Good grief. It’s Thursday evening and I have been writing virtually non-stop since the chequered flag fell on the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday afternoon. I have also flown the 3000 miles between KL and Japan, but that is a mere skip and a jump to the people in F1. The other day, I discovered a thing on the Emirates website that allowed me to download my entire history with the airline and was amazed to see that in 10 years I have completed 915,000 miles of flying with Emirates, and I have never paid for more than Economy (which means that one gets much lower mileage than the folk who fly Business and have their tickets paid for by their companies). So what? Well, it is true that I am not aiming to be a George Clooney-esque member of the 10 million mile club, but it still means that I’ve been racking up the miles at just under 100,000 a year, although these days they don’t count the real distances involved…
Anyway, since arriving in Japan we have been on the fabulous Namba Express from Kansai to Namba and then on the Kintetsu Line to Shiroko, on a Limited Express. This is a curious concept in Japan which can be very confusing. For us, an Express which is limited goes slower than an Express, no? Well, not in Japan. A Limited Express is faster because it stops at a limited number of stations…
Anyway, here I am in the Comfort Inn, which sounds like it should be a brothel. In Korea, it would be, but here in Japan, it’s a small business hotel, which lacks any discernible character, but where everyone is incredibly polite. There used to be a life-sized cardboard cut-out Western person to encourage you to eat weird stuff for breakfast, but I see that he has disappeared this year. That’s a shame because it’s always nice to see someone you know – even a cardboard person!
I have slept a few hours, here and there, but never for very long and I have eaten two meals a day, although the chances of me fading away with malnutrition are, at worst, minimal. My diet has been sashimi and white wine, with the occasional bit of “beef streaky”, which is something that comes from a cow but disguises itself as bacon. This is because “the flesh of swine” is frowned upon in Muslim cultures. So forget pork chops…
For most of the time, however, I have sat in front of a computer in a hotel room, where my air-conditioning protected me from the sweaty world outside. Don’t let anyone tell you that life as a Formula 1 journalist is all private jets, pink champagne, pork scratchings, and nymphomaniac flight attendants. How depressing is that?
The problem, of course, is that in order to fly around the world a great deal, an F1 hack needs to produce words as a combine harvester produces grain, and one needs also to find people willing to buy (and actually pay for) these streams of prose.
We are constantly reminded by bank managers and credit card companies that F1 is fueled by money and we get ripped off pretty much everywhere we go as prices are hiked when the circus comes to town. It is a joy to have normal hotel prices from time to time if I go on holiday… We have just been sent a quote for our regular Canadian hotel for 2017, a place which was chic when Roger Moore was James Bond, and we will not be staying there again…
There are times when I feel that with Liberty Media talking about increasing the F1 calendar to 22 races in 2018 and 23 in 2019, it might be a good idea for F1 journalists to learn how to drive combine harvesters because we may all need to in the future. People will always need grain, but words about F1 spout from the ground everywhere and very little of it is derived from the inner sanctum of Formula 1. The real reporters of Formula 1 do our best, but there are only 26 hours in every day. At least, that is how it feels.
The weekend in Malaysia was hot and sweaty and, the inner sanctum of F1 quickly developed inner inner sanctums where the F1 people hid from the heat. In consequence things were pretty quiet in the Paddock. Ironically, indeed I would go as far as to say bizarrely, the coolest place in Sepang was where usually the air is hottest – the F1 Media Centre. There were, of course, the usual individuals spouting hot air, predicting the future of F1 and offering written advice to Chase Carey.
Let me tell you, the day that millionaire businessmen give up paying consultants, who haven’t got a clue about F1, and start listening the journalists who give their knowledge away for free, will be quite an event. I expect that we will be treated to delirious scenes with ISIS fighters and US Special Forces dancing jigs around the ruins of Mosul, holding hands and singing “Knees up Mother Brown”. Baseball fans in Boston and New York will wear one red sock and one white sock; Donald and Hillary will be found snogging in the broom cupboard and the Greeks and the Turks will agree that today is Thursday.
