16 May 2019

Notebook from Catalonia

We’re all human. Well, most of us, anyway. And, as such, we make mistakes. Thus I have to admit that the Spanish Grand Prix did not feature the usual green notebook because this was left at home after repairs needed to be made after it suffered a broken spine in Baku. Moleskin take note.

This injury is rather more dramatic for humans than it is books and a bit of rubber-solution glue will solve the problem – or wood glue come to that. The only thing is that you need to leave it to dry and so when the whirlwind of departure was upon me, at a strange and unearthly hour, the repaired book was forgotten, the assumption being that it was packed away (as normal) in the backpack that serves as the office. Thus, I was forced to acquire another, courtesy of Rhodia, purchased at Orly airport, while waiting for a strike-delayed flight to Spain. I usually drive to Barcelona but I thought I’d give flying another try after many years on the road. I was underwhelmed. It may just be a coincidence (yeah, right) but the French unions always seem to strike the day before or after a national holiday. After 28 years living in the country I have given up on the idea that this is going to change, as every politician who has tried to stop them from striking has ended up in the proverbial skip. Everyone knows that the country would be better off with a “Madame Tatcher”, but in the finest traditions of fraternité, liberté and égalité, they don’t want things to change. There is a reason that the English have adopted the expression plus ça change, because like schadenfreude, they don’t have the right words to get the point across.

Despite this traumatic start to the weekend, things went rather smoothly, despite the best efforts of some folk from Silverstone, who tried (with moderate success) to lead me astray on the Thursday. Friday marked our annual dinner for our buddies at the El Trabuc restaurant near the circuit, which alas comes to an end with the news that the Spanish Grand Prix is moving to Zandvoort (I may have mentioned that earlier). Of course, the Dutch don’t want their motor race named after the Spanish, despite the fact that historically-speaking the Spanish Netherlands is not a novel idea.The dinner was enlivened this year by the arrival of a bottle of wine which the waiter explained had been sent by a Mr Sainz, who was dining elsewhere in the many-roomed establishment. It reminded us of the time when a Mr Rosberg (of the senior variety) sent a local band to serenade us. Mr Sainz (senior, of course) is involved with a vineyard and wanted us to try some of his product and I have to say that it slipped down with ease. It was named Pegaso which, automobilists will recognise as being the name of a Spanish firm, the successor to Hispano-Suiza, which built trucks and nifty little sports cars, under the watchful eye of a man called Wifredo Ricart, an engineer who had the great distinction of being thoroughly disliked by Enzo Ferrari, on the basis that he believed Ricart was responsible for him being fired from Alfa Romeo in the late 1930s. All of this entertainment meant that not only was I a little weary by Saturday, I was also behind in the production process of the various magazines and thus there was some serious lack of sleep before Monday morning. I was so fatigued, in fact, that when I saw the headline “Clarkson To Sing National Anthem At Indianapolis 500” I wondered for a moment whether F1 crooner Tom Clarkson was branching out from his podcasts. Realising that this was a daft idea, I wondered if it might be Jeremy of that ilk, before concluding that I might need a lie down…What a talented family.

I guess you could call this race-lag.

I had a low-energy rant in my GP+ column about some team PRs. Don’t get me wrong, there are some individuals who do a truly great job, but others do their teams far more harm than good. The clever PR people understand that it is best to let people be themselves. This gives the media what it wants. Sadly, a few of them try to be policemen (and women) and stifle the characters they represent. We end up with “on message” twaddle, which fans don’t want to read, journalists don’t want to write and interviewees don’t want to trot out. So why does this happen? There are several reasons. Some do it because it is what the team bosses want (name the last team boss who was a qualified communications expert…). Some do it because they think it’s what their team bosses want. Some don’t understand the art of communication and don’t know any better. And some of them, like bank managers, pretend to be affable but are really getting off on the sense of power they get from pushing people around. These latter folk tend to suffer from a number of related symptoms, including inflated self-worth, hypersensitivity to criticism and a sense of entitlement. These charmless traits combine to turn people off, and so the communication becomes negative and one loses the desire to share the enthusiasm and passion of the team members, thus achieving exactly the opposite of what the PRs are employed to do.

Anyway, there’s been a lot of predictable negativity resulting from the recent success of Mercedes. That criticism should be directed at the teams which are underachieving. You cannot blame Mercedes for being good at what they do. Still, I remember the same kind of talk when McLaren-TAG was dominant in the 1980s, then with Williams-Honda, McLaren-Honda, Williams-Renault, Ferrari and Red Bull-Renault. It is a part of the game of Formula 1. The best seasons area always when the pecking order is changing. Having said that, Mercedes has rarely won by a big margin and if one sees the nuances one is never bored by the sport. The viewing figures and attendances are up and so one needs to take all this griping with a pinch of salt. People like complaining and most journalism is focussed on the negatives.

