16 May 2018

Notebook from Catalonia

Motorsport has a wonderfully blithe spirit. It travels the world and almost always fails to notice what is going on around it, being self-absorbed by nature. There is a splendid tale from 1981 of motor sport journalists arriving in Poland for some international rally and being surprised that the airport was being closed. They had checked for the weather but had overlooked the fact that General Wojciech Jaruzelski had proclaimed martial law, to stop the growth of the Solidarność movement. Things are not quite as dramatic in Catalonia, but as the Formula 1 cars were whizzing around on Friday morning and F1 people were wondering whether softs were better than supersofts, there was drama of a different kind going on in the Catalan Parliament, where the regional MPs were trying to elect a President.

To explain the whole thing in a few words, Catalonia is a semi-autonomous region of Spain, around the city of Barcelona. It has 7.5 million people, its own flag, anthem, language, political structure and police force. But the Spanish government controls taxation. Catalans have long complained that they pay too much to support Spain's poorer regions.

A referendum last October resulted in 90 percent support for independence, although the turnout was only 43 percent of the electorate. The Spanish courts declared the referendum illegal. The Catalan Parliament then voted in favour of a unilateral declaration of independence. A few hours later Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy imposed direct rule, dissolved the Catalan Parliament and called for new elections. Several of the Catalan leaders were arrested and imprisoned, others fled abroard, including the President Carles Puigdemont. The election, held in December, resulted in a victory for the three pro-Catalonia independence parties, which together won 70 of the 135 seats, although they won only 47 percent of the popular vote. Rajoy's People's Party won just four seats. The process of electing a President has dragged on since then because the parties disagree on the question of secession. On Friday Quim Torra, a hardline secessionist, failed to win a vote, but then on Monday was elected with 66 votes to 65. Thus the struggle for independence is far from over.

F1 wandered merrily into this mess and ran a Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. This meant that two flags had to be waved and two anthems played and there was more than a little whistling when the Spanish "Marcha Real" was played. Not really surprising when it begins with the exhortation "¡Viva España!". This was a bit of a shame because the song would do well in the Eurovision Anthem Contest (if such a thing existed) whereas the Catalan dirge "Els Segadors" would likely score "nul points". There was a large banner unfurled in the grandstand, reading "Catalan Republic", while some waved Catalan flags and others waved Spanish flags.

In the pitlane there was an interesting paint job on the tarmac which read "Spainish Grand Prix", which was either a spelling mistake, or a very clever painter making the point that the race was not really Spanish…

The future of the Spanish Grand Prix depends a little on all these goings on, but there is also the question of what happens after Fernando Alonso. He is now coming up to 37 and the second oldest F1 driver (after Kimi Raikkonen). Alonso is a double World Champion but he ought to have won more titles if he had not chosen the wrong teams, or gone to teams where his presence did more harm than good. Alonso knows that he is unlikely to win another title and so has started chasing a nebulous thing called The Triple Crown. There are various versions of this but the original was for a driver to win the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours. Many have won two of the three, but only Graham Hill ever won all of them (although some will tell you that Hill did not win the 1966 Indianapolis 500 but was given the victory because of a lap scoring error and that the real winner was Jim Clark).

Alonso should win Le Mans this year, although Toyota has much experience in messing things up at the event. Toyota has no real rivals and at the recent Spa Six Hours there were team orders which stopped Mike Conway from challenging Alonso. The weird WEC "Superseason" gives Alonso a second chance of winning the title in 2019. Thus, Alonso's target is now the Indy 500, which he might have won last year with the McLaren-Andretti combo. It is logical to suggest, therefore, that Fernando will want to go back to Indy in 2019. Things are a little more complicated in that Honda is no longer McLaren's partner and is not so keen on supporting a Toyota driver, so if he does go back it might need to be with a Chevrolet team. Some at McLaren are keen to see the marque back at Indy, to help sell more road cars in the United States, while others say that it would be best to concentrate all efforts on F1, because that is more important.