Hell, Darth Vader will be attending parish garden parties and handing out chocolate cornflake cakes which he himself made, between intergalactic conflicts.
The truth is that no-one knows where F1 is going right now – but we hope it isn’t North Korea.
The driver market has been stalled for weeks because Sergio Perez and Force India were trying to decide what to do next year. That is now sorted and Sergio will stay for one more year. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the Mexican wants to replace Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari, although there are more than a few people in the F1 Paddock – including (perhaps) a couple of red-suited drivers – who are wondering why anyone would want to go to Maranello. The team seems like a ship that has lost its navigator (James Allison) and a lot of folk are expecting to see other Ferrari engineers start departing soon.
One of the things that backs up the theory that all is not rosy in the garden is that the team’s PR efforts make the Invisible Man look positively “front of house”. If you are not a TV person or don’t work for the newspapers that still exist in Italy, you are of no use to them. Still, what can you do? As I always say when a Ferrari F1 car blows up: “That’s it. I’m never buying a Ferrari now.”
There are a lot of folk in F1 who see Sebastian Vettel’s recent string of accidents and incidents as being a sign of desperation, as he begins to realize that going to Maranello might not have been the smartest thing he ever did, although I am sure his bank manager would possibly not agree. Vettel went to Ferrari to win, just as others have done before him, and perhaps now he understands why Fernando Alonso seemed miserable all the time, until he joined McLaren. Fernando is a bundle of laughs these days in comparison to his time spent “in the red”, and this is despite the fact that the wranglers at Honda seem to have lost a lot of their horses out on the range (where the deer and the buffalo roam) and have spent the last couple of seasons corralling them into the V6. Fernando hopes that the Honda cavalry will be ready to charge in 2017.
As for Vettel, I think he was fortunate not to get an even bigger penalty after smashing into Nico Rosberg at the first corner in KL. If Seb had been taken out by such a move by another driver, I can only imagine the griping and bitching that would have gone on afterwards. He seems to have become a bit of a whinger these days. Nico was philosophical on the subject: “I got T-boned by a four-time World Champion, out of control” he said succinctly.
Raikkonen is currently ahead of Vettel in the World Championship, which seemed to be unthinkable a few months ago, and one wonders whether Sebastian, now aged 29, is wondering why he did not stay at Red Bull and share champagne from Dan Ricciardo’s boots. The Australian would probably have been shovelled out of the door by now if Seb had stayed on, because Dr Helmut Marko would have surgically removed him when Max Verstappen arrived on the scene. Such are the swings of roundabouts of Milton Keynes in F1 these days. But a 1-2 finish in KL was a great result for them, although one should be careful not to get too carried away because this was entirely due to the fact that Nico had to catch up and Lewis was in the lead and his car expired. That was tough and Lewis was widely quoted as suggesting he was being sabotaged. I think that perhaps these remarks have been blown out of proportion somewhat. It is true that Lewis did ask questions about why it is always his Mercedes that goes wrong: “Someone has to give me some answers,” he said. “It’s just odd. There’s been like 43 engines from Mercedes and only mine have gone wrong. Something or someone doesn’t want me to win this year.”
I feel for Lewis and I understand his frustrations. And it is true that he has had a string of failures which other Mercedes engine users have not. Some think that there is a man with a big white moustache, who wants to see a German (albeit a Germano-Finn who has lived most of his life in Monaco) win the World Championship, and so sits in a bunker somewhere beneath Stuttgart and every so often presses a red button that somehow causes Lewis’s V6s to fry themselves, at which point Dr Moustache sniggers like Muttley in the Wacky Races and then wanders off to try to sell more A-Classes to men on bicycles in Sum Ting Wong in China and fellows with gun racks and Vote Trump stickers in Naked City, Indiana.