One of the things that I like about Liberty Media is that they are not afraid to try new things – and they have ambitions that mean that they attempt things that the world-weary old management would never even consider. There are in the sport to make money, of course, but they are doing it in a much healthier way than the previous owners who simply sucked the sport dry. Liberty wants to generate more money by turning Grands Prix into urban festivals that drive much bigger revenues for the host cities - and thus become events that the local authorities are willing to pay more for. Street racing is spectacular and, if the circuits are well-designed, they can put on terrific races (see Baku, or Montreal which for me is a street circuit without the buildings). At the Geneva Motor Show F1 CEO Chase Carey spoke about having a strategic priority for F1 to promote its technology, which has made astonishing ground-breaking advances since the start of the turbo hybrid formula in 2014. What this really meant was that the F1 company wants to be able to go into more protected urban areas and host events, which will allow the sport to hold races everywhere and achieve the goalof becoming week-long extravaganzas which captivate a city with entertainment and music and the race as the central feature. Formula E has succeeded in getting races in city centres on the basis that it is supposed to be more environmentally-friendly than F1, but the reality is that many in the car industry still see electric cars as the wrong way to go and that hybrids will continue to lead the way for at least another generation (ie 20 years). If the question of F1 sustainability is removed from the equation more can be achieved and it makes complete sense to change perceptions about the sport. The biggest sustainability issue for any event is the way in which the spectators arrive at the venue. The worse example being having vast traffic jams with cars pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. The best example is mass transportation powered by electricity. Thus a venue such as Silverstone or Paul Ricard cannot compete in terms of emissions with a race such as Monaco or Singapore. It is, of course, the ultimate irony that the sporting event which probably has the biggest impact on the global environment is the Tour de France bicycle race, which is attended by around 14 million spectators each year, the majority of them using their cars to get there.

Where F1 falls down on its carbon footprint is that it takes a fleet of around 300 trucks to move the circus from one place to another. A big percentage of these pantechnicons are there simply because the team hospitality units require dozens of them to be moved from place to place. 

The new Red Bull facility, dubbed the ‘Holzhaus’ appeared for the first time in Spain. Built from wood and with the feel of a very large ski chalet, it weighs in at an impressive 400 tons (twice the weight of the previous facility) and it takes a lot of people a lot of time to build. The word is that this has caused a few headaches as the Monaco version required a larger barge on which to float this massive load. And in several paddocks there will have to be special arrangements because at Spa, Budapest and Monza, the paddocks are not on terra firma but rather built on concrete columns and there were fears that these would crumble beneath all the Austrian timber. The new unit requires 32 trucks and is rumoured to have cost as much as $25 million and may cost as much as $5 million a year to run. More understated but still impressive was the new Racing Point facility, built at great speed (18 weeks) by a company called Werk 33, which specialises in trade fair constructions and is based near Stuttgart. The work actually involved eight different companies, working together to a design created by the Huslig Collective of Austin, Texas, which has worked with Lawrence Stroll for many years on many different projects. It is both exquisite in its detail and in its clever design, which features a much bigger kitchen than those of its rivals, public and private sections (and staircases) and a much easier modular structure, which means that it can be transported relatively quick with only 19 trucks.  The whole thing was pulled together by Racing Point’s project manager Simon Lake, a former McLaren staff member who learned what no to do with the celebrated Brand Centre.

I guess if you have money to burn these facilities are a good idea but they cost a fortune and are not easy to justify as they are now only used for one-third of the calendar. They are magnificently daft and while they are very comfortable for the teams and their guests, they are a constant source of grief. Yes, they are corporate statements of ambition (or whatever) but one can make statements in permanent facilities as well. It’s just a question of designing pit buildings more sensibly, at the concept stage. Teams need a certain amount of space at Grands Prix. There is no reason why this cannot be built into new facilities, along with clever ideas such as light wells in pit buildings so that the workers can see daylight occasionally – and so that VIP's can see what is happening in the pits without getting in the way. If the design was really smart one might also have a level at which the public can pass through (complete with gift shop etc) without getting in the way of anyone else. If well thought out, there could also be direct access for the team folk to the VIP areas to save time fighting through the crowds to get there…  This would be costly but pit buildings need to be rebuilt from time to time and over time they would be way cheaper than the white elephants of today. Still, you don’t get involved in F1 if you haven’t got money to burn. There is a note scrawled which says that Racing Point has recently paid $1.8 million to acquire the ex-Mercedes pit wall set-up. Magnificent, perhaps, but a little mad.

Years ago, I used to think it would be a great idea to create a clothing company called “Left Nipple” because that was always where the logo was located. I was delighted to see that Racing Point has actually picked up on my old idea with its new logo and, I presume, that in the fullness of time, Lawrence Stroll will finally turn my idea into a reality when he starts to merchandise team gear…

Speaking of old ideas, way back in the mists of time Autosport magazine ran a story on April 1 suggesting that there would be a London Grand Prix. And the word in F1 circles is that the negotiations over the British GP were basically concluded when things were complicated when Silverstone started to believe the stories suggesting that a London GP was actually possible. Silverstone now wants to be the only F1 race in Britain each year, to protect its audience.

