For what it is worth…

Lap times in testing are not always the most important thing – because one never knows what teams are up to; and whether they are producing sensible results – or trying to give the impression that they are faster than is really the case. One can write learned treatises about this tyre and that tyre and fuel load calculations, but you still don’t know if drivers are lifting off to produce slower times than the cars are capable of doing and it’s hard to be sure if people are running underweight.

It is much more sensible to look at the number of laps covered to get an idea about which cars are troublesome and which seem to be behaving well. This covers both mechanical reliability and incidents caused by drivers fighting cars that don’t do what they want them to do.

Using this method one might be forgiven for thinking that Mercedes is not very competitive this year. That be a bit of a stretch as you cannot write off a team with a record like it has, but one can note that the four teams using Mercedes engines (Mercedes, Williams, McLaren and Aston Martin) have covered the least ground in the first two days.

The other teams have all done about the same, give or take 12 laps. Is this significant?

In terms of the most mileage, it’s effectively a tie with Alpine having done 257 laps, one more than Red Bull and Alfa Romeo, four more than AlphaTauri and 10 more than Haas. Ferrari is just two laps behind the US team and then there is a 30-lap gap back to the first Merc-engined team: Williams. McLaren is 20 down on that while Aston Martin might perhaps look lovely, but being 80 laps down on Alpine is not a great start. And Merc is 15 laps down on the green machines…

Laps are limited in F1 these days, more than ever, and so losing time is painful for two reasons: the drivers have less time to get to know (and tame) the cars, and there is less data for the engineers to scratch their heads over and to use for their simulation programmes.

In terms of lap times, Merc’s Valtteri Bottas leads the way with a 1m30.289s, ahead of Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) with a 1m30.413s and Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) with a 1m30.460s. McLaren’s Lando Norris is next with a 1m30.586 and then we have Max Verstappen’s best from the first day at 1m30.674s in his Red Bull.

Let’s see how things change on Day 3, the final day of pre-season running – apart from a few filming days that are due.

Murray Walker 1923 – 2021

It is with huge sadness that I must report that Murray Walker died this morning at the age of 97.

It has been nearly 20 years since Murray attended Formula 1 races on a regular basis, but he remained an enthusiast until the end. Murray’s enthusiasm was what often got him into trouble as a TV commentator and he was famed for his mistakes. He always used to do endless research for his commentary – but then was so excited during the races that he forgot most of it. People called him a British national treasure – and that is absolutely right.

Murray had a remarkable life, but he rarely talked of his adventures which began in 1923 in Hall Green, Birmingham. His father Graham was a celebrated motorcycle racer, after serving as a despatch rider in World War I. Graham Walker was the European 500cc Champion in 1927 and won the 250cc class on the Isle of Man TT in 1931. By then he had become the Competition Director of the Rudge motorcycle firm in Coventry and travelled to races all over Europe. From 1938 onwards he became the editor of Motor Cycling magazine, a job which he held until 1954.

Murray was given a motorcycle when he was 14 and was soon competing in trials, although such activities were restricted by attending Highgate School, in north London. Despite this in the holidays he sometimes travelled with his father and as a result attended the Donington Grand Prix in 1938, watched the famous Silver Arrows in action and was even introduced to Tazio Nuvolari. In the summer of 1939 the family was touring Germany and Austria when it became clear that war was coming and they made a hurried return to the UK before the war began. Highgate School was soon evacuated to Westward Ho! in North Devon and Walker spent the next two years in a very peaceful environment while the war waged elsewhere. In the autumn of 1941 when he reached 18 he volunteered for the Royal Armoured Corps, but he would not be called up for nearly a year, which he spent in Birmingham, working for  Dunlop.

Finally he was ordered to Bovington Camp in Dorset, where he underwent basic training before being sent on to the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst for the next 18 months. He finally graduated in April 1944 but then underwent further training before being sent to Europe to join the Royal Scots Greys, a cavalry regiment that was equipped with Sherman tanks. He joined the regiment in Holland in the autumn of 1944, just after Operation Market Garden, the airborne assault up to Arnhem. It was then a quiet sector but in the spring of 1945 Walker was in the thick of it, as the Scots Greys fought across northern Germany, liberating Bremen and Lubeck and ending the war in Wismar, on the Baltic coast, where they linked up with the Russian Armies coming from the east. Later he would be sent to the Belsen camp, near Hannover, although by the time he arrived the concentration camp had been demolished and it had been turned into a training facilty for the Royal Armoured Corps.

