It was a pretty exciting weekend in Spain, not least because I managed to lose my little green notebook for a portion of the weekend (not for the first time). Fortunately, it turned up again and so my scrawls are still with me. The first one says “lovely cool crisp morning”, which is there to remind me Spain is always the sub-conscious start of Spring as far as I am concerned and I particularly enjoy the drive south through France, and over the Massif Central, to Barcelona. The first four races are all fly-aways, attended only by the hard core F1 regulars and Spain in the first time that the whole F1 circus gets together, including all the Europe-only motorhomes and staff. It’s a time to catch up with lots of people and traditionally we have a dinner on the Thursday night, not far from the track, where I always enjoy the cabrito, the local roasted kid goat, with some solid local wine. It means that the weekend kicks off in a convivial way. On Friday evening there were no fewer than three events to be juggled, but that was fun, not least because at a Renault function I did manage to get team boss Frédéric Vasseur to serve me a drink, with an impertinent cry of “Garçon!” I like Fred, though he has a serious face, and he was happy to join in the joke and pour me a glass of rosé. Top team people with good senses of humour are so much more fun to work with… I won’t tell you the full story of how we taught Toto Wolff to get on with the British, suffice to say that his wife did complain that we had told him to be rude to people he liked, because that is what Brits do… Nowadays he is always very rude to me and I am very rude back and so all is well.
On Friday morning (the aforementioned lovely cool crisp morning) I was in the paddock, wearing a 007-branded baseball cap, given to me a few races ago by some friendly Aston Martin people. I often wear strange baseball caps (because “I can’t do anything with my hair”) and they help avoid sunburn. It is a tradition which began a very long time ago when I turned up with CIA hat I had found in a second hand store in Monterey, California. In those days the CIA did not do merchandising and I guess it came from a retiree, who had gone off to the great Langley in the sky. It gave people a good laugh and I have had a few adventures as a result over the years, including the favourite “Are you really?” moment that happens now and then when people are not really thinking.
Anyway, someone in the Paddock suggested that I make sure to wear the 007 hat in Canada. This left me reaching the conclusion that actor Daniel Craig – Mr Bond himself – will be there as a VIP guest, so perhaps we will share a Martini or two, or maybe a Heineken, as this appears to be the current tipple of 007 product placement. Bond is, of course, absolutely the kind of celebrity that F1 needs and I hope that the Aston Martin association will beef up the connection. If F1 was really smart, it would suggest a movie scene at a Grand Prix…
Branding is such an important part of the business these days and F1 is still not doing as much as it could. I do hear, however, that perhaps Mercedes might be considering putting one of its F1 power units (detuned just a tad) into some kind of fancy road car, in order to produce a slam-dunk limited edition model for those in this world with far too much money. Given that they have recently unveiled a Mercedes speedboat, such ideas are not daft. Of course, this will help to advertise the fact that F1 is doing amazing things with power unit technology, something which continues to be missed by many. I was recently told that if one applied the percentage improvement in the thermal efficiency of F1 engines to the average fuel consumption of the European car fleet, the resulting fuel consumption figure would be a startling 165 miles per gallon, which is the kind of number that might stop governments pouring all their money into electric cars… Of course, people will challenge this figure and say that its unproven and so on, but I think that if the potential is there, then it is worth telling the world about it. I am sure that someone could come up with some simulation to prove it.
Simulation is an area where F1 people are very wary when it comes to talking to the media – it’s a bit like data security and rapid prototyping developments. They don’t want to say too much. However I understand that these days, the top teams are getting close to having real time interlinked simulators which drivers use to develop parts. I am not sure how far this has got, but certainly it seems that the best are running suspensions on rigs elsewhere that link to the simulator, while the engines are run on test beds at the same time. One wonders whether the wind tunnel can be tied in as well. This is all far too clever for me, but it is fascinating just how much they can now learn from simulation. This is why a lot of teams have so many test drivers these days, so that they can run the simulators as much as they do. I guess that the FIA will soon start to try to limit this stuff, although I would think that the best use of it would be to help the sport develop better virtual experiences. I am told that FOM is doing a lot more in this respect than they let on. I think it would help to tell everyone what they are up to…
The one thing about Max Verstappen’s victory in Spain that no-one much has zeroed in on is that not long ago, in its infinite wisdom, the FIA decided to ban anyone younger than 18 from competing in F1, on the basis that 18-year-olds would be incapable of doing the job properly. That looks like a very poor decision now that Max has shown that age is not the issue. Perhaps it would be a better idea for the federation to have upper age limits on drivers so that the sport can have more of a turnover of stars, rather than keeping the same names for too long. One might also add that an upper age limit on membership of the World Motor Sport Council might also be a good idea, so such decisions do not get made in the future.
