1 November 2017

Notebook from Iztacalco


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.

In the days of the Conquistadors, this place used to be an island in Lake Texcoco, not that you would know it today. The Spanish drained much of the valley, but there remained a complex maze of chinampas, artificial islands created to provide protection for the residents, and to grow food. These appeared to be like floating gardens and they gradually disappeared and today the area is just another neighbourhood in the vast urban sprawl that is Mexico City. Around 20 million people now live here, in the valley in the shadow of the volcanoes of Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. It is a high plateau, over 7,000 ft, higher than Ben Nevis, Mont Ventoux and even Vesuvius, and it has the rather colourful name of El Valle de los Malditos, the Valley of the Damned. In this chaotic city there are ancient pyramids and palaces alongside the cathedrals, bull rings and plazas that the Spanish built.

You have to have a few days to spare if you want to learn the history of the Ciudad de México for it covers the Maya and Aztec civilizations, the Spanish conquest and colonial era and then revolutions and doomed empires, a period when the French were in charge, civil wars and military rule. Today Mexico is a complicated place where the rich and the poor live side-by-side and brutal drug-trafficking cartels engage in bloody warfare. At the same time, it has long been a playground for Americans, who head south to enjoy cheap entertainments of various kinds. Mexico makes around $20 billion a year from tourism and, with the peso trading at around 25 percent below its 10-year average, one would expect the trade to be booming, but the violence has led to a US State Department travel advisory in August, warning US citizens not to go south.

Even before that happened, Mexico was looking at ways to build up its tourist trade, based on its wealth of culture and its spectacular sights. The Mexican Grand Prix is part of that process and the Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) festival is a big draw. Celebrating the dead is deep-rooted tradition in Mexico and rather than being sombre or melancholic, it is joyful, celebrating life with music and dancing yet also remembering the departed. It was particularly poignant this year because of the recent earthquakes. There are all kinds of traditions, including orange marigolds, cookies for the dead and a skeletal lady with a big flowery hat, known as La Catrina (right), who is an integral part of the festival. Perhaps it was these bizarre traditions that made Mexico seem such a cool place for creative types, back in the 1920s and 1930s when the likes of DH Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Malcolm Lowry all found inspiration for their great literary works. More recently life has imitated art with the authorities in Mexico City deciding to create a big Day of the Dead parade, after one was featured in the James Bond movie Spectre. This was the second year and around half a million people turned up to watch ghoulish floats, giant skeleton marionettes and hundreds of actors, dancers and acrobats, dressed in macabre costumes.

The Day of the Dead festival was the theme in the background at the Grand Prix and one grew accustomed to bumping into people made-up to look dead, notably at the welcome desk in the Media Centre (left). After several weeks of mad travelling around the world some of the F1 circus didn’t really need the make-up. We’re getting towards the end of the season and Mexico was to be the race at which the Drivers’ title would be settled, the Constructors’ having been done in Austin, a week earlier.

The Mexico 2017 pages in green notebook begin with notes about the rather dull question of track limits, following the series of unfortunate events in Austin where Max Verstappen was deprived of a well-deserved podium after he passed Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari on the last lap with all four wheels over a white line. One cannot fault the decision of the stewards if one follows the rules to the letter, but there is no doubt that the five-second penalty that knocked Max back to fourth place ruined the spectacle. It was a head-on collision between two very different cultures: the spectacular heroes of F1 and the folk who live by red tape. The FIA argues that it must uphold the rules and the buccaneers say that they are there to put on a show. Both are right and both are wrong. It was a clash that happened again on Sunday when Sebastian Vettel ran into the back of Lewis Hamilton at the third turn. Hamilton suffered a right rear puncture. Vettel was clearly to blame, Hamilton was the victim. In the past similar mistakes have been punished because of the impact they had on other racers, but the teams argue that the stewards should not get involved and allow the racers to race, and so they must accept this for what it was. Vettel’s mistake went unpunished and one was left with the impression that the stewards in Mexico did not want to fall into the trap into which their colleagues in Austin jumped feet first. They didn’t want to ruin the show. At the end of the day, Lewis won the title and didn’t care about the incident. He laughed and said he was not interested. In Austin red tape won, in Mexico it was the day for the buccaneers.

Interestingly, the driver steward in Mexico was Tom Kristensen, the multiple Le Mans winner, who is also the head of the FIA Drivers’ Commission. He is quietly campaigning to have a definitive solution over the question of track limits, with the drivers being allowed to have a voice in the decision-making. Whether this is done by returning to traditional track-side grass (which would be expensive for the circuits) or policed using electronic means (which is possible) it would at least mean that drivers would know where they stand.

There was much discussion in the paddock about Verstappen’s new deal with Red Bull, with whispers which suggest that the no-longer-teenage Max has a contract which, when all bonuses are included, is in the same league as the contract that Hamilton enjoys and is worth around three times what he was previously being paid. That was reckoned to be around $15 million a year, so triple that and you have a good guess at Max’s new deal. The big question now is whether Red Bull is going to keep Daniel Ricciardo when his contract runs out at the end of 2018. Daniel seems to be a good fit for the team and is almost on Max’s pace. He could go to Ferrari but Sebastian may say he doesn’t care but will no doubt remember that Danny Ric had the measure of him in 2014 when the Australian finished third in the World Championship with three wins and 238 points, and Vettel was fifth, without a victory and scoring only 167 points.