In 1947 he was sent home and immediately began to involve himself in motorcycle racing. His father was by then a BBC commentator and Murray got his first break at a hillclimb which his father was unable to attend. He would then become the stand-in commentator for motorcycle and motor racing events, replacing his father and Raymond Baxter when necessary. But that was his weekend job because during the week he worked in advertising. He started out at Dunlop but then in 1955 went to work in Asia with Aspro, a kind of aspirin. He then joined McCann Erickson to work on the Esso account. In 1959 he joined a smaller agency called Masius Ferguson, where he would remain until 1982. This would become the second largest advertising firm in Britain, after J Walter Thompson, largely as a result of a successful relationship with Forrest Mars, for whom the agency launched pet food products Kit-E-Kat and Pal. Walker admits that he was responsible for the hugely successful slogan for Trill bird food: “An only budgie is a lonely budgie” which increased sales considerably as many budgie owners bought a second bird and thus sales increased. The success with Mars led to the firm being used to promote Mars Bars, Maltesers and other confectionary. It is a myth that Murray invented the famous “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play” but he was the director of that account and he was responsible for another celebrated slogan: “Opal Fruits: Made to make your mouth water”.

After his retirement from advertising, Murray became a fulltime commentator, although the BBC did not send him to all the races until the early 1990s, usually missing the non-European events. He would remain with the BBC until 1996 and then moved to ITV from 1997 to 2001 before finally stepping back at the age of 78.

Murray was a friend as well as a colleague and I worked with him for quite a lot of years when the BBC would not send him to far-flung races. My job was to be a “ghost commentator” for him and James Hunt, providing them with live information from the BBC commentary box, via the producer Mark Wilkin. James hated this situation and always used to say “And I cannot quite see from where I am sitting”, but Murray showed his understanding of the arts of TV directorship by very often pre-empting the shot that the directors would switch to after something had happened. It was astonishing how often he was right…

What to watch out for in F1… (and it isn’t testing)

Rather than filling small districts of the endless virtual space of the modern media by rating the F1 car launches, making hopeful predictions or chasing around trying to work out why the latest social media crusade is good or bad for motor racing, I thought I would take a step back from the day-to-day grindstone to look at some big issues in the motorsport world. And they don’t relate to the latest meme, equality, Nikita Mazepin, Fernando’s jaw, electric vehicles or even F1 aerodynamic devices.

I am, of course, looking forward to seeing what the new F1 season will bring, but I am not sure that it will be very different to 2020. Yes, it’s true, the teams have been working hard on improve their machines (because painting them different colours does not traditionally make them quicker). The problem is that when you have lots of clever people all doing the same thing, one ends up with what used to be called “an arms race”, when one nation or alliance developed weapons more complex and expensive than another nation or alliance. It might have been something of value when they were building battleships 100 years ago, but once the world reached the point of mutually assured destruction (brilliantly shortened to MAD), there really isn’t a whole lot of point in spending vast sums trying to try to help us kill each other more quickly. No-one is that MAD.

And this is F1’s problem at the moment. Everyone is moving forwards all the time and to move forwards faster than another team requires more resources, more people etc. This is the genius of Racing Point in 2020. Because they recognised their restrictions and looked at how to make things go faster without spending more money and the conclusion was that they should copy the Mercedes as closely as possible, within the limit of the regulations.

And that is how they managed to get to a place where they could win a race last year.

