go to Indianapolis and use the road course, while another idea is to have two races back-to-back in Austin.

Stefano Domenicali would not confirm nor deny the stories.

“We’ll see what happens,” he says. “Things are changing all the time.”

The appetite to go to Indy is not great in F1 circles. It is not a destination city in the same way as Miami or Las Vegas, but if there is the possibility to have a race and there is money to pay for it – there are no free races this year – then F1 will certainly look at it.

The sport is keen to embrace those who have had their interest in F1 sparked by the Netflix Series “F1 Drive to Survive” and want to know more about F1. This new interest is being seen in F1 viewing figures in the US, which are on the rise.

It could that the best answer is back-to-back races in Austin…

Green Notebook from the Autoroute de Soleil

I cannot tell you where it was exactly, but as soon as I heard that Max Mosley had died I peeled off the motorway into one of the rest areas that the French call aires and took out my computer. I have rather a lot of folders of biographies of F1 people and so I can pull together something quite quickly when these things are required. And with the magic of 4G it was up on the Internet on the other side of the world not long after I accelerated back on to the Autoroute de Soleil (which translates as The Motorway of the Sun).

It wasn’t the first obituary I have written in a service area, and it probably won’t be the last.

I didn’t get home until about 10pm, after 14 hours on the road from Monaco. This was way longer than it should take, but Monday was a French national holiday, the end of a three-day weekend known in France as Pentecôte, or Whitsun in English. It was also the first weekend when some of France’s lockdown restrictions were lifted. This meant that millions of French people took an extra day off work before and/or after the break and had a mini-holiday, which meant that the roads were crammed with people with the inevitable result being that there were traffic jams, particularly as the weather was changeable. And so the journey took much longer than it should. This happens every year but this seemed a little more than usual. It meant that one is often travelling en accordion, a lovely French expression to describe traffic that squeezes up and expands like an accordion. These ebbs and flows eventually create blockages that exist for no reason at all. If you remember last year’s Tuscan Grand Prix you could see that in action in Formula 1.

This usually means someone will run into the back of someone else and then everything stops and in an effort to avoid this the authorities imposed slower speed limits on the motorways in the hope that people would drive at a constant pace. Yeah, right…

In the end the reports on motorway radio (107.7) of traffic jams ahead going into Paris led to a decision to do something different on a road called the A19 that zips west to the south of Paris. In a perfect world this would then link up with a fast road up to Rouen, but the plans to have that all up and running in 2020 seem quite a way from reality. Still, I’d rather be moving and drive further than sitting in traffic jams en accordion.

I had plenty of time to think on my long ride home and it struck me that in days of old Monaco was always on the weekend of Ascension Day, which is why the Friday is a day off, and a week later Pau took place on the Pentecôte weekend, so many teams and drivers would go from one to the other.

Pau is one of the great events, dating back to the early 1930s, when they copied the Monaco idea of racing around a town and created a fantastic event, which used to be one of the highlights of the season. Pau has been a victim of F1 to some extent. Originally it was an F1 race but in the 1950s it became one of the big Formula 2 races. In 1998, when the then Formula 3000 linked up with F1, Pau was left out. It switched to Formula 3 for some years before an unsuccessful phase with the World Touring Championship and a return to Formula 3 until 2018 when Formula 3 was also hoovered up by Formula 1. The last Pau GP in 2019 was held for the Euroformula Open Championship, but since then the last two events have been cancelled because of the pandemic and although there are plans to revive the event in 2022, the future is less than certain.

The Ascension-Whitsun double-header stopped some years ago, when the Automobile Club of Monaco agreed to move off its traditional event if required, because F1 needed more flexibility with the calendar. Getting the ACM to change anything is not easy, which one can see from the Monaco TV coverage as this is now the only event left that is not covered by F1’s own TV crews and relies on the locals. This is why the TV coverage was not very good this year. Obviously the locals don’t have as much experience as the F1 crews.

This is one aspect of the sport that is always frustrating because Monaco may be the most glamorous and exciting race of the year, but the working conditions always seem to end up exasperating those involved.

“I am always glad to come to Monaco each year,” said a French colleague. “…but unfortunately I am always happy to leave.”

Why? Because it is isn’t like the other Grands Prix and, to be quite frank, it is not as well organised. There are a myriad of things that are nearly right – but not quite. Monaco is always about “You cannot do this” and “You cannot do that”. Often it is because the people saying “Non” have been told the wrong thing by a superior who doesn’t have a clue and while the staff do their best and are generally helpful and courteous, there are always problems. It is never a good idea to mention such shortcomings to the ACM because they always seem to think that no-one in the world knows how to organise a Grand Prix as well as they do – and how dare anyone suggest that they are not perfect.

