If you were around in medieval times and developed an overwhelming urge to go on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, to get away from the drudge of everyday living (plagues and so on) and discover yourself on the road, you would follow one of several long-established routes.
You would then walk one of these until you arrived at the celebrated destination – unless you were killed on the way. It is entirely possible that you would have passed through Brioude, as it was on one of these paths and there was a decent shrine there to keep you amused. This was dedicated to a Roman soldier – Julien – who found God and, as an unfortunate consequence of his conversion, had his head chopped off by the local pagans.
Oddly, these ungodly folk then took Julien’s head off to Vienne, 90 miles to the east, as the pilgrim walks (or the crow flies), but left the headless body behind in Brioude. No-one seems to know why except perhaps there is logic in the expression ‘dead weight’.
Anyway, two old grave-diggers were given the job of burying the bottom part of Julien and this caused both to feel youthful again and the word spread that a visit to Julien’s grave would put a spring back in your step, if you were old and weary. This resulted in Julien being canonized.
Saint Julien wasn’t the reason I found myself in Brioude, but a visit to the shrine would probably do me good, as we approach the end of F1’s second triple-header, with just one weekend off in between. It has been quite a business. Since the F1 season began six weeks ago, my car and I have travelled 4,400 miles in a bubble all of our own, on what I suppose might be considered as a pilgrimage of sorts, visiting various shrines to the racing automobile…
I am in Brioude on my way to Barcelona, most recently on the A75 Autoroute, which they call La Méridienne, because it travels from north to south across France’s once-remote Massif Central to the Mediterranean coast at Béziers, from where it is a mere hop, a skip and a jump to Barcelona. I was at home for about 36 hours after returning from Silverstone, which gave me time to change suitcases and collect the fruits of my lockdown labours in the vegetable garden. We always knew that when the season did get going again, it was going to be a busy time – and it certainly has been.
As I was pottering southward – in not too great a rush – I decided to take a little detour into the Sologne, to look up some old friends.
The Sologne is a diamond-shaped region south of the Loire between Blois and Gien, with Orleans in the north and Vierzon in the south. It is an area of forest, with literally thousands of ponds (or étangs as they call them) where Frenchman go to fish.
The most famous link between the Sologne and the world of automobile racing is not the international karting circuit at Salbris, although this is very well known, but rather a factory in the town of Aubigny-sur-Nere, which is the home of Mecachrome, which still manufactures Renault’s F1 engines and, of course, has run its own engines in F1 and today also supplies the engines for Formulae 2 and 3.
But I was headed to Valençay, which is actually in the neighbouring Berry region, but sits at the edge of the Sologne.
Valençay is famed for its pyramid-shaped goats’ cheese, a vast chateau once owned by Talleyrand, a car museum to which I have never been, which is run by the Guignard Family, who may or may not be related to a Georges Guignard, who came from Vierzon and raced at Le Mans in 1923 and 1924. A few hundred metres up the avenue of trees from the car museum is a roundabout with a large memorial in the middle. For racing fans this is something of interest because it is probably the strangest memorial that features two Grand Prix winners. It stands in memory of the 104 members of the Special Operations Executive secret agents who were sent to France during World War II.
Valencay was chosen because it was there that the first agent Georges Bégué was parachuted in May 1941 and many others were also dropped into the wild Sologne countryside, where they could easily be hidden. There on the memorial were the two names I was looking for: Grover-Williams WCF and Benoist RMC. The first was better known in racing as “W Williams”, winner of two French GPs and the first Monaco and Robert Benoist, who won all the major motor races of 1927 with Delage and much more besides, including the Le Mans 24 Hours 10 years later. Both were secret agents and both were executed in Nazi camps.
Obviously, I didn’t know them personally, but I say old friends because I spent 18 years researching their adventures and wrote a book about them, so I got to know them quite well… Earlier this year was the 75th anniversary of Willy Grover’s death, although with Monaco being cancelled, that passed without anything much happening. The poor fellow had a bit of a rough deal in many respects because the French don’t think of him as being French and the British don’t think of him as being British, but he was both…
Anyway, celebrating anniversaries in these troubled times is a complicated business. Having said that, if it wasn’t for the Covid-19 pandemic there would never have been a 70th Anniversary Grand Prix. It was purely by chance that there was a need to run two races at Silverstone and a name was required for the second – and that couldn’t be the European Grand Prix… The name, incidentally, means that it was the first World Championship Grand Prix ever to be named after anything other than a geographical denomination.
When it comes to birthday parties, Formula 1’s 70th was a bit of a non-event. There were no guests, no cake and a lot of people seemed to be rather grouchy because the whole affair was overshadowed by the quibbling and mud-slinging over Racing Point’s brake ducts. If there are any bushmen from the Kalahari reading this who don’t know the story, I have a quick explanation. I challenged myself to sum the whole thing up in just 100 words, rather than trying to explain the 14-page FIA decision. This is what I came up with: Renault complained that Racing Point’s brakes ducts had been designed by Mercedes. Racing Point admitted it started with a Mercedes design but could no longer use that because of a rule change. The designers felt, however, that it was impossible to improve on the design but argued that making that decision was proof of a design process. The FIA disagreed, saying that Racing Point should be fined and docked 15 points for the whole season, although the offence was minor. Thus, having paid its penalty, the team is allowed to use the same parts for the rest of the year.
