2 November 2018

Notebook from Miami… and other places

Apologies for the rather delayed green notebook. Life has been very busy since the Mexican Grand Prix, churning out words which pay money, which must be the priority as sadly this blog does not.

The Mexican GP seemed to come and go very quickly and while it was great to see Lewis Hamilton win his fifth World Championship, and thoroughly deserved though it was, it does mean that there is little to generate excitement in the final two races of the year. While the teams care passionately about the Constructors' title (because it decides on the money they are paid), the racing public generally does not and who finishes fourth, fifth and sixth in the Drivers' title is not that enthralling, except for the uber-fans (and I use that term in the original sense, rather than in relation to taxis).

It was a tough Sunday night in Mexico City. I never quite managed to get to bed, closing the computer at about 05.30 and then packing my bag and heading for the airport to catch an early bird flight to Miami, passing over the Gulf of Mexico, to the north of the Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba. We then crossed the Everglades into MIA. I was hoping to nip into town between planes, to have a sniff around the Bayfront Park area, where there are plans for an F1 race, but sadly the queues at US immigration (even with the fancy new machines) were such that I found that there was not sufficient time left to do it comfortably. And so I wandered off to the next departure lounge. On the way I sat down to have lunch in a great little restaurant where they have a mix of Caribbean seafood and boring old US fare (burgers etc). The conch fritters were good and I was reminded of a trip I made to Havana some years back and began to muse about what a great idea it would be to have a Grand Prix in Cuba.

There was a time, hard though it may be to believe, when Havana was the coolest place on earth, a bit like Miami these days, with the Hollywood jetset and rich socialites enjoying the city's hotels, restaurants, night clubs, golf clubs and casinos. Ernest Hemingway lived there, in a villa to die for, and sucked down ice-cold daquiris and mojitos at El Floridita. He's still there, by the way, holding up the bar in life-sized brass form.

The whole of Havana was run by The Mob at that time, paying off the government when it was required and inevitably someone decided that a motor race was in order and so all the big racing stars were lured to Havana to race sports cars around the streets and along the waterfront, known as the Malecon. It was during one of these events that Juan Manuel Fangio was kidnapped by Fidel Castro's rebels, seeking to draw attention to their cause, one of the great stories of motorsport. After the revolution Cuba spent 50 years in a cultural deep freeze but since Fidel retired it has begun to open up again, although (inevitably) President Donald Trump has been pushing things backwards. Anyway, he won't last forever, and I'd love to go racing in Havana… not that there is any sign of that happening any time soon.

The reason I mention all this is that somewhere in the chaos of my overfilled bookcases at home, I have a book called "Grand Prix - From Havana to Miami", which was commissioned by Ralph Sanchez and written by Jorge Cunill, both Cuban exiles, who escaped from Cuba and made their lives in Florida. Sanchez, inspired by the car races in Cuba in the late 1950s, decided to try to stage Grands Prix on the streets of Miami, beginning in 1983. The book tells the story of both the Cuban races and those in Miami, although it was published before the Miami event switched to IndyCars. Sanchez, who died some years ago, would be delighted to know that F1 is now trying to revive the event he started.

The work in Miami is ongoing as they try to get the deal with Miami over the finishing line. At the same time, the word is that they are working on a parallel project (of which little is known) in Las Vegas. There was a time a few years ago when I kept up to date with Vegas on a daily basis because of all the dealings that there were trying to get an F1 race there. I'm just catching up again and things have changed a lot, with 19 of the city's 29 casinos now owned by just two companies (MGM Mirage and Caesar's Entertainment). So it's a whole lot easier to negotiate than it was in the days when the casinos were operating with more independence. There are also new tramways and monorails which make it easier for people to go from one casino to another. The fear in the old days was that a race would restrict the flow of gamblers to the casinos, but this is less of a problem than it was. There are definitely things happening but everyone is keeping schtum at the moment.

There is still believed to be some potential for a race in New York City, but that will probably require a change of mayor before things can happen. Anyway, politicians come and go and so change can happen (although it is not always good). However, the drawback of democracy is that it hard for deals to be done quickly and it is far easier to get a yes or no answer from one party states, with strong governments. Thus the deal for the Vietnamese Grand Prix (which will be announced in the next few days) has been done relatively quickly compared to the more complicated venues in the Western world.

Politics has already scuppered the planned race in Copenhagen, although there are still some attempts to revive the event outside the city, at the Roskilde Festival grounds. It would work, but it is not quite the same as running through the streets of a city where the bicycle is king.