It is all very silly stuff, usually involving the ACM or the local police. The Safety Car was stopped and ordered off the public road this year because it did not have a suitable number plate. I had to laugh when I saw a security person using a metal detector on a Formula 1 driver, blissfully unaware that Sergio Perez is not about to blow up the paddock. The Monaco bomb squad was much in evidence, although they never seemed to be doing much apart from getting in the way. If they ever do find a bomb, I’m running in the other direction…

The Accreditation Centre was another small and silly example. It was located on a busy road in Monte Carlo, without any possibility of parking. The entire district was filled with posses of flustered F1 folk trying to find a way to pick up a pass.

This year, apparently because of the pandemic, they changed the location of the media parking – no big deal – except that there were no signs anywhere because the ACM assumes that everyone knows where everything is.

In the end everyone finds workarounds to make the whole thing more efficient and so this year, we took to going to the paddock area each morning walking through dank tunnels under the famous palace. It wasn’t quite the glamorous Monaco you read about and every morning I had a good giggle as I tramped through this grotty grotto…

In the end these annoyances did not ruin my weekend because I was constantly happy as a result of the F1 written media finally being allowed back into the paddock for the first time since Australia last year. We were able to talk to people we’d not been able to chat to for almost a year, and to meet new arrivals in the sport, of which there have been a few. Ross Brawn remarked that he couldn’t remember the last time I asked him a question and I bit my tongue to stop myself saying: “it’s not my fault we were barred from the paddock”, but in the end it was something to celebrate and not complain about. We can do our jobs properly again. And it is a joy to be back in contact with the rest of the F1 village. It’s these quiet discussions that produce the good stories, the whispers to chase and to consider.

I quickly picked up a wonderful story that had been missed because of lack of contact with the movers and shakers in F1. Back in April it was announced in the newspapers in the Südtirol that there was going to be a Grand Prix there in 2022. This was not picked up internationally at all…

The Südtirol is one of Europe’s odd places – a bit like Monaco – which has been left behind by history. It is in the very north of Italy, in the shadow of the Alps, where the Italians speak German as well as Italian because at some point they were ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Because languages are useful in F1, there are quite a few Südtirolers in F1 and one – Guenther Steiner – was behind the story. The newspaper said that there would be a street race around Steiner’s home city of Merano and here was a track map, a logo and a photograph of Steiner shaking hands on a deal with F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, who knows the region well.

It was all there, front page news, on April 1.

It was good to see that the bosses of F1 can have some fun…

There’s not much fun going on at Alfa Romeo at the moment, although Monaco saw the team score a point for the first time this year. The word in Monaco is that there will be important meetings regarding the future of Alfa Romeo as the sponsor of Sauber in the next few days, and also whispers of discussions of what might happen if that deal is not extended. The obvious thing to do if the Alfa Romeo money stops coming is for the team to try to do a deal with Renault. There was talk some months ago that the team would renew its engine supply deal with Ferrari until the new engine formula begins in 2025, but trying to cut a deal with Renault makes more sense in many ways.

The French manufacturer currently gets technical feedback only from its own factory team, which is a disadvantage, and it also lacks political clout for the same reason. Renault might not want to provide money for another team, but it could reduce Sauber’s costs in exchange for the team taking on some of Renault’s young drivers. There are rather a lot of them at the moment and they are piling up (en accordion?) behind Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon. The list currently includes China’s Guanyu Zhou, Denmark’s Christian Lundgaard and Australian Oscar Piastri, who are all in Formula 2, and Brazil’s Caio Collet and France’s Victor Martins in Formula 3.

Sauber also has a young driver deal with Monaco F2 Theo Pourchaire, who turns 18 in August, and looks like being a special driver. This might be an attraction for Alpine as it would give them another French rising star.

One should also consider the possibility that the team might attract Pierre Gasly, as there is little to be gained from him staying at Scuderia AlphaTauri. Pierre no longer fits into the ethos of AlphaTauri, which exists to develop young talent for Red Bull. It would also solve Red Bull’s problem of having five drivers for four seats, with Max Verstappen staying on at Red Bull Racing with Sergio Perez and Yuki Tsunoda pairing up with… Alex Albon.

A break with Alfa Romeo is quite likely, unless the company’s new boss Jean-Philippe Imparato thinks it is worth it. Perhaps there is some logic in developing Alfa Romeo’s image in F1, but doing that with a Ferrari engine doesn’t make a lot of sense. Besides, all future Alfa Romeos will be electrified, with either full battery electric or plug-in hybrid power-trains and it makes no sense for Alfa Romeo to invest in an F1 powertrain until 2025 at the earliest.

Given the lack of success at Sauber you would think that taking over the team might make sense but when you look at the numbers involved it really doesn’t. Sauber’s biggest problem is that it is based in Switzerland, an expensive place to do business. And here’s a fascinating fact: the average salary in Switzerland is 112,228 CHF, which these days equates to $125,096 with the current rate of exchange.  In recent years the team at Hinwil has expanded from around 300 people to 500 – although the results have not improved a great deal.

