6 September 2017

Notebook from the road


Joe Saward is a motorsport journalist, primarily covering Formula 1, and has done since 1988. Joe has attended over 500 races and is therefore considered one of a very small group of opinion formers at the very centre of this multi-billion dollar global business.

As the Italian Grand Prix was short and was not the most complicated of stories to tell, the GP+ e-magazine came together very efficiently on Sunday night. There was even time for a quick spaghetti carbonara before launching into finishing the JSBM insider newsletter (which is where the really good stuff goes). It was nearly finished before dawn and I stopped for a couple of hours sleep before finishing it off, downing some strong (but not too concentrated) caffè and then I was off. Soon I was belting across the plains of Piedmont on the A4 autostrada, which they call Serenissima, I guess because it starts in Venice.

This is a flat land, in the shadow of the Alps, and every town has a history of some sort in motor racing. Near Biella, a wool town which once hosted its own Grand Prix and was the home of Count Trossi, one turns to the north and heads up to the Aosta Valley, a flat-bottomed ravine through the towering mountains and craggy peaks. It’s a region where many cultures have collided through the centuries and the placenames are linguistically diverse. One goes from Castillo di Verrès, to Pré-Saint-Didier, Chatillon and to Derby, with signs to villages such as Etroubles, which sounds like something we often get with the Internet in faraway media centres.

If there are speed limits in these parts, they are ignored, even by the Dutch, and one has soon climbed up to the Mont Blanc tunnel, one of the great engineering wonders of the modern world, a 7.2 mile two-lane tube, which cuts under the mountains (at up to 1.5 miles below the surface). This pops you out near Chamonix and you dive down a series of hairpins to the valley of the Arve, with some great views of mighty glaciers. When you reach the valley, you scoot along to Annemasse, skirt alongside the Swiss border around Geneva, beneath Mont Salève,and then begin the climb up again for the dramatic autoroute that cuts through the Jura, with spectacular viaducts, roads clinging to ledges and lakes that are so blue that they could be in the tropics.

This leads you to the Bresse, a region known for its succulent chickens and it’s bleue cheese – and not much else – and one goes gradually downhill to cross the Saône near Mâcon. Turning north and running up the river valley to Beaune, with the vineyards of Burgundy all around you, you then curl away to the north-west and climb up through autumnal forests into the Morvan, one of France’s lesser-known delights, and finally one arrives in forests of the Gatinais before the plains that lead to Paris. After 850 kilometres, the inevitable traffic jams are not welcome.

Years of experimentation have given me an infallible work-around route which gets me home rapidly, looping to the south of the city, by way of Monthléry, France’s version of Monza, built in the same era with amazing banked corners. It struck me as I went past in the early evening that with some vision and money Montlhéry could be a great venue for the French GP, using the banking for grandstands with a track through the infield and using the old road circuit in the woods. Ah, one can dream… I end up going through what the French like think of as their Silicon Valley, where Prost Grand Prix used to be and where Renault has its Technocentre. You pass nuclear research facilities, celebrated Grandes Écoles, airfields where the Farman Brothers and Blériot used to fly. At one point one encounters a Mirage fighter jet, which someone has left in a flower bed. There is then a dramatic aqueduct, built in the 1680s, solely to provide water for the fountains at Versailles, and soon afterwards one goes through a 6.2-mile tunnel with no fewer than five speed cameras to try (and fail) to keep the rowdy local drivers under control. It doesn’t work. They speed up and slow down accordingly and thus cause more accidents…

When it comes to the automobile, the French and the Italians have a lot in common. Italian driving is lively and often unexpected, and the mirrors seem only to be used for checking how one looks. Indicators seem to be optional extras. When it comes to traffic management, there’s not much the Italians could learn from Brazil about creating unnecessary traffic jams. Every day there seems to be a different system and they truly do not seem to understand what is wrong with that idea. Fans on bicycles wobble around, blissfully unaware than there is anyone on the road apart from them. Frenetic from too many ristrettos, the gate people wave their arms a lot and shout, but it is best to ignore them all (policemen included) and just do what you want to do. This year they added concrete blocks to create one-car width chicanes (on a two-way road, of course), so that extremists in trucks could not get into the park.

I long ago tired of all this silliness and so nowadays I arrive each morning before seven, when the only people around are half-awake parking attendants in donning their fluorescent jackets, and F1 hospitality types, hurrying into the paddock, worrying about their hair. These people are amazing. They work the hardest of everyone during a Grand Prix weekend, are always smiling, always helpful and always patient. Monza is the last time each year we see most of them, so thank you – one and all – for everything you do each F1 season.

Sunday was a beautiful Monza day, but the rest of the weekend was fairly miserable. The trouble with rain is that F1 people shelter from the downpours and so you don’t tend to see them much. It was, as a result, a slow news weekend. The primary topic of coversation was Honda. We will know in a few hours what the Honda board has decided to do. The choice was to quit Formula 1, or to do a deal to move to Scuderia Toro Rosso in 2018 and (perhaps) Red Bull Racing in 2019. This will give the Japanese time to get things up to speed – if they can – while giving Red Bull smaller bills to pay. Perhaps, at the end of it all, it will also give Red Bull Racing the manufacturer it has so long been chasing. Having said that, there are quite a few folk in F1 who see Red Bull sliding quietly out of the sport after 2020, perhaps leaving some branding behind for a few years when selling their teams, to make the purchase price less dramatic, as happened when Red Bull split with Sauber back in 2001. If McLaren gets Renault engines, as is planned, Fernando Alonso will stay. Sergio Perez will move to Renault and, probably, Pascal Wehrlein will join Esteban Ocon at Force India, as Charles Leclerc will be getting his Sauber seat, thanks to Ferrari offering a deal for the youngster. Things could develop differently if Force India is sold, at which point it will depend on who the buyer is…

Ferrari has plenty of money and has just renewed its sponsorship with Philip Morris International (the owner of Marlboro), despite the fact that tobacco advertising is banned in most countries. The last deal agreed was a three-year one that runs until the end of 2018. This one will probably be a three-year deal until the end of 2021.The team is no longer called Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro but PMI still benefits from the historical value of the relationship, plus VIP hospitality and some use of the Ferrari cars in Marlboro promotions.

F1 continues to flutter its wings around the world, aiming for more and more of Liberty Media’s celebrated “destination cities”. Buenos Aires, New York, Copenhagen and Miami are all in the spotlight while there is now also talk of a street race in China. It is expected that Shanghai and Singapore will soon be announced to have new contracts for their races, but Liberty believes that as the car culture grows in China, so interest in F1 will follow. Things will be helped by the fact that the Chinese government is encouraging its entrepreneurs to invest more at home, as the economy has slowed because they are buying the world. It is worthy noting that the Chinese car company, which has done a great job with Volvo, may have some interesting ideas with Lotus, a company famous for its lightweight cars – and its F1 teams. Who knows? Perhaps we will see yet another Lotus revival in F1 in the years ahead.

Elsewhere Monaco is going to be an easier place to work in 2018 as there is a $30 million project to create a new pitlane complex, the suggestion is that the new pit buildings will have an extra storey, which will give the teams more room to work. The paddock area, down on the quayside will remain, but this is also being upgraded in the next few years as part of a big project to make the Port Hercules district a nicer place to visit. This will include a new car museum, which will be underground at Tabac Corner.

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