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Archive for the ‘F1 Drivers’ Category

Notebook from Chimay

IMG_0051Fans with long memories will remember the town of Chimay for something other than its beer, although if you are into motorcycle racing it may have become a blip on your radar. However, 90 years ago Chimay began holding races on a fast road course, not very different in character to Spa, except that it lacked the hills. There were long sweeping curves, houses, forests and one fairly exciting moment when the cars went between a church and a pillbox at top speed, with n run-off on either side. Being Spa’s poor cousin it was always in the shadow at international level but, nonetheless, it hosted its own Formula 1 races (non-championship, of course), with the race usually being known as the Grand Prix des Frontieres. The list of winners includes Maurice Trintignant, who won twice for Bugatti in the 1930s and again in 1953 in a Simca Gordini and Prince Bira, who won in a Maserati in 1947. By the 1960s it had become an event for Formula Junior (and then Formula 3) and in its final years between 1970 and 1972 it was won three times by David Purley. It lost its international licence after that but hosted local touring car races and motorcycle events. It was always a track fraught with danger and as recently as 2014 three riders were killed in the same weekend in a race with modern racing bikes. I ended up there late on Monday morning on the way home from Spa, having given a colleague a ride to the station in Liege (a fabulous piece of architecture, by the way) and then made the decision to drive along the River Meuse to such oddly-named places as Troque and Chokier, to the fortress cities of Huy and Namur and then (by way of Profondeville and Hun (yes, really) to the charming riverside town of Dinant. I was originally planning to follow the river as far as Charleville-Mézières, but it became clear that I would not be home before midnight if I did that after a morning spent grumbling about dawdling Dutch caravans and tatty Bulgarian trucks and so I high-tailed it to the west and ended up stopping for a breather in Chimay, before racing across the French plains to Laon, Soissons and the forest of Retz to Paris. The French holidays are now over and so I took a loop around the city to avoid getting caught in the inevitable traffic of grumpy Frenchmen still thinking about their joyous days in St Trop.

All of this gave me plenty of time to mull over the Spa weekend. There has been a lot of comment about the adventures of Max Verstappen and the Ferraris in the race and it seems that a lot of people assume that because they have a TV and a rewind button they are, therefore, qualified to have an opinion to challenge the decisions of race officials, who have access to far more information and data than the average fan can imagine. It should also be pointed out that the stewards last weekend were Danny Sullivan and Felipe Giaffone, both former top-line racing drivers, plus Dr Gerd Ennser, the chief steward of the DTM for the last 10 years and a full-time professional judge in his native Bavaria when he is not going racing. If they had felt that anyone was driving beyond acceptable boundaries, then they would have reacted. They did not. One can say that Verstappen was certainly pushing the limits of what is acceptable, but that’s racing, isn’t it? Loads of F1 fans spend their time complaining that’s there is not enough racing and when they get it, they complain that it is too dangerous. Anyone who has watched a GP2 race recently will tell you that F1 drivers are positively staid compared to the youngsters who are desperate to impress.

What is interesting about Ferrari, and particularly Sebastian Vettel, is that he seems to have developed a rather whiny attitude to other drivers when they dare to duff him up, which I don’t remember him having in his younger days. It seems that he is constantly complaining about people getting in his way. I have put this down to an underlying sense of frustration at the state of his career. He went to Ferrari with high hopes at the start of 2015 and I fear he is beginning to realise that it was probably not the right thing to do, particularly in the wake of the departure of James Allison, the man who was putting together the team that Ferrari requires to get to the top. Ask anyone (not in a red shirt) how they think Ferrari will do in the next few years and it is hard to find anyone who sees them moving forwards. Ferrari fans may not like that and think that this somehow makes me biased, but I am simply reporting what I see and hear. Maybe everyone is wrong and Ferrari will zoom to a string of titles in the years ahead, but I see no signs of that happening.

