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The FIA says that it believes it is an appropriate gesture to retire Jules Bianchi’s number 17 from the Formula One World Championship in honour of the dead Frenchman. Car numbers are now personally chosen by each driver and this means that the number can no longer be used for a car competing in the FIA Formula One World Championship.

It is an interesting discussion as to whether this is more of a tribute than allowing the number to be used again. There are, at the moment, very few numbers in F1 that are specifically linked to one specific driver because the system meant that they were always being switched around, particularly if one was successful. The World Champion would take the number 1, or if he retired his car would carry number 0, the old World Champion would get his successor’s previous number.

One thinks, obviously, of Gilles Villeneuve and number 27, which is today being used by Nico Hulkenberg, although some older fans argue that they always link the number to Alan Jones, when he was a Williams driver. The only number with the same kind of status in F1 is number five, which was linked to Nigel Mansell.

The process of linking drivers to numbers is still new in F1 but has been used a lot in US racing where the late Dale Earnhardt, for example, was famous for his number 3. That number was retired for a while after his death, but is now being used by Austin Dillon. Dan Ricciardo, incidentally, chose the number three because he was a fan of Earnhardt.

I read a headline somewhere about how the Lotus F1 team has nearly $1 million of unpaid bills. I should think that most of the F1 teams have much the same at any one time. To single out Lotus is a fairly daft thing to do, although – to be fair – the team has not helped itself by not dealing with its creditors unless they take the organisation to court, or threaten to wind up the operation. But stop and think about it for a moment. Yes, to you, me and a lot of other people $1 million sounds like a great deal of money. But it is not something that the Greek Prime Minister would lose any sleep over. These kind of people worry about hundreds of millions and billions. The media has been making a huge fuss of late about Greek debt and it seems that almost no-one noticed that between June 12 and July 8 the value of the Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite companies dropped by 33 percent, wiping more than $3.2 trillion off the value of the companies involved. To put that into some perspective, it is 10 times that size of the entire Greek economy… So one needs to put things into perspective. The current Formula 1 teams are all owned by people who can afford to own them. If they reach the point where it becomes impossible, they will sell them, but they don’t want to lose money and so they are all holding on, hoping that the sport will change and that costs will come down and rewards increase. In the interim they are investing as little as they possibly can. You have to remember that the sport’s costs are astonishing, with the small teams burning through more than $1 million a week and the big teams spending that amount EVERY DAY. So big headlines claiming that a team that owes a million is in trouble are simply naive.

Similarly, there are reports that the Russian Grand Prix is in financial trouble and might not happen, on the basis that the local interim governor Veniamin Kondratiev told the media that the region was not going to be paying the fees for the race. This was spun into a big story, without anyone actually stopping to think it through. Kondratiev is clearly not the kind of man who is going to go against the will of President Putin, who wants the race to happen because it makes him look good, if only in the eyes of his own people. Kondratiev was appointed only a few months ago and prior to the appointment was serving on Putin’s presidential staff. So, it is fair to suggest that he probably does what he is told…

The truth is that the deal between Bernie Ecclestone and the Russian authorities is guaranteed by the Ministry of Finance. In order to pay the fees the government is loaning the money required to the rights holder, OAO Omega Centre, which provides construction and engineering services in the Krasnodar region. This organisation then pays the fees to the Formula One group. The word is that the money required this year is $70 million, which perhaps explains why Bernie Ecclestone always makes such a fuss about Vladimir Putin. Anyone who pays that much for an F1 race deserves to be pampered. That is an amazing amount of money to pay each year for a motor race.

The race promotion company is operating the circuit and all it needs to do is to cover its operating costs. The word is that this year there are only 20,000 tickets sold, which if true is disappointing, although it is not unusual for the crowd to drop off significantly in the second year of a new event. The Russians don’t much like the date that they have and are moving to the May 1 holiday next year, in the hope that this will make the race more successful.

