13 June 2018

Notebook from the Capital Grille

Usually on the Monday after the Canadian Grand Prix there are a lot of F1 folk feeling liverish, with heads thumping and faces pale, as the Sunday night post-race parties have been known to be fairly wild affairs. I am afraid that this is one area of F1 of which I have no expertise at all, as I am always working when these things are taking place. I hear the gossip of who has been doing ridiculous things to whom, such as shoving champagne glasses into the necks of others, and (allegedly) fiddling with waitresses and so on…

At a time when Ferrari is mulling over what to do about its drivers in the future, in the post-Harvey Weinstein era, it might not be a good moment for a Ferrari driver to be getting into the newspapers for all the wrong reasons. A week or two ago, in pursuit of the full story, in order to assess the potential problems, I read a blog post called "Sexual Assault by a F1GrandPrick", written by a lady called Talula Wilde. She wrote (alleged if you want to make it emotive) that in 2016 she was involved in an incident with an unnamed F1 driver (read Kimi Raikkonen) and one of his friends (read… hmm, I should try to find out, I suppose) who was working at the Velvet Speakeasy, where Guy Laliberté’s F1 Closing Party was taking place on the Sunday night. This article explained how the unnamed F1 driver was drunk and "swaying like an inflatable tube man" with his English "sounding a lot more like his first language".  The post was honest, intelligent, very detailed and fairly credible and Wilde explained that she did not file a complaint because she felt she would "be labelled a gold digger looking for a payday" and added that "it’s just some shitty thing that some shitty drunk people did".

I am not sure it was wise for Talula to try this year to find a financial solution with Raikkonen, as this opened the way for him to claim that he was the victim. I doubt it will get to court. Money will change hands and the problem will go away but I hope that it means the stars of F1 will be a little more sensible in the future and not mess with those who don't want to know.

Anyway, we usually spend Mondays wandering around Montreal, wasting time because we have been ejected from our hotels and have a few hours to kill before the flights leave for Europe in the evening. The mysteries of ticketing led me to do the same thing this year, but in a very different city. I had an early flight out to Philadelphia and then a lengthy layover. I had no real plan beyond visiting an Apple store to try to fix a broken screen and a lagging battery on my much-used iPhone. Every now and then, this strange F1 life gives one the chance to visit somewhere you don't know and go AWOL for a few hours.  In recent years this has allowed me to drive down the Florida keys, looking for conch for lunch, and to try fried green tomatoes and the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia. The tomatoes were fine, but the fizzy pop theme park was rather too sweet and bubbly for my taste.

On a Monday after a Grand Prix one is usually hungry. The eating habits of F1 journalists are worthy of a chapter in "Nutrition - how not to do it" (if such a title existed) and I concluded that this was the first priority as I wandered up Broad Street towards City Hall, unable to find the Apple store at which I was supposed to have been deposited by the cab driver. The Capital Grille, on the corner of Chestnut looked just like the sort of place that I wanted, an old style grill restaurant with wood panelling, white table cloths and attentive service for the suit and tie brigade. The menu too was appealing: clam chowder and oyster crackers, a filet mignon done properly rare, spinach (I know, I am probably suffering from iron deficiency) and a glass or two of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. As I was busy spoiling myself, I was unable to avoid the folk at the bar who were talking too loudly in Trump-speak, saying "No way!" and "Awesome" and using the word "like" far too often in every sentence. Modern America. I tried not to let this spoil the lunch, although phrases such as "soul-warming", "super-emotional" and "super-intense" were akin to small pieces of grit in a delightful chowder.

I find it rather sad that wordsmithery is losing out to the 30-second video clip in the battle for the minds of humankind. It is a sign of the times that there were TVs in the bar area, from which I discovered that Trump was meeting Kim. I wondered for a moment whether Ms Kardashian was really the right person to ask to save the world, but then realised that this was not the famous-for-being-famous Kim playing a political role story, but rather about a competition in Singapore for the most ridiculous hairdo in modern politics. I generally try to avoid real world politics because I find it too depressing, but there was a certain irony in the fact that just a few days earlier Trump had fallen out with all his closest allies at the G7 meeting in Quebec City, and here he was shaking hands with the leader of one of the nastiest regimes on the planet.

William Penn (as in Pennsylvania) christened Philadelphia with a name derived from the Greek phílos (beloved) and adelphós (brotherly), although the city of brotherly love soon played a major role in the decidedly un-fraternal American Revolution. It was where they signed the Declaration of Independence and was the first of only two US cities to have been named as a World Heritage City (the other being San Antonio, Texas). I pondered whether I might go and visit the Liberty Bell (although I had done it in 1980 when Philadelphia was not hearly as nice a place to visit) but delayed the decision when I saw the option of eating cheesecake offering 1060 calories. Given that the US Department of Health reckons that a typical man requires 2500 calories per day, this seemed a little excessive, but there are times when you just have to swallow your pride - and your cheesecake. I then set out to walk off my lunch in search of the Apple Store and so ended up spending the rest of the afternoon on Walnut and in Rittenhouse Square while Apple geniuses dealt with my iProblems, during which I met a fascinating English music critic. The different worlds sounded quite similar as we discussed life from the two perspectives. He is an expert on Panufnik, Lutosławski, Penderecki, and Górecki. I am an expert on Baghetti, Morbidelli, Montermini, Nannini and Pantano.

Is there much difference, in the overall scheme of things?