This means that costs have risen significantly while revenues have not. With the F1 budget cap Sauber is going to have a salary bill that will use up a big percentage of the available budget. We don’t know the exact numbers but lots of F1 folk are paid more than the average salary in their country and if you multiply the average by the size of the staff you realise that it’s a really big problem. A significant chunk of the team’s remaining budget goes to Ferrari, which provides the entire drive-train, including the gearbox and the rear suspension, although some of this cost is believed to be offset by the team’s acceptance of a Ferrari-nominated driver.

One cannot imagine that Alfa Romeo would want to buy into such a situation and so other solutions are needed.

And at this point I admit that I’m wandering off into speculation but it is interesting to note that Alpine recently went into an alliance with Lotus to develop an electric sports vehicle in the future. Lotus is owned these days by the Chinese giant Geely, which seems to have big ambitions for the brand, to transform the range of cars and to expand into other vehicle segments, while remaining true to the company’s DNA. Part of this strategy is to raise the company’s profile and be a more global company with China and the US as its primary markets. Geely has already invested heavily in the firm and has added 670 people at Hethel in recent years, with plans for another 250. It strikes me that if Lotus is looking for promotion and to build on its DNA, a Formula 1 project would be perfect and one in league with Alpine makes sense. We will see, but if I was Laurent Rossi, I’d be on the phone to the Chinese telling them all about the opportunities at Sauber, using Alpine F1 technology and taking on a properly quick Chinese driver, which Alpine happens to have…

It is clear that Sauber would need to slim down but Geely could probably find a use for the Swiss organisation’s road car activities. And, of course, it would give F1 a boost with a proper racing brand coming back to the fold. And, why not paint the cars black and gold as well…

All that is needed is a Chunky Chapman-like figure to breathe some life into the team.

Anyway, the only real question on the driver market at the moment after Ocon and Alpine is what happens next with Valtteri Bottas. There has been much speculation in recent weeks that Mercedes may decide that it now needs to promote George Russell into the main team to prepare him for a leading role in the future.

Lewis Hamilton is now 36, but is showing no signs of slowing down, while 31-year-old Bottas will not want to give up on having a winning car, but might see the logic in moving elsewhere to emerge from the shadow of Hamilton. It is a little known fact that last year Valtteri came close to signing for Renault, but he lost out when the company’s top bosses decided to go with Alonso.

Mercedes could decide to keep the Hamilton-Bottas partnership, but with Lewis’s long-term future unclear, they might also want to bring on Russell so that he is fully integrated into the operation before Hamilton decides to retire.

This might destabilise the team, but Mercedes has managed difficult driver line-ups before (think Hamilton-Rosberg) and might decide to take Russell. That would leave Bottas looking for a job, although he could find a place at Aston Martin, if Sebastian Vettel does not continue with the form shown in Monaco. It is not likely that team owner Lawrence Stroll will shift his own son out of the team – unless there is a better drive available – but for the moment Lance has still not done enough to have the big teams beating down the door to get to him.

Hamilton is perhaps a little unpredictable with regard to the future but he is driving better than ever and is clearly enjoying what he does, although Monaco was a blow. This year he could win a record eighth World Championship but then might want to take on the challenge of winning the most FIA World Championships of any driver in history, a record that Sébastien Loeb holds, having won nine World Rally Championship titles in the course of his career. I cannot see why he wouldn’t sign another one-year deal to see how Mercedes does with the new rules in 2022 and then decide on a suitable career path. We say that no individual is bigger than the sport and that the sport goes on as each generation moves onward and this remains true but it is worth noting Hamilton’s Twitter following is now at 6.3 million, more than twice the size of Scuderia Ferrari’s Twitter army of three million. It is an even bigger gap on Instagram where Lewis has 22.4m followers and Ferrari has only 6.4m.

Formula 1, by the way, has 5.7 million followers on Twitter and 13.3 million on Instagram, which goes to show that in social media terms an individual can be bigger than a sport…

Why not try a virtual audience?

In case you missed it, I’m having another virtual audience this week. For those who don’t know, this is a private two hour zoom conference call with you and a small group of F1 fans who want to know about the inner workings of F1, the latest gossip, history or whatever. The content is driven by the questions. We will keep it as close to the live format as possible but you will need to provide your own drinks and snacks! We keep the numbers low so that everyone can get the chance to ask a question and we will endeavour to ensure that everyone gets at least one chance. It costs just £20 a head

The Virtual Audience with Joe will take place tomorrow, Thursday 27th May, at 6pm (UK TIME) (GMT+1). For more details and to buy tickets, click here.