6 June 2018

Norris and Toro Rosso

You may be surprised to hear that I don't put all my news on the blog for free. It makes no sense. I try to keep people informed but at the same time I still need to make a living - because blogging about F1 does not make much. Thus if you were a subscriber to the JSBM newsletter you would have been able to read all about Lando Norris and Scuderia Toro Rosso on Monday at 09.00. Now, it seems to be everywhere, but such is the way of news writing. Anyway, here is what I wrote.

"There have been rumours in recent days that Scuderia Toro Rosso are in the process of doing a deal to replace Brendon Hartley with Lando Norris. Hartley has had an rather unproductive season with Toro Rosso and has scored just one point, while his team-mate Pierre Gasly, who did five races last year, has scored twice and has nine points. Hartley did four races last year but has been overshadowed by the Frenchman. Hartley has been quick on occasion, but it has been tough for him to put everything together. Red Bull is merciless with its young drivers (as Hartley can attest) but the problem with having such high standards is that the Austrian drinks company is currently very short of young drivers ready to step in to replace Hartley. It was same last summer when Red Bull plucked Brendon from sports car racing because it had run out of other choices. 

"The most senior of the current Red Bull Junior drivers is Dan Ticktum, currently racing in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship. There is also Nirei Fukuzumi, who has a deal with Red Bull to race in Super Formula, thanks to the Honda link with Toro Rosso, but he is definitely not ready for Formula 1 yet and is unlikely to be ready until 2020 at the earliest. 

"If Red Bull feels the need to replace Hartley, the choice is limited to the leading players in Formula 2 and this is complicated because most of them are either former Red Bull drivers, or have affiliations elsewhere. Norris is McLaren's reserve driver, Artem Markelov and Jack Aitken are both Renault drivers, George Russell is a Mercedes driver, Nyck de Vries was a McLaren driver while Alexander Albon and Sergio Sette Câmara both used to be a Red Bull drivers but were both dropped from the programme. 

"The only way for Scuderia Toro Rosso to be able to get most of the above would be because the team to which the driver is affiliated believes it might require him to race in 2019 and needs to have him race-ready. Norris is the obvious choice given his performances this year. he leads the championship and is known to Toro Rosso engine supplier Honda, as a result of his work with McLaren last year. But why would McLaren, which has 40 points compared to Toro Rosso's 19, hand over its young driver and help the Italian squad score more points? The only possible answer is that McLaren knows that it will need Norris next year. 

"At the moment neither McLaren driver has a contract for 2019 and it is clear that the hopes of a competitive car for Fernando Alonso after the switch to Renault engines have not been fulfilled. Things ought to be better next year, but Alonso has other priorities. He will soon be 37 and has to little to gain by staying in F1. He is not going to win a third World Championship with McLaren in its current form, and so he is chasing the so-called Triple Crown: victory at Monaco, Indianapolis and Le Mans. This has been done only once in the history of the sport by Graham Hill, back in the 1960s, and Alonso can see the possibility of achieving this as he is racing for Toyota at Le Mans (and should win this year) and raced for McLaren at Indy last year (and was a real contender for victory). 

"Last weekend McLaren people were over in the United States meeting team owners and engine manufacturers, looking into whether it might be possible to start a full-time IndyCar programme. This would clearly be for Alonso and so it is logical to suggest that McLaren needs to get Norris some more racing miles in F1."

Not much has changed since this week. A McLaren spokesman has denied that Norris will be going to Toro Rosso (apparently) but I am still waiting to see what happens with Alonso. Renault is due to bring an engine upgrade to Canada and this will be important for two reasons: will it convince Alonso to stay at McLaren in 2019, and will it convince Red Bull not to jump to Honda? If the upgrade is not a great success I find it hard to believe that Alonso will go on trying in F1. I am quite sure that the whole McLaren IndyCar team discussions centre around Fernando. If McLaren keeps him on in IndyCars this achieves two things: it gives the team the chance to make a big impact in the United States, and it keeps Alonso off the F1 driver market.

It was interesting to see pictures from Detroit last weekend with McLaren's Zak Brown and Eric Boullier in town to discuss things with teams. Also spotted was a Frenchman called Michel Combes, who I saw at Monaco a couple of weeks ago. Combes was CEO of Vodafone Europe between 2008 and 2012 and so he knows F1 (and McLaren) very well. He moved on to head Alcatel for a while but at the start of this year was given a senior role with the US telecommunications company Sprint, which for many years was the title sponsor of the NASCAR Cup Series. Sprint announced it was leaving NASCAR at the end of 2014, a few months after Peruvian-American Marcelo Claure took over as CEO.

Claure was recently promoted to chairman of Sprint, but now has a much bigger role in the company's parent Softbank of Japan.  He was replaced as Sprint CEO by Combes. One could imagine that Combes would be interested in getting Sprint into racing again and IndyCar is a good choice, given that the company does most of its business in the US. However things have been complicated by the news that Sprint is to merge (or be taken over) by T-Mobile, to create a third big player in the US mobile phone market, alongside AT&T and Verizon. It is perhaps worth saying that Verizon has been the IndyCar title sponsor in recent weeks, but is leaving at the end of the year, opening the way for its rivals to make a bigger splash in the series.

Could Sprint be willing to back Alonso in IndyCar?

To further complicate matters, Combes was in Monaco with Claure, so perhaps we should be watching out of an F1 deal of some kind...

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