Elsewhere, South Africa seems to be a good bet in the longer term, but there needs to be an election next year to confirm Cyril Ramaphosa as the country's president. If he wins that then the race is very likely to happen. There is much excitement in the Netherlands, as well, where there are reports that a revival of a Dutch GP at Zandvoort is close, driven by the fact that Max Verstappen seems able to draw fans to wherever he races.

Down in Latin America, things are not so hopeful with the race at Interlagos now seemingly doomed to finish after the event in 2019. There is clearly no appetite to continue in Sao Paulo and while there is a plan for a new circuit in Rio de Janeiro, the key question is who is going to pay to build such a facility? What Brazil needs more than anything else is a new driver to inspire the country, but the only hope is Sérgio Sette Câmara. He will be worth watching next year in F2 and it is quite likely that he will find an F1 reserve driver job somewhere as well, as he will probably be looking for a seat in F1 in 2020.

The green notebook was a little short of scribbles beyond this, the silly season now being over and not much going on. There was a dull team meeting on the Saturday where they talked about numbers for budget caps and such things. There was a note saying that Niki Lauda is finally out of hospital, and that someone is making a film about the battle between Ford and Ferrari at Le Mans in 1969, with Matt Damon and Christian Bale starring. There was a note saying that Claire Williams is still looking for money to try to get Esteban Ocon to drive the second Williams in 2019. There is also a note saying that the FIA's head of legal services has recently jumped ship to join… Mercedes GP, following the recent trend of FIA employees to be lured away to the teams. There is also a note which says: "British Grand Prix", a reminder that I have heard nothing at all about the future of the race. The contract ends next July and if there is to be a replacement race in the UK, then we ought to have heard something by now. I get the impression that Silverstone thinks it has Formula 1 over a barrel, but I also get the feeling that this is not good thinking because Liberty Media cannot be seen to back down to a promoter over the question of money. It worries me that F1's version of Brexit might become a long-term disaster…

Apart from all of this, there are a lot of notes about a meeting going on shortly at which the International Olympic Committee will begin to define its attitude towards esports, and that motor racing is very well-placed in this respect because it is the only sport in which the competitors do the same thing in virtual reality and in reality.

When you stop to think about it, that is quite something as e-tennis players use buttons rather than a racket, and e-soccer is all about hands rather than feet.

The F1 esport world was heading to the second event of the three this year, taking place in ever-so glamorous Fulham Broadway, which I visited virtually recently (in the spirit of the event) and found that it was almost unrecognizable as the place I used to hang out as a young teenager, back in the days of the 1977 jubilee and cheering on Fulham (on the telly) against West Ham  in the 1975 FA Cup Final.

Interestingly, I see from a number of press releases that the virtual races (one should really call them e-prix, but Formula E seems to have nicked that idea) held this week (Paul Ricard, Silverstone and Spa) were all won by Mercedes, with champion Brendon Leigh, winning the first two and the third by his team-mate Daniel Bereznay. This means that Mercedes has won five of the six races so far, with the win on the Baku circuit going to Toro Rosso's Frederik Rasmussen. The podium at Ricard was completed by the Toro Rosso duo of Patrik Holzmann and Rasmussen, while Silverstone saw Rasmussen runner up with The Hype Energy team (Force India)'s Marcel Kiefer third. At Spa Bereznay was chased home by Joni Tormala (Red Bull) and Rasmussen. In the championship, with four races to go, Leigh has a lead of 41 points from Rasmussen and Bereznay. In the team championship, the virtual reality is pretty much the reality with Mercedes miles ahead of the rest. To be honest I don't know how the cars are set-up and so on, but anything that attracts a young audience to F1 has to be a good thing.

The green notebook has several pages of notes about the eracing, as I wrote a fairly lengthy article on the subject in GP+ magazine, trying to explain to traditional race fans why they might get excited about the virtual version.

The only team not involved in the virtual championship is Ferrari, which says that virtual reality is not in its DNA. This is true, but I guess that I might argue that the Italian team has often been known to inhabit a parallel reality.

I thought I would ask a gamer-driver about reality versus virtual and found Lando Norris who explained that any crossover between the two disciplines was "unlikely" because they are so different and said that the games are different from the real simulators which in turn are different from reality. He said that some of the virtual racers were "pretty good" but said that they would still need to climb the motor racing ladder if they were ever to make it in F1.

The key question for me was whether or not esport is really sport.

"How do you define a sport?" Lando said. "I don't know. It's a competition."

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