Anyway, with the pandemic, the money supply in F1 hasn’t dried up, but let’s say that the fountains are not gushing as once they did. In that situation it was entirely correct and sensible to stop everyone spending money pointlessly and so the freeze came along. This means that while it probably won’t change a whole lot in the F1 pecking order, it will mean that talent and brains may have a bigger impact on the results in the future. And it will pump some value into the teams because there might one day be a moment at which they can all make a profit, even if they lose on the track. F1 is a formidable money-making machine, unless you are a team owner. And that doesn’t make any sense at all. It means that the sport relies on finding people who are sufficiently passionate about motor racing or want to promote themselves, their children or their businesses and are willing to spend vast sums of money doing it. Finding enough of these people when budgets are so high is quite hard, and the folk who turn up have often been just a little bit weird.

Still, it all makes for great soap opera. And the story lines are forever changing, along with the cast. People come and go, some faster than others.

I have been hearing more in recent weeks about people who want to get their hands on the 11th and 12th “franchises” for teams. It isn’t going to happen in 2022, but I keep hearing that there are at least two mega-budget operations (non-manufacturer) which want to be involved quickly. I am not sure they want to pay the $200 million that is supposed to be the money they have to pay to join in, but I struggle to see how paying your opposition to join the party isn’t some kind of cartel that restricts trade – and the dear old EU is rather keen on stopping cartels.

There will be new rules in 2025, but coming in earlier is not necessarily illogical. Renault is very keen to have more teams involved and is offering engine deals and newcomers will be in a relatively stable environment in 2023 and 2024 to get things started.

Assuming the FIA and the Formula 1 group want them to join in.

And here’s the thing. What will the FIA be after next December?

In case you don’t know, Jean Todt’s term as FIA President is coming to an end and it is time for the next generation to step up to do battle. This is the big story going on in the background in motor sport at the moment and from what I am hearing it is going to be a two-horse race between the current FIA Deputy President of Sport Graham Stoker and former rally driver Mohammed ben Sulayem, who comes from the United Arab Emirates. From what I am hearing David Richards and Alejandro Agag are not in the running and Stoker seems to have the support of Todt and the current leadership (which one might argue is a way for Todt to keep some clout after they make him a President d’Honneur, or whatever title comes along.

Ben Sulayem has long been keen on the idea of being FIA President and is playing up the concept of a more global team, while Stoker is more of the old school. It’s an interesting contest. This isn’t speculation by the way, you can read about Ben Sulayem’s plans at https://fiaformembers.com. I’ve met him a few times over the years and I’m still not quite sure what to make of him, and I have some vivid memories of him saying some quite extraordinary things after Max Mosley ran into trouble with his lady friends some time back. Others remember him for crashing an F1 Renault, while some can even recall when he was a multiple rally champion in the Middle East.

I have a better idea about the man who would become his Deputy President for Sport, Robert Reid, who is a very good man. If the name is familiar it is because he was a World Championship co-driver with the late Richard Burns. I have a huge amount of time for Robert.

Having said that, I think that Todt has done a very decent job, which was not always what I expected. He’s been a solid steady force and he has played the political game well and he has shaped F1 how it should be.

Anyway, we’ll see how things develop, but it seems that the battle lines are now drawn.

The other key story that I think is about to happen, is that Ferrari’s green sponsor may be about to walk – and that would be a real earthquake in F1 terms. I must say that I have not really understood what Philip Morris International (PMI) was gaining from the relationship in recent years once they were no longer allowed to use any hint of Marlboro, but active tobacco sponsorship is now a very long time ago. The current partnerships ends at the finish of this season and what is really odd is that no new deal has been announced.

The last Ferrari-PMI renewal was announced early in 2018 (having been agreed late in 2017). It was a three-year deal from the start of 2019 to the end of 2021, so it was all decided a long time in advance. It was also only a three-year deal, the second in a row, whereas in the older days PMI deals were for five years at a time.