However, F1 wants London. And, by all accounts, London wants F1. How, where, what, when? Well, there’s a thing called the Royal Docks Enterprise Zone and if one looks into the delivery plan for this, one finds that the 

Mayor of London is planning to invest more than £314.3 million between 2018 and 2023 to transform the Royal Docks and accelerate the delivery of commercial space, with the money being used to support transport infrastructure, connectivity, economic development, place-making, estate management and “creative projects”. The logic is that the rates that will be generated within the enterprise zone will fund the expenditure in the long term, but they will not be generated quickly enough to fund the investment and so the plan is to borrow the money to fund the development. The goal is to create a world leading showcase for sustainability – and, so I hear, F1 would provide the means to deliver this message around the world... As to the actual circuit, there is a clear loop of wide roads around the old docks... and public transportation throughout.

So don’t write it off. Clearly Silverstone is taking it seriously. And when it comes to destination cities London has a couple of advantages compared to lovely leafy Silverstone.

Another story that didn’t get much coverage – the Dutch GP (last week’s news) was getting most of it – was the fact that the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin has been saved thanks to state government action in Texas. The race was put into doubt when the promoter failed to file all the necessary paperwork to qualify for the reimbursement of tax revenues that has been used to fund the race in recent years. One page was missing and that torched a cheque for $25 million. The only solution was to pass a bill that would make it possible for COTA to reapply for the reimbursement. A certain amount of luck was involved as the Texas Legislature meets only once every two years (strange, but true) and then spends 140 days grinding through the necessary bills. One was stuck on the agenda and all should be sorted when this year’s session ends on May 27.

By then F1 will be packing up to leave Monaco. And it will be a similar story in Indianapolis. I’m really curious to see what happens over there with Fernando Alonso competing with a completely new team is a very different experience to slotting into a top team and getting the benefit of all the expertise. I’m also fascinated to see who is going to be where on race day as it is impossible to do the F1 race and the Indy 500. The IndyCar race starts about an hour after the F1 race ends so decisions have to be made and this will deliver messages about priorities in Woking.

It will also be interesting to see how Red Bull’s latest signing does over there in Indiana. The 20-year-old Mexican IndyCar driver Patricio ‘Pato’ O’Ward is doing only 13 races this year in IndyCar with Carlin. He won the Indy Lights series last year with Harding-Steinbrenner Racing and moved up to make his IndyCar debut at the end of last year but there was insufficient money to stay with the team this year, and so he did a deal for a partial programme with Carlin but says that “every racing driver has their eye on F1 and would give anything to be World Champion”. One presumes he feel that way… This will certainly bolster the Red Bull programme, which has struggled to provide sufficient drivers in the last couple of years, forcing Red Bull to shop outside its scheme. 

Renault has been busy bolstering as well with an interesting restructuring at Viry-Châtillon, where the team is busy not only trying to get things together this year, but is also building for a better challenge in 2020 and 2021. The secret, as Mercedes keeps proving, is teamwork and creating the right environment in which to allow people to push hard and take risks, without fear of coming unstuck. What was interesting about Renault’s moves for me was the background to the story. You have to follow the sport closely to know the name of Christophe Mary but his career goes back more than 30 years to when he was recruited by Jean Todt’s Peugeot Talbot Sport from Renault to work on the 905 sports car project, with a V10 engine that would become an F1 engine after dominating the World Sportscar Championship and twice winning Le Mans. When Jean Todt went off to Ferrari he wasted no time in luring the best of the Peugeot talent to Italy, hiring both Gilles Simon and Mary to work on the Ferrari V10s that took Michael Schumacher to a string of F1 titles. When the team began to fall part in 2007, he went to Mercedes for four years before returning to France to join PSA in 2012 working on competition machinery before being appointed to head the 208 Hybrid FE Concept development, using racing technology on road cars.What is most interesting, despite his obviously abilities, is that he has worked very successfully with Matt Harman, the former Mercedes head of powertrain integration who finally arrived at Renault earlier this year. The pair now take up roles as engineering directors in France and in Britain, a sign that the racing team is busy team-building and not just hiring in big names.

Meanwhile at the FIA, the word is that Australian Michael Masi will remain as the Formula 1 Race Director until at least the summer break. Masi has taken over thus far from the late Charlie Whiting and seems to be doing an excellent job.

Elsewhere, Jos Verstappen has been busy in other ways and he and his girlfriend Sandy Sijtsma are celebrating the arrival of a baby boy, Max’s half-brother. The name to watch out for in the future is Jason Jaxx Verstappen, as he will be taking to karts in about three years from now…

« Whatever next?

Six hours after the race... »

Leave a comment...