McLaren needs Alonso becase he is still good but the key question is whether Alonso needs McLaren. He wants to be in F1 but the teams he would like to join are not interested (as his manager Flavio Briatore has found out while hawking the name about recently in Baku), and Fernando is not interested in the teams that would like him. However, McLaren also doesn't want him joining a rival operation and so it might be worth taking him to Indy to stop him going to another team. The team does have Lando Norris waiting in the wings but it may be a little too early for him.

The Spanish Grand Prix weekend saw the gathering of a large number of the Formula 1 race promoters. Deals are being discussed to renew the Belgian and Japanese GPs. This should happen as Spa benefits from Max Verstappen's Orange Army (although the organisers don't want a Dutch Grand Prix), while Suzuka, the home of the Japanese GP, is owned and promoted by Honda. There are, however, significant problems with the German GP. The Nurburgring cannot afford a race and Hockenheim only wants one every second year. The German fans seem uninterested in Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes-Benz. It is a bit of a weird thing but I would guess that at some point a social historian will come along and explain that German F1 fans are mainly working class, drawn to the sport by Michael Schumacher at a time when Germany was feeling rather insecure and looking for new national heroes after the reunification of the country at the end of the Cold War, and that these fans have no interest in the middle class Vettel. The local, regional and national authorities in Germany are also leery of F1 because of the adventures of Bernie Ecclestone in the court rooms of Bavaria and the disastrous political mess that took down the government of Kurt Beck in the Rheinland in 2013  over the Nurburgring theme park project. As a result there is unlikely to be a German GP in 2019, although Liberty Media is keen to find a venue. One place that the Liberty people mention quite often is Berlin, which is the kind of destination city that they want to develop. There used to German GPs in Berlin a long time ago when the AVUS track was still in operation, but a much better option today could be the old Tempelhof airport, which was closed in 2008 and is now  a 1000-acre public park. One can get to it by public transport and there are plenty of old runways and taxiways to create the foundations for a circuit. There is also the impressive terminal building. The venue has been used by Formula E but if F1 was to do a deal it would be a completely different circuit. If the authorities were to support the idea it could easily become a Berlin version of Albert Park. An alternative, in a smaller circuit, could be the Norisring at Nuremberg, in Bavaria, where there is an race track. This is located in a public park, has existing facilities, public transport and a history of races. It would require some work but with DTM is in a very poor state (and there are rumours that it might even disappear), which would mean the Norising could be looking for a new kind of race.

In recent weeks in F1 there have been lots of stories about the future of Baku and that will need to be decided shortly. The circuit has a contract until 2025 but the word is that there is a break clause after the 2020 race, although this must be actioned shortly. However President Ilham Aliyev is keen on the race and has the power to keep it going, if that is what he chooses to do. Oil-rich Azerbaijan is dependent on oil and gas revenues to a dramatic extent and needs to diversify in order to have a stronger economy. Tourism is a good idea and the Grand Prix has helped that a lot. So it is unlikely that Aliyev will wave it away.

There are lots of stories also about new races in Copenhagen, Zandvoort (or rather "Amsterdam Beach", as it is sometimes called). That is an interesting story because Amsterdam has so many tourists these days that it wants to spread them out a little more and so has been promoting outlying attractions reachable by train, using city travel cards to reduce the crowding in the downtown area. With the Max Verstappen boom going on, Zandvoort would easily sell out and the plan would be for a public transport-style GP, as fans could get to the track by railway from the cities of Haarlem and Amsterdam.