If there was going to be a 2022-2024 deal, it ought to have been announced by now. Losing PMI would be a big loss for Ferrari, but I am sure that the Italian car company has sufficient clout to find a similar kind of backer from another industry. Ferrari wants to be seen as a luxury brand and so the most likely target will be from that world. I cannot say I’m an expert in this sector but I do know that before the pandemic, luxury goods firms were whizzing along, growing fast and generating daft amounts of money. They are headed (one might say, of course,) by LVMH which had revenues of $59 billion in 2019. This dropped a little during the pandemic but it is now scooting along again, with the owner Bernard Arnault reckoned to be worth an eye-watering $113 billion. The list of LVMH brands is fantastic, with the latest being Tiffany and Co., which joins Louis Vuitton, Moet et Chandon, Dom Perignon, Hennessy, Givenchy, Sephora, Fendi, Fresh,Bulgari, Christian Dior and a load of others. If I was Ferrari this is the firm I’d be chasing. The second biggest is another French firm: Kering, which might not mean much, but it is owned by the Pinault family. It’s much smaller than LVMH but that’s motivation too. And then there are Estee Lauder, Richemont, L’Oreal, Chanel and others, all churning big money.

Alas, poor rugby

Bad news, rugby fans. CVC Capital Partners has bought into Six Nations Rugby Ltd, the company that runs the Six Nations championship. This is an Irish-based firm that is co-owned by the various national rugby federations involved. It was set up in 2002 in order to promote and organise the championship and to manage the centralised commercial rights. It is, in effect, a partnership between the Rugby Football Union (RFU), the Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR), the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), the Federazione Italiana Rugby (FIR), the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU).

The deal is for £365 million, to be paid over five years, which means that it works out at about £10 million a year for each national body. This has bought CVC 14.3 percent of the business, which means that it has a one-seventh share of the business, equal to the six clubs. What this means in terms of commercial control remains to be seen, but it is clear that the private equity group will be in a position to push for commercial change. And rugby needs to be careful to avoid the problems that F1 had to go through.

At the moment the rugby world seems to think this is a good idea. If one follows the story of CVC Capital Partners in Formula 1, it was a similar story at the beginning. It was not long before they began squeezing every penny they could get out of the sport, putting coverage behind pay-walls and loading the business with debt by borrowing against future earnings. It may not be quite as easy in rugby because of the need to keep the other six partners happy, but money talks loudest and the kind of numbers being discussed will turn heads in the rugby world.

The clubs are hopefully aware that they are dealing with people who don’t actually give a toss about sport and will not waste much energy trying to grow and develop it. It is naive to think that they will do anything other than helping themselves. If this happens to grow the sport as well then it will be fortunate, but the sport is not their primary aim: money is all that matters.

CVC Capital Partners is efficient – but did not seem to care what state it left F1 in, as long as there was a buyer at the end. They paid $2.1 billion for control of the F1 group and took multiples of that out, but the sport gained little in return.

Perhaps rugby thinks it is a risk worth taking in order to join other big international sports, but it is a risk that few involved in F1 would consider worth taking. One thing is clear in F1 circles: Liberty Media has a much more enlightened way of doing business.

Perhaps CVC Capital Partners has picked up some tips – but it isn’t very likely. Leopards don’t changed their spots. Vultures are vultures.

The new Ferrari

Well, it’s a little different, I suppose, and lots of people will inevitably hate the green part of the new Ferrari livery, although it draws attention to PMI’s involvement a little more than was the case. The rear of the car is in a darker red, to look back to Ferrari’s earlier days, and I guess the green is there for ecological reasons, but overall the car seems to be elegant, although this really doesn’t matter at all if it isn’t fast. And we will not discover that until the Bahrain GP, as there may be some fun and games in testing (as usual) with some times trying to make a better impression than they deserve to have. Remember that after the testing last year the lap times suggested that Mercedes was easily fastest, followed by Red Bull but then Renault was close to the Milton Keynes cars and Ferrari was right with them. Racing Point was only seventh, McLaren eighth and Williams was 10th, ahead of AlphaTauri and Alfa Romeo. So don’t get swept along thinking that the testing will provide any answers…

Ferrari’s goal this year I would guess is to not be embarrassing, but to suggest that they might be challenging for victories may be a bit of a long shot. The team has done a lot of engine development work, but then so have the other major contenders and these things tend to be like the arms race: everyone develops new stuff as fast as they can but they stay in the same basic order if they have fallen behind. Closing the gap is the hardest thing to do, which is why (for example) Racing Point did what it did last year and copied the Mercedes.