I am afraid that I don’t buy that one and I am absolutely sure that no-one at Brackley or Brixworth would do anything to stop Lewis. And that means that it can only be down to bad luck, or Fate, or whatever you want to call it. Lewis is a spiritual man and, perhaps, will one day see this as a test and conclude that he is currently undergoing 40 days in the wilderness. I tend to believe that, somehow, still he will rise, for he is a racing driver who has earned his fame in the pantheon of stars. Winning World Championships with one team is an achievement, winning them with two teams is something for legends.
Finally, to finish off with KL, there is the story of the Australian budgie-smugglers. A group of young men from Australia attended the Grand Prix and after Dan Dicciardo’s victory they stripped off their clothing to reveal that they were all wearing “budgie-smuggler” briefs (the kind of beachwear that Flavio Briatore might – unfortunately – sport in Saint-Tropez). These were made from material printed with the Malaysian flag. All good harmless fun, you might think, but no. Not a great idea. They were all arrested for bringing the budgie into disrepute, or some such law. So much for liberty in F1…
Now, while I won’t defend them on the grounds that one should try to respect different cultures, I do think all of this is a little harsh. Several nights in jail because they had some harmless fun does not seem awfully sensible. I don’t suppose that the women of Malaysia, who were hardly flocking to the track on Sunday, saw anything that they have never seen before, juging by the number of squalling children I have encountered in recent days, they seem to have a pretty good idea of what is going on under the dishdashes. Added to that, if you are an Australian who wants to go on holiday and have a good time (Australian style) are you really going to consider Malaysia, where you can’t get pork chops and you get thrown in jail if you wear budgie-smugglers and drink from a boot? A bit of a disaster on the old public relations front, I would have thought and a black eye for the tourist industry in KL.
Still, they did get a lot of media coverage of the Prime Minister attending the event. He is a man much in the news these days, in case you have not noticed. There has been a lot of articles written all over the world about a civil lawsuit announced in July by the US Department of Justice, relating to a international conspiracy to launder $3.5 billion misappropriated from the Malaysian state investment fund, known as 1MDB. The lawsuit claims that this included the funding of the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street”, which ironically is about large-scale financial corruption. The lawsuit lists a “Malaysian Official 1” as having received, via various front and offshore companies and intermediaries, $681 million into a personal bank account. This was part of a $3 billion bond issues raised by Goldman Sachs for 1MDB, with the money supposed to be invested for the greater good of Malaysia. Najib says he is the victim of a political smear campaign and has been cleared of wrongdoing by his own attorney general. No sniggering in the back row, please.
Why am I writing about this when I am supposed to be an F1 reporter? Well, because an Abu Dhabi businessman called Khadem Al Qubaisi (you don’t need to know how to pronounce it, because he won’t be seen in F1 circles again) has been arrested during the investigations in six countries into the 1MDB scandal. These have revealed that a Virgin Island company called Aabar BVI, which is not related to the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund of the same name, but which received money from Aabar and from 1MDB, somehow ended up depositing the missing $681 million into bank accounts allegedly owned by Najib in an account at Falcon Private Bank in Singapore. If that name sounds familiar, think of it as a Scuderia Toro Rosso sponsor. This – and most of the other Toro Rosso sponsors in recent years – were all controlled by Al Qubaisi, who had $470 million from 1MDB which he handed over to the Edmond Rothschild private bank in Luxembourg to manage. This money funded the acquisiton of 25 percent of Scuderia Toro Rosso, which was then funded by CEPSA, Nova Chemicals and Falcon Bank, which were all companies under the control of the unpronounceable gentleman, who enjoyed himself attending F1 races. I don’t suppose that he ate porky scratchings and wore budgie-smugglers, but this does not seem to be entirely in line with doing business under sharia rules.
All of this is great for F1, of course, but thank god the PM wasn’t wearing budge-smugglers. He might have got into real trouble…
Onward we go. It must be time for sashimi, again.