There is also a lot of talk in Asia, where Vietnam is interested in a race in Hanoi and there are rumours of new projects in China and Korea. The street race in Hanoi was looking like a slam-dunk but it seems that in recent weeks the government of President Tran Dai Quang has been wavering and talking about building a permanent circuit between Hanoi and its airport. If that happens the race would not happen for at least two or three years and there is no guarantee that Libert Media will wait for such a venue if other races are on offer elsewhere. The big goal these days is to get a street race in China and while going to Beijing might look good on television, it would be a nightmare to organize and the word is that the concept of a Monaco-style race is something that has got the Chinese quite excited. I heard whispers in Spain that this might be done in Hainan, the only tropical island in the whole of China which has long been a Special Economic Zone, with the Chinese government keen to turn it into an international tourist destination. The tourism trade has been in decline in rcent years and much money is being spent on new infrastructure and so promoting the city of Sanya with a race might be a good idea, as China's Hawaii attracts mainly Asian tourists and wants to bring in more people from further afield. It sounds like a good fit. There is also talk of an event in Seoul, Korea. And it is perhaps worth noting that Dr Mahathir Mohamad has just been re-elected as the Prime Minister of Malaysia. He was the man who led the campaign to get Formula 1 to Malaysia, back in the 1990s, when he was previously Prime Minister. His successors did a pretty poor job and in the end Mahathir decided to get back to power and sort things out. It's a great story and Mahathir is a very clever man, but the only slight problem is that he is coming up to 93 years of age…

Elsewhere in Asia, there is no chance at all of any Indian Grand Prix and the country's influence in F1 is dwindling with rumours that the owners of the Force India team now have to sell the team after a British court ruling that Mallya's UK assets can be seized by Indian banks. He and partner Subrata Roy of the Sahara Group, are both in deep trouble with the Indian authorities and Mallya is facing extradition from the UK, while Roy has been in jail but is currently out on parole (of sorts) as he tries to find money to get the government off his back. Between the pair they owe the government and state banks vast amounts of money running into several billions. The latest whisper is that there might be an American buyer for the well-run Silverstone team, which is a lean and very cost-effective operation. It is run on a day-to-day basis by American Otmar Szafnauer, so a change of ownership flag would be easy enough. The problem appears to be to get Mallya to agree to a sensible price. The other partners are all believed to have drag-along, tag-along deals and so would have to sell when Mallya sells.

It's now the time of year when teams start booting out technical directors, chief designers and chief aerodynamicists who have produced this year's cars. Thus far we have seen Sauber ditch its head of aero and its technical director, while McLaren has parked its Technical Director Tim Goss and Williams has barged chief designer Ed Wood through the door marked Exit. The word is that Goss could end up in Grove as he and Williams chief technical officer Paddy Lowe worked together for many years in Woking. There has been a bit of a stampede of ex-McLaren to Williams in recent months. Barcelona saw the reappearance for the first time for several years of Martin Whitmarsh in the F1 Paddock, after several years working with the America's Cup. Whitmarsh, who ran McLaren for some years before being drop-kicked into the sea (with a parachute made from a LOT of dollar bills) says he is not doing much at the moment although he recently looked up his old mate Stefano Domenicali, former Ferrari team principle, who is now head of Lamborghini. Stefano lent him a Lamborghini Miura to drive around Italy…

On the subject of old cars, there will soon be a big announcement in Germany about a Michael Schumacher Museum that is to be opened on June 15 in Cologne. The facility will be housed in an old and listed hangar at the site of the former Ossendorf airfield. This will provide plenty of space for the cars that Michael drove in his career.

Red Bull is also up to similar things and has now gained planning permission to turn the area around its factory in Milton Keynes into a "Technology Campus". The team has bought all the buildings at one end of the industrial estate and wants to shut down the road that runs through them, to create a campus feeling for the hundreds of staff who now work on the site. One of the projects is for a multifunctional event space, capable of hosting 700 people, in which all of the team's old cars will be displayed. The facility will be used mainly for Red Bull and its partners but the word is that it will also be available for rental. The whisper in Barcelona is that Red Bull is highly likely to sign an engine deal for 2019 and 2020 with Honda on the basis that the Japanese firm would take on the team as a works operation rather than a customer and that the Honda engine is not far off the pace of the Renault and, perhaps, has more potential. We'll see… 

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