The Audience with Joe is back!

Amazingly, it is two years since there was a live Audience with Joe. The last was in Melbourne in 2020 and since then we’ve only been able to have virtual events.

I am going to be hosting the first post-COVID live Audience with Joe at the West Beach Bathers Pavilion at 330A Beaconsfield Parade, St Kilda, on April 8. This is easily accessible from Albert Park and right on the beach, as the name suggests…

The event will start at 7.30pm so there will be time to get there after the last track action of the day.

For those who don’t know the format, it is very simple: you ask questions, eat, drink and (hopefully) have a good time.

Tickets cost A$70 a head and will not be available on the door, so if you want to come, sign up in advance, to avoid disappointment. Attendance is limited to make sure everyone gets the chance to ask questions. It is a great venue with great food and drink. To sign up for tickets, click here.

What will replace the Russian GP?

The cancellation of the Russian Grand Prix and the termination of the F1 contract with ANO Rosgonki, which has shareholders including the state-owned VTB Bank, the government, the Center Omega and the Russian auto sport federation, means that not only will there be no race in Sochi in 2022, but the plan to move the race to Autodrom Igora Drive near Saint Petersburg in 2023,  with an initial deal in place until at least 2025, is also dead and gone. It is the price that Russia has to pay for going to war in Ukraine, as even if F1 was willing to accept money from Russia, the fees that the Russians would have to pay would be appreciably higher than in the past because of the Rouble-Dollar exchange rate, and there would have been a danger of F1 doing itself serious (and material) damage by the association. Money makes the world go round, and losing a little is better than risking losing a lot.

This means that there is a gap on the calendar on September 25 and F1 will obviously want to fill this with another event. It is a little bit complicated by the timing as no-one wants a calendar reshuffle at the moment because of all the rebooking that would be necessary.

The other restriction is more mundane. The race in Russia was going to be the first leg of an intercontinental triple-header, with the Sochi race followed in quick succession by Singapore (on October  2) and Japan (on October 9). It meant that there is no available time to switch the F1 circus from its trucks, which are used in European events, to the travel boxes that are used for the freight for flyaway races. It would be impossible to do this if a replacement race was in Europe. Thus there is no chance for Turkey or Germany to step in, because both used trucks, rather than travel boxes.

Given this important practical element, the F1 group’s choice of venue was limited. In a perfect world, a replacement race would be on its way from Europe to Singapore, as Sochi was, so that freight could leave Russia on Monday and be in Singapore on Tuesday to give the teams time to get ready for the following weekend.

When you look at map it is fairly clear that there is no obvious venue, except in the Middle East. It is not the moment to be trying out a new Grand Prix at a venue where no-one knows what will work and what will not work. The problem in the Middle East is that we already have races planned for Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Qatar, which hosted a race last year at the Losail International circuit, near Doha, was not included on the calendar this year because of the FIFA World Cup, which takes place in Qatar between November 21 and December 18. Thus it made no sense for Qatar to have a race at that time of year, as happened last year when the first Qatar Grand Prix took place on November 21.

So everyone forgot about Losail for 2022 and looked ahead to 2023 when there is supposed to be a new street circuit, along similar lines to the Jeddah City Circuit, in the downtown area of Doha.

But could a race in late September be a possibility? It makes sense for Formula 1 and it make sense for Qatar, as it will add to the build-up for the World Cup and would continue to build up the associations with Qatar and global sports. The Losail track was designed for motorbikes and there were a few drawbacks for F1 in 2021, but there was nothing that made it impossible – and that would be true again this year.

Thus it may be wise to conclude that F1 will be going back to Doha. Money is not really a question as Qatar has plenty of it and so it is really just a matter of the two parties getting together and building on the relationship that began last year and is due to continue for at last the next 10 years.

In the longer term, Qatar can move back to a date in late November, while the gap created by the disappearance of the Russian GP can be very neatly filled if F1 can get its deal signed off with Las Vegas, which is believed to be just a few weeks away from an announcement of a street race in the city in 2023.

So Russia’s loss could well be the USA’s gain.

Apologies for being quiet

I live in rural bliss in France. The mobile phone coverage is non-existent. Sadly, Mr Putin and his chums took out the satellite I use to get Internet access (strange but true).

Thus life is a bit complicated until a new service provider get things up and running.