This all seemed very sensible until McLaren boss Zak Brown got up and said that it was all “BS”, which I took to mean “bull shit”, although there seem to be endless other acronyms, including Bachelor of Science, Britney Spears, the Bristol postcode, the Bahamas, balance sheet, baking soda, blue sky, bisexual, boy scouts, Bruce Springsteen, Briggs & Stratton, bomb squad and so on.
Brown went on to say that as far as he was concerned the car was illegal and that the claim that Racing Point had copied the Mercedes design using photographs was not true.
“It’s clear from reading the document that that’s BS,” he said. “And therefore you have to question anything else around that car. I think this is potentially the tip of the iceberg, the starting point of looking at what’s happened here.”
I cannot say that I reached the same conclusions after reading the complex 14-page decision. I was dumb enough to think it was an impressive piece of work. Anyway, Brown upset pretty much everyone by saying this, including the FIA, which went over the car with a fine toothcomb in March, overlooking only the brake ducts.
“We did a very extensive survey and found that what they claimed to be the methodology used was very substantiated,” the FIA’s Nicholas Tombazis said. “We were convinced that was the case.”
Brown also upset Mercedes – his future engine supplier – which continues to argue that it has done nothing wrong – and would not do what it is accused of doing.
But most of all, Brown upset Racing Point bosses. The CEO Otmar Szafnauer said that Brown was talking rubbish.
“He’s got no idea what he’s talking about. Zero,” he said. “And I’m surprised at how little he knows about the rules of F1. It seems to me he knows more about historic racing than he does about F1.”
Racing Point team owner Lawrence Stroll was also furious: “I am extremely angry at any suggestion we have been underhand or have cheated – particularly those comments coming from our competitors. These accusations are completely unacceptable and not true. My team has worked tirelessly to deliver the competitive car we have on the grid. I am truly upset to see the poor sportsmanship of our competitors.
“I understand that the situation in which the FIA finds itself is difficult and complicated for many reasons, but I also respect and appreciate their efforts to try and find a solution in the best interests of the sport.”
Renault, McLaren, Ferrari and Williams all announced their intention to appeal the decision. Stroll said that by doing so, they are “dragging our name through the mud and I will not stand by nor accept this.”
At the same time, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was also clearly annoyed by the fact that Mercedes now seems to be alone in its opposition to the terms of the new commercial agreements that have been offered. Originally, Wolff was in an alliance with Ferrari to try to negotiate a better deal, but in the finest traditions of F1 negotiation, Ferrari got what it wanted and so gave up the fight. Wolff is not impressed at that, coming as it does soon after Ferrari got away with a secret deal regarding the legality of its power unit in 2019. The team has not been found guilty of having run an illegal engine, but it is also fair to say that nor has it found to have been innocent. The only satisfaction in all of this for Wolff is that Ferrari’s performance is woeful – and will remain woeful for some time to come.
At the end of the day, all of this detracted from the really big story of the moment, that teams are beginning to find it hard going financially.
I hear that about half the teams received their latest tranche of money from the Formula 1 group, but the bigger teams did not. This is not surprising as F1 must be having some serious cash-flow problems. There is no doubt that everyone will get their money – but some of the payments will be delayed. The biggest problem however will come early next year when teams face a possible longer calendar and getting ready for new rules in 2022. Their share of the revenues should go up by about 30 percent for the mid-sized teams, but one must take into account another key point. If your cake is half the size of last year’s cake, even if you get more in relative terms, you’re going to get to eat less.
As I understand it, Mercedes is the big loser in this because while Ferrari gets a special Longest Standing Team payment, all the other special bonus funds disappear, as do historical payments to McLaren and Williams. Red Bull is OK because the revenues from two teams probably balances out the losses to Red Bull.
The big question now is whether all the small teams can survive and if they do, how much debt will that require? Teams still have a value but if they have heavy debts already they are going to be less attractive to buyers, indeed some of them may be impossible to sell.
Today was the day by which teams were supposed to sign the deal and there was a big meeting yesterday, but it is not clear whether Mercedes has signed or not. There isn’t much choice if they want an entry for 2021, although Chase Carey is still trying to win over everyone, rather than forcing the issue. The best way to help the teams in the circumstances is to cut costs, without cutting races.
Once the deal is done we can expect to see Carey disappear from the scene, his job being done. But everyone is wondering what will happen next, as there is no obvious acceptable candidate within the sport who has the skills required at top-end US corporate level, although quite a few folk are sufficiently deluded to think they are up to the job. They also think themselves the world best comedians, brilliant intellects, the best dancers and so on.
Anyway, part from that, it is all a bit quiet. But keep an eye on action from Miami as there is an election coming up and the mayor of Miami-Dade County is moving on and challenging for a seat in Congress. He wants to land a race deal before the election…
Oh, and watch out too for a street race in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for a few years as building the all-singing, all-dancing purpose-built track up near Riyadh might be delayed because the Saudi Arabian government budget is calculated based on an oil price of $76 a barrel and oil is currently only getting around $42 a barrel. The country is wildly-dependent on oil… so obviously a few belts have to be tightened.