We all like fairytales, even if we don’t like to admit it. They take us back to the innocent days of childhood where everything seemed to be possible and one knew whether someone was good or bad based on the colour of the cowboy hat they were wearing. As a kid I always had wonderful day dreams, often acted out, doing things that I would never be able to do: be an astronaut, a fighter pilot (a heroic one, of course), a Royal Marine Commando dodging bullets or a rugby player diving headlong across the line, to score a winning try. It was magic and I love the fact that Max has strolled into F1, as cool as a cucumber in James Dean’s refrigerator, and has done so well, so quickly. He had had a busy few days before Spain and people were talking about him being nervous before the race, about the pressure on him. It was all blah-blah.
As drivers come on to the grid in their cars, they rarely do anything to signals that they are aware of the world around them. They are “in the zone” and very serious. Well, most of them… As his Red Bull was being pushed through the crowds, I happened to be standing to one side, keeping out of the way. Max was watching the world around him, he saw me, said hello with his eyes and gave a little nod. I think he even raised a finger (politely) but it all happened rather quickly so I am not entirely sure. I stood back and thought: Yep, this guy is going to do well today. And did he ever…
I have to add that I am entirely biased in this respect because I’ve known Max since he a kid. I wrote about his father, who was much more talented than his F1 results suggest, and who fell victim to politics and cynical people who do not give a toss about the drivers and treat them like light bulbs. I know that Jos was careful to make sure that Max did not make the same kind of mistakes. Anyway, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house on Sunday. This result is a huge opportunity for F1 to relate to a whole new generation of fans. The race was a great advert for the sport, which has been doing a pretty poor job of self-promotion in recent years and while Monaco may not produce the best races, it is still the best advert that exists for the sport. If you’ve never seen it, you must put it on your list because the TV never does justice to what these men do with their racing cars. And I love the fact that we now have a new generation of stars on the rise: Max, Stoffel Vandoorne, Pascal Wehrlein, Carlos Sainz Jr, Kevin Magnussen and so on. I think we should still include Daniil Kvyat, who I think is an exceptional driver who really did nothing wrong apart from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. F1 is all about that, as much as it is about pure talent. Max would never have won in Spain had the two Mercedes drivers not taken one another out. That’s racing and you take the wins that come your way. The popularity of F1 in a country is largely dependent on whether there is a successful driver around. Before Michael Schumacher, Germany was not really into F1. Before Fernando Alonso, Spain was quiet. The problem is how to find them. Logically, China and India should be able to find more suitable human beings, on the basis that there are vastly more people in these places than there are in Holland or Belgium. Years ago, however, I concluded that the Dutch had worked out the best way to do things. “Forget the hours of training,” I wrote, “the answer is to breed them. We have seen many sons of famous fathers, but Jos (Verstappen) is ahead of the game in his thinking, as he managed to find a competitive lady racer with whom to share his DNA and the result – Max Verstappen – should one day be a top notch racer”. Max’s mother Sophie Kumpen was a very successful karter, who beat some F1 stars in karts. She was the niece of the Belgian national rallycross champion Paul Kumpen and, in fact, over the Spanish GP weekend her brother (Max’s cousin) Anthony won the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series race at Venray in the Netherlands (below).
Beware also because it seems to me that the Americans are now on the verge of breeding some stars as we have NASCAR drivers Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr as a solid item, while in IndyCar star Graham Rahal and drag racer Courtney Force recently married. Her father John is a 16-time NHRA drag racing champion and both her and her sister Ashley have had hugely successful careers as drag racing queens (you have to be careful when you type that one!)
F1 may look snootily down on NASCAR in Europe, but they need to pay attention, as the series is spooling up nicely and I hear that NASCAR may be taking more of an interest (financially and in terms of organization) in the European series. Few people know it but this season Mathias Lauda and Freddie Hunt (sons of the famous 1976 duel duo) have been team-mates in Euro NASCAR, which is the kind of promotion that Formula E has also been using with Nicolas Prost and Bruno Senna.
One place where we may get to see NASCAR in the future is the planned Laon Couvron facility which Jonathan Palmer is now developing in northern France. Jolyon’s dad was in Spain for qualifying and then flew off to host the Laon Historic Rally, featuring more than 1000 classic cars parading around the former US base. Take a look at the place on Google Earth and you’ll see it has huge potential as a motorsport facility, not least a two-thirds of a mile oval! Perfect for some rough-tough NASCAR stockers. JP flew back on Sunday to watch JP Junior doing his thing. Also arriving for the race was Ferrari (and Fiat) boss Sergio Marchionne, who took the opportunity to debunk stories that Maurizio Arrivabene is about to be shown the door marked USCITA at Maranello. A whisper I heard in Spain is that Franz Tost might be seeing such a sign shortly if the politics at Toro Rosso do not soon calm down.
After the race in Spain I went to find Jos Verstappen and as I was walking through the paddock I encountered Daniil Kvyat, who was booted out not because he had done much wrong, but rather because Max was there and Red Bull needed to secure the Dutchman before Ferrari or Mercedes grabbed him. Daniil had come home 10th but no-one cared, no-one paid him any attention. He was no longer the story…
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