The really good thing about Formula 1 at the moment is that after a period of relative stability of the top driver front, we are now seeing a whole new generation muscling their way in with Max Verstappen, Kevin Magnussen, Pascal Wehrlein, Esteban Ocon and others looking like that they will start to kick over the status quo. Given that some of the older F1 drivers have had careers lasting more than 15 years, that is not a bad thing for the sport. And, for the Belgians, there is much excitement as Stoffel Vandoorne will soon be in a McLaren full-time. As much as I like and respect Jenson, there comes to time when racing teams look to the future rather than the past and I would be amazed if they kept JB and let Stoffel wander off elsewhere. I sense that the team is probably delaying announcements in order to keep JB keen and motivated because a driver who knows he is departing a team will inevitably lose pace, even if it is only subconsciously. The interesting thing about the new generation of drivers is that they may end up having an impact on the shape of the F1 calendar in the future. When the German GP attracts about 10,000 Dutch and the Belgian GP pulls in at least 50,000 of them, there is a clear case that a Dutch GP is probably possible, if a venue can be found. Upgrading Zandvoort would be a big job, but the property developers who own it might seen the logic in that because there is plenty that could be developed at the site. Traffic access will always be a problem but when there is a train that takes 35 minutes from Amsterdam Centraal and it is a short walk from the station to the circuit, one can see that this could be a very environmentally-friendly event, with few or no cars (a la Monaco). There are two parallel tracks all the way to Haarlem and so the Dutch could easily run the same kind of service that one sees at Monaco or with the trams at Albert Park, shifting crowds in and out with ease. There are other options, but I sense that Zandvoort is the one that would work best. You never know, with all the enthusiasm about Verstappen, there are always possibilities that other projects might emerge, not least a place like the Eurocircuit rallycross facility in Valkenswaard, which is hidden away in a forest, deep in Verstappen country, close to the Belgian border.

The interesting thing at the moment is that the Formula One group has a slight problem with its calendar choices at the moment because F1’s global expansion has meant that Formula One is struggling to meet its contractual obligations for the right balance of races. There is, would you believe, a clause in the various contracts that says that, unless the teams agree otherwise (and when did they ever agree on anything?) Formula One must present a calendar that has at least half the races in Europe and the United States.

This year’s 21-race calendar features 11 European/US events (Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Monaco, Russia, Spain, and the United States) and 10 non-European events (Abu Dhabi, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico and Singapore). This is fine.

But when you look at the races that are really struggling you see Austin, Germany, Italy and Brazil all in difficulties – and Ecclestone cannot afford to lose three European/US races, because the calendar would be well out of kilter, with the requirements. This is why there is so much talk of a mythical race in Las Vegas and work going on in California. The problem is that F1’s fees are too high for the US market, which is why previous negotiations have failed. This also explains the tenuous argument that Baku is in Europe. It’s not, but the teams have allowed Ecclestone to get away with that one, because the new race pays lots of money into the kitty.

Austin has a 10 year contract to host the race, which began in 2012, so it is now reaching its halfway point, but it is clear that funding is a problem. Germany is an even bigger problem because while Hockenheim is happy to fund a race every two years, the Nurburgring seems to be out of the F1 game for the time-being. This is a shame, of course, because it’s a great facility and within easy reach of the Netherlands. However, it is a mess and no politician wants to give any public money. Running it without public money would be a huge challenge.

A deal will be struck with Italy and ought to be announced in the next few days, but it has not been easy.

Brazil has a contract until 2020, but the promoter needs to find money to fund the event because of economic upheavals in recent times. However, with Formula One contracts, the money must be paid whether there is a race or not, so usually promoters go on hosting races because they get at least something back for the money they spend.

If an alternative race cannot be found in the US and Germany drops out in 2017, the balance required will be upset and the teams will have to agree to accept nine events in Europe/US and 10 elsewhere.

With all these struggles, Ecclestone is looking around for alternatives. No-one in Germany capable of paying the fees seems to be interested in an F1 race. The word is that Ecclestone may solve the problem by taking over the promotion of Hockenheim and getting all the revenues available, leaving Hockenheim to fund its own upkeep. That might work. There is nothing serious in Denmark or Sweden and no obvious interest nor money in the east of Europe. Turkey might like to make a comeback, but its status as a European nation is at best dubious (along the same lines as Azerbaijan) and the race was never a success. There is no real reason for F1 to go to Portugal and no money to fund a race. There are legal and environmental problems with Switzerland. The one place other than Germany where logically there should be an F1 race is France, which ought to be more interested in F1 given the return of Renault. On the driver front there is still Romain Grosjean, but Jules Bianchi is gone, Jean-Eric Vergne has been wasted by Red Bull and Charles Pic has disappeared. There is Esteban Ocon, who could excite the French fans, and Pierre Gasly might get a ride with Toro Rosso, but Norman Nato and Arthur Pic need to do more to progress from GP2. The problem remains, who – if anyone – is going to pay for it?