Ricciardo says he would like to take on Hamilton at Mercedes. Lewis says that he wouldn’t mind that battle, but added that Daniel really needs to beat Max before thinking about getting signed elsewhere. The word is that Daniel will stay at Red Bull and there is talk of a $10 million deal. Elsewhere in the Red Bull empire, Desperate Dan Kvyat has been cast into the abyss because he didn’t do quite enough and now Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly are expected to be the Scuderia Toro Rosso drivers in 2018. There were rumours in Mexico that Kvyat might be able to find Russian sponsorship and so could perhaps become an option for Williams, although at the moment the choice remains: Felipe Massa, Paul di Resta, Robert Kubica and Pascal Wehrlein.

There was plenty of talk about the big meetings about the new engine and, coming soon, the plans for the redistribution of revenues. Lots of journalists have been slapping “exclusive” on their stories and claiming different things, but it is clear that there is change coming and that the big teams are going to have accept what is on offer, or they will need to walk the walk. Formula 1 being the powerful tool that it is for them, they don’t really have a choice, although ego can sometimes overpower logic. One subject who has been much discussed in recent days is Sergio Marchionne (right), the boss of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), who is the man who really calls the shots at Ferrari. There is talk that he will eventually flick team principal Maurizio Arrivabene into a skip branded with a Prancing Horse, and the whisper is that Mattia Binotto, the technical chief of Gestione Sportiva, may be given the role, but others think things will be a little different with Arrivabene perhaps staying on until early 2019 when Marchionne retires from FCA. Perhaps he has ambitions of his own to be team principal at Maranello, in addition to being chairman and CEO. Others say that we should keep an eye open for a lady called Lucia Pennesi, who is commercial and marketing director at Gestione Sportiva, in whom Marchionne seems to have great confidence. Might there be a female Ferrari team principal, or is that too radical a suggestion for a company that has only 12 percent of its customers being women, but has ambitions to attract more lady buyers in the future. For now, that probably belongs in the file marked “wild speculation”.

Something else that turned heads on the grid in Mexico was the presence of NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon, his second visit to a Grand Prix in four races. Gordon retired from NASCAR at the end of 2015, but came back for a few races last year to help the Hendrick team. This year he is working as commentator and a sponsors ambassador, but it should be remembered that he is also a Hendrick shareholder and many see him as being the man who will take over for Rick Hendrick when the 68-year-old when he decides he has had enough. Hendrick’s only child Ricky was killed in a plane crash in 2004. Gordon (46) has always been keen on F1 – he did a car swap test with Juan Pablo Montoya back in 2003 – and no doubt he and Hendrick will have noted the way in which rival NASCAR owner Gene Haas has created an F1 team. The fact that the Formula 1 business is now US-owned and managed and that there are big plans to push into the US market might perhaps add up to an interesting story in the future. But again that is one for the “wild speculation” file.

What is not wild speculation is the fact that Mexico is really into F1 at the moment. There were 6,000 VIP guests in the Paddock Club at the weekend and the locals even joked about needing the army to be sent in at the end of the weekend to get the last of them out of the building. This fixation on F1 has impacted rather on Indycar and Esteban Gutierrez. The US racing series wants to have a race in Mexico City but has yet to find the funding to do the deal, while Gutierrez is keen to race Indycars but needs money to land a deal.

Mexican GP promoter Alejandro Soberon recognises that he is on to a winner with the F1 race and has responded to suggestions from Austin promoter Bobby Epstein that the Mexican GP be moved to a June date, by saying that as much as he likes Epstein, “it will make even more sense to have Canada and the States, which are closer, together.”

Soberon said that it is impossible to move the Mexican race. “The Day of the Dead holiday has just become a big festival in the city,” he said.

It was interesting to note that Chloe Targett-Adams, the global director of promoter relations at Formula 1, spent a lot of her weekend with three gentlemen from Argentina. Federico Gastaldi, once the deputy team principal of Lotus, is a well-known figure, who used to promote the Argentine GP back in the 1990s, but Marcelo Figoli of Fenix Entertainment is less known (for the moment). Fenix is a big music promoter in Argentina and has promoted the Formula E race in Buenos Aires, but now has ambitions to get a Grand Prix once again. That would require government backing but recent legislative elections have made it possible for President Mauricio Macri to have more freedom of movement, with the opposition Justicialista party having suffered serious losses.

Macri wants a race in Buenos Aires in order to boost Argentine tourism and as a former mayor of the city still has influence with Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, who is now in charge. Much has been done to the Argentine economy since Macri took over and one can envisage a race down there in 2020, as the event in Brazil is now struggling seriously.

Another race that could be struggling is the Spanish Grand Prix which could get caught in the crossfire in the ongoing constitutional crisis in Spain. The race has long been the brainchild of the Generalitat de Catalunya, which joined forces with the Reial Automobile Club de Catalunya (RACC) and the town of Montmelo to fund the construction of the Circuit de Catalunya nearly 30 years ago. The Grand Prix is promoted by the Circuits de Catalunya SL company 72 percent owned by the Generalitat, with the remaining shares being split between the RACC (18 percent) and Montmelo (10 percent). Much depends on who is in charge, but will the Spanish in Madrid want to continue funding an event which has always aimed to promote Catalonia?

Things change in the world and it was worth noting the presence of Fredrik Johnsson,the CEO of the Race of Champions in Mexico to recruit for the next event. Johnsson is planning to hold the next ROC in Saudi Arabia in early February 2018 in the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh. Things are changing in Saudi Arabia with the arrival in the summer of 32-year-old Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as the new Crown Prince, who is the first in line to the throne, which is currently held by his father 81-year-old King Salman. He seem to have behind the move to allow women to drive and to let them attend sporting events.

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