One must bear in mind that the best strategic decision for Ferrari might be to do as well as possible this year with as little development and then aim for glory in 2022, when there are new rules (and another engine upgrade), which probably offers a better chance for the team to be competitive. A number of teams are looking on this year as an interim season before the rule changes and will switch their development to the 2022 programmes as oon as they figure out where they are this year.

Portugal confirmed

Formula 1 has announced that it will be returning to Portimão for the Portuguese Grand Prix on May 2.

Last October, Portimão joined the Formula 1 calendar for the first time when F1 returned to Portugal after 25 years away. The race had a crowd of 27,000. F1 says it is working hard with the promoter and the Portuguese Government on the qustion of fan attendance. A decision is to be taken by the authorities in the coming weeks.

“We are thrilled to announce that Formula 1 will be racing again in Portimão after the huge success of the race last year,” said F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali. “We want to thank the promoter and the Portuguese Government for their hard work and dedication in getting us to this point. We are confident and excited about our 2021 season, having shown last year that we could deliver 17 races safely and bring our millions of fans thrilling racing at a difficult time. We hope to welcome fans to Portimão again this season in a safe way and are working with the promoter on the details of that plan.”

A new idea in Bahrain

Bahrain International Circuit has launched the sale of tickets for the Grand Prix, and to ensure that the event can proceed in a safe environment – in line with the local government health advice – tickets are only available to those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or have recovered from the virus. This may not sound much but according to the government there have been more than 300,000 people who have received the first dose of the vaccine, which amounts to more than 17 percent of the population of 1.74 million. In addition to this around 124,000 have tested positive, with the country suffering 458 deaths. The country has already launched a digital vaccinbation “passport”.

A significant move in France

The Le Mans 24 Hours has been officially postponed and will now move from the planned June 12-13 date to the weekend of August 21-22. The decision has been taken by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) because it wants to be in a position to get as many spectators as possible.

In mid-February the French Ministry of Culture announced that it intends to allow events in France in the summer of 2021, but on very strict terms. The key restriction is that the organisers of events, whether indoor or outdoor, can only allow 5,000 spectators, with suitable social distancing measures. And these events will only be allowed to happen if the crowd is seated. The Ministry added that the rules may be changed and that there may be further reductions if the pandemic gets worse or conversely the maximum number of people allowed could rise if the situation improves. If the pandemic develops in a negative way other protocols might need to be adopted.

There are many other problems to be considered at the moment. All travel is restricted in France, except internally, but there is a nightly curfew from 6pm to 6am. There are severe restrictions on people travelling to France from outside the European Union (and that now includes Britain). One is not allowed to do it for holidays, family visits or even to stay in a second home. There are just a few exemptions for vital travel, but that does not include spectating at motor races. Le Mans is heavily dependent on spectators from the UK. Travel from EU countries is also complicated with a negative PCR test no older than 72 hours required and one must also make a sworn statement that one does not have any COVID-19 symptoms. At the moment the bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms, pools, theatres, cinemas, museums and tourist attractions in France all remain closed. A number of cities have weekend lockdowns to try to stop visitors. And more are expected in the days ahead.

The ACO has concluded that delaying the Le Mans 24 Hours until August means that things could improve and the race could then become more financially viable, particularly as the vaccination programme is expanding rapidly and there is talk of a Europe-wide vaccine “passport” that could help to restart tourism. This would be a digital pass of some kind which would prove that a person had been vaccinated or had tested negative

The ACO decision is an interesting one and one must look at the Grands Prix of Monaco and France in the light of the decision. Monaco is due to take place at the end of May and while Monaco may not be worried about its race, they must take into account the fact that almost all the spectators would need to travel through France to get there – and that might not be easy. Many people would normally stay in France and travel into Monaco every day, but the problem is getting to France, rather than crossing the border. The French Grand Prix, which is currently scheduled to take place on June 27 at Paul Ricard, must also consider the situation in which it finds itself, as it cannot reasonably be held if only 5,000 spectators are allowed as this would mean a significant financial loss. Much of the funding of the race comes from public money.

