The Bahrain Grand Prix was another great race and a further sign that we are in for a lot of exciting Grands Prix this season, as the competition between the Ferrari and the Mercedes is finely-balanced. The Mercedes is clearly faster in qualifying, while the Ferrari seems to be better in the races. This means that we ought to see a lot of action as the season goes on. We can hope that Red Bull and others (notably Renault) can make progress in the course of the year to join the fight, but that may be asking a little too much. Nonetheless, the prospects are good for great races all year.
Getting GrandPrix+ published as quickly as possible is always a challenge and when a race starts at 6pm, and finishes at 7.30pm, getting it all done before midnight is exciting, particularly when there are other jobs to be done as well. However, by midnight we were on our way, rattling up the highway towards Manama, bound for Muharraq Island, where Bahrain International Airport is located. Half the F1 Paddock seemed to be in the lounge waiting for the biorhythmically-challenging 03.35 flight to Dubai, and other similar departures. People were keen to get home after two (or, in some cases, four) weekends away and to enjoy at least half of the Easter Monday holiday at home.
First thing on Tuesday morning, it was back to the Russian Visa Department to finish off the process in time for the next race. It seems that some folk don’t really understand the stress of getting visas when you are a working F1 journalist and how we have had to jump through hoops and juggle passports in recent weeks. Some of the stories are truly horrendous, with a number of people getting their documentation only 45-90 minutes before their flights. I cannot say I understand the logic of this because the F1 media is visiting all these places to be part of an event that is supposed to promote the country involved and yet they seem paranoid that we might tell the world truths that they do not wish the world to know. To be quite honest very few F1 journalists have any desire to rock any boat and we are much more Austin Powers/Johnny English than we are Mr & Mrs Smith. My trip on Tuesday was simply to pick up my passport but only when I had it in my hand could I feel relaxed. So it was time for a lunch to celebrate the end of the visa season and a little sashimi did the job, a reward for fortitude in the face of bureaucracy.
Thus, the green notebook was delayed a few hours. It was nonetheless a busy book over the weekend with notes about all of McLaren’s woes and adventures. There were the first rumblings of the 2018 driver market and the usual grumbling about engineers in teams which do not have great cars this year. Ferrari once again rushed out a post-race statement from chairman Sergio Marchionne after Sebastian Vettel’s win in Bahrain, but once again this was largely ignored by a media, which is fed up of being treated like mushrooms by Ferrari. This would seem to suggest that the team needs a change of communication strategy, if not a change of staff…
As I was wandering post-prandially back to the Metro, I happened upon the Renault Atelier Café, on the Champs Elysées, where one can look at new cars and have a cup of coffee at the same time. Nowadays it finds itself next door to a Five Guys outlet, vying with Ladurée and Fouquet’s to feed the world. How the world is changing…
Renault featured strongly in the notebook with a scrawl that read: ‘Alonso – Ren 2018’. This indicated that Ferdando is supposed to have received a solid offer to drive for Renault Sport F1 in 2018 (and for some years after that). No doubt the offer is financially attractive, but McLaren seems to be trying to hold on to the Spaniard with the lure of the Indy 500 and, perhaps a run at Le Mans as well. Renault cannot really offer that at the moment. Alonso has been in the wrong team at the wrong time too often in F1 so he cannot now hope to beat many records, but he has settled on a desire to complete the so-called “Triple Crown”, which means to win the Monaco GP, the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Indianapolis 500. There is an alternative definition which includes the F1 World Championship rather than just Monaco. Graham Hill is the only driver to have done it. Those to have won two of the three are Tazio Nuvolari, Maurice Trintignant, AJ Foyt, Bruce McLaren, Jochen Rindt and Juan Pablo Montoya, although if the World Championship is included (rather than just Monaco) the list expands to include Mike Hawthorn, Phil Hill, Jim Clark, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jacques Villeneuve. Alonso is now 35 and so his focus has changed somewhat and he wants to go after F1 victories but also wants to win Le Mans and the Indy 500. The team most likely to help him achieve this is McLaren, although it is hard to imagine McLaren winning at Le Mans unless the ACO runs out of prototypes and has to run the race just for GT cars. That would not be such a bad idea given the strength of GT racing at the moment.