A non-GP Sunday…

Over the weekend, it seemed like a good moment for a picnic and so I had a most enjoyable time with some charming company, sitting in mottled sunshine next to the lake in the local parkland, with plenty of breeze. The picnic was very much in the style of The Water Rat in The Wind in the Willows, with “a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine, shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.” Well, if one adds tomatoes of various hues, gazpacho, melon, raspberries, grapes, a little duck, some hard-boiled eggs, tabouleh, a prawn concoction with smoked salmon and cucumber and assorted bottles of simmering champagne and rustic rosé. Add to that a very dodgy apéritif called La Belle Sandrine, served glacially cold, which is wonderful, but can be used to knock out entire tank crews, being a mixture of passion fruit juice and Armagnac brandy. The one disguises the power of the other…

We took a clever little machine that Sony created, a handbag-sized speaker that leaps into life whenever a smartphone comes into the vicinity, playing whatever music leaps to mind, by way of Spotify and had a splendid time. It was late afternoon by the time we headed home for coffee and chouquettes. The guests went home and an obligatory snooze followed and then we turned on the TV to see if there was anything worth watching. Oddly, this is not something I ever really do on a Sunday and, despite the proliferation of TV choices, here was evidence that the TV talent is now spread thin.

In the end we settled for what was perhaps an odd choice: The Masters de Pétanque competition from Soulac sur Mer, in the Médoc. Now, I understand if you think this might be dull, but I was fascinated to see how a TV company could make pétanque into an interesting spectator sport and I have to say I was pretty impressed. There were cheerleaders for a start, which is never a bad idea. We couldn’t really remember the rules of play, but after watching for about 10 minutes it was all fairly clear what was going on and there were some incredible skills on display from players of very different ages. In pétanque, the old men are not 35 as in F1, they really are old men. It was fascinating, not least because it was a commentator’s nightmare as Equipe Sarrio (which seems to be the Manchester United of boules) was playing Madagascar, represented by Tiana Razandrakoto, Lahatraina Randriamanantany and (I’m not kidding) Tonitsihoarana Urlicha Alhenj Zoe. The French names were fairly easy in comparison. The clever use of the cameras gave one a very clear indication of the level of skill involved in the sport, without dwelling too much on the sponsors names on the walls and it really was nail-biting stuff, filled with super tactics, which were explained well by the commentators. I guess that it was a sport made simple because there were no agendas, no need to have Rolex on screen for x seconds, or to have the cameras placed high up, which always loses the impression of speed. It struck me that lessons could be learned by the F1 television people, if they can get over the usual F1 Not Invented Here syndrome.

After that was done, I was channel-hopping and chanced upon the IndyCar race from Iowa, which was one of those fairly awful broadcasts where the commentators are clearly in a studio in Paris and are not really interested in anything un-French, spending their time extolling the virtues of Sébastien Bourdais (ninth), Tristan Vautier (12th), Simon Pagenaud (14th) and “notre ami” the Monégasque Stefano Coletti (who hit the wall). They failed to really pay suitable tribute to a terrific drive from Josef Newgarden, an American 1-2-3-4-6-7 finish, and a really remarkable run by Graham Rahal who overcame multiple problems (including a flat tyre and a gearbox glitch) but still managed to finish fourth, just a few seconds behind the winner, lifting himself to second in the championship as a result.

They were only vaguely interested in some terrifying driving from 20-year-old Sage Karam, who ended up on the podium but was berated in the pit lane by Ed Carpenter for being, well, I won’t use all the words that Carpenter used, but immature, arrogant, stupid and over-confident is a polite précis of what was said. Karam looked like a kid who has played too many computer games and does not fully understand that you don’t get another life if you kill yourself.

Someone asked me yesterday if I could remember something I wrote years ago and I tried to find it (and failed), but in doing so I found some interesting stuff, lurking in the dusty filing cabinets of the computer, which have been migrated from one machine to another for many a year, without being read again. I discovered a column I had written for an Australian magazine in December 2002. Holy Crap, that is nearly 13 years ago. There are F1 drivers nearly that old these days…

Anyway, I like it and thought that I would share it with you, to try to explain in a very human way that F1 is not always what it may appear to be. It reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago with an F1 driver who honestly thought that journalists earned the same kind of money as F1 drivers.

Anyway, it is something to enjoy on a summer Sunday…

It never happens
to James Bond…

People keep telling me that I lead a very glamorous life and, as I strolled up to entrance of Sporting Club in Monte Carlo, at a quarter to eight on the dot, dressed up in my best dinner suit and clutching an invitation to the FIA Prizegiving Gala, I have to say that I was feeling rather good.

