20 March 2019
Notebook from Melbourne
A weekend break to Australia is not the sort of thing that people generally do, but F1 life is like that and until there is a more sensible calendar, this is what we will have to do. Having travelled so far to get there, some F1 folk stay around after the Grand Prix and go up to Bahrain on the way home, after a week in Sydney, Queensland or maybe up in Asia. But for those who have things at home, it is a matter or flying out and back in seven days: two in the air and five on the ground. You can go for a shorter period, by arriving on Friday morning and leaving on Sunday night, but that really is pushing the envelope. It would probably be better to have the Bahrain race only one week after Melbourne so it can be done on the way home, rather than two weeks later.
Still, the F1 calendar is not an easy thing to put together and Chase Carey and his gang are still stuck with contracts from the Ecclestone era, which make their lives difficult. Australia has a deal to be the first race, until at least 2023, and the locals want to keep that status - and the date. Perhaps, as the F1 calendar expands, they will have to pay more for the privilege, but then if F1 is worth it to them (which clearly is the case), then it's a good deal for all concerned.
Travelling is not always an easy life but Carey is a traveller by nature, which means that he understands the rigours involved. On his way to Australia, the Formula 1 chairman stopped off in Florida to attend the induction ceremony for the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, which was held in Daytona Beach, Florida. He was asked to be honorary chairman for the event, which gave him a chance to tell the major players in US motorsport about F1's plans. It is a smart move to snuggle up to NASCAR, which is the 800 pound elephant in the room in US motorsport. Carey is no stranger to the folk from NASCAR, having negotiated many TV deals with the France Family during his days as the big cheese at Fox, but it is wise to talk to NASCAR about F1's planned expansion in the United States, to avoid possible conflict.
The plans to host an F1 race on the streets of Miami have gone seriously quiet in recent months. The word is that the primary target for F1 in the United States right now is Las Vegas, where I'm told a deal is now close. The only problem is that the track that is available is not very interesting and the design of the circuit is under discussion because there is absolutely no point in F1 going into the US market if it produces a poor show as a result of the circuit design. In the old days no-one seemed to care that much, but Liberty Media is smart enough to understand that what is required is a good show, otherwise everyone is wasting their time. The word is that a number of the existing circuits are being looked at to find ways to make overtaking possible, notably Melbourne and Abu Dhabi, the first and last races of the year, which tend to produce uneventful races.
Elsewhere, the work continues to try to keep Austin on the F1 calendar following the bizarre bureaucratic glitch that resulted in the race promoter failing to get the $25 million reimbursement that was due because one page in a 300-page application was omitted. I have to say that the whole thing smells a bit odd to me. The State and COTA both say that they want the race to happen but cannot go ahead because of the demands of transparent government. It makes no sense and thus there are folk speculating that the whole business is designed to get the Formula One group to agree to step in and promote the race, leaving the promoter free to rent the circuit and not have to pay the bills. If the F1 group did promote the race, would it make money? Or at least be cash-neutral? Who knows? But I did hear whispers of F1 going back to Indianapolis if Austin doesn't get its act together… I'm not sure it is a great idea, but it is the one place where F1 can arrived and go into action, without any work needing to be done.
There continues to be a lot of working going on in relation to the 2020 calendar, with some important deadlines coming up soon. My Dutch colleagues tell me that they need to have a deal by the end of the month if Zandvoort is to go ahead. They are not very positive, but F1 seems to think that there will be a Dutch GP in 2020. We will see.
The other key date to watch for at the moment is May 8, which is election day in South Africa. If the African National Congress wins the election, I think we are going to see the South African GP revived at Kyalami, with funding from the government.
The F1 Strategy Group and the F1 Commission will meet in London on March 26, with the goal being to sign off on the commercial and regulation changes for 2021. Hopefully this will go ahead so that everyone can get down to planning for the future.
In the wider world of Formula 1, the word is that Racing Point F1 will shortly launch an application for planning permission at Silverstone to build a new factory on land adjacent to the current site. It is expected that permission will be given, but the necessary steps will take time. There are still suggestions in the F1 paddock that we have not heard the last about the dispute between Haas and Racing Point over the way in which Force India was acquired by the latter last year. Under the terms of the existing commercial agreements, the two teams and the Formula One group could end up going to arbitration in Switzerland in order to find a solution, but everything they do is covered by confidentiality agreements and so we should not be hearing about it…
Having the F1 paddock and the Australian Supercars paddock adjacent to one another, with a gate linking the two (for the first time), there were a few visits to F1 from the local heroes. One rumour doing the rounds is that Fernando Alonso might take part in the Bathurst 1000 at some point in the not-too-distant future. Given that McLaren boss Zak Brown owns a stake in the Walkinshaw Andretti United team, this is quite plausible, although the team had done no better than sixth in the races so far this year, mainly because of the domination of the new Ford Mustangs.
Elsewhere, the rumours are beginning to build about who will lead the Williams F1 technical team, as it is very clear that Paddy Lowe's leave of absence "for personal reasons" is PR chaff. Lowe is gone and there will no doubt be legal action at some point to find a settlement, but Williams now needs a carpetbeater to come in and get the place up to speed…
The death of Charlie Whiting cast a cloud over F1 in Australia, as one would expect, but I think it would be great if the FIA was to decide that Race Control will be known as "Charlie" from now on, which would be a brilliant memorial. They might come up with some daft acronym to achieve this but I much prefer the idea that it be called Charlie… As guidance, they might note that the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War were known as VC (or Victor Charlie in the phonetic alphabet). This was soon shortened to Charlie… Race Control would be Romeo Charlie in the same phonetic alphabet, and would likely to b shortened to Charlie as well. It might not be a great success at the upcoming Vietnamese GP, but the war is long gone…
It was great to see F1 holding a season launch in Federation Square on the Wednesday prior to the event. It was even better that all teams and drivers attended the event. That is how it should be - and they shouldn't need an incentive to be there. About 10,000 fans turned out for the event. It couldn't be much bigger than it was given the capacity of the square but the location was terrific.
The days in Melbourne passed very quickly, as often they do. Despite the dreadful nanny state that Victoria has become, it is still a great place to visit and on the Monday after each Grand Prix I jump on a tram from downtown and go out into the suburbs, off the beaten track, to an old pub-hotel that has transformed itself into a fabulous restaurant, full of charm and great "tucker". My favourite lunch is a beast called a Moreton Bay Bug, which is a form of lobster. A few glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and some Moreton Bugs and there is not much wrong with the world.
Then it is off to the airport again…