There is another note in the book about what it costs to run a team of prototypes each year and that is pretty eye-watering stuff: Porsche 280 million, it says, Audi 220 million and then there is separate note which indicates that Peugeot is willing to spend 80 million for its yet-to-be-announced LMP1 project. The figures are in Euros. These are HUGE budgets and it is hard to imagine how they can be justified given the coverage that WEC gets, even allowing for the fact that Le Mans is a pretty big deal – even if car companies still have to advertise their victories… Renault might get Fernando to Le Mans, but I cannot see the French going to Indianapolis any time in the near future.
However, all this is a long way off yet and Renault may be able to offer him a better ride in Formula 1 in 2018, given that McLaren-Honda has a whole lot of catching-up still to do. Those who watched closely would have seen that all the major McLaren board members were present in Bahrain and they seemed to be spending a lot of time in meetings. The word is that the board is getting close to finalising a deal that will see Ron Dennis selling his 25 percent share in the company, although the devil will obviously be in that little detail knonw as cash. The word is that Ron is now now focussing himself on government work and creating an impressive country estate somewhere near Henley-on-Thames.
For the moment, however, things are moving on slowly and it is a case of inshallah for the the buyers. The endless meetings, however, were probably more to do with what the company is going to do about its relationship with Honda. The options remain the same: stick with the Japanese firm and wait for it to come good, (either with or without help from Mercedes); switch to Mercedes and find a way to settle with Honda, or wait until Honda does a deal with another team and then reach for the parachutes. Things need to be done soon.
McLaren continues to change the way it does business, with the McLaren Applied Technologies moving a number of its departments off the McLaren campus in Woking and into new premises on the Southbank in Central London. The move has been made because McLaren needs more space in Woking and also because it wants to attract urban types to its staff, which was difficult to do in the bucolic splendours of Woking.
Changes of mentality are happening all over Formula 1 at the moment as Liberty Media makes its presence felt. Bernie Ecclestone did show up in Bahrain and did talk to the media but his comments were surprisingly muted. I guess that being chairman emeritus is better than not being chairman emeritus.
Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations of the Formula
One group, says that he has had conversations with as any as 30 promoters who
are keen to host Formula 1 races in the future, but when asked about Turkey he did suggest that it would be unwise for me to buy land in Turkey, on the basis that there might be a race there one day. (I wasn’t planning to). One gets the impression that the F1 folk were none too pleased that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued photographs of his meeting with Chase Carey. It was just a few days before a tight referendum which would give Erdogan more power and every vote counted. One cannot help but wonder if the F1 photo opportunity was more to with getting votes than getting a race. In any case, Turkey’s record with F1 is not good given the dubious podium activity in the past… and given what has been happening there of late (in terms of coups and bombs) F1 would probably be best staying away.
The whisper in Bahrain was that Liberty’s primary focus at the moment is on getting a race in New York. This would be a revival of the stillborn event that was planned at Port Imperial, New Jersey, where some of the necessary infastructure was built, including the parking garage that would be converted into the pits, media centre and hospitality units. The track would need to be a little different to the original plan, as some buildings have gone up, but the key remains to find the funding. There are supposed to be similar plans in Las Vegas, but these have always been scarily vague, while there is still the desire to have races in Miami and in Long Beach. Indianapolis Motor Speedway has also said that it would welcome F1 again – at the right price. Fidning races is obviously not the problem at the moment – if the price is right – the difficult bit may be losing some of the existing events.
The Formula 1 Strategy Group meets next week in Paris and among the subjects in the agenda is a new proposal for head protection which has been dubbed the shield, which appears to be some kind of windscreen. The unloved halo seems to be on the way out – and most people in F1 seem to think this is a good idea.
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