The Montreal weekend had been fairly quiet for news apart from the appearance in the paddock of Michael Andretti, who was obviously up to his neck in negotiating a deal to run Fernando Alonso in Indycars next year. This looks likely to happen, if the money can be found. The whisper is that the team could be sponsored by the telecommunications company Sprint, because McLaren people have strong links with Sprint's new CEO Michel Combes, who use to be a Vodafone executive. He was seen with McLaren at Monaco and at the Detroit IndyCar races last week. He is also a member of McLaren's Business Advisory Group.

However, it was clear that this was not Michael's only purpose for being in Montreal, as he was accompanied by his company president J-F Thormann and the familiar figure of Pieter Rossi, father of Andretti driver, Indy 500 winner and sometime F1 driver, Alexander Rossi. You wouldn't need the other two to get a deal with Alonso to race an Andretti-run, McLaren-badged Indycar, so it was obvious that they were also up to other things. Visits to Liberty Media and Force India suggested that they were there to sniff around and see if a deal could be put together to acquire the troubled team. It seems, from multiple sources, that a financial solution is required VERY quickly if Force India is going to avoid getting into financial and legal trouble. Current owners Vijay Mallya and Subrata Roy do not have cash available to pay for Formula 1. The best case scenario is that they will sell the team for less than they want (not that they will be getting the money) and will then be able to issue a press release saying that they are happy to pass the team on to the next generation of owners, blah-di-blah. The worst case scenario is that these people will run the team into administration because no-one will pay the price they want. Creditors are getting worried (including Mercedes, which is owed a very considerable sum, north of $20 million). If a sale is not agreed it is inevitable that administration will happen and then someone will swoop in and buy the assets (including the all-important commercial agreement). This is a cheaper option for potential buyers but it means that F1 will get bad publicity and the creditors will only get a few cents on the dollars owed. The option is for Mercedes or Liberty Media to buy the team and flip it to a new owner, although there is no sign of either one taking that kind of a risk.

Right now, Vijay and Roy (which sounds like some kind of Las Vegas stage show) look like a pair of Wile E. Coyotes running off a cliff, still not quite understanding the gravity of the situation…

Having an Andretti team in F1 would be a terrific thing as the World Championship seeks to make a bigger impression in the United States. This is a great opportunity as there is a competitive turnkey F1 operation, which would simply require a bit of rebranding, but Andretti and is unlikely to jump in unless he knows what it is going to cost, and that is not going to be certain until we get an answer to the question of the F1 budget cap - and the length of its glide path.  If there are budget limits for F1 teams and a solid date on which these things will happen, then all manner of exciting things can happen, but for the moment, the talk continues. It would probably be better if the talk stopped and actions were taken. That might upset some of the current companies in F1 but it would almost certainly attract others. But speed is now essential of else we may start losing F1 teams that can no longer fly along on empty. And Force India is not the only team in financial peril.

Given what is happening at Force India, there are rumours that Mercedes is now considering what to do if Force India crashes and the plan seems to be to transfer Esteban Ocon to Renault, as a replacement for Carlos Sainz (who is a Red Bull driver). Sainz moved to Renault last season because the team wanted a stronger challenge as Jolyon Palmer was struggling to fill the role. Sainz has done well enough to support Nico Hulkenberg, but he has not been beating him enough to turn himself into a must-have driver. Renault has long wanted Ocon (because he is French) and in the past Mercedes has loaned him to them as a reserve driver. Esteban is still the most likely to take over from Lewis Hamilton as and when he retires, but that is likely to be at least another three years. The word is that Sainz has been talking to McLaren, with the goal being to replace Alonso, but the team might prefer to invest in reserve driver Lando Norris. Stoffel Vandoorne's future with the team is yet to be settled, but he has done a decent job against Alonso.

The other big story over the Montreal weekend was the question of next year's calendar, as nothing was forthcoming from the FIA World Motor Sport Council in Manila. There is a scrawl in the green notebook which suggests that the German GP may not be as dead as a dodo. The word is that someone has been found who is willing to pay for a race. This cannot be the circuit owner Russian billionaire Viktor Kharitonin, because he is on the list of individuals sanctioned by the US government because of his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which means that US-based firms cannot do business with them.

It is ironic that the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi is not a problem, given the extent to which Putin uses it as a propaganda tool, but on paper there are no banned names involved in that deal… What will presumably happen, if the rumours are true, is that someone will pay the required fees and rent the circuit and thus the race can take place, if the promoter can find a way to make it survive financially.

Elsewhere in the paddock, there are now lots and lots of stories about Red Bull and Honda, a deal which makes perfect sense, although I see a note that says that Renault seems to be willing to sell Red Bull engines in 2019 and 2020, which they could even badge as Aston Martins. The logic behind this is presumably that Renault does not want Honda getting into bed with a strong rival and so is trying to keep hold of Red Bull by offering them a deal that they would like to have. However, the future interest of Aston Martin in F1 is largely dependent on the commercial and technical deals that still need to be done for 2021. The word is that a technical deal is now close, but there is still no sign of any movement on the money (and/or the length of the glide path to a budget cap).

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve will be different when F1 returns next year. The wrecking balls are due to swing in shortly and knock down the cruddy old pit complex. By late Sunday night we were rather pleased that this was going to happen because we had had enough of the place. They are nice people but they never did solve the problem of having TV screens that were not bright enough for the media to read. The facilities next year will be better than the glorified tent in which we have worked for many years and we hope that the people will be better as well. On Sunday night, after laughing and joking for too long and too loudly, while the media was trying work, they all disappeared into the night leaving the scribblers with no apparent way to return to the city in the middle of the night. The old adage of the press office remaining open "until the last journalist leaves" was forgotten.

Thankfully there were some security people who were able to help out but this was in keeping with the mess with the chequered flag and something that the promoter should address if he wants the race to remain one of the most popular of all F1 venues.

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