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For fans, the world of Formula 1 can be a little complicated and difficult to understand and it is not easy to find explanations. You cannot get a pass to go into the paddock and ask questions and you don’t know other race fans who can explain things to you. How do you find out? And how can you get to feel part of the event? There is an answer which will mean that you can find out pretty much anything you want to know about the sport, and you can discover it in a convivial atmosphere, with drinks and a buffet dinner on the day before the race meeting begins, when you can not only meet one of the most experienced F1 observers, but you can also meet other F1 fans in Singapore. You get a lot for your money, with a whole evening of questions, plus food and drink, all of which is included in the very reasonable ticket price. It is terrific value for money – and a great way to feel part of the event.

I will be hosting one of my Audience with Joe events on Thursday, September 15, at the Tanglin Club, which is conveniently located not far from the Orchard and Newton MRT stations, or an easy cab ride from the Marina Bay area. The event runs from 7pm until 11pm and I will answer any question that you want to ask, or at least I will tell why I cannot answer it! And you won’t get sponsor-friendly wishy-washy answers. I say what I think. I’ve been kicking around for nearly 30 years and know all the movers and shakers, so I get some interesting access that other journalists cannot get.

My goal in hosting the event is to engage with fans. It may be complicated and may seem unfriendly sometimes, but I believe that we should share our passion for the sport and knowledge of it with as many people as possible.

“I attended an evening with Joe in Singapore last year and it was an excellent event,” wrote one fan. “Joe had the audience enthralled with his knowledge, stories and insights. He shoots straight and is incredibly candid. You will for sure walk out of the room knowing far more than you ever thought possible. One snippet about a particular legend of the sport alone made it all worthwhile. And this year the wine, beer and food are all included! Make sure you arrive in Singapore on time for 7pm!”

To book tickets for this unique event, click here

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Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 16.49.23Once we knew that Lewis Hamilton would be taking a series of engine penalties at the Belgian Grand Prix, we knew that the chances were that Nico Rosberg was going to win the race, even if Max Verstappen had the Mercedes boys worried with his pace in qualifying. Max was second on the grid and the estimated 50,000 Dutch fans who flocked to Spa, clogging the roads on Sunday morning, were desperate to see their hero do well. Alas, it was not to be. At the first corner Sebastian Vettel made a fairly a wild move, slicing across when he had no real right to do so. The result was that he ran into his own team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who then hit Verstappen, who was on the inside and in the right place to make the corner his own. Nico must have chuckled into his helmet if he was watching his mirrors as his primary rivals tumbled over one another. Nico was four seconds clear of Nico Hulkenberg at the end of the first lap with Daniel Ricciardo third. There was a Virtual Safety Car on lap 3 after Carlos Sainz suffered a puncture and then on the fifth lap Kevin Magnussen dropped it in his Renault in Eau Rouge. It was a huge crash and after several laps of Safety Car, during which many of the cars pitted to get themselves on to better tyres, the red flag was shown, as the barriers need to be repaired. It took 17 minutes before the mess was cleared up and then the race was on again with Rosberg being chased by Ricciardo, who had snuck ahead of Hulkenberg in the rush into the pits. By that point Lewis Hamilton had driven from the back of the field to fifth place, with Fernando Alonso, who had started with him at the back ahead on the road, the two having started on harder tyres. When the race got going again. Lewis overtook Fernando and then Hulkenberg to rise to third, but there was not much more that he could do after that. Still, a third place finish from the back row of the grid was a great job, with a little help from the Safety Car. Rosberg was able to control the rest of the race, but was gracious in victory admitting that it had not been a difficult day and congratulating Lewis on his performance. Dan Ricciardo was second but never really challenged Nico, while Max and the Ferraris spent the afternoon trying to make up for lost ground, falling over one another as they jousted. There was a lot of whining noises from the Ferrari cockpits… It was a big day for Force India, which picked up a bunch of points and overtook Williams to take fourth in the Constructors’, while McLaren jumped ahead of Toro Rosso thanks to Fernando Alonso’s solid seventh, further evidence that McLaren is starting to get there… Vettel finished sixth and overtook Raikkonen in the Drivers’ World Championship, while Kimi was ninth and Verstappen a miserable 11th, despite some hard driving.