Moving the Le Mans 24 Hours is easy enough because it is the biggest event in the World Endurance Championship and it can slot into a date during the F1 summer break. Moving the French GP is more complex. The F1 calendar is already tight in the latter part of the year and while the race is a big deal in France, it cannot simply switch to where it would like to be on the calendar, if there is a need to make a change.

Things vaguely related to the new Haas

Those of you who keep up to speed in the world of athletics – if you see what I mean – will recognise that Haas is a victim this year of the sanctions imposed on Russia by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for the country’s manipulation of data during investigations into doping allegations against its athletes.

This means that Russia cannot send a team to the Olympic Games (if they happen) in 2021 in Tokyo nor to the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022. It cannot compete officially in any World Championship sporting event until the end of 2022. The ban was originally for four years, but the Russians appealed and this went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). This body reduced the ban, but upheld it for two years. This has impacted on the Formula 1 world because the FIA is a signatory of the WADA code – and has been since 2010. Thus Russian drivers have to compete as “neutral athletes” and the country’s flags cannot be displayed on the cars, although the athletes clothing/car livery can feature the national colours. The WADA ruling should also mean that “Russian Government officials/representatives may not be appointed to sit and may not sit as members of the boards or committees or any other bodies of any Code Signatory”, which should mean that General Victor Kiryanov can no longer sit as a member of the FIA World Motor Sport Council, if he remains the managing director of Rostec, a Russian state-owned company. The ruling also states that officials/representatives may not attend World Championships organized or sanctioned by any signatory.

The playing of the Russian national anthem is also not allowed if a Russian athlete wins (Not much likelihood of that in F1…) and an alternative tune (Swan Lake or something) should be played instead, while a white flag (presumably) is hoisted on high. The anthem is the one thing I will miss, although I think the Russians deserve the punishment, because the Russian national anthem is by far the best in the world and stirs parts of me that other national anthems simply do not reach. Perhaps to cheer me up, they might consider playing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau if Nikita does miraculously win a race this year. Why? Because the Welsh anthem, which we call “Land of My Fathers” is about the only one that gets close. They both leave the plodding British national anthem a long way behind.

Still, there is some hope on Sunday afternoons as while God Save the Queen will no doubt play a fair bit for Sir Lewis, we have the chance at least to listen to Germany’s splendid anthem for the winning Constructor. I am a fan of Joseph Haydn’s “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser”, also known as “Austria” in hymnbooks. This was once the Austrian national anthem before the German’s purloined it to become “The Deutschlandlied”.

Anyway, to get back to Russia, it all rather begs the question what the Russian Grand Prix will be called this year as under the WADA rules this would need to be changed to the Sochi Grand Prix or perhaps the Grand Prix of Krasnodar Krai, although President Vlad might conclude that the Putin Grand Prix would sound rather cool, although one needs to be careful with that name when French commentators get involved, as Putin and putain can be confused. Putain is a very rude word in French (and has several different meanings). This, by the way, can also lead to problems when ordering Quebec’s famous poutines, which are a mess of French fries and cheese, with gravy on top. For those of a linguistic and culinary bent, the word is also the root for “puttanesca”, which means hooker (not in the rugby sense) and is a recipe developed, so they say, because the ladies of the night in Naples would go home and put everything in the fridge into their late night meal, thus creating pasta alla puttanesca…

In addition to being Russian at an unfortunate time, Mazepin has also made his life rather difficult in recent months because of a video posted of his hands wandering in places where some think they should not have wandered in public. The fact that the woman in question posted comments suggesting that it was all just fun and games was ignored by the critics and some seem to think that Mazepin is a sort of anti-Christ. The truth is that he’s just a rather silly boy, who did things that he did not seem to understand might upset the delicate sensitivities of lots of social media-aged crusader types, who have obviously never made mistakes in their perfect and pure lives. The lesson has been learned I am sure. He would be rather dim if it hadn’t.

In the meantime, because we won’t hear it in F1 in 2021 or 2022, here is the wonderful uplifting Russian national anthem, sung by the Alexandrov Ensemble. Sadly, many of them (64 in total) died on Christmas Day 2016 when the plane they were travelling on crashed into the Black Sea, shortly after taking off from Sochi.