(This was written on an iPhone, while I sat in the dark under a mobile phone tower… I’m off home now…)

Why the FIA has made a mistake…

Let us, first of all, put things into a proper perspective: motor sport is not ultimately important. It’s a game for wealthy people and while millions love to watch and enjoy the sport, and it supports an impressive industry, it really doesn’t matter. It is irrelevant in time of war.

In major international conflicts in the past motor racing has simply stopped. In 1940 Italy hosted the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio, the latter taking place after the Nazi invasion of France had started but before Italy entered the war on June 10 that year. The Indy 500 took place in 1940 and 1941 before the United States joined the war in December 1941.

Thankfully nothing has escalated into a global war since 1939. People don’t want to live through that again. Of course, as time passes those who experienced World War II have died. Education is important in this respect to remind people what not to do, and to avoid the world going through such traumas again. In the UK, people wear poppies in November to remember World War I and most people know the words: “they shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them”.

The same should be true in Russia, which suffered more than any other country in World War II, with military casualties five times those of the Allies. In the light of this, Russia’s attack on Ukraine is quite difficult to understand. If anyone should know about the awfulness of war, it is the Russians…

Today bombs were dropping on an area of Kyiv called Babyn Yar. It was in this place that in 1941 the Nazis murdered more than 33,770 Jews in just two days.

This did not escape Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “What is the point of saying ‘Never again’ for 80 years if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on Babyn Yar?” he asked.

A lot has happened in the last few days, not just in Ukraine but all across the world. A tidal wave of sanctions of all kinds have been declared against Russia, or perhaps one should say against President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine. It is clear that some Russians oppose what he is doing and many have been arrested for protesting against his actions, but it seems that the majority is silent, whether this means they support him is hard to judge.

Many Russians seem to believe what their media tells them (the same is true in the West), but I do recommend that people read TASS and other Russian news in order to understand what the people are being told over there. It is fascinating. Just to give an example, on February 6 Russia’s First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy said that the speculation of Western countries about how many days Kiev could last in a potential Russian invasion was “madness and scaremongering” while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov castigated critics saying that “Russia poses no threat to anyone.”

Russian people are not fools and many will see what we can see. Maybe they wonder if Putin’s attack on Ukraine is to snuff out a country that may have its faults but was beginning to look how Russia might one day look if left alone to develop as a European nation.

Putin sold the invasion of Crimea as saving the region from extremists in Ukraine. It worked and it boosted his popularity at home. But since then the support has waned again. Opposition has been growing. Trying to convince Russians that the attack on Ukraine is defending the Motherland from an aggressive West is going to be a tough thing to sell. The West is proving that it does not need to use tanks and guns as money and culture can do the job.

The impact of sanctions has been dramatic, with the collapse of the rouble, much of the Central Bank’s reserves frozen, the mandatory sale of foreign currencies for Russian firms, a massive hike in interest rates and the closure of the Moscow Exchange until March 5 to protect share prices (or at least to delay the inevitable). Russian companies listed elsewhere have been hammered. It is reckoned that £430 billion has been wiped off the value of Russian companies listed in London. Sberbank’s share price has lost 95 percent of its value in recent days.

International brands are giving up on their Russian investments. Even if Putin stops the invasion (which is unlikely), the damage is done. The future will not be like the past. Russia is no longer a member of the international community.

It is all unprecedented stuff. Putin’s actions have caused Sweden, a country that has traditionally been neutral, to decide to send thousands of weapons and $50 million in funding to the Ukrainian military. By the same token, Switzerland, for which neutrality has always been one of the primary principles of the nation, has decided to adopt sanctions that the European Union has imposed on Russia.

“We are in an extraordinary situation,” the country’s President Ignazio Cassis said.

Not even Hitler caused the Swiss and the Swedes to abandon their neutrality and take action. That is an indication of the sense of outrage and indignation that Putin has caused. He cannot have imagined that this was going to happen, or else he would not have done it. 

All Putin can now do is to try to crush Ukraine – the Russian army has not done very well thus far – and then figure out how to rule what will be a very broken Russia after the fighting is over. One cannot help but wonder whether whatever now happens, his days in power are numbered. 

Russia is being cut adrift. It is not just political and economic, it’s cultural as well. Yes, there are a few countries where Russian might still be welcomed in the future, but high living on the Cote d’Azur is a thing of the past. In future the buskers in Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat will no longer be playing balalaikas…

With what one might term “a cultural war” taking place, the FIA has given the impression that it is out of step with the rest of the world. The first article of the FIA Statutes states that the federation “shall refrain from manifesting racial, political or religious discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect”, but these were statutes that were written at a time when no-one could imagine another ground war in Europe.