Also in GP+ this week…

– The silly season in F1
– We remember Chris Amon
– We look at the Belgian GP of 1966, a race that changed F1 forever
– JS explains why he loves Spa
– DT reflects on a painful August
– The Hack recalls the lucky Mr Amon
– Plus the usual fabulous photography from Peter and his team of snappers

GP+ is the fastest F1 magazine. It comes out before some of the teams have even managed to get a press release out. It is an e-magazine that you can download and keep on your own devices and it works on computers, tablets and even smartphones. And it’s a magazine written by real F1 journalists not virtual wannabes… Our team have attended more than 2,000 Grands Prix between us.

GP+ is an amazing bargain – and it is designed to be, so that fans will sign up and share the passion that we have for the sport. We don’t want to exploit you, we want you to join the fun. You get 23 issues for £32.99, covering the entire 2016 Formula 1 season.

For more information, go to www.grandprixplus.com.

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Mark Kleinman is a journalist who, in the past, has been shown to have a very good source within CVC Capital Partners, so when he comes up with a story about the private equity firm, one should pay close attention. Kleinman reported today on Sky that John Malone’s firm Liberty Media is close to completing a deal worth $8.5 billion to buy the shares of the Formula One group from its existing shareholders. He also says that if the complex deal goes ahead, it will result in Formula One being listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange in New York. He does, however, say that the deal is not completed and one has to therefore ask whether the leak is designed as a hurry-up to other potential bidders, or whether it is really the most likely outcome.

The fact that Liberty Media is interested is not news, as it has been rumoured for some months. Malone took an interest in the sport about 18 months ago but no deal could be found and so he bought control of Formula E instead.

Kleinman also reports that if the deal goes ahead the role of chairman of Formula One would go to Chase Carey, a 62-year-old American, who is the executive vice-chairman of 21st Century Fox, a News Corporation company. He has long been associated with Fox, dating back to 1988 and he helped to launch such things as Fox Sports and FoxNews. A Harvard MBA, he moved from Fox to become CEO of DirecTV in 2003 before that was sold to Liberty three years later. He stayed on for three further years before going back to News Corporation in 2009 and he has been tipped in the past as a possible successor to Rupert Murdoch. He would certainly be a high-flyer, but it is not clear why he would take the F1 job, if he is looking at a brighter future…

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En route to Belgium

Over here in France, we have what they call a canicule, which means that it is stinking hot and it’s hard to sleep at night unless you have air conditioning. But it’s nice to see some solid good weather after what had been a pretty patchy summer. The good news is that it is due to last until the weekend and then will cloud up a bit and rain on Monday. That’s the theory and it may even come to pass, but when one considers the microclimate at Spa, it is hard to certain about anything. The one thing we can say is that the refreshed F1 circus will be back in action after the summer break and that brings a surge of energy after a few weeks when hearts beat slower and days went on longer. The summer break is a great thing for F1, unless of course you don’t have a family, in which case some get a little bored.

There are lots of questions to be answered: will Red Bull be up with Mercedes; will Ferrari have dropped back at all? Or moved forward? Will Ma Verstappen catch Dan Ricciardo? And, of course, the big question: will Nico Rosberg be able to stop the Lewis Hamilton rout?

Should be a good weekend of racing ahead.

In the interim, I’m driving across eastern France, looking forward to my favourite circuit…

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The power of a driver

André Maes, the long time promoter of the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, has told the national newspaper La Dernière Heure that the event has already sold 70,000 three-day tickets, something that he has not seen since the glory days of Michael Schumacher back in 2001 and 2002, when legions of German fans would stream across the border to Spa, following their hero, who had huge support in the region around Kerpen, the town where he grew up. This means that with sales in the days leading up to the race, plus all the other people associated with the event, there are likely to be in the region of 85,000 people brought to the region for the race. This will delight the regional government of Wallonia which has to support the event and cover its losses each year. It remains to be seen whether the event will actually make a profit, but that is still a possibility.