Monte Carlo was glittering as it does and everyone was dressed up and looking like extras from The Great Gatsby. As I went to the reception desk I somehow resisted the temptation to say: “The name is Bond. James Bond.”

I guess that going to see the latest Bond movie “Die Another Day” twice in a fortnight had had an effect on me. I looked around to see if there might be a Miranda Frost-like figure in the hall, but all I saw was a couple of North Korean-looking types. I thought for a moment that I might have to shoot them, but then I spotted the kindly figure of Ove Andersson, the boss of Toyota Motorsport, and so I went to talk to him instead, to find out the latest gossip from Cologne. And then Paul Stoddart scooted by. It was like being in a motor racing hall of fame. There were oodles of champions (as one would expect), the FIA movers and shakers and then a certain amount of pondlife that somehow always gets invited to these sort of events. I had seen them all earlier in the day in the lobby at the Hotel de Paris.

Bond would have loved it. The Hotel de Paris houses the best of people and the worst of people and, as I went in, I spotted one of the sleaziest sleaze-bags that money can buy sitting in a corner, deep in conversation. He clocked me but with his eyes hidden behind sunglasses. I saw him curl his lip.

Who the hell wears sunglasses inside the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo in December? I thought as I felt for my revolver to put the poor bastard out of his misery. I scanned the room. There was The Very Fat Man who appears from time to time on the Grand Prix scene and behind him as always was a scurrying Japanese, nodding and smiling weakly at those he passes.

The Albanian had to be there somewhere. I could almost smell him.

Well, it was a nice idea. In fact we were not very Bond-like at all. We were a ragged bunch of journos in the hotel foyer, trying to look smart as we waited for the press release after the FIA World Motor Sport Council meeting. Still, a few hours and a dinner jacket can make all the difference and, with a glass of champagne in one hand, I headed for my table at the Sporting Club, feeling very Bond-like.

“Hello,” said a man from Sweden. “We’ve met before.”

“Yes,” I replied as Bond would have done. “In a bar in Paris as I recall.”

It was a bit of an act, of course. It was Friday the 13th and I was not been having a particularly good day. As darkness fell on Monte Carlo I had popped out of the Hotel Mirabeau to pick up some cash. One cannot achieve much in the Principality without a fistful of Euros and so I was somewhat disappointed when the bank machine told me that M (for bank Manager) had rescinded my Double O status because, apparently, I had OO in my bank account. We all have the odd credit card which isn’t working, or one that works but we have lost the pin number. My favourite card always works unless, of course, some spotty git at the bank has forgotten to make the necessary transfer from one account to another. It is amazing that this always happens on a Friday evening, just after the banks have closed for the weekend when one is in Monte Carlo, pretending to be James Bond.

I tried not to think about it at the Sporting Club and I had a very pleasant evening. The transparent beef tail ravioli were rather delicious and the Brittany lobster soup slipped down nicely. One could not fault the duck and the odd glass of Pichon Longueville always eases the pain of life. The company was agreeable and such events are always good places to pick up stories.

The James Bond theme popped up later in the evening in one of the videos accompanying the prize-giving. A dark-suited skier came down a mountain at breakneck speed. This was intercut with shots of the F1 World Championship. At the end the dark-suited figure took off his headgear and winked naughtily at the camera. It was, of course, Michael Schumacher.

I avoided the requests to go out on the town (one needs a mortgage to do that in Monte Carlo) and I wandered back to the Mirabeau, as the clock edged round towards one. They had given me a card which would allow me into the Casino, but I was not in the mood and was not going to risk my last 10 Euros on the roulette tables. Bond would have done it and, naturally, would have won a small fortune and taken home some luscious beauty as well. In the morning he would hijack a helicopter or steal a jet-ski and get himself to the airport in the nick of time, but when I emerged from the hotel in the morning it was clear that Monaco very early on a Saturday is not an easy place to steal anything. There were not even any little old ladies to mug, nor yappy little terriers to hold to ransom.

In the course of the night I had searched my clothing and luggage and had turned up another 20 Euros and so I had a fighting chance of getting home, despite the fact that in Monaco they have some very weird ideas about pricing. A helicopter ride to the airport costs a whacking 88 Euros. A taxi fare is a disgraceful 75. The train fare is three… The only problem with this is that the station is on the wrong side of town and there is a similar problem in Nice. But necessity breeds invention and so I walked, trying to look as Bond-like as possible, with my bag swung casually over my shoulder.