At the same time the FIA likes to boast that it has full recognition status from the International Olympic Committee (achieved in 2013), in accordance with the sporting and governance standards of the Olympic Charter. The FIA says that “wholeheartedly embraces the Olympic spirit and shares the Olympic values of respect, excellence and friendship, believing that sport should be accessible, fair and enjoyable for all”, but the FIA decision regarding Russia is out of step with the IOC, which said that banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing will “protect the integrity of global sports competitions”.

The FIA World Council’s decision has been widely criticised and it is clear that not all the member clubs (nor indeed by all the members of the World Council) agree with the decision made.

Motorsport UK, the British ASN, which is represented on the World Council by David Richards, has announced that Russian and Belarusian license holders are banned from racing in the UK. It will be interesting to see if other FIA clubs follow suit, a couple already have.

“We stand united with the people of Ukraine and the motorsport community following the invasion and the unacceptable actions that have unfolded,” David Richards said. “This is a time for the international motorsport community to act and show support for the people of Ukraine and our colleagues at the Federation Automobile of Ukraine (FAU).”

For the world today,  the FIA’s “sadness and shock” is not enough.

Why is there such a reaction around the world? That is a question that will probably be explained in time by social historians, but it is probably down to the fact that for nearly 77 years the Europe continent has been at peace. The Cold War was stressful in many respects but in that era the Soviets did not step over of line in Europe. They kept to their own territories and did not dare to venture beyond. We were afraid of what they might do, they were afraid of what we might do. It worked. Mutually-assured destruction made everyone think twice.

Putin was forged in that era. He joined the KGB after leaving university in the mid-1970s and was trained to be a foreign intelligence officer. In the late 1980s he was based in Dresden in the old East Germany when the Soviet empire fell apart. It was a time of upheaval and humiliation for Russia. Putin went home, climbed up through the ranks and became president on December 31 1999. It was clear from his speeches that he believed the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth Century”.

Many disagree with that assessment. Many may have feared that over time Putin would do his best to rebuild the old Soviet bloc, but whatever means were possible, including supporting pro-Russian governments in countries that used to be in the Soviet Union, but Russia was weak, a shadow of its former shadow. However in 2014 Putin felt strong enough to invade Crimea. This met with sanctions, but they did not knock him out. He realised that if he was going to try again, he had to be better prepared. This time he was, but invading Ukraine did not meet with the same reaction. He has miscalculated massively.

The reality of the world today is way more complicated than one might think from the propaganda going on. Russia is not trying to conquer the world (it cannot afford to even think about that) and nor is the West trying to destroy Russia. The West wants to do business with Russians. Entrepreneurial Russians want to do business with the West. But the authoritarian leadership, a mega-wealthy elite that wants economic stability, a society that has got used to Western culture – at least in the big cities – and an opposition that will grow the more it is suppressed, means that Russia is a paradoxical place and who knows what might happen next?

The global reaction is not an attack on Russia. It is an attack on Putin. It aims to expose him and let the Russian people decide to do something else. It is a sign that the world has changed and people don’t want to fight wars any longer. They don’t want to see any more generations wiped out. The war to end all wars did not end wars – and that was 100 years ago.

Today the world has sufficient problems with the future for other reasons that should concern us all.

Time will tell if Putin has a future, but one thing is clear: in the small irrelevant part of the world that is motorsport, the FIA needs to get a little more attuned to how the world is today and not rely on outdated statutes, or whatever it was that caused the World Council to make the wrong decision.

Dany Kvyat is right that it is not fair on Russian competitors – and I feel for him – but nor it is fair that Russia thinks it can march into Ukraine and do what it is now doing there.

Max and Red Bull close to a deal

There are reports in the Netherlands (from the very reliable De Telegraaf) that Max Verstappen has agreed to extend his deal with Red Bull Racing for a number of years.

The current deal runs until the end of 2023 but a new deal will mean that he will remain with the team for at least another four or five years. It seems that both parties have agreed terms for the new contract and it will presumably be announced once the paperwork has been completed and the contract lodged with F1’s Contract Recognition Board.

The word is that it could be worth more than $55 million a year, although it will likely include a element of bonuses that will take it well beyond that. Whether this will replace the existing deal or follow on from it remains to be seen. For the moment no-one involved is saying anything, but an announcement could happen within days.