The reason for the hike in ticket sales is very clear: Max Verstappen. The recent German Grand Prix saw large numbers of Dutch fans in the grandstands at Hockenheim, having driven the 250 or so miles from their homeland to watch their hero in action. Spa is much closer to the Netherlands, the nearest point to Spa being only around 45 miles from Spa, meaning that some of the visitors will be able to return home each day. Many others will camp at the circuit, which is probably the best option for fans as there is a fairly limited supply of hotels in the immediate vicinity of the circuit, beyond the ones popular with F1 people in Spa, Malmédy and Stavelot. The organisers at Spa expect that there will be around 20,000 Dutch fans in the crowd this year and says that all the grandstands have been sold out and only general admission tickets remain. Spa is also a popular venue for British fans, who drive across from the UK for the event, which is held on a Bank Holiday weekend in the UK, which means that they have Monday to return home.

 

Verstappen’s rise has led to interest in reviving the Dutch Grand Prix, which has not been held since 1985, but was a regular fixture on the F1 calendar for more than 30 years. It is clear that there are problems hosting such a big event at Zandvoort, the traditional home of the race, located in the sand dunes next to the North Sea, near Haarlem. The track would need considerable work and vehicular access would need to be restricted. Zandvoort is well-served by trains from Haarlem and Amsterdam, the latter being only half an hour away. However, the big problem is to find a way to raise the fees required to pay for such an event, with the circuit admitting that it cannot do much without government aid. The government has been pushing austerity measures in recent years, in an effort to improve public finances but for the last 18 months the economy has been growing as confidence returns. One alternative that has been put forward is to host a Grand Prix at the TT Circuit Assen, in the north of the country. The track, a shortened permanent version of a celebrated motorcycle road race circuit, hosts the Dutch round of the MotoGP series and has a contract to continue to do so until 2026. The track would need some modification for F1 but it would cost a great deal less than trying to revive Zandvoort. The Assen organisers say that they are interested if financial arrangements can be put in place.

The Belgian GP at Spa will,incidentally, have increased security with traffic and pedestrians no longer mixing in the area around La Source, as a precaution following the Nice attack in July. There will also be more bag inspections.

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A near-miss in Pocono

There are many arguments in the discussions about head protection in top line motorsport, but the ABC 500 at Pocono, delayed until Monday because of rain, gave further evidence that it would be wise for the sport to find solutions as quickly as possible, lest more drivers are killed or injured.

Mass pit stops in IndyCar racing are usually fraught, with cars getting in and out of their boxes. There are often collisions, notably at Indianapolis this year when Andretti’s Townsend Bell pulled out of his pit and was hit by Penske’s Helio Castroneves and then collided with his own team-mate Ryan Hunter-Reay. The same two teams were involved in the incident at Pocono. On lap 64 Alexander Rossi pitted from the lead. He was departing his pit in the slow lane when Charlie Kimball, who was further down the order, arrived in the fast lane for his stop. Kimball seems to have believed that he was clear of Rossi, and Rossi was either unsighted or believed that Kimball would duck behind him. In any event, the two cars were side-by-side and collided and Rossi’s front end went into the air. As it came back to earth Castroneves emerged from his pit and arrived beneath Rossi’s car, which then landed on the Penske car in the cockpit area. Fortunately the impact was just in front of Castroneves. Rossi then slid over the top of the Brazilian’s car .

Castroneves said later that his hand had been grazed by Rossi’s flying car.

Apportioning blame in such an incident is difficult. Rossi was penalized a nominal 20 seconds for avoidable contact, but it was clear that he did not see Kimball and had been relying on his pit crew to send him out in an orderly manner. Others felt that Kimball should not have turned in, but he appears to have thought that Rossi would pass behind him. There are also questions about whether Castroneves’s car should have been released into the path of the others.

“Everyone is going to have their own opinion, but I was staying in the slow lane,” Rossi said. “Kimball was obviously trying to come into his box, but then Helio was being released. So I don’t know. It’s very unfortunate.”

The former F1 driver was happy that Castroneves was not hurt, but felt that he had been robbed of a potential victory.

“We were at the front with relative ease and we were waiting for the end to go to the front for the final time,” he said.

The incident, which came a year after Justin Wilson was killed at the same venue, when he was hit on the head by flying wreckage, is a further sign that it would be wise to act sooner, rather than later to try to improve the protection around the drivers’ heads.

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