After a day of adventure I did finally make it home to Paris and as I walked up my street I laughed out loud and thought of the glamorous world of Formula 1. It is not always as it seems…

It is with great sadness that I must report the death last night of Jules Bianchi, at the age of 25. Bianchi had been in hospital in Nice since November, having been repatriated from Japan after his unfortunate collision with a safety vehicle during the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on October 5 last year.

Of all the Formula 1 racers of the modern era, Bianchi was the one with perhaps the best understanding of what motorsport is truly like. He came from a family that knew only too well about the triumphs and tragedies of the sport. His great-grandfather had been a mechanic with the Alfa Romeo factory team in the 1930s, before moving to Belgium to work with racer Johnny Claes. Bianchi’s two sons became Belgian citizens as a result of that move and both Lucien and Mauro turned to motor racing in their teens. Lucien’s first event was the Alpine Rally in 1951 when he was just 17 years old. There was not much money but Lucien did well and teamed with Olivier Gendebien he won the Tour de France Automobile in 1957.He won the event for three consecutive years. He won the Paris 1000 sports car race at Montlhery several times as well and in 1960 fulfilled an ambition by making his F1 debut, albeit in an old Cooper and then moved on to join Ecurie Nationale Belge, driving an uncompetitive Emeryson. After that experience he went back to touring cars, sportscars and rallying, enjoying successes in all of them, winning the Liege-Sofia-Liege for Citroen in 1961 and leading the London-Sydney Marathon before colliding with a non-competing car. He went on to win the Sebring 12 Hours in 1962 at the wheel of a Ferrari which he shared with Jo Bonnier and then in 1968 went back to Formula 1 as a member of the Cooper-BRM team. That same year his brother Mauro (Jules’s grandfather) was seriously injured in a fiery accident at Le Mans which ended his career and left him badly scarred. Lucien won the race with a Gulf-sponsored Ford GT40, which he shared with Pedro Rodriguez. Early in 1969 he was testing for the Alfa Romeo team when his car suffered a mechanical failure on the Mulsanne Straight and crashed into a telegraph pole. He was killed instantly. As a result of the accidents the family frowned on any active racing in the next generation but Mauro’s son Philippe ran a kart track at Antibes on the French Riviera. Jules grew up watching the racing and as soon as his feet could touch the pedals of a kart he was at the wheel. He was unable to race until he was 10 but he enjoyed a successful karting career before switching to cars and winning the French Formula Renault 2.0 title in 2007, with five victories. He moved to Formula 3 with ART Grand Prix and in 2008 won the Masters of Formula 3 at Zolder and finished third Formula 3 Euro Series. He returned to the same series in 2009, alongside team-mates Valtteri Bottas, Esteban Gutiérrez and Adrien Tambay and dominated, winning nine races. He moved to GP2 with ART in 2010 and later that year was named as a Ferrari test driver for 2011. He continued to race in GP2 and later the Renault 3.5 World Series and was signed to race for Marussia in F1 in 2013. He finished eighth on the road in Monaco in 2014, but dropped to ninth as a result of a penalty. Those points, however, won the team prize money for 2015 and 2016 and became the only reason that the team was able to survive its period of administration and revive this year. Alas, the accident at Suzuka followed.

Motor racing is a cruel sport, despite the best efforts that are made to try to protect the drivers from all possible dangers. Even with the knowledge of what his family had had to endure, Bianchi chose to pursue F1 as his career. He knew what he was doing. Motor racing is dangerous and the competitors know the risks that they take. The safety levels in F1 are impressive, but when one is pushing the limits there are always going to be accidents and, sadly, Jules Bianchi fell victim to one. It should be remembered that this is the first death resulting from an accident in a Grand Prix since Ayrton Senna 21 years ago at Imola.

The greatest sadness is perhaps the wasted potential – as with so many accidents in the history of the sport. Bianchi was a Ferrari young driver and if all had gone to plan he would perhaps have ended up racing for the great Italian team.