This gives Red Bull a major asset as it plans for the future, whether that be with its own engines, or with a rumoured deal with Porsche from 2026 onwards. It is doubtful that a Porsche deal will have been concluded as yet as Porsche’s parent company VW is in the process of deciding whether to spin off the Porsche division to raise money to pay for its switch to electric cars.

Oh, this is not good (for the FIA)

While the FIA World Council voted yesterday against following the international trend of banning Russian and Belarusian competitors from all international competitions, and trying to pursue a “neutral” policy, it is obviously not a view shared by all the member clubs (nor indeed all the members of the World Council). The British Motorsport UK, which is represented on the World Council by David Richards has now announced that Russian and Belarusian license holders are banned from racing in the UK. This means, for example, that Nikita Mazepin cannot race in the British Grand Prix, unless he changes his licence. If he cannot guarantee being able to race for Haas in all events, he is likely to have contractual problems with the team, although the terms of such contracts are not public information.

It will be interesting to see if other national clubs follow the British lead and go against the FIA policy.

“We stand united with the people of Ukraine and the motorsport community following the invasion and the unacceptable actions that have unfolded,” Richards said. “This is a time for the international motorsport community to act and show support for the people of Ukraine and our colleagues at the Federation Automobile of Ukraine (FAU).”

Motorsport UK said its decision was made in full consultation with the British Government and national sports governing bodies.

If sufficient countries and member clubs follow the British lead, there could well be questions about whether the FIA is being led by the right people, which coming so soon after the December election could be very disruptive for the international federation.


“It is our duty to use whatever influence and leverage we might have to bring this wholly unjustified invasion of Ukraine to a halt,” Richards said. “We would encourage the motorsport community and our colleagues around the world to fully embrace the recommendations of the International Olympic Committee and do whatever we can to end this war.
 
“Motorsport UK stands united with Leonid Kostyuchenko, the President of the FAU, the Ukrainian motorsport community and the Ukrainian people and calls for the violence to end with a peaceful resolution.”

The Russian GP

The Formula 1 statement regarding the Russian Grand Prix is welcome, given what is happening in Ukraine. There is a strong feeling around the world that Russia must pay for the actions of its leader Vladimir Putin. This is only to be expected given what has been done – and continues to be done as each hour passes.

Russia is no longer welcome at the table. It is a sad situation but the country has – to a large extent – allowed its leader to do what he has done and if it wants to be allowed back into the international community, Russians must get together and get rid of Putin and his cronies. That is easy to write but hard to achieve because Putin does have widespread support at home, where the state media is constantly pumping him up.

Of course, we need to be aware that there is propaganda on both sides of every fight, but it is clear that the general view is that the attack on Ukraine is an unacceptable act.

The F1 statement does not actually say that the Russian GP is cancelled. It says that “it is impossible to hold the Russian Grand Prix in the current circumstances”. In legal terms, this is not a cancellation. It leaves the question open, while at the same time, making the point that those involved in the sport do not want the race to happen. But these things are never easy because contracts exist and perhaps the wording in the contract does not cover the situation of a country attacking another.

There is no doubt that there will be clauses relating to force majeure and such matters, but whether this covers a war that does not happen around the race track is something that probably needs discussing. And, inevitably, everyone wants to avoid a situation in which a contract has been broken. So, for the moment, the situation is that there will not be a Russian GP, but if circumstances change in the next few months then the race could still happen. This is not likely to be the case, as things stand, but the race is not scheduled until September and we don’t know what will happen between now and then. So we should not expect any quick replacement announcement.

The Haas team has said that it is looking into legal issues relating to its Uralkali sponsorship and the future of Nikita Mazepin in the team, probably for similar reasons. Perhaps no-one wants to continue those relationships but breaking them off requires suitable settlements. One cannot just stop contracts unless there are clauses covering such eventualities and the idea of a war breaking in Europe simply did not exist when these deals were done.

It is far-fetched to suggest that there will be a situation in which the race will happen in 2022 (and even for years after that) but there does need to be a proper settlement.

Meanwhile in Barcelona

The big news in Barcelona came this evening when Haas announced that it will run a white car tomorrow, without Uralkali branding and without the livery as previously seen. This is quite significant in the circumstances. Nikita Mazepin will drive tomorrow morning (as planned) but the team says it will not say anything else about its partnership arrangements “at this time”. Clearly all is not rosy in the garden…

The time sheets were topped again by Charles Leclerc, although his best time was slower than yesterday. The key point is that Ferrari has now completed 303 laps, which is considerably more than everyone else. AlphaTauri has done 268, Alpine 252, Aston Martin 248, Williams 240, Mercedes 233, McLaren 229 and Red Bull 225, while Haas (151) and Alfa Romeo (124) are still lagging behind.