“The pain we feel is immense and indescribable,” his family said this morning in a statement. “We wish to thank the medical staff at Nice’s CHU who looked after him with love and dedication. We also thank the staff of the General Medical Center in the Mie Prefecture (Japan) who looked after Jules immediately after the accident, as well as all the other doctors who have been involved with his care over the past months. Furthermore, we thank Jules’ colleagues, friends, fans and everyone who has demonstrated their affection for him over these past months, which gave us great strength and helped us deal with such difficult times. Listening to and reading the many messages made us realise just how much Jules had touched the hearts and minds of so many people all over the world. We would like to ask that our privacy is respected during this difficult time, while we try to come to terms with the loss of Jules.”

Jules is survived by his parents Philippe and Christine, his brother Tom and sister Mélanie.

There are some pretty credible reports  coming out of Italy suggesting that Valtteri Bottas has been signed to replace Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari in 2016. The move has been rumoured for some time and the well-connected Corriere dello Sport says it will be announced after the end of July, which is the date at which Raikkonen’s 2016 option would need to be taken up. If confirmed, the deal will mean a big financial boost for Williams as the team had a five-year contract with Bottas, of which this season is the fourth. That would mean Bottas would have to buy his way out of the Williams contract – with Ferrari presumably providing the cash. While on paper the move is not really logical for Bottas, the future of Ferrari is more clearly defined than the future at Williams, as the Grove team is still not back in the ranks of F1’s big spenders. Such a windfall will do the Williams team no harm at all. This is likely to get the F1 driver market moving and it will be interesting to see what Williams will do, although a deal with Nico Hulkenberg would be the obvious step, as the German has already been a Williams driver, back in 2010. He was not retained in 2011 because the team needed Pastor Maldonado’s money and had already had a deal with Rubens Barrichello. Hulkenberg had been hoping for a chance at Ferrari but if Bottas is confirmed, his best option is Williams. The other man who Williams might like is Daniel Ricciardo. His contractual status is not entirely clear as he’s not keen on giving detailed answers, so it is safe to assume he’s not completely locked in for 2016. One other option that might be possible would be for McLaren to pay for Williams to take one of its youngsters, to help them out developing into future stars. There is even the possibility that Jenson Button might return to the team where his career started 15 years ago. In recent days Jenson has been making it quite clear that his future at McLaren is not certain and that was probably sending a message to Williams. This would be a neat bookend to his F1 career and would help McLaren open the way for Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne to both move up the ladder.

McLaren and Honda

There is a great deal of silly and irrelevant chatter at the moment about the McLaren-Honda alliance. Obviously, things are not where the team would like them to be, but no doubt Honda engineers are working around the clock to fix the problems with the power unit.

One does not need to be a Rhodes Scholar to see that Honda underestimated the job required, or perhaps went down a path that was later deemed a bad idea and it has been playing catch-up ever since. The law of diminishing returns means that given time the manufacturers will all end up at the same sort of level of performance, at which point Honda’s philosophy of doing things its own way will pay off because you never get ahead by copying, only by finding different solutions.

There is no guarantee that this will lead to Honda domination in F1, but those who underestimate the intellect and resources that Honda has are unwise. Of course there is frustration about the current situation, but the “win together, lose together” approach is way more intelligent – and graceful – than Red Bull’s public flogging of Renault, which appears rather rude after the French company helped the team to four consecutive World Championships. I guess that if one is looking for gracious behaviour one days not hire Helmut Marko. If Red Bull ends up without an engine partner it has only itself to blame. 

McLaren is quite right to argue that a team without manufacturer backing is not going to win the title – being a customer is always just a stepping stone. Those who hark back to “the good old days” of Cosworth are living in the past. F1 is now too big and too valuable a communication tool to have specialist engine companies beating manufacturers. That time has gone.

Honda is a good choice for McLaren, given the Japanese firm’s history in the sport and the mentality at Honda. It would be good to see more manufacturers coming in and teaming up with the likes of Williams and Lotus, but that is unlikely to happen until there are some new attitudes on the sport. However that should not stop teams going and banging on the doors at Ford, GM, Toyota, Hyundai, Peugeot or Porsche and arguing the case of F1. It is not an easy sell, but if you don’t try, you don’t have the chance to fail.

We all know that the sport itself needs some changes – and we know also that they will come – and having more manufacturers will only help that happen. McLaren went out and sold Honda on a deal – and that is what the other teams shoul do.

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