Testing times

There is, of course, a desire among the fans to know what is going to happen in the year ahead in Formula 1. It’s only natural. But testing is not always a good guide.

Teams play games. They don’t want to show their full pace or all their clever bits because that would give the opposition more time to analyse the ideas and, if not replicate them, integrate the thinking into their own machinery.

The other key point is that teams want to collect data and not go flat out for lap times: they want to understand potential problems to make sure the cars are reliable. Finishing is key to all F1 success.

Thus it is wise after the first day of testing not to conclude that the McLaren is the fastest car out there. The team tried softer tyres than anyone else…

If you look at reliability, the number of laps is important and on day one in Barcelona it was World Champion Max Verstappen who led the way in the Red Bull, completing 147 laps and setting a best time using tyres that were harder than those used by other outfits.

In overall terms, Ferrari did the most laps (153) with its two drivers sharing the workload – and both setting solid times.

Williams was next with 132 laps, ahead of Mercedes and Alpine (127 apiece), AlphaTauri (121) and Aston Martin (119).

McLaren did only 103, considerably less than Ferrari and Red Bull.

Haas and Alfa Romeo did not start well with 43 and 32 laps respectively.

For now, it all means very little. Patterns will emerge in the days ahead and body language will give hints about how drivers and teams feel about their cars…

Implications

It is too early to say with any certainty what the Russian attack on Ukraine will mean for Formula 1.

In time of war sport is no longer an important business, but since the F1 World Championship began in 1950, wars have had little impact on the sport because, thankfully, they have tended to be localized conflicts in places where the sport has had little or no presence. If the current conflict remains regional, the impact could be negligible.

But the way of war has changed and today, economic warfare is more important than tanks and guns. The concept of “absolute war” as defined by the Prussian military theorist General Carl von Clausewitz used to mean blanket bombing of cities, railways and industrial targets, but today it means depriving the enemy of ways to operate. It is all very well to have huge natural resources: oil and gas wells, mines and vast agricultural resources but one needs to be able to sell these to keep the economy solid. Oil and gas account for more than 60 percent of Russia’s exports. About 40 percent of the federal budget revenues came from oil and gas. This morning as the news of the invasion broke, the Russian rouble fell to record lows, as investors dumped the currency and moved their money to safer places. Thus buying foreign goods is suddenly much more expensive for the Russians and that has sparked fears of a financial crisis. Wars are expensive.

The problem with sanctions is that they impact both the seller and the buyer, as without the commodity, the buyer need to look elsewhere and this raises prices.

Nonetheless Russia’s attack has taken many analysts by surprise. Russia does not want to get into the expensive kind of messes that America has involved itself in over the years in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Older Russians will remember what a drain its war in Afghanistan was between 1979 and 1988, not just financially but also when it came to Russia’s morale and its self-confidence.

If Russia’s invasion succeeds – which is highly likely – there will then be a need for the invaders to govern the country to keep the peace. The ease with which this will be done is largely dependent on the level of support for the Russians. Life may become easier in the pro-Russian areas, but if there is support for resistance, then there will be resistance. Violent suppression of resistance movements is counter-productive because it often leads to more moderate people becoming active against the occupier. Fear only works for a while. A Ukraine resistance probably supported by the West, will require Russia to spend money to police the country and it will cost Russian lives. In time this would undermine Putin’s popularity at home.

The impact of the invasion on F1 in an immediate sense will largely depend on the decisions made in the West with regard to sanctions. If American companies are no longer allowed to do business with Russian firms (or firms that have links with Putin and his entourage) then the Russian GP may have to be cancelled. It will not really be missed. F1 may never go to Saint Petersburg as was the plan in 2023.

The Haas F1 team may have problems as a big percentage of its funding comes from the Russian firm Uralkali. In addition, if there are restrictions on the movement of Russian citizens, Nikita Mazepin’s career as an F1 driver could easily go up in smoke. The conflict is certainly an uncomfortable development for Haas as an American team racing in a car with obviously Russian-themed livery is not a great situation. However, if Mazepin was not there, someone else would step in and money would likely be found. F1 is on an upward path at the moment.

One can only feel sorry if these things happen but if a Russian leader thinks it is best for his country to act as Putin has done, then the country must deal with the implications of his actions.